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Love imparts supreme value
1st Corinthians, Chapter 12, verse 31, and Chapter 13, verses 1-3
And now I will show you the most excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
If seeking greater gifts, if developing our gifts and employing our gifts are to please God, one thing is necessary: love must be the mainspring and the guiding force. The “most excellent way” Paul refers to may be the more excellent way to gain the greater gifts, or it may mean that Paul will now tell the Corinthians about something else that is more important than any gift, namely, Christian love.
Chapter 13 is Paul’s great hymn of Christian love. He exalts love as the supreme gift, not only in what it is and what it does of itself but also in what it contributes to other gifts.
The Greek word Paul uses for love is ah-gahpay, the same word he used to identify the “love feast” in chapter 11. Here it designates the highest kind of love, far removed from the sex-love and passion that saturate our culture. It is also higher than affection or personal liking or the attachment of friends. It is love like God’s love for the world in John 3:16. He loved this foul world reeking of lust and hate and greed and rebellion and blasphemy, a cesspool of guilt and shame. Sin-saturated and sin-cursed man was completely unworthy of any kind of divine love, but God did love him. Although he clearly saw all of man’s repulsiveness, he devoted himself to man’s welfare so deeply and intensely that he made the supreme sacrifice for man’s sin; he “gave his one and only Son” to save fallen mankind. Such love is more than fondness and affection. It is the highest kind of love. It seeks the welfare of those who are utterly unworthy of any kindness and concern.
Our love is to reflect this divine love. In our love for our fellow man, we are also to rise above our feelings and emotions and devote ourselves to his welfare, even if there is nothing lovable about him, even if he repels us and his conduct outrages us or disgusts us. First Corinthians chapter 13 glorifies this kind of love.
Without this love, this ah-gahpay, even the greatest gifts and noblest deeds have no value. The Corinthians were inordinately proud of their gift of speaking in tongues. It was a gift they sought after and loved to display. But even if they could have spoken in the tongues of angels, their feat would have been no more than an impressive display of sound and noise if they used this gift without Christian love.
Even if they could prophesy like Isaiah and preach like Peter at Pentecost; even if they could fathom more mysteries and knowledge than God permitted Paul to do; even if they had “faith that can move mountains,” these glorious achievements would be worthless if ah-gahpay were not disposing them. For all their great feats, they would be nothing.
Supreme sacrifices are also nothing if Christian love does not inspire them. In one grand sweep, we could turn over everything we own to charity; in one splendid sacrifice, we could give our lives in fiery martyrdom for a noble cause, but if such sacrifices were brought without Christian love, they would be nothing.
Such is love’s supreme value for the greatest gifts and achievements of believers. Such love is worthy of some of the most poetic and most exalted words the inspired apostle ever wrote. Many a Christian has recorded them in his memory and in his heart.
Love’s virtues in action
1st Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 4-7
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Paul now presents Christian love in a personal way. Love is “patient”—“longsuffering,” as the KJV has it. Love is “kind.” “Kindness is not so much a sweet disposition as it is the practice of useful, beneficial, friendly acts.” (Note 33, from: Fred Fischer, Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, Waco, Texas: Word Book Publishers, 1975, page 212.) Love is not jealous; it doesn’t brag; it doesn’t put on airs. It doesn’t have “inflated ideas of its own importance,” as Phillips translates.
Love isn’t “rude,” or ill-mannered. Good manners are more than etiquette; they are ways of showing respect for the feelings of others. Love is not “self-seeking.” Love always seeks the welfare of others. It is “not easily angered,” or “touchy” as Phillips translates. It doesn’t flare up every time our pride is hurt. Love “keeps no record of wrongs.” It doesn’t keep score of all the bad things others say about us or do to us—to make sure they will be repaid in full.
Love “does not delight in evil.” It isn’t glad when evil or injustice is done. Instead, it “rejoices in the truth.” Here truth and righteousness are the same. “Love is not softness. It doesn’t erase the boundary between right and wrong.” (Note 34, from: Paul Althaus und Gerhard Friedrich, Herausgeber, Das Neue Testament Deutsch, Dritter Band, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958, Die Briefe an die Korinther, p. 105.) Love “always protects.” It can overlook faults. “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
The Greek word for protects may also be translated “bears” or “endures.” That accounts for the KJV’s “beareth.” Love “always trusts.” It is not gullible but has faith in men. It is ready to believe the best about everyone (see the Eighth Commandment). Love “always hopes.” It is not pessimistic; it can count on God’s grace. Paul hoped even in the case of the unbelieving Jews who had hardened their hearts against the gospel. Finally, love “always perseveres.” It endures all the trials of life with fortitude. It does not lose heart.
“Paul does not describe love in its greatest works, sacrifices, martyrdoms, triumphs; instead he goes into the ordinary circumstances of life as we meet them day by day, and shows us the picture of love as it must be under these. Be a true everyday Christian in the exercise of love—then all the great triumphs of love will take care of themselves.” (Note 35, from: R. C. H. Lenski, First Epistle to the Corinthians, Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern, 1935, page 570.)
The abiding excellence of love
1st Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 8-13
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
When Paul writes “Love never fails,” he declares that love is greater than other gifts and qualities. It endures; all else passes away.
Prophecies will cease. Whether they are miraculous, foretelling future events, or whether they include preaching and teaching today, the day will come when they will no longer be needed. Speaking in tongues as the gift existed in the apostolic age has ceased. There will also be a day when the exercise of spiritual knowledge as we know it will come to an end.
Our spiritual knowledge and our prophetic proclamation of God’s Word are not complete today. We know in part and we prophesy in part. The day will come when our partial knowledge and our incomplete prophesying will be replaced by full knowledge and understanding. Then we shall know more fully of the nature of creation, of the incarnation of God’s Son, of the Trinity, of the inspiration of Scripture, and of so many other truths we understand today with the limited perceptions of little children. Only after our Lord returns in glory will we have a deeper understanding of all things.
Paul uses another example to illustrate the difference between our present knowledge and understanding and our full realization in heaven. It is like seeing an image in a poor looking glass or mirror, compared with seeing the actual object directly and clearly. (The imperfect metal mirrors used by common people in Paul’s day were not very serviceable.) There are many things in Scripture that are not as clear to us today as they will be in glory. They are still clear enough for us in this life, however, to see our way to our heavenly home, where we shall know fully and see clearly as God now knows us.
Christian love, agape, abides to all eternity. So will faith and hope, but this love is greater than either of these. In heaven there will still be faith. We shall continue to trust in the triune God who has saved us. In heaven there will still be hope. Even though we shall have attained the goal of our hope, eternal life, we shall hope for ever new joys to experience in heaven. Heaven will not be the kind of experience that will cause us to say that after one day we have seen it all. David speaks of “eternal pleasure at [God’s] right hand” (Psalm 16:11). “The glories of heaven are inexhaustible, and we shall never get through exploring them.” (Note 36, from: R. C. H. Lenski, page 582.)
Why is Christian love greater than either faith or hope? Paul does not tell us. Perhaps the best answer is that of Johann Bengel: “God is not called faith or hope directly, he is called love.” (Note 37, from: 3Johann Bengel, Gnomon, quoted in R. C. H. Lenski, page 583.) “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
Other interpretations also have merit. To have Christian love is to be most like God. We may also say that love brings us into the fullest union and communion with God and that love is God’s greatest gift. But even if we cannot grasp all of Paul’s meaning, we dare never forget that love is the greatest of all our gifts and qualities. Without that love we cannot understand God or what it means to be a Christian. Nor will we understand the apostle who penned Scripture’s greatest tribute to Christian love.