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A study of God’s Love from 1 Corinthians #14 – The Prominence of Love 1 Cor. 13:1-3

05 Jan

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I  have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but  have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 (ESV)

According to 1 Corinthians 13, love provides the basis for all the spiritual gifts exercised in the church body. Love connects every act with God and makes our actions and gifts useful. Although people have different gifts, expressing God’s love should be the ultimate purpose of every gift. When you ask God for more love, realize that part of the answer comes in the form of spiritual gifts. When you ask God to show you your spiritual gifts, his answer will include a new awareness of the people around you who need his love.

It was Jonathan Swift, the satirical author of Gulliver’s Travels, who said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Spiritual gifts, no matter how exciting and wonderful, are useless and even destructive if they are not ministered in love.

In all three of the “body” passages in Paul’s letters, there is an emphasis on love. The main evidence of maturity in the Christian life is a growing love for God and for God’s people, as well as a love for lost souls. It has well been said that love is the “circulatory system” of the body of Christ.

Few chapters in the Bible have suffered more misinterpretation and misapplication than 1 Corinthians 13. Divorced from its context, it becomes “a hymn to love” or a sentimental sermon on Christian brotherhood. Many people fail to see that Paul was still dealing with the Corinthians’ problems when he wrote these words: the abuse of the gift of tongues, division in the church, envy of others’ gifts, selfishness (remember the lawsuits?), impatience with one another in the public meetings, and behavior that was disgracing the Lord.

The only way spiritual gifts can be used creatively is when Christians are motivated by love. Paul explained three characteristics of Christian love that show why it is so important in ministry.[1]

Love is enriching (vv. 1–3). Paul named five spiritual gifts: tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith, and giving (sacrifice). He pointed out that, without love, the exercise of these gifts is nothing. Tongues apart from love is just a lot of noise! It is love that enriches the gift and that gives it value. Ministry without love cheapens both the minister and those who are touched by it; but ministry with love enriches the whole church. “Speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

Christians are “taught of God to love one another” (1 Thes. 4:9). God the Father taught us to love by sending His Son (1 John 4:19), and God the Son taught us to love by giving His life and by commanding us to love each other (John 13:34–35). The Holy Spirit teaches us to love one another by pouring out God’s love in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). The most important lesson in the school of faith is to love one another. Love enriches all that it touches.

13:1    If I could speak in any language in heaven or on earth but didn’t love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal.

In verses 1-2 Paul uses considerable hyperbole. To make his point he exaggerates to the limits of imagination. Using various examples, he says, “If somehow I were able to do or to be … to the absolute extreme, but did not have love, I would be absolutely nothing.” In the spirit of the love about which he is talking, Paul changes to the first person. He wanted to make it clear that what he said applied as fully to himself as to anyone in Corinth.

First Paul imagines himself able to speak with the greatest possible eloquence, with the tongues of men and of angels. Although tongues can mean the physical organ of speech, it can also mean language—just as it does when we speak of a person’s “mother tongue.” Tongues, therefore is a legitimate translation, but I believe that languages is a more helpful and less confusing rendering.

In the context there is no doubt that Paul here includes the gift of speaking in languages (see 12:10, 28; 14:4-6, 13-14; etc.). That is the gift the Corinthians prized so highly and abused so greatly, and it will be discussed in detail in the exposition of chapter 14.

Paul’s basic point in 13:1, however, is to convey the idea of being able to speak all sorts of languages with great fluency and eloquence, far above the greatest linguist or orator. That the apostle is speaking in general and hypothetical terms is clear from the expression tongues … of angels. There is no biblical teaching of a unique or special angelic language or dialect. In the countless records of their speaking to men in Scripture, they always speak in the language of the person being addressed.

There is no indication that they have a heavenly language of their own that men could learn. Paul simply is saying that, were he to have the ability to speak with the skill and eloquence of the greatest men, even with angelic eloquence, he would only become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal if he did not have love. The greatest truths spoken in the greatest way fall short if they are not spoken in love. Apart from love, even one who speaks the truth with supernatural eloquence becomes so much noise.

The gift of language is especially meaningless without love. Paul chooses this as his illustration of lovelessness because it was a sought-after experience that made the people proud. One of the results of the Corinthians’ trying to use that gift in their own power and for their own selfish and proud ends was that it could not be ministered in love.

Because they did not walk in the Spirit, they did not have the fruit of the Spirit and could not properly minister the gifts of the Spirit. Because the most important fruit was missing from what they thought was the most important gift, their exercising the gift became nothing more than babble.

In New Testament times, rites honoring the pagan deities Cybele, Bacchus, and Dionysus included speaking in ecstatic noises that were accompanied by smashing gongs, clanging cymbals, and blaring trumpets. Paul’s hearers clearly got his point: unless it is done in love, ministering the gift of languages, or speaking in any other human or angelic way, amounts to no more than those pagan rituals. It is only meaningless jibberish in a Christian guise.

13:2    And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

In the beginning of the next chapter Paul speaks of prophecy as the greatest of the spiritual gifts because the prophet proclaims God’s truth to people so they can know and understand it (14:1–5). The apostle was himself a prophet (Acts 13:1) and had the highest regard both for the office of prophet and the gift of prophecy.

Continuing his hyperbole, however, Paul says that even the great gift of prophecy must be ministered in love. The most gifted man of God is not exempt from ministering in love. If anything, he is the most obligated to minister in love. “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). Of all persons, the prophet should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Balaam was a prophet of God. He knew the true God and he knew God’s truth, but he had no love for God’s people. With little hesitation he agreed to curse the Israelites in return for a generous payment by Balak, king of Moab. Because God could not convince his prophet not to do that terrible thing, He sent an angel to stop the prophet’s donkey (Num. 22:16–34). Several other times Balaam would have cursed Israel had he not been prevented by God. But what the prophet failed to do through cursing Israel he accomplished by misleading them. Because he led Israel into idolatry and immorality, Balaam was put to death (Num. 31:8, 16). The prophet knew God’s Word, spoke God’s Word, and feared God in a self-protecting way, but he had no love for God and no love for God’s people.

The power behind what we say and what we do is our motive. If our motive is self-interest, praise, promotion, or advantage of any sort, our influence for the Lord will be undercut to that extent—no matter how orthodox, persuasive, and relevant our words are or how helpful our service seems superficially to be. Without the motivation of love, in God’s sight we are only causing a lot of commotion.

Jeremiah’s ministry was in stark contrast to Balaam’s. He was the weeping prophet, not because of his own problems, which were great, but because of the wickedness of his people, because of their refusal to turn to the Lord, and because of the punishment he had to prophesy against them. He wept over them much as Jesus later wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44). Early in his ministry Jeremiah was so moved by the spiritual plight of his people that he cried out, “My sorrow is beyond healing, my heart is faint within me!… For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me.… Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 8:18, 21; 9:1). Jeremiah was a prophet with a broken heart, a loving heart, a spiritual heart.

Paul also often ministered with tears, frequently for fellow Jews who would not accept Jesus Christ. It was they who caused him most of his trials, but it was their turning against the gospel, not their turning against him, that caused him to minister “with tears” (Acts 20:19). In Romans he gives the touching testimony, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:1–3). Paul ministered with great power in large measure because he ministered with great love. To proclaim the truth of God without love is not simply to be less than you should be, it is to be nothing.

Prophecy, Knowledge, and Faith Without Love Are Nothing

And if I have the gift of prophecy; and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (13:2)

In the beginning of the next chapter Paul speaks of prophecy as the greatest of the spiritual gifts because the prophet proclaims God’s truth to people so they can know and understand it (14:1-5). The apostle was himself a prophet (Acts 13:1) and had the highest regard both for the office of prophet and the gift of  prophecy.

Continuing his hyperbole, however, Paul says that even the great gift of prophecy must be ministered in love. The most gifted man of God is not exempt from ministering in love. If anything, he is the most obligated to minister in love. “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). Of all persons, the prophet should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

The power behind what we say and what we do is our motive. If our motive is self-interest, praise, promotion, or advantage of any sort, our influence for the Lord will be undercut to that extent—no matter how orthodox, persuasive, and relevant our words are or how helpful our service seems superficially to be. Without the motivation of love, in God’s sight we are only causing a lot of commotion.

Paul often ministered with tears, frequently for fellow Jews who would not accept Jesus Christ. It was they who caused him most of his trials, but it was their turning against the gospel, not their turning against him, that caused him to minister “with tears” (Acts 20:19). In Romans he gives the touching testimony, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:1-3).

Paul ministered with great power in large measure because he ministered with great love. To proclaim the  truth of God without love is not simply to be less than you should be, it is to be nothing.

Just as prophecy without love is nothing, so is the understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge. Paul uses that comprehensive phrase to picture ultimate human understanding. Mysteries may represent divine spiritual understanding and knowledge may represent factual human understanding. In Scripture the term mystery always signifies divine truth that God has hidden from men at some time. Most often it refers to truths hidden to Old Testament saints that have been revealed in the New Testament (cf. Eph. 3:3-5). If he could perfectly understand all unrevealed divine mysteries, along with all the mysteries that are revealed, Paul insists that he could still be nothing. That spiritual understanding would count for nothing without the supreme spiritual fruit of love. This indicates the great importance of love; without it, we can know as God knows and still be nothing.

Adding all knowledge would not help. One could fathom all the observable, knowable facts of the created universe, be virtually omniscient, and he would still be nothing without love. In other words, if somehow he could comprehend all of the Creator and all of the creation, he would be zero without love.

If all of that would amount to nothing without love, how much less do our very limited intellectual accomplishments, including biblical and theological knowledge and insights, amount to without love? They are less than nothing. That sort of knowledge without love is worse than mere ignorance. It produces spiritual snobbery, pride, and arrogance. It is Pharisaic and ugly. Spiritual knowledge is good, beautiful, and fruitful in the Lord’s work when it is held in humility and ministered in love. But it is ugly and unproductive when love is missing. Mere knowledge, even of God’s truths, “makes arrogant”; love is the absolutely essential ingredient for edification (1 Cor. 8:1).

Paul did not depreciate knowledge, especially knowledge of God’s Word. To the Philippians he wrote, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (1:9). We cannot be edified by or obey what we do not know. But we can know and not obey and not be strengthened. Only love brings “real knowledge and all discernment.” We can know and not be edified. Love is the divine edifier.

If Paul did not depreciate knowledge, even less did he depreciate faith. No one preached the necessity for faith, especially saving faith, more strongly than he. But he is not speaking here of saving faith but of the faith of confidence and expectancy in the Lord. He is addressing believers, who already have saving faith. All faith, so as to remove mountains refers to trusting God to do mighty things in behalf of His children. It especially refers to believers who have the gift of faith. Even with this wonderful gift from God—of making the impossible possible—Paul says a Christian is nothing if he does not have love.

It is not by coincidence that the apostle uses the same figure used on one occasion by Jesus. After His disciples failed to heal the demon-possessed boy, Jesus told them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move” (Matt. 17:20).

Jesus was speaking in hyperbole just as Paul is in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. The Lord’s point to His disciples was that, by trusting Him completely, nothing in their ministry would “be impossible.”

Paul’s point is that, even if a person had that great degree of prayerful trust in the Lord, but was unloving, he would be nothing.

Jonah had great faith. It was because of his great belief in the effectiveness of God’s Word that he resisted preaching to Nineveh. He was not afraid of failure but of success. He had great faith in the power of God’s Word. His problem was that he did not want the wicked Ninevites to be saved.

He had no love for them, not even after they repented. He did not want them saved and was resentful of the Lord’s saving them. As the direct result of the prophet’s preaching, everyone in the city from the king down repented. Even the animals were covered with sackcloth as a symbol of repentance.

God miraculously spared Nineveh, just as Jonah knew he would. Then we read of one of the strangest and most hardhearted prayers in all Scripture: “But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Everything Jonah acknowledged the Lord to be, the prophet himself was not and did not want to be. A more loveless man of God is hard to imagine. His faith told him that a great success would come in Nineveh, but the prophet was a great failure. The preaching wrought a great miracle, as he believed it would, but the preacher was a nothing.

knowledge without love

Just as prophecy without love is nothing, so is the understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge. Paul uses that comprehensive phrase to picture ultimate human understanding. Mysteries may represent divine spiritual understanding and knowledge may represent factual human understanding. In Scripture the term mystery always signifies divine truth that God has hidden from men at some time. Most often it refers to truths hidden to Old Testament saints that have been revealed in the New Testament (cf. Eph. 3:3–5). If he could perfectly understand all unrevealed divine mysteries, along with all the mysteries that are revealed, Paul insists that he could still be nothing. That spiritual understanding would count for nothing without the supreme spiritual fruit of love. This indicates the great importance of love; without it, we can know as God knows and still be nothing.

Adding all knowledge would not help. One could fathom all the observable, knowable facts of the created universe, be virtually omniscient, and he would still be nothing without love. In other words, if somehow he could comprehend all of the Creator and all of the creation, he would be zero without love.

If all of that would amount to nothing without love, how much less do our very limited intellectual accomplishments, including biblical and theological knowledge and insights, amount to without love? They are less than nothing. That sort of knowledge without love is worse than mere ignorance. It produces spiritual snobbery, pride, and arrogance. It is Pharisaic and ugly. Spiritual knowledge is good, beautiful, and fruitful in the Lord’s work when it is held in humility and ministered in love. But it is ugly and unproductive when love is missing. Mere knowledge, even of God’s truths, “makes arrogant”; love is the absolutely essential ingredient for edification (1 Cor. 8:1).

Paul did not depreciate knowledge, especially knowledge of God’s Word. To the Philippians he wrote, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (1:9). We cannot be edified by or obey what we do not know. But we can know and not obey and not be strengthened. Only love brings “real knowledge and all discernment.” We can know and not be edified. Love is the divine edifier

faith without love

If Paul did not depreciate knowledge, even less did he depreciate faith. No one preached the necessity for faith, especially saving faith, more strongly than he. But he is not speaking here of saving faith but of the faith of confidence and expectancy in the Lord. He is addressing believers, who already have saving faith. All faith, so as to remove mountains refers to trusting God to do mighty things in behalf of His children. It especially refers to believers who have the gift of faith. Even with this wonderful gift from God—of making the impossible possible—Paul says a Christian is nothing if he does not have love.

It is not by coincidence that the apostle uses the same figure used on one occasion by Jesus. After His disciples failed to heal the demon-possessed boy, Jesus told them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move” (Matt. 17:20). Jesus was speaking in hyperbole just as Paul is in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3. The Lord’s point to His disciples was that, by trusting Him completely, nothing in their ministry would “be impossible.” Paul’s point is that, even if a person had that great degree of prayerful trust in the Lord, but was unloving, he would be nothing.

Jonah had great faith. It was because of his great belief in the effectiveness of God’s Word that he resisted preaching to Nineveh. He was not afraid of failure but of success. He had great faith in the power of God’s Word. His problem was that he did not want the wicked Ninevites to be saved. He had no love for them, not even after they repented. He did not want them saved and was resentful of the Lord’s saving them. As the direct result of the prophet’s preaching, everyone in the city from the king down repented. Even the animals were covered with sackloth as a symbol of repentance. God miraculously spared Nineveh, just as Jonah knew he would. Then we read of one of the strangest and most hardhearted prayers in all Scripture: “But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’ ” (Jonah 4:1–3). Everything Jonah acknowledged the Lord to be, the prophet himself was not and did not want to be. A more loveless man of God is hard to imagine. His faith told him that a great success would come in Nineveh, but the prophet was a great failure. The preaching wrought a great miracle, as he believed it would, but the preacher was a nothing.

(ii) He may have the gift of prophecy. We have already seen that prophecy corresponds most closely to preaching. There are two kinds of preachers. There is the preacher whose one aim is to save the souls of his people and who woos them with the accents of love. Of no one was that more true than of Paul himself. Myers, in his poem St. Paul, draws the picture of him looking at the Christless world,

“Then with a thrill the intolerable craving Shivers throughout me like a trumpet call—

O to save these—to perish for their saving—Die for their lives, be offered for them all.”

On the other hand there is the preacher who dangles his hearers over the flames of hell and gives the impression that he would rejoice in their damnation as much as in their salvation. It is told that Sir George Adam Smith once asked a member of the Greek Church, which has suffered much at the hands of Islam, why God had created so many Mohammedans, and received the answer, “To fill up hell.” The preaching which is all threat and no love may terrify but it will not save.

Three gifts are mentioned in this verse: prophecy, knowledge, and faith. The gift of prophecy was described in the commentary on 12:10 as a gift that not only enables the person to see events in the future but also to bring God’s message to the church under the direction of the Holy Spirit (see also 14:1–25; 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20). Paul explains in 14:3 that “The one who prophesies is helping others grow in the Lord, encouraging and comforting them” (nlt). While all believers ought to study in order to understand more and be able to teach others about what they believe, some people have been given a special measure of this gift with the ability to understand all mysteries and all knowledge (“knowledge” was another gift). Such understanding and even the ability to share it with others, however, are worth nothing without love.

The gift of faith was described in 12:9. This does not refer to saving faith, whereby people come to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior; instead, this is an unusual measure of trust in the Holy Spirit’s power to do mighty works, much like Elijah received in 1 Kings 18. If a person has faith that could remove mountains but does not have love, the faith is worth nothing.

(iii) He may have the gift of intellectual knowledge. The permanent danger of intellectual eminence is intellectual snobbery. The man who is learned runs the grave danger of developing the spirit of contempt. Only a knowledge whose cold detachment has been kindled by the fire of love can really save men.

(iv) He may have a passionate faith. There are times when faith can be cruel. There was a man who visited his doctor and was informed that his heart was tired and he must rest. He telephoned his employer, a notable Christian figure, with the news, only to receive the answer, “I have an inward strength which enables me to carry on.” These were the words of faith but a faith which knew no love and was therefore a hurting thing.

God requires mercy and love “from the heart,” not sacrifice, not the exercising of gifts. We must remember that Satan is a master at mimicking the gifts of the Spirit, but he cannot mimic the heart. He can set up a puppet teacher who is endowed with great knowledge, but he cannot give that person love for God and love for other Christians. This is solely a Christian grace and can only come by the Spirit of Christ. R. C. Sproul.

13:3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would be of no value whatsoever.

Agapē love is always self-sacrificing, but self-sacrifice does not necessarily come from love. Throughout the history of the church certain groups and movements have believed that self-denial, self-humiliation, and even self-affliction in themselves bring spiritual merit. Many cults and pagan religions place great emphasis on the giving up of possessions, on sacrifice of various sorts, and on religious acts of supposed self-effacement, self-deprivation, self-affliction, and monasticism. Even for Christians, however, such things are worse than worthless without love. Without love, in fact, they are anything but selfless. The real focus of such practices is not God nor others, but self—either in the form of legalistic fear of not doing those things or for the praise and imagined blessing for doing them. The motive is self, and is neither spiritual nor loving.

Benevolence and Martyrdom Without Love Are Nothing

And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (13:3)

Agape love is always self-sacrificing, but self-sacrifice does not necessarily come from love. Throughout the history of the church certain groups and movements have believed that self-denial, self-humiliation, and even self-affliction in themselves bring spiritual merit.

Many cults and pagan religions place great emphasis on the giving up of possessions, on sacrifice of various sorts, and on religious acts of supposed self-effacement, self-deprivation, self-affliction, and monasticism.

Even for Christians, however, such things are worse than worthless without love. Without love, in fact, they are anything but selfless. The real focus of such practices is not God nor others, but self—either in the form of legalistic fear of not doing those things or for the praise and imagined blessing for doing them. The motive is self, and is neither spiritual nor loving.

The term for give means to dole out in small quantities, and signifies a long-term, systematic program of giving away everything one possesses. Such an ultimate act of benevolence, giving all one’s possessions to feed the poor, would not be a spiritual deed if not done out of genuine love, no matter how great the sacrifice or how many people were fed.

The rabbis taught that people did not ever need to give more than twenty percent, so Paul’s illustration suggested unheard of generosity. Even so, the people who received such generosity would be benefited by full stomachs, but the giver would be benefited by nothing. Both his bank account and his spiritual account would be left empty.

Giving from legalistic obligation, from desire for recognition and praise, or as a way to salve a guilty conscience is worthless. Only love qualifies giving to be spiritual.

Jesus’ command to give secretly (Matt. 6:3) helps protect us from being tempted by some of those false, unspiritual, and unloving motives. Benevolence with love is of great worth; benevolence without love is nothing.

Finally, Paul says, if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

Some interpreters believe that the apostle was referring to becoming a slave, the mark of which was a brand made with a hot iron. But in keeping with the extremes he has been using in these verses, it is best to assume he was referring to being burned alive.

Execution by burning at the stake, a fate suffered by many Christian martyrs, was not begun in the Roman empire until some years later. Yet that seems to be the form of suffering to which Paul refers. Whether or not such execution was common at that time, it represented a horrible, agonizing death.

When persecution of the early church became intense, some believers actually sought martyrdom as a way of becoming famous or of gaining special heavenly credit. But when sacrifice is motivated by self-interest and pride it loses its spiritual value. Even accepting agonizing death for the faith profits … nothing if it is done without true divine love. No matter how much a person may suffer because of his Christian service and testimony, he has no spiritual gain if his witness and work are not ministered in love.

The loveless person produces nothing, is nothing, and gains nothing.

For many this is the most wonderful chapter in the whole New Testament and we will do well to take more than one day to study words whose full meaning not a lifetime itself would be sufficient to unveil.

Paul begins by declaring that a man may possess any spiritual gift, but if it is unaccompanied by love it is useless.

(i) He may have the gift of tongues. A characteristic of heathen worship, especially the worship of Dionysus and Cybele, was the clanging of cymbals and the braying of trumpets. Even the coveted gift of tongues was no better than the uproar of heathen worship if love was absent.

Great faith, acts of dedication or sacrifice, miracle-working power, or the ability to speak in any language in heaven or on earth will produce very little without love. This phrase is also translated “the tongues of men and of angels” (niv). The Corinthians believed that they had the angels’ language when they spoke in tongues. But their knowledge led to pride, which stripped them of love and consideration for others. Love makes believers’ actions and gifts useful. Although people have different gifts, love is available to everyone. Without love, speaking in another language, although a gift of the Spirit, becomes nothing more than meaningless noise. A cymbal was often used in ecstatic rites in pagan worship. The gift of tongues, used without love, is as valueless as pagan worship. Without love, the gifts do not build up other believers, so they are useless. Christians must not exalt gifts over character. Love is far more important.

The word for love used here is agape. The Greeks had different words that described different kinds of love. The word agape connotes a deep, abiding, self-sacrificing love—the kind that looks out for the other person first. God requires his people to have agape love for one another.

benevolence without love

The term for give means to dole out in small quantities, and signifies a long-term, systematic program of giving away everything one possesses. Such an ultimate act of benevolence, giving all one’s possessions to feed the poor, would not be a spiritual deed if not done out of genuine love, no matter how great the sacrifice or how many people were fed. The rabbis taught that people did not ever need to give more than twenty percent, so Paul’s illustration suggested unheard of generosity. Even so, the people who received such generosity would be benefited by full stomachs, but the giver would be benefited by nothing. Both his bank account and his spiritual account would be left empty. Giving from legalistic obligation, from desire for recognition and praise, or as a way to salve a guilty conscience is worthless. Only love qualifies giving to be spiritual.

Jesus’ command to give secretly (Matt. 6:3) helps protect us from being tempted by some of those false, unspiritual, and unloving motives. Benevolence with love is of great worth; benevolence without love is nothing.

martyrdom without love

Finally, Paul says, if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. Some interpreters believe that the apostle was referring to becoming a slave, the mark of which was a brand made with a hot iron. But in keeping with the extremes he has been using in these verses, it is best to assume he was referring to being burned alive. Execution by burning at the stake, a fate suffered by many Christian martyrs, was not begun in the Roman empire until some years later. Yet that seems to be the form of suffering to which Paul refers. Whether or not such execution was common at that time, it represented a horrible, agonizing death.

When persecution of the early church became intense, some believers actually sought martyrdom as a way of becoming famous or of gaining special heavenly credit. But when sacrifice is motivated by self-interest and pride it loses its spiritual value. Even accepting agonizing death for the faith profits … nothing if it is done without true divine love. No matter how much a person may suffer because of his Christian service and testimony, he has no spiritual gain if his witness and work are not ministered in love.

The loveless person produces nothing, is nothing, and gains nothing.

(v) He may practise what men call charity; he may dole out his goods to the poor. There is nothing more humiliating than this so-called charity without love. To give as a grim duty, to give with a certain contempt, to stand on one’s own little eminence and throw scraps of charity as to a dog, to give and to accompany the giving with a smug moral lecture or a crushing rebuke, is not charity at all—it is pride, and pride is always cruel for it knows no love.

(vi) He may give his body to be burned. Possibly Paul’s thoughts are going back to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the burning fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Perhaps more likely, he is thinking of a famous monument in Athens called “The Indian’s Tomb.” There an Indian had burned himself in public on a funeral pyre and had caused to be engraved on the monument the boastful inscription: “Zarmano-chegas, an Indian from Bargosa, according to the traditional customs of the Indians, made himself immortal and lies here.” Just possibly, he may have been thinking of the kind of Christian who actually courted persecution. If the motive which makes a man give his life for Christ is pride and self-display, then even martyrdom becomes valueless. It is not cynical to remember that many a deed which looks sacrificial has been the product of pride and not of devotion.

Hardly any passage in scripture demands such self-examination from the good man as this.[2]

There is a significant textual variant in this verse. Attached to the words “if I give my body that” some manuscripts read kauthasomai (“I may be burned”), but other mauscripts (including the three earliest) read kauxasomai (“I may boast”). In the Greek, there is but a one-letter difference between the first reading and the second. Good arguments have been advanced by scholars in support of each reading. But those who support the second reading point to the earlier attestation in the manuscripts and to the fact that martyrdom by burning was a phenomenon yet unknown to the original readers of this epistle. Furthermore, in Clement of Rome’s letter to the church in Corinth (c. a.d. 96), Clement spoke of those who delivered themselves to bondage in order to ransom others. This could very well be what Paul was referring to—unless Paul was thinking about the fiery ordeal of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego (see Daniel 3), in which case the first reading would be the one he wrote. Whatever the reading, the verse says that love produces willingness to give sacrificially and to suffer. Acts of charity and self-sacrifice can be done for the sake of an ideal or with pride as a motivation. But they are of no value for the kingdom, wrote Paul, unless they are done from the foundation of love for others.

God has always been more concerned with the heart (internal) compared to the external (actions).

(Matthew 5:24 NIV)  “…leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

(Matthew 9:13 NIV)  “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The Arguments

But when He heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (9:12-13)

When Jesus heard this accusatory question, He answered it for the disciples. His doing so doubtlessly embarrassed the Pharisees and added to their indignation. The fact that they had approached His disciples suggests that the Pharisees were afraid to confront Jesus Himself, and His overhearing and responding to their obvious indictment of His actions was more than a little disconcerting.

Although Jesus was fully aware of the Pharisees’ true intent (cf. 9:4), He took their question at face value and explained exactly why He had done what He did. In His brief reply, He gave three arguments in defense of His gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, the gospel that was reflected in His willingness to eat with the ungodly and immoral tax-gatherers and sinners.

The Argument from Human Logic

First of all, Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” “If,” He was saying to the Pharisees, “you are really as spiritually and morally perfect as you claim to be, you do not need any help from God or other men. If you are indeed spiritually healthy, you do not need a spiritual physician. On the other hand, these tax-gatherers and sinners—who you declare, and they themselves admit, are spiritually sick—are the self-confessing sinners who need God’s way of salvation presented to them. They are the one’s who seek the spiritual physician, and that is why I am ministering to them.”

The analogy is simple. Just as a physician is expected to go among people who are sick, a forgiver should be expected to go among those who are sinful. Jesus was giving Himself to those who recognized their deepest need. What sort of doctor would spend all his time with healthy people and refuse to associate with those who are sick? “Are you doctors,” He implied to the Pharisees, “who diagnose but have no desire to cure? Will you tell a person what his disease is and then refuse to give him medicine for it?” What an indictment of their self-righteous hardheartedness! Those whom they diagnosed as sinful they were quite willing to let remain sinful.

As the Lord charged them later, the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites who were careful to “tithe mint and dill and cummin” but had no regard for the matters of true righteousness, the “weightier provisions of the law” such as “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). They had outward form but no inward holiness, much ritual but no righteousness. They loved to condemn but not uplift, to judge but not help. They loved themselves but not others, and proved themselves to be without the compassion and mercy that God’s law required—the law they vigorously claimed to teach, practice, and defend.

The Argument from Scripture

Jesus’ second argument was directly from Scripture. “Go and learn,” He said, “what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.’” He pinned the Pharisees to the wall with their own Scripture. The phrase go and learn was commonly used in rabbinic writings to rebuke those who did not know what they should have known. Jesus used the Pharisees’ own most honored authorities to rebuke them for their ignorance of God’s true nature and of their failure to follow His clear commandments.

Jesus here quotes the prophet Hosea, through whom God said, “I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6)

The fact that the quotation was from Hosea made it all the more pointed. The story of Gomer’s unfaithfulness to her husband Hosea was a living illustration of Israel’s own unfaithfulness to God; and Hosea’s continuing love and forgiveness of Gomer was a picture of the continuing love and forgiveness God offered Israel. And just as God then desired compassion rather than sacrifice, He still did. Without compassion, all the rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices of the Pharisees were unacceptable to God. Without compassion they proved themselves to be more ungodly even than the despised tax-gatherers and sinners, who made no pretense of godliness.

God is never pleased with religious routine and activity that does not come from sincere love of Him and of other people. Ritual separated from righteousness is a sham and an affront to God. “I hate, I reject your festivals,” God declared to Israel. “‘Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” Amos 5:21-24.

 (Matthew 12:7 NIV)  “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

Have you not read what David did …? was deep-cutting sarcasm, because the account of David to which Jesus referred was, of course, from Scripture, about which the Pharisees considered themselves the supreme experts and custodians. They must have winced in anger as Jesus said to them, in effect, “Don’t you teachers of Scripture know what it says?”

In responding to the Pharisees’ false charge, Jesus instructed them about God’s purposes for the Sabbath, particularly about three things it was not designed to do.

Like the other nine Commandments, the one to observe the Sabbath was given to promote love toward God and love toward one’s fellow man. The first three pertain to showing love of God through reverence, faithfulness, and holiness. The other seven pertain to love of other people through personal purity, unselfishness, truthfulness, and contentment and through respect for their possessions, rights, and well-being.

The scribes and Pharisees, however, knew nothing of love—for God or for men. They were legalistic functionaries, trapped in their own system of endless, futile traditions. Instead of fulfilling the law by loving their neighbors as themselves (Lev. 19:18; cf. Rom. 13:8-10), they attempted to fulfill it through loveless and lifeless traditions.

Jesus here reaffirms that the Sabbath was given for God’s glory and for man’s welfare. It was never intended to restrict the expression of love through deeds of necessity, service to God, or acts of mercy

(Hebrews 8:7-12 NIV)  For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. {8} But God found fault with the people and said : “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. {9} It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. {10} This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. {11} No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. {12} For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

The New Covenant will have a different sort of law—an internal not an external law. Everything under the old economy was primarily external. Under the Old Covenant obedience was primarily out of fear of punishment. Under the New it is to be out of adoring love and worshiping thanksgiving. Formerly God’s law was given on stone tablets and was to be written on wrists and foreheads and doorposts as reminders (Deut. 6:8-9). Even when the old law was given, of course, it was intended to be in His people’s hearts (Deut. 6:6). But the people could not write on their hearts like they could write on their doorposts. And at this time the Holy Spirit, the only changer of hearts, was not yet given to believers. Now, however, the Spirit writes God’s law in the minds and hearts of those who belong to Him. In the New Covenant true worship is internal, not external, real, not ritual (cf. Ezek. 11:19-20, 36:26-27; John 14:17).

(Ezekiel 11:19-20 NIV)  I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. {20} Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

(Ezekiel 36:26-27 NIV)  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. {27} And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Strong statements of the apostle of love

(1 John 2:9-11 NIV)  Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. {10} Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. {11} But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.

(1 John 3:18 NIV)  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

(1 John 4:16 NIV)  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

(1 John 4:20-21 NIV)  If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. {21} And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

What makes life worth living? Love does. Paul contrasts love here with certain things that were highly regarded in Corinth and are still highly regarded in the world today. The first is the ability to communicate.

These Corinthians valued communication. They enjoyed eloquence; they admired oratory. They were especially entranced by the gift of tongues, the ability to speak in languages that had never been learned, which had been given among them, but which by the power of the Spirit enabled person to pray and praise God. They were making much of this gift, as many are today, so Paul begins on that note. He says,  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. {1 Cor 13:1 RSV} just a big noise maker, that is all. There is no suggestion in this that the gift of glossolalia — which is speaking in tongues — is identical to what Paul refers to as “the tongues of angels.” I know people today who claim that the gift of tongues enables you to speak with the tongues of angels, but Paul does not say that at all.

In fact, it is a pure, arbitrary assumption on the part of anybody that the gift of tongues constitutes the tongues of angels. Angels do communicate, but we do not know how. Nothing is said about it in the Bible. This is the only reference in all the Scriptures to the tongues of angels. All Paul is saying is that to be a loving person is more important than to be able to speak in all the languages of earth or heaven.

Therefore, it is essential to learn to love. Communication without love is a useless thing. Then he compares love to two other qualities that are admired both in Corinth and today in our age as well: Power to know and to do.

He says:  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. {1  Cor 13:2 RSV} absolutely nothing. Paul is thinking of theologians particularly, men and women with great ability to detect and understand the mysteries of the Scriptures, to unscrew the inscrutable, and to answer all Biblical questions, riddles and parables.

Everywhere I go I am always asked some of the same questions: “Why doesn’t God kill the devil?” “Where did Cain get his wife if he was the only person in the world?” (That seems to be a matter of concern to a lot of people.) “Why does God allow injustice, accidents and tragedies in our world?” These are questions flung at every Bible teacher. Now, Paul says, “If I could answer all those questions, if I could explain all those mysterious movements of God and still was not a loving person, if I was difficult, cantankerous, hard to get along with, even though I could move mountains by faith, if I lacked a loving spirit, it is all nothing.”

Finally, he takes up the matter of sacrificial zeal:

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. {1 Cor 13:3 RSV}

There are many reasons why people give away things. Sometimes they give because they are deeply concerned about certain cause or a need. They are willing to sacrifice their own possessions in order to meet that. But sometimes people give for very selfish reasons, although it appears to be a generous gift. I have known people who gave great sums of money to a cause they actually had no interest in at all, no more use for than a hog has for hip pockets, and still they gave their money.

Why? Well, because they had a selfish interest in it. Now you can do that. You can give away everything. You can impress people with tremendous willingness on your part to sacrifice, even as some have done, as we read frequently, by pouring gasoline all over their bodies and setting themselves on fire to call attention to certain cause. That is happening more and more often these days. That is a supreme sacrifice, and surely it bears eloquent testimony to the fact that those who do so believe in the cause they are espousing.

But to do that, Paul says, without having learned to love will gain nothing. At the judgment seat of Christ it is regarded as wasted effort. Love is the important thing. Nothing can underscore that fact more than these words. This is what life is all about. We are set here to learn to love, and to live without learning to love is to have wasted our time, no matter how impressive our achievements in other ways may be.

In the next section the apostle goes on to show us that love must be practical. Love is not an ethereal thing; it is not just an ideal you talk about. It is something that takes on shoe leather and moves right down into the normal, ordinary pursuits and aspects of life. That is where love is to be manifest. Nothing is more helpful, in reading a chapter like this, than to ask yourself the question. “Am I growing in love?

Looking back over a year, am I easier to live with now? Am I able to handle people more graciously, more courteously? Am I more compassionate, more patient?” These are the measurements of life. This is why we were given life, that we might learn how to act in love. Nothing else can be substituted for it. There is no use holding up any other quality we possess if we lack this one. It is the paramount goal of every human life, and it is well to measure yourself from time to time along that line.

Before looking at each verse separately, several observations should be made concerning verses 1-3. The structure of verses 1-3 is very clear, setting these three verses apart from the rest of the chapter. Each verse begins with an “if,” indicating Paul is speaking here of a hypothetical possibility.[3] To press the hypothetical dimension even further, it seems clear that Paul is using hyperbole here.[4]

The statements Paul makes in all three verses hypothetically take a particular gift to its ultimate expression. In verses 1-3, Paul takes spiritual gifts to the Super Bowl. He seeks to demonstrate that any gift, exercised to its highest level of performance, is of greatly diminished value if that gift is exercised without love. In my opinion, Paul did not intend for us to assume that any of these hypothetical possibilities were even remotely possible.

Since some look to verse 1 to find a redefinition of the gift of tongues, this would not be the most forceful example of hyperbole. Let us look then to verse 2, where Paul speaks of faith that is able to remove mountains and of the gift of prophecy such that Paul can know all things. These words are written by the greatest apostle of all times. Few would dare to claim greater knowledge and revelation than Paul. And yet Paul goes on to say that we “know in part, and we prophesy in part” (verse 9). “That which is perfect”—knowing fully—will not come until Christ comes, and then we shall “know fully” (verse 12).

In verses 1-3, Paul speaks in the first person: “If I … .” There is not the accusatory “you” which there most certainly could have been. The gifts Paul selects are the greatest gifts, whether by the perception of the Corinthians (tongues), or in truth (prophecy, faith). It seems safe to say that all of the gifts Paul mentions in verses 1-3 are gifts Paul actually did possess and, to a degree, which far surpassed any of the Corinthian believers (see, for example, 14:18). Paul writes in the light of his own giftedness and points to the necessity of love for his gifts to be of benefit to others or to himself.

In these first three verses of chapter 13, a different time frame seems to be in view in each verse. In verse 1, Paul says, “I have become … .”[5] In verse 2, he says, “I am … .” In verse 3, he writes, “it profits me nothing.” In verse 1, Paul seems to suggest that in living a loveless life, I become less than I was. The Corinthians are not the better for their lack of love; they are the worse. Worse yet, they are becoming something vastly inferior to what they once were. In verse 2, Paul speaks of a loveless saint in terms of his present state—“I am nothing.” In verse 3, Paul looks to future rewards for one’s sacrificial service. Seemingly great acts of sacrifice may win man’s approval, but they will not win us God’s approval. Love is essential for eternal rewards.

Paul takes what are considered to be the greatest gifts anyone could possess, starting with tongues (the “ultimate gift” for the Corinthians), and grants that each could be exercised to the fullest possible extent. Even then, these spiritual gifts would be of limited value unless exercised out of a heart of love.

Love: the great importance of love. Unequivocally, the decree is pronounced; the judgment is given; the verdict is declared:

⇒ the superior quality of life is love; it is not gifts.

⇒ the most excellent way to live and serve is to possess and share love; it is not gifts.

The contrast between love and gifts is vivid. Three verdicts are declared and the verdicts stress with resounding force the great superiority of love.

  1. Verdict one: tongues without love are meaningless.

⇒           The “tongues of men” probably means all the languages of men (cp. Acts 2:4-13).

⇒           The “tongues of men” probably means the heavenly language or the spiritual gift of an ecstatic utterance given by the Holy Spirit of God.

⇒           “Sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal” do not mean the sound of musical instruments but the tinkling together of either small cymbals or the clashing and banging together of large cymbals by untrained persons.

In verse 1, Paul first turns to the gift of tongues. Here is the gift at least some of the Corinthians prize most. Tongues is the ability to speak in unlearned earthly languages as seen in Acts 2. To the Corinthians, the ultimate in tongues was to be able to speak in a language which was not earthly. And so Paul grants the hypothetical though unreal possibility that one could speak every human language, and even in the tongue of angels.[6]

But, Paul declares, if this were done apart from love, it would not be profitable to men: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Gongs and cymbals do have something in common, for they are at their best when employed in concert with other instruments. Cymbals are not “solo instruments”; they sound good only in the context of a musical piece along with many other instruments. I must confess, however, I played the trumpet probably because it was a solo instrument. I struggled to obtain first chair in band because I wanted to play the melody line and not a harmony part. Cymbals were not for me, because I wanted to be able to play alone and not be confined to a band or orchestra.

Can you imagine listening to a cymbal or a gong hour after hour? Some instruments are not good alone. Rather than being enjoyable, they can be irritating.

A tongues speaker without love could speak long and loud, enraptured by the sound of his own voice, but apart from interpretation, there would be no value to those who hear or even to the speaker (see 14:14-17). Exercised in love, and in accordance with the restrictions set down by Paul, tongues could be edifying. But without love, tongues would be irritating. I can just see brother or sister Jones standing up in the church meeting, as they did every meeting, and the whole church knowing what is about to happen. Eyes roll, and people silently mutter to themselves, “Oh, no, not again!”

What has been said in verse 1 in terms of the gift of tongues can be said for any other gift as well. Any gift exercised primarily for the benefit of the one who is gifted is a prostitution of that gift, and the end result of that kind of “ministry” is not edification but exasperation. Love seeks to serve others to their benefit and at the sacrifice of the one who serves in love. This kind of ministry blesses others. Self-serving, self-promoting ministry is a pain to others, something to be endured at best.

A person can possess the gift and ability to speak and share Christ in all the languages of the world, but if he does not have love, he becomes only a clanging and tinkling noise. His speech is meaningless.

A person can possess the spiritual gift of tongues, that is, speak in the heavenly languages of angels; but if he does not have love, he becomes only a clanging and tinkling noise. His heavenly, angelic language is meaningless.

Note the phrase “he becomes.” This is a crucial point: the gifted person’s speech is not only meaningless, the person himself becomes meaningless. He becomes useless in his life and ministry for Christ. Love is far more superior than the gift of tongues.

  1. Verdict two: gifts without love are nothing. Three particular gifts are contrasted with love.
  2. There is the gift of prophecy. A person may have the gift of speaking under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, both predicting the future and proclaiming the truth of God’s Word. He may possess all the charisma, stature, eloquence, and descriptive language in the world; but if he does not have love, he is nothing. Not only is his gift of prophecy nothing, but he is nothing.

There is always the danger of feeling and acting superior because of one’s prophetic gifts and eloquence. It is possible to long for souls and to preach the glories of heaven and the tragedy of hell with an attitude and a tone that one is better than others.

In verse 2, Paul turns to the two vitally important gifts of prophecy and faith. “And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

In the first verse, the gift of tongues is selected by the apostle Paul. There he focuses on the benefit of the ultimate gift of tongues for others—when exercised without love. Now Paul turns to the gift of prophecy and its personal benefits to himself—if exercised apart from love. The gift of prophecy, as described here, is the ability to know mysteries and to gain knowledge. Prophecy is the divine ability to know what we would not be able to know apart from divine revelation. In the Bible, a mystery is a truth which is at least partially revealed, but which is not understood.

According to Paul, the meaning of marriage was a mystery. Now we know that the truth about Christ’s union with His church is illustrated by a Christian marriage (see Ephesians 5:22-33). Old Testament saints were saved by faith, and they worshiped God, but they did not think of themselves as one with God, through Jesus Christ. The union of Jews and Gentiles in the church was also a mystery in the Old Testament. Passages spoke of the Gentiles as recipients of divine grace, but no Jew fully understood the truth which Paul revealed in Ephesians 2. Gentiles and Jews are brought together in Christ as “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15-18).

Prophecy is the ability to receive knowledge from God by divine revelation, and it explains those matters which were formerly mysteries, even to the saints. Carried to its ultimate possibility, the gift of prophecy would enable one to know all knowledge and to understand every mystery. Even if this could be the case, such a gift of prophecy without love would contribute nothing to the one possessing the gift. The Corinthians wrongly measured their own significance by the gifts they possessed. Were this false assumption granted even for a moment, Paul shows that without love, the greatest gift, exercised to the fullest measure, really makes one a nobody.

Do we not see the truth of verse 2 in the Old Testament? Look at Jonah, the prophet. He enjoyed the kind of “success” of which the prophet Elijah could only dream. Elijah wanted to convert a nation, the nation Israel. He “failed” because this was not God’s purpose for him. So, too, Isaiah “failed” by secular standards of success. But when Jonah preached, the entire city of Nineveh repented. It was a success Jonah did not want. It was a success that made Jonah angry with God. Who could leave the Book of Jonah liking this loveless prophet? He was nothing because he lacked love. Other prophets, like Balaam, also come to mind.

  1. There is the gift of understanding “all mysteries and all knowledge”—the sum total of all that God has ever revealed and of all that man has ever learned, discovered, and developed. Just imagine! A person possessing all the knowledge in the world! Yet if he does not have love, he would be nothing! Not only would his understanding and knowledge be nothing, he would be nothing.

The danger is looking down upon others, of feeling that one is more knowledgeable or better equipped than others. A coolness or detachment or aloofness often characterizes such a person.

  1. There is the gift of faith, that is, the very special gift of faith that is given by the Holy Spirit to remove mountains and to do great and miraculous things for God. Note the word “all”. Imagine a person possessing “all faith”; yet, if he did not possess love, he would be nothing.

In addition to the gift of prophecy, Paul speaks of the gift of faith. Faith, exercised to the ultimate measure of success, would be a faith that could not only move mountains but remove them (compare Matthew 17:20; 21:21). If one had this kind of faith, yet lacked love, he would be a nobody. If I possess the greatest of gifts and exercise them to the fullest degree, yet without love, I am nobody. I am nothing. These words must have struck the Corinthians with considerable force.

The danger is spiritual superiority, an overblown sense of importance. A person with the gift of faith can easily hurt others by speaking openly of their great faith. They can easily make others feel inferior and of less importance to God.

  1. Verdict three: giving without love profits nothing. Two phenomenal illustrations are given.
  2. There is the illustration of selling and giving everything that a person has. Imagine giving everything—“bestowing all my goods to feed the poor”—yet, if I have not love, it profits me nothing.

In verse 3, Paul speaks of gifts in terms of the greatest imaginable sacrifice. “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” Quite frankly, I do not have a clue what gifts Paul refers to in verse 3, and I do not think it matters. He is surely speaking of great personal sacrifice, the appearance of which would gain one much favor and approval by his peers (compare Matthew 6:2-4). The ultimate sacrifice is made, either by giving up all of one’s possessions for the sake of the poor, or by the giving up of one’s life as a martyr. Because love is sacrificial (see Ephesians 5:25), some might be tempted to conclude that “great sacrifice” (giving up all one’s possessions or one’s life) was proof of great love.

Paul does not grant this assumption. People give away their possessions for any number of reasons, and many of those reasons can be self-serving rather than sacrificial. For example, I may leave all my wealth to a charitable organization, but I cannot take my money with me anyway. I might even do this to spite my children and deprive them of any inheritance. People have set themselves on fire, and I have yet to read of one instance in which love was clearly the motive. Ultimate sacrifices can be made apart from love, and if they are loveless, they are of no eternal benefit to the one making the sacrifice.

There are several dangers in giving. There are dangers of:

⇒           giving out of duty.

⇒           giving with contempt because one is forced to give.

⇒           giving with an air of superiority because one has and the needy do not have.

⇒           giving with a rebuke because one feels the needy are just irresponsible and ought to make their own way in life.

⇒           giving unsacrificially.

  1. There is the illustration of martyrdom, the most terrible martyrdom of all—of being burned alive at the stake. Yet, if a person does not have love, his martyrdom profits him nothing. He dies in vain. There is always the danger of counting martyrdom as a thing of glory and of pride, as something to show one’s commitment to a cause. If a believer is ever called upon to die as a martyr, he is to die only out of love for Christ and for his fellow man.

 

Why is it so difficult to cultivate God-like love in our culture?
Just as the demands of the market-driven economy force farmers to mass-produce the waxy imitations of real tomatoes, the forces of our culture are hostile to the cultivation of real love. It is no wonder that the love of God comes to us a something unfamiliar – we are not used to seeing it even in its natural habitat. Don’t misunderstand, God’s love is enduring, but the cultivation of God-like, fruit of the spirit love in our lives and even more so in our church (our life together) is hindered by certain “pests” that may allow us to produce the imitation or just a big green leafy plant, but if we don’t overcome these hostile cultural elements our garden will not grow …

  1. Our culture promotes self-interest.The economic system of our culture is an incredible power to deal with. Think about all the coverage of the hurricanes. What is one of the primary concerns – gas prices! And how is it reported? It will hurt us!
    • We are encouraged to think of ourselves as self-interested parties in the marketplace. We all have to “do” for ourselves. The customer is always right, we are consumers looking for the best service (and we even carry this over into our non-marketplace relationships such as school, church, family.) The power that shapes our relationships in these other arenas is the power of self-interest. Can we recognize how toxic this is to the cultivation of God’s love? It is a dangerous blight that corrupts the growth of the fruit of the spirit.
  2. Putting a price on everything and everyone.Value is calculated in terms of money. Isn’t it interesting that there are so many ways to measure a hurricane? Category, intensity, strength, and monetary destruction. (The most intense hurricane in the Atlantic was an unnamed Cat 5 that breezed thru the Florida Keys in 1935. But of the top ten costliest hurricanes only one was a Cat 5 at landfall and most of the costly hurricanes have occurred in the last 15 years. What does this say to us about our tendency to put a price tag on everything?) Our price-tag culture tries to convince us that everything is for sale: (food, clothing, knowledge, insights, entertainment, sex, affection, loyalty)
    • In Sept 1999 someone offered to sell his own kidney on eBay. Bidding started at 2.5 million and was up to 5.75 million before eBay ended the auction.
  3. We equate worth with money.What one is worth is valued in terms of financial power. Assets or earning potential. Career choices are made in terms of economics rather than calling. How many young people have been persuaded not to be teachers, artists, or missionaries because the work does not pay and it is hard to support a family? Churches are guilty of this as well when they equate status in the church with wealth. James warns us very sharply about showing favoritism of any sort based on finances or economics.
  4. Our culture contracts relationships.Since ancient times, relationships have been contracted. When Paul addresses households he uses an ancient form that lays out the obligations of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. Relationships between these pairs were contracted. Marriage wasn’t always about love, it was about business. Children were an asset to achieve power and wealth. And slavery was seen as a necessity. In our culture we have moved beyond overt slavery. But we still contract relationships. We have quid pro quo relationships that are arranged for mutual benefit. But what happens when the benefit if no longer there or no longer mutual.
  • We do this in churches. Consumerism is the greatest challenge to church life. Some churches are marketing their church to others. Does this cultivate love?
  • No wonder we try to contract our relationship with God. We have mistaken covenant for contract.

How can we cultivate God-like love?
Recognizing the cheap fruit and the hostile elements is only part of the process of good gardening. How can we cultivate the fruit of the spirit – how can we cultivate love?

  1. Pay attention to Others.– Consider how this alone would cultivate love – To genuinely give attention to others is to demonstrate that Christ-like quality of love that looks to the interest of others. To pay attention to others regardless of who they are will overcome boundaries that often hinder the cultivation of love. To pay attention to others teaches us to be steadfast rather than conditional in the way we show love. To pay attention to others may encourage us to recognize how others are hurting. It is hard to pay attention to others if we are consumed with our own interests.
  2. Giving and receiving graciously.– keeps before us just how much we have received from God. Love is a gift and it can only be freely given. But it is also important to receive graciously. The only thing better than buying good garden fresh tomatoes from the farmer’s market is to get a batch of tomatoes as a gift from the abundance of a friend’s garden. Part of the goodness of enjoying a tomato is to realize that this good food is a gift from our Creator. Giving to others reminds us that we cannot put a price tag on everyone and everything. Receiving graciously chastens us when we think we can buy anything we want. No matter how wealthy you may be or become you cannot buy everything. No matter how many resources we acquire as a church we will always be dependent on God’s graciousness to do anything.
  3. View our stuff and time as a trust we hold for God.– The laws of old Israel concerning possessions were not simply rules to take care of religious things. They were designed to remind the people of God of the source of their stuff and their time. The aim was to encourage them to share and not abuse one another. They were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and leave the grapes that fell on the ground. That’s poor economics because it doesn’t maximize output, but it is godliness because it provides freely for the poor and reminds those who have that what they have is a gift from God.

Your stuff and your time is something God has entrusted to you. Now will you use it to cultivate real, Christ-like, fruit of the spirit quality love, or the mass-produced, ready for transport, high-yield, waxy imitation love that is so in demand and passes for love to those who aren’t paying attention?

 

I Corinthians 13 tells us…

  1. God’s Love Is Incarnational– God entered into our world and demonstrated love in a way we could visualize – understand. We must go where young people are and where they live out their lives. This in itself will demonstrate to our young people our love for them.
  2. God’s Love Is Patient– We must not make impatient demands but allow young people to grow at their own pace.
  3. God’s Love Is Kind– We must be gentle and sensitive to the needs and hurts of young people. We must allow them to be teenagers and not demand that they be something else.
  4. God’s Love Is Not Jealous– Our supreme concern must be for our young people’s growth and not that they just attend our youth program or our activities.
  5. God’s Love Does Not Brag and Is Not Arrogant– We must not spend our energies building up ourselves, but remember that servanthood is making the other person successful.
  6. God’s Love Does Not Act Unbecomingly– We are not to try to act like teenagers. Teens do not want leaders who act like them, but leaders who act like leaders.
  7. God’s Love Does Not Seek Its Own– Our desire must be to put others first. If we cannot do this then we cannot expect our young people to do it either.
  8. God’s Love Is Not Provoked– At times this becomes a great difficulty, but we must learn as the Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 2. He stated that in every disappointment he learned to use that situation to reaffirm love for the person who disappoints him.
  9. God’s Love Does Not Take Into Account a Wrong Suffered– Jesus suffered much wrong and rejection and we, too, must be willing to experience that same suffering.
  10. God’s Love Rejoices With the Truth– Our young people will easily see our values by what we get most excited about.
  11. God’s Love Bears and Believes All Things– We must expect the best and see people as God sees people – for the potential they can become with Christ’s help.
  12. God’s Love Hopes All Things– We need to memorize Philippians 4:8 and recite it daily to ourselves.
  13. God’s Love Endures All Things– Many heartaches will come our way, and the desire to give up and quit will often pass through our minds. But God’s love for us endures even our shortcomings. How can we do any less’

Sonlife Strategy, MBI, 1983, p. 10

[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 610.

[2] William Barclay, ed., The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 117–119.

[3] After what I have said previously, I feel guilty pointing out this is a third condition clause in the Greek text, which means that the outcome is not assumed and that a hypothetical statement is being made.

[4] Hyperbole is a form of literary exaggeration, used to emphasize a point, but in such a way that the reader recognizes it as such.

[5] I was pondering the expression “I have become …” when I came across this statement by Carson: ‘I have become only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’—as if my action of speaking in tongues without love has left a permanent effect on me that has diminished my value and transformed me into something I should not be.”  Carson,  p.  59.

[6] I never really thought about this before, but it would seem necessary for angels to speak in some language.  Since earthly languages were confused at Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9), we would not expect angels to be speaking in any human language.  There must actually be an angel language by which they communicate one with the other.  This is not to say that angels are not able to speak human languages, for they often communicated with men in the Bible.  Even if it were not a human language, an angelic language would be a language, and not the mindless repetition of mere syllables.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2023 in 1 Corinthians

 

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