Paul in chapter 12 laid the foundation – that we are all part of a system and that to do God’s work we need to let the Holy Spirit work through us collectively in whatever way or with whatever gifts He chooses. There are no Lone Ranger and there are no Superstars. Each part of the body and each gift is just as important – even if it is not as “flashy” as others.
Paul ends chapter 12 by saying: And now I will show you the most excellent way.
No matter how gifted you are – no matter how successful in ministry – no matter how close to God – there is one overarching principal that should guide everything we do. Otherwise anything you do for the Lord is a waste of time.
That, of course is love. 1st Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages of Scripture. It’s quoted as weddings routinely. So much so that it begins to sound like the trite phrases of a Hallmark card. “What the world needs now is love sweet love” as if just saying the word “love” is all that’s needed.
This chapter is far more than that – it is far more challenging than you may have imagined.
The Need for Love
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. 2 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. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
No matter how much I know – or how much great wisdom I speak, no matter if I utter incredible mysteries that wow the masses – I might as well be just honking my horn in bumper to bumper traffic unless I do it with love.
No matter what I can do – healing, miracles – without love it is meaningless.
This one really kills me – no matter how much I give of myself – I can be the humblest most giving person on earth – even give up my life for my faith – but if I am not flowing in God’s love I might as well not do it.
What kind of love is this? Every time the word “love” appears in this chapter it is the word “agape.” This is different from the other forms of the word “love” in Greek. Phileo is the idea of brotherly love or friendship. The city of Philadelphia gets its name from this word. Eros is the idea of sexual love – we get the word erotic from this word. Agape as a word didn’t really appear until the New Testament. It is selfless love – the love of God towards Jesus and towards us. It’s not a love of word but a love of action without regard to self interest.
It is the character of God. 1 John 4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Everything you strive for, who you want to be, what you want to do, how you want people to think of you, what you want to accomplish – everything should go through this filter – “am I doing this with agape love?”
And before we go on – remember that it is from the Holy Spirit that we get the power to live this kind of life. Don’t think you can find it in worldly philosophy or philanthropy or religious piety. Only a person who says “Jesus is Lord” can exhibit this kind of love.
So now let’s look at the character of this love.
The Character of Love
Paul defines for us what agape means. He does it in terms of what it is and what it is not. There are 8 things it does, 8 things it does not do.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
The 8 things love is: Patient, Kind, Rejoices in truth, Protects, Trusts, Hopes, Perseveres, Never fails.
The 8 things love is not: Envy, Boasting, Pride, Rudeness, Self seeking, Anger, holding grudges, delighting in evil.
You could form these around four basic concepts:
How you deal with others (patient, kind, protects, vs. rude, angry, grudges)
How you deal with life (patient, hopes, trusts, perseveres, never fails)
Your relationship to yourself (never fails, patient, kind, vs. envy, pride, self seeking, boasting)
Your relationship to God (hopes, perseveres, rejoices in truth, vs. pride, self seeking, delight in evil)
Let’s look at these one at a time:
This comes from two Greek words: “long” and “tempered”. Vine’s expository dictionary says patience is “self restraint in the face of provocation … the opposite of anger.”
Do you have a short fuse? Do you get easily frustrated when things don’t go your way or don’t happen fast enough? Do you retaliate easily and quickly against those that hurt you? That’s the opposite of patient.
Patience means you wait out trouble and you don’t strike out against adversity. I like how Peter describes it in his letter:
1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
You wait under God’s hand – you don’t from trouble or run from God. Certainly God is patient with us, isn’t He? That’s love.
The Greek word for “kind” means “to show oneself useful.” Taking patience one step further – not only are you long tempered against trouble, but you actually reach out with a benefit to someone else. It comes from a root word that means “employed.”
It reminds me of something Paul emphasizes over and over in this letter:
1 Corinthians 10:33 For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Most of the time we think “what’s in it for me.” But kindness thinks, what can I do to benefit you? That’s love.
Paul next strings 8 negatives together. Often we learn by contrast – we see what love is by carving away what it is not – and when we find ourselves acting in these ways we know we are not acting in love.
It comes from the word “to boil.” It’s kind of the bolstered idea of “what’s in it for me,” in the sense of “it’s all about me.” When we become so self focused that anything anyone else has that we don’t have makes our blood boil and is the opposite of wanting to benefit another. Envy is when we only want to benefit ourselves at the expense of others.
Boasting is really a corollary of envy – “if you’ve got it flaunt it – even if you don’t have it, pretend like you do.” The Greek word has the connotation of “play the braggart.” Often times boasting is playing a part – something we are not but want to be or think we are.
This is the same word Paul uses in chapter 8 – “knowledge puffs up.” It means to inflate – like a bag of hot air – no substance but a lot of fluff. It’s increasing your sense of self importance well beyond your hat size.
The word here is “unshapely.” You could say “not pretty to look at.” Do people have a hard time being around you because you do things that are unpredictable or embarrassing or unbecoming? That’s rudeness.
This could be rendered “worship yourself.”
Not Easily Angered
It means to “exasperate.” The Greek word can translate “to sharpen alongside.” This is really the opposite of patience.
Keeps no record of wrongs
The suggestion from the original here is thinking poorly of someone else – or really pondering and dwelling on someone else as evil. The old story goes that Santa Claus keeps a list of whose naughty and whose nice. Sometimes we keep those lists too. How quick are you to forgive?
Does not delight in evil
It means to be happy when an injustice or wrong occurs. In a sense this is the ultimate form of “anti-love.” We want, we get, we hurt others to get it – and we’re happy that we stomped over them to get what we really deserve in the first place.
The thing that all these negatives have in common is that they all focus on us – what we want, who we are, who bad everyone is in comparison to us, what bad things people are always trying to do us – me me me! This is the opposite of love.
Rejoices in the truth
This is interesting because the word “rejoice” is a compound word – part of it is the same word used in “delight in evil.” When put together with the other word it means “to sympathize with gladness.” When you delight in evil you are holding yourself apart from the other person – glad they are suffering and you aren’t. Rejoicing in the truth means you are drawing close to someone as they come to know the truth of God and about sin, come to know the love of God, or have something good happen to them.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres
This is really neat – these four words form a related pattern. “protects” means to “roof over,” “trusts” means to “put your faith in” something, “hopes” means “to confide in” and “preserves” means “to stay under.” These are all things God does for us – and things we should do for others – throwing a protective blanket, physically, emotionally – over someone else; being willing to put our faith in someone else – be real, confide in them – know that God will work good in their lives – then stick it out with them to see the love of God change their lives.
You see all this business of love isn’t some magical, rose-colored-glasses kind of “feeling.” It’s actually very specific: love and trust God no matter what, seek the best for and the best in those around you – then help benefit their lives as they draw closer to God. That’s love!
So this begs the question – why does Paul put this in here – smack dab in the middle of a section on spiritual gifts? It has application far beyond a discussion of spiritual gifts but it speaks directly to an attitude that believers can have, especially when they start talking about how God has gifted them – that they speak God’s words and bring about miracles.
Hey, if you reached out your hand and someone was healed it might happen to you too – you start to feel pretty special about yourself. Instantly the focus moves off of the real purpose of the gifts – to see others benefited and drawn close to God, even if it means you get hurt or get less in the process.
We as humans are basically selfish. Paul is telling us that God is basically unselfish and will bring about good in others lives even if it hurts Him in the process – and we should be like Him!
So to further illustrate this – Paul says “look – all this neat stuff you are experiencing is going to go away, but the need to love unselfishly will never go away.
The Supremacy of Love
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 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. 12 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.
We seek to know the deep mysteries of God and think by our knowledge we are better. We seek to do mighty miracles, thinking that we must be more favored. But in reality – when you really being to mature as a Christian, what you find is that love is the ultimate expression of who God is – selfless, other-focused, always giving, love.
Paul says – when you start to see who God really is, what maturity really is about, you see that it isn’t about you after all – its about what God does through for others.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
These three ideas were favorites of Paul – the “essentials” to life. Faith in Jesus as God and Savior, hope of the good things He is doing in our lives and is going to do – but love is the greatest – it is the driving force for everything.
Remember? God so “loved” the world that …
• Love doesn’t happen overnight
After reading this you might be thinking – “man, how can I ever live up to this stuff – I might as well give up.”
Remember what Paul says – “when I became a man I put away childish things.” Growing up in love is a process as we mature. It takes time and experience – don’t beat yourself up, just know that this is the direction your should be heading if you have a vibrant relationship with the Lord.
• Love is an action – but it’s not fireworks display
Let’s not make the mistake that the Corinthians and, for that matter, the Pharisees, made. Showing love means an attitude and actions – but love is more often a very quiet, unobtrusive affair. We don’t need to broadcast the depth of our love and the amount of our selflessness to the whole world.
Don’t expect fireworks to go off as you show and grow in love. But do expect lives to begin to grow and heal and change – that’s the pay off.
• Needing & Asking for things isn’t bad
Acting in love doesn’t mean you take a vow of poverty. James said “you have not because you ask not.” Jesus said (Matthew 7:7)
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
The problem isn’t with the asking – it’s with the motivation.
James goes on to say: (James 4:3) When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
We err when we seek to fulfill our desires from the wrong source – or we ask God for things for the wrong reasons.
So search your heart – then ask – then wait for God to respond to what you really need.