The Greatest Of These Is Love
1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13
Key Verse 13:13
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
In the last verse of the previous chapter 12, Paul counseled the Corinthian Christians like this: “But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” When Paul said that, he probably meant the gifts of faith, of hope and of love. When they made a confession of Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit endowed each of them with special gifts. To some the Holy Spirit gave a gift of preaching, to others knowledge, and to others the gift of healing, and still to others the gift of tongues. Some received the gift of prophesy, while others received the gift of teaching. Some were happy with the gifts they received and some were not. Some were proud of what they received while others were ashamed of the little they thought they received. Paul told them you’re like a hand that prides itself over a finger nail, or like a head that despises the belly button. “What on earth is wrong with you!” You think one gift is better than another? Don’t you know that they are all given by God for one purpose. So rather than squabble over your gifts, here’s an advice you need to take from me.” “Eagerly desire the greater gifts.” The gifts of the Holy Spirit are amazing; the ability Old Testament teach others the word of God is amazing, it’s a special gift. The ability to study the Bible and to gain insight into the mysteries of the Gospel is amazing, it’s a special gift. The power of prayer that brings about healing to the body and soul of a suffering person is amazing, it’s a special gift. Yet Paul asserts that there are even greater gifts than that. What could they be? So he ends the last chapter with these words: “And now I will show you the most excellent way.” In other words, “I will tell you what it is”. And he launches into chapter 13, one of the most moving, and least understood chapters of the Bible. He wants to teach them about the gift of “love” a gift given to every Christian through the Holy Spirit.
The greater gift of love. There are all kinds of love in this world. In Greek, there is “Eros”— the physical and romantic love. Then there is “Phileo” love— which is brotherly love. And then there is “Agape”— which is God’s love— selfless, sacrificial and unconditional in nature. In this chapter Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians the third kind of love, “Agape” love. And in this chapter Paul explains three things distinctly. First he teaches Christians the foundation of all gifts of the Holy Spirit (1-3). Then he goes on to teach them the true nature of love— what love really is (4-7). Finally he asserts that of all gifts, love is the greatest because it is everlasting. But before we study this chapter in detail, I would like to paraphrase it in a way that would flow— as Paul would have said it if he were personally talking to them. In that way we can get a feel for it. He says:
If I were gifted by the Holy Spirit with speaking in every language in heaven and on earth, but didn’t love others, I would be hollow and only making noise. If I were gifted with prophecy to know everything about anything, what good is that, if I didn’t know anything about love? Even if I were to be gifted with the kind of faith that moves mountains, its nothing if I don’t love. And if I were to give all that I have to the poor, and even be martyred for being a Christian— what good would that do, if I didn’t have love. Surely all the gifts we have from the Holy Spirit are meaningless if the foundation of how we use them is not love. Let me then tell you about love.
Love is being patient with, and kind to one another; love is never jealous of what others have nor envious of who they are. Love isn’t proud nor does it boast about what it is and what it has. Love isn’t self-centered nor self-possessed nor selfish. It isn’t rude to others, nor easily irritated by them. Love doesn’t hold grudges against anyone, nor does it keep tabs of the wrongs done to it by others. Love doesn’t delight in wicked thoughts or behavior, but always stands up for what is right. To love others is to always protect them—always trust them—always hope for them— and never to gives up on them— Love never fails because it is from God and his love in unfailing— and unconditional— and everlasting.
All the special gifts that we receive from the Holy Spirit will someday come to an end. Yet, the wondrous thing about love, is that love never stops— it goes on and on. We know so little at the moment, even with all our special gifts from the Holy Spirit, its hard to see the greatness of love. But on the day when Love appears in person, the need we now have for all other gifts of the Holy Spirit will come to an end, except for love. It’s like growing up— When I was a child I acted as a child. But when I grew up, I put aside my childish ways and began to act as an adult. And part of growing up into adulthood is that at the root of whatever gift I have form the Holy Spirit is love. Love must motivate all things in my life as a Christian. I hope you will grow up to understand this and put it into practice.
Ultimately there are three gifts that last longer than all the others— faith, hope, and love, But I tell you that the greatest of these gifts is love.
- Without Love I Am Nothing (1-3)
In verses 1-3, Paul explains our need for love. Four times he says: “If I”. “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.” Some people are gifted with the ability to speak in tongues, whether human or divine. God has given gifts of tongues to the church so that the love of God may abound among them, as they hear the Gospel in languages of men and of angels. But usually this gift has been abused much in Christian history, and those who had it have made it very hard for those who don’t to feel as if something is still missing from their Christian lives. That’s not love at all. Worse yet, they have accused those who don’t even of not having salvation. That’s not love either. The Bible is clear about who has or who doesn’t have salvation. The dividing line is not whether one speaks in tongues or not, but whether one has made a confession of faith in Jesus. But when Christians discourage other Christians based on their lack of a gift, it is not love at all. Its bigotry, exclusivism and hypocrisy. Moreover it is a childish way of thinking, and incorrect for that matter. Paul says that their speaking in tongues ends up being just noise. Love demands that we encourage other Christians, honor and respect them, that they might delight in the Lord.
“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.” (2) Understanding the mysteries of the Bible is a great gift. It is given so that it may be used to expound the word of God, and reveal Jesus and his loving grace more fully. But to use that gift for one’s own purposes, to profit form it, or to associate only with those who have understanding is not love. Paul says that such a gift is nothing if one does not have love and in having love to share it with others. Paul was of the highest social cast in his time. And he had the gift to understand and expound on the mysteries of the Gospel. Some Jewish Christians withheld the Gospel from the Gentiles, but Paul freely shared the Gospel with Gentiles, even those of the lowest social cast. He did it with love, even if the Gentiles didn’t know the sacredness of these mysteries, he never stopped sharing the Gospel with them. That love is God’s love. It knows that a gift of understanding is worthless if it is not used to edify the church and bring them a better understanding of the Gospel of life.
“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (3) Possessions are dear to all people. It’s a hard thing for anyone to give away, especially from the little that one might have. How much harder it is to part with all that we have. Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts chapter 5, sold a field they owned and brought the proceeds to the church. But the Holy Spirit did not accept the gift because it was done for show and for recognition, and not out of love for those who really needed it. Some of the early church members sold everything they had and gave it away. But for the wrong reasons. It was done not with love but with a desire for glory. Jesus taught us that when we give we ought not let our right hand know what the left hand had given. (Matthew 6:3) That is love, because it is done with the Lord in mind, and with his shepherd heart to help those who are less fortunate. Paul even said that martyrdom is nothing if it is not done in love— Love for God and for the Gospel and even love for those who hurt Christians. How important and crucial it is for us to understand the motivation of love. To understand that whatever gifts we are given must be used with love. When Jesus gave his life, he did it not to gain some reward or recognition. He did it out of intense love for us.
- What Love Is (4-7)
How then to describe love, the love which should be the foundation of all that we do for the Lord?
First, love is patient. (4a). “Love is patient….” How patient has God been with each of us! In our past life where we sinned uncontrollably, he was patient with us. And in our Christian life, while we make our mistakes, fall into sin, do what we shouldn’t do, refuse to forgive others, in all this God is patient with us. Love is patient. In our shepherd lives, as we are called to care for his flock, love is crucial, and patience is that part of love which gives others room to grow healthy under the blessed hand of God.
Second, love is kind. (4a). “…love is kind.” Kindness is a great virtue, and a wondrous manifestation of real love— God’s love. It is so hard to bear with mean people, those who are constantly arrogant, always complaining, who are always ready to criticize one or another. It is always easier to be in conflict with them, and to put them in their place with a mean or cruel response. This happens a lot between husband and wife, and children and parents, and coworkers in the Christian life. But love calls us to be kind in all things. Kindness always finds its way into people’s heart. Jesus was never mean to anyone. He was always kind even to those who opposed him.
Third, what love is not. Let’s read verses 4b-5. “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” In the world, people who don’t think they have what others have envy them. They envy their lives and their lifestyles, and their possessions and all. But the Christian life has no room for envy. We believe that God is the maker of all things, and in his sovereignty has given us what we have in everything in our lives, be it an ability or a gift of the Holy Spirit. There is no envy in love. Rather love accepts what God has given us, as we accept what God has given others. To remain in this kind of love, one must remain in the God’s sovereignty. Also love does not boast. It is glad for what God has given it, but it does not boast about it in order to receive recognition. It does not boast about it lest it causes other Christians to envy. Love then is considerate. Love also has no room for pride. Pride is our enemy. Pride opposes everything that is good and godly. God wants us to be humble. Love is not proud but humble. It imitates Jesus whose humility won the hearts of all people. Love also is not rude. It deeply considers other’s feelings and situation in life, and does not despise them for what God has made them to be. Love is not rude but considerate and gentle towards all people, especially towards the family of Christ.
Love is also not self seeking. In the world, it is a good quality to be self seeking. One must do one’s best to better oneself and to secure what honors and privileges one can get. Parents urge their children to be self seeking, to rise in the ladder of success, to make a name for themselves. But the Christian love God. He or she know that while it is good to work hard, ultimately all work must be to the glory of God. A Christian knows that while it is good to strive for something, ultimately we trust that the good work God began in our lives, he will see to completion, whether it is God’s will that we become the president of the united states, or a local clerk in an office. Instead of self seeking, Love demands that we seek God and his glory, and in the process, to also seek the good of others for we are one family.
Love also is not easily angered. It is not sensitive to what others think of me. It is not easily irritated by all that happens around me. Love is gentle and kind, and understanding and tolerant of all things. Love understands the hearts of others, and does not judge them for what they say or do. It usually looks at the heart and sees the pain or struggle that often lets people behave strangely, or say the wrong thing. Jesus was like that. He never looked at Matthew’s tax collecting and money hungry occupation. He only looked at his heart and saw that he was a lonely man yearning to find peace with God and to do good for others. Love is not easily angered. And it does not keep a record of wrong. It is not ever waiting to point fingers and to expose the faults and mistakes of others. Love has a big heart, a forgiving heart, a heart big enough to embrace others with all their weaknesses as Jesus embraced it.
Fourth, “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (6). Christian say they love, but then engage in worldly activities, activities that harm the mind and soul of other people. That is not love. Love knows the difference between what is godly and what is ungodly. Love knows what damages the heart and soul of other people, and stays away from it. Lot thought that by living a carefree life among the unbelievers, he would show them the way to God. But instead of influencing them, they influenced him. Eventually he lost even the little faith that he had, and everything dear to him in life. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. Love knows that the ultimate truth is God’s truth, that besides the truth of God all truths are like lies or half truths. So love remains rooted in God and in his word, and in that way, it expresses the great act of love, the act of planting truth in another person’s heart. Love also does not side with one Christian against another, nor does it value one above the other. Nor does it criticize others. Love stands on the truth always. It stands with God.
Fifth, love always… (7). Look at verse 7. “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Jesus loved his disciples, and protected them even at the time he was taken to be crucified. He did not think of himself but of them, how to protect them from. He trusted them with the Gospel even when they were young and inexperienced. He hoped for them to the end to carry out the Gospel work after his departure. And he persevered with them as they grew and matured into the great apostles of the world. Love protects trusts and hope, and never gives up, that is the essence of love. Christians above all else must learn such love and take care of God’s work with utmost patience. Love always— always— Paul said.
- Love Never Fails (8-13)
Paul tells us that “Love never fails.” It is everlasting, in comparison to the spiritual gifts which are here today and gone tomorrow. They are only parts of the whole. They are faint glimpses, and imperfect, partial images. He tells us in verse 10 that perfection is coming. This means that Christ is coming to restore God’s perfect reign. Look at verse 13. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Faith and hope are very precious. Yet love is even more precious. Love is the foundation of faith and hope.
What has taken the love out of human beings who were originally created to love God and each other. Sin did that. But Jesus our Lord broke the chains of sin that kept us bound in all the bad elements of this world. Jesus broke the chain of selfishness, chains of indifference, chains of pride and of self love. He freed us through his death and resurrection form all these bonds, that we might be free to grow again in the Love of God, and he has given us the gift of love. Without this love circulating in our hearts and souls, we become miserable people always struggling on the bottom of all that is meant to be truly human and blessed by God. Our aim must be to take this love he has given us, and exercise it all the time— always. May God bless you with the best gift of all, that of Love. May you love God with all your hearts, and love others as God has loved you. Amen.