27. What Is This Thing Called Love? (1 Cor. 13:1-13)
1 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. 2 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. 3 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.
4 Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
11 When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I love one particular scene in the movie, “Crocodile Dundee.” A folk hero from the outback country of Australia, Crocodile Dundee visits New York City for the first time. While accompanied by a female newspaper writer, he finds himself cornered by a gang of young thugs. When Dundee does not immediately produce his wallet, one young hoodlum pulls out a switchblade and threatens Crocodile Dundee. Nonplused by such aggression, Crocodile simply reaches behind his back with the words, “That’s not a knife,” suddenly producing the largest knife I have ever seen, “This is a knife!” Quickly disarmed, the hoodlums run for their lives.
As I read the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, I see Paul somewhat like Crocodile Dundee. His words seem to say, “That’s not love … this is love!” I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe the Corinthians deliberately chose to abandon Christian love. I believe they are so caught up in certain spiritual gifts that they have unconsciously abandoned true love. They are something like Samson after Delilah cuts his hair. Samson leaps to his feet, fully expecting to be able to handle the Philistines, not knowing that God’s power has departed (see Judges 16:18-21). The Corinthian church is like the church at Ephesus which had lost its first love (Revelation 2:1-7).
This thirteenth chapter of the Book of 1 Corinthians is about love. Since few subjects are more important, let me remind you of some of the reasons love holds such importance.
(1) The whole Old Testament Law is summed up by the one word, “love” (see Leviticus 19:17-18; Matthew 19:19).
(2) Love sums up the Christian’s responsibilities in the New Testament (Romans 13:9).
(3) Love is the capstone, the crowning virtue, the consummation of all other virtues (Galatians 5:22-23; 2 Peter 1:5-7; Colossians 3:12-14).
(4) Love is the goal of Paul’s instruction (1 Timothy 1:5).
(5) Love is the distinguishing mark of the true Christian (John 13:35).
(6) Without love, the value of spiritual gifts is greatly diminished (1 Corinthians 12:1-3).
(7) Love is greater than any of the spiritual gifts and is even greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13).
(8) Love endures suffering under persecution, and Christians will be persecuted (Matthew 24:10; 2 Timothy 3:12).
(9) Love is easily lost, without one’s even being aware of it (Revelation 2:1-7).
(10) Love is misunderstood and distorted by the unbelieving world. Recently, an acquaintance handed me a copy of Betty J. Eadie’s best seller, Embraced by the Light. In her book, which is dedicated “To the Light, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom I owe all that I have,” Betty Eadie speaks of her early childhood, when she was raised by Catholic nuns and later the Wesleyan Methodist Brainard Indian Training School. She was taught that she was a sinner and that God would punish sinners for all eternity. However, as a result of an “after death” experience, she came to view God in an entirely different way. She now sees God as a warm and “loving” God, for whom such things as hell and eternal torment are abhorrent. There are many who wish this view of God were true. Unfortunately, Betty Eadie’s definition of God’s love sets aside the biblical declarations that God sent His beloved Son to die for our sins and to suffer God’s divine wrath so sinners could be saved. Love then is something everyone talks about, but about which they know little.
(11) Love is vitally important to Christians, for it should govern our relationships with other Christians, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. In the Corinthian church of Paul’s day, and in the evangelical church of our own day, strong polarization exists between charismatic Christians and non-charismatic Christians. Listen to these words by D. A. Carson:
In the entire range of contemporary Christian theology and personal experience, few topics are currently more important than those associated with what is now commonly called “the charismatic movement. … As the charismatic movement has grown, so also has it become more diversified, thereby rendering many generalizations about it remarkably reductionistic. But it is probably fair to say that both charismatics and noncharismatics (if I may continue to use those terms in non-biblical ways) often cherish neat stereotypes of the other party. As judged by the charismatics, non-charismatics tend to be stodgy traditionalists who do not really believe the Bible and who are not really hungry for the Lord. They are afraid of profound spiritual experience, too proud to give themselves wholeheartedly to God, more concerned for ritual than for reality, and more in love with propositional truth than with the truth incarnate. They are better at writing theological tomes than at evangelism; they are defeatist in outlook, defensive in stance, dull in worship, and devoid of the Spirit’s power in their personal experience. The noncharismatics themselves, of course, tend to see things a little differently. The charismatics, they think, have succumbed to the modern love of ‘experience,’ even at the expense of truth. Charismatics are thought to be profoundly unbiblical, especially when they elevate their experience of tongues to the level of theological and spiritual shibboleth. If they are growing, no small part of their strength can be ascribed to their raw triumphalism, their populist elitism, their promise of short cuts to holiness and power. They are better at splitting churches and stealing sheep than they are at evangelism, more accomplished in spiritual one-upmanship before other believers than in faithful, humble service. They are imperialistic in outlook (only they have the ‘full gospel’), abrasive in stance, uncontrolled in worship, and devoid of any real grasp of the Bible that goes beyond mere proof-texting.
Of course, both sides concede that the caricatures I have drawn admit notable exceptions; but the profound suspicions on both sides make genuine dialogue extremely difficult. This is especially painful, indeed embarrassing, in the light of the commitment made by most believers on both sides to the Bible’s authority.167
But, while all Christians now share in the “unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3; compare 4:5; 2:14-22; 1 Corinthians 12:13), we do not all share in the “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13). This is because we only “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). We Christians disagree, in part at least, because our knowledge is partial and incomplete. We tend to disagree over those things we do not fully know, even though we may believe we do know. Love is the means God provided for us to live in harmony and unity, even though there is a diversity of doctrine in matters which are not fundamental. Paul’s instruction on love then becomes absolutely vital to our Christian walk and to our Christian unity.
One more thing must be said about our study of “love,” and I will again quote D. A. Carson as he has said it better than I could:
Before going on, we must pause to ask what is distinctive about Christian love, and to recognize firmly that the meaning of love described in this chapter is not intrinsic to the noun … (agape) or its cognate verb … (agapao). Of course, this verdict is contrary to popular opinion, which often suggests that this word is chosen in the Scriptures over other words for ‘love’ because only this word group captures the determined love of God that seeks the other’s good. Linguistically that is not true: the development of the various terms for love has been well and amusingly chronicled by Joly, and cannot be retraced here. In the Septuagint, if Amnon incestuously loves his half-sister Tamar, the verb can be … (agapao; 2 Sam. 13:1). In John’s Gospel, we are twice told that the Father loves the Son: one passage using … (agapao) and the other … (philio; John 3:35; 5:20 respectively). When he details that Demas has forsaken him because he loved this world, Paul does not think it inappropriate to use the verb … (agapao; 2 Timothy 4:10). These examples could be multiplied. My point is simply that there is nothing intrinsic to a particular word group that makes its version of love particularly divine. On the other hand, that is far from saying that there is nothing distinctive about God’s love or about Christian love. There is; but if we want to discover what that difference is, we shall find it less in a distinctive semantic range of a particular word group than in the descriptions and characteristics of love given in the Scriptures.168
Dr. Paige Patterson adds another profitable comment:
Careful scholarly analysis of the concept of love, for example, benefits the church. Such arduous research and thought will inevitably enhance our understanding of the nature of God’s love and the love required of believers. But even in the absence of such noble research, an obvious sense of the nature of love can hardly be missed by even a cursory reading of the Bible.169
There are times when the study of Scripture from the original languages is profitable. But in many cases, a less sophisticated study of an English word, like love (or a biblical doctrine or concept) can be just as profitable. The same can be said for systematic theology. At times, distinguishing fine subtleties may have real value, but the truth of God’s Word was not written for the academic elite; it was written for every Christian. The most important truths should be very clear to all believers, and those subtleties recognized only by the scholarly are probably not earthshaking in their significance. The ability to be able to use the original languages or to delve into theological mysteries, may, in the minds of some, be like possessing the “best” spiritual gifts. The possessor of that gift can become puffed up with pride and have a sense of disdain for the unscholarly (see John 7:45-49), and it may also cause the non-scholar to feel that personal Bible study is futile. This is simply not the case. Carson, a very fine scholar, points out that while the Bible does give us a very full description and definition of love, it will not be found by restricting our study to just one of the Greek (or Hebrew) words for love. To understand biblical love, one needs to look to the teaching of the Bible as a whole on this subject.
I am going to the extreme in saying all of this because of the many times I have heard preachers and teachers say, “To understand love, one must realize there are three Greek words employed for love, yet only one of those words refers to the kind of love which God requires of us.” As Carson points out, this is simply not the case.
Paul’s approach to teaching us about love is very different. He does not instruct us about the importance of distinguishing between Greek words for love. He begins in verses 1-3 by showing that spiritual gifts have only minimal value, unless they are exercised in love. In verses 4-7, Paul does not attempt to give us a very technical definition of love; instead, he describes love in a way which makes it very clear what biblical love looks like. And his description makes it glaringly evident that the Corinthians have indeed lost their first love, even more quickly than the Ephesian saints (compare Revelation 2:1-7). If verses 4-7 contrast the behavior of true love with the conduct of the Corinthians, verses 8-13 contrast love with all spiritual gifts, showing that while all of the spiritual gifts are temporary, Christian love is eternal, outlasting even faith and hope. If we measure the value of something by how long it lasts, love comes out on top. Love is the “better way” (see 12:31).
The Importance of Love
in Relation to Spiritual Gifts
1 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. 2 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. 3 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.
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.170 To press the hypothetical dimension even further, it seems clear that Paul is using hyperbole here.171 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 … .”172 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.
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.173 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? I actually can because one of our neighbors had a son who played the drums. Hour after agonizing hour we heard those drums pounding away, and, it was unpleasant, to say the least. 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.
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.
Luke 7:36-50 illustrates this truth. There, everybody who was considered important seems to have gathered at the dinner Jesus attended at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A woman regarded as a “nobody” came, uninvited, and washed the feet of our Lord. Simon the Pharisee took note and, in his heart, thought less of Jesus because He allowed this woman to touch him. He thought, “If Jesus knew who she was and what a sinner she was, He would have nothing to do with her.” But Jesus turned the tables. This woman went away forgiven and saved. She who was a “nobody” was a “somebody” in the kingdom of God, simply because she loved her Lord. The one who was least, but loved, was the greatest. Those who were the greatest, without love, were the least.
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.
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.
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.
In verse 1, Paul speaks of the loveless exercise of the ultimate gift of tongues, showing that it would not edify others but irritate them. In verse 2, Paul speaks of the ultimate gifts of prophecy and faith, saying these gifts, exercised without love, leave one worthless. In verse 3, Paul speaks of the ultimate sacrifices made without love, showing that these sacrifices did not benefit the giver. However, others may benefit from my “loveless” sacrifices. The Ninevites were saved, whether Jonah loved them or not. They benefited from his ministry even though that surely was not his intention. The hungry may eat because I have given away all my possessions. But such acts of sacrifice do not really benefit me.
Benefits and blessings may occur through the loveless exercise of spiritual gifts, but these benefits are greatly reduced when love is lacking. And so in these first three verses of chapter 13, Paul shows the importance of love. The Corinthians are obsessed with the value of spiritual gifts, equating the social status of the gift with the significance of the one who possesses it. Paul seeks to elevate love, the fruit of the Spirit, above the gifts of the Spirit. Did the Corinthians think themselves spiritual because they possess seemingly important spiritual gifts? In verses 4-7, Paul shows that the measure of a man or woman of God is not determined by the gift(s) they possess, but by the love they practice in the exercise of those gifts.
What Love Is Like
4 Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul declines giving a technical definition of love; instead, he provides us with a description of love, one especially pertinent to the Corinthians. The first two statements describing love in verse 4 are general. Paul then advances to things not characteristic of love. These just happen to be some of the characteristics of the Corinthian saints. Finally, Paul concludes in verse 7 with four characteristics of love, none of which are selective or partial. The Corinthians’ conduct in these areas was partial and incomplete. And so in these four verses, we learn what love is like, and we also learn that the Corinthians are seriously lacking in love.
Two Characteristics of Love
Love Is Patient
Paul begins his description of love in verse 4 with the words, “Love is patient.” The King James Version renders it “suffereth long” (“suffers long,” NKJV). W. E. Vine indicates that longsuffering is the most frequent meaning of the term in the Bible, and he distinguishes “longsuffering” from “patience” in this way:
Longsuffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger, and is associated with mercy, and is used of God, Ex. 34:6 (Sept.); Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:20. Patience is the quality that does not surrender to circumstances or succumb under trial; it is the opposite of despondency and is associated with hope, 1 Thessalonians 1:3; it is not used of God.174
Leon Morris adds this comment: “First, love is long-suffering. The word Paul uses indicates having patience with people rather than with circumstances (as William Barclay notes). In fact, Paul’s word is the opposite of ‘short-tempered,’ it means—if we may invent a word—‘long-tempered.’”175
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:4, Matthew Henry says of the term longsuffering:
It can endure evil, injury, and provocation, without being filled with resentment, indignation, or revenge. It makes the mind firm, gives it power over the angry passions, and furnishes it with a persevering patience, that shall rather wait and wish for the reformation of a brother than fly out in resentment of his conduct. It will put up with many slights and neglects from the person it loves, and wait long to see the kindly effects of such patience on him.176
We should not be surprised to find that God is described by the term “longsuffering”:
6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6).
4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? (Romans 9:22)
16 And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:16).
20 Who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water (1 Peter 3:20).
9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. … 15 and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you (2 Peter 3:9, 15).
David exemplifies longsuffering. King Saul persistently seeks to kill David, once he knows he will someday replace him as king of Israel. David not only endures this persecution graciously, refusing to take the king’s life when given the chance, he actively seeks to do good to Saul. David is both longsuffering and kind.
For the Christian, longsuffering is not optional. Longsuffering is named as one of the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). We are commanded to be “patient” or to manifest “longsuffering” toward others:
2 With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love (Ephesians 4:2).
14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
The Corinthians must have cringed as they read these words since they clearly fell far short of what God required of them regarding longsuffering. The Corinthians found it unbearable to wait for those who could not arrive before they started to eat the meal at the church’s weekly gathering. Paul had to command them to wait for one another. Had love been present in Corinth, it would have prompted them to wait (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). And when one Corinthian Christian irritated another, the response was, “I’ll see you in court!” (see chapter 6). This is not patience!
Before we begin to feel too smug, we are not doing all that well either. Christians in our part of the world are not inclined to endure ill-treatment from anyone. How often do you hear, “I wouldn’t put up with that!” Putting up with ill treatment is what longsuffering is all about. We are to put up with one another: “Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:13). We should silently endure ill treatment from unbelievers and believers alike, even as our Lord did (1 Peter 2:18ff.; see also Matthew 17:17; Acts 13:18). Let us not forget all that Paul put up with from the Corinthians (see 4:6-21).
James Dobson wrote a book on the subject of “tough love,” an expression I hear often these days. Certainly there is a need for tough love in the sense that we must “get tough” with those whom we love, like our children and other family members. I would suggest we also need another kind of tough love. We personally need the kind of love which makes us tough enough to handle the grief others give us. Years ago a man preparing for the ministry shared with me a bit of advice someone had given him: “Brother,” he said, “if you’re going to minister in these circles, you’d better have rhinoceros hide.” He was right. We do need to be thick-skinned when it comes to the hurts others impose on us. Christians are so thin-skinned and touchy they fall apart at a raised eyebrow. Let’s get tough, so we can suffer long at the hands of others and thereby demonstrate Christian love.
The word “abuse” is one of the great “excuse” words of our day. Let me be very clear that there are certain kinds of abuse no one should put up with, such as sexual abuse. However, the categories of abuse seem to multiply daily. For example, there is verbal abuse and mental abuse. But now, Christians seem to think that whenever the “abuse” word arises, every Scriptural command is put into a different category, one which does not apply. Turning the other cheek is out because that would be tolerating physical abuse. And yet Peter speaks of our Lord’s silent enduring of verbal abuse as a pattern for all Christians (1 Peter 2:18-25). On and on it goes, but somewhere Christians must make up their minds to suffer at least certain kinds of abuse from others. In a day when our individual rights seem to have the highest level of priority, longsuffering does not seem to be a very popular characteristic, and yet it is one of two terms Paul uses to sum up the conduct of love.
Love Is Kind
If longsuffering (or patience) is the passive side of love, kindness is the active side. Kindness is: “… a word suggesting goodness as well as solicitousness. They are interested in true goodness, actively interested in the welfare of those about them. Obviously these people are doers; they do not claim good intentions but then plead helplessness because of weakness or apathy.”
Kindness is the opposite of “having a chip on one’s shoulder.”177 A chip on one’s shoulder predisposes one to hostile action with only the slightest provocation. But kindness in one’s heart predisposes one to helpful action which only requires the hint of a need before it takes action. The “good Samaritan” did not need to be prodded into action nor did he seek to find a “way of escape” from his obligation as a neighbor. When he saw the man lying in the road in need, he willingly did all in his means to help (Luke 10:30-37).
David is one of the most striking examples of kindness. He loves Jonathan, one of his closest friends. After Jonathan dies, David wishes to demonstrate his love toward his deceased friend. Since Jonathan is dead, the only way to show kindness to Jonathan is through his offspring. David is delighted when he is informed that Jonathan has a living heir. His surviving son, Mephibosheth, is crippled in both feet. In one sense, this is even better for David’s purposes, because this man’s handicap presents a need David can meet. By David’s decree, Mephibosheth would now eat regularly at the king’s table (2 Samuel 9). David’s love manifests itself in kindness, a predisposition to do good to others.
Kindness is characteristic of God and should thus characterize the Christian as well:
35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men (Luke 6:35).
4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
7 In order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).
32 And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).
4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).
24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged (2 Timothy 2:24).
8 To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit (1 Peter 3:8).
The Christian is commanded to be kind (Ephesians 4:32), and thus, failing to show kindness is disobedience. Kindness is also a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Paul reminds the Corinthians of the kindness which he manifested toward them even though they were unkind to him (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13). Kindness was surely lacking in the Corinthian church.
Kindness is not the spirit which produces strife and divisions in the church (chapters 1-3). It was not the response of many Corinthians toward Paul or the other true apostles (chapter 4). It surely was not kindness that caused the church to embrace a man living in sin (chapter 5). Neither is it kindness which compels two believers to square off with each other in a secular law court (chapter 6). Kindness does not cause one spouse to withhold sex from the other (chapter 7). Kindness did not prompt one believer to assert his or her alleged rights to the detriment of another (chapter 8). It was not kindness that motivated some Corinthians to indulge themselves before their brethren arrive (chapter 11). Nor did kindness make one believer look down upon the gifts of another (chapter 12) or cause certain individuals to assert themselves in the church meeting for their own personal gain (chapter 14). When the Corinthian saints are described, kindness is not the first word which pops into one’s mind!
According to Paul, love is demonstrated by two general characteristics: (1) longsuffering in the face of adverse treatment by others and (2) kindness toward those who abuse us. Longsuffering endures ill treatment without responding in a retaliatory fashion, and kindness seeks to do good to those who delight to cause us harm. That is what love is like. Now, in the second half of verse 4 through verse 6, Paul lets us know what love is not like. If these characteristics exist in Corinth—or in our church—we need to confess our lack of love.
Love Is Not Jealous178
My wife and I were driving in our Pinto station wagon one day when a flashy Corvette pulled up along side us as at a traffic light. Instinctively, I knew what he was about to do. He would gun his engine, catapult past me, and then cut into my lane in front of me. This was not a spiritual moment for me. I gave that Pinto everything it had, and more, and my performance was pathetic. As the Corvette shot by, cut in front of me, and sped on, my wife turned with a gentle rebuke, “You were racing him, weren’t you?” “Yes,” I admitted, “and the worst of it is that he never even knew it.”
I was jealous of the man who drove that car. There I was in my puny Pinto, and there he was in his sporty Vette. At the very least, I would have enjoyed watching him get pulled over for speeding, while I drove by smiling in my gasping Pinto, still not even up to the speed limit. That, my friend, is jealousy. Jealousy is a term which conveys “earnest desire.” It can be a good desire or a bad desire. In our text, the desire is bad. We might define jealousy here as “a sadness or sorrow on my part, due to the success of another.” Jealousy causes me pain when someone else feels pleasure. It is the kind of feeling a person feels when his or her competitor wins.
Perhaps it is the feeling a Miss America Pageant contestant has when, as one of the top finalists, she hears the girl standing next to her pronounced “Miss America.” Both girls, not to mention their parents, have sacrificed many years for this moment. Music lessons, diets, exercise, contests, clothes have all played a significant part in her life. She has made many sacrifices to win this coveted title, only to have the girl next to her win. All the other contestants manage the semblance of a smile on their face and kiss the winner, but it is hard to believe there is not the feeling of jealousy, a regret that the other person has succeeded, at their expense.
Asaph confesses his jealousy of his fellow Israelites in Psalm 73, and David warns of being jealous of the wicked in Psalm 37:1. Cain is jealous of Abel’s acceptance (Genesis 4:1-8), and Haman is jealous of Mordecai’s success (Esther 6). Saul is jealous of David and his success (1 Samuel 18:7), so much so that he seeks to kill him. The scribes and Pharisees are jealous of Jesus’ popularity and power over the people (Matthew 27:18). Peter is concerned about John’s fate in comparison with his own (John 21).
Jealousy is incompatible with love for a very good reason. Love seeks the benefit and well-being (edification) of another, so much so that it is willing to make a personal sacrifice to facilitate it. When others prosper at our expense, this is precisely what love intends. Jealousy is not consistent with love. Jealousy would rather prosper at the expense of the other, and so when another prospers, jealousy results where love is absent.
The gospel is the supreme example of love, in contrast to jealousy. God made the ultimate sacrifice in the death of His Son, to bring about our salvation. The Lord Jesus sacrificed Himself for our salvation, paying the ultimate price His own blood. If this kind of sacrifice was required to bring about our salvation, how can we regret God’s blessing on others? Ironically, because Christians are a part of the body of Christ, the prosperity of one member is not at the expense of the rest of the body, but for the benefit of the whole body (see 1 Corinthians 12:26).
Someone might protest, “But isn’t God jealous? Why can’t Christians be jealous if God is a jealous God?” There is a great difference between our jealousy and God’s. God is jealous over that which belongs to Him. We are jealous over that which belongs to someone else and not to us. God is jealous over what He has; we are jealous over what we do not have that someone else does have. There are times when we can exemplify godly jealousy (see 2 Corinthians 11:2), but this is not what Paul has in mind in our text.
Jealousy is quite prevalent in the church at Corinth. The Corinthians are jealous of the gifts and ministries of their fellow-believers. Some despise their own gifts and calling and wish to have the gifts and ministries of others. They seem to be jealous of those visible and verbal ministries. They even seem to be jealous of Paul’s time which he spends in ministry to others. In both 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul has to speak to the issue of his absence which some seemed to resent: “If Paul really cared about us, he would spend more time with us.”
Sadly, Christians today manifest the same kinds of jealousy. We are jealous of the (apparent) success of others in business and in the church. Some can be jealous of those who are given a leadership position in the church. We can be jealous of those who appear to be (or at least claim to be) more spiritual than we are. I see a great deal of jealousy in the ministry. We may be jealous of the success of others in ministry, of their radio ministry, or the opportunity to speak in the Bible conference circuit. We may be jealous of the salary, the prestige, or the size of church others might have. All of this betrays a lack of love and the sacrificing, servant spirit which love engenders.
Jealousy may be among us in other ways. First, we may be guilty of provoking people to jealousy by distorting the gospel which we preach and share with others. Consider these words of the apostle Paul:
3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. 6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment (1 Timothy 6:3-6).
Paul specifically identifies envy as one of the evils in this text (verse 4). I believe Paul establishes a connection between envy and greed and a distorted gospel. People may come into (or at least along side) the faith because they are given false expectations of what their conversion will produce. Some approach the Christian faith as a means of “getting ahead” in life, seeing the gospel as a “means of great gain.” This is certainly possible when one listens to the “health-and-wealth gospeleers” who abound today, trying to lure people into the faith (or into their congregations or list of supporters) by promising them prosperity if they join their ranks.
When Jesus invited men to follow Him, He did not make sweeping promises of prosperity. Instead, He sought to dispel any misconceptions about His ministry by stressing discipleship and its cost, and by talking in terms of “taking up one’s cross.” Some in churches today who envy the success of others may have been tempted to do so by those who promised them prosperity rather than the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Let us preach the gospel as Jesus did and never seek to lure people into the faith with unbiblical bait (see 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2).
Second, we should view the “how to” books on Christian bookstore shelves in the light of jealousy. Why do those who are apparently successful write books so the rest of us can be successful too? Why are the “how to be successful” books so popular, outselling books of real substance and value? I fear that the answer is “jealousy.” As we buy or read these books, why do we wish to be “successful” like the author? Perhaps it is because we are hopeful of the same success.
Buying or reading “how to be successful like me” books can be wrong for several reasons. We must carefully consider whether we are doing so out of jealousy (of that person’s success) rather than out of a sincere desire to be faithful to our Lord and good stewards of our gifts and calling. It is also wrong if we are trying to be just like someone else, to duplicate their ministry rather than to fulfill the unique role God has given us. It may be wrong because we assume that another’s success is the result of their “method,” rather than the sovereign blessing of God upon His work. Let us beware of trying to imitate others to be as successful as they appear to be.
Love Is Not Arrogant and Does Not Boast
Arrogance and boasting are the reverse side of the coin. Jealousy is my sinful response to the prosperity of others. Arrogance and boasting are my sinful response to my own prosperity. Arrogance (or pride) takes credit for my “success,” as though it were due to my own merit or superior efforts. Boasting is letting other people know about my success in a way that tempts others to be jealous of that success.
Arrogance and boasting are not Christian virtues; humility is a virtue. Arrogance is a character trait of Satan. In Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, political potentates are rebuked for their arrogance in a way that suggests a close kinship to Satan himself. It is not possible to take pride in that which we are given, apart from merit or works. We cannot boast or take credit for the gift of salvation, and neither do we dare be proud of our spiritual gifts or ministries: “For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Grace pulls the rug out from under pride and boasting. Paul once took great pride in his performance as a Pharisee, but not after he was saved. As a Christian, Paul saw his contribution to the work of God in a new light:
1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; 3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, 4 although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:1-10).
Our calling in this life is not to “enter into the glory” of our Lord, the glory yet to come; rather, we are to enter into His sufferings:
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. 25 Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29 And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Colossians 1:24-29).
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
The Corinthians were arrogant179 (1 Corinthians 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1; 2 Corinthians 12:20) and boastful (1 Corinthians 1:29, 31; 3:21; 4:7; 5:6; 9:15-16; 15:31; 2 Corinthians 7:4, 14; 8:24; 9:2-3; 10:8, 13, 15-17; 11:10, 12, 16-18, 30; 12:1, 5-6, 9). But how does pride and boasting manifest itself in the church—our church—today? Let me suggest some areas where pride might be found.
Pride and boasting are found wherever the most coveted gifts and ministries are present. People who mean well may compliment those with outstanding gifts, and their words may become flattery; the thoughts of those so praised may produce arrogance. One area of pride is the family. Those who may have prayerfully and diligently (though not infallibly) sought to raise their children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) may be broken-hearted because of the outcome, at least as judged at the moment. And those whose children appear to have turned out “right” may, without knowing it, be inclined to take credit for these results. In truth, good parenting is never a guarantee of good children. God is sovereign in the election and salvation of our children, and He is under no obligation to save them because of any work or merit on our part. When our children walk with the Lord, it is solely due to the grace of God and not to our good parenting. We, as parents, are obligated to be faithful in the rearing of our children, just as we are to be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. But faithful parenting, like faithful proclamation, does not assure us of the results.
The most pious forms of pride and boasting seemingly give God the credit for our works. I have heard preachers say: “I have learned how easy it is to evangelize (or whatever) through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Evangelism is not easy; it is impossible! We cannot convince or convert anyone; this is God’s work, for it is He who opens men’s hearts and gives them faith to believe (see Acts 13:48; 16:14). How subtle the sin when we praise God in a way that reflects well on us.
Many of us have discovered that we have nothing worth boasting about in ourselves. We know we are not the Billy Grahams or the Chuck Swindolls of Christendom. But we nevertheless find ways to boast in a second-hand manner. The Corinthians, for example, boasted in their leaders: “I am of Paul, Apollos, …” etc. We can do the same: “I go to _________’s church.” Or we can boast in our church or denomination: “I go to a New Testament church that teaches the Bible.” “Our church is serious about Bible study or Bible doctrine.” “Our church believes and teaches the full gospel.” Many of these statements may be desirable and even true, but our attitude can be one of pride, our speech boasting.
Advertising is yet another difficult area. I have yet to hear a radio commercial for a church that says anything negative about that church. Can you imagine hearing a local Christian station advertisement: “We are nothing really special. We are not all that successful. In fact, our membership has declined over the past ten years, our budget has slipped, we are giving less to missions, and we’re becoming liberal in our theology.” Our Christian radio station advertisements offer invitations to attend the church where “things are happening,” where “the Lord is at work,” where “the Spirit of God is blessing as never before … .” If we were to believe our own publicity, we would be proud, and if we actually advertise in this way, we are boasting. Jesus never found it necessary to send a promotional team ahead of Him, to have radio spots, full-page advertisements, or other propaganda devices. In fact, Jesus often commanded those for whom He did miracles to keep quiet about them and not to advertise Him. Would that the power of God were so evident in the church today that no advertising would be needed.
Love Does Not Behave Badly (Act Unbecomingly)180
Parenting today seems to operate on just the opposite premise as that set down here by the apostle Paul. Many parents seem to think that in order to be loving parents they must tolerate bad behavior from their children rather than insist on good behavior. Children throw screaming fits, and parents helplessly shrug their shoulders, as though they were powerless to change things and as though they have forgotten what Proverbs says about disciplining a child. Wives and husbands seem to think that if their mate really loves them, they will put up with their bad behavior. Paul turns the tables. He informs us that love requires us not to behave badly.
The Corinthians are not behaving themselves very well. There are divisions and factions. There is immorality, even such that pagans are shocked (chapter 5). There are lawsuits (chapter 6), and some are actually participating in heathen idol worship celebrations (chapters 8-10). Some Corinthians are not waiting for the rest, before they begin to observe the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11). All in all, the Corinthians are behaving badly. This is not what love is all about. Love is about behaving in an appropriate manner. It is about conduct befitting the circumstance. The Book of Proverbs has a great deal to say on this subject of appropriate behavior.
I cannot go on without pointing out some ways Christians behave badly, all in the name of “spirituality.” Often “spiritual considerations” become our “lion in the road,” not only excusing bad behavior, but, in our minds, demanding it.181 One way is found in evangelism. Many of us use the gospel as an excuse to be pushy or overly aggressive with others. We confront, buttonhole, badger and bully others, all in the name of soul-winning. Who can fault the faithful “soul-winner”? But Jesus never intruded, never forced Himself upon an unwilling, uninterested victim. Soul-winning is no excuse for running over people rough shod so we can put another notch on our evangelistic gun: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6).
Being “Spirit-led” is another pretext for bizarre behavior. Not long ago I received a phone call from someone very early in the morning, who told me the phones were not supposed to be used at that hour and were normally turned off. Since this person had gone to the phone and found it working, they just “knew” this was the Holy Spirit telling them to call me. Much of the conduct of the Corinthians in the church meeting was not Spirit-led but merely compulsive self-assertion. Let us never blame God for our bad behavior, and if we are those who truly do love God and others, let us not act badly, whether excused by pious language or not. Love does not act unbecomingly. Love is that kind of conduct which is winsome, which draws people to us, and which prompts them to ask us about our faith (see 1 Peter 3:13-15).
Love Is Not Self-Centered (Does Not Seek Its Own)
Love is not self-seeking or self-serving. Morris explains this characteristic in this way:
… love ‘does not seek its own,’ which might be understood to mean ‘Love is not selfish’ (so the TEV has it), or ‘does not insist on its own way’ (the RSV). Though these two things are different, they are both born of self-centeredness—and it is this that love rules out. Love is concerned with the well being of the loved ones, not with its own welfare.182
I like what Fee has to say about this characteristic of love:
This is the fifth consecutive item that specifically echoes earlier parts of the letter, this time 10:24 and 33. … In some ways this is the fullest expression of what Christian love is all about. It does not seek its own; it does not believe that ‘finding oneself’ is the highest good; it is not enamored with self-gain, self-justification, or self-worth. To the contrary, it seeks the good of one’s neighbor—or enemy (cf. Phil. 2:4).183
The Corinthians are completely self-absorbed. They measure themselves by their gifts and ministries and do not think of themselves as a part of the body of Christ. They have marvelous “self-esteem,” but they disdain Paul and the other apostles (see chapter 4). They are so self-centered they are willing to demand the freedom to practice their alleged liberties, even if it destroys a weaker brother (chapter 8). They assert themselves in the church meeting with little or no regard for others and for edification.
The church of our day is hardly different. The word “self” is found often on the lips of professing Christians. We are told that our first priority is to love ourselves so that we can then love others. My friend, that is not only unbiblical, it is illogical and foolish. How can we be so gullible as to embrace this kind of error? Love is a matter of prioritizing. I am to love God above any and all others; He has first priority. I am to love my wife above all mankind, just as Christ has set His love on His church. I am to love my neighbor and even my enemy. That is, I am to put the interests of others above my own (see Philippians 2:1-8). If I love myself first, I cannot love my neighbor, because loving my neighbor means putting him first. I am to love my neighbor as myself; that is, I am to love my neighbor in the same ways I find it natural to love myself (see Ephesians 5:28-30).
Some Christians see self-love for what it is, but there are other forms of self-absorption, and some people are self-centered in other ways. Some put themselves first by continually leveling blame or guilt toward themselves, rather than accepting and appropriating God’s forgiving grace. Others wallow in the mired waters of self-pity, constantly meditating on the ways others have abused them. Any preoccupation with self is self-centered and contrary to the way of love. Let us not forget that ours is the way of the cross; the Christian life is about dying daily and the mortification of the flesh. Too many Christians try to coddle that which needs to be crucified.
Love Is Not Provoked184
This Greek term, rendered “provoked” in the NASB, is used in Hosea 8:5 and Zechariah 10:3 to depict provocation to anger. The term is by no means used only with a negative connotation. In Acts 17:16, it describes how Paul’s spirit is so provoked within him that he begins to preach to the idol-worshiping inhabitants of Athens. In Hebrews 10:24, the writer urges the saints to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” Here in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the term to describe a short-fused person who is easily and quickly provoked to take action which is not edifying to either party. Love does not “blow its cork,” “lose its cool,” or “blow a fuse.” Love does not have a chip on its shoulder, looking for some tiny straw of offense so it can ventilate all its anger and hostility.
The Corinthians are obviously provoked in a number of areas. Some are provoked enough to take their brethren to court (chapter 6). Others seem provoked to divorce their mates (chapter 7). Still others are provoked to go on ahead with the Lord’s Supper without waiting for all to arrive (chapter 11). Often today, Christians are provoked by minor offenses and leave the church or take some form of retaliatory action. Some are provoked by their mates and act in a destructive way to their marriage. Parents may be provoked by their children or children by their parents (see Ephesians 6:4). There are all too many abusive parents or mates, whose explosive anger cannot be predicted or avoided but only dreaded.
Having warned of being very careful about becoming too quickly provoked, I must add that some saints really need to get upset about what they see. In the supermarket, and even in the church, I see children throwing temper tantrums while their parents look on helplessly as though they can do nothing. There is something they can do, and if they cannot remember what it is, I suggest they read the Book of Proverbs. We ought to be angered at sin, but in our anger, we should act appropriately and not explosively (see Ephesians 4:26). There is a time for righteous indignation, but let us be certain it is truly righteous wrath and not just human anger with a pious label:
19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).
13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:13-18).
Love Does Not Keep Notes on Past Offenses
Paul tells us that love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.” I like what Morris writes on this point: “Paul’s next point is that love does not, so to speak, go around with a little black book making a note of every evil thing. ‘Love keeps no score of wrongs,’ says Paul (the NEB translation). We find it hard to forget it when people offend us, often storing up such grievances.’”185 Some saints seem to have photographic memories when it comes to offenses against them. One little irritation brings to mind an entire file of previous offenses, carefully annotated and documented. This kind of mental bookkeeping186 only serves to fuel resentment and certainly does not facilitate true reconciliation.
Love Does Not Rejoice in Unrighteousness,
but Rejoices187 With the Truth
Finding out what a person enjoys—what gives them pleasure and causes them to rejoice—may be very revealing about the character of that person. All too often, I find myself enjoying something not really righteous. For example, an off-color joke may be funny or enjoyable—but not righteous. Paul says love looks to the truth of God’s Word (and secondarily to truth in general) to define that which it can enjoy, that over which it can rejoice.
Secular entertainment offers a good illustration; many movies set us up to take pleasure in that which is not righteous. Often the villain is characterized by incredible violence and cruelty. All through the movie, he does things designed to cause us to hate him with a passion. We don’t want him to be caught and sent to prison. We don’t want him to be convicted and given the death penalty. We want this person to die in the worst conceivable way. And so, in the end, the individual gets his reward, dying the most painful, violent death the film writer can conceive. And we find ourselves watching this man die with great pleasure, rejoicing in that which is far from righteous.
Christians reject a great many movies for explicit sex, violence, or filthy language, and rightly so. But these blatantly offensive or evil films tend to desensitize us toward films which are evil in a more subtle way. We breathe a sigh of relief when we find a movie with a “G” or perhaps a “PG” rating. Here is a movie we can take the family to see. But some of these movies may tempt us to rejoice in unrighteousness without even realizing it.
A few years ago, we saw a family film which started with a woman taking off her wedding ring and leaving it with a note to her husband. As the movie went on, the woman was portrayed as a caring woman who developed a special relationship with a handicapped child. She met a warm, sensitive doctor with whom she “fell in love.” The calloused, insensitive husband then appears, and as the drama concludes, the husband is sent packing as the woman, the doctor, and the young girl are brought together—a supposedly happy ending which makes the viewer feel good. You find yourself thinking the husband deserved divorce, and the woman deserved “happiness.” But there is a problem: there were no biblical grounds for divorce. From the standpoint of biblical revelation, the woman and the doctor were committing adultery. And so, in what seems like a “good, clean, family film,” we rejoice over that which is not righteous.
Gossip is yet another area where most all of us fail to live up to in the standard Paul sets for us. Many Christians actually take pleasure in gossip. Suppose someone in the church has gifts or a ministry we covet. If we think this person’s success is at our expense, then the failure of that person is something in which we could take pleasure. Someone comes along and shares a rumor: “Did you know so and so was supposed to have … ?” We are too quick to believe the worst. We want to take pleasure in that person’s moral assassination. And so we gladly listen to the rumor and even pass it along to others. If we wish to look especially pious in the process, we share it as a “concern” or a “prayer request.” All the while we take great pleasure in the process, which is unrighteous (see 2 Corinthians 12:20; compare Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Timothy 5:19-20).
Love takes no pleasure in unrighteousness. Love sets its mind on what is right:
8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you (Philippians 4:8-9).
Here is the way to unity. Love dwells on what is right and then does what is right. This is the way to peace.
The Consistency of Love
7 [Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
In this one verse, Paul speaks of four different qualities of love, all linked to each other by the word rendered “all things.” This rendering, “all things,” seems to fall short of communicating what Paul is saying. Love does not, for example, believe everything.188 It is not “love” for a mother to believe her child when he denies getting into her freshly made pie, when the meringue has formed a mustache around his mouth. Paul has just written that love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). How can he now inform us that “love” accepts everything as truth, believing whatever one is told? For these reasons, some translations have chosen to render Paul’s words differently:
7 “There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance” (The New English Bible).
7 “Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything” (Phillips).
7 “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (New International Version).
7 “It covers up everything, has unquenchable faith, hopes under all circumstances, endures without limit” (Berkeley Version).
Love is always characterized by certain qualities, without exception. Throughout history, man has sought to excuse disobedience or sin by convincing himself that his situation is an exception. Jesus was asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all (Matthew 19:3). His response was a refusal to dwell on the exceptions and to focus on the rule. He knew that for the Pharisees, the exception had become the rule. This is why Paul has already excluded any “loopholes” in the Bible, by insisting that whenever we succumb to temptation, it is not because we had to (“There was nothing else I could do … after all, I’m only human …”), but because we failed to act upon God’s divinely provided “way of escape”:
13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
And so Paul informs his readers that there are four things love never ceases to possess and to practice, four things which can always be expected from genuine love.
(1) Love always bears up under adversity (“bears all things”).
Love “patiently accepts all things” (NCV)
Love “always supports” (TNT)
Love “never gives up” (GNB)
… here the apostle seems to be saying something about the endurance of love, its ability to go on no matter what the opposition.189
Edwards points out that the Greek term employed by Paul has two senses:
The term used here by Paul “… means originally ‘cover over,’” … then, “contain as a vessel.” From this latter meaning two metaphorical uses of the word are derived, either of which may be here adopted: (1) that love hides or is silent about the faults of others; (2) that love bears without resentment injuries inflicted by others.190
I do not believe we are forced to one choice or the other. It is completely within the realm of possibility that Paul meant us to understand this word in terms of its broader range of meaning. If this is so, we can see two major dimensions to love’s consistent capacity to “hold up” rather than “fold up.” First, love bears up silently; that is, love covers sin with a cloak of silence. Sin is shameful, and love does not wish the sinner to be shamed more than necessary. Noah’s son, Ham, broadcast his father’s shame to his brothers when Noah was drunk and naked in his tent. His brothers “covered” Noah’s nakedness in a way that prevented them from viewing his shame (Genesis 9:20-23). Peter reminds us that Jesus suffered silently, not responding verbally to the abuses hurled upon Him, and that this pattern of silent suffering is to be followed by all the saints (1 Peter 2:18–3:15; 4:8).
Matthew’s Gospel sheds further light on this matter of our silence when Jesus teaches His disciples about church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). We are to go privately to a brother who has sinned against us, and if he repents as a result of our rebuke, the matter is settled, never to be made public. If, however, this wayward brother resists and refuses to repent, then the matter once dealt with in the strictest privacy must now be dealt with in a way that becomes more and more public. After all efforts to turn the wayward brother from sin have been rejected, the whole church must be notified of his sin, and he must be publicly ex-communicated. Love always seeks to keep the sin of a wayward brother as private as possible, but this does not mean we cannot and should not be confronted publicly, if all private efforts have failed.
(2) Love always bears up, no matter how great the persecution, suffering, or adversity. Job’s wife “tempted” him to sin by urging him to “curse God and die,” thus bringing his suffering to a conclusion. Love never caves in or collapses under duress. Love always holds up. Should we attempt to deceive ourselves by thinking otherwise, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13 jolt us back to reality.
(3) Love always has faith (“believes all things”). Love never forsakes faith. The word translated “believes” in this verse is a verb, and the noun which shares the same root is very often translated “faith” in the New Testament. Of all the many times Paul employs the verb found here in our text, virtually every time it is used in a context which indicates the one who “believes” is the one who “has faith.” It is often used of those who have come to faith, those who have become “believers” (see 1 Corinthians 1:21; 3:5; 14:22). Only once in Paul’s epistles does this verb refer to a belief in something other than the truth of the gospel, and that is in chapter 11:18, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:18, emphasis mine).
Love always believes; it always has faith, even when life seems to be crumbling about us. Adversity is never an occasion for unbelief. Paul, imprisoned and awaiting a verdict from Caesar, was filled with faith, trusting that his death would either bring him into the presence of God or that his life would be used to draw others nearer to God (Philippians 1). Suffering is not an excuse for the failure of faith; rather, it is an occasion where love and faith may be demonstrated.
I know that faith, hope, and love are often mentioned together or are found in very close proximity to each other. But in contemplating Paul’s words here, I have come to appreciate the very close association that exists between love and faith. When Jesus summoned the four fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John, why did these men leave their nets, their boats, and even their father to follow Jesus? Was it because of their faith? Partly, perhaps. But I think we would also have to say they were drawn to Jesus out of love—His love for them and theirs for Him. These disciples did not understand a great deal about Jesus and His gospel until after His death, burial and resurrection. What kept them following Him before these things were clear in their minds? Faith, in part, but also love.
Love always has faith. Our love for God and our trust in His Word should give us unlimited faith in Him. Those men and women whom we love we must also trust, but within limits. We dare not believe everything we are told. In Deuteronomy 13, Moses warns the Israelites concerning those who would lead them astray. Included among those who might mislead us are those we call our “loved ones” (see 13:6-10). Love is never a license to uncritically accept all we are told. The love we find in the Bible is based on the truth:
9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ (Philippians 1:9-10).
5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).
It may be difficult to imagine a husband loving his wife and not trusting her. Our faith, however, must not be in our fellow man, but in God. No matter how bad things may be, no matter how much grief others may dish out to us, we should have unlimited faith in God. We should have faith in His promises to sustain us, to keep us from falling, and to perfect His work in us. We should have faith that God is using our trials and tribulations to strengthen our faith (Romans 5:1-11; James 1:1-18) and to bring about our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). Paul found great consolation in his sufferings for Christ’s sake because it enhanced his sense of identity with Him and his love for Him (see Philippians 3:8-11; Colossians 1:24-29).
All too often one sees a kind of cynicism in Christians, which is hardly compatible with faith. Of course, we believe in the depravity of man. We know this world is passing away and that the unbelieving world’s efforts to bring about the improvement of man’s moral and spiritual nature are doomed. We know a genuine and permanent peace will never be negotiated or brought about on this earth, apart from the return of our Lord and the establishment of His kingdom. Nevertheless, we can have faith that God will bring about His purposes for this earth and that He can save those who are seemingly hopelessly lost in their sins (such as Saul of Tarsus). We can be optimistic about what God will accomplish through us in this world. Love, true love, always manifests faith.
(4) Love always has hope. Faith is believing in what is ultimately real and true but not immediately seen (see Hebrews 11:1). Faith believes God is going to give us that which our eyes do not and cannot see but which God has promised to us. Hope is our longing and desire for those things which are future, which by faith we believe we shall receive.
22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:22-25).
I may receive a telephone call informing me that my mother and father are flying down to visit us in a week. Faith believes they are coming. Hope eagerly anticipates their arrival as that which I strongly desire.
The concept of hope is frequently found in the writings of the apostle Paul.191 Hope enables the Christian to face even the most adverse circumstances, hoping for the promised blessings which will follow. “Hopeth all things is the forward look. The thought is not that of an unreasoning optimism, which fails to take account of reality. It is rather a refusal to take failure as final. Following on from believeth all things it is the confidence which looks to ultimate triumph by the grace of God.”192
We can fairly readily grasp the relationship between faith and hope, but what is the relationship between hope and love? It seems to me that we hope for what we really love. When I was a boy, so many years ago, I began to drive when I was 12. I did not drive on the highway. Our property was large enough that I could do a lot of driving on our own roads without breaking the law. I loved to drive. I could not wait until I was 16 when I could legally drive on the highway. I had hope I could and would someday be able to drive. I longed for what I loved.
I think we see this same kind of hope in the life of Jacob. When Jacob fled from home (really from his brother Esau), he went to live among his relatives in Padan Aram. Finding his uncle Laban, Jacob stayed with him, falling in love with his younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob worked for seven years to earn the dowry for Rachel, only to discover that Laban had given him Leah instead. It took another seven years of labor before Jacob had paid the dowry for Rachel. And yet we read these words concerning Jacob’s attitude toward the delay in obtaining Rachel for a wife: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20). Jacob’s love for Rachel gave him both hope and endurance.
Of course there is a sense in which our love for others should give us hope for them. We love the children God has given us, and as they grow up, we have hope that God will save them and that they will grow up to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. Our hope, however, is not in them so much as it is hope for them. We have hope for our children because ultimately our faith and hope are in God. We have hope that God will accomplish certain things in them.
Many of the Corinthian Christians were Paul’s spiritual children (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). In spite of all the abuse he had taken from these, his children, Paul had great hope for them:
4 I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6 even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).
7 And our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort (2 Corinthians 1:7; see also 2 Corinthians 9:11-15; 13:6-14).
If there is anything this world lacks, it is hope. Paul put it this way:
12 Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12).
Man’s hope may be wrongly placed (see 1 Timothy 6:17), but the only true source of hope is God, and particularly the Lord Jesus Christ (see Psalm 33:17; 1 Peter 1:21; Psalm 31:24; 38:15; 42:5, 11; 2 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Timothy 1:1). Christians should be characterized by hope in the midst of adversity, and it may well be this hope which opens the door for sharing our faith with others: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). True love is characterized by a consistent hope. Love always hopes.
(5) Love always perseveres (“endures all things”). Some have been troubled that the first description of love (“bears all things”) is too similar in meaning to Paul’s last description (“endures all things”). I believe these two things are related, just as “faith” and “hope” are related. I see the “bearing” of things related to the intensity of the trial or offense. “It was more than I could handle,” someone says by way of excuse. “How much am I supposed to put up with?” another asks. Perseverance or endurance do not focus so much on the intensity of the trouble as the duration of it.
Love, Paul tells us, does not run out of time. Love lasts. This point will be taken up in the following verses. No matter how difficult the trial, love bears up under it; no matter how long the trial, love perseveres. This was not the case when the Corinthians divorced one another (chapter 7) or when one believer took another to court (chapter 6). There is a world of difference between a Christian asking the question, “How long?” and the Christian throwing in the towel with the excuse, “Too long!”
This, by the way, is what marriage vows are all about. When a man and a woman love each other and enter into marriage by the taking of vows, they promise to love each other, no matter what. And when they repeat their vows to each other, they commit themselves to loving their mate, “until death do us part.” Love does not put time limits on its own existence, even when things get rough.
Love Never Fails
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul sets out to show the superiority of character to charisma; specifically, he wants us to grasp the superiority of Christian love to our possession of the gifts of the Spirit. In verses 1-3, Paul has stated that even the most highly prized gifts, exercised to the ultimate level of success, but without love, are of little value to the one who is gifted or to the one who is the recipient of his ministry. In verses 4-7, Paul describes love in a way which defines it in very practical terms and also shows the Corinthians’ lack of love. Now in verses 8-13, Paul adds his final, finishing touches on this chapter. He reasons that love is superior to all the spiritual gifts because love outlasts them. Love never fails; spiritual gifts do fail.
The statement, “love never fails,” nicely links Paul’s words in verse 7 with those which follow. Love “never fails” in that it always bears up, it always has faith, it always hopes, it always endures (verse 7). Furthermore, love “never fails” in the sense that it is eternal. That is what Paul is saying in verses 8-13.
The word “fail” is the translation of a word which literally means to fall. This same word is used to describe the fatal “fall” of the young man from the third story window while Paul was preaching (Acts 20:9). Ananias and Saphira both “fell” dead when confronted by Peter (Acts 5:5, 10). Paul employed this term when he spoke of the 23,000 who “fell” dead in the wilderness due to their immorality (1 Corinthians 10:8; cf. Exodus 32:28). In other words, love does not die; it does not come to an end. I am reminded of the battery commercial that frequently runs on television. Love is like that battery that keeps on going and going and going …
In contrast to love, which does not come to an end, Paul declares that spiritual gifts do come to an end; they fail. He writes of the demise of the three spiritual gifts considered most valuable by the Corinthians. Gifts of prophecy will be done away with; tongues will cease; knowledge will be done away (verse 8). Paul gives the reason for the “passing away” or the “failure” of the spiritual gifts in verses 9 and 10. Knowledge and prophecy in this age are partial and incomplete. But when “the perfect” comes, this will render the “imperfect”193 obsolete.
The spare tire found in the trunk of many new cars may not be as big or as substantial as a full-sized tire, but when a flat occurs, that tire is more than adequate to get us back on the road for a limited period of time. That “imperfect” spare is taken off and put in the trunk as soon as a “perfect” tire is available.
Paul says that while love remains and does not fail, all the spiritual gifts (even the greatest ones) will fail. Some emphasize that certain so-called “temporary” gifts fail, yet they seem to gloss over that Paul is contrasting the permanence of love with the temporary nature of all the gifts—not just some of them. Often, the gift of tongues is singled out because of a subtle distinction in the Greek text. One Greek word is employed to refer to the passing of prophecy and knowledge, translated in the NASB by the expression “done away.” The cessation of tongues is depicted by a different term, rendered “cease” in the NASB. While the verb employed for the passing of prophecy and knowledge is passive in voice, the term used in reference to tongues is middle in voice. This subtlety is interpreted by some to mean that tongues will cease after the days of the apostles before the cessation of prophecy and knowledge. A. T. Robertson, the great Greek scholar of the past, writes of tongues, “They shall make themselves cease or automatically cease of themselves.”194
All Christians should be knowledgeable and honest enough to say that the so-called “cessationist” position (certain gifts—especially tongues—came to an end at the close of the apostolic age) is based upon inferences rather than upon clear statements. It is one thing for the Bible to say tongues will cease; it is quite another to say tongues have ceased. It is my conviction that doctrine based upon clear, uncontradicted statements is to be held more dogmatically than doctrine based upon inference.195 I too hold certain beliefs based upon inference, but I desire to acknowledge them as inferential. In 1 Corinthians 14:39, Paul pointedly prohibits us from forbidding others to speak in tongues. This is not an inference but a command. We dare not casually set aside biblical commands based upon inferential arguments.
My alma matter, Dallas Theological Seminary, teaches that 1 Corinthians 13:8 is proof that tongues were a temporary spiritual gift to be experienced only in the early days of the New Testament church but not today. When I applied to the Seminary, now nearly 30 years ago, a doctrinal statement was included along with the application form. Among other things, it declared that certain spiritual gifts like tongues and healing were temporary and were not to be experienced today. I signed that statement, with a small asterisk and a statement that, while I was not a charismatic Christian, I did not see how 1 Corinthians 13:8 proved the cessation of tongues. The Seminary graciously allowed me to attend in spite of my doubts concerning their cessationist position. I assumed further study would convince me that the Seminary’s position was iron-clad. This has not been the case.
Having indicated I do not embrace the cessationist position, I should further say I also believe God is not obliged to give the gift of tongues today either. It should be pointed out that there are certain vital and necessary functions in the church, for which there are accompanying general commands. All are commanded to give, to help, and to encourage. All may not be gifted in these areas, but it seems necessary that there be some who are thus gifted. All are not commanded to prophesy or to speak in tongues, and I believe there may be reasons for inferring that some gifts may have ceased. I must further state in clear terms that while I must grant the possibility of tongues, I do not grant the necessity of tongues, as is the practice of some Christians. Not all that is called tongues is biblical tongues, and much of what is practiced as tongues (whether genuine tongues or false) is not practiced as the Scriptures require.196 In spite of this, a blanket rejection of the possibility of tongues cannot be biblically sustained in my opinion.
In verse 8, Paul shows love to be superior to all spiritual gifts in terms of permanence. Value can be measured in terms of how long something lasts. Love lasts forever; spiritual gifts do not. Now, in verses 9 and 10, Paul goes on to explain why spiritual gifts must be temporary. Spiritual gifts are not permanent because they are not perfect. Spiritual gifts are partial. We know in part, and we prophesy in part. Prophecy is never wrong or inaccurate; it is simply incomplete. Peter writes of the prophets of old, who spoke of the sufferings and glories of the Messiah who was yet to come and whose own writings puzzled them because they were incomplete (1 Peter 1:10-12). Paul was privileged to fill in some of the gaps of the Old Testament Scriptures by unveiling certain mysteries (see Ephesians 3:1-13). Nevertheless, his revelations were partial. He did not reveal all that we would like to know. Because of this, his Epistles raised unanswered questions, and false teachers were quickly on hand to distort his writings (see 2 Peter 3:14-16).
The prophets of old were used of God to reveal all that God wanted us to know—but not all there is to know nor all that we would like to know. When “the perfect” comes, the imperfect will no longer be necessary. The imperfect will be done away with. I do not think that one can support the conclusion that “the perfect” which will come (13:10) is the completed canon of Scripture. The text seems to require that we must think of that which is perfect as the kingdom of God for which we eagerly wait. Only then will we know fully, just as we are now fully known (see verse 12).197
I am writing this message on a computer, which, although not perfect, is vastly superior to the IBM Selectric typewriter on which I first typed my manuscripts. We sold that typewriter, so helpful in its day, at our last garage sale, quickly casting it aside for the powerful computer and laser printer now available. Just so, the prophetic word, so crucial in the days of our ignorance and spiritual blindness (see chapter 2), will be obsolete and unnecessary when our Lord comes to establish His kingdom, for then we shall see all things as they are.
In verses 11 and 12, by the use of an analogy, Paul puts spiritual gifts into perspective and indicates how we should view them. Paul tells the Corinthian Christians, and us, that we should view spiritual gifts as we do the toys of our childhood. Recently my wife Jeannette and I went to a friend’s home to celebrate one of their children’s fifth birthday. This lovely little girl joyfully opened a gift of several packages of “stickers,” those little stick-on things children love to attach to things. She also received some dolls and a play cash register. A few years from now, those gifts will hold little attraction in light of those adult “toys” which will come with future birthdays. Childish toys are great when we are children, but they should hold little attraction for adults.
Paul’s illustration teaches an important lesson to the Corinthians and also serves as a gentle rebuke for their pride and arrogance. Do they think they are wise? Of course, they do (see 4:6-21)! But their wisdom and understanding are partial. In the light of eternity, such knowledge will be set aside as imperfect. Do the Corinthians believe they see things clearly and that their perception of matters is accurate? Then let them know their knowledge is sketchy, especially compared with the perfect knowledge which is to be ours in eternity.
In verse 12, Paul likens our perception of truth and reality to looking into a mirror which only imperfectly reflects reality. This analogy loses some of its punch for us since mirrors today are so much better than those of Paul’s day. The mirror of Paul’s day was probably like the “mirrors” at a highway rest stop. Because glass mirrors are frequently smashed by vandals, many states use metal “mirrors” in their restrooms. One look into one of those mirrors will help us appreciate what Paul is saying, because it is impossible to see as clearly as you would like. The Corinthians did not see as clearly as they thought, either. At best, their knowledge was partial. They should not cling to their spiritual gifts with pride and think too highly of themselves. Rather, they should possess and appreciate all the gifts as temporary provisions of God, seeing them as partial and inferior to what eternity holds for us.
Paul goes one step further in verse 13, declaring that love is not only better than any or all of the spiritual gifts, but that it is even greater than faith and hope. Spiritual gifts fail, while love lasts. Faith, hope, and love all “abide” (verse 13). If love is greater than spiritual gifts which do not last, love is greater than faith and hope, which “abides” and “endures.” I am not certain just how Paul can speak of faith and hope as abiding, when they seem to be unnecessary in heaven. Faith, as written in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Hope too seems to be temporal: “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Romans 8:24-25).
Since Paul does not trouble himself to explain, I suspect we should not agonize over this matter either. Certainly faith is necessary in reference to future things, things not presently seen. But does faith cease to exist when these things are seen? Will men cease to trust (to have faith) in God once in heaven? Will men cease to have hope in heaven? In the first year of eternity (speaking in terms of time), will we have no joyful anticipation for the years to come? Faith and hope, like love, may be appropriate for both time and eternity. Paul’s point here is to claim the superiority of love even over things as vital as faith and hope. He wants everyone to clearly understand that love is not something to look down upon as inferior to spiritual gifts and wisdom; rather, it is something of the greatest value.
Something of such great value must not only be esteemed, it should be sought. In His teaching, Jesus tells the parable of the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46). When the merchant finds the one pearl of great value, he gladly sells all he has to purchase it. Paul tells us that love is that “pearl of great price.” It is the thing of great value. The Corinthians, knowingly or not, sacrificed love in their pursuit of certain spiritual gifts (see chapter 8). Paul shows this to be contrary to eternal values, since love is the greatest. One does not wisely sacrifice that of the greatest value for something of lesser value.
The first verse of chapter 14 is Paul’s “bottom line,” the application he wants his readers to accept and accomplish. In saying love is the greatest, Paul is not belittling spiritual gifts. He merely seeks to put spiritual gifts into perspective. Spiritual gifts are a gracious provision of God, but they are never to be pursued or practiced at the expense of love. Love is to be pursued as the “pearl of great price,” but the spiritual gifts are not to be neglected. Love is the attitude of heart which adds value to the gifts.
I must confess I have difficulties with a song quite popular among Christian artists and Christians at large. It is the song about the “old violin” which is being auctioned off. This “old violin” is about to be sold for a pittance when an old master takes it up and makes it play beautiful music. It is then sold for a great sum of money. Bad violins make bad music. Even good musicians don’t make bad violins into good violins merely by playing them. To be accurate, the violin would have to be a “good violin” to demand a high price. In the hands of a novice, a good violin will sound horrible (I was once in high school band; I know!). In the hands of a gifted artist, a good violin will make beautiful music.
Spiritual gifts are like the violin. They are not bad; they are good. When employed by immature, carnal, self-seeking Christians, however, spiritual gifts produce an unpleasant sound (noisy and clanging?). When spiritual gifts are employed by spiritual Christians, those who walk in love, the gifts they exercise are beautiful; they are edifying to others. That is what Paul is trying to say. Love is one ingredient that can never be absent without being noticed. The Corinthians may profess to pursue and practice love, but they are surely lacking in love. And so this church, so marvelously gifted by God (see 1:7), falls desperately short of the mark. Paul’s words in chapter 13 are intended to challenge us to give love its proper place and to pursue it in practice.
A great deal could and should be said about love, but Paul’s teaching on love can be summarized by two main statements: (1) Love is to be our priority; and, (2) Love is to be our pursuit. Let us consider the implications of these two important principles as we conclude our study of 1 Corinthians 13.
The Priority of Love
Paul interrupted his teaching on the practice of spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14 to underscore the priority of love over spiritual gifts. One can hardly miss this truth in Paul’s teaching, here and elsewhere. Spiritual gifts have little value apart from love. Spiritual gifts do not abide, while love does. Love is even superior to faith and hope, which do abide.
This truth is not unique to Paul. The teaching of the entire Old Testament and of our Lord Jesus Christ can be summed up by one word—“love.”
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).
8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
In the last words of our Lord to His disciples, recorded in John 13-17, Jesus spoke repeatedly of the importance of love. Love was to distinguish His disciples from others:
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
12 This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13).
17 This I command you, that you love one another (John 15:17).
Love was the goal of Paul’s instruction:
5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).
Love is a dominant theme in Peter’s epistles and in John’s. Peter refers to love as the highest level of Christian growth, and Paul speaks of it as the basis for edification.
22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, 23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God (1 Peter 1:22-23).
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).
5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love (2 Peter 1:5-7).
1 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace … 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:1-3, 14-16).
Few would even attempt to debate that love is to be a high priority for the Christian. But if love is so important, it is also so quickly and easily lost. Certainly love was lacking in the church at Corinth. The church at Ephesus all too quickly lost its first love and did not even seem to know it:
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lamp stands, says this: 2 ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lamp stand out of its place—unless you repent’” (Revelation 2:1-5).
The Pursuit of Love
Love is not automatic. It is quickly lost, and it comes about only when we make it our priority and our pursuit. How does one pursue love? Let me summarize briefly that about which God’s Word has so much to say. In short, we should pursue love as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians (and, of course, elsewhere). We begin by reading God’s Word and meditating upon it. This epistle was written not only to the saints at Corinth but to all the saints, including us (see 1:1-2). The first thing we gain from God’s Word is an accurate definition of love. The word “love” does not mean to the world what the Bible says it is to mean to us. The Bible is the only source of truth which defines what love is and does.
As the Word of God speaks to us of love, we should recognize our lack of love, and repent of it. Surely as Paul’s description of love’s conduct begins to unfold in verses 4-7 of chapter 13, it became increasingly clear that the Corinthians lack love. As we meditate on these verses and many like them in God’s Word, our lack of love must be recognized and repented of as the serious sin it is. This is what our Lord called for in His letter to the Ephesian saints in Revelation 2. It is what He requires of us as well.
Having recognized our lack of love and repented of this deficiency, we must now look to God alone as the source of love. Love does not originate within us. We love as a result of God’s love for us. We are to keep ourselves in this love.
19 We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life (Jude 1:20-21).
If we are to keep ourselves in the love of Christ, we must never stray from the cross of Christ, for there on the cross of Calvary was God’s love for us outpoured:
3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:3-8).
The love we have received from God came in the form of a cross—sacrificial love. That is the kind of love we are to manifest toward others:
13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).
The way we demonstrate love toward God and toward others is by obeying His commandments. This is why the Old Testament law can be summed up in two commandments, both of which are the expressions of love. Legalism is man’s attempt to keep God’s law without love. Love is that state of heart which seeks to please God by keeping His commands. In chapter 14, verse 1, Paul instructs his readers to pursue love, and the rest of the chapter tells us how that is to be done. We pursue love by exercising our gifts in a self-sacrificial way that endeavors to edify others. If, as we shall see in our study of chapter 14, most of the church today ignores the instructions Paul lays down here, we may well conclude the problem begins with a lack of love, toward God and toward others. Love is not so much a warm and fuzzy feeling as the grateful disposition to please God and others at our expense, by keeping His commandments as initially laid down in the Old Testament and clarified in the New.
I have been speaking throughout these lessons on chapter 13 primarily to Christians because this epistle was written primarily to Christians. Let me now say a word to those who have never yet acknowledged their sin and trusted in the sacrificial death of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. You cannot express the love of God until you have first experienced it. Love, Christian love, is impossible for those who have not yet accepted the love of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I urge you to consider the awesome reality of God’s love, expressed toward you in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us, to bear the penalty for our sins, and to give us His righteousness, as we place our trust in Him by faith. May you trust in Him this very hour and thus come to experience His love.
169 Paige Patterson, “The Meaning of Authority in the Local Church,” chapter 14 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 1991), p. 257.
170 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.
172 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.
173 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.
176 Vines’ Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 13:4, Matthew Henry adds, “It is benign, bountiful; it is courteous and obliging. The law of kindness is in her lips; her heart is large, and her hand open. She is ready to show favours and to do good. She seeks to be useful; and not only seizes on opportunities of doing good, but searches for them.”
178 “The verb zhlow is a ‘middle term,’ referring to a human attitude that can either be base or noble. When noble, it ‘earnestly desires’ something nobler for oneself; when base, it ‘jealously longs’ for the betterment of oneself to the detriment of another.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 637, fn. 9.
“Envy may be defined to be a spirit of dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, the prosperity and happiness of others as compared with our own. The thing that the envious person is opposed to, and dislikes, is, the comparative superiority of the state of honour, or prosperity or happiness, that another may enjoy, over that which he possesses.” Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, [reprint] 1978), p. 112.
I am using jealousy and envy in a way that is nearly synonymous. The Greek term Paul employed in 1 Corinthians 13:4 is translated by both “envy” and “jealousy.” Vine’s Dictionary does insist on a distinction: “The distinction lies in this, that envy desires to deprive another of what he has, jealousy desires to have the same or the same sort of thing for itself.”
179 “He uses this verb half a dozen times in this epistle and only once elsewhere (no other writer in the New Testament uses it at all). Evidently he thought it was especially applicable to the Corinthians and their situation, but because pride comes easily to most of us, the warning has broader application. We must remember that agape gives where pride asserts itself. But love casts out the spirit of pride.” Morris, p. 245.
180 “The basic idea appears to be that love rejects what is not according to proper form (schema; the verb is aschemoneo). This leads to the translation of the Authorized Version: ‘Love doth not behave itself unseemly.’ More recent translations prefer something like ‘Love is not rude’ (the RSV, NEB, and the NIV) or ‘ill-mannered’ (the TEV). Because the word has a wide range of meanings, we should not try to tie it down too closely or rigidly. Paul is simply saying that there are many ways of behaving badly, and that love avoids them all.” Morris, p. 246.
“… the verb (aschemonein) is that rendered ‘not behaving properly’ in 7:36. P. 46 reads the antonym euschemonein; this can only mean ‘love does not behave in an affected manner’ (assuming a fine outward appearance which does not express the inward reality).” F. F. Bruce, I and II Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1971), p. 126.
181 See Proverbs 26:13. There, the sluggard justifies his not going to work by saying, “There is a lion in the road! A lion is in the open square.” To us, this seems foolish, almost amusing. But if you lived where lions do, it would be a compelling reason not to go outside. We all have our “lions in the road,” our compelling reasons for doing (or not doing) what we really want (or don’t want) to do.
184 “Love is also even-tempered. We have already seen that it is ‘long-tempered’ (v. 4), and here is a related characteristic—that it is not easily provoked. Phillips translates this as ‘It is not touchy,’ which gives us a good idea of what Paul means. It is easy to be so concerned with getting our own way that we become irritated with people, well-meaning and otherwise, who frustrate our best intentions.” Morris, p. 247.
185 Morris, p. 247. Morris then cites Smedes: “‘… Resentments keeps enemy lists, files on every person who has injured us’ (Love Within Limits, p. 69).” Morris, p. 247, fn. 53. Bruce adds , “… [Love is not] resentful: lit. ‘does not reckon up evil’ with a view to paying the offender back in his own coin (the Gk phrase is a quotation of Zechariah 8:17a, LXX, where the idea seems to be rather that of plotting evil); cf. Rom. 12:17ff.” Bruce, p. 127.
186 “The verb is logizomai, which means ‘to calculate.’ William Barclay says that the word ‘is an accountant’s word. It is the word that is used for entering up an item in a ledger so that it will not be forgotten.’” He points out that ‘so many people nurse their wrath to keep it warm; they brood over their wrongs until it is impossible to forget them. Christian love has learned the great lesson of forgetting’ (The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 136).” Morris, p. 248, fn. 54.
188 “But love is always ready to believe the best about people. It assumes, if there is any room for the assumption at all, that people are not as bad as they are said to be. … This does not mean that love is gullible, … . Love is clear-sighted, able to recognize wrong as easily as the shrewdest evaluator of human nature. What Paul is saying is that love will always give the benefit of the doubt, because it can never assume that the worst is true.” Morris, p. 250.
193 I am using the terms “perfect” and “imperfect” in the sense of “complete” and “incomplete.” The spiritual gifts are not imperfect in the sense that they are to be disdained, but imperfect in the sense that they are incomplete, and thus will be gladly put aside when the perfect arrives.
195 For example, the practice of infant baptism, held and practiced by many evangelical Presbyterians, is strongly held in spite of the fact that it is based solely upon inference and has no clear New Testament command or example of its practice.
196 To be specific, tongues are often spoken audibly by many (not just two or three), at the same time, by men and women, and without interpretation, in blatant violation of Paul’s instructions laid down in 1 Corinthians 14.
197 There is a subtle message contained here. While we do not know fully in the present, God does. At this point in time, when we lack fully knowledge and understanding, God fully knows us. That is what gives us comfort and hope in these days of our imperfect knowledge.
Related Topics: Love