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The Excellence of Christian Love (1 Cor. 12:31-13:3)

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Introduction

The love chapter of Scripture is not really the best choice of a reading at any and all weddings. What we have here are some radical principles of conduct that pertain to the Christian. The passage is not talking about love; it is talking about Christian love. Of course, any wedding where there is a commitment to love in the name of Christ, where there is love to Christ, at such a wedding the reading of this chapter of Scripture is definitely appropriate.

The context of this chapter is concerned with the place of extraordinary gifts at the Corinthian church. With all the “goings” on, the church is called to seek the better gifts (12:31a). That is, they are to pursue the more useful gifts, even if these are less attractive. They should not over exaggerate the place of the more attractive but less useful gifts (love is in the background already versus me, myself, and I in the limelight or “having it my way”).

As he is about to explain what is meant by more and less useful gifts, he says, “But I will show you an excellent way” (12:31b, the word “more” is supplied in the KJV). In effect, he says he will do this first before expanding on the various gifts and their relative merits (cf. 14:1f.). He is saying that he will show them an excellent way to pursue the better gifts. That is the way of love.

Love is a way to seek, obtain, and use the better gifts. It is the way to them and the pathway on which to carry them.

This focus on the gifts is clearly part of something greater. Something excellent, love, puts them into perspective. So Paul’s concern is not about the gifts in isolation from all else or in separation from our relationships, our possessions, or our dignity. Thus he cites particular gifts that are scooped up by this excellence but he broadens out to the whole of life to contexts where gifts may or may not be present. (Love is like a huge end loader that scoops up everything in its path; the gifts are one thing in particular.)

So if we want balance on the gifts and moreover if we want a balanced life, then love is the way. If we want to avoid extremes and hit a meaningful center, then we need to look again and often at 1 Corinthians 13. Here an excellent way is mapped out before us. So to begin this series, let’s consider the excellence of Christian love by noting its importance, its definition, and its necessity.

1A. This excellence is shown in its importance

I think it is safe to say that there is nothing more insisted upon in the entire Bible than love. Take for example the theme of God’s will that is brought to us in Scripture showing us what God requires of us (per the catechism, Q 3, the Bible teaches us what we are to believe about God and what duty He requires of us). The entire “will of God” can be summarized in ten words. To what am I referring? I am referring to the fact that all of man’s duty to God is summarized in the Ten Commandments. But the Ten Words are summarized in two commandments. All the law hangs on the two precepts of loving God and your neighbor (Matt. 22:40). Each division of the law is summarized in particular by love (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). If you want to know how to love God, you can look to the brief and pointed summary found in the first four commandments. If you want to know how to love your neighbor, you can look to the guiding summary of the last six commandments.

There is no essential antithesis in Scripture between law and love. Tension between these principles occurs where there is abuse and misunderstanding. Legalism and antinomianism are extremes to be avoided but they do not testify to some essential inner tension between law and love. Remarkably, love is itself a law, a commandment and the laws define how to love.

Thus with Edwards we have to say, “love appears to be the sum of all the virtue and duty that God requires of us, and therefore must undoubtedly be the most essential thing-the sum of all the virtue that is essential and distinguishing in real Christianity” (Charity, 13).

This speaks of an importance that is difficult to overstate. The way of love is the way of excellence.

It is this spirit that is commended to us by the work of Christ. The redeeming love of God in Christ gives us a supreme motivation to love because it is “the most glorious and wonderful exhibition of love that was ever seen or heard of” (C 19). There we see God’s love for His enemies for whom He sent His only begotten son into the world (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:7-10). There we see the love of Christ for the Father demonstrated in obedience to the Father’s will as the bread of His life. His food and drink was to love God in absolute submission to His authority. He tells us that He only spoke what was given to Him by His Father in heaven (Jn. 17:8). And He only did what the Father showed Him: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (Jn. 5:19).

Love is the essence of the new order of things defined by a new commandment: “love one another as I have love you” and thus show that you are my disciples (Jn. 13:34-35) It is a main item in the great high priestly prayer of our Lord: that they may be one (Jn. 17:21-23).

Finally, we should remind ourselves of the importance of love to fulfilling man’s chief end. You will not earnestly seek to honor and glorify someone you do not love. It is thus important in connection with and vital to man’s chief, ultimate, and supreme end, which is to honor and glorify God. Love for God is underneath, behind, above, and in front of the love of 1Corinthians 13.

Thus whole Bible Christianity accents the importance of love and in so doing accents the excellence of Christian love. To be Christ-like in our love is to live by the OT and NT as our bread of live on the authority of our risen Lord (the Bread of life).

2A. The excellence of love is shown in its definition

It is a challenge to back up from the famous love text and ask, “but what is love?” We can say it is patient, kind, humble, meek, and so forth. But these seem to be fruits of love or attributes of love. Using a sliced pie as an illustration, we may say that all these things are slices of the pie. But then we ask, “but what is the pie as a whole?” Given that something baked has this ingredient and that fruit in certain proportions, we may call it apple pie. Likewise, from all the fruits or ingredients what definition can we give of love? We have titled it Christian love. So what is precisely intended by calling it Christian love?

We can best answer this in a cumulative manner.

1) It is something excellent as we have seen.

It is an excellent way. It is a way of life that takes in the gifts but it takes in much more as well. It is a way of life, a pathway for seeking, obtaining, and exercising the gifts in a proper way of the highest quality of excellence.

It must therefore be associated (and defined) by the narrow way of which Jesus spoke. Thus, involved in the excellence of Christian love are the guiding principles of the law of God that define love for God and for the neighbor. It is a high and noble road.

2) Thereby we learn that Christian love is a wholehearted affection for God as my king that is demonstrated concretely in my walk before God and in relation to my neighbor (I think I am influenced by the Puritan, Watson, in this definition). Christian love means loving God in the neighbor. It is a wholehearted choice to serve God in all earthly things (cf. Matt. 6:24, 19-21).

3) It must therefore be the outflow of the saving and sanctifying love of God in Christ by the Spirit. We must come to this conclusion due to the great stream of fruits that flow from this fountain, fruits of good from what was formerly a corrupt tree with moral inability. From the corrupt tree comes only corrupt fruit (Matt. 7:18). So the heart must be made into a good heart, a heart of flesh instead of stone (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:25-26).

4) Being loved we are enabled to see the Lord’s glory and to thus love Him for who He is as well as for what He has done (cf. “Jesus I am resting in the joy of what thou art; I am finding out the greatness of thy loving heart”). Thus we want to image and emulate Him. We see for example His loving work in the six days of creation serving man and we are stirred up to likewise do our work as a service to others in love for them. In this way we are like our Father in heaven (cf. creative, working, and serving others to give them the joys of life in God’s world).

5) In this light, we can give a slight adjustment to the title of the book by Edwards in a way that is in keeping with his over all presentation. That is, when we speak of charity or better love and its fruits we are talking about God’s saving and sanctifying love that produces appropriate fruits. This chapter gives us a look at the love of God reflected in redeemed image bearers. It is the love of the triune God displayed in the lives of saved sinners. Hence the matchless excellence of this love. It is Christian love, Christ-like love. It is godly love, God-like love. It is spiritual love, Spirit-like love. Defined like that we have to be impressed with the excellence of this love.

God’s love is the root of a tree that bears delicious fruit. Love must therefore be a principle implanted in the heart by Love from above. Consequently love is something given in the gracious action of God’s redeeming love. We love Him because He first loved us. His love is causal of our love. It is a divinely produced love associated with saving faith as the gift of God that is being referred to in this chapter.

It is the key to genuine faith, a faith that works or the obedience of faith because as Paul states, faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). “True love is an ingredient in true and living faith, and is what is most essential and distinguishing in it” (C 13).

Furthermore, love for God grows as we see His majesty and excellence with the eyes of faith. Then He is loved in the beauty of His holiness and thereby a similar motive generates love for holiness sake and thus a holy love that reaches the depths of the soul and extends to the neighbor near and far (cf. C 5). You cannot be loved by God without loving God and you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. This is the fullness of love toward which the Christian strives, even if with acknowledged frailty and weakness. Hence the excellence of Christian love.

By His gift of saving love, our eyes are opened to the perfection of God, to His excellence and thus a stream of love flows out from our hearts to God, to His people, and to mankind. God’s love and His perfection displayed in the doctrines and promises of the gospel in the saving of sinners are “like so many cords which take hold of the heart, and draw it out in love to God and Christ” (C 22).

3A. This excellence is shown in its radical necessity

Some people want go out in a blaze of glory but without love accent must be placed on the fact that they merely “go out.” There is no glory for them beyond the temporal things of this life. There is no actual glory in the temporal final act even if they sparkle and dance like a comet across the canopy of heaven. They have their day in the sun but their story is “a tale told by an idiot that signifies nothing.”

Even suffering is vain without love (cf. giving my body to be burned, 13:3). How it probes the heart to go through great troubles and deep waters. And a common resource is to know and affirm that there is a purpose for it. Well, we know that God has His sovereign purposes and they are good. But if we are without love (Christian/saving love and sanctifying love born of the Spirit and under girding conduct) then we suffer for no good end in our personal existence, the end of suffering here is only yields more suffering hereafter.

We have come to a profound and sober fact. Here we have the necessity of love to give life meaning, dignity, and value. Love is necessary to give these things to our lives per our gifts, possessions, and our very bodies for time and eternity.

In other words, the following questions are answered in 13:1-3. a) How can I have meaningful communication and in that way a sense of meaning in my basic relationships of life (v. 1)? How can I have relationships that have real, true, authentic meaning and significance? (Note that the basic relationship is man’s relationship with God through Christ by the Spirit). b) How can I be something rather than nothing (v. 2)? How can I have importance, even greatness? Is greatness something impossible for me? Is its utter opposite my only possibility? c) How can I have a profitable life? How can I make gains in life, even gains of great value (v. 3)?

The answer to all of these questions is found in one word, love.

This must be unpacked as to what is meant by love in all its ingredients. But whatever its fruits may be, it is the key to a life that has significance, dignity, and value.

This is radically the case

That is, the text presents the issue with an impassible valley between a life worth living and a life that is worthless. It is a contrast of all or nothing. Without love there is no significance, no dignity, and no value to being alive. “Whatever performances or seeming virtues there are without love, are unsound and hypocritical” ( C 9).

This reminds of the words about Judas to the effect that it would have been better that he were never born. The context is not the larger picture of God’s purposes as if God might have done it a better way. It is the relationship between being born and perishing. It is better to have never been born than to have lived and then to experience eternal punishment.

What men trust amounts to nothing without love, to absolutely and utterly nothing.

Love is the most excellent principle to such a degree that without it all the important things of life that men seek are in vain (C 3). It is the great and essential thing (C 2).

Exhortation

It is important that as Christians, as Christ-like ones, that we do not contradict our profession in our practice. Consider your steps that you may follow in His steps. Consider how you may be like your Father in heaven who shows His love to just and unjust alike by giving them rain and sunshine (Matt. 6) and abundance of the earth (Acts 14).

Consider what a great absurdity and contradiction it is for a person to profess to be a Christian but make no earnest pursuit of a life characterized by love. It is as if one would speak of dark brightness, or false truth! (C 23).

We can fill out this exhortation in four steps.

1) The excellence of Christian love is a blessing. It is a blessing indeed and beyond compare to see the saving and sanctifying work of love going on in your soul. This is the core of Christianity. It is a great privilege, the greatest privilege and gift beyond all the extraordinary gifts. They are not saving. But the work of love in your heart by the love of God is a saving gift.

We should weigh this blessing in the brightness of the day and fix our eyes on it with deep gratitude.

2) It is amazing even astonishing. It is awesome to think of God’s work of love in the heart. This astounding fact should cause us to consider what kind of people we ought to be.

If you are a Christian, then you have been gifted with saving love. Thus, how love ought to flow from your heart to God and in obedient submission to Him it ought to flow out to all around you. Per Edwards: “When a fountain abounds in water, it will send forth streams;” thus “as a principle of love is the main principle in the heart of a real Christian, so the labour of love is the main business of the Christian life” (C 25).

3) This is challenging to have the pursuit of Christian love with its excellence as your main business. Excellence is a powerful word. It implies something that is obtained by striving; it is an extremely high ideal. Professional tennis players are often people who began practicing when five years old. A well-known player practiced every afternoon when he was six years old. This included holidays and he began winning tournaments at age seven. It’s the old proverb at work; “practice makes perfect.” Thus the excellence of love a) indicates that it is something very desirable, noble, high, and worthy. It is a surpassingly high goal. It is also b) something difficult. It makes demands and it takes much work, very hard work. So get to work!

4) Cultivating the excellence of love is enriching. How can I have a life that is meaningful and that communicates meaning? How can I have a life that has music in it and that communicates music (versus noisy clangs)? How can I have personal dignity, nobility, and even greatness? How can I have a life that is worth something, that is valuable and profitable? It is found in the saving and sanctifying love of the triune God. It is found in that love being reflected in me personally and thus in all my relationships in this world. We can see why this love has such depth and extends so far. It works in us from the inside out and it turns the world right side up.

Related Topics: Fellowship, Love