1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Over the next several weeks I intend to focus my attention on 1 Corinthians 13, thinking and meditating on what it means to love as Scripture compels us. This week I am looking at 1 Corinthians 13 as a whole and the first thing I notice is that the chapter begins and ends with the importance of love vv 1-3, 13 and the middle section describes what it means to love. Today, rather than focusing on the characteristics of love, I want to focus on the importance of love. Love is essential to who we are, we identify as God’s children, that means those people who represent God’s character in the world. The first thing we are told of God’s character includes the line “overflowing in faithful love”. Further when God meets with the people of Israel and gives them the instructions for how they are to live out their covenant with God we are told they are to “love the lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength.” Jesus reiterates this command, calling it the primary rule for living out life in this world and he further added the dimension, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
In all of this we see that love is THE defining characteristic of the people of God, it is the characteristic that defines God and so as members of God’s family it needs to define who we are. This is precisely the theme that Paul picks up. In verse 1-3 Paul tells us it does not matter what you know about God or the world, it does not matter what you believe or how much faith you have, it does not matter what spiritual gifts you possess, if you do not live a life of love, it is all lost. I do not think Paul wants us to have the impression that we can have strong spiritual gifts, or an ability to connect to God in prayer and not have love, rather he is saying these acts alone cannot bring us near to God, nor can they substitute for what is our primary duty.
Throughout the book of 1 Corinthians Paul has been dealing with a congregation that is very proud of their spiritual gifts, and their connection to the right teachings; but they are also deeply divided. Paul, as he is addressing them, scolds them for their commitment to the wrong priorities, he points out their selfishness and their desire for spiritual power or prominence within the group. All of this brings us to Chapter 13 where Paul hits home saying that all the things the Corinthians thought were important to life in God and even those marks of true spirituality done for the wrong reasons are simply empty. What truly matters is the love one expresses.
So here we are, love is at the center of who we are, I think this is a difficult concept to master particularly in our modern individualistic world where we are so little connected to community. We live in a society starved for love, the mantra of our culture is acceptance and tolerance and yet these are very poor substitutes for love. Tolerance is the ability to live in proximity with another person, love is the desire to see the other person flourish. Love is about be committed to an individual or group so much that my needs and wants take a back seat to theirs. Tolerance is passive allowing people to live near you, love is active showing care and compassion for the other person.
We can preach against sin all we want, we can pray people are converted, we might believe the Bible and God, but if we are not genuinely showing concern for the world around us we have no voice. If we are not actively engaged in caring for people, they will never listen to us that their lives need to change. If we are not listening to their problems and actively trying to help they will not believe we care. Why was Jesus able to preach repentance to the people he encountered because he loved them enough to heal their wounds. He touched them in a way that struck to their core and showed that he cared and they responded with open ears. This is our calling, to go out to the world and share Jesus’ love with the people around us and if we do not answer that calling then there is nothing else we can do to get people to believe the message we have to tell.