Today’s passage is a very well known passage of Scripture. It’s probably one of the most well known passages in the Bible; and even people who know very little about the Bible probably know and are familiar with this passage. And that’s because it’s often read at weddings. The couple who are to be married meet with the minister to discuss what hymns they would like and who should take part in the service and what passages from the Bible should be read. And more often than not, the couple ask for or the minister suggests 1 Corinthians 13 as a reading, because it seems so appropriate, doesn’t it? When a couple are to be married, what better subject to read about than the subject of love? ‘Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy’ and so on. And the happy couple gaze into each other’s eyes and both of them hope that they will be able to love each other like this always.
And perhaps we think: How wonderful of Paul to write this marvellous description of true love which is just so appropriate for a wedding service.’ However, nothing could have been further from Paul’s mind when he wrote this chapter than a wedding. You see, he was thinking about what was going on in Corinth. He was thinking about how — in Corinth — the members of the church were divided. They were divided over their favourite leaders; we saw that in chapters 1 to 4. And in chapter 6 we saw how they were taking one another to court; that’s another example of how divided they were. Then in chapters 8 to 10 we saw that they were divided over whether to eat food which had been sacrificed to idols. In chapter 11 we saw they were divided into the haves and the have-nots when they met together for the Lord’s Supper.
And most recently, we’ve seen how they were divided over the issue of spiritual gifts; and it seems from what Paul tells us that some of the members of the church who were able to speak in tongues were disregarding one another and envying one another. Those with the gift of tongues were disregarding and looking down on those who did not possess that particular gift while those without the gift of tongues were envying those who had it. They regarded speaking in tongues as the most important gift of all; and those who possessed it boasted about it; and those who did not possess it felt like second-class believers. And do you remember last week? Paul compared the church to a person’s body. And he imagined, first of all, a foot thinking that it didn’t really belong to the body, because it wasn’t a hand. And he imagined an ear thinking that it didn’t really belong to the body, because it wasn’t an eye. And the foot and the ear represent those in the church who said to themselves that they didn’t really matter because they couldn’t speak in tongues. And then Paul imagined an eye saying to the hand: ‘I don’t need you.’ And he imagined the head saying to the foot: ‘I don’t need you.’ And they represented those in the church who could speak in tongues and who looked down on those who couldn’t. But, of course, in the human body, every part is important and vital; and it was the same in the church in Corinth: every member was important and vital; every member was essential and had something important to contribute to the life and witness of the church.
I mentioned last week that there are still some believers and churches today who claim that speaking in tongues is the sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit; and if you don’t speak in tongues, then it means you’re not really filled with God’s Spirit. And so we saw that what was happening in Corinth still happens today. And so, do you remember? I said last week that while Paul said a lot about spiritual gifts in chapter 12, chapter 12 is not really about spiritual gifts; it’s about loving one another. The spiritual person is not so much the person who possesses one of these spiritual gifts; the spiritual person is the person who loves and serves his or her neighbour. And so, chapter 12 was really about loving one another. And so is chapter 13.
Well, Paul ended chapter 12 by referring to the most excellent way. He said he wanted to show his readers what the most excellent way is. So, what is this most excellent way? Well, we can imagine everyone in the church in Corinth — who was listening to this letter when it was being read aloud the first time — leaning forward in their seats to hear what Paul had to say. We can imagine them thinking: ‘Paul’s going to tell us the most excellent way. I wonder what it is? Let’s listen and find out.’
And then the person leading the service began to read chapter 13 which begins like this:
And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels….
And we can imagine — can’t we? — those in the congregation who speak in tongues thinking to themselves: ‘This is it. Despite what Paul has said about the importance of all the gifts, he really does think the most important gift is my gift.’ And we can imagine them, sticking out their chests with pride as they wait to hear Paul write that those who speak in tongues are the most excellent members of the church.
But what happens? Well, Paul bursts their pride, doesn’t he? He sticks a pin in their proud hearts. He wrote:
And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol.
Paul was saying to them: Without love, all your speaking in tongues is just noise. It’s just noise. The gifts of the Spirit are worthless without love.
Well, 1 Corinthians 13 is great for weddings. But weddings are not why this chapter was written; this chapter was written for a church which was being spoiled and ruined because of their many rivalries and jealousies and by all their pride over spiritual gifts. And Paul was writing to burst their pride and to humble them, by showing them that the most important thing which they needed to possess was love. And it’s the same today.
Verses 1 to 3
In verses 1 to 3 Paul taught them — and us — that love is crucial; so crucial, in fact, that a lack of love wipes out and erases the value of anything else we may do. And so Paul says:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol.
Now, although we read about speaking on tongues last week and though we read about it here too, I haven’t said anything yet about what speaking in tongues was. Some people say it’s a divine or heavenly language; or it’s an angelic language, the language of the angels in heaven. And Paul’s words here — where he refers to speaking in the tongues of men and of angels — might seem to support that view. Some people say: speaking in tongues is the language of the angels. However, we should be careful to note that Paul didn’t say he spoke in the tongues of angels. All he said was: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels.’ He was speaking hypothetically; he was imagining that if this were the case – if he was able to speak in the tongues of men and even of angels — but didn’t have love, then it would count for nothing. He didn’t say he spoke in the tongues of angels, but that if he were able to speak in the tongues of angels, it wouldn’t amount to anything without love. And, of course, we know he’s speaking hypothetically because in a moment he will say ‘[if] I surrender my body to the flames’. Well, Paul suffered many things for the sake of the gospel, but when he wrote these words he had not surrendered his body to the flames; he was speaking hypothetically. So, no one can claim that this verse supports the idea that speaking in tongues means speaking in an angelic language.
Paul was saying that even if I could do that — even if I could speak in the language of angels — but have not love, then all my speaking would count for nothing; I’d be making a lot of noise and that’s all.
And then he went on to say that even if he had the gift of prophecy and could fathom all mysteries and all knowledge. Again he’s speaking hypothetically, because although God revealed many mysteries to Paul, no ordinary human being can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge. We cannot know everything. But even if he could fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, even if he knew everything about God and about God’s plans and purposes, and even if he had such a special kind of faith so that he was able to move mountains, even if he could do all of that, but did not have love, then ‘I am nothing’, he says. It would all count for nothing.
And then he went on to say that even if I gave away all that I possess to the poor; if I gave away all my money and all my belongings to help the poor, and even if I surrendered my body to the flames so that I was martyred for the faith, but have not love, then I gain nothing. It would all be for nothing.
Here were these Christians in Corinth who boasted about speaking on tongues and who treated their fellow believers who did not possess that gift as if they counted for nothing. They thought they were the spiritual ones, the really spiritual members of the church, because they possessed the most important gift. And yet — Paul was saying — despite your great gifts, the smallness of your love undermines the value of anything you may have done. The value of what you have done is wiped out and erased because you do not have love.
Verses 4 to 7
In verses 4 to 7 Paul personifies love. That it, he describes love as if it were a real person in order to explain the kinds of thing that love does. And some of the commentators suggest that if you take the opposite of this list, then you have a description of what the Corinthian Christians were really like. So, if love is patient and therefore bears with the faults and failings of others, the believers in Corinth were being impatient with one another. If love is kind and does good to others, then they were being unkind and mean to each other. If love doesn’t envy the gifts of others, and if it doesn’t boast about what it has, then some of them were envying one another and others were boasting about themselves and their own gifts. If love is not proud, then they were full of their own importance. If love is not rude, then they were disregarding and disrespecting one another. If love is not self-seeking and if it wants what is best for others, then they were seeking whatever was best for themselves. If love is not easily angered, then their short tempers were ruining the fellowship. If love keeps no record of wrongs, then you can be sure that they were constantly reminding one another of their faults and failings. If love doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth, then no doubt they took malicious delight in listening to rumours about one another and false allegations. If love always protects so that it does not seek to harm others, then they were hurting and harming one another by the things they said and did. If love always trusts and hopes, then they never gave another the benefit of the doubt, but were always prepared to think the worst of others. If love never runs out, then their love did not last.
Some of the commentators suggest that if you take the opposite of Paul’s list, then you have a description of what the Corinthian Christians were really like. And who would want to belong to a church like that? Who would want to belong to a church where the members were like this?
Well, if we’re ever like this with one another, then we need to repent and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our lovelessness and we need to seek his help to love one another the way that we should. If you take the opposite of Paul’s list, then you have a description of what the Corinthians were like. But it’s also possible to take this list and see it as a description of the Lord’s love for us, because the Lord is certainly patient with us and our shortcomings, and he’s kind towards us, filling our life with good things even though we do not deserve it. The Lord Jesus did not boast, but he humbled himself and came to serve us by giving up his life as a ransom for our sins. He was not self-seeking, but he sought what was best for us when he gave up his life on the cross. He was not easily angered, because again and again he was patient with his disciples and he’s patient with us. And, of course, when the Lord pardons us, he promises to remember our sins no more so that the record of our wrongs us wiped clean. Our Saviour does not delight in evil, but he rejoices in the truth and he promises to protect his people always; and his love never ceases. In many ways, Paul’s list of the characteristics of love describes the Saviour who loves us with a perfect love; and he gives his Spirit to us to renew us in his image and to help us to love another with a love like this.
Without love, we’re nothing. That was Paul’s point in verses 1 to 3. No matter what we aim to do for the Lord, no matter how we seek to serve him in the church, no matter what sacrifices we may make, and no matter what we manage to accomplish, unless we love one another, we’re nothing. And so, every day we should look to the Lord our Saviour for the help we need from his Spirit to love one another the way that he loves us.
Verses 8 to 13
In the final part of today’s passage, Paul contrasts the permanence of love with the impermanence of the spiritual gifts which they boasted about. And, of course, the value of something very often depends on how long it lasts. Furniture from IKEA is pretty inexpensive, because it’s not built to last. You buy it and keep it a few years and then think nothing of replacing it, because it’s inexpensive and not built to last. But then, there may be something in your home which was much more expensive; and it was much more expensive because it was built to last. It’s a solid piece of furniture and it’s made from real wood and not MDF. It was expensive to buy, because it was built to last.
The Corinthians were getting the value of things mixed up. They were placing value on things which would not last, whereas they placed very little value on the things which were designed to last. They placed value on the gifts of the Spirit which were useful for a time, but which would be redundant in the future when Christ returns, And it seems they placed little value on love which will always remain and which will never cease to exist.
And so, he tells us in verse 8 that loves never fails. Other things fail and come to an end, but not love. Prophecies will cease; tongues will be stilled; the gift of knowledge — which he spoke about in chapter 12 — will also pass away. Those things were designed to come to an end, but loves never fails.
Furthermore, not only will the spiritual gifts not last, but the benefit of prophecy and tongues and knowledge is only ever partial. That’s the point of verse 9: in this life we know, not fully, but in part; in this life, we prophesy, not fully, but in part. What we can know about God in this life is only ever partial. However, when perfection comes — and Paul is referring to the coming of the Lord Jesus when we will be made perfect — when perfection comes, our imperfect, partial knowledge of God will disappear and will be replaced; and we will know the Lord in a far, far better way than we can possibly know him now.
Why’s he talking about knowledge? Well, it’s because speaking in tongues was a form of revelation; it was one of the ways the Lord revealed himself and his will to his people in those special, apostolic days. Prophecy was another form of revelation; it was one of the ways the Lord revealed himself to his people. The gift of knowledge was another form of revelation. By means of these gifts, the Lord made himself known to his people in those days.
So, they were boasting about these special gifts of revelation by which God made himself known to them. Speaking in tongues, prophesying, the gift of knowledge: it was all to do with knowing God. But the knowledge they received from God at that time through those gifts of the Spirit was only ever partial and indirect.
In fact, even though we don’t rely on those gifts today, and instead rely on the Bible for our knowledge of God, our knowledge of God which we receive from the Bible is still only partial. But one day — when Christ returns — we will know God far, far better than we have ever known him in this life.
So, that’s why Paul refers here to knowledge. The gifts they boasted in were gifts which gave them knowledge of God. But it was only a partial knowledge. And God has something even better in store for us in the future when Christ appears.
In a sense then, our knowledge of God now and our knowledge of God in the future can be compared to the difference between childhood and adulthood. This is Paul’s point in verse 11. When a person is a child, he will do certain things which are appropriate for children. But when he becomes an adult, he does things differently. In the same way, in this life, we know God in certain ways which are appropriate for this life. But when we come into God’s presence in glory, we will do things differently.
And in verse 12 he uses the illustration of looking into a mirror. It’s one thing to see someone’s reflection in a mirror, but it’s another thing to see them directly. Or we might say that it’s one thing to look at a photo, but it’s another thing to see them face to face. Which is better? Seeing them face to face is better, isn’t it? Well, what we know about God now in this life is like looking in a mirror. But one day, we’ll see him face to face.
The knowledge we have of God now in this life is nothing compared to the knowledge we’ll have of him when we come into his presence with glorified bodies to look upon him face to face. And so, how foolish of the Corinthians to boast about these gifts of the Spirit which only ever gave them a partial knowledge of God, and a knowledge of God which is destined to be surpassed when Christ comes again. How foolish of them to boast about such gifts. And how foolish of them to wreck the church and to spoil the fellowship of God’s people because of these gifts.
And so how does Paul finish this chapter? In the final verse, he turns their attention away from the gifts of the Spirit and the knowledge of God which they derived from them to the faith which the Spirit creates in our hearts so that we cling by faith to the Saviour and receive from him everlasting life. And he turns their attention to the hope which Christ gives to his people of everlasting life in his presence. And he turns their attention back to love which never fails and which never ceases to exist but which will last for ever.
They boasted about tongues and prophecy and knowledge. But Paul replaces those three gifts of the Spirit with faith and hope and love. And out of these three, love is the greatest. And so, instead of boasting about the gifts of the Spirit, they’re to love one another, because love is the most important thing.
What does it mean to be spiritual? Who is the really spiritual person? The Corinthians would have said it’s the person who can speak in tongues and who can prophesy and who has the gift of knowledge. But Paul makes clear that more important than all those gifts is love. The truly spiritual person is the one who loves and serves the people around them.
And, of course, loving one another in the church is the best way to protect the church and to protect the fellowship of believers. When members of the church forget love — as they did in Corinth — then they become impatient with the faults of others and irritable with each other. They keep a record of the wrongs done to them and they’re unwilling to forgive their fellow believer. When we forget love, we become proud, and we look down on others; and we think too highly of ourselves and far too little of others in the church. When we forget love, we don’t care what others need and we insist that things are done our way. When we forget love, we believe all kinds of evil rumours about one another and we disregard what’s really true. When members of the church behave like this, the church is ruined. But when members love one another, then our love is the cement that keeps us together.
And how do we get this love for others? By believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, because in the gospel we see the Saviour who loved us even though there was nothing lovely in us. We see the Saviour who was patient with us and who put up with our sins and guilt. We see the Saviour who is kind and who came to earth to save us. We see the Saviour who was not too proud to associate with us, but who became one of us. We see the Saviour who was not self-seeking, but who was prepared to give up his life for us. We see the Saviour who is not easily angered, but who is gentle and humble in heart. We see the Saviour who does not keep a record of our wrongs, but who pardons our sins and remembers them no more. In the gospel we see how much the Saviour loved us; and he gives us his Spirit to live in us and to change us so that we’re able to love like him.