How do you think of 1 Corinthians 13? Is it a warm, relaxing bubble bath? Does it make you forget your cares and give you the warm fuzzies?
I’m here to tell you, this chapter is not a bubble bath. It’s a scalding hot bath full of antiseptic!
And we are covered in cuts and bruises and deep wounds. And 1 Corinthians 13 hurts. It hurts!
That’s the kind of wake-up call Paul wanted the Cornithians to have. No Corinthian read this chapter and thought, ‘How sweet!. They thought ‘Yikes! I am in deep, deep trouble here.’
There are three paragraphs in this chapter. Paragraph 1 will put the fear of God into us, paragraph 2 will make us despair of ourselves, but only then will paragraph 3 give us some hope.
There’s hope in the end, but Paul wants us to soak long and hard in some painful truths.
Listen here. Or keep reading…
So let’s take the plunge. Look at paragraph 1, verses 1-3…
Here Paul gives us three caricatures of the most impressive, spiritually-gifted people he can think of. The Corinthians thought that they were so special, so spiritually gifted. And so Paul dreams up the most gifted people he can imagine only to say that these gifts without love are nothing.
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Here’s the first caricature: The ecstatic worshipper.
The Corinthians loved to speak in tongues, it looked extremely impressive. They seemed to think that the more indecipherable the better. Paul says, I don’t care if you know every language on earth and every language in heaven – when you loveless worshippers get together all I hear is crash crash crash.
I played drums when I was at school. The first time I was invited to play in the senior school band I was asked to hit the gong. For one piece of music. I had to count 400 bars of rest and then four bars from the end – bwwang. And that was it, that was my part. And so I went into strict training. I consulted with a percussionist for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He told me the best place to hit the gong – two/thirds of the way between the centre and the rim. I learned that you should very quietly warm up the gong before you hit it, get it vibrating quietly and then when you hit it you get a lovely warm bwang, rather than a harsh clang. The gong is not for dumb dumbs. So I was ready. I was primed. I practiced and when the concert came, I counted my 400 bars of rest and right at the climax of the music, everything was crescendoing, the conductor pointed to me and – Bwang. I nailed it. I rocked that gong the old school way. It was a tremendous gong performance. In it’s right place.
But imagine if I tore up the music, refused to count 400 bars of rest, put my gong on a pedestal and started crashing my way through the whole piece. That would be my first and last concert. You see there’s a reason that Mozart never wrote a Gong Concerto. To my knowledge Beethoven never wrote Sonata for Cymbals. You know the one – it goes ‘Crash, crash, crash, crash, crash, crash.’ Never happen.
But that’s what the Corinthians were like with their impressive spiritual gifts. There should have been a whole symphony of love punctuated by an accompanying gift at the right time. Instead it was crash, crash, crash. All noise and no love.
Are you like that? Am I like that? All noise and no love? Are we clanging, empty, self-focused, proud? Without love we are.
Verse two shows us Paul’s second caricature.
2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Here is the profound prophet.
Churches like All Souls, we love this kind of gifted prophetic preaching leader. They sweep up into the pulpit and they know the Greek, they know the Hebrew, they even know the Aramaic that Jesus spoke in, they can quote Augustine in latin and give examples from Homer the poet and Homer the Simpson. And we are mightily impressed.
Paul says – you aint got love? You’re nothing. You’ve got zilch. You’re a zero. You simply don’t show up on Jesus’s radar screen.
When Paul says that such a person is “Nothing” – that’s scary.
This is not like your school report that said ‘Must do better.’ This is more like a death certificate that says “No spiritual life.” It’s very scary.
Put a finger in 1 Corinthians and turn back to page 972. Matthew chapter 7:22. Jesus is winding up His most famous bit of teaching and He looks ahead to judgement day. He says,
‘Many will say to Me on that day “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?”
Here are people with exceptional gifts. Prophetic gifts, power gifts, healing gifts, miraculous gifts all of them done IN JESUS’ NAME, and Jesus says v23:
“Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers.’”
Jesus will say to gifted people – “You had my gifts but you had nothing of me. I never knew you. We never had a relationship. When you exercised your gifts you might have invoked my name, but it was in name only. It was all business, it wasn’t personal. I never knew you. You gave the world your gifts, you never gave me your heart.”
You know what this means? It means there are preachers in hell right now who preached in Jesus’ name. There are miracle workers in hell right now who healed in Jesus’ name. You can have extraordinary Christian gifts and not even be a Christian. As we turn back 1 Corinthians 13, we see that’s what Paul’s getting at: without love you are a spiritual nothing.
Do you see what a challenge 1 Corinthians 13 is? You can perform impressive even supernatural Christian ministry and yet be nothing.
Caricature number three:
3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Here’s the stoic do-gooder.
Maybe you warm to this person the most. You think: ‘We don’t need ecstatic worshippers, we don’t need dry, dusty preachers with head knowledge, we need action. Less hype, more help.’
Well Paul imagines this charitable do-gooder giving away everything, even their very life, ostensibly in the cause of the kingdom, and yet – it’s possible to do all this without love. There is loveless sacrifice
What do they get for this? Nothing. Again, this does not show up on God’s radar.
Do you see how absolutely necessary love is? This chapter was not written to be a bubble bath, it hurts. Paul’s warning us – stop looking at your gifts to tell you how you’re doing in the Christian life. Your gifts will lie to you.
Do you look to your gifts? You’re good at some aspect of Christian ministry or service. Here’s the danger, you do you bit, that ministry goes well, you conclude that your spiritual health is A-ok. Paul says you’re looking at completely the wrong dial. The gifts dial is not attached to the state of your soul. There’s no connection. Your gifts dial might be through the roof and you go straight to hell. Don’t look at your gifts. Look at your love. Dust off the love dial. That’s the real measure. If that’s flat-lining you’re dead. If you don’t have love you’re a spiritual zero, you’re nothing.
Well if love is so important. What is love?
Well, that’s Paul’s second paragraph. And here we move from from the fear of God to utter despair. Here’s what love is, v4
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
First off the bat in v4 Paul says Love is patient and kind. That’s a potent combination. Some of us can do grim-faced patience… but it’s not kind. Some of us can do superficial sweetness… but it’s short-lived. Can you do patience and kindness? Together?
Patience is such a key element to love, Paul begins and ends his list with it. In v4 he says, ‘Love is patient’ at the end of v7 he says ‘[Love] always perseveres’. V8 – ‘Love never fails.’
Love puts up with constant frustration, constant interruption, constant set-back, constant opposition, but in the midst of all that Love never fails.
I can think I’m loving until someone asks of me just one thing too many. Or I’m serving one person here, and all of a sudden there comes a need from over here, and don’t they realise I’m busy being loving? So I snap at them: ‘I’m trying to love here.’
Are you challenged by this? Patient and kind.
And then in v4 Paul begins with what love is not. And of course everything that love is not, the Corinthians are. Paul’s deliberately written this by reversing all the things the Corinthians are. He knows they are boastful, rude, etc. And so are we.
We manage to be, v4 – both envious and boastful. Do you manage that? Feelings of inferiority and superiority simultaneously? Are you able to think: “I’m better than everyone” AND at the same time think “It’s not fair, I wish I was like them.” That’s what the Corinthians were like. That’s what we’re like. And it’s the polar opposite of love. Love is so consumed with the other person it’s just not interested in inferiority or superiority. You don’t think more of yourself, you don’t think less of yourself you just think of yourself less. When love is flourishing, boasting and envy are just non-issues. But boasting and envy are huge issues for us, so what does that say about us?
5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
We all think we’re easy-going until we’re wronged. Then we see just how self-seeking we are. We snap, we’re rude, we get angry and we keep score. That’s what we’re like. What would it be like to never be rude, never self-seeking, not easily angered, to never keep a record of wrong or bear a grudge. That’s what love is.
6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
Do you ever wish evil on your opponents? Do you ever wish you could bend or hide or side-line the truth because it’s inconvenient? Love never does that.
And then here’s the nail in our coffin, v7:
7Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails.
Are you a loving person? Maybe you’ve gotten through verses 4-6 and you’ve said ‘Tick, tick, yes, yes, that’s me, that’s me also.’ But surely you’ve come unstuck by v7. In fact let’s do an experiment. Let’s all read out loud verses 4-7 and instead of the word love, let’s replace it with ‘I’. So ‘I am patient, I am kind.’ Shall we try that out loud together??
4I am patient, I am kind. I do not envy, I do not boast, I am not proud. 5I am not rude, I am not self-seeking, I am not easily angered, I keep no record of wrongs. 6I do not delight in evil but I rejoice with the truth. 7I always protect, I always trust, I always hope, I always persevere.
Now that we’ve all perjured ourselves, let me say to you and to myself: Liar, Liar, Pants on fire.
Do you see why this is such a challenging passage?
Love is this. I’m not this.
And Paul says ‘Unless you have love you’re nothing.’
So what do we do?
Well let’s note two things here. Two rays of hope that will help us to not only live with 1 Corinthians 13 but to positively live it out. Paul here points us to a Person of love and a Future of love.
First, the Person of love.
In verses 4-7 it might look like ‘love’ is an abstract noun with a whole heap of adjectives attached. That’s how it looks in this translation.
So maybe Paul’s saying something like ‘Love is warm and soft and tingly and sweet.’ Adjectives.
Or you might think Paul is giving us a list of similes and metaphors. You might think Paul is telling us what love is like. “Love is like kittens in velvet jackets purring by the fireside, drinking hot cocoa.” Love is like these things.
But no, Paul is not waxing lyrical describing the concept of love.
Instead, Love is a concrete, living thing that performs a whole heap of actions. Love is a force, a power, a life that goes ahead and does stuff
It doesn’t come across so well in English, but verse 4 would more literally be translated: Love waits patiently, Love performs kindness. And again in v7 Love protects, Love hopes, Love trusts, Love perseveres.
Do you see? Love does stuff. Love acts in these ways, Love has a life of its own, Love is a Person.
But He’s not you. And He’s not me. So who is He?
The night before Jesus died, He got up from the evening meal, took off His robe, put on a towel, got down on His hands and knees and the Lord of Heaven washed and padded dry the filthy feet of the men who would desert him and of Judas who betrayed Him to death. Knowing His imminent death, He spent time patiently teaching and comforting them. He took His three closest friends to a garden called Gethsemane and there while they let Him down yet again, Jesus agonized in prayer. Jesus said ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’. The bible said He was sweating blood. Because here was the prospect that lay before Him. The cross was, for Jesus, a furnace of judgement, full of the righteous anger of God against sin. All our unlovingness and unloveliness must be consumed in the holy love of God. And so the dilemma was this – either Jesus goes into the furnace or we have to go. Either He is consumed for our unloveliness or we are. Either He dies the death of the godforsaken or we do. It’s either hell for Him or hell for us. And in that garden Jesus said ‘Let it be me.’
4He is patient, He is kind. He doesn’t envy, He doesn’t boast, He’s not proud. 5He’s not rude, He’s not self-seeking, He’s not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. 6 He doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7He always protects, He always trusts, He always hopes, He always perseveres.
We often think of the question What is love? Perhaps a better question is: Who is love?
Love is a Person. A Person who first has loved you.
1 John 4:19 sums up an absolutely fundamental bible truth: We love because He first loved us. Love is a Person, who has acted for you. He has done verses 4-7 for you. You are on the receiving end of this love.
Love is first something done to you. And then love is something done in you… and through you.
Which is why verses 1-3 talk about having love or not having love. It’s one or the other. Do you have love or don’t you? That’s the big question for Paul. It’s not: How loving are you on a scale of 1-10? Paul’s interest, the bible’s interest, God’s interest is in one thing: Do you have Love? There is a Person called Love, His name is Jesus and He’s loved you. Do you have Love?
Well do you?
Maybe tonight is the night to receive Him into your life for the first time.
Or maybe you’re thinking ‘I do have Jesus in my life, but still my love is very patchy to say the least.
Well that’s why we need the last paragraph. It’s not just about a Person of love. It’s about a Future of love. Paul’s going to tell us in verses 8-13 that none of us have arrived yet. We are all waiting for maturity We are all waiting for perfect love.
Read with me:
8Love 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. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When 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 childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor 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. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Paul wants us to understand how our present experience compares to the future.
And we need to know this because we know that our lives are so mixed. Love bubbles out of us one minute, sin the next. It’s so patchy and partial and mixed. So Paul comforts us and says – one day everything will change.
First of all, verses 8 and 9, all these gifts (that we think are so important) will completely cease. Gifts are like a torchlight. A torchlight in the dark is useful. But at noon, blazing sunshine swallows up the torchlight. In the same way, we are heading towards something so glorious that it swallows up all our paltry gifts. Even the most dazzling and impressive gift now, will be utterly obsolete when this future comes to pass.
What is this future? It’s described in three ways in verses 10, 11 and 12.
Verse 10 calls it ‘perfection.’ It’s the idea of everything brought to the goal for which it was designed. Right now all things are subjected to frustration. But then – your body will work the way it was meant to work, relationships will work the way they’re meant to work, the world will work the way it’s meant to work. Perfection. You are built for it. It is coming.
Verse 11 describes our future as Maturity. Paul says, we are like kids now. Even the wisest and most knowledgable among us are like toddlers running around compared to our wisdom and maturity then. You know acorns grow up into oaks. In chapter 15 Paul says that now we are like seeds that die, go into the ground and rise up immeasurably more glorious than how we went down. We will grow up. This person – this body, mind and spirit – is an acorn. One day I’ll grow up. I keep telling my mother that – One day I’ll grow up. But really, one day you and I will grow up in every dimension. Maturity beyond our wildest dreams.
And then verse 12 – here’s the very heart of our future: ‘Face to face’.
You’ll often see children having staring competitions with their parents. But we all know that the staring competition is just a front. We all know what the child really wants, what the parent really wants. Face to face. Closeness, transparency, openness, adoration, intimacy. Face to face.
In Exodus chapter 33 we read about Moses going into the tent of meeting and speaking with the LORD face to face as a man speaks to His friend.
The LORD… face to face… as a man speaks to His friend.
Moses had to veil his face when he went back to the people because they couldn’t bear to see that reflected glory fading away. One day it won’t just be for Moses, it’ll be for you, it won’t just be for an hour, and it will never fade away. Face to face with the LORD Jesus.
Everything good you’ve ever experienced now has been in the words of v12 ‘a poor reflection as in a mirror.’ The old King James Version translated it ‘now we see through a glass darkly.’ Anything good now is a poor reflection of face to face.
Every kiss you’ve ever wanted, every affirmation you’ve ever craved, every relationship you’ve ever pursued, every longing you’ve ever felt – will be fulfilled when you’re face to face with Jesus.
The One who loved you enough to walk into that furnace for you. The One who bled and died for you. He’s waiting in heaven for you and if you’ve received Him now He will say to you then ‘It is so good to see you, I have loved you for so long, let me get a good look at you.’ Face to face.
If we’ve received Jesus now, that’s what’s coming then. But if that’s true, then what on earth are we doing now clanging our cymbals, puffing ourselves up, seeking our own glory and praise now.
Can you imagine being face to face with Jesus and saying to Him: Hey Jesus, watch me speak in tongues. Hey Jesus, let me tell you my wisdom. Hey Jesus, listen to me preach. No. We’ll shut up. We will gaze. And we will know Him even as we are fully known.
The only reason I’m preaching to you now is because we’re not face to face yet. At the end of the day that is the ONLY reason to preach. It’s the only reason to exercise any of our gifts. Because at their best, these gifts can give a poor reflection, at times they help us see through a glass darkly and we say to each other ‘perfection is coming, maturity is coming, face to face is coming.’
But there’s one thing we can do now that utterly defines the glory of then. One thing. Love.
13And now these three remain (everything else passes away then – these three are the three things that remain into eternity): faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The life to come is a world of love. We’ve seen the future: the future is love. Well friends live it now.
If you’re not a Christian, receive Jesus tonight. Go from being a person who has not love, to a person who has love. Receive Jesus into your life – He loves you, He will live His life of love in you and through you. An unbelievable future is yours for the asking. Ask Him in and He will take you in.
If you are a Christian, look to Him again tonight. Communion is another little torchlight pointing us to the Person of love and the future of love. His body broken for you, His blood poured out for you in love. And it’s a little token of the feast we will have when we’re face to face. Be nourished by this and then just stop trying to be the cool one, stop trying to be the clever one, the knowledgeable one, the funny one, the pretty one, the fun one, the gifted one, just love. Love is what lasts, love is what counts.