The story is told of a wife who came into a Minister’s office full of hatred toward her husband.
“I do not only want to get rid of him, I want to get even. Before I divorce him, I want to hurt him as much as he has me.”
The Minister suggested an ingenious plan,
“Go home and act as if you really love your husband. Tell him how much he means to you. Praise him for every decent trait. Go out of your way to be as kind, considerate, and generous as possible. Spare no efforts to please him, to enjoy him. Make him believe that you love him. After you’ve convinced him of your undying love and that you cannot live without him, then drop the bomb. Tell him that you’re getting a divorce. That will really hurt him.”
With revenge in her eyes, she smiled and exclaimed,
“Beautiful, beautiful. Won’t he ever be surprised?”
And she did this with enthusiasm. Acting “as if she loved him” for two months she showed love, kindness, listening, giving, reinforcing, and sharing and when she hadn’t returned, the Minister called her,
“Are you ready now to go through with the divorce?”
“Divorce?” she exclaimed. “Never! I discovered I really do love him.”
Her actions had changed her feelings. Motion resulted in emotion. The ability to love is established not so much by fervent promise but as often repeated deeds. To love someone is a choice, reinforced by good deeds.
Likewise 1 Corinthians 13 is all about the having a right attitude, one that is full of Godly love, when using the gifts that God gives us.
The woman in the story had no love for her husband but found her love for him when she did acts of kindness for him. 1 Corinthians 13 makes the point that as Christians we should do all things, including acts of kindness, in love.
Before we look further into this very famous chapter in the Bible, let’s just step back and look at the context in which 1 Corinthians 13 is set.
The letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth was when Paul was most likely on his third missionary journey around the Mediterranean. He was fully expecting to come to Corinth very soon (4:19, 11:34; 16:8) and had written 1 & 2 Corinthians and another letter which has been lost in antiquity (the so-called ‘lost epistle’ (5:9)) ahead of his visit.
Paul used this letter to give mainly instructions on living Godly lives and to not be like the pagans around them. Corinth was a notorious city famed for all kinds of debauchery and unfortunately some of the sexual sins that were evident in their culture were also present in the church.
The biggest problem that the church in Corinth faced was that many Christians would not step apart from the worldliness around them and their old pagan ways. In fact Paul gives instruction in Chapter 5:9-13 to put Christians who are sexually immoral outside the church and have nothing to do with them.
Do you think the church today would be a different body if it took this teaching seriously? What would the church look like if we had nothing to do with those who are sexually immoral in the church? Paul was referring not to those outside the church but those inside the church; those that called themselves ‘Christians’. If there’s any doubt as to how we define sexual immorality then Paul gives clear instructions on this in Romans chapter 1 (verses 24-29).
So we have chapters 12 and 14 as it were, bracketing chapter 13. In chapter 12 Paul explains that there are many spiritual gifts that God gives the Body of Christ (the Church) and finishes the chapter laying out the case for harmony in diversity; there are many spiritual gifts and these are shared throughout the body of Christ.
Chapter 14 deals with the function of these spiritual gifts starting with the correct use of the gift of tongues, stating that the gift tongues is inferior to the gift of prophecy and ending the chapter exhorting the believers to ‘desire earnestly to prophesy’.
So here in chapter 13 Paul provides the attitude in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit from chapter 12, are to be actioned.
Love in Action
So let’s start with verse 1,
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13:1
Paul is saying here that even if we are able to speak eloquently (tongues of men) and in a heavenly spiritual language (tongues of angels), if we do not speak in an attitude of love then we might as well be speaking ecstatic gibberish; just like the pagans did in Paul’s day. It is of no worth.
Do we always speak with an attitude of love? Do we always consider the other persons feelings before we speak? James chapter 3 (1-10) likens the tongue to the small rudder of a ship. The pilot of a ship can direct the ship wherever he chooses using the small rudder and likewise the tongue, even though small, can not only direct a person’s life to either life or death but can also speak the same; life or death.
Paul reinforces this point in verses two and three.
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2-3
If we have the fullness of prophecy, knowledge and faith but have not an attitude of love, then these gifts are meaningless. The Christians in Paul’s day had not yet experienced being burned at the stake but Paul here makes the prediction that when Christians are burned at the stake, even their sacrifice will be in vain if not done in an attitude of love!
The point that Paul is making in these first few verses is that good works by themselves are meaningless if done without an expression of the same love that God the Father shows us in Jesus.
Thomas a’ Kempis once said, “Whoever loves much, does much.” You see a heart that is filled with godly love, and therefore compassion, is driven to act. George Müller was such a man driven to act out of compassion for the orphaned children in Bristol during the 1800’s. He was a great man of faith relying completely on charitable donations to keep 5 orphan houses running with over a thousand children to feed, clothe and spiritually nourish every day.
His testament is amazing but if he did any of what God allowed him to accomplish out of selfish ambition and not out of love for the orphans then it was worthless. God requires that we have a heart of love when we do charitable works.
Think about that for a moment. Do we give to charity because it’s the Christian thing to do or do we give because we are passionate about the cause and we have a heart of love for it? Do we get involved in helping others less fortunate than ourselves out of compassion or compulsion?
The Qualities of Love
So Paul tells us that we should do works in an attitude of love and now he defines the very qualities of love,
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
You can see why this chapter is often quoted in weddings and in particular, these verses. These few verses tell us what the qualities of love are and, in a wedding setting, one would hope how our new spouse would be behaving towards us! But these are not human qualities. In fact this reads like a list of opposites from how we act and behave.
These qualities can only come from the Holy Spirit living and indwelling our hearts. In fact godly love, the agape love, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We read of this in Galatians 5:22-23,
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”
Love and compassion for each other does not come naturally, it requires the presence of the Holy Spirit and these verses in 1 Corinthians show us the fruit of the person filled with love. Let’s just look at these a bit closer and keep verses 4 – 7 to hand as we look at each one in turn. What these verses are saying is:
- That the person filled with love is kind, which means showing others kindness and looking for opportunities to be kind to others. Is this something that we do?
- The person filled with love is happy and rejoices with those that are successful.
- In our materialistic world it is very easy to fall under the covetous spell of wanting what others have. I live next door to a Business Manager who works for Mercedes and almost every other month he comes home from work with the latest model from Mercedes. And he doesn’t come home with the bottom end models; no it’s often the top end models. The point is I could easily be very envious of his wealth.
- The person filled with love is humble. Pride loves itself and not others. I won’t ask you if you think that you are humble because if you answer yes then you’re not! Only others can say that we are.
- The person filled with love is courteous and gracious at all times. Are we like this?
- The person filled with love seeks the good of others and are filled with goodness which is another fruit of the Holy Spirit.
- The person filled with love quietly endures insults and keeps no record of wrongs.
- There is a saying, ‘forgive and forget’ but how many of us actually forget those things that people have done to upset us. Often we find that we harbour resentment or bitterness in our hearts for years and some things even after those who hurt us have passed away. Only by bringing such hurts to the cross of Christ Jesus every time we find ourselves thinking on such things, can we be free of their affects.
- The person filled with love rejoices in the truth. Truth told without love is too harsh and love without truth is too soft. If there is both truth and love in a church then its members will grow up into Christ and develop a spiritual maturity.
- Finally the person filled with love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.
- They bear or protect another person’s faults out of love and do not reveal them to others. This is easy to do when we love that person but harder when we don’t. This is when we need the Holy Spirit filling our hearts so that we can love our brother or sister in Christ.
- They believe or trust in others. People let us down and betray our trust but that is God’s business not ours. We must learn to trust others and not be suspicious of them.
- They hope in others just as love always hopes. For those of us who have children we hope for their welfare, happiness and success. They may disappoint us but we will continue to hope in them because we love them; just as Father God hopes and loves us.
- Finally they endure or persevere in all things. Love is the greatest force on the earth and indeed the universe. Love will always overcome.
Someone once said, “It is natural to love them that love us, but it is supernatural to love them that hate us.” We were reminded of this fact all too clearly this week by the horrendous suicide bombing in Manchester on Monday night. Only love can overcome hate and hate can never overcome love.
So in these few verses, verses 4 -7, Paul has described a person filled with love and the fruits of the outworking of that love. Of course he wasn’t describing himself or being esoteric; rather he was describing the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is who we should emulate and we can only do this by being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Everything Shall Pass Away but Love Shall Remain
So finally we come to the last half of this chapter, verses 8-13. Paul firstly reinforces the point that love never fails; it endures. This is a quality of God of course who is eternal; and so is love.
Paul demonstrates this point by comparing three gifts of the Holy Spirit to this eternal love. They shall pass away but love shall not. This is our hope and assurance, since God’s love is eternal then God’s love for us is also eternal. As it says in 1 John,
“And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” 1 John 4:16
A friend of mine said at his wedding reception,
“You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”(Sam Keen) We are imperfect people but God sees us through His Son Christ Jesus. In Jesus we are made perfect and it will only be when we join God in heaven that we shall be made perfect and shall know God just as He knows us. This is what verses 9-12 are referring to,
Verse 9 “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.”
Verse 12 “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
In this life we can only have a limited understanding of God. In other words, we don’t see the whole picture. However, when we are no longer bound by the rules of our earthly bodies and minds and we are face to face with Father God, He will make us perfect and also perfect our knowledge so that we shall know in full.
We shall come into full maturity and all of our childish ways shall be removed. Until then we have the fruits of the Holy Spirit to help us live out our Christian calling and journey. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were specifically given to different believers as God directed but the fruits of the Holy Spirit are for every believer today and are given equally.
Finally verse 13 points us back to the main subject of the chapter; love. The verse says,
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
Paul makes the point that the greatest attribute that God has given to us is love. Let us remember that even when we were dead in our sins God first loved us and has now made us alive in Christ Jesus because of His great mercy and love[Ephesians 2:1-5, Romans 5:8].
Faith and hope come from love, in other words the source of our faith and hope is God’s love. From His love comes all things. Out of His love He created this world, out of His love He sent His Son and out of His love He chose us before the foundation of the World [Ephesians 1:4]. And when we see Him face to face faith and hope will no longer be necessary and shall also pass away, only God’s for us and ours for Him shall remain.
So what can we conclude of 1 Corinthians 13 as a brief summary?
I think it is this:
- 1 Corinthians 13 is a description of the character of God and therefore Christ Jesus His Son.
- It reminds us that we should do all things in God’s love, whether words or deeds, and we can only achieve this through the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
- Finally it is a message of hope, that one day we shall be with God and know and understand God’s love for us in Heaven.