As we study the chapters leading up to chapter 13 we can see that this Corinthian congregation has its share of problems.
- Division because of pride and competition.
- Ungrateful attitude toward the ones who originally brought them to Christ.
- Sexual immorality.
- Lawsuits and arguments.
- Divorce problems.
- Judging each other, complaining.
- Poor behavior during worship.
- Lack of unity.
Normally, it would take a library of books to deal with each of these issues, give advice on how to correct these problems and avoid them in the future. But Paul summarizes the solution to these problems in just a few verses of chapter 13.
The remedy, he says, for all of their problems is to begin to cultivate the character of love, and in doing so these problems will evaporate. I want us to examine this character of love.
The Character of Love – 13:1-8
In describing the character of love, Paul reveals three important elements about love that makes it so valuable to a Christian.
1. Love is essential
Vs. 1-3 – If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
You can have the trappings of religion, even display the dynamic signs, but if you don't love you are missing the essence of what Christianity is all about (i.e. A flashy car with no motor is lovely to look at but will not take you anywhere).
He uses three examples to demonstrate that love is essential in Christianity. Even if one displays miraculous signs but doesn't love – his signs point to nothing, they are useless. Signs are to verify that God is near, but without love the signs are meaningless (God is not where love is not). Jesus rebuked those who thought that their ability to perform signs was enough (Matthew 7:22-23).
Knowledge, the ability to preach, prophesy or strong faith, these are not substitutes for love. Paul says that the object of teaching, the result of knowledge, the fruit of one's faith is, "love from a pure heart" (1 Timothy 1:5). All of the teaching we receive is to create love in our hearts, and if we don't love, we have obviously not put what we have learned into practice.
Even zeal and generosity are misguided if not motivated by love. People will die for ideals, devote millions to causes that help others, but if they do it because of pride or misguided loyalty, their sacrifice is useless; only giving out of love is honored by God.
God looks into a person's heart and if his power, knowledge and works are not grounded in love, they have no value in the sight of God.
2. Love is visible
Vs. 4-7 – Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There are some things like power, faith and works which are legitimate if based on unseen love within a person's heart. There are also visible attributes that are unmistakable signs that a person has love:
- Patience – a willingness to bear with other peoples' meanness, weaknesses and offenses without losing a loving attitude.
- Kindness – the doing and saying of good.
- Not jealous – envious of another's blessings; fearful of losing one's blessings.
- Not brag/arrogant – boastful, haughty, proud. Having an unjust measure of self.
- Not act unbecomingly – to be unthoughtful, uncaring.
- Not seek its own – selfishness, self-centered.
- Not provoked – bad temper, over-sensitive.
- Not count wrongs – vengeful; get even attitude (doesn't keep score).
- Rejoice in right – loves to see right done, not wrong.
- Bears all things – capacity to suffer much without complaint (everybody suffers – some complain more).
- Believes all things – not suspicious (not a gullible person, but not overly suspicious).
- Hopes all things – not pessimistic or negative.
- Endures all things – a willingness to bear with injury, inconvenience and hardship without losing one's loving attitude.
When we see these things in people what we see is the character of Christian love. Note that these signs are not based on:
- Emotion – how one feels about something.
- Attraction – like sexual love.
- Mutual interest and service – like the love between friends.
- Relationship – like the love in a family.
No, the love Paul describes here is Christian love, and it is based on a decision not a feeling. We decide that this is going to be the nature of our character…our love, and through the power of the Holy Spirit directed by the word of God – the Lord will create this love in our hearts a little at a time as each day goes by.
We are not born with this kind of love, we cultivate it through prayer, practice and perseverance in the trials that we experience. This is one of the basic reasons that God allows us to suffer trials, so we can cultivate Christian love.
3. Love is eternal – vs. 8-11
The following is a complicated passage open to various interpretations, but before we get into it we need to understand that Paul is talking about love and he says that its most important feature is that it is eternal (verse 8a: love never fails). The reason for this is that love is God's essential character (God is love – I John 4:8).
Some things we, the church, need for now like prophecy, tongues and knowledge. However, the day will come when these things will no longer be necessary because we will be able to experience fully our relationship with God.
The essence of that experience will not require prophecy or tongues or knowledge; the core of our experience with God will be love. Him loving us and us loving Him, without the need for any assistance through prophecy, miracles or learning. This is the general idea of the passage.
Vs. 8b – But if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
After he declares the eternal nature of love, he explains that the other elements of Christianity (prophecy, tongues, knowledge) that were experienced in a miraculous way at that time – a little background…
- Some could predict the future or speak directly from God.
- Some could speak in languages they had never learned.
- Others had wisdom and understanding of spiritual matters that they received from God without study or training.
God gave, in a miraculous way, the things that the Bible provides for us today in a natural way. These gifts were necessary for the growth of the church at that time because it did not yet possess the full revelation of God in the Bible.
Paul says that these highly prized gifts (that, at times, caused much pride and division in the hands of sinful people), these gifts would eventually cease.
Vs. 9-10 – For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
He says that these abilities, even though experienced in a miraculous way, don't completely reveal what is to come. This is where the difficulty comes in:
- Some say that the "perfect" that is supposed to come is the full word of God: the complete Bible, and when the complete text of the Bible was finally produced, the miraculous gifts stopped.
- Others argue that the "perfect" is the second coming of Christ. When He comes we will no longer need prophecy, tongues or knowledge in miraculous or natural forms because we will be face to face with Him.
I believe that Paul is referring to the second coming of Christ because this is more in keeping with the rest of the passage. However, this doesn't mean I believe in miraculous tongues, prophecy and knowledge today. Look carefully at what Paul says:
Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will cease.
I believe that these miraculous powers were given by the laying on of hands of the Apostles and when they died, these powers were no longer available. Their deaths and the death of their disciples (who had power) were within a century of the distribution of the New Testament throughout the church. With the New Testament in hand the church could do all the work previously done by those who possessed these powers. In other words, the New Testament is now the tool by which we accomplish the things that had been done previously through the people who had these miraculous gifts.
When the "perfect" comes, the partial will be done away. To this day we still have partial knowledge, partial prophecy (like it says in verse 9).
- Can anyone say they understand perfectly all the information in the Bible? All the spiritual and intellectual implications of every verse?
- Can anyone say that they understand all the prophecy in the Bible? Who is the man of lawlessness? What will we be like at resurrection? When will Jesus come?
Even though we have the entire word of God revealed to us, and through it can attain salvation and all godliness – we still only know in part, only understand prophecy in part and will only have complete knowledge when the perfect comes: that is the coming of Jesus Christ.
Vs. 11-12 – When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
Paul uses two analogies to drive home his point:
- Growing up. Grown-ups put away their childish notions and ideas. They should stop being proud about abilities that are only there to serve them for a time and look forward to the object of their Christian experience: the coming of Christ; and be ready for that by cultivating the character of love.
- The mirror he talks about is the understanding they have of God reflected in His word. God is not a word, He is a being, but at the moment all they know of Him is what they read; and they don't even understand everything they read. But when Jesus comes, then they won't just read about God, they will be in His presence and will see and know Him as God sees and knows them.
Vs. 13 – But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Paul goes back to his original point, and that is that love is eternal. Faith brings you to God, hope sustains you while you wait to be in His presence, but love is the actual experience that one will have eternally when Jesus comes to take us to heaven with Him.
He encourages them to realize that love will be the lasting experience of Christianity and not to be proud of or try to hold on to the temporary gifts of prophecy, tongues or knowledge.
Well we have had to digress a little to explain a complicated passage but I don't want you to miss the essential lesson of this chapter: love is the character of Christians.
- It is the essential quality that confirms sincere faith and legitimate works.
- It is a visible quality that is very different from family or sexual love.
- It is eternal in nature and is the objective towards which our knowledge and faith direct us.
- One day, when Jesus comes, it will be the essence of our experience with God.
Love is the character of Christianity because love is the character of Christ. In this passage you could say that Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not jealous, does not brag, is not arrogant, etc. We abide in love because Jesus is love and we want to abide in Jesus.