The Greatest of These is “Love”

February 16, 2020

All Scripture from NIV unless otherwise documented.

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. 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. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres .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.” 1 Corinthians 13

This chapter of 1 Corinthians is sometimes called the Love Chapter of the Bible. Verses 4 – 8a are verses that I almost always use when counseling couples who are getting married to describe the kind of love that they need to develop in their lives if they are to have a successful marriage. I believe that it is the best description of what Agape love is and what it is to look like, not only in marriage, but in our relationship with God, and our relationship with one another.

I believe the reason Paul wrote this little dissertation on love had to do with a whole lot of problems that the church in Corinth was having. Problems that revealed themselves, even in their practice of spiritual gifts.

Corinth was a city located on the Isthmus of Corinth which connected the Mainland of Greece with the southern part called the Peloponnese Peninsula. An Isthmus is a stretch of land that lies between two seas, in this case, the Ionian Sea to the west and the Aegean Sea to the East. Because of its location a lot commerce went through Corinth so large ships wouldn’t have to navigate around the southern part of the peninsula. In ancient Corinth, the goods were unloaded from one ship and transported over land approximately four miles by various means. The Romans built a stone road and used logs to drag smaller boats with goods from one seaport to the other. In the 1870’s a canal was dug so ships could cross between seas.

The city of Corinth was a Greek city, but it also had a large Roman settlement. There were also many Jews and Chinese who settled there so it was a very diverse city. One website I looked at said that it was a city of great wealth, iniquity and idolatry. Greek gods, Roman gods, Emperor worship, and Egyptian gods were worshipped in Corinth, along I would presume with many other lesser gods. There was also a Jewish synagogue and of course, a church was established there by the Apostle Paul. The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation was located there and was said
at one time to have 1,000 temple prostitutes. It is said that the city grew rich because of these women and the sailors and, businessmen who freely squandered their money when they traveled through Corinth. To put it mildly, Corinth was a center of iniquity, and some of the pagan practices had crept into the young church there.

As you read through 1 Corinthians, you see that Paul addressed many issues that were causing problems in this church. For example, in chapter one he addressed division in the church that was being caused by jealousies of the different leaders. In chapter three he called the Corinthian believers worldly and said they were acting like mere men (not believers). In chapter four he addressed their arrogance. In chapter five he addressed sexual immorality, something that was an accepted practice by most people in the city of Corinth. In chapter six he tackled issues of lawsuits between believers and again the topic of sexual immorality. In chapter seven he addressed marital issues. In chapter eight he wrote about food sacrificed to idols. In chapter nine he addressed the use of a believer’s freedom in Christ, and particularly the need not use that freedom in ways that would cause a weaker believer to stumble in their faith. I guess you kind of see that Paul was dealing with a church full of dysfunctional people.

In chapter twelve Paul wrote concerning the need for unity in the church, and he brought up the topic of spiritual gifts. The spiritual gifts were given by the Holy Spirit to bring unity in the church, but in Corinth, they had become a source of division. So, in chapter 13, Paul wanted the recipients of this letter to realize that the key to fixing everything that was wrong with the church was love. Did you catch that? The key to fixing problems in the church is not fighting and quarreling and insisting on things be one way or another, the key to fixing problems is rooted in love.

Paul used a lot of “ifs” in the first three verses of this passage. If I speak in tongues, if I have the gift of prophecy, if I have faith, if I give all I have to the poor, if I give my body to hardship. John MacArthur says of these verses that Paul was speaking in hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim that is not intended to be taken literally. So, Paul, using himself as an example, wasn’t necessarily claiming that he did any or all of these things, but if he were to do them, they must be done in love. And the inference to the church was, if you do any of these things, in the exercise of your spiritual gifts, make sure they are done in love.

So, what things does Paul mention in these first few verses? First, he said “if I speak in the tongues of men or of angels”. Tongues is, even today, a controversial issue in the church. My intention today isn’t to make a case for or against the practice of tongues speaking. What was happening in the church in Corinth was that new Gentile believers who had come out of the pagan worship of the local temples where ecstatic utterance was practiced, brought with them this practice of pagan speaking in tongues, and it was causing a disturbance in the church. Paul addressed it by using himself as an example. He said if I speak in tongues of men (a recognizable language) or of angels (not the babbling that was taking place in that church), but have not love, I’m just making a bunch of noise. In chapter 14 he goes into greater detail about the practice of tongues speaking in the church, but like I said, that’s another sermon. What he was saying was if speaking in tongues is creating problems in the church, then you are not doing it with love.

Next, he said that the same was true about the gift of prophecy. The word translated prophecy basically means to speak forth and is often equated to the preaching of God’s word. Understood in that light, Paul was saying that preaching should not be used as a means of beating people down. Preaching should be done with love. Preaching should be used to encourage one another and to build one another up. That’s not to say that a preacher should simply preach fluff, or that they should preach to tickle the ears of his listeners. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4 that there would come a time when people would not put up with sound doctrine, but instead would gather around teachers who would tickle their ears. (NAS) No, a preacher must preach the truth concerning sin and judgment, but it must be done in love.

Then Paul said that if a person could fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if they had the kind of faith that can move mountains, but didn’t have love in their lives, and if they didn’t use this knowledge and faith out of a motivation of love, that they were nothing.
He also said that if a person gave all they had to the poor, or gave their body over to hardship so they could boast about it, (both giving and self-mortification of the flesh), and they did it without love as the motivation, that it would not benefit them at all.
In other words, anything that you do, whether it is the exercise of spiritual gifts, or trying to do something good for others, if your motivation is not out of love, then you are wasting your time.

I’m going to skip verses 4 – 8a, the passage that describes the kind of love that God has for us and that we are to have for Him and others and go 8b through 10. Paul said that the spiritual gifts will someday disappear. Prophecies, tongues, knowledge, and although he doesn’t list all the spiritual gifts, the indication is that all gifts will someday disappear.

And now skip down with me to verse 13. Paul said that when all else stops, when all gifts and other things disappear, there are three things that will remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.
The greatest thing you can do is to love. If you attempt to do anything in life, but don’t do it out of a motivation of love, it’s a waste of yours and others time eternally. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your service to God through the church, or your giving, or your witnessing to the unsaved, or anything else that you can do in the name of Jesus, if it isn’t done out of love, it is meaningless.

When all else is said and done, what will the testimony of your life be? Will it be that you were someone who loved
God and served Him and others out of love? That should be your spiritual aspiration.
The Greatest of these is love.