“Make love, not war!” was an American counter-culture slogan of the 1960s, popularized by anti-war activists. Aside from its sexual overtones, the idea was that we should love everybody, not fight with them. This is a great theory, but it fails when put to the test of reality, particularly if the people we are “loving” cross the line and take what we have for themselves! Song writers through the years have produced an abundance of “love songs,” which stir the emotions and evoke in the listeners a sympathetic response. What is it about the topic of love that appeals so strongly to us as humans? With it we flourish; without it we wilt. Let’s look at what the apostle Paul said about love in 1 Corinthians 13, in the context of the Christian life and our interaction with others. The word translated “love” in this chapter is the Greek word agape. It is used extensively in 1 John 4 in relation to God, including the phrase, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8,16 NIV). Therefore we can conclude that agape love has a divine quality. Prominence Of Love (13:1-3) “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If 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. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Life as we know it is very “iffy,” and this chapter begins with four “ifs” divided into three categories. (KJV, NKJV use “though,” newer translations use “if.”) First Corinthians 12 deals with unity of the body of Christ through the diversity of gifts. Here Paul focuses on some of these gifts as related to love.
The Corinthians were into speaking in tongues (languages in 1 Cor. 14), thinking that they were an indication of the Holy Spirit’s activity among them. The gift of tongues was given at Pentecost as a sign to unbelievers (Acts 2:11; 14:22) to direct them to Christ. In Scripture, “tongues” always refers to spoken, known languages; they were actually for intelligent communication. However, whether speaking in exotic human languages or in the authoritative languages of angels, without a demonstration of love they are just sound without meaning, noise without communication, annoying interruptions to our thought lives.
Prophecy is speaking the mind of God, whether timeless revealed truth or timely ministry for the moment. Some Corinthians were gifted in prophecy. Understanding mysteries and general knowledge were traits much admired by the Corinthians, who were endowed both with “speaking” and “knowledge” (1 Cor. 1:5).
Faith is the essence of the Christian life and the demonstration of its reality. Without faith we cannot approach, be accepted by or please God (Heb. 11:1-6). Jesus taught that enough faith could move a mountain (Mt. 17:20).
Here is another view of these attributes: prophecy deals with the mind of God; mysteries with the intelligence of God; knowledge with the truth of God; and faith with the power of God. Notice that in 1 Corinthians 13:2 Paul says “all mysteries and all knowledge and … a faith that can move mountains” – in other words, these gifts in full measure! But even so, Paul says that without love “I am nothing.”
Governments around the world have food programs for their poor – often a major portion of national budgets. Also there are many ministries devoted to providing food for the hungry in various countries. These are supported by freewill offerings. Jesus said that “you have the poor with you always” (Mk. 14:7).
Provisions were made for the poor in the Old Testament Law. Farmers were to leave some of the harvest in the corners of their fields for the poor to gather (Lev. 23:22). Israel was a familial community, and all were to look out for their kinsmen. Giving what I have for the needs of others is admirable according to the Law; giving all I have is monumental, going beyond the Law; and giving my life itself in martyrdom is the ultimate sacrifice. Yet Paul writes that without love, “I gain nothing.” Basically Paul is telling us that it is essential that love accompany these various gifts; to “give” them without love is cold and meaningless – it is “nothing.”
Performance Of Love (13:4-7)
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
The attributes of love in verses 4-7 are humility and selfless, sacrificial care for the welfare of others. When you substitute “Christ” for every instance of the word “love” you get an accurate picture of love in action. To see how you measure up in these verses insert your name for “love” in this passage. It is humbling!
Permanence Of Love (13:8-10)
“Love 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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.”
As I was traveling recently, I was forced to endure bumpy roads because of construction. How happy I was to see a sign which read, “Road Construction Complete.” Less than 50 miles later another sign said, “Road Construction Ahead.” I concluded that road construction is never finished as long as the roads are used!
Nothing in this life is permanent; everything needs repair sooner or later. Physical objects become old and deteriorate to the point of ineffectiveness. Medical progress constantly reveals new areas of ignorance. Scientific “truth” replaces itself in regular cycles, as scientists discover more and more. Social and psychological techniques change with each generation. Technology upgrades at breakneck speed, rendering obsolete the concepts and tools that were cutting-edge just yesterday.
But what about love? It never fails, never grows old, never goes out-of-date, never becomes ineffective – neither in this life nor in the next. Love never fails. It is timeless! Eternal! “God is love” and “love comes from God” (1 Jn. 4:8,7).
Prophecies (speaking the mind of God), by comparison, will fail. The meaning of this verb is “to be destroyed, done away with, abolished, rendered idle or inoperative, annulled.” The time will come when prophecies will no longer be needed nor used. They will run their course and be over. This is not so with love.
Tongues (the gift of speaking in foreign languages unknown to the speaker) will cease. Time will come when they will not be used. Since they were given as a sign to unbelievers when the Holy Spirit came (Acts 2:4 – to Jews; Acts 10:44-46 – to Gentiles; and Acts 19:6 – to John’s disciples), many Christians feel they have already ceased, having achieved their purpose. But love continues on.
Knowledge will “vanish away.” This is the same word used previously about prophesies. Knowledge will no longer be needed as such, and will come to an end. But love remains. Knowledge and prophecy are presently incomplete, partial. In this scene we are constantly being enriched in the thoughts and knowledge of God as He reveals Himself and His purposes to us little by little, according to our limited capacity to absorb and comprehend them.
However, the time is coming (actually eternity, which is not time at all!) when completeness and perfection will be ushered in. We will enter our eternal state and be fully mature – like Him (1 Jn. 3:2). The incomplete, partial knowledge and understanding of God, incrementally revealed through His Son Jesus Christ, will be displaced by fullness and perfection. There will be no more human limitations in these areas – they will be abolished, terminated, done away.
Pre-eminence Of Love (13:11-13)
“When 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. Now 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. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
This chapter closes with illustrations of this progression from one state to another. People love children because of their winning ways and dependence on older ones. They are fun to watch, especially as they grow through childhood, always learning and applying their newly acquired knowledge. Occasionally we see a child whose development stops at a certain level. How sad! While childish behavior is cute in a child, it is not so amusing in an adult. Some mothers say, “I wish my child could remain like this forever!” But they’d be disappointed if that were the case.
God also expects His children to grow up. We are to continually “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). We are to progress in our speech, understanding and thinking from children to adults. We are to abandon our childish ways when we have progressed past them. This illustrates our progression from the partial now to the complete later. Another example is the comparison between looking at someone’s image “imperfectly … in a mirror” and seeing that person face to face “with perfect clarity.” We are going from a mere likeness to vivid reality. Such is the transition from the partial to the complete. A final example is that of limited knowledge compared to the full knowledge that comes only from God. I will know then as He knows me now. On a human level we see that each child operates according to the wisdom and knowledge he has. But he constantly accumulates both wisdom and knowledge, and his actions take on greater intelligence with time. In this life we will never achieve full knowledge or wisdom. But our eternal state will bring us to completion and perfection!
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith is clinging to God and His promises, believing that He will do what He says. Faith is fully entrusting ourselves to God, realizing that He can take better care of us than we can of ourselves. Faith believes what it cannot see. If I need medical attention, faith allows me to trust a doctor to attend to my need, believing that he knows how to help me better than I can help myself.
Hope is the assurance of that which is still coming. Hope inspires us to persevere, knowing that something better is ahead. Hope can keep us going against all odds. If the doctor tells me my leg is broken, that can discourage me. Diagnosis doesn’t inspire hope. But if he tells me that with effort I can walk again in six months, that gives me something to live for and work toward. Faith, hope and love all abide at this present time. Faith and hope will be fulfilled when we reach our eternal state. The unseen will be seen, and our future expectations will be realized.
In heaven, faith and hope will no longer be needed; they will have served their purpose. But what about love? It is the eternal bond that will unite us throughout eternity. It will never be finished, never be displaced. It will be the atmosphere of heaven, the essence of God Himself enveloping us as we worship and enjoy Him and our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ – together forever with all other believers.
The purpose of 1 Corinthians 13 is not to discourage the use of gifts, but to bathe their use in practical love. Love is what makes them effective and useful (Eph. 4:15-16). What a blessing it is to realize this love right now – to enjoy God’s love now, to give this love back to God and to each other. When we do this we are in the context of heaven even now!
By Tim Van Ryn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org