The most excellent way
Sermon: Sunday, 23rd May, 2021 1 Corinthians 12:30 to 13:13
Note : The tech gremlins were a bit challenging today but after a few moments, the video situation is resolved. Thanks for your patience.
Imagine a church is looking for a new minister and you are on a vacancy committee set up to look for people to invite along. You are discussing what qualities you want to see: hard working, an excellent Bible teacher, good with young people, good with older people, approachable, good sense of humour, has already successfully led a growing congregation, full of pastoral insights, a natural leader, administrator, and someone who puts us at our ease. Superman hasn’t applied for the job yet.
But then a woman on the committee says: ‘I want to see someone with a clear love for God, and for the church, and for the lost’. How would you react to that? Of course, that’s not an easy thing to see in a person you don’t know well. Nonetheless, the woman is on to something, because this startling Bible passage tells us that you can have all the spiritual gifts in the world, but if they are not accompanied by love, they are a waste of time. To put it bluntly, any spiritual gifts we might have are invalidated if they are not undergirded by love.
1 Corinthians chapter 13 is one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture. It is profound and beautifully describes love, making it a favourite passage to be read at weddings. We have a copy on our bedroom wall. However, Paul isn’t writing a poem about love here. In fact, he is writing to address the problems in the church at Corinth. Specifically, Paul knows that the Christians in Corinth, in their immaturity, are majoring on the minors, whilst paying little attention to what matters most to God. Spiritual gifts are important. We saw that last week. We said spiritual gifts are an ability given by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, in order to build up the people of God, for the glory of God. That sounds great, doesn’t it? And in chapter 12:31, Paul tells us: ‘Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.’
What are the ‘greater gifts’? They are not the flashiest ones, but rather ones which build other Christians up the most. The edification of others is the main point of the charismata (spiritual gifts). But because many were so focused on their own gifts, some were becoming proud of them, whilst others felt marginalised because they thought their gift was unimportant. Many envied the gifts of others.
“When we start to compare ourselves with other Christians, it usually leads to either jealousy and discouragement or to pride and complacency.“ (David Jackman)
Ironically, God-given gifts which were meant to unite the church family were dividing it, because they were not being practiced in love.
So, Paul wants to point the Corinthian church to something which is much more important than spiritual gifts, and that is the way of love. ‘And yet I will show you the most excellent way.’ (1 Corinthians 12:31)
Through Paul’s teaching, this church will come to see that the kind of people we are matters far more to God that the things we are able to do, our giftedness. In other words, grace is more important than gifts. Love is the indispensable ingredient in the life of a Christian.
1. What God values most: our love
In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul paints a picture of a Christians with many spiritual gifts, able to speak in tongues, teachers with not just some but ‘all knowledge’, amazing faith which can move mountains, givers who give it all away, and those willing to give their own lives. Surely, we’d love to have people with this kind of faith, good works and doctrinal insight in our church. Paul says ‘no’! In reality, because these things have not been done in love, they count for nothing and accomplish nothing of lasting value.
Imagine being in the Corinthian church when Paul’s letter was read out. This must have been dynamite. They had assumed that God was so pleased with them and that they were so spiritual on account of their gifts. They were inflated with pride. Paul comes and bursts their balloon, informing them that ‘the most excellent way’, the greatest thing for the Christian and for the church, is hearts full of love for God and love for people.
This is hard-hitting stuff. We could give a lot of time and money to the church, have an excellent Bible knowledge, make good contributions at Bible study, help the poor and vulnerable, do youth work, be in the church choir, and organise church lunches, but if these things do not flow out of a heart of love then they have no value whatsoever. In other words, Paul is saying it is impossible to overstate the importance of love. Love is what we must strive for. Love is what we must pursue and individuals and families and as a church. ‘Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…’ (1 Corinthians 14:1 ESV)
We should all know the importance of love because the command to ‘love one another’ is given 19 times in the New Testament. Here is a small sample from dozens of New Testament verse on love.
- ‘Let all that you do be done in love.’ (1 Corinthians 16:14)
- ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’ (Galatians 5:6)
- Love one another with brotherly affection.’ (Romans 12:10)
- ‘Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart…’ (1 Peter 1:22)
- ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.’ (1 John 4:7)
- ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)
Remember the Lord’s words to the prophet Samuel: ‘For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16:7) What kind of church is God pleased with? What kind of individual is he pleased with? One characterised by love.
If someone was describing your character to someone else, what would they say about you? That you are determined, insightful, clever, enthusiastic, goal-driven, professional… but would they say that you are a loving and kind person? That’s a challenge for us all. They ought to be able to say that about us truthfully. Because that’s the quality which matters most to almighty God. And if that is true, and it is, then that’s where your focus ought to be, as you reflect on your own character.
Why include this passage in a study on the Holy Spirit? Well, one reason is, as we have seen, that without love the gifts of the Spirit are useless. But there’s another reason too; the kind of love God wants in our hearts is a supernatural love, which can only come from the Holy Spirit.
Listen to Paul’s words in Romans 5:5: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ If you want to have more of this love in your heart, then you need to pray for God to give you this love by his Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace…
2. God’s description of love
Where do we go to for the best description of what love is? Do we look to the latest BBC drama or Netflix series or to Hollywood? Do we listen to the most downloaded pop songs? Do we just decide ourselves what love really is all about? Is it whatever we want it to be? No! The Bible says that God is love. (1 John 4:8) And so, true love is a reflection of the character of God, and the is revealed by God. So, don’t chase pale imitations of love, but pursue the real thing.
The word love in this passage is the Greek word agape. It’s well worthwhile to pause and remind ourselves that this word was seldom used before the Christian faith, which adopted the word.
When the Bible speaks of love as agape, it means God’s love for the unworthy, the undeserving, the sinful and broken. How has God treated us in Christ? He hasn’t treated us as our sins deserve. He is patient with us. Love is patient. Love is long-suffering. But more than that, God treats us with kindness. Remember the ‘Lost Son’. Not only is he forgiven by God, he is treated with kindness, and brought back into the family. God’s love is so powerful that he not only forgives the unworthy, and deals with their sin, but he also treats the unworthy (like us) with kindness, giving us eternal life, sealing us with his Spirit, and giving us an inheritance which can never perish, spoil or fade.
Let’s also note that when Paul describes Christian love here, it’s not primarily about our feelings towards someone, but it is more about our actions towards them, and our attitude towards then too. Our actions and our attitude- how we treat one another and how we think about one another.
Love is patient. This word means long-suffering with people, when they fail us and let us down. Love is kind. We are sympathetic with the weaknesses of others and treat them well not only when they treat us well, but even when they don’t. My mind keeps going back to the love of Joseph for his brothers in the Old Testament. Not only does he forgive his brothers, not treating them as they deserve, but he also blesses them, by providing for all their needs. The love of God flowing within us is a powerful force indeed. It’s transformative.
As we have already seen, this is how God has treated us! The more we appreciate this, and depend on God’s Spirit in prayer, the more our relationships at church and home and work will be transformed. Satan wants our mistakes to result in bitterness, resentment, a lack of forgiveness, and cold-shouldering one another. God wants patience and kindness to be our default position.
Then Paul mentions several things which love is not! Why these things? Because these are the very areas where the Corinthians fell short. They envied the gifts of others, boasting of their own gifts and being proud of them, forgetting that they only had the gifts in the first place because of God’s Spirit. When we read through the letter of 1 Corinthians, we can see behaviour which is rude, self-seeking, and quick to become angry. Is it true that sometimes Christians in churches insist upon their own way, or become touchy and huffy? Of course. But this is not the way of love. This is not the most excellent way.
Love keeps no record of wrongs. Again, God does not keep a record of my wrongs, and so in turn, I must not treat others like that. We don’t note down every mistake a family member makes, like an accountant would with financial records. Let things go. Be gracious. Paul is holding up a mirror of their sins and he is saying love is not any of these things.
Then the description is positive again: ‘It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ (1 Corinthians 13:7) Love thinks the best of people, and gives them the benefit of the doubt, rather than rushing to judge them or put them under scrutiny. Love always hopes. Leon Morris: ‘This is a refusal to take failure as final. It is the confidence that looks to ultimate triumph by the grace of God.’ Sometimes people give up on one another, but love perseveres, even when times are tough, despite difficulties.
David Jackman: The essence of ‘agape’, the distinctive New Testament term which originates in and is modelled on God’s love for us, is that it looks neither for worthiness in the object of its love nor for reciprocation from it. God loves because he is love (1 John 4 v8) and we love because he first loved us.
What is your heart like? How loving a person are you? Remember that without love, any gifts you have been given will be ineffective. Let’s say you don’t have many gifts (most of us feel that way). Let’s say your gifts are weak. Don’t give up. Because there’s something far more important, and that’s keeping to ‘the most excellent way’, the way of love.
As we leave church today, be determined to become a more loving person. Ask the Holy Spirit for that supernatural love, a love which doesn’t love because someone deserves it, or has earned it, or just loves to be loved back, but a love which is patient and kind. Which forgives and keeps no record of wrongs. Ask and keep on asking. Confess your sin when you don’t love like this. Keep on abiding in Christ the vine, through prayer and Bible reading, so you shall know the fruit of the Spirit. Love.
And if you are not a Christian yet, talk to God. Admit to him that you don’t love properly, and recognise that he is full of love, even sending Jesus into the world to die for sinners. Ask him to change you.