As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy hearing what children think about different subjects. This morning, I want to share with you some of their jewels of wisdom regarding love. To explain why love happens between two particular people, one 8-year-old said, “I think you’re supposed to get shot with an arrow or something, but the rest of it isn’t supposed to be so painful.”
A 7-year-old said, “If falling in love is anything like learning how to spell, I don’t want to do it. It takes too long.”
Another 8-year-old boy said, “Love will find you, even if you are trying to hide from it. I’ve been trying to hide from it since I was five, but the girls keep finding me.”
And then, a 9-year-old has some advice on how to make someone fall in love with you. He said, “Don’t do things like have smelly, green sneakers. You might get attention, but attention ain’t the same thing as love.”
And he’s right about that. It’s humorous listening to children try to describe what love is because they don’t fully understand the concept of love. But, then again, I’m not sure most adults do either.
Just hours before he was arrested, Jesus said to his disciples that the one thing that would identify his followers would be their love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Which is an interesting thing to think about. Because if you were to ask random people what is the one word that you think that best defines the church, I’m not sure that love would be at the top of very many lists. So, why is that?
And it raises an even deeper question: Why would Jesus say that in the first place? I mean, don’t all people in the world have love? And if everybody in the world loves, how is the love of a Christian so different, so distinct, that it would actually set us apart and identify us as a follower of Jesus Christ?
That’s what we’re going to talk about for the next two or three weeks as we spend some time in I Corinthians chapter 13. You will probably recognize this chapter as the great love chapter of the Bible, but we often forget that this chapter is right in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.
Last week, in chapter 12 we saw that the church is like a human body. It’s made up of many different members that all have different gifts, different abilities which are all given to us by the Spirit for the common good.
And then, in chapter 14, Paul is going to talk further about spiritual gifts, mostly the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. But right in the middle of this long section about spiritual gifts, we find this beautiful section on love. So, what does love have to do with spiritual gifts?
To answer that question, we need to go back and look at the last few verses of chapter 12.
Verse 27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” (I Corinthians 12:27-28). As we saw last week, there are lots of different gifts, lots of different ministries in the church.
In verse 29, “Are all apostles?” And the obvious answer is no. “Are all prophets? [no] Are all teachers? [no] Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? [no]”(I Corinthians 12:29-30)
Paul’s point is that all of these different gifts were needed in the church. It’s not about superiority and who’s got the best gift. It’s about variety. It’s about unity. It’s about finding our place and doing our part in the body of Christ.
Then, in verse 31, Paul says, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” Other translations say, “the greater gifts”, “the best gifts”, “the most helpful gifts”.
Which raises the question, which spiritual gifts are the best gifts? And I would start by saying that the best gift you can have is the one that God has given you. The best gift for you isn’t the gift that I have. And the best gift for me isn’t the gift that you have. It’s the gift, or the variety of gifts that God has given me or given you.
But I would also say that the best gift all depends. It all depends what work needs to be done. If you were to go to Joey and ask him, “Which tool in your toolbox is the best tool?” he would probably say, “Well, that all depends what you want to do.”
You say, “Well, I need a saw. What’s your best saw?” Again, it depends what you want to cut. If you’re trying to cut a metal pipe, he’s not going to give you a skill saw. He’s not going to give you a tree saw. He’s going to give you a hacksaw.”
But if you want to cut holes in wood, he’s not going to give you a hacksaw. And he’s not going to give you a skill saw. He’s going to give you a jigsaw. It all depends on what work needs to be done.
So, what are the best gifts in the body of Christ, the church? Well, it all depends on what God needs done at the moment. God may need a teacher, he may need a cook, he may someone with a listening ear, he may need someone to serve. But whatever needs to be done, God takes the people with those gifts and applies them to that need so that the work gets done. That’s how the body works.
“So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts. But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all.” (I Corinthians 12:31, NLT)
And that leads into Paul’s discussion about love. For those of us who are Christians, we place a lot of importance on agape love – an unselfish, committed, sacrificial love – because that’s the kind of love that defines our God, and it’s the kind of love that should distinguish us in this world.
John wrote in his first letter, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7-8). Our goal as Christians is to become more and more like our heavenly Father, and there is no word that better describes what our God is like than the word “love”.
As you read through the New Testament, you’ve got to be impressed with the way that love is constantly presented as the greatest of all qualities.
In Matthew 22, Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. Then he said, “There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31).
In Colossians 3, Paul lists for his readers all the Christian attributes they should develop in their lives. And then, in verse 14, he says, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Above all these things. It’s important to have kindness, but it’s more important to have love. It’s important to have humility, but it’s more important to have love. It’s important to have a forgiving spirit, but it’s more important to have love. “Above all these things put on love.”
And so, it would be difficult for us to over-emphasize the importance of love. In fact, I would say that any problem that anyone experiences on a personal level or any problem that a congregation experiences can be resolved with a better understanding of love and a greater commitment to practice love.
But, throughout history, it would appear that the church has always found it difficult to be loving. It is easier to be doctrinally correct than it is to love. It is easier to be active in church work than it is to love. And yet, the supreme characteristic that God demands of his people is love.
In John 13:34, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” Notice that Jesus did not say that this is not a suggestion, it’s a commandment. When we talk about love, we’re not just talking about something that would be nice for us to do, and we probably ought to do more of it. We’re talking about a commandment.
One of the things that tells me is that love is something we make a decision to do. We sometimes think that love is something that just “happens” to us. You fall in love like you fall into a ditch. Or you fall out of love like you fall out of a tree. You can’t help it. It’s something that just happens to you.
And so, we listen to songs like, “I can’t help falling in love with you.” Or someone else sings, “You’ve lost that loving feeling.” But love is much more than just a feeling – it’s a commitment to be like God.
Jesus said that this new commandment is “that you love one another.” The New Testament has a lot to say about loving our families and loving our enemies. But there are more passages about loving our brothers and sisters in Christ than there about any other aspect of love. And I don’t think Jesus wanted us to miss this point: we are commanded to love each other in the church.
Jesus didn’t say that people would know that we are his disciples by the clothes that we wear when we go to church, or the bumper stickers we put on the car, or the political party we belong to. He said people will know who we are by the way that we love each other. Or to put it another way, we show the people around us whose family we belong to by acting like our Father.
It’s the same as it is in our physical families. There aren’t many people who can look at Amber and tell that she is my daughter. We don’t have a lot of physical characteristics in common. But there have been many times that people have said to Amber, “You are definitely your father’s daughter” because she acts just like I do (which is sometimes a good thing).
But Jesus said, the people in the world should be able to look at you and say, “It’s very evident who your father is, because you act just like him.” “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Jesus could have said that all people will know we are his disciples because we’ve been baptized for the remission of our sins. That’s important; in fact, it’s essential (Acts 2:38), but Jesus didn’t give that as an identifying mark of his people. Because you can be baptized and still not be like God the Father.
Or Jesus might have said that all people will know we are his disciples if we can quote a lot of scripture, or if we go to church every Sunday, or if we pray a lot. He could have listed any number of things, all of which might be very important, even essential. But Jesus said that people will know we are his followers if we love one another.
Don’t misunderstand me. It is important that we strive to be right in our doctrine. But it is what people see in our lives is more likely to bring them to Christ. Nobody is going to be impressed with how right we are if it’s evident that we don’t love each other.
In fact, I once heard this cynical comment about members of one church: “They’re a bunch of ‘don’t’ people. They don’t drink, they don’t cuss, they don’t commit adultery — and they don’t like each other.”
If love is that important, then it makes sense that Paul would talk about it in great length here in I Corinthians. Because Paul was writing to a group of Christians who were not very loving toward each other. As we’ve already seen, the Christians in Corinth were a selfish bunch of folks who did a lot of fussing and fighting because everyone was doing his own thing for his own good, with very little regard for others.
They had plenty of spiritual gifts in the church, but Paul said, “What you really need is to learn how to love.” Because love is a lot more important than many of the things that we as Christians tend to think are important.
1. Love is more important than spiritual gifts
Verse 1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (I Corinthians 13:1)
In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, God gave the apostles the special gift of being able to speak in languages that they had never learned. And personally, I think that would be a pretty neat thing to do. There are estimated to be somewhere between six and seven thousand languages spoken around the world.
But Paul said that even if God gave him the gift of speaking every human language on the face of this earth, and even the heavenly language of the angels, if he didn’t have love, then he would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Now there’s nothing wrong with gongs and cymbals when they’re part of an orchestra, but by themselves, they’re worthless. When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Here, let me play this song for you on the gong and you try to guess what it is.” Good luck with that one. It’s just noise!
And Paul said that speaking in tongues without love is the same thing. If you could speak 5000 different languages but you didn’t say anything out of a love for others, then what you said was just noise.
2. Love is more important than preaching
“And if I have prophetic powers…but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:2)
The gift of prophecy was probably one of the greatest of the spiritual gifts because a prophet proclaimed God’s truth to people so they would know and understand it. Paul himself was a great prophet. A prophet was basically a preacher who didn’t have to study because his message came directly from God. But a preacher who doesn’t have love is of no value.
That’s something that those us who are preachers need to be reminded of on a regular basis. Because it’s very possible for us to proclaim the truth of God week after week, but to do it in an unloving manner. Paul said in Ephesians 4:15 that we should speak “the truth in love”, but my experience over the years is that those preachers who emphasize that they have all the truth don’t seem to have much love.
And you’ve probably experienced this somewhere along the way – someone who was quite capable as a preacher, who really had the ability to teach or preach, but it was hard for you to see that there was any love behind the message. And my guess is that whenever you heard that message, it accomplished for you exactly what Paul said it accomplishes – absolutely nothing.
3. Love is more important than knowledge
“And if I …understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:2)
Paul says that even if you know it all – if you know everything there is to know about nuclear science, everything there is to know about medicine, everything there is to know about philosophy and psychology and theology and every other kind of “ology” – if you know it all, you are virtually omniscient, but you don’t have love, then it’s worthless.
I’m always surprised when people look at society and try to analyze what’s wrong with us, why we’re killing and abusing one another, and those experts always seem to come back with the same answer, “We need more education. We need to get everybody educated, and then we won’t have these problems anymore.”
I’m sorry, but I don’t think education is the answer. Now I’m not opposed to education. But as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” AndI don’t think we need more knowledge in this world nearly as much as we need more love. We need a whole lot more love and the hearts of people need to change before society will ever change.
4. Love is more important than faith
That’s almost hard to believe. Now Paul certainly didn’t think that faith was unimportant. He just says that love is more important than faith. He says, “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”(I Corinthians 13:2).
I’ve got to be honest with you – this area is nice, but I miss the mountains. Every time I go through the Blue Ridge Mountains, I’m reminded again of how much I love them. Now, Paul talks about mountain-moving faith, which would be pretty cool. If I could, by the power of faith, run over to Boone, grab me a mountain or two, and drag them back over here and put them in our back yard, I would. You’ve got to admit — mountain-moving faith would be a neat thing to have.
I can’t begin to imagine the amount of faith involved in Jesus telling his apostles they could do that. And faith is important. We’re told in scripture that faith is so important that it is impossible to please God without faith. And I’m sure that all of you here this morning have faith.
You believe that God is the creator of this world. You may believe that Jesus Christ is his only begotten Son, and that he came into our world and lived a sinless life, and that he died and was buried and rose again on the third day. You believe that he is now at the right hand of God, and is preparing a place for us, and that one day he’ll come again. You believe that the Holy Spirit is our guide and counselor and comforter.
If you believe all those things, that’s great and I commend you for it. But the Bible teaches that if you believe all the right stuff, but you don’t have love, then you are nothing. Because even faith is of no value unless it’s backed up by love.
In Galatians 5:6, Paul said, “The only thing that counts [the only thing!] is faith expressing itself through love.” (NIV)
5. Love is more important than generosity
Paul said, “If I give away all I have…but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:3).
Notice that Paul didn’t say, “If you give 10%.” He said, “If you give everything, if you empty your bank account, cash in all your stocks and bonds, get all the money out of your retirement funds. You sell your house and the cars and the boat. You get rid of all the jewelry and clothing and the appliances. You have a massive yard sale and sell everything, except maybe the clothes on your back; and then after you sell it, you take every bit of the proceeds and say, “Let’s help the poor families in this community with this money.”
Even in this jaded world, if word got out, that would make local news and maybe even national headlines. This is not a guy giving 10% or 20% or even 50%. It’s everything, every last red cent. And Paul says, if it you do that, but it’s done without love, it is a worthless sacrifice.
Because people can give for all sorts of reasons. Some people give out of guilt. Some people give to impress other people. Some people give because they think that God is going to zap ‘em if they don’t. Some parents give elaborate gifts to their children in order to try to make their kids love them.
There’s a lot of reasons why people give, but Paul says that none of them are good reasons. If love is absent from our lives, then our giving is empty. The motive for giving should always be love — love for God and love for people.
6. Love is even more important than martyrdom
“And if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:3).
Paul is talking here about being a martyr. Execution by burning at the stake was a fate suffered by many Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire, and it was a horrible agonizing death.
Paul is talking about Christians who are so faithful and so committed to God that they would be willing to die because of their faith. How many of us have that much commitment? Are you willing to lay down your life for God, if it comes to that?
But Paul is saying that if you are fully committed to God, if you go to church every time the doors are open, if you read your Bible faithfully, you pray, you do all the things that Christians are supposed to do, but there’s no love behind any of it, then it’s worthless in the sight of God.
Paul says that love is more important than spiritual gifts, more important than knowledge, more important than faith, more important than generosity, and more important than all the things that you might accomplish for the kingdom of God.
But, let’s be honest. It’s a whole lot easier to preach about love than it is to live it out. And it’s a whole lot easier to listen to a sermon on love than it is to put it into practice. And the reason it’s so hard is because it’s so easy to think first and foremost about myself.
I heard about a preacher who was given a new car by a member of his congregation. One day he went out for a visit and when he came back to his car, he found a little boy in ragged clothing admiring it. The boy said, “That sure is a nice car.” The preacher explained that he couldn’t really afford a car like this, but that a brother in Christ had given it to him to use in the service of God. The youngster thought about that a while and then he said, “I wish….I wish….I could be a brother like that.”
Let me ask you, was that your first thought? Because, it’s a whole lot easier to react to that story by saying, “I wish I had a brother who would do something like that for me.” When we hear a sermon on love, are we more inclined to say, “I wish everybody else would treat me with love”, or to say, “I truly want to learn how to love others better”?
But, if we’ll do that, if we’ll make the effort to learn how to love others more, then the day will come when people will look at us and say, “It’s obvious who your Father is, because you act just like him.”
Next week, we’ll get into some specific ways that we can put that love into practice.