The Church at Corinth that Paul had planted (Acts 18) was struggling. The city had a bad reputation for sexual immorality, religious diversity, and corruption. It was a city that thrived on trade and as people traveled the route into its heart, so did these issues. The church began to suffer from these influences and the divisions set in. Paul’s first letter to them was one urging unity (12:12) and the importance of giving themselves fully to “the work of the Lord” (15:58). Nestled right between these is Chapter 13; a part of his letter that had to have convicted those who were at the heart of these divisions. It is a passage on the nature and importance of love. Today we are going to be looking at verse 1-3.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
No matter how elegantly you may be speaking, if you are not speaking a message of love, you might as well be silent. I think gongs and cymbals rank right up there with some of the most annoying sounds I have ever heard. Isn’t it amazing how relevant it was to the people of Corinth around A.D. 55 and is still relevant and amazing imagery for us today in 2013? Imagine someone you know coming up to you and all you hear is a clanging cymbal when his or her mouth opens. How long would you stick around to hear what they had to say? Not long, I am guessing. Imagine a whole group of people in a room chatting and all you here is noisy gongs. I would be doing an about face pretty quick and high-tailing it out of that room. Yet so it is with those who speak with no love.
Let us not neglect to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5) and consider each thought before it reaches our tongues. Are you speaking to be heard and recognized by others or is your message one of love, meant to be pleasing to the Lord? Our hearts should be swelling with the love our Lord so graciously shows us in His son Jesus Christ. I love how the Psalmist states it in Psalm 45.
My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. (Psalm 45:1)
And what if we have intellect and knowledge, even knowledge of the things of God? Our heads can be filled with every detail of the Bible and we can have doctorates in theology, divinity, evangelism, and discipleship, but if we don’t have love, we are nothing. That knowledge is just another worldly possession that will pass away. (13:8) And even if our faith is so strong as to remove mountains, if it is not a faith in the one who showed us the ultimate example of love, our faith is all for naught. If we have faith in Jesus Christ and what he did then we are to be living as he did and as he commanded us to.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
To know the love of Christ is to know more than any other knowledge we could gain. And through our knowledge and faith in Him, we hang on to Him with all we have and ground ourselves in His love.
that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)
Now there is the matter of our service. Paul emphasizes that even if we give up everything we have and sacrifice our own bodies to be burned, we gain nothing if it is done without love. In Matthew 6:2-4 Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of giving to be seen by others. He states,
When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)
When our giving is done from a heart of love, the less people that see it the better. Even keeping the recipient in the dark about where the gift has come from is sometimes necessary. When God is the only one knowing and seeing our gifs of love, what a sweet reward he will give to us.
Paul is using some heavy exaggeration in his message here. First he talked about speaking in the tongues of angels, and understanding all mysteries, faith to remove mountains and giving all that you have. His last example is giving up your body to be burned. As crazy as it may seem, this actually did happen to three brave men standing up for their faith. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar questioned Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as to why they did not serve his gods or worship the golden image of himself that he had set up. They answered him and said,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
And they were led up and fell bound into the fiery furnace. They were joined by an angel and not burned at all. King Nebuchadnezzar blessed their God because of their willingness to “yield up their bodies” to be burned for their God. (Dan 3:28)
Maybe not to such extremes, but we all are capable of making well-intentioned sacrifices. But we must guard ourselves that it is not being done with pride and vanity instead of love. Are we doing nice things for others only to get the attention and praise from others? When these sacrifices are made with love, it is God alone who gets the praise and glory. And this should be our aim.
The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1Timothy 1:5)
So whether it is in our words, in our knowledge and faith, or in our service, love is to be first in them all. “Abide in my love,” Jesus told his disciples. Live in it, surround yourself with it, drink it in, let it be part of who you are in me because without it…NOTHING.
Paul was obviously rebuking the Corinthians who were failing to conduct themselves with love. In the next passage we will be looking at Love personified as a person who acts in the ways Christians should imitate. It is a description of Christ himself. So as we look in verses 4-7 next week we will be looking at Christ as our example for love. I pray that each trait can be applied in all areas of our lives, but most importantly in our marriages, our parenting, our relationships, our service and our homes.