Sunday I preached at 2 churches on 1 Corinthians 13, and the sermon was entitled “Off the Pedestal.” In this photo you see me at the pulpit and I brought a pedestal and artistic vase with me as a prop to make the point of the sermon. Later in my message I remove the vase and place it on the ground. Below the photo is the message transcript. Audio link here if you’d like to listen. Only 20 minutes.
This eloquent description of love is familiar to many people. I’ve seen it framed and hanging on the wall in homes, even of people that don’t attend church. My point is that it is broadly admired even by the non-religious. We also associate it with weddings, as it is a common Scripture reading for a marriage ceremony.
Perhaps you are wondering about this prop I brought with me – a pedestal with an artistic vase displayed on it. I fear this is how we view the love chapter. We put it on a pedestal as exalted poetry. We bring it out on special occasions like a wedding to admire it. We keep it at a distance.
But the love chapter was not meant to be on a pedestal. It is meant to come near to us, to come down to the level of everyday life, and pierce our hearts.
When the Christians in Corinth about 2,000 years ago heard 1 Corinthians 13 read to them, I’m certain that their response was not something like “Oh how lovely and inspirational.” Rather, they were probably squirming in their seats and uneasy. They likely felt convicted.
What has happened is that we have pulled 1 Corinthians 13 out of context. We look at in isolation. We ignore chapters 1-12 that come before, and chapters 14-16 that follow it. If you pick up a letter or book, and only read a paragraph in the middle of it, it could be confusing or you could misinterpret it. And our first step this morning, in taking 1 Corinthians 13 off the pedestal we have put it on, is to place it back in its original context. What did it mean to the Christians in Corinth?
Remember that the apostle Paul was a travelling evangelist who went on missionary journeys starting churches. He also had a very pastoral heart. He didn’t start a church and then forget about them. He followed up, and tried to continue nurturing them in their faith. Sometimes Paul would re-visit a church, or he wrote letters.
In Acts 18, you can read the historical record of Paul’s first visit to Corinth. It appears he re-visited them at least once, maybe twice. And we have 2 letters that Paul wrote them – 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The point is that Paul had a relationship with this church.
The church in Corinth had a lot of problems. In chapter 1, Paul refers to divisions and quarrels among them. They were disagreeing over leadership, which teacher was the best one to follow. But that was really the least of it. Chapter 5 refers to serious sexual immorality that was not only going on, but being tolerated by them. In chapter 6 we learn that there were lawsuits. They were taking each other to secular court, suiting each other over insignificant things that should have been resolvable without a lawsuit. Throughout the letter we see hints and outright statements that they had problems with pride and arrogance. I’m going to read chapter 4: 18-21.
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?
Paul hopes that his letter to them will be effective – so that when he comes they will have gotten their act together, and it can be a pleasant visit. But if they fail to get their act together, Paul will have to be tough with them. Lest you think Paul is just a harsh critic in this letter, he is also an encourager. There are blocks of positive teaching. After he presents a problem, he offers solutions, and points them to Christ. Paul always elevates Christ.
But I hope you are getting a clue how the Corinthians would have reacted to chapter 13. At the least, it was corrective. At the worst, it was an outright rebuke.
The description of love was in contrast to the behavior of the Corinthians. For example, verse 5 says that love is not self-seeking, not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Well, people who are not doing such things – do not start lawsuits. Right? Remember that there were problems with pride. And verse 4 says: love does not boast, it is not proud. So you can see why the Corinthians were likely squirming in their seats.
But let’s look in more detail at chapter 13, which can be divided into 3 parts:
Verses 1-3 can be entitled: the futility of gifts without love
Verses 4-7: the nature of love
verses 8-13: the permanence of love
Verses 1-3, the futility of gifts without love – it talks about gifts and service, and this is because chapter 12 was about spiritual gifts and serving in the church. Apparently there were some highly gifted people in Corinth, but they had let it go to their heads, and they were not utilizing their gifts in a spirt of love. Good things can be done for wrong reasons and with sinful attitudes lurking beneath.
Verses 1-3 are really quite startling if you take the time to ponder them.
If you speak in an angelic tongue but lack love, your sound is no better than a gong.
If you have a great faith that can move mountains but lack love, you are nothing.
If you give everything you own to the poor but lack love, you gain nothing.
NOTHING. This seems extreme, exaggerated. Doesn’t it? At least some poor people were helped. At least a mountain was moved. Jesus said some similarly startling and extreme things in his Sermon on the Mount. I don’t have time to go there. But I think the point is that internal attitudes are important. God knows our hearts. Not only do actions matter, but the motives behind them.
If I had a white board up here and wrote 1 billion on it, numerically: 1,000,000,000.
And then I erased only the number one. What is left? A string of zeroes. It is missing the one thing that mattered most. There is a big difference between a billion and zero. And to serve and do good but without love is to be missing the one thing that matters most.
To keep moving, verses 4-7, describe the nature of love. I’ll re-read these verses and as I do note that love is described in the positive (love is…) and in the negative (love is not…).
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, 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.”
In english, some of these words are adjectives. But in ancient Greek they were verbs. Something is lost in translation. Love is patient and kind might be better as: Love waits patiently. Love shows kindness. It gets the verb-ness across.
Love is a verb. Love is an action. It looks like something.
Most of the words in this description of love are clear to us. We understand what it means to be kind. We know what it means to not be envious. So I decided to pick one that might be unclear. What about “love always trusts”? Other versions word it, “love believes all things.”
Does this mean we are supposed to be gullible and naïve? I don’t think so because that would conflict with other Bible passages that teach us to have wisdom and to be discerning so that we are not easily deceived by falsehoods. I think “love always trusts” is about not jumping to conclusions. Love gives the benefit of the doubt, or avoids unnecessary suspicion. Love thinks the best of others, unless convinced otherwise. Has someone ever given you the benefit of the doubt? I’m sure you were appreciative.
The final section is verses 8-13, that we can entitle: the permanence of love. Verse 13 is well-known: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – Why is love greater than faith and hope? Instead of them being equal? Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith it is impossible to please God. Impossible. This could be an argument that faith is the greatest. And hope is a core Christian virtue too. We look for our blessed hope, the return of Jesus in glory. So, why is love greater? I propose 3 things:
#1. Faith and hope can be viewed as manifestations of love. Verse 7 says that love always trusts and hopes. So love is the source of our faith and hope.
#2. Love is the greatest because it is the only thing that will increase when we see the Lord, unlike faith and hope which will decrease. The old hymn says:
“Lord haste the day when the faith shall be sight. The clouds be rolled back as a scroll. The trump shall re-sound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”
When the Lord returns, much of our faith and hope will be realized or brought to completion. Our faith shall be sight. The unseen will finally be seen. I do think faith and hope will exist in the future state, but the reality of God’s presence will make it much easier.
And finally number # 3. Love is the greatest because God is love. First John 4:7-10 was read this morning, and verse 8 says that God is love.
A few moments ago I emphasized that love is a verb. But love is not only a verb. If we think of love as only “doing something” we miss the source of love. Where does love come from? The origin of love is God. Love can’t flourish apart from God. And God showed us his love by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Love is a noun that produces verbs.
We need to come back to this pedestal, on which we have placed 1 Corinthians 13. It needs to be taken off of it. (Go take it off!)
In context, 1 Corinthians 13 was not about a wedding but about the behavior in everyday life of church people. It wasn’t meant to be simply admired as an inspirational description, but to pierce our hearts. Do we love others in this way? – This is a question each of us should prayerfully consider. But while some self-examination is in order, we don’t want to get stuck there. This should not be the foundation of our approach. Because it ends up more about us than about God. It ends up more about what we are doing or not doing, than about what God did for us.
We are to love, but why are we to love others? First John 4:19 says that we love because Jesus first loved us. – Because. The apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians that the love of Christ compelled or controlled him. Our motivations should arise from an awareness of the amazing grace and tremendous love demonstrated towards us in Christ. First and foremost we need to look to Jesus. We should be kind because Jesus was kind to us. If anything is going to be on this pedestal, it should be our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only one who loved perfectly. We can’t love perfectly (and that is okay and this is why Jesus died for us), but we can improve our love quotient.
What compels you this morning?
Is it the love of Christ or something else?