I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: The Uselessness of Spiritual Gifts Without Love
The great evangelist, Dwight L. Moody once wrote these words:
"Show me a church where there is love, and I will show you a church that is a power in the community. In Chicago a few years ago a little boy attended a Sunday school I know of. When his parents moved to another part of the city the little fellow still attended the same Sunday school, although it meant a long, tiresome walk each way. A friend asked him why he went so far and told him that there were plenty of others just as good nearer his home.
"They may be as good for others, but not for me," was his reply.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because they love a fellow over there," he replied.
If only we could make the world believe that we loved them there would be fewer empty churches, and a smaller proportion of our population who never darken a church door. Let love replace duty in our church relations, and the world will soon be evangelized."
To Moody's words I would say a hearty 'Amen!' The people of this world are looking for what the church should be offering and what God has offered in sending His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to die for us. It is looking for love that isn't based upon what the object of love can do for me. It is looking for someone who will love me for me, and not who I am or what I have done or have become that demonstrates my worthiness for love.
It is the kind of love that Paul talks about in I Corinthians 13. This chapter is called the 'Love Chapter' and is often used in weddings to talk about how a man and woman should love each other. However, Paul's context for this passage is his discussion of spiritual gifts, found in chapters 12-14 of this book, in which he talks about proper use of the gifts and the motive for which they should be used.
The apostle, while recognizing the importance of having spiritual gifts, is saying that there is something far more important. It is so important, in fact, that spiritual gifts are totally useless without it. The reason that we have been given these gifts in the first place is to use them for the sake of others out of love for God and love for fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Let us look more closely at this great passage in order to find out how we can better apply it to our lives and our local churches today. We need to begin by giving a definition of love as seen in this passage and others in Scripture. The Greek term that Paul uses throughout this chapter is agape.
I. Definition of Agape Love
Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. It is the highest of the four types of love found in the Bible. The other types found in Scripture are these:
- Eros which is the word for sensual or romantic love.
- Philia which means brotherly love or friendship.
- Storge which describes the love between family members.
The Greek word agape is found literally throughout the New Testament but very rarely in other Greek literature. It is a pure, and willful love that is done because it desires the other person's highest good. This love is more than an emotion. It is a sentiment that demonstrates itself through actions.
It is seen most clearly by the action of God whereby He sent His one and only Son into this world to die on the cross for our sins and is found in one of the most famous verses in Scripture, John 3:16. This verse says:
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
Agape love is not merely an attribute of our God, it is the essence of who He is. He alone is fundamentally love. He alone loves in completeness and perfection. This is what the apostle John meant when he stated:
"But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love." (I John 4:8).
It is this unselfish love that the Spirit of God, living in the believer, enables us to do as well. Jesus, while on earth, gave his disciples what he called a 'new commandment" just before He was crucified. Our Lord said in John 13:34,35 that:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
It is this kind of love that should motivate all of our attitudes and actions in life. And it is this love that should be the reason we want to use the spiritual gifts that God has given to each member of the Body of Christ.
Further, without this loving motivation, all that we do in life is extremely meaningless. This is how the apostle Paul begins his poetic discussion of agape love.
II. The Preeminence of Agape Love (1-3)
In the first 3 verses of this great passage, Paul shows the preeminence of agape love over all the spiritual gifts. He specifically mentions 5 very prominent gifts that would be seen by most. They include the gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith and giving. These gifts can’t accomplish their purpose without the supremacy of love over them all.
Here is Paul in his own words:
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing."
Notice that Paul says that even giving the ultimate sacrifice of one's life is not worth anything without love. How silly it would be to give your life away in order to just be noticed by men and to achieve fame and glory. You're dead and it won't help you, either in this life or the life beyond the grave. But giving your life, as a Christian, out of love for God and others is admirable because it is selfless and will be rewarded by the Lord in eternity at Christ's Judgment Seat.
III. The Demonstration of Agape Love (4-8a)
After showing the preeminence of agape love, Paul next turns, in verses 4-8a, to a brief talk about the demonstration of this love. Agape is always demonstrated. It is never just something you say, but rather something you do. It's how you act or refuse to act, in some cases, toward others. As we read, the apostle Paul shows both the negative and the positive attributes of this highest form of love.
From the website whatchristianswanttoknow.com we get this succinct summary of what Paul tells us. He says that:
- Rejoices in truth
- Bears up under all problems / Protects
- Believes / Trusts
- Understands the of faults of others
- Never fails / Perseveres
- Inappropriate / Rude
- Accepting of sin
As we go through these attributes of love, our own shortcomings become apparent and could lead us to give up in despair. That is not what this passage is trying to get us to do, however. It is giving to us the ideal that only God Himself has fully mastered. But, at the same time, it sets the pattern that we all must be shooting for, by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in each and every one of us individually. We will never have perfect love for others this side of glory. But we can make progress in that direction as we grow in our walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.
The last section of this poem on love is an expansion on one of agape love's greatest attributes found in verse 8a, which tells us:
"Love never fails."
This love will last forever, even into the eternal state when we will all be living in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
IV. The Perseverance of Agape Love (8b-13).
Here is how Paul ends this talk on this marvelous subject:
"Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope and love, these three. But the greatest of these is love." (8-13).
There is a lot of discussion over this section of Scripture because it is used as a proof text to talk about the ceasing of the gifts of tongues, knowledge and prophecy. It is shown as a countering of the modern-day charismatic movement's claims to still use these gifts. While I don't agree with what the charismatic movement teaches, I'm not sure that this text is a way to show them that they are wrong. Paul is using these spiritual gifts to strengthen his point on the permanence of love by comparing it to these particular spiritual gifts which the Corinthians seemed to highly prize. All of these prized gifts will end. Love will remain forever. But when will they end?
From this passage, we can see a distinction between how prophecy and knowledge end and how the gift of tongues does. The Greek verbs used for these are different. Prophecy and knowledge are said to 'be done away.' In both cases something will put an end to them. The thing which will do this is said by Paul to be 'that which is perfect.' This will render these gifts inoperative. Some have said that this perfect thing is the completion of the Scriptures. However, there will be an operation of these gifts in the future Millennial Kingdom (e.g. Joel 2:28).
Also, Paul talks, in verse 12, about seeing God face to face and knowing fully just as I am also fully known by God. In other words having a perfect knowledge as God does. That is obviously not completely true today.
Others have said that 'the perfect' is the rapture of the Church or the Second coming of Christ. We know this not to be the case because the Millennial Kingdom to follow will have an abundance of preachers and teachers.
So, what is 'that which is perfect?' I believe that John MacArthur got it right when he tells us that:
"The perfect must be the eternal state, when in glory we see God face to face (Revelation 22:4) and have full knowledge in the eternal new heavens and new earth. Just as a child grows to full understanding, believers will come to perfect knowledge and no such gifts will be necessary."
As we said. Paul uses a different verb for the ending of tongues in this passage. He says that tongues 'will cease.' This seems to indicate that it will cease by itself, just as it did at the end of the apostolic age. It did not end by the coming of 'that which is perfect' as will the gifts of knowledge and prophecy, for it already has ceased.
This gift of tongues and their interpretation, just like all of the sign gifts, were given as a sign to authenticate the message of the apostles and to show that these apostles were truly God's gospel messengers. Tongues were further to be a judicial sign by God of Israel's judgment. Also, they were a sign for unbelievers and not believers. Specifically, unbelieving Israel.
Tongues ceased to be necessary anymore to authenticate messages and messengers with the completion of the New Testament canon. The Bible became the standard by which all teachings are to be deemed true or false. And with the fall of Israel and its setting aside temporarily as a nation, God's judgment upon her was complete.
The fact that tongues have ceased should become apparent because they are noticeably absent from any other books in the New Testament, except Acts. And tongues stopped being an issue that was recorded about or practiced in early church history as the New Testament was being written. Also, as we look throughout church history following the first century era, they are also noticeably absent as well. Tongues only appeared sporadically in history in what could only be seen as questionable groups of people.
However, we must not argue over all of these things and miss the point that the apostle Paul is talking about in this passage. The point is that these gifts are important only as they are used in love. They are temporary. Love is not. We will be loving God and loving our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ long after these gifts are distant memories. Love will persevere beyond time and into eternity.
What we need to take from this beautiful section of Scripture, written by the Apostle Paul, must be that it doesn't matter how talented and gifted we are, or how untalented we think that we are. What matters more is the reasoning behind why we use the gifts and abilities that God has given us. How do we see our gifts? Do we see them as a means by which we show off and look good? Or are they a way to get ahead in life and become top dog in this dog-eat-dog world in which we are placed?
Or are they, as the Bible says, a means by which we can be of service to others for God's glory. I like a poem that I once read by C.C Meigs entitled 'Others.' He says this:
Lord, help me to live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray
My prayers will be for others.
Help me in all the work I do
To ever be sincere and true
And know that all I do for You
Must needs be done for others.
Let "self" be crucified and slain
And buried deep; and all in vain
May efforts be to rise again
Except to live for others.
And when my work on earth is done,
And my new work in heaven's begun,
May I forget the crown I've won
While thinking still of others.
Others, Lord, yes others!
Let this my motto be,
Help me to live for others,
That I may live like Thee.
That, my friends is the agape love that Paul was talking about in I Corinthians 13. May the rest of our lives, no matter how many years may lay before each of us, be years of selflessly putting others ahead of ourselves and using each gift for God and those whom he has placed in our path. May we love others as Christ has loved us and has given Himself for us. And then we can truly say in the end that our lives were not lived in vain!
© 2022 Jeff Shirley