MESSAGE FOR APRIL 7, 2002 FROM 1 CORINTHIANS 13

 

            After a three-week break, we now return to our series of messages on the church of Christ.  We are nearing the end of this series where we have examined what the Bible has to say about the church. The lens through which we have been looking has been the biblical designations the Scriptures give to the church.  We left off midway through our study of the biblical title for the church, the family of God.  You’ll remember we said the New Testament is filled with this understanding of the church as God’s family.  We saw the repeated New Testament teaching, in contrast to the Old Testament, that God is the Father of this spiritual family the church.  Just as wondrous is the truth that Jesus Christ is the older brother of all who believe.  Because these truths about the church as a family are so widely taught in the bible, we saw that we too must see ourselves as family and continually work to relate to each other as brothers and sisters bound together more strongly than even our own genetic or blood families.

            In our second message on the church as God’s family we fleshed out what it means to relate to one another as family and we saw that the relationships within this family should be marked by what the New Testament calls fellowship.  We examined Acts 2:42-47 to see a snapshot of what this family fellowship looks like.  We saw that to have fellowship means to share, to have in common and these believers had a very intense, sharing fellowship.  They sacrificially shared their time, being together at times almost constantly.  They shared their money; no need within the family going unmet.  They shared their homes, their food, and worship.  This was a dynamic, supernatural fellowship and it was brought about by the fact that it was Jesus Christ whom they shared.  The fact that they were all in love with Jesus enabled them and drove them to love each other.  The power of Jesus, his love for us and our love for him can unite us in ways that are humanly impossible—if we have love for God and love for each other.

            That brings us to a third message on the family of God where today we want to put on display this glorious gift of love God has given to His church family.  If this fellowship is rooted in love then what does the Bible have to say about this love within the context of a church?  One text above all others that addresses that question.  First Corinthians 13 is such a profoundly powerful text on this central Christian virtue that it is used in practically every context.  We most commonly and rightly hear this text read at weddings.  We must not however forget that although this text applies in many contexts, the context to which it was originally addressed was the crying need within the church at Corinth to love one another. The Corinthians, according to chapter one were not lacking any spiritual gift.  This was a very gifted church where God moved with supernatural power. 

            But nonetheless this was a very sick church.  It was marked by pride and arrogance and that affected the way they related to each other.  They were divisive, separating into various cliques or parties.  They permitted gross sexual immorality to go on unchecked by church discipline.  They were hauling each other into court rather than settling their differences within the church.  They were defiling the Lord’s Supper by having some gobble up all the bread and wine, leaving others with nothing.  Their worship services were three ring circuses where certain gifts and those who practiced them were wrongly put on pedestals while others with different gifts were made to feel inferior.  In the midst of the section where Paul teaches and rebukes this church on their abuse and over-emphasis on the gift of tongues—Paul writes to this gifted but arrogant church what we know as “the love chapter.”  This chapter was originally addressed to tell believers how they were to relate to each other in the context of a local church.  We should read it primarily in that context and then we will see what God has to say about family love.

            Paul writes beginning in verse one of First Corinthians chapter 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

            This text falls into three sections and therefore we will divide our treatment of love within God’s family into three points.  The first point comes out of verses 1-3 and is without family love for one another, all our ministry and ministry gifts are at best, meaningless.  The Corinthians had some strange ideas about what it was to be spiritually mature or advanced in the Christian life.  They focused on externally impressive spiritual gifts.  They were very impressed with those kinds of ministries and gifts that make a big splash—that are public and in some way sensational.  To be involved in those ministries and possess and function in those kinds of gifts was the measure of spirituality.  In other words, they shared the same attitudes about these things we in the church do today.  Paul completely takes apart this superficial understanding.  He begins in verse one with tongues, the gift they were most impressed with and the one they had most abused and wrongly elevated.  He tells them that without love tongues of even the angelic variety were as useful, as meaningless as the irritating sound of a banging gong.  Clanging cymbals were often used in pagan religions and he may very well be saying that tongues without love are no better than some godless, pagan religious expression.

            He then moves to prophecy, another of these external, publicly practiced gifts the Corinthians were particularly enamored with and knowledge, the Corinthians considered those who knew the most to be the most spiritual.  He then lists faith that could bring miracles and the most extreme, sacrificial example of giving, even to the surrendering of one’s body to the agony of a fiery martyrdom. Paul lists all these heroic, external, outwardly impressive, most-often admired and coveted gifts and he says, “without love, they are at best, meaningless.”  To God they are as nothing.  God’s value system and theirs (and ours) couldn’t be more at odds with one another.  These gifts cause people to ooh and aah with admiration. They propel people to celebrity status as if a “Christian celebrity” should ever be anything other than a contradiction in terms.  Our superficial appraisal of gifted people causes us to forget that a celebrity is by definition “one who is celebrated” and there is only room for One person to be celebrated in the church of Jesus Christ. At the conference I went to recently, I was amazed at how many people stood in line to fawn over the big name speakers--to have their picture taken with them.  At times it felt more like a fan club than a place of worship.           

If we think we are not influenced by this Corinthian culture we live in where we place incredible value on the external, impressive gifts, we are mistaken. We must never underestimate how warped and idolatrous our culture is in this regard.  There has perhaps never been a culture that is more impressed with talent giftedness and less concerned with what’s inside the person.  This is why a professional athlete can be a hero even though they may have the morals of an ally cat.  This is why a convicted rapist who boxes professionally can draw millions of television pay-per view dollars. This is why a former president could remain in office in the midst of gross scandals that would have effectively driven less gifted, dynamic personalities from the White House.  All around us we see evidence of the fact that our culture more and more judges a person exclusively by the power of their gifts and personality to the exclusion of what’s in their hearts. Sadly, this trend is no stranger to the church either.  We are more and more impressed by a person’s outward abilities and personality and less and less by their character.

We saw an example of this two years ago when a nationally known evangelical pastor went through a painful divorce.  In 1995 he had publicly stated to his church that if he divorced he would leave the ministry and the unwritten policy of the church which had been carried out with several other divorced church leaders stipulated that a divorced man would be forced to step down from leadership.  After the pastor was divorced however, his deacons voted to allow him remain as the pastor and when the decision was announced to the church they greeted the news with a standing ovation.  Why?  One reason is because he’s gifted in what he does.  Forget about principle or precedent; forget about what the word of God has to say on the subject—he’s gifted.  The point is not to attack this man but merely to point out that instead of making love the measure of Christian maturity, we, like the Corinthians have made talent and ability THE measure of what Christian spirituality is.  That’s to say nothing of the examples of this set of distorted priorities we see in certain segments of the charismatic movement who exalt tongues and prophecy and the sign gifts above a person’s character and biblical order for worship.  In some of those contexts, spirituality is judged more by how many sign gifts are manifested than by how much the family loves each other.  It’s the Corinthian church revisited.

This twisted attitude simply kills fellowship because it sets up all sorts of unbiblical priorities and values within the church.  If someone were to ask you, “What is your ultimate goal as a Christian in terms of your behavior and attitudes?” what would your response be?  Let’s quickly cite some texts that give us what our answer SHOULD BE. Just let the uniform witness of these texts and the power of that sink in.  Matthew 22:37-40—“Jesus replied:” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and all the prophets hang on these two commandments.”  Romans 13:8—“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.”  Galatians 5:14—“The entire law is summed up in a single command:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:6—“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. First Peter 4:8 “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.”  In James 2:8 he calls the command to “love your neighbor as yourself’  the royal law.”

Our number one prayer request, our most urgent desire and plea before God as it relates to our Christian maturity should be—“Oh God cause me to love you and love others—purify my love—purge anything in my heart that isn’t love.”  In light of the scriptural priority of love that prayer or one like it should cross our lips more often than virtually any other personal prayer request.  The people we should most look up to and seek out as examples for our lives should not necessarily be those who are clever or smart or generous or those who can in any way make a big splash.  At the top of our most admired people list should be those who live out the words of 1 John 3:18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.”  Without love all ministry and spiritual gifts are meaningless.

A second point is in verses 4-8.  Here Paul lists what love looks like.  One striking trait of this list is Paul lists two qualities that describe love, patience and kindness and then he lists eight qualities that are NOT love.  This is predominantly a list telling us what love is NOT.  Why does he do that?  One reason is because the Corinthians were guilty of all the sins that Paul says do not show love.  But another reason is Paul, in telling us what love is not, distills out for us the essential quality of love.  In verses 4-8 notice what love is not.  Love does not envy, is not proud, rude, self-seeking, easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil.  Do you see the cord that runs throughout that list?  What is the common denominator there?

The common denominator seen in that list can be reduced to this—biblical, family love is not about ME and what I want—it’s about others.  Think about the list.  Envy is what we feel when we want something someone else has.  Being proud is exalting yourself over others. Not being rude is much better translated “love does not behave shamefully or disgracefully.”  That means love does not behave in such a way that would bring shame or disgrace on others.  To be self-seeking means putting your wants and desires above the needs of others.  A person who is easily angered has a short fuse because nothing is supposed bad or inconvenient is supposed to happened to THEM.  When it does, they go off like a cheap firecracker.  Keeping a record of wrongs means you are constantly tabulating instances when you perceive other people have hurt you because one day you will vindictively use that information against them.  Do you hear how all these attitudes are generated from a heart that believes that life is all about ME—getting what I want when I want it and if you don’t give it to me I will make a record of it in my head and blow up all over you?

A second truth about family love from this text is Family love is totally other-centered.  A person who loves biblically is a person who doesn’t think much about themselves because their heart is so oriented to others.  They are other-centered.  On the contrary, if most of my thoughts are about me—how I look, how I feel, what I deserve, how I am appearing to others—those attitudes choke off love.  “Self-love” as that term is widely understood today is a godless idea.  Self-forgetfulness is the mark of a person who is deeply steeped in love.  They’re too busy thinking about others to have much time to think about themselves.  This is the embodiment of Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to you own interests, but also to the interests of others.”   Can we see what a dynamic impact this attitude would have on the church if a large percentage of the people spent most of their time, energy and thought life thinking about others?  If this were present in the church, any conceivable problem would quickly be swallowed up by this love. Proverbs 10:12 says, “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.”  What a place the church would be if all the wrongs were quickly covered up with love.  Don’t misunderstand, this doesn’t mean church discipline would never be necessary, but it would be an expression of love, not revenge.

If this family love were the over-riding influence in the church, those in legitimate financial need would quickly find their need met because they would be surrounded by people who weren’t thinking first of the new home improvement project or the new car or the vacation or the new boat or cabin, they would be surrounded by people who were on the lookout for people who needed money.  If this family love were the over-riding influence in the church, the people who were going through significant emotional hurt wouldn’t have to suffer alone or only draw on one or two caring people, they would have many people who would share their burdens because they would be surrounded by people who would not be so focused on their own lives--watching the big game, getting to the cabin or working extra hours to afford a bigger house, but they would instead have their love-sensitized radar tuned in on giving their time to others to help them out.

If love ruled in the church, no committee or ministry team would ever be in need of people who were willing to sacrifice—no God-initiated building project would ever lack adequate funding, no God-directed ministry would ever go looking for people or money or resources.  If love ruled, the church would be much more like heaven than earth which, as we have seen before, is precisely the way it should be in the church as a colony of heaven on earth.  This leads us to the third truth about family love and it is:  Family love is not only other-centered, family love is otherworldly.  In verses 8-13 Paul contrasts these impressive gifts the Corinthians were so infatuated with to love and the difference he highlights is that while these gifts are temporal and incomplete, love is eternal.  He says prophecies, tongues and knowledge will all end.  But, verse 10 “when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” 

Perfection here almost certainly refers to the return of Christ for at least two reasons.  First, in verse 12, this is clearly the point when Paul says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  Who will we see face to face?  Jesus when he returns.  When will we have full knowledge?  When we are glorified at Christ’s return.  Also, Paul has already connected the imperfect nature of spiritual gifts with the return of Christ in 1 Corinthians 1:7.  There he says to the Corinthians, “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.”  One implication of that verse is that spiritual gifts are for now and we have them only in this period until Jesus Christ is revealed.  Paul’s point in verse 11 in speaking of his childhood makes the point that just as a child is an immature expression of a man, the gifts are temporary and immature expressions of ministry.

But in contrast to the imperfect, immature gifts, love is eternal.  Love will NOT pass away in heaven.  There will be no tongues or prophecy or gifts of knowledge or any other imperfect spiritual gift in heaven, but love will be there.  In fact, love originates there.  It is other-worldly—from the heart of God.  First John 4:7 says, “Dear Friends. Let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”  When we show genuine, biblical love, we are not drawing it out of our own hearts.  There is no love native to fallen human hearts except when God puts there.  Its only as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love inhabits our hearts and expresses His love through us, that we can love each other.  Love is central to God’s character, God is love and love is the mark of one who is from God—who has been given this divine temperament. 

We must see that the church of Christ is not to look like the rest of the world.  The world is intrinsically self-focused and self-centered.  The church is to be other focused.  The world, no matter how impressive it may at times appear, is characterized by the temporal and the superficial.  The church is eternal should be characterized, not by superficiality but by the most profound quality in the universe, love.  Is our chief goal as individuals and as a church to glorify God by fulfilling the law of God by loving each other?  Is love for others near the top of our prayer list?  Is our fellowship and our ministry riddled with this other-centered, other-worldly aspect of God’s character?  To the degree that it is not, we are not simply deficient or imbalanced or weak, we are…nothing.  May God give us he grace to be something by crying out for love to be clearly manifest in our lives and in God’s family here.

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