We’ve finally reached the chapter of this letter that is undoubtedly the most prominent in our memories. Even those outside this church have surely heard this passage read at a wedding, or on the cover of a funeral bulletin, or on a plaque in someone’s home. This chapter is everywhere.
And in one sense it should be. Paul outlines some of history’s most beautiful prose about the most central of Christian virtues.
And yet, we have all probably seen this passage being used in ways that Paul wouldn’t have intended. People quote this passage about love in order to argue for inclusivity, for tolerance, and for chastening anything that sounds like judgmentalism. How dare you judge me for my orientation or my sexuality? That’s not LOVING.
When divorced from the context of chapters 12 and 14, this passage can be contorted and manipulated into saying all kinds of things that Paul would never have affirmed. So, one of my goals as we slowly make our way through this wonderful chapter about love, is for us to keep one eye on the context, both the immediate context of chapters 12 and 14, but also the context of the letter.
We need to remember that Paul is writing to a church that is divided. Divided over their preferences, for example. Some of them liked Peter’s preaching, some liked Paul’s, some liked Apollos’. Divided over issues of sin and sexuality. Divided over ethics, like can we eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan idol. Divided over spiritual gifts, as we’ve seen most recently. Those with speaking gifts like prophecy and tongues were being treated as superior to those Christians endowed with “less-impressive” gifts.
But, as we will soon see, Paul cuts all of that off at the knees. He shows us in our text tonight that no gift, no matter how impressive, is a sufficient indicator of spiritual maturity, if it lacks love. Love must motivate. Love must dominate. Love must permeate every inch of our hearts and every ounce of our service.
That’s where we are heading. Let’s begin by reading our passage, 1 Corinthians 13, which I will read in it’s entirety each week, partly because it is short and a cohesive whole, but also with the hope that his passage will linger in our ears and hearts. It would be a worthwhile endeavor for you to try and memorize this passage of scripture in the weeks that I am preaching through it.
1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
My sermon tonight will begin by looking at verses 1-3 and the necessity of love, and then start into the description of love in verse 4, hoping to get through patience. But let’s begin first with the necessity of love. The necessity of love.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Paul here begins a series of hypothetical overstatements, in order to prove a point, and verse 1 begins by highlighting the gifts of speaking and eloquence. Some of the Corinthians were thinking that they were really gifted and special because they had the speaking gifts, like prophecy or speaking in tongues.
But Paul starts to bring them back down to size by using hyperbole. It doesn’t matter if you speak in the most impressive tongues of men, without love, you’re nothing. Paul even supposes speaking in the tongues of angels, which is an interesting phrase, very unique, and not without mountains of speculation by the commentators.
I’m not convinced that Paul is talking about some super spiritual, heavenly language that is known only by those who are gifted with speaking in tongues. Mostly because Paul says in verse 8 & 9 that tongues pass away, and if angelic tongues pass away, I wonder what the angels will speak in the New Heaven and New Earth.
Rather, I think Paul is simply using overstatement to make his point. It doesn’t matter how impressive your gifts of speech are, even if you were able to speak as blessedly as the angels, if I have not love, then I am nothing.
In fact, the “I am” is in the perfect tense, so we might say, I become nothing. That is, “if I have these super impressive gifts of tongues and eloquence, but I don’t have love, I have become nothing more than a banging gong.”
I’m not merely nullifying the effect of my gifts, I detract from their usefulness. I undermine my own goals. I thought about for a minute bringing a gong up here, and just banging it over and over to prove the point. Bang, Bang, Bang.
In 10 seconds, you’d all want to run me off the platform. But that’s exactly the point. The person gifted with speaking gifts who uses them without love, isn’t merely ineffective, thought they certainly are that. They’re annoying, even repulsive. They repel others with their lack of love. They undermine their message of gospel love.
They rob their gifts of any meaningful spiritual value.
And in verse 2, Paul continues his list of hypothetical superlatives:
2 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.
Maybe you don’t have the gifts of speaking and eloquence, but you have gifts of knowledge and discernment. Paul lists prophecy and understanding and knowledge specifically. You might have access through the Spirit to a level of spiritual understanding that is unknown to any other man. You may have wisdom and insight, previously unrevealed to any other believer. But without love, you’re nothing.
Your doctrinal knowledge, without love, is nothing. Your confession prowess, without love, is nothing. Your hermeneutical acumen, without love, nothing. Children, your memorized catechism questions, without love, is meaningless.
The books you’ve read, without love, are nothing. To borrow some help from DA Carson’s book, which I’ve found quite increasingly insightful actually: If Paul were talking to us today, I think he’d apply it this way:
“You Christians who prove your spirituality by the amount of theological information you can cram into your heads, I tell you that such knowledge proves nothing. And you who affirm the Spirit’s presence in your [worship services] because” of your style of worship or your understanding of the regulative principle, “if your worship patterns are not expressions of love, you are spiritually bankrupt.”
Further, if you had faith to move mountains, but not love, your nothing. Some people seem to have a special gift of faith. When they see a problem, when their feeling low, when they don’t know what to do, rather than turning to despair, they immediately know that God will handle it.
Their faith seems to have a resiliency, a durability, that is beyond most Christians. We read about these believers in biographies or church history books, like George Muller or William Carey for example.
But Paul’s point is that if you had faith like them, to never be discouraged, or to never doubt that God would provide or that God would rescue, but you didn’t have love, you’re actually nothing.
But it’s not merely our gifts of eloquence or knowledge or faith. It’s also our acts of devotion that are robbed of spiritual significance when they lack love. Look at verse 3:
3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.
None of us, I imaging have ever given away everything. But perhaps some of you have really sacrificed in your life for someone else. Maybe it was financial sacrifice, maybe you opened your home to someone else, maybe you’ve given great time or energy to help somebody in need.
Whatever it was, without love, that act of generosity means nothing. Which is the opposite of what the world thinks. The world is fascinated with those who demonstrate bold generosity. If you sold everything you owned and gave it all away, you’d end up in the paper or on the news.
But such devotion, even with all the world’s praise and recognition, without love, is meaningless. It’s vain and empty. It’s ultimately selfish.
So too acts of physical devotion and determination. If you had the will power to not recant, even when burned at the stake, which is an impressive thing, but you did it out of pride, or self-satisfaction, or anything other than love, then your sacrifice gains you nothing.
Acts of immense devotion, devoid of love, are no sure guide to genuine spiritual maturity. I think that’s a key takeaway for us. Carson again:
“By themselves, your spiritual gifts attest nothing spiritual about you. And you who prefer to attest your rich privilege in the Holy Spirit by works of philanthropy, you must learn that philanthropy apart from Christian love says nothing about your experience with God. You remain spiritually bankrupt, a spiritual nothing, if love does not characterize your experience of whatever [gift] God has assigned to you.”
I tried to think of a biblical example of this principle for us, and God reminded me of a book that I had run across some time ago, by a Presbyterian pastor from the 1800s named William Plumer. Plumer wrote a book about the doctrine of providence, and talked in one chapter about lessons to be seen from the life of Judas, the betrayer of Christ.
Judas, we might say, is a clear biblical illustration of these first 3 verses. He was selected, by Christ himself, for a prominent office of spiritual service. He was stationed above most men ever created, and given special privilege near the Son of God himself.
Judas was numbered among the twelve, and sent out on missions, where the apostles were performing all manner of impressive spiritual works, like casting out demons, or healing the blind and the lame and the sick. We have nothing in the gospels to teach us that Judas was inferior to the other apostles in this regard, nothing to give an indication that he was somehow less spiritual than the rest.
In fact, Judas was so trusted that he was given charge of keeping the apostles’ finances. He held the purse. No hint that any of the apostles had a problem with that.
And when Jesus himself said to the apostles that one of them would betray him, they all looked around stunned. They had no idea who it was. Judas had performed the same kinds of works, had outwardly professed the same truths, had preached the same kinds of sermons calling for people to trust in Jesus.
Judas had all the outward signs and gifts. And yet, what did he lack? He lacked love. He lacked the one thing needed to give him any lasting spiritual vitality and effectiveness. He lacked what separates the true sheep and the goats: genuine love.
Outwardly impressive gifts and acts of devotion and service, are of no sure value in determining spiritual authenticity or maturity. Paul would have us to know that, and Judas lets us see that.
And so I call you to reflect tonight. Reflect on yourself. Why do you do what you do? Why do you read the bible, or exercise generosity, or teach, or sing, or host people in your homes? Why do you do the things that you do?
Is it simply because you find it natural and easy? Is it because you feel satisfied and fulfilled? Is it because you like the praise of others, or perhaps you’re fearful of what others might say if you don’t serve in that way?
Parents, why do you train your children the way you do? So people will think you’re good parents? Or out of love?
Students, why do you work hard in your studies? To keep your parents off your case, or out of love for them and for God?
Children, why do you obey your parents? So they won’t hassle you, or so you’ll simply be seen as the good child? Or because you love God and your parents?
For all of us, why do we perform our Christian duties? Simply out of a sense of duty, or out of loving devotion to the God who has saved us?
We need to be careful of our motives, and we need to reflect deeply upon our hearts. Judas looked to all the world to be a spirit-led apostle of Jesus Christ, devoted and gifted in supernatural ways. But God saw his heart.
If love isn’t what is motivating your heart, you need to know you’re nothing. You’re a banging gong to your children. You’re a clanging symbol to those around you. And worse, if you lack love to God, you might be a Judas, as self-deceived as he was.
Reflect. Consider. Test yourself, the bible says. For those who see heart motivations that are impure, or inconsistent, not always driven by love, motivated out of fear, or pride, or anything else, then remember Jesus.
Jesus was perfectly loving, and remains unfailingly so. No selfish motivation every took control of him. No pretense, no confusion, no arrogance, no sinful fear of man. Perfectly ordered love motivated everything that he did.
And the intensity and authenticity of Jesus’s love is seen in his sacrifice for sinners. Driven by love, he willingly died for the unlovely. He died for the selfish, for the greedy, for the prideful, for the boastful, for the self-interested. He died for sinners like me and like you.
Do you trust in that Jesus? Do you know him and love him? I’m not asking how well you love him. Don’t base your assurance on how well you serve him. Judas served Jesus well, for a season. I’m asking if you love him.
Demons know Jesus, and they believe Jesus’s words to be true. But they do not love Jesus for it; they hate him. Do you know Jesus and his promises, and do you believe his promises? Do you love him for his promises, and for his forgiveness?
If you know and love him, then you’re saved. You no longer have to fear being a Judas. You’ve been washed, forgiven, saved, made complete, and God has promised to hold you and keep you and sanctify you to the very end. Rejoice in that truth. Let’s Christ’s work produce within you a heart of love that overflows to every act of service and every spiritual gift you have.
But, if you don’t love Christ, then you need to be warned. Your gifts, your acts of devotion, your acts of service, are ultimately meaningless as measures of your spiritual condition. Without love, nothing matters. Nothing can make up for its lack.
No act of devotion. No amount of will power and determination. No amount of study or knowledge. No act of service to others. No deed of generosity. No impressive teaching and preaching skills. No fasting and prayer. None of it is of any lasting spiritual value apart from love.
In fact, if you remain devoid of love for God, each of those gifts, each of the acts of devotion, each dollar given to charity, each prayer prayed apart from love, will serve as a testimony of your vanity and pride on the day of final judgment.
Without love, every act of feigned religious fervor becomes a vain attempt at hypocritical posturing. Without love, everything we do is self-interested and self-promoting.
And thus, if you remain cold in your heart, unmoved by God’s love, you will have the fate of Judas. Condemned to hell forever, judged for your failure to love God, despite all your vain attempts to appear spiritual and religious.
Don’t let that be your fate. Trust in Jesus today, know that he has come to forgive the hypocritical and proud. He’s ready to wash the self-interested and the unfaithful. He can give you the heart of love, the posture of love, the motivation of love. He can save you from sin and make you pure.
Won’t you trust in him, and not let Judas be your guide? Because without love, you gain nothing. But with love, true love, God-derived love, you gain everything.
Now, Paul’s cut us down a little with these first three verses describing what love is not. Now let’s turn our attention to a more positive study, which will build out, one fruit at a time, exactly what love is.
We won’t make it too far into the following verse tonight, but I’d like to spend the remainder of our time looking at the first fruit, or first to descriptions of love in verse 4:
4 Love is patient. Love is patient.
First, let’s talk about love. The word that Paul uses here is not eros, from which we get the word erotic. Nor does Paul use phileo, from which we get Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. This is agape. Older English translations of agape will translate love as charity here, following the lead of John Wycliffe’s first English translation. I think love is the best translation for us today.
Agape is used over 100 times in the new testament, and its related terms are used over 320 times. It’s also used as the main word for love throughout the Greek old testament. But what does is Paul telling us by using agape instead of other possible words for love?
It is significant for us to notice that the New Testament “never uses the noun agape in negative contexts. Rather, its meaning always seems related to the phrase… ‘the love of God’… including the love for fellow believers, and even for one’s enemies, that the presence of God evokes.” That means that agape is a lot like the words for faith, or righteousness, or grace, in that each of them has their origin in God and God alone.
Man can feel certain kinds of love naturally. He feels erotic love toward a spouse. He feels phileo love toward his friends. But agape is a kind of love that is divine in origin, that is ordered toward the good of the beloved, and is often shown regardless of the loveliness of the beloved. That is, agape is often shown DESPITE the unworthiness or the un-loveliness of the one being shown love.
So for example, in the book of Romans, God’s electing and redeeming love is shown to sinners DESPITE their having earned just wrath for themselves.
Romans 5:8- “but God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Or remember Romans 8. What does it say: What shall separate us from the [power] of Christ? What shall separate us from the [justice] of Christ? From the gaze of Christ? No. What shall separate us from the LOVE OF CHRIST? Nothing can: “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38).
It’s important for us to properly understand what this love is, so that we don’t get off track going along. There are bounds to what this love can and cannot mean, there are places it cannot go.
This love is not infinitely elastic and tolerant. It’s bound by God’s own character, it’s bound by holiness and righteousness, but it’s oriented not toward the self, but toward the good of the beloved. It’s a love that is willing to sacrifice the self for the good of another.
And that’s the foundation. It has to be that, if it will ever be a love that is patient.
And let’s move into that now. What does it mean that love is patient?
Does patience mean that we’re willing to put up with whatever, without getting upset? Does patience mean that we never raise our voice, never show passion, never rebuke or confront?
Patience here, or we might translate it as long-suffering, or forbearing, is not the absence of passions or emotions in man. It is not some kind of stoic unresponsiveness. Rather, patience is the opposite of being short-tempered. Patience is the opposite of being short-tempered.
Patience is the ability to use the will, to use self-control, to refuse to be controlled by our external circumstances, and choose rather submit to some kind of unpleasantness for the good of another.
Patience, or slowness to anger, is one of the primary characteristics that God uses to describe himself in the bible. In Exodus 34 when God passes by Moses in the rock, he reveals himself that way: “The Lord, The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Numbers 14, right after the people rebel, Moses intercedes on their behalf to God and quotes God’s own words in their defense: “And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Nehemiah likewise confronted the people of Israel in chapter 9 saying, “They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that [God] performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”
Our God is indeed a patient God. Recall the pattern we see throughout the Old Testament. God gives His people a gracious position, then they repeated choose idolatry and sin, but God shows mercy and saves them again. They get in trouble, God saves them from trouble. Over and over again.
God is patient, he is long suffering, with a stiff-necked people. He forbears their repeated failings and rebellions.
And he does that with us too, doesn’t he? How many of us are still battling the same sin that we struggled with a week ago, a year ago, a decade ago? We’re like the dog that runs after its own vomit. Repeatedly going back to the thing that made us so sick just a short time ago.
And yet God is patient with us. He doesn’t cast us off, even though we deserve it. He doesn’t chastise us, though we deserve it. He doesn’t condescendingly lecture us, even though we act like ignorant fools. He doesn’t crush us with consequences.
No. He is our good shepherd. He reminds us of his love for us by reminding us of Jesus. He speaks to us in his word, and we hear and know his voice because we are his sheep.
He forgives us over and over and over, even though we sin so often. That is patience. When I see Israel’s repeated sin in the Old Testament, I don’t see a bunch of fools who need to wake up. I see a bunch of people like me and you. A bunch of sinners who only survive because of the patient love of their God.
Do you see God’s patience toward you? Do you see how longsuffering he is? Are you grateful for it? I hope you are. Cherish God’s patience toward you, and let it propel you toward being longsuffering towards others.
If God can and has forgiven you so much and so often, how can we also not forgive others who fail us? How can we not be patient, when such patience has been shown to us?
We should be. We should be growing in forbearance, growing better at being long-suffering. The Corinthians weren’t being so. They were impatient with those who were different than them. Those that were differently gifted. Those that had different opinions on conscience issues, like meat and idols.
How often are we tempted to be like the Corinthians? Growing impatient with our brothers and sisters around us. Not giving them the time of day, not respecting them, not being willing to forbear their weaknesses or their immaturities. Not showing them grace when they don’t meet up to our standard.
Writing them off, ignoring their opinions, simply because we view them as less gifted, less discerning, less wise, less mature than us. That’s not Christian love. That’s not what it means to be patient.
Let us not grow weary of doing good, particularly in showing the loving-patience which has been so generously and repeatedly shown to each of us by God himself.
Love is patient, not quick to anger, not easily triggered, not demanding unrealistic changes, not demanding more than people can do, not over working them.
That’s what we’re called to, as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Demonstrating love to one another, because God has first loved us. Being patient with each other, because God has first been patient with us.
And one way that we grow in patience, is by remembering the patience that God shows with us even now, week by week, in the church. We are served the same gospel, from the same bible, every week, and have been for thousands of years. Indeed, personally, we’re taught the same truth, in the same picture of the Lord’s supper, every week at Morningview.
And yet how many of us have moved past our need for it? How many of us have outgrown the need for forgiveness? How many of us have matured beyond the need for washing and reconciliation? None of us.
And yet, God in his loving patience has instituted a weekly gathering, with a weekly sermon, with a weekly picture of forgiveness and good news. Patient to feed us, week after week. Not chastising us for our slowness to grow. Gently and patiently feeding us the food that is needful for us, sustaining us along the journey home.
That’s the patience of our God. If you’re trusting in Christ, loving him, and are committed to his truth found in God’s word, to fellowship with the body of Christ, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, then we invite you to join us.
If you haven’t yet trusted Christ and obeyed him in baptism, then let the plates pass.
 D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 78.
 Carson, 78.
 William Plumer, Jehovah-Jireh: A Treatise on Providence (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1867), https://archive.org/details/jehovahjirehtre00plum/page/74/mode/2up.
 Moisés Silva, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis Set (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), s.v. αγαπάω.