1 Corinthians 13:4-7
December 16, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:10 in the audio file.
Or, The Aim of Our Charge
Last week I started with a couple lines from yesterday’s pop-culture. Today’s title and sub-title are much older, and from a different source.
Peter urged the readers of his first letter to consider that the end is near and that, “above all” they should “love one another earnestly.” Above all, love. It’s very interesting that he wanted them to love “since love covers a multitude of sins” (verse 8), that he connected love with non-grumbling hospitality (verse 9), and then that he exhorted them to use their varied gifts of God’s grace, whether in speaking or serving (verses 10-11). Before everything else, in a community context with others who may even be sinning against you or needing things from you, above all, love.
Paul knew that the goal of his work was love. His telos, the perfect point of completion for his ministry, was not understanding, or even holiness and hopefulness. “The aim of our charge is love,” and then he followed with the sort of heart he wanted that love to flow “from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” These aren’t four goals, it’s one goal, love, with three ways to describe the source. The aim of instruction (another word for “charge”) is pure, good, sincere love.
So orthodoxy (straight teaching and accurate understanding) is not the ultimate end. Orthodoxy tells us who and what to love. True doctrine is not the finish line, it’s the starting line; demons could run laps around our Bible interpretation and shuddering, and we’re supposed to do better than them.
Even the use of our spiritual gifts is not the primary objective. Spiritual gifts are worthless without love. This is exactly the context in which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13, and it’s exactly how he began the chapter. Spectacular speaking gifts are a sort of torture when exercised without love. Mind-blowing insight and earth-moving faith add nothing to a man’s true significance without love. Even martyrdom, apart from love, profits nothing.
These are things that God’s people really should know. Love is the great “hearing,” the great shema in Deuteronomy 6, that parents were to pass on through every generation. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The first four commands in the 10 commandments are about loving God, which Jesus summarized as the Great Commandment, and the next six are about loving our neighbors, which Jesus summarized as the second greatest commandment. Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another just as He loved them, and said that the world would know that they were His disciples by this love.
And yet Christians continue to get the heart of our calling wrong. This is partly because our spiritual enemy would love our love to be perverted and fragile and anemic, and it’s partly because our sinful self would love to love itself above all. We do always do what we most want to do. We always follow our strongest affection. And sometimes we don’t want to have to look in the mirror and see our attachment to our ego.
It’s why the mirror of God’s Word is so good. It’s why Paul slows down in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 to let us look closely at the description of love, at its attributes and activities. The paragraph causes us to look to Christ, as He is the perfect example of this life of loving, and as we live in His strength to love like Him.
There are fifteen verbs of love in these three verses. Most recent English translations turn them into adjectives, and okay. But the plethora of verbs is why I said that these verses describe the activities of love. The list starts with two positives, then eight things love avoids, followed by an opposite of the last avoided thing, and finishing with four consummate approaches.
If these were all love did, that would still be powerful and culture changing. Love is patient and kind. This is suitable, though an alternative translation could be: “love puts up with trouble for a long time, love shows kindness.” The first description focuses on proper response: long-suffering, the second features proactivity: get-after-it-generosity. Both of them are included in some of the following descriptions, but already there is an affection strong enough to withstand resistance and rejection, an affection strong enough to show generosity and friendliness.
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)
The word “love” isn’t repeated, but love is the subject of all these “not”s. A bigger proportion goes to love’s nos than it’s yeses.
Love does not envy. Love doesn’t have “intense negative feelings over someone else’s achievements or success” (BAGD). Jealousy that led to quarrels was a named problem among the Corinthians (3:3), and it is an especially inappropriate problem among parts of the same body. Love doesn’t spend it’s time wishing that it had what someone else had. Love doesn’t burn itself up with discontent.
Love also does not boast. Love doesn’t “heap praise on oneself” (BAGD). Love doesn’t spend it’s time bragging to make someone else wish that he had what we have.
Love is not arrogant. The person who loves is not exaggerating his importance, puffing himself up, inflating his worth in his head. Phillip’s translation: “nor does [love] cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.”
Love is not rude. Love doesn’t behave disgracefully or indecently; it doesn’t throw pointy elbows. The KJV translates, “does not behave itself unseemly.” It may be connected with being polite, following the protocols so as not to draw attention to oneself. It may be connected with not drawing attention to someone else in a negative way, so covering their sins. Even when there isn’t a verse, there are still ways to be rude that are unloving.
Related, love does not insist on its own way. It could be more plainly translated, “it does not seek the things of itself.” Love regularly defers; it’s “not self-seeking” (NIV), “does not seek its own advantage” (NAB). It cannot be all about you. Maybe you really are the son of Athanasius, contra mundum, or maybe your nonconformity is self-love. What are you preoccupied with? Favorite preacher? Freedom with food? First to the Lord’s supper?
Love is not irritable, “not easily provoked” (KJV), “not easily angered” (NIV). We allow ourselves to be irritated, but we figure that at least we weren’t angry. Anger is a sin. This particular word is a spectrum, from the start of having your spirit “aroused” to the point of rage and wrath. I love to hate the tea bag illustration: the hot water just reveals what was in the bag. Are you touchy? How much does it take to push your buttons? Love regularly absorbs; it’s not fragile to dents in pride.
Chrysostom has well said: “As a spark falls into the sea and does not harm the sea, so harm may be done to a loving soul and is soon quenched without disturbing the soul.” (quoted in Lenski)
It does no good to protest, “I lose my temper a lot, but it’s all over in a few minutes.” So is a nuclear bomb. (MacArthur)
Love is not resentful, “it keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV), “it does not take into account a wrong suffered” (NASB), or even “thinketh no evil” (KJV). The idea is counting, or accounting. It’s often used of how God does not count our sins against us, like in Psalm 32:2. Love doesn’t keep a scrapbook of wrongs. Love doesn’t have a journal, mental or Moleskine, keeping score of who’s done what against you, or who hasn’t written you a thank you note, or who is failing in some other standard you’ve set. What do you nurse, hurts or forgiveness? Love regularly moves on.
Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Here is the final negative with the alternate. Love does not throw out the standards. Love depends on the standards, even when it forgives and covers and lets God collect the data. But love won’t praise disobedience, it won’t celebrate sin. Our culture increasingly doesn’t just want us to tolerate their sin, they want us to call it good. Love won’t. Love also isn’t self-righteous; gloating that you didn’t do one wrong is itself a wrong.
Instead love celebrates the opposite of those things that violate standards of righteousness and justice. Love praises and finds joy together with truth, and it functions here as a reasonable opposite of wrongdoing because truth abides by the standards.
The final four acts of love are comprehensive: here are “all” the things love does. The NIV stresses it differently: “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Love bears all things. It is not exasperated, and it’s okay covering some things. It is “always ready to make allowances” (Ciampa & Rosner).
Love believes all things.It is not naive, and definitely not cynical and suspicious. Christians need not be gullible. We know that men lie, cheat, and deceive. But we also aren’t putting a bad spin on our friend’s behavior. We don’t start with doubt, we give the benefit of the doubt. We may ask questions, and there may be wrong, but love assumes good motivations first.
Love hopes all things. It is not pessimistic. Maybe that conversation you just had didn’t go well, but love hopes that there will be more conversations and that a future conversation might go great. The current state of the relationship appears to be headed in the wrong direction, but, keep hope, God raises the dead. God gives heart transplants, He can certainly give heart tweaks.
And love endures all things. It is not quick to quit. Love doesn’t give in or give up. Isn’t this often what others notice, or even test? They want to see not just what we can handle, but if there’s something that can get us to stop.
Paul wrote this chapter to remind, and in another way to rebuke, Christians about how to treat other Christians in the church. We have a high calling.
Issues in the church: a thousand years, one day of the week, “clean” food, and covered heads. What spiritual gifts are more important, what spiritual vocations are more meaningful. The order of liturgy in corporate worship, the songs that are “right” or “better” or “biblical.” The basic regulative principle for body life is love.
In the home: How to fold laundry, where to hang the dish towel. When and for what to discipline your kid, when and for what to argue about with your spouse in front of your kid about his discipline. What age your kid should get a cell phone. Of course, much more.
We always believe that what we believe is a virtue, that what we are offering is better. Why would we purposefully do something we didn’t think was better? Maybe you do have something that is actually better, do you also consider the better way to communicate it? For a season of years I almost never used the word “biblical” because I was made sick by how I had heard it used.
Love doesn’t mean that we stop caring, or having preferences. It certainly doesn’t mean that there is no truth, no right and wrong. What it does require is that, especially with others in the household of God, and in many cases in our own family households, the ones we’re talking to are not our enemies. And even if they were enemies, what form does love take toward them?
Love is not being impolite about being impolite, rude to the rude. Love is not being unloving to the unloving. We’re called to love when unloved, to love the unlovely. Love is greatest when the object is least lovely.
Love loves the unlovely to loveliness. Love creates value. Love might not win, but love works, and it works to get over excuses not find them. Love unifies. Love isn’t waiting for returns.
To love is to be selfless. To be selfless is to be fearless. To be fearless is to strip your enemies of their greatest weapon. Even if they break our bodies and drain our blood, we are unvanquished. Our goal was never to live; our goal is to love. It is the goal of all truly noble men and women. Give all that can be given. Give even your life itself. (N. D. Wilson, Empire of Bones (Ashtown Burials #3))
Above all, love.
Don’t resign yourself to a lack of unity and a loveless life. Even us regular church goers like to keep a tight grip on a few personal grievances and what we think are just private “bitternesses.” It’s not personal or private if we’re part of the same body. God wants us to love like Him, and He sees whether or not we are, whether or not the person we’re loving responds how we wish. Above all, love.
For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:10–12, ESV)