12012 51st Ave NE, Marysville, WA (Meeting at the Seventh Day Adventist Church) Worship services: Every Sunday at 10:00am / 6:00pm (1st, 3rd and 5th Sunday)

Be Excellent to Each Other

*1 Corinthians 13:1-3
December 9, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 17:35 in the audio file.

Or, What’s Love Got to Do with It?

I may have given my age away in the title and subtitle for this message. “Be excellent to each other” was the salutation between Bill and Ted in their excellent adventure (a movie in 1989), and “What’s love got to do with it?” is a line from pop-legend Tina Turner (an album in 1984). With a little effort I suppose I could have gone looking for more current references that maybe more of you would be familiar with, but it is what it is. To a certain demographic these words ring familiar, and they also happen to relate.

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the top ten all-time well-known chapters in the Bible, across ages and lands and languages, and maybe the most familiar chapter of anything written by Paul. It is a glorious, beautiful, and divine portrayal of love.

But, what’s love got to do with it? Haven’t we been reading about spiritual gifts and the church as a body with different members doing different things (chapter 12)? Aren’t we headed to an extended comparison between two gifts, prophecy and tongues, in the church (chapter 14)? Yes, and this is exactly it; love’s got to do with how we treat each other as fellow members of the body.

It’s how Paul ended (what our copies of Scripture have as) chapter 12: “I will show you a still more excellent way.” Be excellent to each other by loving each other. Chapter 13 sings what makes love excellent compared to spiritual gifts, it sings what defines love, and it sings what a permanent place love will have between God’s people forever. Love is the “more excellent way” (12:31), and we should “pursue love” while we use our spiritual gifts (14:1).

Love is the center of Paul’s argument about how we treat each other in the church; it’s the meat between chapters. It’s also the argument Paul has been making the entire letter even though he’s only used the word “love” four times so far. The Corinthians had all the spiritual gifts (1:5-7) and yet they were divided. They had understanding of God’s sovereignty (chapter 8) and they trampled on the weak. They came together for the Lord’s Supper and despised the church (chapter 11). Every one of their problems included, or primarily involved, a lack of love.

So this chapter–great for all sorts of situations: weddings and marriage counseling, teaching brothers and sisters how to behave, learning how to be a friend, knowing what it means to love like Christ—has mostly to do with loving those who are different than you, the ones thatGod Himself arranged you next to.

There are two types of people who mess up what love means: non-Christians and Christians. I’m not sure which is more wrong, but I know which one is more worse.

Humans have been talking about love, writing songs about love, wishing they had more love, arguing about love languages, et cetera ad nauseam, since creation. Adam’s celebratory poem about Eve are the first recorded words of mankind. Of course men and women regardless of religion are concerned about being loved and having someone to love because we are made in the image of God even if they deny it. So idolators get parts of love right, and they can’t help but get parts of love wrong, because they’re becoming like what they worship. Those who worship love, also known as Eros/Cupid or Venus/Aphrodite, actually destroy love quicker than it takes to get tired to the chorus of a Taylor Swift song.

Yet Christians, the ones who worship the God of love (1 John 4:16), and who know the Son of God’s love (Colossians 1:14), and are indwelt by the Spirit who sheds God’s love abroad in our hearts (Romans 5:5), the ones with the verses and stories and psalms about love, still get it wrong. Often it’s a failure to relate truth and love; either Christians claim that truth kills love so get rid of as much doctrine as possible, or others of our people claim that truth itself is love so get rid of as much emotion as possible.

It’s this second category that concerns me the most, due to the fact that it’s what I’ve experienced more and it’s the group our church would most likely connect with. We’ve been told by our Bible teachers that biblical love is not a feeling, it’s a decision. Biblical love, agape, is a choice and a behavior rather than emotional warmth. Here’s one example:

Love is above all sacrificial. It is sacrifice of self for the sake of others, even for others who may care nothing at all for us and who may even hate us. It is not a feeling but a determined act of will, which always results in determined acts of self-giving. (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians)

And I’m telling you, beloved, that this is wrong. It is not enough, and what it leaves out damages the whole. It is not truth, which is ironic since that’s what we claim to be loving. The worst part is that we use it as a spiritual/righteous sounding defense for our failure to love. It is no wonder that so many people are turned off by truth-lovers, because we’re not even honest about (or humbled by) the standard.

A lot of it gets pinned on the Greek word agape, used ten times from 1 Corinthians 13:1 to 14:1. It is supposed to be a special word, even a “Christian” word, a word unlike other words for love. It may not be used with great frequency outside of the Bible, but it is used. It is also used in the LXX, and only a couple examples show that we should be more careful with our words.

The Shulamite says:

He brought me to the banqueting house,
   and his banner over me was love.
Sustain me with raisins;
   refresh me with apples,
   for I am sick with love.
(Song of Solomon 2:4–5)

Solomon’s banner of her was: “I will do what’s right even when I don’t feel like it”? She was sick with “I guess I’m going to have to make a determined act of will to be with this guy“? No.

When Amnon violated his sister Tamar:

Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go!” (2 Samuel 13:15)

Even the standard Greek lexicon (BAGD) provides a more basic definition: “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love” The cognate verb is used many times in the OT, including non-Jesus sorts of situations.

Love may arise spontaneously, it may be deliberately pursued. It may be strong, it may be less strong. It may be with all your heart, it should be with all your heart for God. It is a feeling leading to giving or a thinking and giving that stirs the feelings. It may be strong like iron, but not so cold. My point is that love is very special in 1 Corinthians 13, but that’s the work of the entire chapter, not of one word.

This is exactly what Paul is addressing in the Corinthian church. They had come up with their own standards for determining who was who, who had higher status, who was more “spiritual.” The differences they had between them were not seen as an advantage, which they actually were/are, but rather as sources of envy and competition and schism. My brothers, things ought not be so.

In this chapter we’ll see the absence of love (verses 1-3), the attributes and activity of love (verses 4-7) which is the peak of the chapter, and the abiding of love (verses 8-12). This morning we’re only going to get through the first part because it so wonderfully wrecks the truth-tube mindset. It’s beautiful, and brutal.

The Absence of Love (verses 1-3)

The absence of love means that whatever else you have is equal to nothing. Paul says so explicitly twice (verses 2 and 3), and it’s what the end of verse 1 implies. How easily we calculate our importance and/or our gifts according to the wrong standard.

There are three statements about the importance of love, three times Paul says “but have not love.” These are not arguments. There are no premises, just conclusion. These are facts so obvious that no proof is necessary.

Spectacular Speaking

Unbelievable rhetorical giftedness is nothing without 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. In the list of gifts in chapter 12 Paul put tongues last because the Corinthians valued it most. Here he starts with tongues because his statements will escalate; tongues is still at the bottom.

Tongues of men is the spiritual gift. There’s not an example of tongues…of angels in the Old or New Testaments. Whatever it means that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” in 14:2, it still doesn’t describe an angelic language. When angels talk in the Bible, they speak in the language of the audience. The groaning in Romans 8 is not a language, of men or of angels. Maybe angels do have their own language in heaven, and maybe not. It doesn’t matter for the point.

What this means is that you can take tongues, which is a spiritual gift, and you can multiply it by a factor of created being, and even still at that exalted level, without love, it is a ding-donging and unpleasant and useless racket. Such a “deluxe version” (Ciampa & Rosner) still makes senseless sound. A noisy gong is a reverberating piece of metal. In Book 4, Herodotus records “a blacksmith who discovered secret tunnels by hitting a bronze shield on the ground: ‘all the other places which he struck returned a dull sound; but where there were tunnels, the bronze of the shield rang clear’” (quoted in Ciampa & Rosner).

A clanging cymbal is an isolated instrument adding to no song. This is crash and bang. The KJV has “tinkling,” which isn’t as obnoxious by volume, but it is not acoustically cute. Without love, superlative and supposedly supernatural speaking gifts are painful and a scourge, not impressive, and certainly not helpful. This is the person, the “I” who is the problem.

Mind-Blowing Mastery

Fulness of knowledge and faith is nothing without love.

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. You could do very well for yourself if you could predict everything that was going to happen, or even if you could fully explain all the things that have happened. You would also be picked for every team if you could believe your way over every obstacle.

It’s like finding the hidden town in the foothills to find the only guy who knows where the sherpa lives who can take you to the sage who lives alone at the top of the mountain. But in verse 2, it turns out to be the same guy: the townsman is the sherpa is the sage. He the one who knows the answer to all your questions, before you ask them, and then he gives you the insight and the force to accomplish impossible seeming tasks.

There’s a comprehensiveness, three times all, and they seem to add up. This guy knows everything. That’s what makes the conclusion so shocking. It’s not all or nothing, it’s all that equals nothing, at least without love. These gifts all relate to the future. Though prophecy doesn’t necessarily mean speaking about something that hasn’t happened, combined with mysteries and the mountain moving, these are end times directed. All this second-sight could be unbelievably true and still have zero value without love.

There is a knowledge that puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Key: knowing everything is not the means of fellowship. Conclusion: I am nothing; nihil sum (VLG). And of course we (who love the truth so much) don’t even know everything. Ow.

Ultimate Unselfishness

Making the ultimate sacrifice is nothing without love.

Paul’s crescendo of conclusions peaks: If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. There are two final steps: give away all your stuff, give away your life. Speaking in tongues could get you admiration. Telling the future could get you a book deal, or at least some money for speaking appearances. Verse 3 is not like those.

Give away all I have refers to doling out food little by little, probably to the poor. This is charity, philanthropy, dedicated donations to the destitute. It’s drip sacrificing.

Give away your belongings, give up your body. There is some question about deliver up my body to be burned, since Nero burning Christians had not started yet. Paul could be thinking about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (think Daniel 3), or he could be prophetic, or he could be portraying the ultimate act.

But, really, martyrdom? Would anyone do that selfishly? Paul says, as shocking as it is, yes. The martyr here is still trying to gain. Everyone is after profit of some kind. Here is a sense of duty to the Lord and to die in place of someone else. The ultimate act is an empty act without the ultimate motivation of love. I gain nothing. There is no value.

in the first, “I produce nothing of value” (1 Cor. 13:1); in the second, “I am of no value” (13:2); in the third, “I gain nothing of value” (13:3) (Garland)

Love must be more than behavior. It must be more than knowledge, it must be more than choice, it must be more that sacrifice. Love isn’t only a heart attitude, see verses 4-7. But verses 1-3 reveal that sacrificial death does not prove that you love someone else.

Neither is claiming that speaking the truth is necessarily loving. It could be, it doesn’t have to be. Love also isn’t a blanket for unrighteousness or wrong, as the following paragraph points out. But speaking truth without love is not true truth, and truth without love is not Christian. You can have “all (Bible) knowledge,” you can have “all faith” in Jesus’ teaching, and be a jerk to others.


Christians are the only ones who argue that love is a choice, a sacrificial act. And it does require choice, and it does involve sacrificial acts. But choice and sacrifice are not love by definition otherwise Paul has no contrast in verses 1-3.

We could come up with other applications in other relationships. The examples Paul chose to use here are because he was confronting the lack of love among the church. But there’s excuses that spouses and parents and neighbors make.

I’ll use myself as the example, following Paul’s example. If I have a Master of Divinity from every seminary and teach nightly Bible studies but have not love….If I sell my house and move to Africa and live in a mud hut as a missionary but have not love….If I work overtime and come home every night and provide money for my family but have not love….If I say, “I said I love you” but have not love….If I clean the house and do shopping and make meals and make every kid’s birthday party Instagram-able but have not love…. If I take my kids to church every Sunday and give them a Christian education and tell them about how important it is to obey but have not love….

And back to the context of 1 Corinthians 13, MacArthur makes an urgent comment:

It is easier to be orthodox than to be loving, and easier to be active in church work than to be loving. (MacArthur, 1 Corinthians)

Okay, so what is love? What is love like? What does love do? Next is the attributes of love in verses 4-7.

Can you imagine Christ with no warmth, no feelings? Are we saying that Christ brings us to His Father who dutifully accepts us? The cross demonstrates God’s love, it does not define it. It’s beautiful, and brutal when we’re honest about what level of love we find in our hearts.


Beloved, you must do more than just have good-feels for someone else in your heart; let it out. Also, you must not think that your good-deeds for someone else were enough. You must “put on love,” which is a choice to do good to another from a warm heart.


Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. (Colossians 3:12–15, ESV)