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34. The Surpassing Height of Christian Love (I Corinthians 13)

I would like for you to take the word of God and open it, if you would, to I Corinthians 13. Our text for this Lord's Day morning is the entire chapter of I Corinthians 13 and the title is, "The Surpassing Height of Christian Love."

The reason for the title is found in the final verse of chapter 12 where the apostle Paul tells the church at Corinth:

1 Corinthians 12:31

But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

The word for, "more excellent" is "ὑπερβολή." Does that sound familiar? It is where we get our English word, "hyperbole," but it doesn't mean exactly what we mean when we use it today. To us, hyperbole is just exaggerating, but it originally meant, "surpassing." It means to overshoot the mark. If I went to throw the football to my son and threw it over his head and onto our roof, that would be, "ὑπερβολή."

The apostle Paul says that love is the way (12:31). Not the only way, surely, but the best way, and every other way of living the Christian life is not even close. The word he uses here is, "ἀγάπη" and it might be a little important to understand that the Greek mindset had many different words for different kinds of love.

Some people have come up with four, five, seven, or even eight different ways of cataloging love in the Greek mind. You might be familiar with "Phileo" which is a brotherly type of love, "eros" which is an erotic sort of love, and "manic" love is an obsessive sort of love. But Charity is unique. We might say it is a universal love.

"Agape" love is spoken of eight times in the gospel records. Seven of those times are in the book of John. Paul uses the word nine times in this single chapter. Although Christ used the word seldom, Paul, Peter, and John use it abundantly. And we could really credit the apostle Paul for giving us this robust understanding of Christian love. The writings of Paul (especially here) help us to understand what "agape" love is.

Plato and many others have written on love, but Paul has here surpassed them all in this marvellous prose-poem. It comes like a sweet bell right here between the jangling noise of the gifts of chapters 12 and 14. ~ A.T. Robertson

Isn't that fitting? Paul is not inventing something out of whole cloth. Common grace helps us to know that love is real and important. Every lost person knows that there is something special about loving and being loved back. But without Christ, without the power of his Spirit, all of our attempts at love fall short of being what God intends for them to be.

And so, God, by his Holy Spirit, enlightens Paul to write this letter to a church that was many things (but "loving" was not one of those things) to show them what Christian love really is.

Intellect was worshipped in Greece, and power in Rome; but where did St. Paul learn the surpassing beauty of love? ~ Robertson and Plummer

Indeed, where did he learn it? Let me remind you that God is love and in a post-Calvary, post-resurrection era, the apostles could look at the Savior and say,

1 John 4:10

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Don't do this now, but sometime this week, take every mention of "charity" in this text and replace it with "Christ" and it would still make perfect sense.

Let us read the text:

1 Corinthians 13

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling 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, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as 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 through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. This is the word of our Lord. Let's bow together and pray. Let us divide the text into three portions:

  1. The Supremacy of Love (Vv. 1-3)

  1. The Character of Love (Vv. 4-7)

  1. The Quality of Love (Vv. 8-13)

Our first point is: 1. The Supremacy of Love (Vv. 1-3) The Apostle Paul mentions seven things here that are not sinful, but are good, beautiful, and wonderful: eloquence, Divine authority, supernatural understanding, infinite knowledge, mountain-moving faith, generosity, and martyrdom.

Could you imagine having people with these gifts in our church? What if we had seven members in our church and each had one of these gifts? Don't you think that would be amazing? It would certainly. It would quickly and easily become the greatest mega-church in the world!

Paul is not demeaning any of the ecstatic gifts and "charis" or grace gifts given to the church. But he wants to put them in their proper place. He doesn't do that by saying, "You could improve upon your gifts of eloquence, understanding, and faith if you would add love to them." No! Without love, every preacher, teacher, worker, giver, thinker, martyr, and apostle is NOTHING!

Some of us may think that that is too extreme. Surely he doesn't mean, "nothing." After all, even a bad thing is still something, right? Yes. There is truth to that. So what does he mean?

His meaning is fully manifest in verse 3 - the absence of love means every other Christian grace profits him nothing. And he goes about in a way to speak of the past, present, and future in a way that is helpful to us.

In verse 1, he says, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." "I am become" is from "γίνομαι." The verb means 'to be,' but the 2nd Perfect Active Indicative 1st person Singular means, "I am already become." So he may have great eloquence and supernatural gifting, but if he does not have love, all of his past efforts are no better than a sounding gong.

Verse 2 is on the present tense. "Prophecy" means to speak with the voice of God and "mysteries" are things hidden in the mind of God. "Faith" is the gift of the Holy Spirit that believes all the promises of God and obtains all that is in the heart of God for his people. Perhaps you have been taught that faith is the epitome of the Christian life. You have been taught wrong.

I'm not suggesting that faith is unimportant. But you can have the kind of mountain-moving faith that Jesus commends to us and still be nothing unless you have Christian love.

Verse 3 mentions the future unprofitability that comes to those who do not have charity. You could liquidate all that you have to feed the poor and give your body to be burned at the stake and people from all around would say, "She certainly loved the poor." or "You know he loved the truth if he died for it." But Paul says we can do those things without charity. We can have some other motivating factors.

Jim Elliot said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." I agree with that, but must add something to our understanding. You can give up all the things you cannot keep and gain nothing by it.

There is a way to give away all that you cannot keep and still be a loser in the end. There is a way to give everything up so that it profits you nothing.

Love often sounds the trumpet of warning, moves mountains by faith, speaks with eloquence, bestows all goods to feed the poor, and gives up the body to the flames. Love can do those things, but love is not those things. Those may be fruits of love, but they are not love. They can be performed without love so that they are unprofitable. But when true love exists in the heart, it will never be unprofitable.

A proper perspective says that love is the greatest thing in the world and every good thing (even the very best things) are all utterly dependent on Christian love and completely worthless without it.

That is the Supremacy of Love

2. The Character of Love (Vv. 4-7)

I can only say a few things about each of these, but I would recommend a sermon to you by the title, "The Greatest Thing in the World" by the Scottish Pastor, Henry Drummond. This sermon was first published in 1880 and he has a great way of explaining each of these things to us. I have combined the sermon into booklet form and would be happy to print you one on request. Write me a note and I will make you one on the condition that you read it twice after I give it to you.

He compares love to light. You can put a prism in a beam of light and it will reveal that light is made of many colors. In the same way, God shows us that there is a wonderful spectrum of Christian graces bound up in love. So much so that Jesus said all the law and prophets hang on our loving God and loving our neighbor.

The Spectrum of Love has nine ingredients:

1.  Patience . . . . . . “Love suffereth long.”

2.      Kindness . . . . . . “And is kind.”

3.      Generosity  . . . . “Love envieth not.”

4.      Humility . . . . . .  “Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.”

5.      Courtesy . . . . . . “Doth not behave itself unseemly.”

6.      Unselfishness . . “Seeketh not her own.”

7.      Good Temper . . “Is not easily provoked.”

8.      Guilelessness . .  “Thinketh no evil.”

9.      Sincerity . . . . . . “Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

It's by these nine things that we, as believers bear, believe, hope, and endure all things. Consider verse 7 with me. Love is outside the scope of "all things." It is by love we bear, believe, hope, and endure all things. Therefore, love is not a thing that is to be borne, believed, hoped, or endured.

Let me put it another way: Someone says, "I don't love so-and-so." And when they are asked why, they would say, "It's just hard to put up with them." And we would say, "Then you do not have love because love bears all things."

They say, "So-and-so does not deserve my love because they are not trustworthy." They may not be trustworthy, but you can love them in truth because love believes all true things.

They say, "I cannot love so-and-so because they have disappointed me so often." But love hopes all things.

They say, "I cannot love this or that person because they mock my faith and criticize what I believe." But it is love that endures all things.

"Agape" love is not dependent on the other person's qualities. You see, this love is a conquering love. It overcomes all doubt, trials, hardships, and persecution. It conquers the weaknesses, failings, and shortcomings of others, even those who have hurt us. This kind of love is what Christ commands us to have toward even our enemies because this is the kind of love Christ has for us sinners who killed him.

Love is Patient. It suffers long. This particular character of love helps us to bear with the infirmities of the weak. I have counseled men who have come to faith after thirty years of being cruel to their wives and they say, "Why can't she see the things I see?" I try to remind them to love their wives and be patient. Would you wait thirty years for her as Jesus did for you? Love is patient.

Secondly, we see Kindness in love. There is no cruelty hidden deep in the motivations. This is not niceness, but it is gentleness. It is the kind of character that says hard truths with tears in the eyes and love in the heart. It the kind of love Jesus had when he called the little children to come to him. It's the kind of gentleness Jesus had when he drove out the money lenders and cattle from his Father's house, but then ordered the doves to be carried out.

Thirdly, there is Generosity of spirit. Love does not envy others, but rejoices with them in their successes and blessings. How do you feel when you are passed over and others are promoted? What does it do to your heart when the thing you feel you were owed is given to someone else? Is it hard to look at the possessions of others and not think, "Why are they given those gifts or that position? What have I done wrong that they go to someone else and not to me?" Or do you rejoice with others in all of their blessings? In the quiet places in your home, do you honestly rejoice? Love does.

And the apostle Paul is using phrases that he has used to the Corinthians before, like this fourth one, Humility. He tells them "Charity vaunteth not itself" and he has said,

1 Corinthians 5:2

And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.

In other words, he is saying, "This is how you are. And it is not loving!" It is possible to be a member of the external, visible church, and still not have this distinguishing mark of a believer. That is a fearful, dreadful thing! Where God is, there is humility. Where people have met God and had themselves revealed to themselves, there is humility.

Fifthly, we find Courtesy. Being a jerk is not evidence of the spirit. One thing you will find about loving people is that they may not have breeding or training, but they know how to act. They do not behave themselves in a way that will bring shame to their God.

Sixthly, love is Unselfish. It does not seek its own. This does not only mean that it does not seek to get more, it means love holds loosely to the things it currently possesses. Ask yourself, "Do I cling tightly to the things I call my own?" I gave my daughter away with joy because I love her and Elijah. God gave me that. And if I love my neighbor, I do not seek to cling to what I own. Jesus said,

Luke 12:15

And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

Seventhly, love is seen in a Good Temper. Please be aware of this. Those who are easily provoked prove in one quick flash that they lack contentment, patience, kindness, generosity, courtesy, and unselfishness. This is the vice that virtuous people overlook, but it is one of the most destructive. Not many homes are destroyed by a lack of faith or hope. But a bad temper will destroy a home.

Eighthly, love is manifested in Guilelessness. It is not suspicious. It does not peer over people's shoulders to find their sins and their shortcomings. Love hopes for the best in people and is willing to give second and third chances. Love thinks the best of people even when it hears the worst. Of course, there is no excuse for overlooking obvious sin when the Lord brings it to your attention. But even in confronting sin, love assumes the person made a mistake and is willing to grow and mature until it is proven otherwise. Love believes in innocence until guilt is proven.

Finally, we see Sincerity. Coming off of guilelessness, someone may say, "Obviously love lets everyone do what they want." That is not the case. Love rejoices in the truth. It is unlike those people in Romans 1:32...

Romans 1:32

Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

Love does not rejoice in the sins of others or in sin at all. Love despises sin and error in all of its forms. Love seeks out the truth wherever it leads regardless of creed, denomination, affiliation, preacher, or anything like that.

I have had friends forsake me because they say I'm a Calvinist and I've lost other friends because I'm an Arminian. I've lost friends because I'm too King James and others because I'm not King James enough. I've found that I don't fit in a lot of camps, but I fit in fine with those who know me and who love the Lord Jesus and celebrate his work in their lives.

And you know what? That's good enough for me. I don't need to be anyone's camp beside the truth. So pursue truth and rejoice in it!

This is a very unique sort of love, isn't it? It's pretty foreign to the world. They love to cancel and hate everyone outside of their good graces. So how do we obtain this love that is not found anywhere on earth? That's the subject of our final point:

3. The Quality of Love (Vv. 8-13)

This is seen in the first three words of verse 8. Charity never faileth. To "fail" in this context means to "come to an end." It speaks about a fulfilling and a finishing. Nearly every prophecy in the Bible has failed and those that have not failed will fail. That means they will come to pass and then they will be useless except to edify our faith.

Everything on earth is that way! John said,

1 John 2:17

And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

"Passing away" is the quality of everything in this world. Can you think of anything that you can see that is not passing away? We could list any number of things, but Paul lists those things that were of supreme importance to the Corinthians. They set a great store in prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. But all of those things passed away.

The languages they spoke are no more. The knowledge they had is obsolete. It costs a chunk of cash to buy this year's encyclopedia, but you can buy last decade's for pennies!

Temporal knowledge lacks wholeness. We know in part. We see things through a glass, darkly. It was William Tyndale that coined this great phrase, I believe. And it works. "glass" means a mirror and the original language speaks about obscureness in the reflection. The word for "darkly" is "enigma."

So, take all that you know, all that you believe, all that you understand, all that you have heard, and all that you have been taught and wrap it up in a ball and compare it with what there is to see and hear when we are face-to-face with Jesus. It's like a drop in the ocean. It's not unimportant, but it's so insignificant in size that you can hardly compare it.

Now, take all of the knowledge that the world possesses, all of the hope and faith of the apostles, and all of the combined understanding of every Christian down through the ages and lump it in a ball. It's like a marble in the ocean of what there is to believe, understand, and hope when we see Jesus clearly face-to-face.

This is Paul's growing-up moment. It wasn't when he graduated from seminary or when he got his first ordination as an evangelist. No, it was when he realized the insufficiency of all that he possessed besides love.

Paul, how did you previously understand things: "Well, I thought I had it all together and went about persecuting unbelievers." How did you formerly speak? "I used to speak with pride and arrogance in all of my learning." How did you used to think? "In truth, I spoke, understood, and thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away those childish things."

Let's ask him now: Brother Paul, what do you believe now? He would say,

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling 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, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

What we have in this life lacks wholeness. Temporal knowledge lacks wholeness. Temporal faith and hope lack in greatness. This is what Paul is saying - all that you cannot see now is obscured, but it is GREAT! All that you know, hope, and believe now is just what you can glimpse as you peek into the obscured mirror of scripture. That is not to say that it is not true, it is simply obscured.

Faith will be fundamentally changed into sight when we see Jesus. Hope will be fundamentally changed into reality when we see Jesus. All that you know now will fade into obscurity when that which is now obscured is made plain. All that you believe (the true things that moved mountains) will shrink to nearly nothing when you see Jesus.

Charity will not fail. Love endures. It will not shrink or vanish away when we see Jesus face to face. It's not like our knowledge that will go through a fundamental overhaul when we see Jesus. Love will grow. This is why the apostle says that, of all the Christian graces, faith, hope, and charity are the greatest. And the greatest of these is charity because charity never faileth.

So church, long for Christian love. It is the more excellent way. It is more excellent than any other way of life by a long shot! Covet love earnestly.

Jesus says,

John 13:35

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

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