Studies in First Corinthiansby Bob Burridge ©2018
Lesson 31: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)
We are Nothing Without Love
Back in 1967 the Beatles released a hit song by John Lenon with the title, “Love Is All You Need.” When that song was written, love was being popularly promoted as a simple remedy to the world’s problems. But it’s not as simple as the movements at that time thought. Love isn’t what John Lenon and others imagined it to be. And the way you learn to love was beyond what the songs of that era addressed.
Just about everybody would agree that love is a good thing. But most have a very different idea about “love” than what the Bible says it is.
Without believing what God’s word teaches us, love can become an excuse for things that are very unloving.
– Some believe that the loving thing is to set criminals free from prison. But the victims of their crimes don’t see much love in setting them free to break the law again. The biblical principles of justice teach us that the penalties of crimes need to be paid. This is why Jesus had to pay our penalty for us on the cross before we could be redeemed.
– Some believe that love is allowing children to have and to do whatever they want. But when those children grow up to be selfish, lacking self-control, that doesn’t seem very loving.
– Some believe that love means trusting that everyone’s basically good. But those who’ve been victims of crime, or conned and swindled have a hard time seeing love in that kind of trust
– Some believe that love means freedom to have sex outside of marriage. But the loss of the sanctity of marriage, the spread of diseases, shattered lives, and the conception of unwanted children should make us realize that this isn’t love.
Modern popular religion is filled with talk about God’s love and our need to love one another. But they often promote the idea that God loves everybody, and could never punish people eternally. They see loving our neighbor as condoning whatever moral values they think are right.
1 Corinthians 13 contains words we’re familiar with, but it teaches a profoundly different kind of love than what the world understands.
The Corinthian church was divided into factions. They were bickering, jealous of one another, intolerant of minor things, and indifferent toward major moral problems and false teachings. One problem was how they handled God’s special gifts to the church.
The first part of chapter 12 is about the gifts God gives to individuals in the church. In that study we saw that our gifts should be appreciated and put to use responsibly. We shouldn’t become obsessed with them, prideful of them, or jealous of what others have.
The next section of chapter 12 is about the church as a composite unity. We saw that we aren’t only to be content with what we are as individuals. We also need to respect the gifts of others, and learn how we all should work together as a united body of Christ
Paul ended the chapter with this challenge:
12:31, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
That better way is the theme of the entire 13th chapter. The key is to seek after love — above all else. Real Love is a gift God gives not just for some, but for all believers in all ages. It’s what makes good use of the other gifts, and repairs broken churches and families.
The King James Version uses the word “charity” instead of “love” in chapter 13. In 1611 when that was translated, “charity” meant “love at its noblest”.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus was asked what was the foremost of all the commandments. His answer, quoting the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 was this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Since Jesus says that love is a summary of all the law and prophets, we need to know what it means to love, what love looks like when it’s present, and how to develop love in our lives.
People broadly use the word “love” in many different ways. They love their car, good music, good food, and favorite places they like to go. We also know there’s a deeper kind of love we show to people. And there’s a special love we have for our closest friends. And an even more special kind of love we reserve for our spouses and children.
But the world lacks something in all their ideas about love. It ignores how the Bible uses the term, and it doesn’t tell us where this pure love comes from. It doesn’t clarify how it differs from liking people for the benefits we get from them.
Some years ago I was challenged to piece together the main elements of love in the Bible. To summarize what I found I put together this definition of love as it’s presented in God’s word:
“Love is a disposition implanted into needful human hearts by the prevailing grace of God whereby we are enabled joyfully to obey the revealed desires of our Creator; both toward the Lord himself, and toward others.”
There’s a lot in that little summary sentence about that deeply caring disposition, that attitude of genuine concern for it’s object. In our next few studies we’ll look at the pieces that come together in those words.
As fallen creatures, the true disposition of love is missing from our souls. It needs to be implanted in us by a work of God’s grace. As fallen people we’re separated from God’s fellowship by sin, love is replaced by selfish behavior. Until we’re changed by the work of Christ, we do things that offend God, harm ourselves, and take advantage of others.
Even human laws can’t keep us from doing unloving things. Laws don’t stop law breakers. Crimes continue even though there are laws against them.
Murder and theft have been illegal since God first created man. But there have always been murders and thefts. People murder out of uncontrolled hatred. They steal because they covet and have no respect for what belongs to others. We have laws against disorderly conduct, sexual molestation, perjury, fraud, reckless driving, and many other things. Laws have never eliminated even one sin from society.
Some imagine that we can eliminate violence and killing by having more gun laws. But laws restricting weapons have never kept law breakers from getting and using them. Even if guns could be totally eliminated from the world, it wouldn’t stop violent people. Long before guns, there were mass killings. People poisoned water supplies, set fire to crowded buildings, and set loose disease-infested rats in cities. There were barbaric slaughters of innocents, and the ravaging of villages. In some ancient wars there were more deaths in a few hours than in our entire campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the continuing insurgency.
Laws can’t make us love, or stop us from being unloving. We need laws to restrict lawlessness, punish crimes, and to protect victims, but laws haven’t ended racial bigotry, pornography or other vices. Laws and national policies don’t stop bad people from doing horrible things.
It’s our fallen nature, alienated from God, that makes us do unloving things.
Biblical love begins when spiritual life is implanted in regeneration. The Bible says we love “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). If God in love hadn’t first sent his Son to redeem us, love, as God reveals it, would be completely unknown in our world.
The only thing that can change the way people behave and truly care about someone else is a changed heart that impels them to do right rather than to do wrong.
Galatians 5:22 says that love is a fruit produced in believers by the Holy Spirit. In fact, love is the first item in the list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Only when the fallen creature is restored by grace through faith in Jesus Christ can anyone begin to realize love as the Creator intended it to be. Unless a person is born again, regenerated by grace, he can’t produce the fruit of the Spirit. What he calls love is a tragic imitation.
But even after the Spirit implants love into our redeemed hearts there’s more for us to do. We need to nurture that implated fruit the way God tells us, so that the fruit grows. The same grace that implants love enables us to grow in our obedience to God’s word. This means that the redeemed have to know what God tells us is right, and do those things while trusting in his promises that by his power we can succeed.
The Bible tells us that the disposition of love produces obedience. Obeying what God’s desires toward himself, and toward others, involves a lot!
In one word, love summarizes the way the Bible says believers should care about others and live. We need to know how to be loving at home, at school, at work, at play, in worship, socially, while shopping, and when we’re fixing things … in every situation. It needs to become a part of what we are and what we do all the time.
The Bible directly defines love as doing what God has commanded. These are the words of Jesus himself,
John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.”
John 15:12, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
So love isn’t just a feeling. It’s a disposition that compels us to real moral obedience.
1 John 5:2-3, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
God’s word tells us specific things to work on to encourage love to grow in us. It defines what we do when we love God and our neighbors.
In the next section of this chapter, in verses 4-8, Paul mentions 16 qualities of love:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …”
These are qualities we’ll look at more closely as we study the rest of this chapter.
People who are loving in these ways are bearing Love’s fruit. They show that it’s been implanted in their hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit.
In God’s covenant promise he tells us that when redeemed people obey, he will bless them richly with inward satisfaction and joy. The general form of his covenant promise is this: “Do and be blessed.”
It’s this effect of love, the feeling, that the world craves but can only imitate. The lost want to feel the blessing without first having a changed heart. Without real God-implanted love they look for things that satisfy their inner needs. It might be for a partner that makes them feel romantic, or for friends who make them feel accepted, of for a country that protects them and makes them feel a part of something successful.
But that’s backwards and self-centered. Satisfying their inward needs become the reason why they love.
It’s no wonder then, that if the benefits fade away, and when challenges come, the feeling we thought was love also disappears.
This kind of love only lasts as long as the person gets what he wants. When the benefits are disrupted, there’s no inner cause producing kindness, patience, and care for others — so it ends.
It’s an imitation of the love lost in Adam’s fall from God’s fellowship. Until that sin barrier is removed by trusting in Christ, man is isolated from the source of real love. He’s separated from God.
So fallen man tries to replace the real thing by searching for what makes him feel good. He runs from church to church, from job to job, from marriage to marriage, community to community, club to club … looking for love, but finding only what fades into disappointment.
Outside of what God produces in those he redeems, love is only an illusion, it’s not real. That kind of love isn’t just artificial, its a cruel costume for selfishness.
So love isn’t just an added benefit believers in Christ hope to find in their lives. Jesus said in John 15:17, “These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
It’s a necessary obedience that either shows that a person is redeemed by grace, or the lack of it makes us doubt that our faith in Christ’s work is sincere. It’s that essential evidence of regeneration Jesus spoke of in John 13:35 when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He commands husbands to love their wives. He commands us all to love one another.
If love is implanted by the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s fruit can grow in us. This is good news! It means that for those who trust in Christ, they can grow in love.
The excuses the world uses fade into meaninglessness. We can’t say, “I just can’t love that person”. — Yes, you can.
But you love them in the way the word love is used in the Bible.
Maybe you can’t accept some of their rude and sinful ways. Love doesn’t mean you have to. But you can treat them in a way that honors God. You can understand the sin that holds them captive. You can discover the peace that God gives when we obey him in how we treat others.
But first — the disposition of love needs to be implanted by grace through Christ. Then it needs to be prayerfully and diligently nurtured into obedience. Not just an outward obedience, but one that comes from a changed heart. When we treat others so that they are helped to benefit from God’s promises, we also receive the blessing of inner joy that only a true and active love can bring.
This chapter begins by telling us about the absolute importance of love in all things.
Love gives meaning to language itself.
1. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
The word translated “tongues” in the original Greek text is “glōssa” (γλῶσσα). It’s the Greek word used for “languages”. The best linguists of the world, even those who can speak the language of angels, are just making noise if their words aren’t moved by love.
Communicating is only good if we have good things to say. If our conversation in any language isn’t an expression of love in our hearts, then it’s not honoring to God. It’s nothing more than noise. When our words are spoken in love, what we say is more than just noise. Even if we can only speak in our native language, what we say can be profound.
Those specially gifted to speak in other languages miraculously as in chapter 14, have a prophetic message to convey if they speak in love. But when we speak anything in pride and arrogance, it’s only noise if it’s without love.
Love gives substance to God’s other gifts.
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.
Only when used in love can all the special gifts take on a real God-honoring purpose. If God reveals himself to us as prophets, or makes us know great mysteries or knowledge, or if he gives us a deep confidence in his promises, so that we could move mountains if he tells us to, without love — we are nothing at all.
It’s love that makes all our good deeds to be profitable.
3. 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 unbelievers who help the poor, cure diseases, donate to charities, even who give their lives as martyrs. God may restrain sin in them or even use their gifts to help others, But if what they do doesn’t come from a redeemed heart exercising a God-implanted love, there is no real profit in it for them. What does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul? (Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36)
There’s a moral crisis in our world today.
It doesn’t come from the music industry, or from the drug peddlers, or from pornographers. Those businesses wouldn’t be profitable if there was a change in the consumer’s hearts.
The real crisis underlying the moral crisis is a deficit of this genuine kind of love. Without a love for God and a true love that does what pleases God toward our neighbors, there are no laws or political solutions that can stop the disease of immorality.
But the gospel can implant love and obedience into fallen souls. We who are born again in Christ can stop that crisis starting with ourselves.
If our love for God is genuine, we will be impelled to repent and turn from our own immoralities, and do what we can to bring the gospel message to others and to society at large.
If we don’t care — then we should first of all make our own salvation sure. And we need to diligently work on nurturing the love Christ puts into us. That’s our goal in these next studies of God’s word in 1 Corinthians 13.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)