The Pre-eminence of Love
Does your church look like the model Jesus set forth in John 13:34-35?
The church at Corinth to which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13 certainly didn’t. In fact, they were having some major problems in their church. The Corinthian Christians had fallen into extremely serious sins of immorality, idolatry, and pride. They had split up into factions arguing over petty matters, according to 1 Cor. 1:12-13. Some people were going around saying “I’m following Paul”. Then, someone else would get up and get in their face and say, “Well, so what, I’m a disciple of Apollos.” Then the real spiritual people would shake their robes and say “Well, I’m better than you are, I’m following Christ.”
In 1 Cor. 12, Paul deals with the root of the problem: self-centeredness. Apparently, the Corinthians were using spiritual gifts to promote themselves and elevate themselves over other people. Everyone wanted to be able to speak with tongues or prophecy or work miracles, but they were seeking them selfishly and were putting each other down and boasting that, “My gift is more important than yours.” And in 12:1 Paul says, “You’ve missed the whole point: Let me show you a better way.” And so we come to 1 Corinthians 13, the climax of 1 Corinthians.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
An interesting point to note here is that the Paul calls us to, “have love”, not “love” or “show love”. It’s not something you can just “put on”. Instead, love is a character quality, part of who you become as you receive and respond to God’s love. Notice the parallel thought in 1 John 4:8: “We love, because He first loved us.” So love from God is the source of love for others. And that kind of love is the most important component of the Christian life.
As such, biblical love accepts no substitutes. Straightaway in the first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 Paul deals with some things that might distract us from putting love in its proper place.
Love is more valuable than spiritual experiences.
Tongues were a sign and means of quickly spreading the Gospel, according to Acts 2:4. Although we won’t go into a discussion of the charismatic movement, it is clear that by definition, the word used for “tongues” literally means languages.
Although some might interpret “tongues of angels” to refer to a heavenly language, I think it’s likely that Paul is being hyperbolic or even sarcastic here. At any rate, the point he is making is that the gift of tongues was never intended to be an end in itself.
Yet the gift of tongues had become a pursued experience, detracting from the message it was intended to communicate (1 Cor. 14). In fact, all spiritual gifts were intended to be others-focused Eph. 4:11: “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Not only that, but these people were competing with each other about who had the “best” gifts. In an amazing analogy, Paul asks us to imagine what would happen if the members of a musical group thought their purpose was to prove that they could play more loudly than anyone else. When we try to exalt ourselves, the result is a cacophony of noise in the ears of God.
Emphasizing any spiritual experience over genuine love for God is dangerous. I suspect that sometimes we even treat our devotions that way – looking for a spiritual shot in the arm – rather than responding in love to who God is.
Proclaiming God’s Word must be done in love.
For the purposes of this study it is best to understand a prophet as one who speaks God’s words for him, a mouthpiece of God. I believe this gift exists today, although I do not believe that God grants those with this gift special revelation. Instead, God enables people to proclaim His word. But think about what happens when people emphasize prophecy or “telling it straight” over love? The result is often divisive Christianity, where people begin attacking others who do not agree with their opinions or interpretations. The truth matters, to be sure, but how we tell the truth must be tempered by love.
The same thing goes for those who have the gift of knowledge. They must realize the dangers of intellectual faith. Knowing God rightly should always result in love (1 John 4:8). So don’t approach Bible study as a merely academic exercise. And watch out for “Christianese” where you use the jargon and talk about God without really even thinking about what you’re saying.
Accomplishing great things for God must be fueled by love.
Moving a mountain is a metaphor for doing what is seemingly impossible (Matt. 17:20). This applies well to those who find themselves with the ability to exert power or influence for the cause of Christ. The warning to those is that exercise of power without love is dangerous. There have been many examples of people who have exalted themselves into positions of power and abuse it and become controlling, manipulating people using people for their own ends. Even powerful demonstrations of faith are worthless without love according to this passage.
Some people are ambitious to do what they think are great things for God – build a mega church, launch a TV ministry, or secure an important position in a denomination. They describe their endeavors as “stepping out in faith”. They think God will be impressed just like the other people they are trying to impress. But God looks at the heart, and if love is absent from the equation, the result is worthless.
Biblical love itself is to be valued over anything that can be done. Having a heart of love for others is far better than anything you can do for them. It doesn’t take love to give a bum 10 bucks so he will leave you alone. It doesn’t take love to work in a soup kitchen, or donate blood to the Red Cross. Certainly all of these things can be motivated by love, and are worthy expressions of a heart of love. But love is the key.
Taking this logic to the ultimate, Paul finishes his argument by counteracting the thinking of early Christians who sometimes glorified martyrdom, thinking that that was the best way to get rewards. Again, doing so without love results in dead works, selfishly trying to earn God’s favor. God promises a crown of life to those who are faithful unto death (Rev. 2:10), but the reward is given for the love behind that faithfulness, not the act itself.
This kind of love is not something you can “just do”. It is a character quality you can only grow by experiencing God’s love and allowing it to permeate your being. It is so easy for us to accept substitutes! Yet, by doing so, we miss the heart of Christianity: genuine love for God and love for others.
Time for a quick check-up! Do you ever find yourself doing one of the following?
- Seeking a “spiritual experience” rather than genuinely loving God and others?
- Attacking anyone who doesn’t agree with my opinions?
- Being content with accumulating knowledge about God?
- Trying to do big, important things for God but neglecting simple devotion to Him?
- Being ambitious for power or recognition by other Christians?
- Doing good or giving to others as a substitute for loving them?
If we’re honest, we should all continue to work at making love a priority in our lives. I hope this post has encouraged you to do just that!