I take it we all agree that love is important. If I told you that I’m going to try to convince you that love is important, you’d probably switch off. We know that already.
What’s not so obvious is what we mean by this. What is love? How is it important?
Nearly every world religion teaches that love is supreme. Whether it’s one of the 5 Sikh virtues. Whether it’s required by Allah to enter paradise. Or whether it’s the ancient religions with many gods – including Aphrodite, Cupid, Eros and Venus.
Or whether it’s the Bible. The Bible says that “God is love”. Jesus taught that whole Old Testament law can be summed up by the need to love God and to love our neighbour.
We all agree that love is important. But we don’t all mean the same thing. In the past couple of years, the slogan “love is love” has been doing the rounds in Britain. That’s utterly meaningless. Of course love is love. A cat is a cat. A train is a train. Love is love.
What is love? Why does it matter? What does it look like when a Christian church like ours is truly shaped by God’s love? What does it look like when we’re not?
1 Corinthians 13 will tell us.
But this is not an abstract poem. It’s often used at weddings. I’ll always remember Tony Blair reading it at Princess Diana’s funeral. These verses are lyrical and beautiful. But we’ll miss the point if we pluck them out of context as an abstract poem about love. A Christian version of the “love is” cartoons that used to appear in newspapers and magazines.
These words could only come from this letter. They fit here, and they wouldn’t fit anywhere else in the Bible. They are tied to their Corinthian context.
The big problem in the Corinthian church was their lack of love. Paul chooses his words very carefully here. The words he uses to describe love are the same words he’s used earlier in the letter as he’s criticised the Corinthians. Paul chooses exactly the description of love he needs to expose the Corinthians’ problems.
As they heard this read on a Sunday morning, they would have winced. Every phrase twists the knife. As one friend of mine puts it, no Corinthian girl would ever ask to have this read at her wedding.
So as we’ve done with other chapters of this letter, let’s put ourselves once again in the shoes of the Corinthian Christians. Hear what this said to them. Then we’ll find it’s not predictable and bland. That it addresses us with some sharpness.
There are three paragraphs here; I’ll give each a heading.
Love is the only thing that matters
First, verses 1 to 3: Love is the only thing that matters. Love is the only thing that matters.
Paul speaks of gifts of speech, of the use of spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. Amazing abilities and talents. He speaks of great acts of sacrifice – selling all you have to give to the poor, giving your body over to hardship, or even (if you see the footnote) being burnt alive as a martyr. Amazing actions. Costly sacrifices.
If done without love, they become nothing, empty, useless. Verse 1: I don’t profit others. Verse 2: I am nothing. Verse 3: I gain nothing. No profit to me, either.
Paul speaks of things that are good in themselves. These spiritual gifts are good. These sacrifices are good. But the Corinthians were using their spiritual gifts for selfish ends. They were trying to get one up on each other. “My gifts are better than your gifts”. And then those good gifts become empty. Those sacrifices no longer honour God.
I don’t know if you caught the story from the Cambridge Half Marathon in March. The race was won by a man named Jack Gray. Only Jack Gray hadn’t entered the Half. His boss, Andrew Rawlings had entered. Andrew was injured and couldn’t run, so Jack ran in his place. It’s called number swapping, and it’s fine if the organisers have agreed it. In Jack’s case they hadn’t. If Jack had entered the Half Marathon, he’d have won. He ran a really good race. Instead, after that excellent time, he was disqualified. It counted for nothing, and the man who came second was declared the winner.
Gifted people. Doing amazing things that benefit the church.
Committed people. Paying a great cost for their faith.
And yet without that one ingredient, it counts for nothing. Without love, it counts for nothing. Love is the only thing that matters.
Before we move on to the next paragraph, let me say that this passage has a long history of misuse. It’s been used as a stick to beat people with. What do I mean? Simply this: A Christian does something, stands up for something, that someone else doesn’t like. So they’re accused of lacking love. After all, if they lack love, that undoes whatever they’ve just stood for.
Let me give a couple of examples of this. One from history. On 16th October 1555, two English bishops were burnt at the stake in Oxford. Their names were Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. There is a memorial to them just outside Balliol College, also featuring Thomas Cranmer who was burnt 5 months later. The exact spot is marked by a cross in the road, in nearby Broad Street.
The story of their martyrdom is recorded by John Foxe, from that period. Foxe records that after they were at the stake, “they were compelled to listen to a sermon preached by a renegade priest, named Smith, upon the text, ‘Though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, I am nothing.’ They attempted to answer the false statements of this miserable discourse, but were not allowed.”
You don’t get more cruel than that, insinuating from this passage that their death is to no purpose because they lack love.
The other example from the modern day. The biblical teaching on marriage is frequently under attack. Christians bravely stand up for the fact that marriage is God’s gift between one man and one woman. What’s the most common way to try to silence those Christians? Accuse them of being unloving. The one thing that matters is love, and so we mustn’t listen to those people who stand up for biblical morality. They’re full of hate.
This passage may be misused, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore it. Paul is quite plain here. Love is the only thing that matters. You can offer the most amazing service, and the most amazing sacrifice, but if it’s not driven by love then it’s empty and worthless.
What is clear from these misuses is that we’re going to have to define love biblically. If we don’t do that, then we may call the one thing we need “love”, but we’re not talking about the same thing as the Bible. So let’s move to the second paragraph.
Love is only concerned for the other.
Heading 2: Love is only concerned for the other. Love is only concerned for the other.
That’s what’s behind all that lovely poetry in verses 4 to 7. Doing what’s genuinely good for others.
But every term that Paul uses here is Corinthian shaped.
Let me show you what I mean by reminding you of the earlier parts of the letter.
“Love is patient”. But the rich Corinthians tucked in at their meals without waiting for the poorer members to arrive, so they got stuffed while the others went hungry.
“Love does not boast”. Whereas the Corinthians were boasting about which camp they were in. “I follow Paul”. “I follow Cephas”. “I follow Apollos”.
“Love is not proud.” Whereas the Corinthian church has a man sleeping with his step-mother, and the church is proud of this. Same word.
“Love is not self-seeking.” But the Corinthians were using their gifts as a way to get one up on each other. And they were eating food in pagan temples just because they could, never mind the fact that it could lead a fellow Christian to sin most seriously.
“Love keeps no record of wrongs.” Whereas the Corinthians were falling out with each other so profoundly that they were taking each other to court.
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth”. But the Corinthians were visiting prostitutes, unaware anything was wrong.
You get the picture. Love is only concerned for the other. It’s setting aside my own interests, my preferences, my choices, my rights, to do what is genuinely best for other people.
And it’s all the things the Corinthians were not. As I say, they would have winced.
These days, if someone says they want to be free to love someone as they desire, they’re really saying they want to indulge their feelings. That’s actually about self-love. This is completely different. It’s entirely focussed on what’s good for the other person, and on actions.
Similarly, this is not about pampering someone. The cry goes up: “If they really loved me, they wouldn’t criticise me. They’d let me do … (whatever it is).” But that’s the spoilt child crying. Love is about seeking what’s genuinely for the other person’s good. True love is able to say hard things to someone. After all, Paul has been pretty strident with the Corinthians. He loves them! “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.”
This is real love. It’s gritty. It hurts to love someone. And sometimes it hurts to be loved. Because we love people too much to pander to them.
The question is how we ever come to learn to love others in this kind of way. It seems beyond us. And it is.
Paul is not like a teacher or a parent, telling their children to be nice to each other. This chapter would have hurt to listen to, but Paul is not just giving them a good telling off. He doesn’t want to leave us feeling despondent, flat, like we can’t do it. With God’s help we can.
Because many people have observed that you can re-read this passage with “God” in place of the word “love”. Or “Jesus”. After all, as we’ve already said, “God is love”.
So here goes: “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered.” And then the most wonderful one of all: “Jesus keeps no record of wrongs”.
The Christian message is the good news that God took the record of our wrongs and nailed them to the cross on which Jesus died. That is the ultimate display of God’s love. Romans 5, verses 7 and 8: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We Christians have been loved by the Lord Jesus with a love that is like no other anywhere else in the universe. As we discover more and more of God’s love for us, he starts to write that love deep into our hearts. And it starts to come out in the way we treat our Christian brothers and sisters.
That is what true love is. Love is only concerned for the other.
Love is the only thing that lasts
So, love is the only thing that matters. But what is love? Love is only concerned for the other.
Then third, verses 8 to 13: Love is the only thing that lasts. Love is the only thing that lasts.
Paul is looking ahead to when Jesus returns. “Heaven”. “The new heavens and the new earth.” That day when all suffering has ceased, when our bodies are transformed so they are not frail and so we do not sin, when God himself lives on earth with us.
What will still be around on that great day?
Love will be. But Paul compares love to two other things which won’t be.
Number 1, these spiritual gifts won’t be. Verse 8: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
Why? Because all those gifts are about having partial knowledge of God. We today can know God truly. But we don’t know him completely.
We can be absolutely certain what he’s like, because the Bible is God’s word. But we don’t know everything. We know him indirectly. We need prophecies, tongues, words of knowledge. We need the Bible.
But when Jesus returns, we’ll know God fully. Directly. Paul uses two pictures to illustrate this.
One is the image of a child growing into a grown man. They’re different eras of your life. Most adults don’t play with Lego. Most children don’t rebuild a Series I Land Rover from scratch. Different behaviour belongs in these two phases of your life. So it is with the gift of prophecy. So it will be even with the Bible. We’ll have no need of it when Jesus comes back.
The second picture is that of a mirror. In those days, mirrors were made of brass. Years ago we had a small round coffee table that had a brass top. It was a nightmare. Every finger mark tarnished, and it needed endless goes with the Brasso to get it to shine. The surface was a bit pitted, but you could get there. You could see your face. That was how mirrors worked in antiquity. In fact, Corinth was famous for its brasses, made to a secret recipe. See something reflected, it’s imperfect. It’s not as vivid as face to face contact.
We could put these two illustrations together by imagining that you’re going to go somewhere beautiful on your holiday. We went to the west coast of Scotland this year. Before you go, the cottage owners send you a postcard that shows you the stunning beauty you’ll enjoy on your doorstep. As the holidays approach, you look at it every day, looking forward to being there.
But once you’ve arrived you can throw the postcard away. That was how to enjoy it before the holiday. But now you’re there, the way to enjoy it is to get outdoors. A postcard is good, but actually being there is so much better.
It’s wonderful to know God today. The Bible tells us all about him. But when Jesus returns, we’ll see him face to face. We’ll know him as perfectly as he knows us now.
You go camping. Up just before dawn to start to get the breakfast, start the day. It needs light. A camping light here. A torch propped up over there. But the moment the sun comes up, all the other lights can go out. The tent is flooded with glorious sunlight. You wouldn’t even see that a torch was on.
That’s a Bible picture for the return of Jesus. 2 Peter chapter 1. The Bible is like a torch. Jesus’ return is like the sunrise. When the sun comes up we won’t need our torches.
The gifts don’t last. We won’t need them. But love does.
Then, second, he contrasts these gifts to faith and hope. Verse 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Faith, hope and love are the three qualities every Christian needs.
We trust God, and take him at his word – that’s faith.
We look forward to the good things that God is still to do, promises still to be kept. That’s hope.
We love God and other people.
These are the hallmarks of a Christian. Not spiritual gifts. Not attachment to particular Christian leaders. Faith, hope and love.
But the greatest is love. Why?
Because when Jesus Christ returns we’ll no longer need faith. No need to take God at his word. We’ll be able to see him.
And when Jesus Christ returns we’ll no longer need hope. No need to remain confident God will keep his remaining promises. Because everything he’s promised will be fully here.
But we will still love. We’ll still love God, in undivided devotion. We’ll still love one another, putting each other’s interests above our own. That will last for all eternity.
Which gives us another great motivation to love in the way God is asking us to.
We’ve already said that we love today like Jesus loved us in the past.
The other motivation is future. We love today like we will love in the future.
Have a look around this church. You see these faces? Assuming you’re looking at genuine Christians, these are the people you will spend eternity with. And when you do, you’ll love them flawlessly. Utterly selfless. So we may as well start now. We may as well become the people we will one day be.
Love is the only thing that lasts. The gifts don’t. Faith and hope don’t. Love does.
Love is important.
But that is not a bland message.
It is so important, that everything else we do for the Lord collapses if we don’t have it.
It is so gritty that it’s all about pursuing what’s good for others, at great cost to ourselves. It’s Christ’s love to us, lived out towards others.
It is so permanent that it’s the one quality that lasts for nothing less than eternity.
Let me close with 1 John chapter 4 verses 10 and 11: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”