Updated: Feb 24, 2019
Have you ever read a definition of love that is more beautiful then the one that is given to us in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13?
Many of you will probably remember the romantic definitions of love presented in the little philosophical cartoons that were around in the early Nineteen-Seventies. They started with the words, “Love is …” and then went on to complete the definition with some cute sentimental ideal that made you go “Oh … isn’t that cute!”
And perhaps, like Linda and I when we were first married,
you too made one of those string-art depictions of the young couple standing and holding hands while they gazed out at the setting sun over the sea.
1 Corinthians 13 also presents a beautiful ideal of love that is often chosen by couples to be read at their wedding because, regardless of whether they hold Christian beliefs or not, they recognise the beauty and romance of the language, and the desirability of a love as defined in these verses.
But, it is also a challenging passage and we do not always recognise the challenge – or if we do, we choose to ignore it. It sets an ideal that we struggle to live up to. And it challenges us to reassess what we see as being important in our religious practice.
The background to Paul’s letter is that the Corinthians were arguing over who had the most important spiritual gift. Is speaking in tongues or having the gift of prophecy more important? What about the gift of knowledge, or charity? But Paul’s response is that there is something far superior to the sought after spiritual gifts and arguing about doctrine, and that is the knowledge and practice of divine love.
From the passage we can pull out three reasons why the practice of divine love by the Christian is to be desired above all else. First of all, …
I. Divine love is not based upon imperfect knowledge.
Paul’s argument here is that all of these other things that the Corinthians, and many Christians today, see as being so important are in fact imperfect. We should not place such credence in them, and be so dogmatic about them, because they are based upon imperfect knowledge.
The world puts great value in knowledge. “Knowledge is power” is a well accepted doctrine first stated by Francis Bacon, the 16th Century English philosopher.
And certainly, the Corinthians boasted of their knowledge – what they saw as their superior insights into the mysteries of the new Christian faith. They particularly valued the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues by which they saw themselves receiving special knowledge about God.
Just as the Corinthians boasted of their knowledge, so there are some today who take their knowledge and, ignoring its imperfect nature, turn it into strict doctrine. They are like the school boy who having finally gained the minimum age to enable him to leave school said to his mate, “Isn’t it wonderful to know all there is to know.” But knowledge is always lacking and is always growing and changing.
I have often said that the most important thing that I learned, after completing two degrees and various post-graduate qualifications, is how much I do not know! The more I learnt, the more I realised how much knowledge we lack. Thomas Edison, that great American inventor once said, “We do not know one-millionth of one percent about anything.”
Knowledge, particularly knowledge of God, will always be lacking even though God reveals himself through prophecy, through the scriptures, and through Jesus. In this life, we will never have full and complete knowledge of the mysteries of God and his purposes – and how could we when we are trying to understand an infinite God with our finite and limited minds! Even Jesus was only able to show us the Godhead veiled in flesh.
Paul uses the example of an imperfect image in a mirror to illustrate this. For most of my younger adult life I have been a keen bushwalker, and often would go off into the wilderness areas for a number of days with a small mirror made from polished aluminium in my pack. The mirrors that Paul refers to in this passage would have been similar. In those days they did not have glass – mirrors were all made from polished metal and so were not of the clarity that we have in mirrors today. My mirror was also not very clear but enabled me to have a shave of sorts. After my morning ablutions, I had to trust in faith that I looked as presentable as I possibly could.
Likewise, we need to accept that our knowledge of God is dim, blurred, fragmentary and imperfect. One day we will see and speak to God face to face and at that point we will have perfect knowledge and perfect understanding. But meanwhile we must beware of pride in our knowledge of the gospel and of God, and we must not become rigidly dogmatic. Ultimately we put out trust in God not because of our knowledge of him, but in faith.
So the practice of divine love by the Christian is far superior to the sought after spiritual gifts, and far better than arguing about doctrine, because divine love is not based upon imperfect knowledge. Rather, divine love, by its very nature, is perfect. And it is this perfection that results in the second reason why the practice of divine love by the Christian is to be desired above all else. Unlike the spiritual gifts, …
II. Divine love will never end
Divine love will endure because its perfection is derived from its source – God. In 1 John 4:8 we are told that God is love. Just as God is perfect and will never be superseded by a better model, so the love that the Christian derives from God and subsequently demonstrates in his or her life is perfect.
On the other hand, Paul tells us in v.8 that the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge will all come to an end – they have no permanency. Because of their imperfect and incomplete nature, these gifts will become redundant when we stand face-to-face with God. Interestingly, Paul expresses this not as a completing of something that is partial and imperfect; but rather, that what we currently know will come to an end - be abolished - and replaced by the perfect knowledge that we will receive in the face-to-face presence of God.
Changes in the Laws of Mechanics over the last hundred years illustrate changes in knowledge that was once thought infallible. Some of you will remember that Newton’s laws were taken as being an absolutely correct description of the forces that kept all things in motion. However, they were soon found to be imperfect. They fell down when applied to very high speeds; particularly above the speed of sound. Then along came Einstein’s theories which were found to be a better description of the mechanics of the motion of the universe. But now physicists have realised that Einstein’s theories cannot explain the sub-atomic world. Our knowledge continues to be deficient.
More important than the gifts of prophesy and tongues that some have, are the Christian virtues of faith and hope, which we all possess. However, Paul says that these too are of little worth without divine love. A life which begins in faith expresses itself through love and is sustained by the hope of salvation. And yet, verse13 of our passage tells us that even faith and hope will, when we come face to face with God, cease to have the same importance. The time is coming when faith will be replaced by knowledge (note: not imperfect knowledge) and when hope will find its realisation in eternal life in heaven.
But, divine love will never end. Love will never be superseded like the imperfect spiritual gifts. On into eternity, after the sought after spiritual gifts are no longer necessary, divine love will remain as the governing principle that controls all that God and his redeemed people are and do. So the Christian should practice divine love because it is perfect and will not come to an end.
And the third reason why the practice of divine love by the Christian is to be desired above all else is even more compelling, and that is because …
III. Divine love is God’s love
Whenever the word love is found in 1 Corinthians 13, and when 1 John 4:8 said that ‘God is love’, the Greek word used for love is agape. The ancient Greek has four different words that can be translated love, and agape love is referring to a form that is characteristic of God’s nature. Paul describes the characteristics of this love in verses 4 to 7. It is an unconditional and sacrificial love that is known by the actions it prompts.
It is this divine love that prompted God to send his only Son to us in the form of man. And it is agape love that Jesus demonstrated for his people by being willing to die for them on the cross.
As well as Paul’s exhortation to love one another in this way, Jesus has commanded us to love one another (John 13:34) and to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31) with this agape love. Can you imagine a world that takes 1 Corinthians 13 literally, and lives up to it totally? It would be a world in which we would not argue doctrine, but would acknowledge one another’s faith – be open to the insights of others, and would value the gifts that every individual brings.
1 Corinthians 13 sets the ideal to strive for – the way it ought to be. We ought to be patient, kind, … etc. We ought not be envious, arrogant, rude, irritable, and resentful. We ought not rejoice when someone stumbles – watching and waiting for them to make a mistake so that we can criticise them, instead of trying to help them. We ought not seek to please ourselves, insisting on our own way, and seeking personal glory, while pretending that we are doing it for the good of the church?
We could go on and on with a litany of sinful practices that arise out of our natural self-centredness and are contrary to the ideal of agape love. The point is, we know all of these things – yet, we continue to live contrary to this ideal!
The reality is none of us, without help, can live up to this ideal of love. We all fail - I fail! We need God’s help. And Colossians 3 says that we can tap into the source of this love through prayer, worship and reading God’s word as we give ourselves over to Jesus and rest in his peace. I have found this to be very true in my own family relationships – my wife and I have found that, ‘the closer we are to God, the closer we are to each other’. And being in relationship with one another is what Christianity is all about. Agape is the word for the love of God, that enables and energises these relationships. The divine love of God flowing through one person to another will enable us to live up to the ideal presented in 1 Corinthians 13.
Now, as we read this passage from 1 Corinthians 13, some of us may respond by seeing it as a romantic ideal that only applies to the newly married couple. However it applies to us all! It sets an ideal against which we should daily assess ourselves and strive to achieve – with God’s help.
We must acknowledge the superiority of the practice of divine love over all of the spiritual gifts, value the gifts equally and practice them only in God’s love.
We should recognise the limitations in available knowledge and understanding, and become more open to other views and what they may be able to offer.
And, we should trust in loving actions not righteous words – the exercise of divine love is the ultimate action.