A More Excellent Way
"The one who does not love does not know God," the apostle John had stated, "for God is love" (I John 4:8). This is one of those simple apostle John-type statements that can be overlooked in terms of its depth of meaning. Love is a huge topic, and the idea that "God is love" requires some major contemplation. Love itself is easily misunderstood by the bulk of the human race, and its tenets are twisted and bent by pure human selfishness coupled with the efforts from the forces of darkness. While the apostle Paul, then, is in the midst of talking about the use, misuse, abuse, and non-use of the spiritual gifts inside the church at Corinth, he introduces a discussion about love, introducing the topic through the words, "And I show you a still more excellent way."
- In connection with "tongues" - In examining the way the apostle discusses the use of the gift of speaking in tongues in Corinth, the conclusion can be drawn that the tongue-speakers were among those causing some problems in the congregation. He has to emphasize that the gift of being able to speak a foreign language which the individual had not studied was the least of the gifts, and that those so gifted should earnestly desire some of the greater gifts. To blunt the efforts of those who were using their gift of tongues for self-aggrandizement, the apostle states: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging symbol" (I Corinthians 13:1). Regardless of how eloquent the message delivered in this language, it counted for nothing unless the underlying motive was actual love for the brethren and for the lost. (Angels, by the way, when they speak, always use human language, so the expression "tongues of angels" simply is an expression denoting "the utmost of eloquence.")
- Prophecy, knowledge, and faith - The apostle is going to move up to the next level of gifts to make his point. "And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing" (I Corinthians 13:2). It is clear that the Lord tests the hearts of men, and is aware of their underlying motives. Paul, in talking about the special gift of faith, obviously has in mind Jesus' statement about "faith as a mustard seed," which would also indicate his remembrance about Jesus' statement about those who with wrong motives prophesied, cast out demons, and performed many miracles. "I never knew you," was the Lord's judgment (Matthew 7:23). It is important for the saint to make certain his motive is love.
- General Christian qualities - Paul is not going to be limited in his comments only to those in Corinth who possess the spiritual gifts; he wants to be certain that all the brethren are included in the conversation about who needs to have love. "And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor," he adds to the list, "and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (I Corinthians 13:3). Not only are the motives of the more visible members of the congregation being called into question, but also the driving force behind the actions of the less visible.
"For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist," superadds James, "there is disorder and every evil thing" (James 3:16). Christianity only works if the great character of God — love — is the motivator for Christian action. Wherever deeds of the flesh are present, they work against the purpose of God and the purpose of the church. "For since there is jealousy and strife among you," Paul had earlier commented about this congregation, "are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?" (I Corinthians 3:3). True peace, true harmony, and true unity only flow from the love of God engendered by the Holy Spirit.
Some Qualities of Love
It is obviously challenging for saints to move from being selfishly motivated to being actuated by love of God and love for others. Satan, the ultimate in selfishness, works his devilish works in the midst of the human mind, and the result is clearly seen as a massive disaster in the race of men. Where love and peace should be, instead there is discord, distrust, and destruction. Among Adam and his first descendants, what should have been a happy family turned into a murderous and tumultuous parade of history. "For we also once were foolish ourselves," Paul reminded Titus and other readers, "disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another" (Titus 3:3). But God wanted to change that for His special people, the true Israel of God as the saints of the Most High, by sending Jesus as love incarnate into the world.
- Love is patient - Much could be written about true patience. Patience has to do with not being anxious about a late airplane arrival, or being able to accept the results of a natural calamity. But it has much more to do with being patient with people in the midst of their meandering thoughts and progress. Paul told Timothy to preach the word "with great patience and instruction" (II Timothy 4:2). It takes a lot of instruction for the dawn of comprehension to occur in most minds, and much patience for that to brighten to full understanding. Then more patience is required for that understanding to fuel the fires of action. "Love is patient," says Paul (I Corinthians 13:4).
- Love is kind - Do you not know, Paul queried the Roman brethren, "that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4). Kindness requires a thoughtful assessment of the mood and situation of another individual, and the creative ability to do something encouraging and helpful. "Love is kind."
- Love is not jealous - There is a form of jealousy that is good. God, for example, is a rightfully jealous God, and His desire for the Christian's unsplintered devotion to Him is beneficial and protective to the saints. Similarly, a wife's yearning and appreciation for her husband's fidelity is a good thing, and a husband's desire for his wife's honor and respect is also beneficial and protective. But jealousy in its twisted and competitive form is one of the most destructive forces on this planet. That type of jealousy ends up trying to tear down everything the object of that jealousy builds; it is suspicious, malicious, envious. Love, on the other hand, is happy and congratulating for any progress of another. "Love is not jealous."
- Love is not arrogant - Arrogance was one of those character issues that Paul had mentioned before in this epistle. This egotism, this false superiority, this haughtiness and overweening pride, this superciliousness … is the exact opposite of the humility expressed in the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of the lost human race. No, "love does not brag and is not arrogant."
- Love does not act unbecomingly - Love is aware of the spiritual and emotional condition of others. A disciple of Christ who exhibits love voluntarily bases his actions around those spiritual and emotional needs of others, rather than being selfish and charging ahead on a personal agenda. "Love does not act unbecomingly" (I Corinthians 13:5).
It is comparatively easy to spot character flaws in others. The challenge for the Christian is to be able to work through this list the apostle is laying out for the Corinthians brethren, and to be able to engage in a little honest self-examination. "Am I patient?" "Am I kind?" "Do I exhibit any of the wrong kind of jealousy?" "Am I boastful or arrogant?" "Do I always act becomingly?" If this putting ourselves to the test in these areas results in our making some changes, then "Praise the Lord!"
More About Love
This passage on love from I Corinthians 13 is a well-known passage. It shows up on napkins at wedding receptions, and graces homes on plaques and ornaments. The grand difficulty, of course, is in getting the teachings on love off the napkin and into the lives of the newly married couple. The challenge is in getting the principles of love from the plaques and ornaments into the actual atmosphere and action of the family. The great test is in getting these words about love from the pages of the New Testament into the lives of the saints. Real love is challenging because it requires a reorientation of the individual. As small children, our needs were "all about us." We needed to be fed, we needed to have our diapers changed, and we needed attention. Even as adults, our physical needs must be taken care of, or we simply do not have the ability to be productive in any other area. But that can lead to a truncation of understanding, and a resultant selfishness set in our habits and characters that must change when we become Christians.
- Love does not seek its own - When a man and woman get married, one of the biggest barriers is their own personal selfishness. Often they are self-centered in ways they did not even realize until the reality of making a marriage work forces them to engage in some introspection. Similarly, when a person is immersed into Christ and is thus joined together with Him, the necessity of walking as He walked forces him into the same type of looking inward and making changes. Selfish ambition and personal agendas have to be set aside, and the cause of Christ must come to the foremost. "Love does not seek its own."
- Love is not provoked - In the course of personal interactions, there comes a point in which there is some bumping and bruising as lives and personalities collide. Any individual has had conflicting goals within himself which he had to work out; how much more when two or more such individuals have to work and interact together. So when a bump or bruise happens, the Christian thing to do is to handle it with the same grace that God has. Anger or personal offense just complicates the ability to resolve the situation amicably. Hence it is, for Christians, "Love is not provoked."
- Love does not take into account a wrong suffered - The build up of real or imagined hurts results in bitterness. And bitterness is a poisonous canker which eats away any goodness of character and leaves the human being an empty and hollow soul, unable to interact in a healthy way with anyone around him. Forgiveness, then, begins with God. The follower of Christ, forgiven himself, in imitation of the nature of his heavenly Father, is able to forgive others also. In a discussion, for example, between husband and wife, the couple are able to concentrate on the issue at hand; there is no long laundry list of past offenses cluttering the conversation. "Love does not take into account a wrong suffered."
- Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness - Inside each person is a conscience, and that conscience has a pretty good idea of what is right and what is wrong. That conscience is further strengthened in the case of Christians, who have the indwelling Holy Spirit and the conscience guide-book called the Word of God. Worldly people, according to the word of God, "give hearty approval" to those who practice ungodliness. Love, by contrast, "does not rejoice in unrighteousness."
There are a lot of negative, destructive actions and attitudes which destroy relationships and create confusion. Christ's love, however, is positive and edifying. This love works through issues calmly rather than escalating the chaos. This love generates a peaceful atmosphere, open communication, and honest concern for the other person. It is worth each Christian's efforts in investing in understanding and deepening in his participation in this great love.
What Love Does
Love is not a mere concept. There is action in love, and love achieves the great and positive accomplishments in this life. Throughout the history of the human race, there have been many dramatic examples of what love does. The tales of what a woman would do for her husband, or a husband for his wife, a parent toward a child or vice-versa … the annals of the world tell the story of what love has done. Without that type of love embedded in mankind, the past would have been much more sordid than it was, and living in the present would be much darker than it already is. Jesus' description, for example, of the events connected with the armies of Rome's destroying Jerusalem (and foreshadowing the events at the destruction of the world) is poignant and relevant: "And because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold" (Matthew 24:12). How dark!
- But the love that Christ enjoins upon His brethren is much deeper than the positive love that exists in the human race in general. This love is the agape love, the love of God for the soul and eternity of each individual. Hence this love, poured out in the hearts of true Christians, exhibits itself in thoughtful action in regard to the other person's eternity. The powerful picture of forever puts the present into proper focus.
- Love rejoices in truth - When God created everything in the beginning, it was — in His own words — "very good." Satan, by contrast, as the prince of darkness, cannot create anything. All he can do is twist what is straight and corrupt what is good. Love, then, which is from God, "does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth" (I Corinthians 13:6). Love and truth are simply different faces of the same coin. True love is concerned enough about the next person to tell him the truth, to help him be accountable to himself, to the church, and to God. True love does not like lies and deception; it is righteously upset about false doctrine and the allures of the world that pull people off the path of "righteousness and into the fires of hell. Jesus is recorded as saying, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Love is happy with that!
- Love bears all things - Because love knows that the other person's eternity is at stake, it "bears all things" (I Corinthians 13:7). Love gives the saint of God the strength to carry the loads connected with getting other people to heaven, to raising a family in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. No matter how heavy, nor no matter how long a time, that load can be carried by this agape love.
- Love believes all things - Love believes that with God all things are possible. Love believes that the most abject sinner can turn to God and become a different person; love believes the persecutor Saul can become the great exponent of God's love as the apostle Paul. Love "believes all things." That is why those who love with the love of Christ love their enemies and pray for them; that is why they keep on opening doors of conversation with the lost, and exhibit great patience with the saved.
- Love hopes all things - Because love believes, love "hopes all things." In the midst of earth's darkness, the Father found the way to save those trapped in its lair. Love believes that God is causing all things to work together for good for those who love Him. The Christian, then, can continue in hope, that around the next corner something of great positive eternal value is going to happen!
- Love endures all things - Because love sees what the great God has done in the spiritual realm to rescue even one soul, love "endures all things." It just keeps on going and going and going …
"Love never fails" (I Corinthians 13:8). It is truly the gift that keeps on giving!
Transitory Gifts of the Spirit
That downward sucking sound is Satan trying to pull the saints of God under with him. Hence, one of his techniques is to get the brethren to become competitive rather than cooperative. In Corinth, for example, those who had the gift of speaking in a foreign language had tended to elevate themselves above the brethren in general, and even over those who had other gifts of the Spirit. This type of false elevation was fostered and fomented by those who wanted to develop factions within the congregation, and manipulate the situation so that they could be the biggest fish in that particular pond. Paul, then, writes this section on love to point out, as he put it, "a more excellent way." Love abolishes selfish ambition and petty jealousy. Love produces compassion, and an earnest desire for the next brother or sister in Christ to be all that he or she can be. Love wants people to be saved, and for there to be harmony and peace as befits those who are called by the name of the Lord. Those who truly loved would use their gifts properly.
- Cessation of the gifts - "Love," said the apostle, "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." Love, in other words, never stops working and never comes to an end. The time would come, however, when the gifts of the Spirit, that some of the members of the congregation were so proud to possess, would disappear. "If there are gifts of prophecy," asserted the apostle Paul, "they will be done away; if there are [gifts of] tongues, they will cease; if there is [the gift of] knowledge, it will be done away" (I Corinthians 13:8). The apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, knew the time was coming when the gifts, transitory as contrasted to enduring love, would pass away; there was nothing here for the possessors of those gifts to be exalting themselves about.
- Partial contrasted to perfect - The gifts of the Spirit were a temporary measure God had to institute until He could get His message completely communicated and verified. "For we know in part," Paul stated, concerning the special gift of knowledge, "and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away" (I Corinthians 13:9,10). The gifts were extant with partial effectiveness, in effect until what the apostle termed "the perfect thing" could come. It can be established that the gifts of the Spirit were given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, and therefore once the apostles died, the gifts of the Spirit would die out by attrition also. This coincided, by God's design, with the writing of the book of Revelation by the apostle John, and the completion of the books of the New Testament. The perfect (complete) revelation of God was accomplished, and there was no longer any need for the partial (the gifts of the Spirit). The gifts then ceased.
- The church in infancy - The time comes when the boy puts away his toys, becomes a man, and picks up the tools for his work. "When I was a child," is the way the apostle put it, "I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things" (I Corinthians 13:11). The church, as it began, needed the gifts to confirm the spoken word and the actions of the apostles. But once the word was confirmed and the practices of the apostles established, the gifts — as "childish" — were replaced by the written and abiding word, and the church could now move into maturity.
Part of the apostle's motive here was to establish the transitory nature of the manifestations of the Spirit. His general point was that since the gifts were temporary and "childish," there was no reason for any of the possessors of the gifts to get "big headed." That principle, of course, continues to apply today!
In the Looking Glass
God has wrapped His glory in thick darkness. This is to protect the material creation until such time as He is ready for Jesus to appear and vaporize the material realm by the brightness of His coming. In the meantime, He has worked diligently to produce a special people who could see and appreciate His glory by the faith revealed in His written word. But until the New Testament writings were completed and collected, this picture was incomplete and, in a matter of speaking, a little fuzzy. Hence those of us who are blessed to live in the final stages of "these last days" are the most blessed of anyone who has ever lived, because for us the whole picture of what we are to see is clearly and completely presented.
- Now and then - The gift of prophecy, asserted the apostle, "will be done away." The gift of tongues and the corresponding gift of interpretation would cease. The gift of the special knowledge the church needed to function would be done away. These "partial" workings of the Spirit would be replaced by that which would be "perfect," containing the information and direction formerly provided by the gifts of the Spirit. The church, guided in its early stages by those things revealed by those who had the gifts, would now move into maturity and be able to be guided by the completed word of God. "For now we see in a mirror dimly," commented the apostle, "but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I have been fully known" (I Corinthians 13:12). At the time the apostle wrote (the now), the New Testament was not completed, and he could only see in the mirror "dimly," or unclearly. But then (with the writings of the entire Bible finished and available), the beneficiaries would be able to see clearly, "to know fully" just as they would be fully known. The then of the apostle Paul is now for us; we have everything there is in regard to the revelation of God and His will.
- What do we see? - The apostle did not have a totally clear picture of what was to be seen in the "mirror," whereas the people to come would be able to see as if "face to face." The apostle Paul picks up the theme of the mirror again in his second epistle to the Corinthian brethren. "But we all," he then says, "with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18). What we see in the mirror is Jesus in glory! And, with the inner man (with unveiled face) being able to see that glory, the inner person is transformed into the likeness of that same glory. Hence, as Paul noted in his first epistle, we now know ourselves fully just as we have been fully known. This transformation is for those who will, as James termed it in his letter, "look intently" into the perfect law, the law of liberty. The casual glance will not accomplish the transformation.
Faith is when we believe what the Bible tells us to believe about the realm we cannot see with physical eyes. There is no other way to have any real knowledge about the spiritual world. Hence, by faith, we see Jesus in glory as revealed in the sacred page, and by faith we are being transformed into His image and being partakers of His nature. In hope we wait for the final transformation of our body into conformity with the body of His glory, groaning in this present house, waiting for our final adoption. At that point our faith will become sight, and faith will be no more. At that point, our hope will be realized, and hope will be no more. "And now," says the apostle, "abide faith, hope, love — these three; but the greatest of these is love" (I Corinthians 13:13). Love is the one that goes on and on and on!