RPM, Volume 14, Number 32, August 5 to August 11, 2012

1 Corinthians 13:4-7


Part Two


By   Rev. Scott Lindsay    



We are continuing this week with our study of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, taking a second look at Chapter 13, verses 4-7. In order to best understand this passage, it helps to step back from it and see that we are in a section of the letter where Paul is addressing the question of what sort of role spiritual gifts ought to have amongst God’s people when they are gathered together.  

Paul’s response to this question starts in Chapter 12 where he talks about how they ought to think about spiritual gifts in general. From there he goes to chapter 13 where he discusses love as a fundamental pre-requisite, as a manner of living or a way of being, out of which they were to be exercising their gifts.  

The reason Paul took the approach that he did to this question is because the Corinthians had some wrong-headed notions about the gifts and were using them in ways that were contrary to their purpose. In particular, it was the gift of speaking in tongues that was being abused and over-emphasized while other gifts - like prophecy - were being unwisely and unhelpfully marginalized. These things will be the main, although not exclusive, concern of our study when we get to chapter 14. For now, however, we are still in chapter 13 which, as we have seen previously, can be divided into at least 3 sub-sections:  

Vs 1-3  -- the necessity of love
Vs 4-7  -- the nature of love
Vs 8-13 -- the enduring character of love  

Having already looked at the necessity of love in vs1-3, we began looking last week at the nature of love in vs4-7 and managed to get about half way through looking at some aspects of what love is and what love is not - what love does and what love does not do. This morning we will finish looking at these very important verses seeing, in the end, the challenge of love, the burden of love and the hope of love.              

(Read - 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)  

Now last week we began working our way through Paul’s descriptions of the nature of love in verses 4-7. And you may remember me saying that the particular language used here to describe the character of love is shaped by the problems going on in Corinth and the various misbehaviors of the Corinthian believers.  

So, for example, the reason Paul emphasizes that “love is patient” is because the Corinthians were being so impatient with one another. The reason he says love does not insist on it’s own way is because the Corinthians had raised that sort of misbehavior to the level of Art.  

And so during our first study of this passage we looked at those sorts of things, seeing what Paul was getting at when he said that love was patient and kind, and did not envy, and did not boast, was not arrogant, was not rude, and does not insist upon its own way.  

Picking up with where we left off in Paul’s descriptions, then, we see that the next thing he says is that love is not irritable. It is not easily angered or provoked. It doesn’t have a short fuse or a “quick trigger”. In fact, this is a further illustration of something we have already seen - that love is patient.  

And being irritable, of course, is the very opposite of God’s method of operation. From the very beginning, God has shown himself to be VERY slow to become angry with his people, although they (and we) have given him numerous opportunities, and ample justification, for doing so. God’s own self-description captures this aspect of His character in Exodus 34, where He declared about himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness....”  

Now it is difficult to trace this particular quality of love to any explicit statements about irritability among the Corinthians thus far in the letter. However, it is not hard to see where it would have been an issue in their interactions with one another. In chapter 1 Paul talks about their quarreling with one another - surely an indicator of irritability. Further, in the section of this letter dealing with food offered to idols - chapters 8-10 - one can well imagine that the callous and dismissive behavior of some of the Corinthians toward those they regarded as having a “weaker conscience” on these issues would have no doubt prompted a certain degree of irritability among those who were maligned in this way.  

And so reacting to a person with these sorts of sniping comments, or maintaining this stance of habitual annoyance toward a particular person, or participating in this kind of muttering, under-the-breath character assassination - clinging to that sort of practiced, ritual irritability is just not on. It’s not what love is, and it’s not what love does.  

And you can be quite sure that wherever you see this sort of thing going on between people, there is further un-loving behavior that lies behind it - namely some sort of un-resolved issue or conflict that one or both parties have un-lovingly and selfishly refused to deal with. And, along with that, there is often a profound attempt at self-deception - telling yourself that things are okay, that you’re not really mad, that you’ve let it go, that you’ve moved past it and it’s all over – and, of course, you’ve done nothing of the sort and your hair-trigger irritability is only proof of that fact.  

Now, to be sure, saying the love is not irritable or not easily angered is not to say that it is never right to be angry. Paul talks about being angry and not sinning in Ephesians 4. Jesus himself became angry at the hardness of peoples’ hearts in Mark 3:5 and then later on made a whip and, in an act of justified anger, drove the moneychangers out of the temple. And so, sometimes anger is an appropriate expression, even for the loving person.  

But Paul’s point here is to say that the tendency, the bias, the “default mode” for one who loves, is in the opposite direction, to be slow and even reluctant to become angry, to hold those sorts of responses in reserve, as the last resort when nothing else will do - not as a first resort, simply because you can’t be bothered waiting or because you’re annoyed at not getting your way.  

The next thing Paul says about love is closely related to what he has just said about it. He says that love is not resentful, which the NIV translates a little more expansively as keeps no record of wrongs - which, of course, is exactly what the resentful person does, right? The resentful person is keeping score and stewing over the past record of a person’s sins and failures.  

While other places in the NT, like 1 Peter 4:8 say that love “covers a multitude of sins” - the un-loving person, by comparison, is not covering a multitude of sins but is writing them down, so to speak, keeping track, holding them in the memory bank, making mental deposits which - later on - will become withdrawals as the offending party’s record is retrieved, most commonly, in order to use it as a weapon against them.  

And where Christ, in demonstration of his own character, talked about being willing to forgive a person over and over again - dozens, even hundreds of times - the un-loving person is not willing to do that. The un-loving person might forgive two or three times, but after that, the record comes out, and the withholding of forgiveness becomes a negotiating tool, a bargaining chip to hold people hostage, emotionally, until they do what we want them to do.  

Now, again, to my knowledge there are no explicit statements made to the Corinthians about their “keeping a record” of sins and doing this sort of thing with one another. However, given the great variety of ways in which they have sinned against one another, and the great frequency with which they seemed to be doing it, then, unless they were fundamentally different kinds of people than you and me - which they weren’t - then there can be little doubt that they were doing these sorts of things to one another.  

Indeed, one commentator has pointed out that the “factions” or “divisions” that existed among them was a sure indicator of this because, in order to form a faction, you have to be able to identify yourself over against some other identifiable group who are known - at least in your mind - by their track record - on some issue. So, surely the Corinthians were keeping score. Surely there was some real resentment among them as community of believers. And that sort of thing - says Paul - is just not what loving others is all about.  

Having said these things, it must also be said that the sort of record keeping in view here has to be put in perspective. What is said here has to be balanced out by other Scriptures that have a bearing on how we take Paul’s words.  

For example Paul, in Galatians 6:1, talks about a brother or sister who is caught in a particular sin and how our responsibility in those situations is to restore that person in a spirit of gentleness and to help them to carry their burden - that is, to make their problem our concern too, so that they can be restored. Dealing with and working with a brother or sister in that situation would involve and even require one to remember - i.e., keep a mental record of their sin and struggle, whether their sin was against us or against others, or both.  

Likewise, we are told that sometimes we are meant to rebuke one another in the church and the church leadership is even given the task of sometimes putting people out of the fellowship - Paul talks about doing this very thing earlier in this letter. Those sorts of actions also require a kind of “record-keeping”. But it is a different kind of record-keeping. It has a different purpose, a different goal. It has very different emotions associated with it. It is one thing to recall a person’s sin-record in anger and bitterness and in a spirit of hatred and revenge. It is quite another to recall their record with sorrow and sadness over the awful mess that sin makes of our lives.  

And I think this point is worth repeating and highlighting. Because there is this idea going around in some places that equates “forgiving” with “forgetting”. People will take verses like Isaiah 43:25, where God says that he is the one who blots out transgressions and does not “remember” his people’s sins - they will take verses like that to mean that God develops this sort of “divine amnesia” such that He is no longer capable of recalling something that happened in the past, which his people did. And that, of course, is patently absurd because it would mean that there were all sorts of people walking around on this planet with information in their brain - which God did not possess - people who knew things that an allegedly all-knowing God didn’t know.  

That’s just crazy. That’s not what Isaiah 43:25 means. For God to “not remember a person’s sins” means that he is not holding those sins against them. He is not holding them liable for the judgment that those sins rightly deserve. It doesn’t mean he can’t recall them. It doesn’t mean that they have slipped his mind or something like that. God can remember them - but because he has so loved his people and forgiven his people - the recollection of those things produces something different in Him.  

In a similar fashion, when Paul says that “love keeps no record of wrongs” - he’s not saying that a loving person will not be able to recall things that have happened in the past or ways that particular people have sinned against him. He’s saying that when those things are remembered, the effect is different, the result is different, the purpose is different. They can be recounted - but the emotional baggage is gone - or at least is on the way out the door. Remembering what happened no longer stirs up the rage and bitterness and hurt that it used to. There’s a kind of remembering and record-keeping that is restorative, and can be brought into the service of one’s desire to serve another person and build them up - even through discipline. And there is a kind of remembering and record-keeping that is simply about hurt and anger and manipulation and revenge. Love, says Paul, is not characterized by the latter one, but by the former one.  

The next thing Paul says about the nature of love is that “... it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth...” Now, what does he mean by this expression? Well, if you go to the commentators, you will find that there are two basic perspectives on what these verses mean. Some commentators think that when Paul says love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing” he means - the person who truly loves does not enjoy doing wrong things, does not get pleasure out of doing them but rather enjoys those things that are true and right.  

Other commentators feel that Paul is saying here that the loving person does not take delight in the wrongdoing of other people, but instead takes delight when that which is true and right prevails. Now it’s possible that Paul had both of these things in mind but it is more likely that he meant one or the other and, judging from the contents of this letter, my own assumption would be that he is referring here to a person not taking delight in the wrongdoing of others.  

If you look at 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 you see there an example of how some of the Corinthians had not only tolerated sexual immorality that was taking place among them, but they had actually celebrated it. They were even arrogant and brazen about it. A little further on, in chapter 6, you see this same attitude again with regard to a different sort of sexual immorality going on. And so, it seems to me that Paul has those sorts of situations in mind where the Corinthians were aware of and tolerating and even finding ways to justify and applaud the wrong behavior of some within their midst.  

And this, of course, tells us a very important thing about love - that it has a truth component attached to it. To put it another way, so-called “love” that comes at the expense of truth, at the end of the day, isn’t loving at all. It’s rebellion and defiance all dressed up in fancy clothes and, at the same time, it is a demonstration of a great lack of concern for the person whose wrongdoing is the cause of the delight. This is because, as Pratt points out, sin destroys people lives and so to rejoice in their sin is to applaud their destruction.  

The obvious parallel to this sort of thing, and an issue that is only going to take on more and more prominence in the days ahead is homosexuality. There are some in our culture who, in the name of Christ, and espousing “unconditional” love and openness, look upon homosexual practice and, as the Corinthians took delight in what they saw, so too do these people take delight in what they are seeing. They welcome it, they applaud it, and they denigrate all those that would oppose them as being hateful and un-loving.  

But what is this love they are espousing? It is love at the expense of truth. And therefore it is an alleged love that, by Paul’s definition, is no love at all - no matter how loudly its promoters might challenge that point. It is a form of rebellion, on the one hand, and in actual fact an un-loving disregard for the well-being of the very people they would say they are being loving toward. Why? Because they are encouraging these people to continue down a path that will only take them toward further deception and self-destruction.  

In that sort of situation, says Paul, to take delight in the wrongdoing of others is not what love is all about. Love delights in the truth and wants what is good and right to be cherished and valued by others.  

Following that statement, Paul closes out his thoughts on the nature of love with four rapid-fire, positive assertions: “...love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...” Now, because our time is short, I will not be able to say as much about these as I would like (no applause please), but they are too important not to say something....  

Firstly, Paul says love bears all things. In other words, love puts up with a lot and is willing to put up with a lot. It weathers the storm of many offenses and does not give up and abandon ship at the first sign of trouble, or even at the 101st sign of trouble.  

Nevertheless, while love puts up with a lot of things - it does not do so indefinitely. While the tendency and bias IS to bear all things, there comes a point where continuing to simply bear things and endure them becomes un-loving because it serves only to encourage and validate the misbehavior and irresponsibility of others. As one commentator points out, In chapter 5 of this letter, Paul instructs the Corinthians to stop tolerating a certain man in the church who was caught up in sexual sin.  

Continuing on, not only does love bear all things, it believes all things. As Plummer observes, this doesn’t mean that a person is gullible but simply that, in doubtful situations, the loving person prefers being too generous in her conclusions to being suspicious or cynical. In other words, when love has no irrefutable evidence, it chooses to believe the best.  

This does not mean that in order to be loving you have to continue to trust a person when all basis for such trust has been completely destroyed. That’s not love, that’s stupidity. Yes, love gives others the benefit of the doubt but, as Pratt says, love does not give the “benefit” when there is no longer any “doubt”. Nevertheless, the tendency, the pattern, the default for the Christian is to believe the best about a person as long as one reasonably can.   Thirdly, Paul says that love hopes all things. This is closely related to the previous statement about love, but essentially this means that even in the face of disappointment, and repeated failure by another person, love continues to hope for the best. Sometimes such hope might seem foolish to others, but the loving person is still ready to give the offender a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, etc. because he/she wants the situation to change, for the sake of all involved. The one who loves, maintains a perspective that believes good things will eventually happen, and that the person now struggling will not always do so.  

To be sure, such optimism is not naive. Hoping for change, hoping for good things to happen to a person does not mean that you believe such things will occur in a vacuum or apart from the ministry and intervention of others. But still there is a good result that one hopes to see on the other side of whatever other necessary things need to happen - including discipline by a local church at times.  

Finally, Paul says love endures all things, which is similar to the statement that love bears all things. Love does not come to an end simply because things are hard, or even very hard. Anyone can be gracious when things are going well. It is when trials and difficulties come that the real strength of one’s love is proven to be genuine - or not.  

And these four aspects of love - that love bears, believe, hopes and endures all things - those four aspects are not only significant in their own right, but they also work together to paint a picture of love in action. Whenever there is a difficult situation, whatever it might be, love bears up under it. And while in that situation, even amidst questions and nagging doubts, love chooses to believe the best. And when the evidence becomes stronger, and the doubts are higher, love still chooses, even when it's struggling to believe the best, to at least hope for the best. And even when hopes are repeatedly dashed, love still watches and waits and endures sometimes for a very long time. That’s what love does.  

All of which points to the decisional nature of love, moving it out of the realm of the emotional and un-controllable and into the reality of deciding and choosing - often in hard circumstances - to behave and respond in certain ways. That is what is unique about Christian love,  that is what distinguishes Christian love.  

Now, typically, the thing that is said to be distinctive about Christian love is related to some linguistic phenomenon and people will talk about how there are 3 or 4 different kinds of Greek words used to refer to “love” in the NT and that the one which is most to be valued is agape - which is said to mean “unconditional love” and is referred to as “the love of God”, etc. while other words - like philew - are said to refer to lesser, inferior kinds of love.  

Unfortunately, as Carson points out, saying such things is to play loose and fast with the evidence of the NT. To cite just one example, in 2nd Timothy 4:10, Paul describes the material, ungodly, worldly love of a person named Demas. What verb form does Paul use there? Agape. To cite another example, in John’s Gospel, there are places where the word used to describe God’s love for his Son, Jesus is - guess what? Not agape, but philew.  

And so, if we’re going to look for something distinctive in Christian love, we have to look past linguistic phenomenon and at something more substantial - such as this fact that Christian love is decisional in nature. It is something that is based upon one’s choice to love and to respond lovingly in here, inside of us. The basis for love is in here (our hearts), and not based upon the fact that there are terrific, justifiable reasons to love, out there - within another person.  

Indeed, is this not, and has this not been the way of God’s love toward us? His love for us has not been based upon the fact that we are these amazingly or easily lovable people. Indeed, it has been the exact opposite situation. God has loved us, even though there were no intrinsic reasons to do so. He loved us when we were his enemies, when we could care less about him, when we were extremely un-lovely people, when there was absolutely nothing for him to gain in doing so. And yet he chose to love. He decided to act in loving and merciful ways.  

That is what is distinctive about God’s love, and it is what ought to be distinctive about our own love for others. At the end of the day, we don’t love people because they have necessarily earned or even deserved it. We don’t show them kindness because they have been kind to us. We aren’t patient because they have been patient. We don’t throw out the record book because they have done the same. We don’t behave lovingly because of something out there, but because of something going on in here, in our hearts. A decision has been made. A path has been chosen.  

Now, if you step back from these verses for a moment, you realize that Paul has set a pretty high standard here, in fact, a really high standard. A scary standard. You look at this list and you see the challenge that love presents, don’t you?  

And I think our natural response to these kinds of challenges is to “hop on the bike” so to speak, and like Lance Armstrong, start heading up the mountain, taking on the challenge. And it is a worthy challenge to undertake. This list does provide us with some very clear guidelines for loving others. All of us, no doubt, have been rebuked at various points - maybe at every point - and have been given a great deal to think about as to how we can be more loving.  

But just like what happens when we read the moral law - the ten commandments - where, on the one hand, we are encouraged and guided in how we ought to live, we are also, at the same time, burdened and rebuked by the moral law, even as we are striving to live in ways that it describes. In a similar fashion, we take a list like this from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and we are guided and encouraged by it as to how we ought to love others, and at the same time we are increasingly rebuked by it, the more we pay attention to it. And the result of all this is that, just as the moral law reveals our sin and need of a Savior, so too does Paul’s description of love serve, in the end, to reveal how un-loving we are, and thus shows us our great lack and our great need.  

And so the challenge of love also saddles us with the burden of love, or perhaps I should say, our un-lovingness, and leaves us wondering if there is any escape, if there is any hope of our actually becoming loving in the way that Paul describes.  

And so we “turn our eyes upon Jesus” - as the hymn goes, and when we do, we see that there is actually hope in the midst of all this. Because Jesus is the epitome of love in action. Everything Paul says about love here - Jesus is - and more.  

Where we are rebuked by every very verb in these verses, Jesus is vindicated by the same. We see that love is patient and are immediately reminded of how impatient we are, and yet how amazingly patient Jesus was and is. We see that love does not seek its own way and wonder if there is ever a moment when we’re not working for our own advantage - and yet, there is Jesus, emptying himself, making himself nothing by taking on human flesh - all for our own sakes. We read that love does not keep a record of wrongs, is not resentful, and are immediately confronted by the massive “lists” that we keep and the over-flowing data banks and dossiers that we have on file, waiting to pull out and use at the right time - and there is Jesus, taking our own personal record of wrong, scratching out our name at the top and writing in his - and in the same movement, taking out his record of perfect righteousness, and transferring it to us.  

Paul’s hope for the Corinthians was that they would be humbled and rebuked by these words about love, in order that they might look to the Lord Jesus and be comforted by his love, and, in the strength of that, be enticed to walk in similar ways. My hope for us this morning is the same, that Paul’s lofty descriptions of love will serve as a guide for love - yes - but only after they have driven you back to the Savior who, by his perfect love, has covered and accounted for yours and my imperfect, pathetic love. Then, and only then, in the freedom and assurance of Christ’s enduring, unalterable choice to love us - then we will be in the right place to take on the challenge and privilege of love, in imitation of our matchless Savior.  

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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