RPM, Volume 14, Number 19, May 6 to May 12, 2012

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

A Sermon
Part One

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

Turn with me, if you will, to Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, and to chapter 13 where we will be picking up our study, beginning with the fourth verse, in just a moment. We have been in the second main section of this letter ever since the beginning of chapter 7, listening as Paul has been responding to a number of questions that the church in Corinth have asked him.

Most recently, we have been looking at Paul's answers to their questions about how they should conduct themselves in their public meetings together and we are now looking at the particular question of what place the spiritual gifts had with regard to their public gatherings.

And of all the gifts that could be discussed, the ones that Paul seems to have mainly in view here are the gift of tongues and, to a lesser extent, the gift of prophecy, although the principles which we have seen thus far could be extrapolated and applied to the other gifts just as easily. But Paul has these particular gifts in view - tongues and prophecy - not so much because of their pre-eminence but because the Corinthians have completely lost the plot regarding one of them - tongues - and have in the process paid much less attention to the one they ought to have been more enthusiastic about - which was prophecy.

Now, we have not as yet said a great deal with regard to what these particular gifts were all about - but we will be doing so once we get to chapter 14. Up to this point, then, we have been dealing more in generalities - looking at some broad principles related to spiritual gifts as a whole - in chapter 12. From there we moved on to chapter 13 - a chapter which serves as sort of a bridge between the general statements about the gifts in chapter 12 and Paul's more detailed and particular remarks in chapter 14.

And yet, to describe chapter 13 as a bridge does not, in some ways, do it justice because it is not just a bridge. The subject of this entire chapter - love - is something that Paul considered to be absolutely foundational to this whole discussion of the matter of spiritual gifts - and indeed, spiritual life in general. As we saw last week, it is precisely because the Corinthians were not operating from a basic context of love that they were having so many problems - not only with gifts - but with all the other issues that have been raised in this letter.

And so Paul waxes eloquent here on the subject of love and, in the process of applying this to the issue of the spiritual gifts, delivers a strong rebuke to a very un-loving congregation. Last week we saw the first part of this as we concentrated on verses 1-3 and saw the absolute necessity of love. This morning we will begin looking at the next section - v 4-7: the nature of love - which will likely take us two weeks, and we will then move on to the last section, verses 8- 13, and the enduring, persevering character of love.

That's where we're headed this morning. But if we're going to learn, we need a teacher. So, let's invite Him to come and have his way with us.....

(Read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

Now looking especially at verses 4-7, we see here that Paul says some very particular things about what love is and what love does, as well as some particular things about what love isn't and what love doesn't do. And, just in terms of Paul's technique, you see him doing here this thing which he so often does: explaining things both positively and negatively - in order to be clear about what he is saying.

Those of you who teach - in whatever capacity - take note. Clarity is everything in communication. It's huge. And if you want to be clear, say what you mean and what you don't mean, what it is, and what it isn't, why something should be done, why it shouldn't be done, etc. You get the point. Paul gives us both sides here in order to be as clear as he can be. And my hope this morning is to imitate him in that method.

Let's think, then, for a moment about what love is and what love does, as well as what love isn't and what it doesn't do - keeping in mind that as we race through these ideas, we will only have enough time to give you a few hooks to hang things upon. But it's a place to start.

And I should say at this point that some treatments of this passage have taken the position that what we have here is, essentially, a description of what God is like since he is, by definition, love. Now, there is a sense in which that is true. If what Paul says here is true about love, then it must therefore be true about God's love. However, it does not seem to be the case that Paul would be interrupting his flow of thought and his whole argument about spiritual gifts and their use - in order to just give us a sort of "commercial" about the love and character of God.

Rather, we ought to see that Paul's particular descriptions of love here are shaped by the problems going on in Corinth so that - of the countless hundreds of words that Paul might have used to say what love is and isn't, he chooses the words which would most clearly indicate to the Corinthians their lack of love. And so this is what Paul does. And, of course, what he says applies to the character of God - as we shall see, but I suspect that if Paul had taken up the task of just describing God's love - without having the Corinthians in mind at all - he would have written something a little different than what we have here. Likewise, if Paul had originally written this letter to us as a congregation, he would have used different words and emphasized different things about love.

So, again, this is not the definitive, once-for-all definition of love. It is, instead, a pragmatic, situation-driven definition of love - and yet one which is still applicable to God's people everywhere, and which does tell us something about the love of God.

So let's think about what Paul says here.

He says, right from the start, "love is patient and kind". And these two words describe love in both active and passive ways. Patience speaks of love passively - thinking about the person who is slow to take offense, slow to get frustrated and vent his/her anger. And, of course, this IS supremely seen in the person and character of God, isn't it? We see it in God's dealings with His people in Moses' day. We see it in his response to Jonah, his reluctant prophet. We hear it in 1 Timothy 1:16, as Paul describes God's great patience toward him personally. We know His patience ourselves when we honestly think about how many times we have been unfaithful to God - and yet how incredibly patient he has been with us, and continues to be.

And yet in the face of this truth that "love is patient" we know from our study of this letter that "patience" is NOT what the Corinthians have been demonstrating with one another, is it? In all their in-fighting and division - over leaders in the church, over spiritual gifts, over practical things like waiting for one another at their fellowship meals - in many ways they had demonstrated very little patience. And impatience inevitably makes bad situations worse and turns one-issue situations into two, three, four, or more issue situations. And so, Paul's ultimate aim in highlighting this aspect of love is to decrease the Corinthians' reactivity and volatility toward one another so that they can actually deal with the real issues between them - without clouding the situation with the extra and un-necessary problems that their impatience generated. And so, what does love amongst God's people look like? It looks like patience. It waits. It responds in a considered fashion, instead of merely reacting in a thoughtless, knee-jerk sort of way. Love is patient.

And yet, as Richard Pratt points out, we ought not confuse patience with indifference. Being patient doesn't mean you don't care about what's going on. And what that means is - you can be patient with a person who is causing some offense, and at the same time be responding to their offense, refusing to ignore it, refusing to simply allow it to continue happening.

We see Paul doing this all over the letter to the Corinthians - on the one hand being very patient with them, especially in the ways that they have said and done some very hurtful things toward him as their apostle - and yet, at the same time, he has not hesitated to respond to them, and to rebuke them, from time to time, for their un-loving and un-godly actions.

The other thing that ought to be said about patience here is that patience - while real - is not absolute. It's not eternal. In other words, being patient doesn't mean you put up with something forever. Even God himself places a time limit on his patience - it's called "Judgment Day". So being patient doesn't mean we must wait forever, but it does mean we are willing to wait a long time, and to give one another space, in the hopes of seeing a positive outcome.

Well, in addition to describing love as patient, Paul says that love is also kind and, in so doing, points to the fact that love involves active as well as passive responses. Indeed, as one commentator has noted, kindness is related to patience since the very essence of kindness is to demonstrate love and regard for the very people who have been hurtful to you or frustrating to you, and with whom you are most tempted to lose your patience.

And, as with patience, so it is the case that kindness is, of course, clearly and supremely modeled in the actions of God our Father toward us, especially in the cross, where he showed the greatest possible kindness to the most undeserving and exasperating of recipients. He was gentle and gracious toward us, when he might well have been harsh.

Many of the Corinthians, by contrast, had shown little kindness to one another. Paul talks about how they were quarreling amongst themselves in chapter 1. In chapters 8-10, he talks about how some of them were claiming and exercising their "rights" and "freedoms" in a way that was actually wounding the consciences of some of the newer Christians in their churches - and yet they did not seem to care about this. And so, in these and other ways we have seen that kindness is a rare commodity in the Corinthian fellowship. And yet it is this very thing that Paul has highlighted as one of the hallmarks of love.

And as I think about that reality, I think about how the Scriptures tell us that one of the ways that the watching world will know that we are Christians is by our love for one another which, in the light of what Paul is saying to the Corinthians means that the world will know we are Christians by the kindness that we show to one another - not by fighting and church splits and clenched fists - but by kindness.

Of course, having said all that, it is important to remember that being kind doesn't mean always being soft spoken. It doesn't mean that a person never says any hard things. It doesn't mean you cannot rebuke people, even severely rebuke them. It doesn't mean you must abide by the rule that says, "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all". Because the reality is that sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a person is to tell them some hard things about themselves that are neither nice, nor pleasant to hear. Conversely, one of the most unkind things you can do is not warn a person who needs warning, or to not say something that desperately needs saying.

Next, Paul says that "love does not envy" and "love does not boast" which can be seen as two aspects of the same troubling set of circumstances. In other words, where you find one, you will usually find the other. For example, one person might be exalting himself, or thinking more highly of himself than he ought, because he possesses some particular gift - perhaps some great musical ability. But this unfortunate practice typically leads to a further unfortunate result: people who begin to resent the boastful person because they do NOT have any musical gifts at all.

In Corinth this sort of thing was going on all over the place. We have seen numerous illustrations of the whole envy and boasting dynamic right through the letter. For example, envy and boasting seem to have been part of the whole problem they were having with the personality cults that were forming around different teachers in the church.

And it is this same dynamic that seems to have been so much a part of the whole spiritual gifts - tongues situation in Corinth. It seems fairly evident that some of the Corinthians who spoke in tongues were fairly proud of this fact and felt themselves in some ways superior and independent of the rest of the body of Christ. That sort of attitude was bound to create all sorts of problems and jealousies in others. And it did.

So Paul says to these Corinthians, "love does not envy OR boast". Love doesn't boast about some particular gift because it remembers that any gift and/or blessing one might have is NOT a result of one's own merits and abilities in the first place. Love wouldn't make a big deal out of these things, or draw attention to itself in that sort of way. Love wouldn't do that because it wouldn't want to be a catalyst for envy and jealousy within the Body of Christ.

Additionally, love doesn't envy because it trusts and believes in the providence of God - to work all things well, and at just the right time, and in the right way. It doesn't envy because it isn't buying what the boastful person is selling - both because it isn't true and because it will only lead to a person acting out his/her envy in ways that will cause harm to the Body of Christ.

Well, Paul goes on. "Love is not arrogant", he writes. Now, to be arrogant or proud means that a person has an over-abundance of self confidence that does not properly recall that the source of every good gift or ability is God, nor does it seem to recall the true position in which a person stands before the Lord - as a sinner who has been loved and forgiven in spite of himself. Even further, the arrogant person has lost sight of the fact that whatever they might have, whatever they might have been given, the whole purpose of their receiving it was not for self- promotion and advancement, but for the good of others. "For the common good" - as Paul says in chapter 12. Without those perspectives, arrogance can easily set in and run rampant.

And, looking again at the Corinthian church, we see that this issue of arrogance was indeed a problem within that congregation. If you recall, in chapter 4 we saw how some of the Corinthians felt that they had "arrived" spiritually and possessed this specialized, advanced understanding of spiritual things. In fact, the Corinthians apparently felt so special and so knowledgeable that they were convinced that they knew better than Paul - and they told him so!

And there are other examples in the letter, including, of course, the way they have been acting with regard to the whole issue of tongues such that, rather than submit to Paul on these matters many of them seemed to be more of a mind to simply dismiss him. And in the face of such things, Paul says, "Love is NOT arrogant". It's not like that. It doesn't act that way, displaying that sort of in-your-face attitude, or a kind of spiritual "swagger" that is completely lacking in humility.

Of course, saying that arrogance is not a good thing does not mean that we should all now go out and commit ourselves to the task of hating and despising ourselves. That is also something which, from a biblical standpoint, would be just as wrong and which, in fact, is committing the same fundamental sin as the proud or arrogant person, namely this: Where the arrogant person is guilty of discounting the image of God in others, the person who despises himself is discounting the image of God within himself/herself.

Continuing on, Paul says "love is not rude". Now, when Paul says that love is "not rude" he is saying something more than just that the loving person does not have bad manners. The word that he uses here is used in a number of other places in the bible and has a variety of meanings that, roughly, approximate to the idea of being offensive, or doing something offensive.

What Paul likely has in view here is a situation such as we saw in chapter 11 where he talked about the need for God's people in worship to retain certain cultural symbols and customs, that were common in that day and age. As you may recall, some of the Corinthians had, on the basis of some faulty theology, concluded that they could throw off all cultural customs that previously were distinctive to men and women, especially those involving the length of one's hair and whether one's head was covered or not. And so, in Chapter 11, Paul showed, among other things, that such cultural distinctions ought not be abandoned and that they served a useful purpose of preserving and highlighting God-designed differences between men and women.

And so, Paul's statement that love is not rude seems to have in view this sort of reality. As one commentator writes,

The definitions of what is "rude" vary from culture to culture and from time to time, but at the heart is a disregard for the social customs that others have adopted. When one does NOT concern himself with the likes and dislikes of others, he shows a disrespect for them. Proper regard, on the other hand, indicates love for other people.

And so, love is not rude, and does not flippantly or casually jettison customs and practices which serve a useful purpose and which are important to people - unless there is a strong Scriptural reason to do so.

Nevertheless, having said that, while love is not rude, it is important to say that we cannot raise the criteria of "rudeness elimination" to an absolute standard such that we must avoid being accused of being rude or offensive, in every single instance or else we are not being loving. Because, you see, sometimes the loving thing to do in a situation will be considered rude, at least by some, and so, in some circumstances, "rudeness", or at least the accusation of it, will be unavoidable.

For example, some would consider sharing the Gospel with a person to be rude and culturally insensitive and even arrogant, especially if that person is from another country and culture. And yet we must share the Gospel, right? Or, to use another example, there was a time in this country where it would have been considered rude to do things that broke away from the customs associated with racial discrimination. And yet the demands of the Gospel required many believers to not allow culture to trump truth.

And so, again, where the customs of a culture do not require a person to contradict the principles of the Christian faith, and indeed support those principles, then we are free to appreciate and enjoy them - and we should. But when the customs of a culture require a person to go against the principles of the Christian faith, then we are not being unloving when we break those customs, nor are we being rude - at least not in God's eyes, although we may be accused of such by others.

Finally, the last thing I want us to see this morning is Paul's statement that love "does not insist on its own way" or as the NIV puts it, it is not "self-seeking". In other words, being loving means putting the interests of others ahead of your own - not as an absolute pattern, but as a general pattern of living.

Of course, the supreme example of this sort of way of living was Christ himself, as Paul has made crystal clear in his Letter to the Philippians, where he writes,

4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Love is not self-seeking because LOVE PERSONIFIED - Jesus Christ - was not self-seeking. Love consistently makes choices that want to place the benefit of other people ahead of one's own personal benefit.

Once more, and as we have seen over and over again this morning, this was not something that seems to have been a strong suit for the Corinthians. From one end of the letter to the other, one could find numerous examples where they seemed to have been primarily, and even exclusively concerned with taking care of themselves.

For example, recall their behavior at their fellowship meals in chapter 11 where some refused to wait for others and just gorged themselves on the food that was available, so much so, that there was not enough food to go around in the end! Paul is saying here that love is not like that. Love doesn't act that way. It is not self- centered.

And yet, even as we say these things, they need to be tempered by the reality that saying that love is not self-seeking does not mean that we should have NO interest in our selves whatsoever. Right? Even in that great passage from Philippians 2, even in the example of Jesus, we see that Paul starts out by saying, "Let each of you look NOT ONLY to his own interests...."

In other words, Paul didn't say, "Don't look AT ALL to your own interests. He said don't make that your sole, or central, focus. And as we read others of Paul's writings we see that he clearly expects that the Christian will be biased on the side of other-centeredness, but not to the exclusion of self- interest.

Well, thus far this morning we have seen seven statements about what love is and does, and what love is not, and what it does not do. There is much more to be said, more than we can do this morning. My hope is to pick this up again next week, and finish looking at it together.

As part of that, and once we have worked through the details of these verses, we need to take some time at the end, next week, to step back from the whole unit and deal with the very important impact of verses 4-7 as a unit, and in particular, we will spend some time thinking about three things: the challenge of love, the burden of love, and the hope of love.

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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