February 26, 2017
“The Greatest of These is Love”
1 Corinthians 13
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13
Love is the greatest of all the virtues, but the word love is used to identify selfish acts of sin. Love describes what God is, but the word love is used as a club by the godless to intimate Christians into keeping quiet about what God says is right and wrong. No word more perfectly describes both God’s essence and his activity, but this word is the most misused word in the English language, often used to mean the very opposite of what it means. It is good for us, then, to take to heart this wonderful chapter of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, where we learn what love is. First, we learn of love’s necessity, second, of its character, and third, of its endurance.
Love is necessary. It is the indispensable virtue. No good work can be a good work if it is not a work of love. No spiritual gift has any benefit if it is not used in love. I can understand all the mysteries of the faith, have the greatest theological insight, and be as orthodox as the most faithful fathers, but if I do not have love, my understanding, insight, and orthodoxy are vain. As Thomas Kingo put it in one of his hymns:
The outward act isn’t enough. I can sell everything I have and give it away to the poor, I can sacrifice my body to the flames for the greatest cause imaginable, and if I hate my neighbor, my act of selflessness is selfishness.
Love is necessary because God is necessary. To imagine life without love is to imagine life without God. Life without God is pure hell. God shows himself to us by what he does. He shows us love by what he does. God so loved the world that he gave. He didn’t just think about it or talk about it. He gave. Love is doing. It is not a noun unless it is a verb. It does. It doesn’t just feel or contemplate. It acts. It acts always for the benefit of others. It doesn’t act for its own benefit. Love is necessary. Life without love is life without God. Life without God is a life of hopelessness and despair, of aimlessness and vanity. Love is necessary.
Second, we learn in these words the character of love. It is the character of God. It is exemplified in the life of our Savior, who by living the life of love and doing so vicariously – that is, as our substitute, our representative, and our champion – he embraced us with the eternal love of God. You cannot read this description of love without thinking of God. Love suffers long. It’s patient. It doesn’t fly off the handle. It bears with the sins and errors of others. Think of the longsuffering of our God, who patiently deals with us sinners, bearing with us, forgiving us, gently and persistently guiding us into the way that is best for us. Love is patient.
Love is kind. When it sees the neighbor in need it does what needs to be done to meet it. It rejoices when good is done by and to the neighbor. Love doesn’t reflect on itself; it seeks to do good to the other. It doesn’t resent another’s good fortune. The doctrine of self-esteem – which is gospel among so many nowadays – is a false doctrine. It is in loving others, doing for others, caring for others, defending others, that one gains a sense of self-worth. We find happiness, not in self-esteem, but in loving and esteeming others: brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, husband, and wife. This is where love matters most. True joy comes, not by loving yourself, but by loving others.
Love doesn’t look for what is bad in others. It looks for what is good. When it sees the sins of others, it covers them up. When it sees good in others, it praises it. It is true that we are sinners living in a sinful world. But we do not let sin define us or dominate us. To rejoice in someone’s sin is to become guilty of it. To pass on a lie is to become a liar. Love rejoices in the truth.
When Jesus sent out his disciples he told them to be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves. Wise means we are not going to be shocked when folks let us down, break their promises, or betray our trust. Love isn’t ignorance, naiveté, or foolishness. Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things because love understands a fundamental theological truth: Only the one who is regarded as good can do good.
This is the very heart of our Christian faith. We trust in God’s love that regards us as righteous. Christ is our righteousness. We don’t make ourselves righteous by what we do. Christ did what needs to be done and he did it for us. He did it. He did it, not for himself, but for us. This is what God’s love is all about. We trust in this love and express this trust by imitating it. Just as God loves us despite our not deserving it, so we love others who don’t deserve it. Love always bears the sins of others. Love always believes the best about others. Love always hopes for the best for others. Love always endures the weaknesses of others.
This love, imperfect as it is within us, is in its divine essence perfect. We cannot see it yet. But we can see it as in a mirror. We can grasp it, but only through faith, only by hope, only imperfectly as we still must contend with our own sin.
The Corinthian congregation to which St. Paul addressed these words was torn apart by factions in which people boasted about how their group was better than someone else’s group, that their gifts were greater than other people’s gifts, basically, that they were better than their fellow Christians.
Some boasted of having the gift of speaking in languages they had never learned, what is called speaking in tongues. Others boasted of having the gift of prophecy, whereby God directly revealed his word and will to people. Others boasted of the gift of knowledge, a special understanding of divine truth. But none of these gifts would last. Only love would last. God stopped giving these gifts a long, long time ago.
Within the past one hundred years or so, many have claimed the gifts of speaking in tongues and receiving direct revelations of knowledge from God and the gift of prophecy. They are known as Pentecostals, named after the event in the early church when these gifts were showered upon the infant church. But here St. Paul explicitly says that these gifts will disappear and they did disappear and there is no biblical reason for thinking that God began to give them again in the 20th century. Along with the claim to these gifts have come all sorts of false teachings, with many people being deceived by claims that God said this or that or the other thing. These gifts will pass away, they will cease, that’s what Paul said and that’s what happened.
But three things remained: faith, hope, and love. These three endure. Faith endures because it is only through faith that we receive the gift of God’s love. This is why faith is mentioned first. It is foundational. Without faith we cannot love. When Paul speaks of having faith that can move mountains but not having love, he is warning about a false faith that is no true faith at all. True faith rests secure in the wounds of Jesus whence the forgiveness of sins flow out to us. Faith is confidence in God’s grace. As long as we are living in this world we will be living by faith. Faith trusts in the blood and righteousness of Jesus and the chief fruit of this faith is love.
Hope endures. Faith is confidence in what God is saying right now in the gospel. Faith is trusting now, as we sing in the hymn, “I am trusting you, Lord Jesus.” Hope is faith directed toward the future. Hope isn’t any less certain than faith. It is called hope because it looks to what is in store for us. It looks to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. It looks ahead to the new heavens and the new earth that God will prepare for us and the everlasting joy and bliss that will be ours. And what is it about our Christian hope that brings us such joy in our contemplation of it? It is love.
There will come a time when we will have no need for faith or hope. We will see for ourselves. We will experience directly what we believed and taught and confessed. This is when love will be perfected in us. The glory of God will transform us so that we will know God even as God knows us. Faith is necessary only until we get to heaven. Hope is necessary only when we are looking to the future. When our eternal future arrives, faith and hope will disappear. Only love will remain. The greatest of these is love.
We set our faith and our hope on the love of God revealed in Christ. We look to where he was delivered to the Gentiles, mocked and insulted and spit upon, scourged, and killed. On the third day he rose again. This is how God has made us righteous in his sight. This is where our faith is founded. This is the ground of the love the Holy Spirit has poured into our hearts. The love we now know in part will fill us and perfect in us the image of Christ. This love will endure for ever and ever.
Rolf D. Preus