Be A Loving Church!
1 Corinthians 13
By Paul Robison
 
 

You know, when there's a conflict in a congregation, there are two basic ingredients that keep it going: the people involved and the problem involved.  And most of time, in our attempts to resolve the conflict, where do we put the focus?  On the problem, right?  So what just happened to the feelings and concerns of the people involved?  They were ignored, and that now causes further offense, more alienation, and makes the conflict even harder to resolve.  One way to avoid this outcome is to affirm your respect and concern for the people involved before even starting to exam the problem more closely.  In fact, if you take time to understand the other people's interests, concerns, and goals, you can usually create a better solution for the problem (Sande).  The church in Corinth was experiencing conflicts and divisions.  We saw in chapter 10 how Paul wanted them to be an obedient church, in chapter 11, a respectful church, and in chapter 12, a unified church.  In chapter 13, Paul wants them to be a loving church.  It is important that we remember chapter 13 is a response to the misuse of spiritual gifts seen in chapter 12.  Paul wants the members to understand that their miraculous spiritual gifts must not be used for boasting with a self-centeredness, but the most excellent way is to use them for showing love with an others-centeredness (Oster).  The misuse of these gifts are constantly in view in this chapter, and much of what Paul writes here is clearly the opposite of what the Corinthians members are doing.  My outlook on this chapter is a little different than what you probably have been taught.  I will use much of what Paul writes in Ephesians 4 to interpret a part of this chapter.   I also view that last part of the chapter referring to the situation rather than looking forward to the world's end.  Let's look now at Paul gives four challenges to the brethren in Corinth and to us to be a loving church.
 
First of all, Paul admonishes: Let love motivate your service!  In the first three verses, Paul affirms: "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."  The gifts of tongues, of prophecy, of special faith, and of generosity all have no value if they are used for mere showiness or for elevating one's position.  No, these gifts are only of ultimate worth if the congregation is benefitted by them (Holladay).  Love should be the motivator behind their usage.  One commentator puts it this way: "Paul stoutly maintains that if they have even the highest of gifts, and that in full amount, but lack love, not only are they not very important; they are actually nothing.  His choice of words is very impressive" (Morris).  Let love motivate your service!  On 24 June 1859, Henri Durant saw Napoleon's troops prepare for a battle with the Austrian troops below on the plain of Solferino from his place on the hill.  Durant was really there on a business trip to negotiate with the emperor.  After the cannons and muskets had ceased, Durant heard screams of the injured and saw men taking their last breaths.  There were 38,000 casualties, and every building in the village was filled mangled, injured, and dead men.  Durant, aching with pity, decided to stay in the village for three more days and comfort the young soldiers.  Driven by a powerful passion to abolish war, Dunant will eventually lose his successful banking career and all his worldly possessions only to die as a virtual unknown in an obscure poorhouse.  For the next 50 years, Durant gave himself to establishing an organization which would give care to wounded soldiers.  Durant was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1901). We also remember him because of the movement he founded-- the Red Cross (Goodier).  Love for the wounded, regardless of which side they were on, motivated Durant's humanitarian service.  Let love motivate your service!  What motivates our service in the church?  Is it fear, or guilt, or prestige, or competition, or social pressure?  "Without love, it profits nothing" is a very soul-searching statement, isn't it?  Jesus' actions, even His strong words and use of force on occasion, were always motivated by love!  How well are we living up to His example?  Are all our efforts to serve other members motivated by love?  If not, Paul says that they won't be worth anything!  Let love motivate your service!  Be a loving church!
 
Next, let love change your conduct!  Now let's read verses 4-7: "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."  If verses 1-3 "are designed to teach the emptiness of gifts not controlled by love, then [verses] 4-7 enumerate characteristics of love" (Oster).  In fact, a commentator translated these 15 characteristics in this way: "Christian love is patient with others, it is sweet to all, and it doesn't resent what other possess.  Christian love feels unworthy, is not inflated with its own importance, and behaves with grace.  Christian love doesn't insist on its own rights, fly into a rage, or keep a record of errors.  Christian love doesn't find pleasure in doing evil, it rejoices with the truth, and it bears any insult and injury.  Christian love is completely trusting, always hopeful, and bears everything with a triumphant strength that transforms the worst into the best" (Barclay).  Another commentator noted: "Since the Corinthians' misunderstanding of spiritual matters lies primarily in their failure to live as a body, Paul draws attention to those characteristics of love most important for harmonious relationships" (Oster).  Let love change your conduct!  Paul teaches us that "love is a pattern of behavior which has been revealed by God and can be learned by Christians" (Shelly).  We see that "love is the one thing needful, [and] nothing can make up for its lack" (Morris).  We notice in Paul's inspired description of love that it avoids the whole range of unseemly behaviors (Ibid.).  Here's how one modern version states these characteristics of love: "Love never gives up and cares more for others than for self.  Love doesn't want what it doesn't have, doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, and doesn't force itself on others.  Love isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, and doesn't revel when others grovel.  Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end" (The Message).  The church should not function as a business for profit nor a circus for entertainment, but it should function as a caring family for the spiritual maturity of each member.  Why is that so hard for us to remember?  An Italian church leader once told me: "My vineyards demand a lot of my attention because grapes don't grow very well without much care.  And you know what, it's the same way in church as well—members need a lot of our attention too because they don't grow very strong without much care" (Mirabelli).  An Italian elder once gave a lesson in which he said something like this: "My wife expects me to treat her with kindness, tenderness, and appreciation, and rightly so since I am her husband.  Jesus teaches me to love her as He loved the church.  I have never found where Christ abused or belittled the church.  Yes, He rebuked and reproved her, but He never mistreated His bride.  Now, as brothers and sister in the Lord, shouldn't be treating members with kindness, tenderness, and appreciation as well" (Negri)?  Let love change your conduct!  Be a loving church!
 
Next, realize that love will outlast your gifts!  Let's read verses 8-10: "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."  One brother comments: "Beginning here, and to the end of the chapter, it is the permanence of love, as contrasted with the supernatural gifts which were so highly treasured by the Corinthian brethren, which is stressed" (Coffman).  Another brother also comments:  "To state it briefly, the Corinthians need to tone down their preoccupation with squabbling over tongues, prophecies, and special knowledge, because none of these is destined for a long life.  The three phrases 'they will cease,' 'they will be stilled,' and 'it will pass away' are all set temporarily in contrast to the unfailing nature of love" (Oster).  A third brother also notes: "The miraculous endowments designated as spiritual gifts have failed, have ceased, and have vanished away and are therefore no longer in force.  All such powers were temporary and provisional and cannot now be exercised" (Wallace).  Paul states the gifts of knowledge and prophecy are partial, and they will be done away when that which is perfect has come.  The question is asked, "What is the perfect to which Paul is referring?  And here we quite often go to James 1:25: "But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does."  And we say the perfect law of liberty is the complete New Testament.  So, the perfect in Corinthians is when all the books of the New Testament are completed.  Now this interpretation has two major problems.  First of all, not all commentators, and there are even those among our own brethren, agree that "the perfect law of liberty" in James is a reference to the complete New Testament.  The second problem is even greater.  Now it's fine for us to turn to James to try and help us to understand Corinthians, but we must remember that Paul's readers probably did not have the book of James to help them out.  They might have had the Psalms and could have turned to Psalm 19:7 which says: "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul," but that reference to the perfect refers to something that had already come!  Here's another approach that we might take.  Is there another passage in Paul's writings where "perfect" is mentioned?  And could that passage possibly shed some light on this passage in Corinthians?  Paul also uses the word "perfect" in Ephesians 4:13.  But before we read that passage, note how similar its context and that of 1 Corinthians is by looking at this chart:
 
Ephesians
1 Corinthians
Jew-Gentile discussion (2:11; 3:1; 4:17)
Gentiles and Greeks (12:2 & 13)
Emphasis on "all" (4:5)
"All in all" (12:6 & 12)
Emphasis on "oneness and unity" (4:3-6)
Emphasis on "one and the same" Giver of the gifts (12:4-14)
Divine gifts (4:7-11)
Divine gifts (12:4-11; 13:1-3)
Human body, an illustration of unity (4:12-16)
Human body, an illustration of unity (12:12-26)
Human growth shows progress of spiritual body (4:13-16)
Paul's growth shows the Corinthians' progress (13:11)
A perfect man (4:13) = a mature church
That which is perfect (13:10) = a mature church
 
We see many similarities here, don't we?  Now let's read Ephesians 4:13-15: "until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ"  Now isn't Paul saying here: "When the Jewish and Gentiles members come to greater unity in the body, and they have a greater understanding about Christ and more of His fullness, and they reach the point where they can speak the truth in love and edify one another, then they will become the perfect, the mature, and the complete man that God desires them to be?"  So now, why can't we apply that idea to the Corinthian church?  We know that the church there has been divided, that members have been misusing their gifts, and that many are confused.  Isn't Paul saying to them as well, "Look, when you brethren realize that God has unified all people in the church, and when you have a greater knowledge of Christ and fullness like Christ, and when you are able to speak the truth in love in order to edify the whole body, then you will be the perfect, mature, and complete body that God desires you to be, and there will no be no further need for miraculous spiritual gifts?"  Someone might ask, "But how can know if the congregation in Corinth ever achieved maturity?  Fortunately, we have a letter that an early church leader named Clement from Rome wrote to this congregation in about 95 A.D., and notice what he says: "Love knows no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship.  It was in love that all God's saints were made perfect; for without love, nothing is pleasing to Him."  Notice how Clement says that the saints "were made perfect" (which is past tense).  Yes, perfection came by the close of the first century, which means that the miraculous spiritual gifts must have been done away with at that time also.  This is why it can be affirmed that the age of miracles today has ceased.  Realize that love will outlast your gifts!  Be a loving church!
 
Next, realize that love will solidify God's purposes!  Let's read verses 11 and following: "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, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."  One commentator writes: "Read in this way, verse 10 would describe the mature state to which Paul is urging the Corinthians, in which prophecies, knowledge, and tongues will no longer be the decisive criteria among them.  And his reference to his own growth from immaturity to maturity will be seen as a model for them to follow; they will see their speaking (in tongues), their knowledge, and their thinking have been childish, conduct unbecoming to genuinely mature Christians" (Holladay).  Verse 12 is another comparison to spur the Corinthian brethren on to greater growth and maturity.  Right now, the way they are acting is much like trying to see another's reflection in a mirror.  Mirrors in those days weren't very well polished, so the result was dim and fuzzy image.  But when the congregation reaches maturity, it will be like looking at someone face to face!  God's will of uniting all people will be a clear reality!  Paul then states that his work to bring Gentiles into the church had been partially accomplished, but when maturity in this congregation is achieved, the purpose of his work will be fully realized as well.  Another commentator observes: "Love is 'greatest' of these because it is the one which activates the other two and causes them to function properly and for the benefit of the whole body" (Shelly).  Realize that love will solidify God's purpose!  Didn't Jesus teach us that our love for each other as members in His body would make an impact upon the world?  "By this, all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).  Hasn't it been God's eternal plan to break down human barriers through His Son?  "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:27-28).  Our Christian love for each other continues to solidify God's purposes!  Be a loving church!
 
Someone wrote this poem: "In Christ there is no east or west; His flag o'er all's unfurled!  His one great fellowship of love now exists throughout the world!  In Him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find; His service is the golden cord close binding all mankind!  Join hands then, members of the faith, whate'er your race may be!  Let's serve our Father with love unending, now and eternally" (Oxenham with modification)!  Be a loving church!
 
"Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:8).  God's love is powerful, and He sent His Son so that all people can be saved through Him and united in His church.  Repent of your past sinful life, confess Jesus as the Person whom you want to be your supreme Ruler, and put on Christ through baptism.  Let Jesus make you part of a loving church!