The Core of Christianity
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First Corinthians

The Core of Christianity

1 Corinthians 13

One of the disadvantages of going through the Scripture is that you must take each passage in turn. Some are sufficiently dull that it takes some scratching (I, too, avoid genealogies). But others, like this one, are so high and golden that one fears to bring a lesson. It is a small shadow in a land of giants. So with apologies to practically every great Christian writer, we begin the golden love chapter of First Corinthians.

(1 Cor 13 NIV) If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. {2} If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. {3} If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. {4} Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. {5} It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. {6} Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. {7} It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. {8} Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. {9} For we know in part and we prophesy in part, {10} but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. {11} When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. {12} Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. {13} And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Context

While often quoted at weddings – it is a superbly beautiful writing – the context of the message is quite clear. Paul is still speaking about the unity of the church. One of the causes of jealousy in the church has been the distribution of spiritual gifts. Why should you get divine healing when I speak in tongues? Which is the greater gift? (And, therefore, which of us is greater in the church?)

Such division is contrary to the very nature of God, who is One. His image in us must be likewise – one essence in many persons. But what essence is this? Is it not expressed in the thought, “God is love?” Therefore Jesus tells us that this is the method by which all will know we are his disciples – that we love one another.

This love – the word is one which applies to the will, not to the emotions – is the core of Christianity, as Paul shows us here.

Supremacy of love

Paul brings this thought to us with a series of superlative comparisons which bring up echoes of our Lord’s own words. It’s interesting to see these comparisons, for in each there is a subtlety which is at once hyperbole – and delicacy:

Tongues

First, note that it’s not just the “tongues of men” (the languages of earth) but also the tongues of angels! Even if I spoke like an angel of God, it would mean nothing without love. But – in contrast to the others – here he does not use the phrase “I am nothing.” He rather uses a word picture – the clanging symbol, the gong.

You want to drive parents of a small child absolutely crazy? Give the kid a drum for Christmas (works with teenagers, too). My mother tells me that when I was young someone gave me a metal drum – practically unbreakable – and that she was soon forced to hide it. I was the original Energizer bunny, evidently. That’s the kind of speaking Paul is talking about; eloquence without love at its heart is brazen annoyance.

Prophecy

Here again we get a magnificent hyperbole: not only could I understand all knowledge (things that man is allowed to discover) but also all mysteries (things deliberately hidden by God). Suppose I knew all that; what would the benefit be? Take even a small example: suppose I have the cure for cancer. If I will not act on it, it will sit in my file cabinet, benefiting neither me nor anyone else.

Faith

It’s our Lord’s own illustration, turned on its head. Christ told us that if we had a little faith, even like a mustard seed, we could move mountains. Paul takes that for the hyperbole it is, and says – even if you did, what good is it? If you don’t have love, it does no good.

Giving

Remember the rich young ruler? In his case, his possessions stood between him and God. So, suppose I give away all my possessions. I benefit the poor who receive them; I remove all worldly barriers between me and God – but if I do not have love, the Spirit of my Master, I cannot be one with him.

It’s worse than that. “No greater love has any man – “ remember that? If you give your life for someone, that’s the greatest sign of love. But if you don’t have that love, and give your life out of misguided legalism (for example) it does you no good.

The spiritual gifts are great gifts. But remember that Saul prophesied; Balaam spoke the oracle of God; Judas worked miracles with the other disciples. All these were evil men who had an evil end. What did their spiritual gifts produce? The Christians at Corinth had spiritual gifts too; but they produced jealousy and faction. Without love, it is always so.

The character of love

Here it is: the checklist of Christian love. Compare this: the character of love shown here, and the character of that church. Paul is pointing them to the “more excellent way.”

Positive

Paul gives us two positive aspects to love:

· Patience – this is the root of all self-denial. Do you not remember that our Lord told us we must “take up the Cross” and follow him? That’s self-denial, and this is its root. Patience with all others is our starting point.

· Kindness – some of us are patient, but only so that we can provoke others with our often-expressed longsuffering. “You’re lucky to have me, Harold. No other woman would put up with so much.” That’s patience – but it’s not kindness. The two must be alloyed in love.

Defects in love

So that there will be no misunderstanding, Paul now lists what love must not be – that is to say, the defects in love which we must strive to eliminate.

· Envy – you can be patient but envious, and it is not loving. For if you envy someone, how can you rejoice at their success? Is that not a characteristic of true love?

· Boasting – If envy is a blemish in your love, surely it is a sin to provoke others to envy you. Isn’t that the objective of boasting?

· Pride – even if you don’t boast about it, pride is hard to conceal. Does it not provoke others to envy and pride as well? How could this be a loving thing to do? Surely love cares first for others.

· Rudeness – see how the small things count! Even when others around us are rude, the Christian must, in love, be polite. For in politeness we encourage others to love; in rudeness, we encourage them to hate. (I didn’t say this was easy.)

· Self-seeking – have you ever noticed how much you despise this in others? People who are obviously self-seeking really annoy those who are team players. Love is the ultimate source of team play.

· Easily angered – this can mean two things: one is those whose temper is always at the flash point. But it can also mean those who are “easily hurt.” Be neither.

· Recording wrongs – some of us bury the hatchet – handle up for convenient future use. Here’s some advice I’d like to give to many a wife: keep no record of your husband’s wrongs. He’ll last longer and be much easier to live with.

Relationship of love and righteousness

Paul ends with his statement on love and righteousness. Here he shows us the solution to the fundamental dilemma which led Christ to the Cross:

· God is righteous, perfectly righteous. Therefore he can tolerate no sin.

· But we are sinners and He is love – therefore he loves us. What then is He to do?

The answer is found at the Cross, where love makes the sacrifice which brings us to righteousness. It is a model for us. We are not to strike at evil with evil; rather, we are to reach out to those who are evil, in love.

The good news here is this: love is so much the attribute of God that when we become his children he enables us – if we are willing – to act as he would act, in the imitation of his love.

Endurance of love

The good stuff tends to stick around. Many books were written in the 19th century; how many are read today? Only two kinds: the good ones and the ones on some English teacher’s list. Sherlock Holmes is still in print; not on the list, but good reading. How much more, then, shall the supreme and best thing, love, endure?

Why do the others cease?

After all, many of us today would love to have the gift of healing. Some of us would be happy with just the gift of tongues (assuming the eldership voted to allow it). But Paul tells us these will cease. Why?

· One reason is that there is no further need for them. These gifts were not ends in themselves; rather, they were used for spreading the Gospel. They are for God’s purposes only, not ours.

· These gifts were the cause of dissension in the church. They may have been necessary to credential the Apostles, but as they cause disunity in the church, they are eliminated. We are to be one, as Christ and the Father are one.

· These gifts lead up to the supreme gift, the gift of love. When you have the best thing, do you need a good thing?

What about knowledge?

It’s interesting to see Paul tell us that knowledge will disappear. But read the whole passage and it’s a little more clear. The problem is that we have partial knowledge. That partial knowledge will be replaced by complete knowledge. When the perfect comes, we put aside the imperfect. (How many of your teenage kids will ride a bike after they get a driver’s license?)

But – suppose we did know everything. That would certainly eliminate any need for prophecy (what would be left to prophesy?) and for speaking in tongues (which served as a method of convincing all of the Gospel). But we would still need love.

As long as this world lasts

Paul tells us there are three things that will endure: faith, hope and love. As long as this world endures, and our Lord has not yet returned, they will last. But at his return things will change.

· Faith? No longer will we need faith, for our faith will have become sight.

· Hope? No longer will we hope – for what we hoped for will have come.

· Love? That remain, for that is the character of God, and we, his children, will be like him on that day.

So I encourage you to hold on to the thing that lasts forever: love. Practice it now; enjoy it forever.

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