Last Sunday I preached on 1 Cor. 13. Here’s the outline.
THE GREATEST IS LOVE
(I COR. 13:1-3; 13)
Introduction: Who is the greatest? Luke 22:24. This is a question that Christians, whatever the motive, frequently ask. And it seems that in the church at Corinth during Paul’s time it was being asked but not with pure motives. The motives seemed to be pride and envy. People were proud of their spiritual gifts or envied those who were more gifted than they were. There was also division and discrimination. The question is timely because these problems can also be found in today’s churches.
I. Four Kinds of Gifted People Who Could Lay Claim to Being the Greatest.
A. The Speaker
- The great speaker is able to captivate audiences and to sway them where he pleases. He can make them laugh, cry, change their mind, etc.
- But when our unloving lives contradict our fine speech our words no longer convince. They become mere noise: just like a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal – empty praise. Our tongues, just like these instruments were meant to praise God (Ps. 150:5) but the sounds they produce are mere noise in God’s ears without love (James 3:9, 10).
- Impressive speech and wonderful oratory is not everything, definitely not the main thing in preaching (I Cor. 1:17; 2:1, 4, 5).
- One other thing: the Bible tells us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). The truth can be spoken in a harsh, insensitive and cruel manner. Truth spoken without love serves only to destroy. The tragedy is we are often guilty of this. Of course we are to rebuke and to warn and even to constructively criticize when the occasion calls for it, but we often do so with delight in the fall of others and with secret joy in our moral and spiritual superiority over others! Many of us are repeating the same mistake of the Pharisees of old. Yes, rebuke all you want, but you must earn the right to do so. You must do so with tears in your eyes and with brokenness of heart and gentleness of spirit (Gal. 6:1). We are often so self-righteous and unloving in our condemnation of others, caring only about our having spoken the truth, but heedless of the fact that in speaking the truth without love we have all the more pushed a brother down instead of helping him rise up to his feet. How different was the spirit of our Lord! In the case of the woman caught in adultery he above all others had the right to judge. Instead he said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Lord, help us to speak the truth in love. And if there be no love in our hearts to accompany the truth, help us rather to be silent.”
B. The Thinker
- These are the people who impress us with their intelligence, their brilliance, their deep insights, their extensive knowledge and their academic credentials. And we are duly impressed! We often take this into account when choosing a guest speaker for special occasions in our churches or when enrolling in a subject in seminary. We want to know whether the teacher is academically qualified.
- There is nothing wrong with knowledge and academic credentials per se. In fact the Bible encourages to get all the knowledge and wisdom we can (Prov. 4: 7). The knowledge you have and share with others can bless people’s lives. Great and knowledgeable theologians like Luther and Calvin have been a great blessing to the church. The problem, however, is knowledge without love leads merely to pride (I Cor. 8:1). It can happen that the knowledgeable person is interested only in displaying his knowledge and not at all in the spiritual welfare of his listeners. He cares only about attracting attention to himself and not about leading them to God. In that case, he is truly nothing.
C. The Believer/Achiever:
- Then we have the person gifted with great faith and daring optimism. He is not easily discouraged by difficulties. He dares to act against impossible odds. By his faith he is able to move mountains, so to speak (Mark 11:23). We owe a lot to this kind of people. They often inspire us to do what we would not ordinarily attempt without their prodding. They are often great leaders and organizers. By their faith and inspiration we are encouraged to go ahead with the church building project even though we do not know where the funds will come from.
- The problem however is it is possible to attempt all these great things without love – merely for self-aggrandizement or for the mere sake of getting things done and it turns out to be empty in the end (Ecc. 2:11).
- By way of contrast, Paul’s joy was not so much in his great accomplishments but in people whom he loved (I Thess 2:19, 20). This is something ministers should take to heart. The ministry is not about building an empire for ourselves; it’s about loving God and loving people.
D. The Giver
- Finally we have the person who is willing to give up everything for the sake of the ministry. He is willing to give not only money but also his very life for the God’s work. These are the people who turn out to be missionaries, hard workers and self-sacrificing laborers in the church and in the mission field because they have a phenomenal capacity for self-sacrifice.
- Nevertheless, without love it is all for nothing.
- But why is this so? Is not giving and sacrifice proof of love? (c.f., John 3:16). Not necessarily. One can give all he has yet do so without love.
- This was the problem in the Church of Ephesus in Rev. 2 (see verses 3-5). They had great endurance. They were orthodox in doctrine. But they had lost their first love. It is significant that in spite of their endurance the Lord was willing to take away their lamp stand – to do away with their church – unless they repented.
- It’s just like a marriage relationship. There can come a time in a marriage when what used to be sincere expressions of affection become nothing more than dry routine. Yes, the external acts are still in place but something essential is missing. In the same way, you can faithfully go through all the motions of serving God – reading your Bible everyday, giving your tithes and offerings, attending Sunday School, prayer meeting and worship services, singing in the choir and witnessing – but if you do all these merely out of force of habit, merely out of a sense of duty, merely out of fear of your pastor and concern for your spiritual reputation, instead of out of genuine affection for God, would God be pleased? It’s not the number of flowers I give my wife on Valentine’s Day that counts, what counts is that she knows that I love her.
II. So Who is the Greatest?
- The one who loves.
- Why? Because God looks at the heart. People tend to look at the outward appearance, but what counts with God is not so much what we say or what we do but what goes on in our hearts (I Sam 16:7)
- Why? Because love and humility go together. The loving person is the person who thinks of others as better than himself. (Phil. 2:3-4) Therefore the loving person is the humble person. And the humble person is the person God delights to honor. (Isa. 66:2)
- Why? Because when we love we reflect God’s own character. Man was made in God’s image. God, however, is love (I John 4:8; John 3:16). Therefore when we love we are reflecting God’s character; we are shining forth God’s image. And when we do this we are glorifying God. So love is the greatest because love glorifies God who is the greatest. God, who is the greatest, is delighted to see his own character reflected in the lives of his children. The person who speaks well, who thinks brilliantly, who achieves great things and gives lavishly, but does so without love, ultimately cares only about himself. But he who loves cares about others and above all cares about God. The person who loves God as well as loves people who are actually created in the image of God glorifies and honors God as the One who is most valuable in the universe. Therefore love is the greatest because love glorifies God who is the greatest.