Introduction to I Corinthians 13 “The Real Thing” 9-11-11 a.m.
Last year investigators tested the federal “Energy Star” program by submitting 20 fake products as energy-efficient – and only TWO of them were rejected! The other fake products, including a gasoline-powered alarm clock, and a product billed as a “room air cleaner” – which was actually a space heater with a feather duster attached to it – passed the Energy Star certification!
There are certainly a lot of frauds in our world today – but perhaps nothing is imitated in a more widespread way, or replaced with more cheap substitutions, than love. Surely love must be the most talked about, most sung about – and yet truly the least understood – thing in our whole world. And it also happens to be the most important! The Great Commandment is to love God. Like unto it is to love your neighbor as yourself. I Corinthians 13 ends with the famous words: “Now abide faith, hope, love, these 3, but the greatest of these is love.” Love truly IS the most important thing – and yet most people have only a vague idea of what it really is. Surely among the worst portrayals of love is that which is promulgated in Hollywood movies, based on some vague sense of physical attraction, and where the couple always ends up in bed together before the 2-hour movie is up. That is what goes for “love” in many circles, and yet it is not remotely “love” at all.
But where can we find a definition of genuine love? Many of you already know the answer to that: in the Bible, in I Corinthians 13. God has given us there a most marvelous, in-depth description of what love truly is. Beginning next week, we are going to be studying this chapter together, so that we can see what “The Real Thing” looks like. Today, I want to introduce this chapter, by looking at 3 important things we need to understand before we delve into the chapter together –then next week we will begin looking at the specifics.
I. The Context of I Corinthians 13
One of the most important things we must understand about I Corinthians 13 is its context. Context is always important when we consider any scripture. Some of the worst errors come about when a person wrenches a verse out its original context: away from the chapter it was written in, disregarding the book it came from, and its historical context, and they just quote the verse in isolation. So much is missed. This is especially true of I Corinthians 13. Many people just “pluck” this scripture out of its original context, and do not realize how much the original setting has to do with the interpretation of this passage – and a good many of its applications.
What then IS the context? I Corinthians 13 is sandwiched in between two chapters (12 and 14, of course!) which both deal with the problems that the Corinthian church was having with spiritual gifts, and especially the gift of tongues. I Corinthians 12 talks about the source of the gifts, and how each person in the church has a different gift. And he tells them to seek the greater gifts. But at the end of the chapter, Paul writes, “And I show you a more excellent way.” And then he begins with this great chapter on love.
So I Corinthians 13 is speaking to the church. It was written to the church, reminding us that love is more important than spiritual gifts, or anything else in the church (as the first verses of the chapter make clear – we will look at those verses next week). We need to remember this. The verses God gave us here are addressed to the church, first and foremost.
The church at Corinth is noted for having SO many problems. They had divisions; some were proud of being disciples of Paul, or of Apollos as their “spiritual mentors.” They had women who were trying to “liberate” themselves out the appropriate positions that God had given them in the church. They had people exercising spiritual gifts; some were proud of the ones they had; others were jealous of what they saw in others, and on and on. And so, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, Paul writes this chapter and he says, in the midst of all of these conflicts and controversies, THIS is what you really need; more than anything else.
— you have so many problems with each other, but love will make you “patient” with each other
— you are proud of the one who was your “spiritual mentor” or the spiritual gift God gave you, but love “does not brag and is not arrogant.”
— you are jealous of the position someone else has, or of their spiritual gift – but love is “not jealous”!
— you are trying to “liberate” yourself, or seek a position for yourself – but love “does not seek its own”!
Over and over here, the Lord is addressing the needs of the church at Corinth, and how true love will meet the spiritual need that they have. So I Corinthians 13 was originally written to the church. This tells us that the first application we need to give to these words is to the way we treat each other in the church.
Now, surely there are applications for every area of life from these words:
— it applies to your marriage
— it applies to your family
— it applies to people in your neighborhood and on your job
— it applies to your friends; it applies to your enemies!
— it applies to witnessing and on the mission field
— it applies as you live and relate to people everywhere
There are multiple applications, for every area of your life. But the one area often overlooked is the very one that formed the original context of this chapter, which is love in the church.
Jesus said in John 13:34-35 “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” Our love for each other in the church is to be the single greatest indicator that we belong to Jesus. And yet often fall short of that.
A number of years ago, a missionary in South Africa was telling a young man there about how in Christ, racial barriers are broken down, and Jew and Greek, black and white can worship together. The young man was impressed: “This sounds great”, he said; “show me where this is happening here!” The missionary bowed his head in shame; he knew of no church in South Africa at that time which was living this truth out. He said the young man walked away and later joined the Communist party.
In the same way, many of us as God’s people need to bow our heads in shame; for we know that we have fallen short of the kind of love for others in the church which would draw the world to the Lord. As we studied the Book of Habakkuk for the last 10 weeks, we saw a number of sins that we need to repent of as we seek to get right with the Lord. Here is another one: many of us in the church need to repent of a lack of love for each other. The Lord is not being glorified, and people are not being saved, in many cases because we are not living the gospel that we proclaim. We are not loving each other in the church. I pray that these verses will convict us as we go through them together, and show us where we need to repent of a lack of love for others in the body of Christ.
I believe the same thing will happen as we apply these words to our other relationships too. You may have a certain person, or a certain group of people, in mind as those you need to learn to love. Ask God to help you to learn to love them; look for the specific ways that God will show you how to love them as we study this chapter together. But do not overlook the original context: that these words were written to those of us in the church. Ask God to help you apply it to others in its original context: to your relationships in the church!
II. The Qualities of I Corinthians 13
The very heart of I Corinthians 13 is a series of 15 words in :4-7 that describe Biblical love. These words have become famous over the years as the ultimate description of love. But it is more than just a “beautiful poem”; these qualities “flesh out” what it really means to love. We will look carefully at these – one week at a time for many of them – and see just what the Bible says that love is.
I have to say that I was surprised to read where one of the great Greek Bible teachers in all history wrote of these qualities in I Corinthians 13, “It is a pity to dissect this gem or to pull to pieces this fragrant rose, petal by petal … it is the language of the heart.” (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 176) I very respectfully disagree. This view plays right into the idea of love as a vague “feeling.” That view is exactly what we need to counter with the concrete truth of these words.
I said that there are 15 words here that describe genuine love. In fact, they are 15 VERBS! This reminds us again that love is not a “feeling”. Love is composed of actions. (There are 7 positive verbs, and 8 negative verbs, that describe it) Love is not a feeling. As someone has said, “Love is a verb”. It describes not just how you “feel”, but what you DO!
In our “Discover Conference”, Bro. David mentioned that ministers often read I Corinthians 13 during wedding ceremonies as something like a “beautiful love poem”. Now, I use I Corinthians in my wedding ceremonies. But I do not use it merely as a beautiful love poem. I read it to make the point that love is more than just a feeling. In fact, I point out that you can read that whole list, and there is not a single “good feeling” in the whole list! It is being patient, and kinds, and bearing and believing and hoping and enduring. It is not “feelings.” Love is composed of specific actions which we are to perform as we exercise true love.
There is an old Christian song that says, “Love’s not a feeling; oh, we’ve got to learn to get past our emotions to the meaning of the word.” One of the very real problems people have today with love is that they think love is just a “feeling”, a passing fancy. Love is more than just a feeling. It is much more. It consists of some real, concrete qualities that do not pass with the morning mist like feelings do.
A speaker (Steven Covey) was approached by a man after a meeting and the man said to him, “I am not in love with my wife any more; what should I do?” The speaker told him: “Love her.” The man said, I just told you I am not in love with her. The speaker said, you are talking about your feelings; I am talking about a verb. Love is a verb; not a feeling. Do the deeds of love towards her; and the feelings may come later. (I might add to the speaker’s remarks, that it doesn’t matter whether the feelings ever come or not; we are not commanded to have “feelings” of love towards people in I Corinthians 13; we are commanded to DO the deeds of love that it speaks of.
If love is more than just a feeling, but consists of certain qualities that the Bible describes, then we need to do more than sit back and just admire this “poem of love.” If these 15 qualities tell us what real love is, then we DO need to “dissect” this text; we DO need to “pull it to pieces” in a sense. We need to know what true love really is. We need to know just what these words mean; just what these qualities are; just what these actions are comprised of, so that we can ask the Lord to build them in us. We are not going to become more loving by sitting back and looking at I Corinthians 13 and saying, “Isn’t that sweet?”! No! We need to delve into the text; we need to see what love really is. We need to be cut to the heart as we see how short of it we really fall, and then call on the Lord to build these qualities into our lives as we study them and work with Him to make these qualities truly ours.
III. The Christ of I Corinthians 13
One of my hesitations about preaching through I Corinthians 13 was that we had just finished our study of Habakkuk in the Old Testament, and I was looking forward to preaching from the New Testament again. I wanted to preach about Jesus. Well, any fears I had in that regard for I Corinthians 13 were ill-founded. I Corinthians 13 is all about Jesus:
A. Jesus is the ultimate EXAMPLE of love.
In that John 13:34-35 passage we looked at a few minutes ago, Jesus said, “As I have loved you” you should also love one another. In what manner are we to love each other? We are to love each other the way that Jesus loved. It has oft been said that you can substitute the name “Jesus” for “love” in each quality found in I Corinthians 13; I believe that is true. So if we want to see what love looks like in action, all we have to do is look at Jesus. Jesus was patient with His disciples when most of us would have called down fire from heaven on THEM! He was kind even to the lowest outcast – to the scorned leper, the demon-possessed man, and the adulterous woman. He was not jealous of His Father’s glory, but always magnified Him. He did not brag on Himself but was absolutely humble – and so throughout every one of these qualities Jesus is the perfect example of love. So over the next weeks, as we go through I Corinthians 13 together and look at each of the qualities of love, we will look at specific ways that Jesus exemplified those qualities, so that we can ask Him to help us imitate what He did. If we really want to learn to love, we need to learn to be like Him. He is the great example of love.
B. Jesus is also the GIVER of love. If you want to have the kind of love the Bible pictures for us here, you must get it from Him. You cannot do this on your own. If you look down this list of 15 characteristics, and try to implement them in your own strength, you will sink under the weight of them! You can’t love like this on your own. The only way you can hope to love like this is through Jesus.
Galatians 5:22 says that “The fruit of the Spirit is love …”. Where does love come from? The Bible tells us that it is the first fruit of the Holy Spirit, who comes into your life when Jesus becomes your Savior. HE produces that fruit in you. But if the Holy Spirit is NOT in you, you cannot hope to produce that fruit.
If someone were to ask, why don’t I have any fruit or vegetables coming up in my garden, you might ask them: what kind of seeds did you plant? If they told you, I didn’t plant any – you’d know the answer to their problem, wouldn’t you?! You aren’t going to get any fruit, any vegetables, if you never planted any seed to begin with! In the same way, the “Seed” that leads to the fruit of the Spirit comes into your life the moment you ask Jesus to be your Savior. Jesus puts that “seed” of the Holy Spirit into your heart, and over time, that “seed”, watered by prayer, and the word of God, and Christian teaching and fellowship, grows up and bears the fruit of love. But that seed must be there in order for the fruit to grow! It cannot grow if the seed is not present! Thus the absolute requirement for love to grow in your life is that you know Jesus as your Savior; that you know that the “seed” of the Holy Spirit is present inside of you. If He is inside of you through the Holy Spirit, then He will help you grow this crop of love. But if He is not inside of you, you have no hope of it at all. It’s like trying to get a crop when you haven’t planted the seed! You must have Jesus in your life; you must have His Holy Spirit in your heart, to be able to bear this fruit of love.
But if He is not in you, you have no hope of living like this! You can’t love your husband like this; you can’t love your wife like this; you can’t love your family like this; you can’t love your friends like this; you can’t love those at school or work like this; you can’t love the lost like this – and you certainly can’t love your enemies like this passage describes! Only Jesus in you can do that. This is why the absolute requirement for genuine love is to know for certain that Jesus is your Savior, and that His Holy Spirit is in you, producing His fruit of love.
Is He really in you? Is He making a difference in your life? Last year I was at a meeting at Louisiana College, and one of our folks there who was working with potential international students reported on how they asked one particular student if he was a Christian. The student, concerned, I guess, that he needed to be “politically correct”, responded: “I am on paper, but don’t worry, it won’t affect my life.” (One pastor I was sitting by, when he heard the story, said: “I have a whole church full of those!”)
The truth is, some of you are just like that. You are a Christian “on paper” – you’ve signed a form; you’ve filled out a card — but it is not affecting your life. And the reason it is not, is because you do not really know Jesus as your Savior; the Holy Spirit of God is not inside of you, producing the fruit of the Spirit in you. You have no hope of living the way these verses describe, unless you are genuinely a Christian. You have no hope of true love, unless Jesus forms it in you. Some of us today need to become serious about studying the characteristics of real love, and asking Jesus help us live out the kind of love that I Corinthians 13 describes. But others of us need to stop doing a poor job of living a phony Christian life, and ask Jesus to come into your life, and produce the fruit of love in you — “The Real Thing”!