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PH0712 - 1 Corinthians 13

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					                                 Passage: 1 Corinthians 13
                             Title: the still more excellent way


       I am going to seriously spoil this passage for you, I hope. It happened to me a few
years back when I finally saw that these words mean in this context. Take it out of context,
and it is a wonderful reading for a wedding – though I bet there will be a few people
moving on to Romans 12, following the recent Royal Wedding. But view this in context,
remembering what we have already read in this letter, and this chapter sizzles.

       This is no poetic ode to love. This is a practical call to love. Paul is not drawing our
attention towards a rather abstract but wonderful love. He is drawing his readers’
attention, first of all, and then ours, to absent love, absent love which was marring the
Corinthian church as a whole.

       It is very pointed, I would say. Many of the things that Paul is saying love does not
consist of, we can see in the previous chapters as characterising this church. Practices or
attitudes, what they do and what they neglect to do, Paul is seriously hauling this naïve
exuberant church over the coals.

       And yes, you could certainly say, he is holding up the model of love that Jesus fulfils
perfectly. And he is very pointedly, almost scorchingly, requiring his readers and us to see
how well – or how badly – we match up. Because every spiritual “gift” is empty, and
even destructive, without the supreme virtue of Christ-like love.

       Love is vital
       Love is enriching
       Love is enduring


    Love is vital (1-3)

       Remember there is a whole three-quarters of a letter before this chapter. We’ll
have to review that soon, but for now, just place this in the context of this section, chapters
12-14. Paul has a couple of serious matters he had to raise to the attention of the
Corinthian church, because they were seriously destructive:

      But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you
come together it is not for the better but for the worse.
                                                           (1 Corinthians 11:17 ESV)

     And that, I reckon, covers both the first issue that he moved on to tackle
immediately …

      For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there
are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among
you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you
come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.
                                                             (1 Corinthians 11:18-20 ESV)

     Their conduct around the Lord’s Table was so monstrously out of kilter that he
makes that shocking statement about it. And then he goes on to talk about “discerning the


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body”, which, in context, I think has to primarily refer to the other members of the church,
as we break bread.

       But then Paul raises a second issue: “spiritual matters” – or “spiritual people”, it
could be:

       Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.
                                                                 (1 Corinthians 12:1 ESV)

       And once again, Paul insists there is a corporate aspect to what they’re supposed
to be doing. It is about the body of Christ, again. So he points out that …

       Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
                                                                  (1 Corinthians 12:4 ESV)
      To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
                                                                  (1 Corinthians 12:7 ESV)
      For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of
the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
                                                                 (1 Corinthians 12:12 ESV)

         He uses those memorable examples of how the body is meant to be
interdependent. No one member must think itself superior, and no one member must think
it is inferior, either:

       If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,"
that would not make it any less a part of the body.
                                                                (1 Corinthians 12:15 ESV)
       The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to
the feet, "I have no need of you."
                                                                (1 Corinthians 12:21 ESV)

       And in the light of all of this, he concludes part one of his salvo against the abuse of
these “spiritual gifts” with these words:

       … earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent
way.
                                                                        (1 Corinthians 12:31 ESV)

       He is going to have to take time to re-train their taste for what really is “higher” – not
the same as more spectacular or more attention-getting. But before he can even define
what the “more valuable” gifts might be, he has to define that absolutely essential attitude
to have, no matter what gift you might or might not have. Let’s read it without the chapter
break:

      … earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent
way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy
gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all
mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but
have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to
be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
                                                            (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3 ESV)

       So there are three verses, and three hypotheticals. It’s as if Paul is inviting his
readers to imagine the most superbly gifted person they could. That person lacks only one
thing. But that lack, in each case, makes their gifts worthless and empty – or worse.

                                               2
       Imagine I could speak in tongues (he can – we’ll see that in the next chapter). In
fact, not just a single language, untaught, just inspired then and there by the Holy Spirit,
like back at the day of Pentecost, but all sorts of such languages. Imagine I could speak in
the languages that angels use. Wouldn’t that be absolutely wonderful?

        Well, it might, but there is one enormous fly in the ointment. Imagine all that glory
and excitement and wonder … but no love. Do the sum. No, actually, it’s a multiplication.
Zillions time zero equals … zero!

       Yes, plenty of sound, he says, but useless sound. A distracting din:

      If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy
gong or a clanging cymbal.
                                                                (1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV)

        In fact, the word that is translated as “clanging” there, although that is exactly the
right translation, looks look it might also mean “unspeaking”. There might be a kind of
Greek pun there, I’m not sure. In saying so much, but without love, you’re saying nothing.
It’s just so much static. It’s like those rattlers they used to take to football matches. It’s
like a klaxon, just blaring.

      And now imagine some more. Well, what about this? I can prophesy – literally, I
have prophecy. And I can understand all those hidden things, and know all there is to
know. My faith is the fullest measure that you can imagine – and he must be picking up on
what Jesus said, using overstatement to make the point more vivid – faith that can move
mountains. Wouldn’t that make me a superb Christian? Shouldn’t you all wonder at how
blessed I am? Oh, but just one omission – the same phrase again – “but have not love”…

     And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all
knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I
am nothing.
                                                              (1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV)

       Not a hero. Just a zero.

        And now imagine once more again. The list of three – very good rhetorical style,
just in passing. Analyse the speeches of Margaret Thatcher and you’ll see it there too.
Imagine this time the ultimate generosity on my part – a gift not listed in chapter 12, giving
– giving everything, even myself, my own body:

      If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have
not love, I gain nothing.
                                                               (1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV)

       And what do I achieve? says Paul. “I gain nothing”. Are your gifts empty, because
they proceed from lovelessness? Does that emptiness in your heart disqualify all that
you’re doing? Are you somehow doing all of this, glorying in it, revelling in it, making you
think that that will endear you to God? When speaking in tongues, perhaps the most
obvious and spectacular in Paul’s day, and which is made so much of in some quarters
nowadays, didn’t, as far as we can tell, feature on Jesus’ CV. But love did:




                                              3
      Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had
come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in
the world, he loved them to the end.
                                                                    (John 13:1 ESV)

       Are your gifts empty, or are they enriching – because they have that supreme
Christ-likeness of love behind them?


    Love is enriching (4-7)

       Now for some examples. And we should look back through the book, and realise
that at this point, Paul’s readers’ faces should have been going pretty red. Just what we
have written here already is enough to show that these people were so often acting in a
way which is quite obviously lacking in love.

      So here we go with a positive:

      Love is patient and kind…
                                                                    (1 Corinthians 13:4 ESV)

       “Long-suffering” is the more literal translation of what we have as “patient”. Have
you noticed how we say “long-suffering” to mean exactly the opposite of this? We have
the emphasis on the “suffering”, and how “long” we have to endure it – as if every minute
is extracted from us with the same enjoyment we’d have our wisdom teeth extracted
without anaesthetic. We might seem to be patient, but our attitude is very different. But
now to the negatives, that the Corinthians should soon start to recognise:

      … love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.
                                                                    (1 Corinthians 13:4 ESV)

       And what was their attitude towards the various gifts they had? Arrogance if they
had the more exotic and super-spiritual. Envy if someone else had them. Exactly the kind
of stuff that Paul had tackled earlier, with that analogy of the parts of the body arguing
among themselves.

       This “arrogance” is the word underneath Paul’s criticism of their over-valuing so-
called “knowledge”, too. AV translates both as “puffs up”.

     Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that "all of us possess
knowledge." This "knowledge" puffs up, but love builds up.
                                                           (1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV)

        And it was the same word and the same attitude in their tolerance of the incestuous
situation in chapter 5, too:

      It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a
kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And
you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be
removed from among you.
                                                              (1 Corinthians 5:1-2 ESV)

      And as for boasting …


                                             4
     … each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow
Cephas," or "I follow Christ."
                                                            (1 Corinthians 1:12 ESV)

       It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
                                                                     (1 Corinthians 13:5 ESV)

       Insisting on your own way. How would you characterise the “rights culture” that
involved taking fellow-believers to court – as we saw earlier?

      When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law
before the unrighteous instead of the saints?
                                                           (1 Corinthians 6:1 ESV)

      Isn’t that just as much a sign of irritability and resentfulness? Not making light of an
offence. Not seeking reconciliation, not trying to make restoration, just out for redress.

       it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
                                                                  (1 Corinthians 13:6 ESV)

       Can I think of something specific in the Corinthian church that would be
characterised as “rejoicing at wrongdoing”? Perhaps that case of incest, once again. But I
can certainly recognise the attitude of censoriousness nowadays, with Christians
sometimes being all too happy, it seems to me, to point out the failings of other believers
from a different tradition. And for all that it’s dressed up with words like “we lament”, it just
doesn’t ring quite true to me. There’s still far too much glee in pointing the finger. We
could definitely do with a few more generous-spirited people like Barnabas:

        When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them
all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full
of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
                                                                     (Acts 11:23-24 ESV)

      And maybe, that verse probably hints, we’d see more fruit to our evangelistic
labours that way, too.

       And finally, for this section, back to a string of heart-warming positives.

       Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
                                                                   (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV)

       Implication: this by complete contrast is how you should be. This by complete
contrast is how you should approach the desire for spiritual gifts. So that you can bear all
things, so that you can believe all things, so that you can hope all things, so that you can
endure all things.

        And now that he has mentioned that word “endure”, Paul enlarges upon it. It is a
distinctive of love, the truest love – just like God’s own covenant-love for his people most
perfectly shown in Jesus Christ.

       … having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
                                                                      (John 13:1 ESV)


    Love is enduring (8-13)
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       Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they
will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
                                                               (1 Corinthians 13:8 ESV)

        It’s not just that gifts are empty without Christ-like love. Gifts such as the ones Paul
is talking about are also automatically going to be of limited duration. Just for reference, I
don’t think you can use this verse to try to prove that there is no authentic speaking in
tongues, or prophecy in some sense of the word, nowadays. This isn’t a timetable. This is
a comparison of the temporary and the eternal. And “knowledge”, I would guess, is a kind
of shorthand for what Paul had previously called “the utterance of knowledge”.

        It’s almost as if they are toys, in comparison with love which is the real thing. This
is kiddies playing a make-believe game, in comparison with the adult world of reality.

       For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes,
the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a
child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
                                                             (1 Corinthians 13:9-11 ESV)

       And I know that the anti-Charismatics love to twist this verse to say that “the
perfect” is the full canon of Scripture, so the gifts like tongues were due to die out at the
end of the first century A.D., but that just will not do. That is bringing an agenda to the
Scripture, not taking Scripture on its own terms, and deriving your thinking from it. And
here’s why I am sure of this particular point. It’s the phrase “as I have been fully known”:

       For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
                                                              (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV)

       Mirrors, by the way, were not as we know them nowadays. It would have been a
piece of beaten metal, most likely, giving a very blurred reflection – it was only much more
recently that they learned how to make totally flat glass by pouring onto a bed of mercury.

       But surely that has to be God’s perfect knowledge of me and you, doesn’t it? If you
want to say that the perfect coming and the partial passing away is when the Bible is
finished, then that will imply that the THEN – “then I shall know fully, as I have been fully
known” – is NOW. And if there is one thing I do know for sure, it is that I don’t know “as I
have been fully known” by God, yet. Folks, I think this is still to come. And it something to
stop and wonder over. This is the kind of thing that heaven consists of, not getting turned
into angels and having a crash course in strumming harps:

       For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
                                                              (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV)

       So, Paul summarises, concluding this brief but intense exposition of a still more
excellent way, says:

        So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is
love.
                                                                       (1 Corinthians 13:13 ESV)



                                               6
      And to apply this to ourselves? Maybe as we’ve gone through we’ve recognised
some of ourselves in those things Paul chides in the Corinthians. But I’ve heard two ways
you can use a part of the passage for some directed meditation.

       First, go back to the middle section, verses 4-7. Read through it, and in place of
“love” put “I” or your own name. I think you’ll find it hard going. Because we all know, if
we have the faintest scrap of honesty, that I am not anything like always, consistently
“patient and kind”, and so on. In fact, doing that is so challenging you could find it
crushing.

        Then read it again, replacing “love” with “Jesus”. And that is part of what we’re
remembering when we come here to break bread: Jesus the perfect sacrifice for sins –
and for the sins of sinners like you and me, as we’ve just proved or reminded ourselves of
by putting “I” in this passage. Because Jesus is patient and kind, because Jesus did not
insist on his own way, because Jesus endured all things, he is our perfect saviour.

        And, on reflection, he is the also the still more excellent Way, and the Truth, and the
Life.




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