Summary: In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Paul defines what love is and what it is not.
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If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NIV
In first part of this sermon series we explored John Wesley’s theory that the first three verses contain what for Paul must have been progressive, outward levels of spiritual maturity. We concluded that John Wesley has an interesting thesis that may have some merit. Even if you do not agree with him, Paul has listed some of the most impressive spiritual feats that any Christian could ever hope to obtain to prove a point. Even when we speak with the tongues of angels, attain all the knowledge of God that is humanly possible, have faith that can move a mountain, give we possess to the poor, or ultimately are willing to be put to death for righteousness sake; without love these outward signs of spiritual maturity are false and worthless to God. In today’s sermon we are going to explore Paul’s definition of love, what it is and what it is not.
What Love is and what it is Not
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV
To interpret this passage correctly one must first understand some of the historical reasons why Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Plagued with denominational politics, doctrinal disputes and liturgical preferences, one should not be surprised that this letter was addressed to the spiritual babies at the church of Corinth (3:1-2). Living in one of the most prosperous cities in the ancient world, one that prided itself on their lavish lifestyles and tolerance to new ideas, had a profound affect on church unity. Divisive issues such as sexual immorality, civil litigation, marriage, idol meat consumption, hairstyles, proper behavior in community worship, and resurrection; were tearing the church apart. To make matters worse factions formed that gave their allegiance to either Paul, Apollos, Cephas and perhaps Christ Himself. While Corinth could boast that they were materially rich, they remained spiritually immature because they had not learned what love is and how to put it into action.
If love is so “fundamental, irreplaceable and determinative for our life together as Christians,” the church of Corinth needed to know more clearly what love is. So important is love that Jesus summarized all of the commands by this single word (Matthew 22:37-40). Knowing that disciples of Christ are to be defined by their love (John 13:35) was not of much use to the church at Corinth when their definition of love remained severely tainted by their enormous wealth and interaction with the gods of the Roman empire. In verses four to seven Paul describes love with both positive and negative verbs. Paul uses the positive statements to help define what love is and then uses the negative ones to define what love is not. Paul’s message is clear: no matter how outwardly successful a church may appear, without love its foundation will crumble as sand and be sifted and burned with the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Let’s look at both the positive and negative verbs Paul uses to describe Christian love.
Verse 4: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
Paul begins his definition by stating love is patient. Those who are patient forbear others by having a slowness to repay their offenses. In chapters 12-14 we learn that the church was struggling with jealousy, pride and selfishness as each member clamoured for honor and recognition. Instead of being jealous and envious of the ministry success of others or proud and boastful of their own success, Paul tells the church that love is be concerned with giving itself, not asserting itself. Jealousy and envy begin when admiration turns to resentment of what others have received or accomplished. This attitude of self-importance and arrogance caused a great deal of conflict and adversity amongst the believers. In the face of this adversity and humiliation, like Jesus, Paul encourages the church to not demand retribution but instead leave one’s reputation and justice in the hands of God. When ill-treated one is to respond not with envy and the desire for retribution but instead with acts of kindness out of love for the other.