Summary: Love is the very center of what it means to be a Christian. Nothing we do or have can replace it. Greater than faith, greater than hope, is love.
Notice the five things here that are empty without love:
Tongues, prophecy, faith, generosity, sacrifice. Not just any kind of tongues, prophecy, faith, generosity and sacrifice, but the ultimate kind. Tongues of men and of angels. Prophecy that fathoms all mystery and knowledge. Faith that can move mountains. Generosity that includes every possession. Sacrifice that demonstrates total commitment.
These are normally considered great things. What we see here is that motives matter. Motives are what make actions worthwhile. The one most excellent motive that fills all of these with true greatness is love.
We learn from this section of the chapter, what’s on the inside is at least as important as what’s on the outside. Some would say, more so. When someone gives a gift we sometimes say, it’s the thought that counts. We have to be careful not to let this become an excuse for doing something inappropriate. Like the man who loves to hunt so he bought his wife a gun and four-wheeler for Christmas. But these verses speak of doing good things. We see here things that would be associated with great ability or extravagant sacrifice. These things would normally be considered great spiritual maturity or deep godly love. Paul selected these things because they are very good things. The actions he describes here are superior actions. He is using this as an illustration to say that even the greatest and most noble actions are hollow without the greatest motive of love.
A hollow action may benefit someone else, but notice what it does for the actor. Nothing. Performance is measured by motive here. These Corinthians seem to have been somewhat blind to this. They are going for the great actions, wanting the big show, but missing the real value that makes it all worthwhile. Acting is hollow when it is measured this way.
In the Ozarks there is a place where they have an ongoing play of the last days of Christ, including his death, burial and resurrection. Eureka Springs is the place, I think. I heard a story that one year as the play was going on, a heckler sat in the audience and he kept verbally mocking the actor who played Christ. At one point in the play Jesus was carrying his cross through the scene and his path took him right past the place where the heckler was sitting. As the actor was carrying his cross the heckler said some especially foul insults and the actor dropped the cross and stepped over and punched the heckler out.
Later the director met with the actor and told him he was fired. You can’t play the part of Jesus, and do that. Jesus would never have done that! The actor begged for another chance saying that he would never do that again and that he really needed this job. The director finally let him have another chance. The next play came and who should be sitting right in the same place, but the same heckler doing even worse than the last time. This time though the actor kept his composure and managed to get through the play until at the same place as the first time, the heckler said something that just flew all over the actor. Holding his cross, he turned and stared at the heckler and said, “Meet me after the resurrection!”
To some degree we are all acting the part of Christ. It is difficult to follow in the steps of one so full of God’s love and grace. What motivates you to be like Christ? If it isn’t love, you’ll find yourself burdened beyond your ability very quickly.
We need to imitate the actions of Jesus. But we also need to discover his motives and allow God to build these into our hearts and minds.
Lets think about the context of this chapter on love: This is in a letter written to a Church in trouble.
The church of Corinth was a place of division, immorality, disobedience to God, chaos in the assembly, jealousy and strife. Now that’s a church that needs this chapter. More immediately in the context we find that the chapters that come before and after this one are all about spiritual gifts. These Corinthians could do a lot of amazing miraculous things! They could speak in tongues, they could do healings, they could prophecy, and do other sensational works. But with all those gifts, they were still a spiritual wreck. Why?
Because of the motives by which they practiced them. If you read 1 Cor. 13 carefully, you will see that it addresses every one of the things they were NOT doing as they should. This chapter also opens and closes by placing the miraculous gifts on the sideline of character and the attitude and heart of Christ.