Summary: Paul, Pt. 8
THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE (1 CORINTHIANS 13)
“Darling,” he murmured into the phone, “I love you. I adore you. I’d climb Mount Everest in my bare feet for you. I’d slay dragons for you. I’d walk on hot coals for you. I would endure any hardship for you.”
“Oh, Ralph, I love you, too. When will I see you again?”
“Well,” replied the valiant lover, “I’ll pick you up on Saturday if it doesn’t rain.”
Love is central and unique to Judaism and Christianity. The Shema, which is the centerpiece of all morning and evening Jewish prayer services and is considered the most important prayer in Judaism, reads: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:4-5) Jesus calls it the first and greatest commandment. (Matt 22:37-39)
The most famous verse in the New Testament is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17) Not only do Christians observe a new commandment, which is to love one another as Jesus has loved us (Jn 13:34), we are to do everything in love. (1 Cor 16:14)
What is love? Is it nothing more than feelings of love? Do you have to be in the mood to love? Why is loving others easier said than done? Why is love the greatest virtue and motivation in life?
Love is Superior
13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3)
Howard Hendricks, the Bible Study Methods professor at Dallas Seminary, is probably the most renowned and influential teacher in the field of Bible study. He has taught thousands of students, including me. Hendricks’ parents separated before he was born, and he was raised by a loving grandmother and an alcoholic grandfather. He tells of how a man named Walt led him to Christ:
One day Walt told the Sunday school superintendent he wanted to start a Sunday school class. “That’s great, Walt,” he was told, “but we don’t have an opening for you.” Walt insisted, however, so the superintendent said, “Good. Go out and get a class. Anybody you find is yours.”
Then Walt came into my community. The first time we met, I was playing marbles out on the concrete. “Son,” he said, “how would you like to go to Sunday school?” I wasn’t interested. Anything with school in it had to be bad news. So he said, “How about a game of marbles?” That was different. So we shot marbles and had a great time, though he whipped me in every single game. (Now you know: I lost my marbles early in life.) By then I would have followed him anywhere.
Walt picked up a total of thirteen boys in that community for his Sunday school class, of whom nine were from broken homes. Eleven of the thirteen are now in full-time vocational Christian work. Actually, I can’t tell you much of what Walt said to us, but I can tell you everything about him...because he loved me for Christ’s sake. He loved me more than my parents did. He used to take us hiking, and I’ll never forget those times. I’m sure we made his bad heart worse, but he’d run all over those woods with us because he cared. (Howard Hendricks, Teaching to Change Lives, pp. 21-22, Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1987)
The word “love” in this chapter is “agape,” not “philos,” which is translated in the Bible as “friend” (John 15:14), or “eros,” which is physical or sexual. Agape love is selfless, sacrificial and steadfast. Paul’s definition is not only succinct and thorough, it is probably the most beloved and renown definition of love. It is not only the most popular for wedding couples, but also to many Bible readers.
The structural markers underlining Paul’s testimony to the superiority of love is organized around three phrases “but have not love.” Love trumps the three kinds of gifts – the sensational or the spectacular, the sophisticated or skilled, and the sacrificial and selfless gifts. He begins with the least important and the most abused spiritual gift.