1 Corinthians 13 – The More Excellent Way


1 Corinthians Pt. 21

Reid A Ferguson

1 Corinthians / 1 Corinthians 13; Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 4:10–16

It was a great joy for me while away, to be able to tune in to the continuing study in 1 Corinthians on the web.

It was fun to hear the different speakers, each with their own gifts opening Chapter 12 with so much continuity. It’s not like we all get together and compare notes ahead. We really trust that as each studies the Word and works through the text, we’ll end up with a shared core of doctrinal truth.

That has proved to be the case.

In addition, each brings their own flavor or nuance, and that proves to be a practical demonstration of the very passages before us. This is the nature of how spiritual gifts work in the Body of Christ as a whole.

It is not an issue of everyone being in lockstep. It is unity without uniformity. This is a precious thing.

This is the way of God in all creation.

I’m not a scientist nor do I play one on TV, but I’ve been told the entire universe is comprised of the very same atomic and sub-atomic particles each with their properties, but arranged in endless combinations.

This was the model when I was in school, before the discovery of even smaller particles like photons, bosons, neutrinos, gluons, and up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm quarks.

In studying God’s Word in a team effort like we’ve been doing here, we are all working with and keeping to the same essentials, but arranging them with varying emphases and shades as the truth is refracted through each one.

So I want to thank Ed, Daniel and Jim especially for managing Chapter 12 as they did together. They set the stage for this all important 13th chapter which paves the way for the balance of the letter.

Let me reiterate 3 of the controlling concepts in these passages each pointed out to us.

Paul is wanting the Corinthian Church and by extension the Church of Christ in every place and generation to recognize at least these vital things:

  1. Everyone in the Body of Christ receives gifts from God through the Holy Spirit to be used for the good of the Church.

1 Corinthians 12:7 ESV / To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

To EACH – No exceptions.

Manifestation of THE SPIRIT – This is God’s doing, not ours.

For the COMMON GOOD – To bless others, not scratch our personal itch for usefulness, self-image, recognition, etc. Not to get “our” ministry. But for the COMMON good, of all.

What that looks like in more concrete terms is the focus of Ch. 13.

  1. There are all different kinds of gifts, that operate different ways and meet different needs.

1 Corinthians 12:4–6 ESV / Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

And when the text says “varieties of gifts”, that is not an understatement.

If you take just the four major passages referring to gifts of the Spirit to the Church: Romans 12; 1 Peter 4; Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 – you’ll find no less than 22 such gifts – both in terms of someone having a specific ability, or being specially equipped for an office in the Church.

Giving. Helping. Organizing. Teaching. Discerning. Encouraging. Comforting. Hospitality….

And when it comes to some gifts operating in a variety of ways – we need only think about how Scripture refers to the gift of prophecy:

Declaring the great works of and praising God (Numb. 11; 1 Sam 10, Acts 2)

Directing God’s people in revealed tasks (Ezra, Neh.)

Warning and calling God’s people to repentance (Isa., Jer., Ezek)

Predicting the future (Acts 11, Rev.)

Upbuilding, encouragement & consolation (1 Cor. 14)

Conviction of sin & teaching (1 Cor. 14)

And testifying that Jesus is the Christ (Rev. 19:10)

This last one being the very same use of prophecy that earned John the Baptizer the title of Prophet by Jesus – for doing one thing: Declaring the Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (Matt. 11) John revealed no new truths, predicted no future events and worked no miracles. Yet Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

There are all different kinds of gifts, that operate different ways and meet different needs.

  1. These are given at the sole discretion of the Holy Spirit as He deems best in any time, place or circumstance.

1 Corinthians 12:11 ESV / All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Which also implies that sometimes a gift may be a just a one-off, or repeating or abiding or whatever He deems best for the church.

Perhaps we can explore this idea more Wednesday night?

  1. Everyone in the Body of Christ receives gifts from God through the Holy Spirit to be used for the good of the Church.
  2. There are all different kinds of gifts, that operate different ways and meet different needs.
  3. These are given at the sole discretion of the Holy Spirit as He deems best in any time, place or circumstance.

All of which brings us right back to where Jim ended last week:

1 Corinthians 12:31 ESV / But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Jim rightly located this desire in wanting the higher gifts to be manifest among us in the ministry of the Word.

So Paul goes on to say: As good and reasonable as it is to desire a spiritual gift – Or even to desire that the ministry of the Word be prominent in the Church – The Spirit has an even more excellent way to pursue. And that, is the focus of Ch. 13.

Better than looking for your gift.

In a bit of wordplay here the Spirit is saying the thing better than having or exercising gifts: Is simply to love God’s people – the Church.

Love which he will not leave us to imagine in the abstract – but which is the means to the ends God has in mind in giving gifts in the first place. Love which accomplishes His goals whether or not you even know what your gift is and how to use it. That’s what makes this “way” so “excellent.”

And make no mistake, Paul’s point here isn’t that it’s better to have love as opposed to gifts. His point is: every Believer has gifts, but apart from their right exercise in love – they are worse than useless, they are actually destructive.

In a way, all that we’ve looked at these past 3 weeks concerning spiritual gifts has been somewhat theoretical. But in chapter 13 – the rubber meets the road.

Now we get down to answering the question: “what does all this have to do with me?” And it isn’t about taking some sort of spiritual inventory or getting a sense that I have this or that gift or whatever – it is much higher, and at the same time much easier than that. He will demystify this entire discussion in the next 13 verses.

In fact, it would be hard to overrate this 13th chapter due to its function.

In the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the U of R, we have one of the most powerful lasers on the planet.

The Omega laser has 60 beams which it focuses all on a single target only 1 mm across. 60 terawatts of power. Enough juice to light up 60 trillion 60 watt light-bulbs all at once.

This is how 1 Cor. 13 works. It serves as a focal point, drawing together eschatology, redemptive history, God’s plan for the Church and and each individual in it, ministry and more.

How it ties together so much of Scripture and Biblical themes is staggering. Do not let its brevity or seeming simplicity fool you. The implications are stunning.

Now the arrangement of this portion is pretty straightforward:

1-3 The ABSENCE of love

4-7 The ANATOMY of love

8-13 The AIM of love

We’ll take them in order.

1-3 The ABSENCE of love

So the discussion at hand is about spiritual gifts operating in Christ’s Church and the first thing the Holy Spirit through Paul wants to make clear to us, is that no matter what gifts or gifts anyone may have – no matter how spectacular or seemingly necessary they may be – if they are exercised apart from love – they are not just useless, they are destructive. He uses 3 illustrations to bring this point home.

Without love, I Do, Am & Gain nothing

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

No doubt Paul starts here because – no pun intended – verbal gifts make the most noise; call the most attention to themselves.

Here he would be referring to preaching, teaching, exhorting, imparting wisdom or knowledge to another – or even the gift of tongues, supernaturally speaking in languages unknown to the speaker.

The fact that one has a gift for speaking publicly with passion, clarity and even communicating Biblical truth accurately means nothing – if that gift is exercised apart from love.

In his words – I am just noisy. That’s all. Noisy. And it means absolutely nothing in terms of how I might see myself or how I hope others might see me. I am just NOISE.

Now this is a powerful warning to all of those who imagine either their natural gift to gab, or even a Spirit granted ability to preach and teach makes THEM something. And that the gift is more important than bearing the character of Christ. So as long as they can preach and teach well, the Church should sit up and listen and give them their rightful place.

No!

If push comes to shove, it is better to have one whose presentation skills may be lacking, but who in genuine love for the souls of God’s people communicates His Word accordingly: better than to have the most dynamic communicator who does so to be seen by others, stoke their own ego or build a name or ministry for themselves.

Their interior disposition determines the true effect and value of their ministry. We’ll come back to this.

Many a good, godly and faithful minister of the Word has been sidelined in favor of those with more flash – to the eternal detriment of the souls of men.

It is better to drink from a clean paper cup than from a gold-plated sewer pipe. For no matter how pure the water flowing into it is, the contaminated pipe will soon negate the value of the water.

Mere noise, no matter how pretty the gong, benefits no one.

In the end, without love, all my preaching is – only noise – and accomplishes nothing.

His 2nd illustration is in vs. 2. 1 Cor. 13:2

1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV / 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.

Perhaps, one has extraordinary insight to Biblical truth, or the courage to believe God such that they have no doubts about His revelation in the slightest, and can venture great enterprises in His name.

So what? Even as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal plays no tune and does nothing, so here, being this gifted apart from love says nothing about who or what I am.

In fact apart from love driving my gifts – I AM nothing. I, am worthless.

One’s mind runs immediately to the likes Solomon. Scripture denominates him the wisest man who ever lived. He was one who deeply understood all sorts of mysteries.

But he was a man whose love for God was horrendously compromised, as was his love for a wife. He could not be faithful to either. He cared not for them, but for himself. And with all his wisdom, God-given, supernaturally granted wisdom, lived like a fool. It made him nothing. In the end, his lack of love reduced him to nothing. For all intents and purposes, he ended miserably.

You may be one here today who has been given a keen eye for truth and a discerning mind to sort out doctrinal mysteries with precision – but if you do not have love and administer your gift in love – brother, sister, you are nothing.

Which leads us to his 3rd illustration:

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

If I speak well but have not love I DO nothing.

If I know oh so much but have not love I AM nothing.

And even if I am willing to suffer extreme personal privation in extraordinary acts in the name of religion or philanthropy, if I do it without love – I GAIN nothing. Nothing.

As John Newton would write: “A man may almost starve his body to feed his pride.”

Great charitable acts and noble gestures can be done for all kinds of reasons.

Some do them thinking to earn favor with God.

Some to be thought well of by others.

Some because it simply makes them feel good – or feel good about themselves.

Others may do it out of a sense of civic pride, or because its the current cause celeb, to “pay it forward” or because it’s what “good people do” – etc.

But if any and all of those fail of love – the way the next few verses will define it – it will gain us absolutely nothing.

That then begs the all-important question – what is this love that is so all-important to being a part of the body of Christ and the exercise of my gifts? How does that work?

4-7 The ANATOMY of love

A Necessary Interior/Exterior Dynamic

Now the structure of these verses is key to understanding what they are really all about. They are in fact a series of couplets. Each couplet referring to an interior disposition, connected to an exterior behavior. Love – God’s kind of love as we’ll see here, requires both sides of that coin to have any value.

A Spirit-given inward disposition that manifests itself in relationship to others.

1 Corinthians 13:4–7 ESV / Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

So what does it look like to have the love that makes room for a gift to benefit to the Body of Christ?

Love requires:

  1. An interior disposition of patience – which then manifests itself in kindness toward others.

Those who think they can use their spiritual gift without an outward kindness driven by inward patience – lie to themselves, and negate their own gift.

Harsh and unkind people betray an inner problem which disqualifies them. Scripture is clear, we are to speak to the truth to one another, but we are required to do so in love. Eph. 4:15 tells that that is how we grow up into the image of Christ. Which is the end for which all the gifts are given. To help others grow in the character, in the image of Christ.

Harsh, intractable, uncaring, gruff purveyors even of God’s Word fail to achieve the end for which the Word is given – to conform us to the image of Christ. Apart from love, no matter how doctrinally correct it is – it fails God’s mission.

  1. Not being inwardly envious, will eliminate boasting.

People have to tell one another about their accomplishments their gifts, their abilities, because inwardly they are envious of others. And that is – according to this passage, fundamentally unloving.

If you have an inner drive to let others know what your gift is, you aren’t concerned about their growth in Christ. And deep down you want to be recognized for your gift as opposed to others. Recognition of others grates you. You do not love.

  1. Love is not inwardly arrogant, so it is not outwardly rude.

Rudeness comes from one thing – thinking much about ourselves, and little of others. We take on the importance which relegates others to be undeserving of due consideration. Common decency and common courtesy evaporate. So how we impact them means nothing.

How contrary to the humble Spirit of Christ. Rude people do not love – despite their imagining their “gift” is what makes rudeness inconsequential.

  1. I will not be found irritable and resentful toward others, unless I have an inward need to have my own way.

Needing to have my own way, especially in things which are non-essential, reveals me for being the unloving person I am.

When I require that my personal tastes, preferences and opinions must be at least heard if not catered to – I demonstrate my lack of love. I show that my first concern is not for others to experience the love of Christ through me – but demand that they show what I consider love toward me. And my gifts,no matter how extraordinary are rendered useless in helping others grow in His character and likeness.

I think it is reasonable to say that in our consumerist environment today, as perhaps never before, people are this way about church. They grow insistent, irritable and resentful if they cannot have it their way.

And isn’t this a special watchword for we older saints?

I recently spoke with a fellow pastor who had a long time member leave their assembly simply because they installed air conditioning. After all, the church was built and had gone for more than 60 years without it! Now it was going to be noisy and some would be cold, and he was not about to have it.

And this did what for anyone in terms of helping them grow in the image and character of Christ?

  1. Love takes no pleasure in pointing out the shortcomings and failures of others, because it finds its delight in truth instead.

This is an interesting juxtaposition isn’t it?

When others fall, when others who profess Christ are tripped up in their sin, we need to recognize the truth that we have a very real Devil who delights to draw us into sin; a very wicked World which lures us away with all manner of temptations; and the remnant of indwelling sin in my own heart which apart from grace stands ready to throw off righteousness.

I am as likely to succumb to some temptation, some falsehood, some deception as anyone else.

And the same blood which I need to cover my sin is sufficient for theirs. Their need is no different than mine – to be conformed to the image of Christ.

And the truth is, I am to be about the business of seeking that for both of us.

And do I even need to say that if these are authentic, they will be manifested as much at home with our spouses, kids, parents, siblings and workmates as in the “Church?”

So it is, the kind of love Paul is unpacking here results in

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

It is a love which bears all things: It is determined to love the Body of Christ no matter how messed up it is. Like the Church at Corinth was. Like we are. Love is committed to helping my brother and sister grow in the image of Christ and never stops proceeding on that course.

It is a love which believes all things: Which never steps aside from the promises of God’s Word as though they will not come to pass. Jesus WILL return. The work that He has begun in us WILL be completed. The image of Christ WILL be restored in us. The Word DOES have power. The Holy Spirit IS at work. The Church WILL remain and the gates of Hell WILL NOT prevail against it.

It also hopes all things: Even in dire cases like that in Ch. 5 where a man needed to be put out of the Church for refusal to repent from sexual sin – it was “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” To hopefully see him restored, not to wash their hands of him.

Or with Hymenaeus and Alexander who had been spreading heresy – Paul said he handed them over to Satan so that might learn not to blaspheme. His goal wasn’t mere ejection – it was restoration. Even Church discipline is done in hope of better things because of the power of the Gospel and the working of the Spirit.

Therefore love also: Endures all things. It keeps to this course no matter what. It puts up with a LOT! It takes its cue from Jesus in John 13:1

John 13:1 ESV / 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.

Having established those 1st 2 points – How the absence of this kind of love negates the benefits the spiritual gifts are meant to bestow, and just what kind of love he is talking about – Paul now ties all of this together by bringing us to see:

8-13 The AIM of love

Spiritual Maturity – growth in the image of Christ (Obtaining the character of Jesus)

I am going to make a very bold statement here: I am convinced that everything Paul has said so far in this letter and all that will come after – indeed in the bulk of the whole Word of God in its entirety – crystallizes around this point.

If we do not understand this we do not really understand the Gospel in full, the plan of redemption in full, the purpose of the Church and the end of all the plans of God.

1 Corinthians 13:8–12 ESV / Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 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. 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.

Love has a goal.

God’s love has a goal.

And we cannot love one another without our goal being one and the same with God’s.

And what is that goal?

God, in His love for us has the goal of bringing us to Himself in the spiritual maturity of fully bearing the image, the character of Christ.

Time will not allow us to go to the other passages which unfold this even more, but it is sufficient to say that this is the core issue in our salvation and if we miss it – we miss why there is salvation at all.

Let me cite just one verse to help substantiate that, and then you will see it everywhere you look in the Scriptures:

Romans 8:29 ESV / For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

In a very real way, vss. 8-12 could be seen as Paul’s own exposition of Romans 8:28-30 and Ephesians 4:10-16.

This is the goal of our salvation, of God’s predestination and justification and our eventual glorification: To be conformed to the image of Christ.

And as we’ll see here, our concept of spiritual gifts must coincide with God’s plan – which means our lovingly seeking this same goal for our brothers and sisters, and seeking to contribute to that.

But the MEANS – is a life lived in the kind of love which has been given to us here.

I cannot stress this enough.

Why is this kind of love so important? Because it is how people are transformingly exposed to the grace of God experientially through us.

2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV / And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

He makes these points quickly but they are astoundingly, vitally important.

(8) Love never ends – but gifts like prophecy and tongues and all the others will end – once the goal has been reached.

Don’t make so much of gifts – they are only temporary and a means to an end.

Be more concerned with the end than you are with the means. Be absorbed with maturity in Christ – taking on His likeness and character as demonstrated in how He has done all to bring us to that place.

Now do the same for others.

(9-10) Even the most profound revelations in prophecy are partial. There is a “perfect” yet to come – a “telios”. A becoming perfectly mature – completely grown up.

When the perfect – when that maturity finally comes, the partial – all spiritual gifts aimed at aiding in that maturity will lose their reason for being.

(11) Even in the natural we all understand this progression of maturing. We aren’t born again and fully mature any more than we were mature when we popped out of our mother’s womb.

But we began to grow physically and emotionally and so it is God’s intention we grow spiritually. And that means striving to move past the gifts – to the Giver. To move past the means while reaching for the goal – growing to be more like Christ.

(12) For no matter what, for now, we only grasp a little of what we are to be. But one day, we’ll see Him face to face. The picture is we’ll be like His mirrors. He will look at us and see His own face reflected.

We will know Him then in something akin to the completeness with which He knows us already. Because that image will be established in us as our own nature.

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

Faith is a magnificent gift of God. But one day, we won’t need it any more. Everything we’ve believed Him for will come have come to pass.

Hope is a magnificent gift in that it keeps us fixed upon His promises expectantly. But once those are fulfilled – it too will no longer be necessary.

But love? That is the very nature of God Himself. That is the image we are to bear fully. That is what it looks like to look like Jesus. To love as God loves. And He can bestow no greater love upon us than to let us bear His own image.

What greater thing can He desire for us than to be like Himself?

And we can bestow no greater love on one another, than to help each other throw off our sin, and begin to bear the image of His character as well.

Any gift we have now – has to be employed only for this end: How can it help my brother or sister grow in taking on the character of Christ? To live in love like verses 4-7.

If that is my aim – your aim – then we do not even have to think about what our gift or gifts might be. We need only to love them as outlined above, and the gifts will be granted in accordance when, how and as often as the Spirit deems best to accomplish it.

Which is why then he begins Ch. 14 saying first off: “Pursue love.” And the management of all the gifts will fall under that umbrella.

Let’s pray: Heavenly Father –

Fill us with your patience, that we might manifest your kindness to one another.

Take away every atom of envy, that we never boast again.

Crucify our arrogance, so that rudeness disappears from us.

Let us gleefully relinquish the need to have things our own way, so that we forsake irritability and resentment.

So fill us with love of the truth, that it becomes unimaginable to rejoice at a failing brother or sister in Christ.

And as we seek to love each other this way by the power of your Spirit – let your gifts flow freely through us to enable each one to grow in this magnificent image of Christ Jesus our Lord.

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