The Greatest Gift is Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 31, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: 1 Corinthians 13
It goes beyond feelings. It is the set of the will for the welfare of another. It is a strategy for change. Of course, I am talking about love.
Today, we are dealing with what many consider their favorite passage in the Bible. The passage has been designated as Paul’s great love chapter (1 Corinthians 13), and we hear it frequently read at weddings.
However, the context of this famous chapter is the key to our truly understanding the passage. 1 Corinthians 13 appears in the midst of Paul’s discussion of the spiritual gifts. Here, Paul is seeking to redirect the Corinthians’ priorities. It is love for which they should be striving, not spiritual gifts.
Paul’s concern all along has been that the spiritual gifts be used to benefit the church rather than to make the one who has them look impressive. At the end of the chapter 12, he lists the gifts the Corinthians already know and instructs them to seek the better gifts. As far as Paul is concerned, to desire a spiritual gift is a good thing (12:31), but only as a means of loving brothers and sisters in the Lord. Chapter 13 tells the Corinthians and us what the best spiritual gift is.
To understand this best gift, we can note how this chapter 13 breaks down into three distinct sections: the importance of love (v.1-3), what love looks like (v.4-7), and the supremacy of love (v.8-13).
The Importance of Love (v. 1-3)
Right away we see the importance of having love for fellow Christians. To express love is the reason for any and all spiritual gifts. As Paul expressed it, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31). That more excellent way is having love.
We are informed that the Corinthians seem especially proud of the gifts of speaking in tongues, prophecy, and being given knowledge from God. But Paul declares that these powers are absolutely meaningless if the persons who have them fail to love their brothers and sisters.
So Paul continues on to show that love is superior to the very best of the spiritual gifts. It is also superior to philanthropy: “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor” (v.3) and martyrdom or personal dedication, “If I hand over my body so that I may boast” (v.3). If any gift is exercised for self-aggrandizement it is meaningless and worth nothing. Unless our gifts are motivated by love, they gain us nothing.
Without doubt, the competition “for” and arguments “about” spiritual gifts in the Corinthian church indicate an absence of love. Paul is stressing that even if a person has any or all of the gifts, if he or she is destitute of love it amounts to a zero.
A noted minister of a few years ago stated it like this: “Nothing – what a startling word to apply to a person! Nothing – it means not anything, not at all – the opposite of something – of no account – and of no value. Nothing even means nonexistent. Who is a nothing person? In the words of Paul, “But do not have love, I gain nothing” (v.3).
Tongues, prophecy, mysteries, knowledge and faith – as much as all this portrays, I could have it all and still be nothing. Paul says that if love is absent, all these other gifts amount to nothing. Understanding love as fundamentally formed by the love of God in the death of Jesus Christ, Paul insists that love must govern the exercise of all the gifts of the Spirit.
What Love Looks Like
After establishing how important love is, Paul describes what love does and does not do. In many respects what Paul says about love here is the opposite of what he has heard about the way the Corinthians are behaving. Roughly, they have put their own good before that of the other person and of the church as a whole.
With this chapter, especially verses 4-7, Paul also appeals for the healing of divisions in the Corinthian church. Labeled as the Pauline antidote to factionalism, one scholar added, “Love is the principle of Christian social unity which Paul urges on the Corinthians.”
Before proceeding, we are told that there are two common misunderstandings that need to be set aside. First, Paul does not write about love to refute tongues or any other spiritual gift. His point is not that love should supersede spiritual gifts, but it should govern their use in the church. Second, love is not merely a feeling, but a way of behaving. Love is always manifested in ways we act. When Paul describes love, he does not talk about how it feels, but how it treats others.
Moving on, overall love is seen as not seeking one’s own good, but that of others. This is important, not only because it is one of the central themes of all 1 Corinthians, but because putting the good of others before our own good is the foundational way that we conform our lives to that of Christ. Scholars make clear that Paul uses Christ’s incarnation and death as acts that put our good before Christ’s own good. And that manifestation of love becomes the pattern for the way all of the Christian life is to be lived. Stating it another way, believers are to conform their lives to the self-giving love of Christ.
Now, we will take a brief look at Paul’s categories about love. “Love is patient; love is kind,” Paul says. There are positive qualities that Paul elsewhere attributes to God (Roman 2:4). That is what love is. Love never tires of waiting and looks for ways to be constructive.
But it is clear that Paul is more interested in the negatives on the list of what love is not. These are faulty characteristics behaviors of the Corinthians described in other places in the letter.
The first negative description of love: “Love is not envious.” It is not jealous nor possessive. Love is the opposite of the divisive rivalry that Paul deplores in Corinth.
Second, love is “not boastful or arrogant.” Love is not proud. It is not for display, has no high opinion of itself and of its own importance. There is a certain self-effacing quality of love – a quality of humility.
Third, love is “not rude.” The Greed word for “rude” means shameful or disgraced behavior. Paul sees “acting shamefully” as contrary to love. Love is not ill-mannered. It is a politeness that produces common courtesy and good manners in dealing with others.
Fourth, love “does not insist on its own way.” This negative repeats the language that Paul had used in 10:24 in his responses to the idol-meat controversy: “Do not seek your own advantage but that of the others.” The idea is not to pursue selfish advantage.
Fifth, love is “not irritable or resentful.” It is not touchy or quick to take offense. Love does not brood over the wrongdoing of others toward us. Maintaining this attitude will require us to see fellow Christians as people who are loved by God and thus valued by God.
Sixth, with this negative, Paul closes the list of the negatives and offers a positive contrast: love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins. Love looks for the good instead of the bad, and when someone does wrong, love is always genuinely regretful.
On the other hand, to rejoice in the truth means, among other things, to embrace God’s way of righteous living in contrast to the present conduct of the Corinthians.
After stating what love is not, scholars remind us that Paul concludes this section with four strong verbs that characterize positively the actions of authentic Christian love (agape). “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v.7).
If the Corinthians embody the opposite of agape love, Paul himself models this agape love in his long-suffering apostolic rule. Paul has already demonstrated that he will “bear anything rather than put obstacles in the way of the gospel of Christ.” And Paul wants his fellow believers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (11:1).
Scholars inform us that the two verbs “believes” and “hopes” foreshadow the conclusion of Chapter 13, in which faith and hope join love as the abiding marks of Christian character.
And love “endures” relates back to “Love is patient” in verse 4. There is no limit to love’s endurance because it is waiting on the confident conviction that the Lord is coming again.
So, all of the characteristics of love that Paul mentions are designed to help the Corinthians change how they behave toward one another.
The Supremacy of Love (v.8-13)
Because of a limitation of space, I will be brief in highlighting the Supremacy of Love as found in verses 8-13. To make his point, Paul compares having love with the gifts the Corinthians prize (tongues, prophecy, and knowledge). The Corinthians think that their gifts are clear demonstrations of one’s closeness with God and of spiritual power. Paul burst their bubble by stating that their gifts are only temporary and of passing importance. While the gifts are important at the moment, they will cease.
Paul’s second evaluation of these gifts are that they are partial. Those with these gifts do not have the whole message God has for the church. In verse 10, Paul states, “When the completion comes, the partial will come to an end.” According to scholars, the complete thing is likely the second coming of Christ. It is only then that our partial understanding will be complete.
Then Paul mentions immaturity! He compares possessing these gifts with his behavior as a child. Just as he stopped behaving in those ways as he matured, so the church will not need these gifts when it matures. However, the church will only mature at the time of the Second Coming.
The other way Paul mentions the partial knowledge the church now has is by making reference to a mirror. At best, a good mirror can only give a one-dimensional and partial image. That’s where the church is at present. The knowledge received through gifts supplies only a dim reflection of the full knowledge of God that will be revealed to the faithful in His presence.
Finally, Paul names the three things that will last: faith, hope, and love. No matter the time period, the three gifts that are always most important for the church are faith, hope, and love. Faith refers to our belief, trust, and dependence on God. Hope is the church’s confident conviction that the God who raised Christ will also raise its members. And love is our prizing of and commitment to God and fellow believers. As scholars attest, love is the greatest of these because it grounds all the others and lasts even past the Second Coming.
In conclusion, it is God’s love for us that is the basis for the love that we are to have and show to one another. And it is God’s promised Spirit that will enable the church to live out such love.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.