Just because we can wield it, doesn’t mean we’re right.
The words of the prophets and apostles cry out to us who are willing to listen.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–3)
Let me start by saying that Paul’s words in the Letter to the Corinthians were written by a Christian to Christians. If you’re a non-Christian struggling with this passage, I understand entirely and I would love you talk with you about it, but it may never be a message non-Christians can understand. You need a little inside knowledge to fully grasp the lesson.
Welcome to Sin City
The Church at Corinth was founded by Paul of Tarsus, an apostle of Jesus Christ circa AD51 or 52. He spent about 18 months there and then moved on to other missionary fields as the Lord led him. He was probably in Ephesus, in Turkey, circa AD 54 when he heard from Corinthian church members that there were troubles in the church. Notice that they didn’t withhold judgment about their fellow Christians. They reported it to someone who could address their concerns and Paul wrote back to the church at Corinth to help them sort out questions of theology, polity, and lifestyle, of which the church at Corinth appears to have deeper problems than many of us are willing to acknowledge.
Corinth was a large metropolitan city filled with sailors, what we might call longshoremen today, and prostitutes. Because it sat at a crossroads of sorts, it hosted a lot of visitors and the establishments they might enjoy. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a church in such a city suffered from faith fog soon after it was established.
Paul dealt early in the letter with the divisions within the congregation. Some people had glommed onto certain spiritual leaders as the foundation of their faith. Paul expressed insult that anyone would put him in the place of Jesus Christ. So, he’d already offended several people in this church and he continued to tell them what they needed to hear. As he worked his way through the list of problems, he started to discuss spiritual gifts. The Corinthians were very proud of their spiritual gifts, unruly in their use of them, and that was just the beginning of their problematic behavior.
The Corinthians, apparently, had decided that some among them were “spiritual” while others were not. That meant some were less spiritual on the basis of having less-prestigious spiritual gifts. Paul, having spent quite a lot of effort to address the issues he saw with this church, didn’t withhold his judgment on this topic. You can read the letter for yourself. He clearly stated that to exercise even the most powerful and impressive spiritual gifts without love makes those gifts meaningless and the one using them “nothing.”
Paul used one of several Greek terms for “love” here: agape, referring to a godly love that puts others first. You can speak in tongues, but if you lack love that puts others first, you might as well be elevator music.
If you prophesy in God’s name and have great wisdom, but you don’t have love, you’re nothing. If you have faith so great that you can move mountains, but you don’t have love that puts others ahead of yourself, you’re nothing.
Ouch! Yes, Paul was ranting and God was no doubt cheering him on.
Grand Gestures are Useless
Now Paul moved beyond spiritual gifts to the most profound acts of spiritual self-sacrifice a Christian may make. This isn’t a new topic. This came directly from Jesus, who told a rich young ruler to sell all he had and give the money to the poor (Mark 10:17–22). In doing so, Jesus revealed the rich young ruler loved his stuff more than he loved God. Surely anyone who would actually do such a thing would have reached the height of Christian spirituality. No, Paul insisted, bold acts of self-sacrifice without love for others don’t have any spiritual value.
What if a person gives his own body to be burned to death for the Lord? Paul described this sacrifice as meaningless if made without love for others.
Let’s be clear. Paul didn’t describe burning oneself to death in a kind of religious suicide to make a point. Self-immolation was not in view here. It appears he referred to those who refuse to reject faith in Christ even to avoid the most painful death imaginable. Paul made — and thus far survived — such choices, as had others in the early days of the church.
Why would someone give away all their money or even their life if not out of love for Christ and others? People do some amazing things for pride or adulation or even in a foolish attempt to earn God’s favor. Love, Paul said, is the only motive that makes such sacrifices worthwhile.
Applying It to Us Today
First Corinthians 13:1–13 is one of the most loved and well-known passages in the Bible. Most Christian weddings have at least a portion of it read. It’s somewhat misplaced there because the Greek word for “love” used in the passage is not the romantic sort of love, but godly love either focused on God/Jesus/Holy Spirit or on other human beings outside a carnal sense. Paul placed it after his teaching on the spiritual gifts for a specific reason. Some of the gifts may seem impressive, but exercised without self-sacrificing love for others, they become meaningless, even destructive. Paul uses fourteen verbs to describe what love does and does not do. Love is the foundation for Paul’s teaching in the following chapter on prophecy, tongues, and orderly worship.
God is the Source of Love and too often people throw out 1John 4:16 as if it wins some argument, but God’s love is nuanced and varied depending on the person and the situation. We do the word of God a disservice when we treat it cavalierly. Love is more than just a word we can define any way we want. It’s God’s primary motivation and the singular thing Christians are commanded to do, undergirding everything else He’s instructed.
Lela Markham is an Alaska-based novelist and blogger who tries to listen to what her Savior and Lord says to her and sometimes shares it.
Guest Author | Lela Markham
Originally published on: Medium