The Necessity of Love
Series: Love Is
It is a good thing to have great gifts and make great sacrifices, but it’s possible to have those things, and something essential still be missing. The thing we need even if we have great gifts and make great sacrifices is love.
Citylight Center City | September 13, 2020 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek New Testament Commentary), Anthony Thistleton
1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), David Garland
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
We’re starting a new series of sermons this morning looking at one of the most famous chapters in the entire Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. The chapter is famous because it is all about love, and such, it is often read at weddings. While it no doubt will have something to say to married couples, the original context actually had little do with weddings. It occurs in a letter the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, a church of people who had genuinely been saved by the grace of God, and yet who still often lived like who they once were, only now instead of trying to one-up one another in the world, they were trying to one-up one another in the church, often even using good things to do so. We too often want to do good things and see good things happen: We talk at Citylight about gathering for worship and living lives of worship, living in community with one another, doing good to our neighbors, sharing the gospel with our neighbors, doing justice, living in the city, pursuing diversity, and so forth. And yet it’s possible for us as it was for the Corinthians to do all that and still be missing something. It’s what the Corinthians ran the risk of missing: It’s love. And in verses 1-3 of chapter 13 Paul is concerned to make clear not only for married people, but for all people: You need love. And when I say that, I don’t mean you need to receive love, though in some sense that’s true. I mean you need to actually have love. Even if you have great gifts, and even if you make great sacrifices, you need love.
You have great gifts
Paul begins the passage by mentioning a number of spiritual gifts. He mentions the gift of tongues in verse 1, which refers to the ability to speak in a language foreign to the speaker or unknown entirely. Such a gift is obviously an ability beyond ordinary human capacity, but if one has it and yet has not love, they are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal verse 1 says. Gongs and cymbals can be good, as can tongues, if put to some good purpose. But without that, they’re just noisemakers. So also, unless one uses the gift of tongues for love, that person actually becomes nothing more than a noisemaker. In verse 2 Paul moves on to prophecy, which he already said in chapter 12 was a higher gift than tongues. Prophecy is the ability to communicate special revelation from God, revelation not available to humanity in general. It is closely related therefore to understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge, knowing things revealed only by the Spirit of God. He then adds the gift of faith. In the Bible, faith ordinarily refers to receiving and resting on Christ alone for salvation, but here it refers to the gift of faith, which refers to the ability to perceive and believe God for extraordinary things. It does not literally give one the ability to move mountains; we don’t have a single instance of that in the Bible.
Much like tongues, the prophecy, knowledge, and faith described here are beyond ordinary human ability. He’s choosing the most extraordinary gifts as a way of encompassing all lesser gifts and saying, “even if I have these gifts, but have not love, I am nothing.” Interesting that his concluding words of verse 2 are, I am nothing. What’s he talking about? He’s talking about identity. Something with which the Corinthians struggled and something with which we struggle today is building our identity on our gifts. They’d say, “I am the guy who speaks in tongues,” or “I am the lady who prophesies,” or “I am the guy who knows the mysteries of God,” or “I am the lady with faith to move mountains.” And we who don’t even have such extraordinary gifts do the same thing, don’t we?
We say, “I am the one who can make great arguments,” “I am the one who cooks great food,” “I am the one who makes great music,” “I am the one who produces beautiful art,” “I am the one who can solve complicated math problems,” even “I am the one who prays great prayers or preaches great sermons.” Of course we don’t say such things out loud most of the time, but we say them in our hearts. Here’s a few ways you can tell you’re building your identity on your gifts: If criticism in the area in which you are gifted makes you defensive or despondent. So if someone critiques something in my sermon and the first thing I feel is defensiveness, it’s a good indication that I’m building my identity on my preaching gift. Another indication would be if you feel threatened by others with similar gifts. So if you’re a little upset inside when a co-worker is praised for their abilities, it likely indicates that you’re building your identity on your abilities. Another indicator would be if you desperately need to be affirmed by those with similar gifts but who are way ahead of you. If you really need the veteran, well-known professor in your field to notice your work and affirm it, it likely indicates that you’re building your identity on your intellectual gifts, so now you need them to affirm that you really have such gifts.
The problem Paul points out here though, is you can actually have all those gifts, in fact Paul says even if he had greater gifts than the ones I’ve just mentioned, the best gifts imaginable, but had not love, he’d have no identity: “I am nothing” in that case, he says. A few years ago Joel Embiid, the Center for the Philadelphia 76ers, got in a scuffle with Jared Dudley, who played for the Nets at that the time. He was interviewed about it later and said, with characteristic Embiid charm, “I mean, first of all…he’s a nobody,” and everyone was kinda shocked by it because it was such an insult! A nobody, really? Well, Paul says that even if he had the greatest gifts imaginable, but had not love, he’d be a nobody.
Because remember what we said about gongs and cymbals? They’re really just noisemakers unless they’re given some purpose. So also gifts are nothing unless they are accompanied by love, which puts those gifts to use in the service of others. If you have all the gifts, but have not love, then for what are you using your gifts? If my gifts aren’t put to use in the service of others, then who are they put to use in the service of? Me, and my identity. So here’s the irony: If I use my gifts to build my identity instead of in service of God and others, I’ll never have an identity. I may feel like somebody sometimes, but only until the next criticism, only as long as I’m beating the competition, only as long as the people I look to tell me I’m somebody, and all the while in the sight of God, the only one with the authority to say what our identity truly is, I’m nobody. God’s not impressed with my gifts, or with yours. He gave them to us in the first place, and He doesn’t need them. Don’t build your identity on your abilities.
Ok, so what should you give your life to, then? Surely the opposite of using your gifts for yourself is sacrificing yourself for others, right? No, because the next thing we’re going to see is that it’s possible to make great sacrifices and still lack love.
You make great sacrifices
In verse 3 Paul moves from great gifts to great sacrifice. He first mentions giving away all he has. It has been suggested that the command of Scripture laid down in the strongest terms and in the most urgent manner is the command of giving to the poor. Every Christian is commanded to do that, and yet there is only one example in the whole Bible where a particular individual is commanded to give away all that he has. He’s commonly referred to as the “rich young ruler,” a man Jesus met and who Jesus told to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. The story concludes with the man going away sorrowful, ostensibly not doing what Jesus commanded. And here Paul imagines a scenario where he does that very thing.
In fact, Paul takes it further, suggesting not only that he might give up all that he has, but that he might give up his own body, as the verse continues to read: “if I deliver up my body to be burned.” Your ESV Bible should have a footnote there with an alternate reading: “If I deliver my body that I may boast.” While the ESV is generally very good, I think the footnote is the better rendering of the Greek in this case, which I’d be glad to explain after the service if you’d like to talk further. The meaning, then, would be something like this: “Even if I was willing to suffer great bodily loss, pain, and even death for the good of others, so much so that I might be able to boast in my sufferings…” There were even stories in the ancient church of Christians who would sell themselves into slavery, take the proceeds, and give them to the poor. So we have here what most of us would probably think of as the greatest possible acts of self-sacrifice: Giving up all that you have, and even giving up your own safety, comfort, and life, and yet, Paul still adds this: “But have not love, I gain nothing.”
The first thing to notice, then, is it is possible to sell all your possessions and give to the poor, to suffer greatly and even die for others, and have not love. Does that surprise you? It’s always surprised me. We might think if love means anything, it must include selling all your possessions and giving to the poor, being willing to suffer and die for others. Even in Christian circles it’s common to say something like, “Love isn’t a feeling; it’s an action,” but that’s not quite right according to 1 Corinthians 13. Here we have very sacrificial actions that can be done without love. So what is love? Well in a sense verses 4-7 will answer that question by describing it, and that’s where we’re going to focus over the coming weeks as we gather on Sundays. But for now we can at least say this: Love cannot be reduced to actions, nor can it be reduced to a feeling: It is more of a disposition or an attitude, a state of being even, that is fundamentally outward and other-centered. Love is when others are actually dear to you. It’s when you are for them, when your desire is their good. And yes, it is possible, perhaps even common, for you to give away all that you have and suffer greatly, to even engage in great acts of charity, with an ultimate aim that is not the good of another, with a heart that doesn’t ultimately desire good for another, but ultimately, is still in service of the self.
And Paul says if I do that, however great the sacrifice itself may be, and he is thinking of the greatest possible sacrifices here, and have not love, I gain nothing. Interesting here he doesn’t simply repeat, “I am nothing,” but says, “I gain nothing”; why? Well if I were to give up all I have and give it to the poor, if I were to suffer greatly to help others, but the people I was helping were not actually dear to me, what other motive could I possibly have? Gain. I might be hoping that by giving to others, they would now owe me, give me something in return. More commonly probably I’m looking for praise from others, for others to look at what I did and say, “Wow; he’s such a great guy.” Jesus talked about this when He said in Matthew 6:1-4, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus says if you give so as to be seen by others, you will have your reward: You will “gain” the applause of people, but in the end, you will really have gained nothing. Your Father who sees in secret will not reward that. You aren’t fooling Him. For example, do you feel the need to not only be woke, but to have others see, recognize, and affirm how woke you are? Are black lives dear to you, or are they a hashtag? I’m not saying everyone who protests or posts on social media is just virtue signaling; many are not, but I am saying if I march in all the protests, make all the right posts, and vote the right way, but have not love, I may gain the applause of a lot of people, but in God’s sight I gain nothing. AND, if I have great knowledge and can win arguments against the people who are protesting and can point out all the flaws in the Black Lives Matter movement, but have not love, remember verse 2: I am nothing. Here’s a personally challenging thought for me and perhaps for many of you at Citylight CC: “If I make sacrifices to live in the city, if I sacrifice my comfort to engage someone of a different racial group, if we become a truly multicultural church, but have not love, I am nothing. We are nothing.” Consider also: Are you willing to do good even when no one will see it? Are you willing to do good even when the world around you wouldn’t call it good, or is the only good works you want to do the ones the world around you also happens to want to do?
You know what will change that? If people really become dear to you. If their good becomes your desire. Better yet, if God becomes dear to you. If His glory becomes your desire. Jesus said there were two great commandments summarized by love: And love for neighbor is actually second, behind the first and greatest commandment: That you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is the love you need, even if you have great gifts, even if you do great works. Your great gifts don’t impress Him; your great works don’t fool Him. He knows whether you love Him, and if you don’t, you can be the most gifted, most moral person around, and you will be and gain nothing. You need love. I need love. Where can we get it?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, you get it from God. 1 John 4:19 says we love because He first loved us. When God became man in Jesus Christ, He was possessed of the most extraordinary gifts; all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Him. What did He do with such extraordinary gifts? He proclaimed the gospel, spoke words of comfort, hope, and forgiveness to those who were mourning, guilty, and ashamed and spoke words of rebuke to their oppressors. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk. And He did give away all that He had, even His own life, with no one in the crowd applauding Him, but rather cheering for Him to be crucified. He was truly somebody, but made himself a nobody. He should have gained everything, and instead He lost everything, so that whoever would believe in Him could be a new somebody in Him, and gain everything through Him.
You can make yourself do great things; you can’t give yourself love. For that you need to receive God’s love. Receive the love of God by faith in Jesus Christ, and He will make you loving. Believe today that you were dear to Him before He was dear to you. Then you won’t need to build an identity for yourself with your gifts; “Loved by God” will be all the identity you need. Then you won’t need to do great works to gain from others; in Christ all is already yours. You are all gifted in some way; some of you are very gifted. But in Christ you can let go of using those gifts to build an identity for yourself and instead use them to build up others, for the glory of God! Did you ever think about how much happiness you could bring to others, how much healthier our church could even be, if your great gifts were accompanied by great love? What might you do if you didn’t care whether people saw it or not, whether people applauded or hated it, but if God and His images, that is, people were dear to you? May the love of God create that kind of love in you; you need it.