Spiritual Gifts: The Greatest Gift is Love
The need for love (I Corinthians 13:1-3)
Love is what makes all other gifts and actions worthwhile.
If Paul was able to speak all the languages of men and angels, it would be just noise if he did not have love. Notice that Paul is not claiming that he can speak all languages, including the angelic tongue. He is saying that if he had the gift of tongues to the fullest degree, it would be worthless without love.
If Paul had the gift of prophesy to the fullest extent, such that he knew everything, yet did not have love, his knowledge would be useless. Like before, Paul isn’t claiming to know everything. Truly such knowledge belongs to God alone (I John 3:20; Psalm 139:1-4; Hebrews 4:13). Man cannot fathom all that God does and knows (Ecclesiastes 8:17). Paul’s point is that having perfect access to the mind of God through prophecy doesn’t help if a person doesn’t have love.
If Paul had perfect faith and, as Jesus mentioned, was able to move mountains (Matthew 17:20); without love that faith would be worthless to Paul.
If Paul did great deeds of kindness, such as giving away all he had to feed the poor, parceling it out in small portions to benefit the most people, without love it would be useless.
If Paul offered himself as a sacrifice, in the most torturous means by burning, it won’t have any benefit without love.
Especially in deeds of kindness and self-sacrifice we understand is typically the motive that spurs a person to do such things (I John 3:16-18). People without love don’t usually do such things. But Paul reverses the usual to make a stronger point, without love even the doing is not enough.
- Frequently I Corinthians 13:1 is cited as proof that the babbling sounds which are called “speaking in tongues” are actually the languages of angels, which is why no one can translate what is said. Is Paul saying that people in the first century commonly spoke in an angelic language?
- The religious world puts heavy emphasis on faith, even to the point of claiming that faith alone saves. Seeing Paul’s point, can there be faith alone?
The definition of love (I Corinthians 13:4-7)
Though we often associate this passage with weddings, Paul originally penned it to describe the love shown between fellow Christians. But since it describes love in general, it also applies to the love between husband and wife, parents to their children, and the love that God has for each of us. Let us consider what each point means.
Patient: The word here expresses the willingness to wait, even through disagreeable times. It is probably best illustrated by God's longsuffering with mankind. "What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?" (Romans 9:22-24). Mankind, as a whole, has not been the most loveable of God's creation. Our behavior in rebelling against our God would have tried anyone's patience. Yet, we find that God has put up with the bad in order to save the good (II Peter 3:9). God's tolerance of man's sins is not endless, but it is very long, giving us every opportunity to improve.
Our society doesn't cultivate patience. We seek instant gratification and impulsive whims. We lost something as our economy moved away from its agricultural roots (James 5:7-11). That which is worth having is worth investing time to gain. It takes time for a person to mature, so invest the time in the people you love.
Not every relationship goes smoothly all the time. Even the best relationship will experience rocky points of heartache. It is patience, born of love, that carries us through the rough times (James 1:2-4). Too many marriages are only wonderful during the honeymoon. Difficulties are bound to come, but they are also bound to be followed by good times. It is patience that helps us last through the bad times so that we are still together when things turn rosy once again.
Kind: "Kind" means showing yourself to be useful or acting in a benevolent way (Ephesians 4:31-32). Kindness is more than an absence of ill will; it is an activity showing your care for another person (Luke 6:35). Kindness is not something reserved for major events; kindness is demonstrated in the little things that we do day-by-day for the one we love (Romans 12:9-17).
Not Envious: Envy is an infection that eats away at life, ruining even its best moments (Proverbs 14:30). Envy is believing that what another person has ought to belong to you. Joseph was his father's favorite son and he showed his favor by giving him a special coat. God also showed favor to Joseph by sending him dreams that indicated he would one day be head of his family. However, Joseph's brothers envied him (Acts 7:9). They only saw that they were not getting what Joseph was getting. Their envy eventually led them to consider murdering their own brother and eventually selling him off into slavery. Love cannot survive when envy invades the soul (Galatians 5:26).
Does Not Vaunt Itself: On the flip side, when you love someone you don't give that person cause to envy you. There is no need to put yourself on a pedestal when you already have someone who admires you (James 4:16; Romans 12:3).
Not Puffed Up: "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). Pride is a destructive force, ruining relationships, causing arguments, and keeping a person from seeing things through the eyes of another (Proverbs 28:25). Paul mentions this to the Corinthians because their pride was destroying the church (I Corinthians 4:6, 18-19).
Does Not Behave Rudely: Yes, love requires good manners for love does not act unbecomingly. Though you must wonder at the world's idea of love. So often husbands and wives are depicted saying the rudest things about each other in order to get a laugh, but such is not a depiction of love. James told brethren, "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge" (James 4:11). We should appreciate those to whom we are closest instead of regarding them with contempt.
Does Not Seek Its Own: We have enough people who act as if they are the center of the universe. Love is for other people, not for yourself. Other people must come before ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4; I Corinthians 10:24, 33).
Not Easily Provoked: When you truly love someone, it should be difficult to become exasperated at them. Love is willing to overlook the little annoyances that are bound to occur (James 1:19-20). You cannot love another with a chip on your shoulder.
Now, this doesn't mean you will never get angry. It means the threshold for becoming angry is higher. And when you do get angry, you settle the problem quickly so that the anger will not last (Ephesians 4:26-27).
Thinks No Evil: The phrase refers to a person who keeps records of every past misdeed ever committed. Sure, in any relationship there will be missteps. Given time, you are bound to say something or do something which you wish you had not. But in a loving relationship such misdeeds should be willingly forgiven when the person repents, and once forgiven never brought up again (Luke 17:4). Forgiveness is not dependant on how many times a wrong was committed in the past. Each event is to be looked at separately and independently. Imagine asking God for forgiveness only to be told "I'm sorry, I've already forgiven you a thousand times. You've used up your quota" (Colossians 3:12-13).
Forgiving wrongs means letting go of the hurt (Jeremiah 31:34). It is not that the memory of the event will disappear, but that it will no longer matter because it will not be brought up for discussion again.
Does Not Rejoice in Iniquity, But Rejoices in Truth: Even though it is wrong, we sometimes feel a certain glee when someone we dislike falls on hard times (Proverbs 24:17). Worse yet is when a person is happy for the failings of someone they supposedly love.
Our concern should be that those we love will be saved. Yet, some claim to love while leading a person astray. How often have you heard the phrase, "If you really love me, you would ..." and then some sinful action is suggested? Such is not from love but from self-interest. Instead, we should find pleasure in our loved ones' righteous deeds (II John 4).
Bears All Things: In Greek, this phrase literally means to cover a subject with silence. There are going to be times when a loved one will injure you in some way. Hopefully, the problem will be handled and forgiven (James 5:20). While we earlier noted that love keeps no records of wrongdoing, here we go a step further. Many sins carry embarrassing consequences. To love someone is to help them deal with the consequences after you have forgiven them (Psalm 32:1). We have to be sensitive to the feelings of those who know they have done wrong and have turned away from sin. It does them no good to further drag them through the mud of their own making (Proverbs 10:12). When you love someone, you go through the bad times with them.
Believes All Things: When you love someone, you demonstrate that love by trusting them. Love is built on a foundation of trust. There is an old song called, "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman" that speaks the exact opposite sentiment. The author of the song claimed that you would have to watch her every move because you never know when she might cheat on you. Such an attitude is simply not love!
When someone is willing to trust you, you in turn need to demonstrate that you are trustworthy. You should never place yourself in a situation that would destroy the trust you have.
Hopes All Things: Love is optimistic and not pessimistic. We should always expect the best and look forward to better times. Even if this world has its disappointments, there is a home awaiting that will not disappoint (Hebrews 13:14; 11:13-16).
Endures All Things: Love keeps going even when our life is filled with burdens. It doesn't quit or give up. The righteous, "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper" (Psalm 1:3). God's word sustains us through good times and bad.
Some approach marriage with the idea that if it doesn't work, they will get a divorce. That is not love! I have seen Christians deal with congregations the same way. They will stay so long as things go smoothly for them. But as soon as there is a bump in the road, they are out the looking for another congregation. Such Christians have no love for their brethren.
Love Never Fails: True love never stops. You can't fall in and out of love. Love endures. Love grows.
- For each of the loving, explain why a lack of love makes each worthless: self-sacrifice, deeds of kindness, faith, deep understanding, gifted communication.
- Why is patience the first characteristic of love?
- Is love a feeling?
Love will outlast the spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 13:8-13)
Love remains, but the spiritual gifts are temporary. Prophecy, speaking on what God wanted said (Exodus 4:15-16); tongues, speaking to other people in their own language; and knowledge, information without experience, all would end.
Paul is not saying God’s word would fail to come about, that languages would cease to be used, or that people would stop knowing things. He is saying the giving of God’s word, the ability to speak in another language without study, and the ability to know things without experience would no longer be supplied to God’s people. The miraculous nature of these gifts would come to an end.
The reason for the cessation is that they were at best partial. Those given knowledge were given the knowledge they needed at the moment, but they didn’t know all. Those who prophesied were told what needed to be said, but it wasn’t everything. These partial abilities were given to fill in a gap until the perfect comes.
The word “perfect” translates to the Greek word teleion. It means something that has been brought to completion, complete, entire, having attained its end or purpose. It is used in the idea of a person who has grown to adulthood. Hence, it can refer to spiritual maturity as in, “But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4), which gives a good definition of the word. It does not mean without flaw, as we often use the word “perfect” today.
Christians are to be perfect in their love toward friends and enemies (Matthew 5:44-48). The rich young rule was offered a way to bring his spiritual life to perfection (Matthew 19:21). Maturity is seen in the ability to control your tongue (James 3:2). Maturity is seen in a lack of fear (I John 4:18). Paul spoke God’s wisdom to those who were spiritually mature (I Corinthians 2:6; Philippians 3:15). Paul urges brethren not to be like children in their understanding but to be mature (I Corinthians 14:20). The church is to help people grow up spiritually (Ephesians 4:1-13; Colossians 1:28; Colossians 4:12). Maturity is gained by putting spiritual knowledge into practice (Hebrews 5:14).
The spiritual gifts were temporary measures to bring about maturity. That is why Paul stated that as a child you talk, think, and reason as children, but when you grow up the childish things are put aside. The same thing would happen with spiritual gifts.
Things at the moment appear to be riddles, which is what “dimly” means in I Corinthians 13:12. It is the medium that causes the difficulty. Like a poor mirror, the spiritual gifts gave an incomplete view of everything a Christian needed. Later we’ll be seeing things directly with no mirror in between. Later I’ll know things accurately, as accurately as I know myself.
Paul states that when that which is perfect (complete, mature) comes, then the partial would end. In both Greek and English, the phrase indicates that an object or concept that is perfect, complete, and mature arrives. It is not referring to a person. We know that spiritual maturity is brought about by the word of God (II Timothy 3:16-17, “perfect” here is a synonym Greek word, artios). James calls it the perfect law, the same word for “maturity” that we have seen before.
“Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:21-25).
Notice that many of the same themes are stated in James. People who look into the complete, perfect, mature law of liberty can see accurately.
At the time Paul penned I Corinthians the law of liberty was still being revealed. It hadn’t yet fully arrived. When it was written in full and distributed, the need for temporary and incomplete measures would come to an end.
What will continue past the spiritual gifts are more important concepts: faith, hope, and love. This is yet another clue that Paul sees perfection or maturity coming before the end of the world. Faith and hope end when we reach heaven and obtain the promises. The ending of the spiritual gifts would come before that time. Yet since faith and hope have an end (Hebrews 11:1; Romans 8:24), love remains the greatest because it will continue through all eternity, for God is love (I John 4:8).