1 Corinthians 13: 1 - 3
Noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Meninger - "Love is the medicine for the sickness of the world.” He summarised his approach: “Love cures. It cures those who give it and it cures those who receive it.” Love truly is good medicine. It has been said that the 3 most powerful words in the English language are “I love you.”
Our society sometimes confuses love with sex or money or gifts. Many people don’t understand love and are afraid of it because they’ve never seen it done well. But even with all our misunderstanding, and in spite of the abuses committed in the name of love, it is still true that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. Not just the word “love,” we need the real thing. We need to see love, to hear it, to feel it and to experience it in our lives. We need to know how to pass it along to others.
Before we jump into the text, let’s talk about love. What is it? A feeling? A shiver in the liver? An emotional attachment? There are lots of different ways to use the word “love” today. What kind of “love” is Paul talking about in I Corinthians 13?
Four Greek Words for Love
These are words for love we need to know about:
1. Eros = Sexual Love. This word is not used in the NT.
2. Storge = Friendly Affection. This word is used in the NT for the warm affection that should exist between believers in Christ.
3. Philos = Family Love. When joined with the word “adelphos” (brother), it means “Brotherly Love.” It is used in the NT for our love for God and for others.
4. Agape = Self-Sacrificing Love. This word was rarely used before the NT period and uniquely describes God’s love for us. Agape love is love that reaches out to another person with no strings attached - love that sacrifices itself on behalf of the one loved, with no thought of what might be received in return. This is the word Paul uses. It is love that starts with God, comes down to us, and then moves out from us to other people.
1 Cor. 13: 1 - 3 - The Message: “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t have love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”
The point of this passage can be stated in 1 simple sentence: Whatever I do, what I say, it is all useless without love.
1. Love is Greater than Eloquent Communication v. 1
Have you tried to learn to speak a foreign language? It’s not easy to do. I greatly admire missionaries who spend years studying a new language so they can effectively minister for Christ in another culture. Our text says that without love it doesn’t matter how many languages you speak or how eloquently you can communicate your message. The greatest linguist in the world is ineffective if he speaks without love.
This point would have hit home because eloquence was greatly admired in ancient Greece. We only have to think of the great philosophers of Athens who held their listeners spellbound, and of Demosthenes the great orator. Paul himself as he presented the gospel on Mars Hill in Athens. But without love electrifying eloquence means nothing.
The pagan religions of ancient Greece used loud clanging cymbals to get the attention of their gods. The same thing is true today in different parts of the world. If you speak without love, you are no better than the pagans who do not even know the Lord.
2. Love is Greater than Spiritual Gifts v. 2
Paul mentions 3 spiritual gifts that he had discussed in ch 12. Prophecy refers to the ability to declare God’s truth in a powerful, life-changing way. Knowledge involves the deep understanding of the Word of God. Faith is the unique ability to trust God for great things. These 3 gifts are all from the Holy Spirit, and yet without love the person who has them is “nothing.”
NLT: “If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I be?” Total knowledge about all things is not enough. You must have love also.
Would you like to be really clever? I mean extra-beyond-ordinary. What if you had an IQ of 500? That would be amazing. So clever that you could answer all the questions on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and never use a Life Line?
Let’s suppose you really were that clever, and let’s also suppose you were the most gifted speaker in the whole world so that whenever you opened your mouth everyone stopped to listen to your words. Let’s suppose that you were brilliant in maths, science, history, languages and in every other realm of human knowledge.
On top of that, what if you had the knowledge to cure cancer so that you could go from patient to patient and from hospital to hospital clearing out the cancer wards. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Let’s suppose that on top of all that you could bring about world peace so that even in the Middle East they put down their guns and decided to become friends. Suppose all that were true of you. According to our text, God would say, “It’s not enough!” Without love all the rest of it doesn’t matter.
3. Love is Greater than Personal Sacrifice v. 3
Giving to the poor is a good thing to do. Dying for your faith in Christ is the ultimate sacrifice. But good as these things are, without love they do you no good. So let’s ask another question: Would you like to be rich enough to be generous? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had enough money to give plenty to worthy causes working in the name of Christ to alleviate human suffering and to spread the Good News of the Jesus Christ:
Harvesters, Bibles for Believers, Maura’s mission in Jordan Refilwe and so on? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had so much money that you could fully fund all those worthy organisations? Suppose you could wipe out homelessness in Roodepoort. What if you could end poverty in Africa? What if you could guarantee that every person on earth would have enough to eat and no one would ever go hungry? Would that not be a wonderful thing to do?
God says, “It’s not enough.” If you do it without love, you gain nothing. The truth is, we may give to worthy causes for unworthy reasons. We may give out of guilt or because we want to follow the crowd or because we seek the praise of men or for some other earthly goal. If we give for those reasons, the people on the receiving end will be blessed, but it will gain us nothing at all.
Would you be willing to die for Christ? We send missionaries to live in places most of us wouldn’t want to visit? Some may end up paying the ultimate price for their faith. Are you willing to be persecuted for the gospel? Are you ready to be ridiculed and slandered for your faith? Think carefully before you answer.
Still God says, “It’s still not enough.” Without love even sacrificing yourself for Christ will profit you nothing. Giving to the poor and offering yourself to be burned are both noble actions, but they are useless and even dangerous without love.
I can summarize these 3 verses this way: Love is greater than eloquent communication. Love is greater than spiritual gifts. Love is greater than personal sacrifice.
Without love - I say nothing, I am nothing, I gain nothing.
God is saying that life without love is zero. You can pile up all the good deeds, all the education, all the spiritual gifts, and all the noble works that you like. Without love, it still equals zero. You can be smart, beautiful, strong, wealthy, educated, multi-lingual, rich and famous but without love it still equals zero.
This calls for a searching personal self-examination. These verses challenge us to evaluate what we do and what we say in the light of agape love. If we are honest - not easy in the best of circumstances - we must admit that we all have a long way to go in this area. Many of us struggle with difficult people and painful circumstances. In those moments when we have been deeply hurt by those closest to us, the temptation is often overwhelming to respond with anger and bitterness. Sometimes we want to get even with those who have treated us so cruelly. We may even resort to threats of violence. In our desperation it is easy to sink to the level of those who have attacked us.
But there is a better way. God calls us to love our enemies, and life being what it is, our “enemies” will almost always include those closest to us. Love means doing things God’s way. It means responding in kindness when we have been mistreated. It means refusing to nurse our grievances against those who are guilty of sin against us. Love finds a way to reach out to heal. But this kind of life is not easy. Jesus embodied God’s love and his own people crucified him.
There is an enormous temptation to conclude like this: “Now let’s all go out and really love other people. Come on. Let’s try and love everyone we meet this week.” I don’t object to that because there must come a time when we put feet to what we have learned from God’s Word. I think it misses the point and puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Love isn’t about us; love is about God! Since God is love, all true love starts with him and comes down to us. If we want to be more loving, we must get to know God better. As we come to know the God of love in a personal way, his love will supernaturally flow through us as our hearts are transformed. How can we learn to love? John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one-and-only-Son.” Jesus is the proof of God’s love. “See from his hands, his head, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Spend time in the shadow of the cross. There you will see love made real before your eyes.
In the 17th Century Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, sentenced a soldier to be shot for his crimes. The execution was to take place at the ringing of the evening curfew bell. At the appointed hour the bell did not sound. Upon investigation it was discovered that the soldier’s fiancé had climbed into the belfry and clung to the great clapper of the bell to prevent it from striking. When she was summoned by Cromwell to account for her actions, she wept as she showed him her bruised and bleeding hands. Cromwell’s heart was touched, “Your lover shall live because of your sacrifice. Curfew shall not ring tonight!”
Through his sacrifice, Christ has stayed our execution. The judgment bell will never toll for us. The proof of his love is in his bruised body and bloody hands. Because of his love we live.
I now end where I started: “Love is the medicine for the sickness of the world.” If we want to know what love looks like, we can go to the cross and see love made flesh and dying for us. Would you like that kind of love in your life? It is yours for the asking. As with everything else in the spiritual life, you can experience God’s love if only you will ask for it. The love of God is powerful medicine for the terminal disease inside every heart. To live in love is to be like Jesus.
Prayer - “Heavenly Father, You have shown us what love is and you have told us that love must be our greatest aim. Help us to remember that without love our words don’t matter and our knowledge is empty and all we give is insignificant and all we accomplish is inadequate. We thank you that the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As we have been loved, help us to walk in love. For Christ’s sake, Amen.”