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First Corinthians: Love

January 26, 2008

The Corinthian church had some individuals who were spiritually competitive and selfishly ambitious. These individuals wanted to be the greatest, and sought to achieve that through having the most impressive spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit, through Paul’s letter, deflated their oversized self images and called them to what was most important.

1Co 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Gifts that the Corinthians prized included speaking in tongues, prophecy, understanding of mysteries, knowledge, and the ability to perform miracles. Paul responded that all of these were worthless without love. If one of them were to give everything they have to the poor, for the respect and personal prestige that might result, it would ultimately gain them nothing. Even if one were to die a martyr’s death through fire, without love, it would all be for nothing.

At this point the attentive Corinthian would have been contrite. Many of the corrections Paul had administered in the earlier parts of the letter boiled down to the principle of love. The divisions in the church were evidence of a lack of love. Similarly, the lawsuits and the conflict over eating meat demonstrated a self-centered character rather than love. And the unspiritual behavior at the Love Feast was clearly unloving. All of the wisdom, knowledge, prophecies, tongues, and miracles they may have seen or even performed amounted to nothing.

1Co 13:4-8 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

As Paul recounted these virtues of love, the Corinthian hearers must have felt pretty small. Was it patient of them to sue their brother or sister? Was it kind to eat the Love Feast without providing for those who had nothing? Weren’t they full of envy for those with more prestigious positions or gifts? Their boasting and pride were legendary. As Paul continued through the list, he continued to convict the Corinthians for their lack of love. On every point they fell short.

The virtues Paul attributed to love appear repeatedly in his letters to the other churches. It is the duty of each member of the church to demonstrate love themselves, and to encourage one another to live a life of love.

We would do well to walk through that same list, and let the Holy Spirit convict us. These words are not written as a text to read at weddings. The Holy Spirit was instructing the church how to love. No matter how many good things we are doing as individuals or as a church, if we do not do them out of love, we are accomplishing nothing.

Having defined love, Paul proceeded in the last half of chapter 13 to explain further why love is above all other gifts.

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