Love Is Forever
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Love Is Forever

In his first epistle to the church in Corinth, Paul confronted the Corinthian believers regarding their spiritual immaturity. While they abounded in spiritual gifts, he noted that they lacked the genuine marks of true Christian experience: faith, hope, and love. Cautioning against relying solely on our knowledge or talents, Alistair Begg reminds us that we reflect God’s love to others and reveal our faith most profoundly when we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Series Containing This Sermon

Love in the Local Church

1 Corinthians 13:1–13 Series ID: 20901

Firm Foundation, Volume 6

1 Corinthians 13:1–13, 1 Corinthians 14:1–40 Series ID: 14606

Sermon Transcript: Print

Now, with your Bibles open at 1 Corinthians 13, we come to what is essentially the final paragraph of three. When we began this some weeks ago, I had never anticipated taking this length of time in going through it. And just this week, in reading around the subject matter, I came across a comment by Leon Morris, who, having written his comments on 1 Corinthians 13, commenting on the totality of the chapter, he then concludes his very, very helpful comments by saying that he feels as though, in his case, “clumsy hands have touched a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness. Here what is true of all Scripture is true in [special] measure, that no comment can be adequate [enough for such a] great … theme.”[1]

It’s an expression of his own humility, because as I say, his commentary is profoundly useful, and yet I think we can all identify with that. Both in trying to teach it and certainly in listening to it, we sense as though we’ve held in our hands for these few Sunday nights something of exquisite beauty which we seem, somehow or another, to muck up just by the holding of. I certainly feel as though we would be well served by having another go at chapter 13. I think I could study it better; I think I could probably teach it more usefully. I want you to know for your encouragement that I’m not going to do that, but nevertheless, that is a genuine expression of how I feel.

Now, as we noted at the outset of our study of the chapter, the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians suffers from, on the one hand, an overfamiliarity, and on the other hand, a form of virtual cluelessness, so that we’re tempted to believe that because 1 Corinthians 13 pops up on wedding invitations and on doilies and on little plaques that people give to their granny, that somehow or another, we all know 1 Corinthians 13—or, on the other hand, that we come to it with an approach which, in the way in which we apply it, shows that we really have very little idea at all.

I hope that all of us who have gone through these course of studies are in no doubt whatsoever about the essential place which chapter 13 has in the development of Paul’s argument in the totality of the book of 1 Corinthians. I hope none of us have any notion of the idea that Paul has essentially had a fairly tough section in chapter 12, he knows that he’s gonna have a really tough one in chapter 14, and so he paused for a moment or two, and he said to himself, “Now, what’s a nice thing that I could stick into the middle of this?” And then he said, “Oh, I know, that thing I preached over in the Colossae valley. Where did I put that?” Then he went and found it and slotted it in between 12 and 14 so that the people would get a break between the rigors of 12 and the challenges of 14. Not so. Indeed, it is only set where it is that it can be understood and carefully applied. And we need to realize that chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is as applicable to the peculiar circumstances of the church in Corinth as is the rest of the letter.

Now, we spent a considerable time in verses 4–7—all of these characteristics of Christian love, as we refer to them, and I’d like to summarize them for you. I listened to a tape by my good friend Dick Lucas, who preached here last year, you may recall—the one with the unbelievable accent. And Dick summarized 1 Corinthians [13:]4–7; unfortunately, I only heard the tape too late for it to be of help to me or of help to you, because he managed to preach these four verses in the space of thirty-two minutes, whereas I never managed to complete them in a tremendous number of minutes—probably far too many. But this is his summary of verses 4–7, which is helpful to those of you who weren’t here and will perhaps also be an encouragement to those who were.

He gives these four summary statements. He says, in verses 4–7, first of all, Paul has in mind the bad features of the Corinthian Christians. When he writes these verses, he is writing them in such a way as to point out by contrast what Corinth is really like. Their problem is that they’re lacking in patience, they’re lacking in kindness, they’re lacking in expressions of humility and contentedness. And so, in describing the nature of love, he actually hits on these bad features in the Corinthian church. And that’s why we ought not to be unduly squirming in our seats as we’ve gone through these characteristics, because they had their first and most direct application to a real problem church in Corinth.

The gifts are for now, and they are imperfect. Where there are prophecies, they’re going to cease. Where there are tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Secondly, he said that Paul in writing these verses had in mind the characteristic hallmarks of immaturity. And there’s a sense in which that’s just saying the same thing: the bad features in Corinth were due to immaturity, and therefore, he addresses the issue of immaturity. Corinth was a sizzling church. It was a dynamic church. It was a lively church. It was a singing church, a praying church. But it was full of show-offs and full of babies.

Thirdly, he pointed out that Paul had in mind the kind of qualities that build up the church. And I hope that we’ve seen that in these previous Sunday evenings. These tremendous characteristics are the kind of things that we would all like to discover and we would certainly like to see increasingly displayed at Parkside Church.

And fourthly, in summary, he said Paul is thinking about the qualities which are unconquerable—for example, verse 7: love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres … never fails.” These, he said, are unconquerable characteristics.

Now, that was just his little summary. I thought you might appreciate that. I certainly found it helpful.

Now, the characteristics that we have just been studying together take us out of the realm of what are merely human qualities. Rather, what we have been discovering and what we trustfully finalize this evening are divine evidences of an increasing spiritual maturity. This is the very heart of this final paragraph. Paul is establishing here the fact that the real evidences of God being at work in somebody’s life or in the life of a church are actually to be found in the divine triad which he introduces in verse 13 and, God willing, which we will reach in a moment or two from now.

I want to ask you the question, Do you think it is sufficient to assume that all that is being said here in this final paragraph is this: “the gifts of the Spirit are in use for this age, but love is in use for eternity”? Virtually everything that I read, that’s all it says. It says that verses 8–13 say one thing: the gifts of the Spirit are in use now, and love goes on forever. I said to myself, “I don’t know if it’s just that straightforward. I don’t know if it’s that simple.” Because from this viewpoint, look at what they do with verse 11. From this viewpoint, what they do with verse 11 is they say that what Paul is saying is that childhood equals this world and eternity equals maturity. But I said to myself, “No, Paul has so much to say about maturity now. Everybody knows that you will finally be complete in heaven, but I think he must be saying something else.”

Now, how then do you try meaningfully to come to a reasonable interpretation and application of verses like these? Well, what you have to keep doing, and what I tried to do, was to step back from it and put the whole thing, the paragraph in the chapter, the chapter in the surrounding chapters, the surrounding chapter in the whole book, and the whole book going back to basics to try and remind myself of what Paul was dealing with. You have to be a little bit of a sleuth if you’re going to interpret the Bible properly. You’ve gotta have the spirit of the sort of Agatha Christie in you, to be searching out to see whodunit.

And if you go back to chapter 1, which I invite you to do for just a moment, let me remind you that Paul was writing to a church that was really blessed. In verse 7 he writes to them—of chapter 1—and he says, “You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” This is quite a church! All the gifts are operative in the church. And as they are in operation in the church, they are eagerly awaiting the return of the gift giver, even Jesus himself.

But after those opening commendatory paragraphs, which you will recall way down the labyrinths of time past, you will perhaps also recall that when Paul goes on to develop his letter, he recognizes and addresses the fact that although this is a church that is really blessed and is manifesting all of these gifts, it’s also a group of people that have a problem with pride. It’s a group of people who have begun to claim that whatever may be true of other churches, they, the Corinthian church, have entered into a kind of spiritual fullness which they believe is almost unique to them, a spiritual dimension that others do not know. And especially, it would seem, their focus is as a result of all of these gifts that are being manifested. And so they had made the equation something like this: “Jesus is present; we know because we have all these gifts. Because we have all these gifts, we are living in fullness, because these gifts are the evidence of spiritual totality”—and in particular, the preoccupation which they had with the gift of tongues.

Now, what they were talking about, as though they had this spiritual totality, was something which will actually only be ours in heaven. Because when Paul—and you need to stay with me for a moment here; we will get to this. In 1 Corinthians 4, addressing this problem of pride and the fact that they’ve got it all now, he says to them sarcastically in 4:8, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!” he says. “You have become kings—and that without us!”

You see, they were saying to one another, “We’re really the church! After all, it couldn’t possibly be that we could have all of this going on without that it wasn’t an evidence of the kind of spiritual fullness and totality that God intends.” And so Paul, in writing the letter, makes it clear to them that they cannot claim to have a perfection which will only be theirs in heaven. And indeed, they must face the fact of their immaturity and they must understand—and to this he comes now—what are the genuine marks of true Christian experience.

I think this may be quite a surprise to some of us tonight. Let me try, then, and summarize the paragraph under three simple headings.

Spiritual Gifts Are Not Signs of Final Perfection

First of all, Paul says in this final paragraph—you check this for yourselves, you’re sensible people—the gifts of the Spirit are not signs of final perfection. The gifts of the Spirit are not signs of final perfection.

Now, as I’m suggesting to you, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of believing that these gifts were the indication of the fact that they had truly arrived. And they had probably begun to say to one another, “Because we have these gifts, perfection must surely have come.” “No,” says Paul, in this paragraph, “when perfection comes, these things that you equate with perfection are going out the door. The things that you are using as the touchstones for this spiritual totality are actually going to disappear. Whether they are tongues,” he says, “or whether they are the abilities to speak the word of God with boldness, whether it is the ability to understand mysteries, to express knowledge in all of its fullness, all of this will disappear. The gifts are for now, and they are imperfect. Where there are prophecies, they’re going to cease. Where there are tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, it will pass away. Because now we know only in part. Our best is a grasping. Now we prophesy only in part. And when perfection comes—heaven—then all that is imperfect will disappear.”

Now, you just think this out in relationship to spiritual gifts. It makes perfect sense. Take, for example, the claims that are made for the gifts of healing, even in the circumstance of the Corinthian church. It is at best imperfect. When we recognize and allow that God may sovereignly choose to heal, to intervene at certain times in people’s lives, at best it is imperfect—certainly against the standard established by Jesus himself. When Jesus healed people, the healing was instantaneous, it was effective, and it was radically life transforming. The man with the shriveled hand put forth his hand; it was healed.[2] Everybody knew it was healed. He didn’t then have to go for tests to find out about it. He didn’t need to go to a plastic surgeon. He didn’t have to fiddle around at all. Shriveled, no longer shriveled.

But when we think in terms of healing in any measure, either in the Corinthian context or today, we have to recognize that whatever we may describe as healing may in time prove to be remission but has never, in all of time, proved to be transformation. And all who are gained, if you like, a stay of execution still die, because the very exercise of such sovereign prerogatives of God is limited by the context in which it is exercised. That is why it is only when the perfect comes that there will be no tears, no pain, no sighing, and no dying.[3] But in the present context, all will be touched by those features. So any church, whether the Corinthian church or a church today, that says of itself, “The gifts of the Spirit are signs of final perfection,” knows itself to be wrong.

Incidentally, let me just say that those who believe that we should always be fit and healthy are thereby suggesting that the perfect is now, when Paul clearly says that the perfect is then. And all who try and teach us that if ever we endure sickness or if ever we face pain, we somehow or another must be living in sin or missing the dimensions of faith that God intends—what those individuals are doing is importing then to now. And when you bring then to now, you can’t live now in light of then.

That’s the first thing: spiritual gifts are not the indication of final perfection.

Maturity Is Not Perfection

Secondly—and this is the part that I don’t think comes out too many places, and we may be on thin ice, but you can judge for yourselves—I think that what is being said here, especially in verse 11, is this: while then we will experience perfection in terms of being absolutely free from the implications of sin, now we do not simply sit in babyhood, but now, says Paul, is about maturity, and maturity which is not perfection. Okay?

Now, this is where we’ve gotta be able to understand English and discriminate between words. When the Bible uses this notion of perfection for heaven and when Paul speaks about maturity, we’re talking about two different things. Heaven is heaven and spiritual maturity is now. And the fact that the Corinthians were suggesting that heaven was now, displayed in spiritual gifts, was pointing up the fact that they had a problem with spiritual maturity. They were babyish in their understanding of things. And so Paul says to them, “What we need to be looking for is the kind of spiritual fullness which is expressed in maturity.”

Now, if you doubt that they had a problem with maturity, turn back to 1 Corinthians 3:1. What did Paul say on that occasion? He said, “Brothers, I could[n’t] address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants,” or babies, “in Christ.” He says to the Corinthians, “You’re babies.” When you get into chapter 14, which we will in these coming weeks, we’re going to find the same kind of emphasis. Look at 1 Corinthians 14:20: “Brothers, stop thinking like children.”

You see, Paul’s great urgency for them was that they might come to maturity. The problem for the Corinthians was that they were elevating this junior gift—namely, the gift of tongues. They were bringing it to such a place that it was for them a mark of superiority. Paul says, “It is not a mark of superiority, but your overemphasis on it is a mark of your spiritual childishness. Quit the baby talk! Because,” he says, “we only see in a mirror. One day we’ll see face-to-face.” Heaven is then. This is now. We live now. We let the Lord down now. We stumble now. We fall. We’re not at our best. The good we want to do we don’t do.[4] Our friends call us and say they have terminal illness now, but not in heaven. What are we supposed to do, tell ’em on the phone, “You crazy man, don’t you realize that you can name it and claim it and be done with it?” It’s a counsel of despair that comes from closed Bibles and empty heads. It is an expression of immaturity. It was the problem in Corinth. You can’t have then now. We live now in anticipation of then. That’s what he’s saying here, you see, when he says, “Now I know in part.” Even at our best, all the books we’ve read, all the conferences we’ve attended, all the knowledge of God we have, all of our best assessment of things, at best it is marginalized. “Then I shall know fully, even”—now—“as I am fully known.”

All of the questions that we’ve ever asked will be answered in an instant when we gaze into God’s face.

And just in passing, one of the keys to understanding your Christian life is working out the difference between now and then. We’ll never grow to maturity in our Christian living until we understand what’s now and what’s then. Because if we start thinking that then is now, we won’t be able to live now now. You understand? And we’ll be telling people that what’s then is now and confusing them, because they can’t get that now, and they aren’t supposed to get it now, ’cause it’s only coming then.

Right now, we’re known! We’re “fully known” right now! That is a wonderful phrase. You ought to underline that: “I am fully known.” By whom? By God! Some of us are here tonight, and we’re downright lonely. We may even be lonely in a big crowd. We may be away from our families, away from home, at university; we may have had changes in the circumstances of our lives, and they are buffeting us, and they are beating us. And here’s a wonderful statement for your encouragement: “I am fully known.” One of the angels in heaven turns around to God and he says, “God, do you know John Smith?” God says, “Do I know John Smith? Let me tell you about John Smith!” The angel says, “Do you know Mary Evans?” “Ha! I can tell you all about Mary Evans! She is mine! She belongs to me! I know her!”

Now, none of us know God like that. The whole quest for spiritual maturity in Paul’s mind is “that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his [suffering],”[5] but he knows that even at his best knowing it will be an imperfect knowing. But one day we shall know even as we’re known! All of the dumb questions that we’ve asked this past week will be answered in an instant when we gaze into his face. All of our uncertainties about pain and about illness and all of our heartache for our brethren will be answered in a moment when we know even as we are known. It calls for patience. It calls for trust. It calls for biblical realism. One day we will see him, and we will be made like him.[6]

You find the same emphasis—we picked it up in chapter 8, concerning knowing; he said, remember, about the food sacrificed to idols, “We know that we all possess knowledge. [And] knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.”[7]

Jesus, he knows me. He knows my name. He knows where I sleep. He knows where I go. He knows where I’ve been. He knows me. The creator of the universe knows me. That is awesome! And the Corinthians were so stuck on playing their trumpets and banging their tambourines and playing with gifts as toys that they had lost sight of the really big things. Paul should have told them, “You know, the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.”

Now, you see, the smart aleck in the Corinthian church, or in any church for that matter, who has all the answers and all the gifts does not necessarily in himself provide evidence that God is at work. That’s what he’s saying. The fact that you’re a walking biblical compendium of knowledge doesn’t mean you know God. The fact that I can preach or teach or do my thing, it doesn’t mean I know God. The fact that I could speak in ecstatic utterances would no be indication that I know God. So if I hang my hat on all of those things, I miss the point. Because what is Paul saying? There’s only one real characteristic. There is only one truly evidential sign, and the sign is love.

Faith, Hope, and Love

That brings me to my third and final statement. The triad here in verse 13—these three facets or factors—provides for us the essence of genuine Christian experience. We said first of all that the gifts of the Spirit are not the signs of final perfection. Secondly, now, where we live, is about maturity, that it’s not perfection; that’s heaven. And thirdly, if we want to know what genuine Christian experience is, we need to go to verse 13.

Now, let me try and use these remaining moments to drive this home, with the help of God, to our hearts and lives. Listen carefully, won’t you?

Paul in verse 13 is not describing natural qualities. Verse 13 is not a verse representative of the kind of man who finds it easy to believe, nor is it indicative of the person who is naturally hopeful or of the individual who is warm and friendly. Because this little triad appears all over the place as well. You can find it in little books when you’re buying a book in the bookstore, and it pops out all over the place. You can find it in Hallmark: “Faith, hope and love. [And] the greatest of these is love.” And it has this dimension to it that may convince us that what is being described here is something that anybody can display at any moment in time and can opt into. The fact is, tonight, loved ones, there are non-Christian people who are quick to believe things, there are non-Christian people who are naturally optimistic, and there are non-Christian people who are as warm and friendly as anybody you ever might meet. But Paul’s not addressing that in the thirteenth verse. He is describing here divine, distinctive, certain evidence of God’s work in our lives.

Indeed, verse 13 answers the question “What is a true Christian?” If you’re uncertain about that tonight, hopefully it will be clear moments from now. This is, if you like, Paul’s shorthand. He uses this little triad again and again in his letters. Let me give to you two examples of it. If you turn over a few pages to Colossians chapter 1, you will find him referring to the exact same things. Colossians chapter 1: he thanks God the Father for the church in Colossae, verse 4, “because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus.” Okay? Secondly, “of the love you have for all the saints.” And thirdly, “of the hope in you of heaven that springs from that faith and love.”[8] When you go to 1 Thessalonians, you find the exact same thing: he blesses the Thessalonians, remembering them in prayer—1 Thessalonians 1:3—because, he says, “[I remember] your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in [the] Lord Jesus Christ.”

So now we’re at the very essence of Christian experience. Now we’re at the apex of spiritual maturity. Now we know what will characterize a genuine, Spirit-filled assembly of God’s people, irrespective of the dimensions of gifts that God chooses to give to them or to withhold from them. Notice that the faith is not simply somebody saying, “I believe in God”—and this is clarified for us from Colossians 1, from whence I read. What the individual says who knows this faith—the converted born-again Christian is not saying, “I believe in God,” but, “My faith and my trust are in Jesus alone. I am not relying on external characteristics. I’m not relying on works of righteousness. I’m not relying on my baptism. I’m not relying on my attendance. I’m not relying on any of that.”

My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or in creed;
I trust the ever-living one,
His blood for me shall plead.

I need no other sacrifice,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that he died for me.[9]

That is the faith to which he refers. It is the faith and trust implicitly in the Lord Jesus and in his atoning death.

The love is also clearly designated—clarified again in Colossians 1. This is not a warm feeling in your tummy. There are plenty of churches that are warm-feeling-tummy places. They are warmhearted and they’re cozy. They would give you coffee till the cows came home. They’re very nice to you. They welcome you in the door. They ask if they can help with anything during the week. And they are to be commended for their warm-heartedness. But that is not the love to which he’s referring. The love to which he refers here is a love for our fellow Christians. Remember, he describes earlier in 1 Corinthians, he says, you know, “There’ll be no homosexuals get to heaven, there’ll be no idolaters, there’ll be no adulterers, there’ll be no lies, there’ll be no thieves, there will be none of these people.” And you can imagine him writing it down, and people reading it going, “That’s right! That’s right! That’s right!” And then he hits them from underneath—the uppercut—he goes, “And such were some of you.”[10] And they were, and we were.

And some of you know this far better than someone like myself who’s been reared and brought up in a Christian context, but some of you could stand up here right now and testify to the fact that you used to think that born-again Christians were the biggest freaks the world has ever seen. If ever there was a church to which you would not go, it would be one of those kind of churches. You would not hang around with those people at university; you avoided them like the plagues of Egypt. And now you sit with them! Now you talk to them! Now you love them! Who did that? Jesus did that!

See, this is genuine Christian experience: a faith that is in Christ and a love that is for those who love Christ. That’s what worship is about. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”[11] No young boy or girl in their right mind says that. You can’t coerce your kids into that. [Imitates pouting.] Okay, fine, I understand that! I’ve been there. But when the Spirit of God lights them up, they’ll surprise themselves. Then the Bible becomes a living book, then praise becomes the expression of their hearts, then compassion becomes the reality of their life, and grace has filled their souls. That’s when I’ll know my children are saved. Not when they walk an aisle, sign a pledge, make a statement. I’ll know because they will have a trust in Jesus and a love for God’s people. Not 100 percent love. May not even be much more than a 40 percent or a 30 percent for a while. But it will be there. It will be somewhere there. There will be a wee flame at least.

Especially as an encouragement to those of us who came to the evening service like this tonight; now we’re going to wonder whether we’re Christians at all. Yeah, it’s all right. Relax.

Okay, and what of the hope? What of the hope? “These three remain: faith, hope and love.” Well, this hope is an assurance of the life of the world to come. And unless the Holy Spirit is at work in a person’s heart, they’re devoid of any assurance of heaven. They cannot put their head on the pillow at night with any sense of certainty that if you should… What’s that thing we teach our kids? “As I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take. God bless my aunts and my uncles and my grandmother and everything. Amen.” Kachung! Gone. Comatose.

Now, the natural man—secular man—cannot say that, mean it, and fall asleep, except that he pumps himself up with bravado. But when the Spirit of God changes a life, he engenders within that person faith in Jesus, love for the Jesus people, and an absolute assurance—not an assurance that removes anxiety, but a deep-seated assurance—that heaven is my home.

The Test of Christian Faith

So there’s the test. There’s the test that all of us need to take tonight. If your personal trust and faith is in Jesus, and God has given you a love for those who love Jesus, and if you’ve found in your heart a hope and an assurance of heaven—and I say to you, no matter how weak you are, how young you are, how shaky and sinful you might be—you have in your life the evidences of genuine Christian faith. These are the marks. These are the identifying signs that God is at work. These are most valuable and more important than all the spiritual gifts of God. These are the very stuff of Christian experience. Indeed, minus them, you’re not a Christian. This is not God in a vacuum, God in the abstract. It is God at work in and through the human heart, producing these things: faith, hope, love. Is that your life? The message of the gospel is, if it is not, it can be before ever you leave this building tonight.

The greatest thing for a church, for a life, is not the manifestation of spectacular gifts but that the world might see something in us, no matter how tiny, that looks like God.

Well, it begs the final question: if faith, hope, and love are present and they remain, why is the greatest love? I could give you that as your homework or extend this series by another week, which I daren’t do. Let me try and say it as quickly as I can.

Think about it, and I think the penny will drop for you fairly quickly. Why would love be the greatest? Does God have faith? Who does God believe in? Nobody. He’s God. He doesn’t trust or have faith. Does God have hope? Does he say in heaven, “My hope is pinned on this or on that or on something else”? No! God doesn’t have hope in anything else, because he is the source of all our hopes. So God doesn’t trust and God doesn’t hope.

Can God love? See, that’s where the penny drops, right? God is love. That’s why the greatest is love. The Bible nowhere says, “God is faith,” or “God is trust,” or “God is hope,” but says, “God is love.”[12] And when God is working a new life in our lives, then there are wee shoots which begin to emerge in our lives, which our moms and dads will see and our friends will begin to identify, and suddenly, into the deadness of the winter of our prior spiritual experience, these green shoots begin to spring up. And one springs up, and it has a thing hanging on the end of it, and it says, “faith”; and another one springs up, and it says, “hope”; and another one springs up, and it says, “love.” And our friends say to us, “I don’t understand what happened to you. I mean, you’re still a nice guy. You still play golf with me. I mean, we still do business together. But these shoots, I don’t understand these shoots.”

Well then, you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to tell them that the greatest thing that can happen to anyone in their life is to see these shoots emerge as a result of God’s grace. And only one of them goes all the way into eternity. Faith and hope are a means to the end, which is love. But love lasts forever. That’s why it’s true when we sing, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you … knowing you.”[13] Because tonight he knows us, and one day we will know him.

So the greatest thing for a church, for a life, is not the manifestation of spectacular gifts, but it is that the world might see something in us, no matter how tiny, that looks like God. See, this is the great challenge—not that people come and say, “Whoa-oh, this guy can talk!” or “Whoa, they can sing!” or “Oh, they do their big nursery thing!” or “Oh, they’ve got the children.” ’Cause anybody can reproduce that. The real test is love. We can speak ecstatically, but if there’s no sign in my life that God is at work, I’m making a noise. I may be highly effective as a preacher, I may have great knowledge and faith, but if there’s not the least evidence of God’s presence, I am nothing. I may display radical self-sacrifice, but devoid of the fragrance of his presence, as far as God’s concerned, it doesn’t mean a thing at all.

The Corinthians held up tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, all of which were means to an end. Paul directs their attention to faith, hope, and love. The heartbeat of our relationship with God is not in gifts we display but is in the fact that God knows us and one day we shall know him. In response to the high regard which the Corinthians had for the spectacular, Paul tells them that the really important things are not tongues and the like but faith, hope, and love, and there is nothing greater than love. So may God produce that love within my heart and yours, and in our church, for his name’s sake. Amen.

Let us pray:

And now unto him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, tonight and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, 2nd ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 186.

[2] See Matthew 12:10–13; Mark 3:1–5; Luke 6:6–10.

[3] See Revelation 21:4.

[4] See Romans 7:15, 19.

[5] Philippians 3:10 (KJV).

[6] See 1 John 3:2.

[7] 1 Corinthians 8:1–3 (NIV 1984).

[8] Colossians 1:5 (paraphrased).

[9] Eliza E. Hewitt, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” (1890). Lyrics lightly altered.

[10] 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 (paraphrased).

[11] Psalm 122:1 (paraphrased).

[12] 1 John 4:8 (NIV 1984).

[13] Mark Pendergrass, “The Greatest Thing in All My Life Is Knowing You” (1977).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.