When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church, they were battling division and confusion brought on by self-centeredness and lack of agape love. In writing, he sought to humble the church and remind its members of what really mattered to God. Alistair Begg walks us through Paul’s teaching, noting that without Christ-like love, we are just noisy nuisances, gaining nothing in the giving of our lives. When love prevails, however, God’s people enjoy harmony, usefulness, and transformation.
In resuming our studies here in 1 Corinthians, we’ve come to probably the one chapter in the whole of 1 Corinthians that, if you like, the average churchgoer may be familiar with. Indeed, even people who are unfamiliar with church or who regard themselves as distinctly unfamiliar with the Bible may in actuality know something of it and may be able to quote from 1 Corinthians 13 without actually knowing just where they’re quoting from, because this chapter is one of the best known and arguably one of the most loved passages in the whole of the New Testament. It is a passage of singular beauty and of power. It comprises a quite magnificent song of Christian love. In reading about it this past week, I discovered that one individual wanted to argue that it was probably the greatest, strongest, deepest thing that Paul ever wrote.
Now, to the degree that that is true, or even isn’t true, it perhaps explains why 1 Corinthians 13 pops up everywhere. It pops up on calendars, on plaques, on little tracts that are given out at memorial services. You can find it on paper towels. You can find it on the front of wedding bulletins. You can just about find 1 Corinthians 13 anywhere at all. And it is not that on each of these occasions the passage is devoid of application nor of significance, but in actuality, it often is a distraction, insofar as once 1 Corinthians 13 is divorced from the immediacy of the surrounding context—namely, 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Corinthians 14—then it is virtually impossible to understand it correctly or to apply it properly. Once—and this is true of any portion of Scripture—once divorced from the immediate historical environment in which it is set, the biblical context, then you can make it say just about anything you choose.
I came across a fairly humorous illustration of this, one that I found myself identifying with. I could remember my own high school headmaster adopting a very similar approach; maybe he and the gentleman to whom I’m about to refer went to the same university. But David Prior, writing on this passage, refers to one called Thomas Merton, who was recalling in his writings his chaplain at his boarding school in England. And he describes him as follows: “He was a tall, powerful, handsome man, with hair greying at the temples, and a big English chin, and a broad, uncreased brow, with sentences like ‘I stand for fair-play and good sportsmanship’ written all over it.” He was, says Merton, a good speaker, and “his greatest sermon was on [1 Corinthians 13] …. But,” says this writer, “his exegesis was a bit strange. [His] interpretation of the word ‘[love]’ in this passage … was that it simply stood for ‘all that we mean when we call a chap a “gentleman.”’” And so he used to read it as follows:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but am not a gentleman, 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 I have faith that can move mountains, but I am not a gentleman, then I am absolutely nothing.
And so he used to lay this on the boys in the boarding school and teach them that it was really an expression of the fact that what Paul was referring to here was—and again I quote—it “meant good-sportsmanship, cricket, the decent thing, wearing the [correct] kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, [and] not being a cad or a bounder.” And so he used to launch into great flights of fancy on the basis of 1 Corinthians 13.
Now, the illustration may seem rather remote—a little too English for many of our tastes—but we’ve all, I’m sure, been present on certain occasions that have required excellent prose or lofty sentiment, and people have reached out, grabbed 1 Corinthians 13, and they have read it without any kind of notion of its significance or its application at all.
Now, the reason I belabor that is because I think that that is where most of us have encountered 1 Corinthians 13. Some of us are even guilty of employing it in that way, and it is very, very important that to whatever degree that is our thinking on the subject, you disengage it, take out that disk, and put it on the side, and put a clean disk in so that you can reformat on the basis of our study here this evening.
In order to apply 1 Corinthians 13 to Cleveland, you have first to go to Corinth. This was written to Corinth. It was written to an express situation in Corinth. And we cannot simply apply it to Cleveland in any old way we choose—not if we’re seeking to do it correctly—without first understanding why it was written to Corinth.
And why was it written to Corinth? Well, those of us who’ve been studying along over these months will know that it is set firmly within the framework of two things, two factors more than any other: factor number one, division; factor number two, confusion. It’s within the framework of a local church that faces the potential of being splintered on the basis of all kinds of allegiances and all kinds of expressions of spiritual giftedness, and it is a church that is marked by confusion in so many different realms. And Paul, as he’s been answering question after question that has come to him from the environment of Corinth, reaches a point where he sets this magnificent chapter in between all that he’s said in 12 and all that he’s about to say in 14.
So when once we begin to look at it through the eyes of the local church, we realize that it becomes dynamite. Because what it does is it uncovers all of our weaknesses. It shows up all of my gaps, it shows up all of our failures, it shows up all of our sins in the Christian community. It is, I think, a particular challenge to any local church which has seen any form of outward success in its ministry. It is a peculiar challenge to any church that has begun to take itself maybe a little too seriously—to any group of God’s people who for whatever reason have determined that they are really doing quite well; they’re going to do better, but all in all, they’re really a pretty wonderful group.
It may at first surprise us that it would be in this chapter that we’ve used so often to make us feel good about ourselves to discover that it actually confronts us, cuts us down to size, humbles us, and begins to show us what really matters to God. What really matters, says Paul, is not what most of us think matters. And what counts is not what most of us think counts.
Now, it is as sobering as it is necessary for us then to see ourselves as individuals, and particularly tonight as a church, in the mirror of this chapter. Hence the heading, “The Church in the Mirror.”
Now, since it’s all about love, let’s make sure that we define our terms. The word which is used here is not the word eros, nor is it the word phileo, nor is it the word storge, but it is actually the word agape. Some of you know this well; others, it’s news. Therefore, be patient when you know it, and be kind to those around you.
The word agape is rare in Greek literature; it’s common in the Scriptures. In actual fact, the New Testament writers imported it because none of the other words that were existent in Greek for love adequately conveyed the nature of the love of God for men and women and therefore their love for one another. Why is this? Because of the truth we’ve just been singing in some of these hymns: that “the love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell.” Okay? And so the writers, recognizing that God’s love transcends all human ideas, all other expressions of love, employ this word agape to make sure that nobody confuses it with anything else at all. For certainly love is one of the most devalued words of the English language, and it was a word that was represented in confused terms in the Greek language.
This love of God—let me quote from Leon Morris—“is a love for the utterly unworthy.” It is “a love which proceeds from a God who is [himself] love. It is a love lavished [on] others without a thought of whether they[’re] worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather from the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved.” Now, when you think that quote through, you realize that it immediately sets it apart from virtually everything else. Especially in terms of human relationships with the opposite sex, we tend to be attracted to and love in response to what we see lovely in the other person. So as long as they are lovely, we may continue to love them; as soon as they cease to be lovely, we’re not gonna love them anymore. We then import that into our relationships with one another within the church, operate the exact same way: “As long as you continue to be lovely to me, I’ll love you. As soon as you quit appearing lovely to me, you’re history.”
Now, the word which is used here is not that kind of love. It is the love expressed in these verses; it is the love clarified in the portion that Pastor Stokke read for us from 1 John. And it is this agape love which is basic to Christian character and therefore essential for the Christian community.
The problem which existed in Corinth—and with this we are able to identify—lay in the fact that there was an absence of this kind of love. What Paul was reemphasizing was what Jesus had made perfectly clear. John chapter 13, he gathers his disciples, and he says to them, “A new command[ment] I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. … All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Now, in Corinth it was to be the discovery and display of this kind of Christian love that would be the antidote to the selfishness which was being expressed. Because, you’ll remember, back in 1 Corinthians 12 there were a group of people with a superiority complex—those who were saying, “I don’t need anybody else around here”—and there were those with an inferiority complex, saying, “Because I’m not him or because I’m not her, I don’t matter around here.” What is going to address that in human personality? What will make sure that there is cohesion and harmony and forward progress amongst the people of God? “Well,” says Paul, “it is this: it is the nature of Christian love.”
Now, it’s very, very important for us to realize—and I think I’m quoting John Stott in this phrase. I’ve used it so many times, I wish it were my own. You’ve heard it before, but let me say it again: when we come to the love expressed here in 1 Corinthians 13, this love is a servant of the will, not a victim of the emotion. A servant of the will, not a victim of the emotion. Okay? This is not “hopelessly falling in love with you,” you know, like, “I can’t help it. I can’t stop it. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I have a funny feeling in my stomach, and it must be love.” It’s not that at all. This love is a servant of our wills, not a victim of our emotions. Without that being the case, how else could Jesus say in Matthew chapter 5, “I say to you, love your enemies”? No, the only way you can love your enemies is by an act of the will. Frankly, the only way sometimes you can love your friends is by an act of the will! The only way you can love your husband is by an act of the will! All right? You’re waiting for the feeling coming.
So don’t let’s get all messed up here. What Paul is writing about is not coziness, affection, predisposition on the basis of attraction; he is writing about a spiritual discipline. The very fact that that strikes us as strange is one of the further indicators of the fact that we’re not talking about what we are often talking about when we talk about love. The love here, if you like—and this sounds rather male chauvinistic, but I’m going to say it anyway—the love that he is expressing here is vibrant, it is strong, it is manly. It is not soft, sentimental, and feminine. Okay? There is a vibrancy, a strength about it. It is not the capitulation to the lowest common denominator. It’s not a lot of falderal and silly talk and cuddling and coziness and assuming that as long as that is there, we have genuine Christian love in our fellowship.
All right. Well then, let’s look at this. Focusing on these first three verses, which is all that we’ll have time to do tonight, we’re going to discover that life in the Christian community, devoid of this love, is not just nothing; it’s worse than nothing!
The bottom line is this; let’s summarize it, and then we’ll discover it, and then we’ll wrap it up. What Paul is saying is this: the most extravagant exercise and display of spiritual giftedness cannot compensate for the lack of love. He’s essentially going to say, “I don’t care what gift you have. I don’t care how good you are at using it. I don’t care how many people are impressed with it. If you are devoid of love, you’re worse than nothing.” That’s a sobering thought—especially when we have grown used to quantifying our viability and our place on the basis of our gifts.
And that’s what was going on in Corinth: “What gift do you have? Is your gift as good as mine? Are people as impressed with what you’re able to do as with what I’m able to do?” And so they were vying with one another. They were putting one another down. They were feeling a sense of isolation. And in that they were not unique; it happens in the church all the time. That’s why I was saying again this morning in the book of Nehemiah, let us understand that the kind of people God uses are ordinary people. Ordinary people, that he makes extraordinary by his Spirit.
Now, while the application may be difficult to accept, the instruction is not hard to understand. Paul makes three strong statements about the nature of things when love is absent. Here they are, précised—paragraphed, as it were—by myself, but I think you’ll find they’re here. The first one is this: “Without love, I am a noisy nuisance, nothing else.” “Without love, I am a noisy nuisance.”
We already learned back in 8:1 that love edifies. He said there that “knowledge puffs up” but that “love builds up.” So when we exercise spiritual gifts from a heart of love and within the framework of love, then it edifies God’s people. When love is lacking, the impact is negative. And so he says, “Listen, if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels—if I use earthly language, heavenly language, any kind of language you can imagine—all of my best show with that,” he says, “cannot be compared with the practice of love.”
Now, it’d seem more than likely, given the context, again, that his emphasis here is upon ecstatic speech. And very many times we’ve been in fellowships where a group of people who have come in, and they have made much of the fact that they “speak in tongues,” whatever they mean by that and whatever that means to them in the public expression of things. As a result of that, they have introduced confusion and chaos amongst the people of God. And the reason has been because they have not understood the necessity of love, and often on the part of the recipients of such people, they neither have understood the necessity for love. So you have “gifts minus love equals chaos.”
Now, not only ecstatic speech but also eloquent discourse can surely be included in this. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels…” You know, we may be very gifted with our tongues. We may be able to make cogent arguments. We may be able to speak helpfully to our colleagues and our neighbors about the things of Jesus. But when love is missing, we might as well bang away on a gong or clang away on a cymbal.
Now, I was gonna have a gong and a cymbal here tonight, and then I decided against it. I was gonna have somebody come out and just keep hitting it till you went absolutely bonkers and you started shouting, “Shut him up!” Because there’s nothing worse than the unmelodious measures from just that ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The Hare Krishnas had it down pat. I’m sure they raised more money on the basis of that unmelodious gong thing for people just to get them to move on to the next corner: “Go! Take your gong and go!” He says, “Ding, ding, ding, ding.” Drive you absolutely crazy. And he says, “If you don’t have love, and you have this tongue business or eloquent discourse going on around you, you may just as well be banging on this unmelodious measure. You may make sounds as offensive as a continually barking dog.”
Incidentally, continually barking dog—doesn’t that drive you nuts? There’s nothing quite like that. Except we just got seven more dogs in our home the other evening. They can’t bark yet, but they go like this: “Eek!” And they haven’t paused since they came. They just go, “Eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek!” Do you like that sound? And Paul says, “Hey, here’s the deal. You think you’re a big shot ’cause you can speak. You think you’re fancy ’cause you’ve got the gift of tongues, whatever it means.” He said, “If you don’t have love, you might as well stand around going, ‘Eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek, eek.’ ’Cause that’s exactly what it does to people.”
Now, the background to this is very straightforward. Again, you need to understand Corinth. The people in Corinth worshipped all kinds of things. You remember we spoke about the offering of sacrifices that had been offered to demons and so on. Many of them worshipped Dionysus, who was the god of nature; Cybele, the goddess of wild animals. And in their worship of these pagan deities, they used a thing called a chalkos, which was a gong, a piece of copper; and a kymbalon, which was a cymbal, a single-toned instrument. And they used to take these things in their pagan worship, and they banged on them to invoke the god, or to drive away the demons, or to rouse the worshippers. “So,” says Paul, “you might as well sound out these unmelodious measures as utilize language devoid of love.”
Without love, you’re a noisy nuisance.
Secondly, without love, I am zero. I am zero. “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.” Zero.
In the first instance, Paul addresses the significance of the absence of love within the framework of spiritual gifts. He says, “When we exercise gifts without love, it is offensive to people.” And so the biggest problem facing a local church in terms of its effective witness is not the absence of spiritual gifts. It’s always going to be the absence of love. Without love, we have evacuated our usefulness before the watching world, and we have evacuated our significance before God.
Turn back just for a second to 1 Corinthians 3:14. Surely this is some kind of cross-reference, where he says, “[You know], if any man builds on this foundation,” 1 Corinthians 3:12,
using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
So everybody will have said, “Goodness gracious, what a wonderful fellow he was! What a lady she is! Oh boy, they must be really heading for a big spot in the kingdom. They’re going straight on to Fifth Avenue when they get there. Have you heard him? Have you seen her? Have you seen what they’re able to do with that music? They must be way up there!”
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Because the test which God applies to our ministry, to our gifts, is the test of the motivation of our hearts. And some of us look at verse 1 and we say, “Oh, well that’s good. I don’t have a problem with verse 1. Therefore, I am not a resounding gong; I’m not a clanging cymbal. I don’t have any of this ecstatic speech, or I’m not really that good at talking, and I don’t like to talk very much.”
Well, what if you’ve got the gift of prophecy, and you’re really good at fathoming mysteries—and you don’t have love? No matter how well it’s received, there’s nothing of real and lasting value. What about, he says, if you have insight and knowledge and ability to grasp the truth of God’s Word? Without love, no matter how it is admired, how it is applauded, it just is a zero. What if you’ve got the gift of special faith, and God enables you to be able to look at problems and to bring faith to bear upon them, trusting in God, and you’ve seen dramatic things happen? You may have made great strides. You may have been involved in the founding of a project. You may have established something. You may have a vision for the future. But, says Paul, if you don’t have love, it’s nothing! It’s not just “quite good.” It’s not just marginal. It’s nothing!
You see, the Corinthians clearly thought—this is a fundamental mistake, made then and made now—that the possessors of certain gifts must inevitably be extremely important persons. But, says Paul, without love, not only are they unimportant, they amount to nothing.
You see, when we look at ourselves in the mirror of comparison, whereby we look at the way that God has gifted us amongst one another, irrespective of which rung we believe ourselves to be on the ladder, there will be one or two below us and one or two above us, but we will be able to retain some measure of self-esteem and validity on the strength of our gifts.
But what if our gifts don’t mean anything? What if they mean nothing? Well, could they possibly mean nothing? That’s exactly what he’s saying.
You taking notes? Take your pen and write down “one, comma, zero-zero-zero, zero-zero-zero.” Go ahead: “one, zero-zero-zero, zero-zero-zero.” How much is that? One million. Okay?
Scrape out the one. How much have you got? Pardon? Nothing! Zero.
So you can have nine spiritual gifts and be well spoken of in the community, in the church, in the nation, in the world, and without the one in front of the nine zeroes, you’ve got nine zeroes, and so do I. See why I said this morning, this is an uncomfortable section?
You see, God, as it were, is not driving up and down Aurora Road looking for churches with spires. He’s not impressed with the numbers in the building. He’s not impressed with any of the considerations that we tend to focus on that give us validity and context in our world. He is judging it all, as he judged the Corinthian context, on the basis of one criteria—namely, the expression, the reality, the possession of genuine Christian love.
Okay, you with me? Without love, I am nothing more than a noisy nuisance. Without love, I am zero.
Thirdly and finally, without love, I can’t make it. “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Is Paul going up in these three verses? He starts down here with tongues, he then goes on to mysteries and moving mountains and everything else, and then he hits the high spot, and he says, “Now, for those of you who are into self-sacrifice, let me tell you what’s going on. If with one great sweeping gesture you were to give away everything…”
Now, can you imagine that? We’ve read of it in Christian biography; we haven’t done it. We may have approximated to it at some points in our lives, but most of us have never done it. “And so,” says Paul, “imagine that for a moment that you decided, ‘As of this evening, we’re going to empty all the accounts, we’re going to sell all that we have, we’re going to go somewhere, and we’re going to give it all away to the poor.’” Now, you would be headlines in the newspaper; you would be on talk shows, if you played your cards correctly; and people would say, “Now there is somebody. There’s a real genuine Christian.” ’Cause that’s what people tell us. They say, “Well, you know, a genuine Christian is somebody who doesn’t have anything and who gives it all away, and since you’re not giving away, and since you’ve got it, you can’t be a genuine Christian.”
Well, if we were to fall foul of that notion and in one sweeping gesture give it all away, then we would have hit the bull’s-eye, wouldn’t we? No, says Paul. Without love being the motive, it may be nothing more than an act of pomposity, an act of bravado, or even the response of a guilty conscience. Because on the basis of feeling guilty about what we’ve got, we could decide that the only way we could deal with the guilt is to give it all away. And so, on the basis of guilt, we give it all away, and people have said, “Goodness me, there’s a wonderful person.” And God looks from heaven and says, “That doesn’t matter a hill of beans.” Because the motivation and the action was not love. It didn’t prevail with God. It wouldn’t avail us anything.
Well then, what if we were to endure a martyr’s death? What if we were to die for our faith? Well, such activity could be nothing more than an expression of foolishness. It may even be an expression of selfishness—if it was not marked by love.
One thing is needful, and nothing can make up for its lack.
Well, what of us tonight? Some of us are cozying up to our gifts as a source of our significance and our security. We make a big noise, but we might be no use. Others of us find our worth and our value in our knowledge and in our influence. We ought to be careful. Others of us are relying on our sense of self-sacrifice, and yet we may be driven by pride or by fear, and we have a zero balance.
I have nothing else to say. Those are the first three verses. Three of the most challenging verses that I have read for some time. Applying it personally, one has to say that one may be well spoken of, abused, considered highly, given positions of opportunity and of influence, and in the eternal reckoning get to heaven like a shipwrecked sailor. Some pastors will end in heaven just like that. No matter that people were impressed, no matter that people got saved, no matter that gifts were effective—if there isn’t love.
And for a congregation upon whose ministry God has kept his hand, we need to remember that it is here, by this great quantifier, that he assesses the significance of all our giftedness. And if any of us say that we love God while at the same time hating our brothers or our sisters, then we make ourselves out to be less than truthful, and we diminish the ongoing development of God’s plan and purpose in our lives.
Let’s pray together:
Our God and our Father, we pray that you will take your Word and use it to humble, to establish, to teach, and to train. Forgive us for our lack of love. Forgive us for the way in which we rely upon our apparent giftedness, whatever that may be—whether in administration, or in financial resources, or in teaching, or in self-sacrifice, or in art, in music, in song. And pour out upon us, Lord, in these days a genuine spirit of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. We want to learn from you, Lord Jesus, as we study these verses. We want to be different as a result of having put ourselves underneath their dictates. We pray that you will teach us what it means to love one another as you have loved us.
And so, may the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself. May the joy of the Lord Jesus strengthen us as we serve him. May the peace of the Lord Jesus guard and keep our hearts and minds, tonight and until Jesus comes or calls us to himself, and then forevermore. Amen.
 Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain (London: Sheldon, 1978), 73–74, quoted in David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 225.
 Merton, 225–26. Paraphrased.
 Merton, 225.
 Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God” (1917).
 Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (1958; repr., London: Tyndale, 1960), 181.
 John 13:34–35 (NIV 1984).
 Rick Astley and Rob Fisher, “Hopelessly” (1993).
 Matthew 5:44 (paraphrased).
 Prior, 1 Corinthians, 227–28.
 See 1 John 4:20.
 See John 13:34.
Copyright © 2021, 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.