Christian Love Is Beyond All Hyperbole (I Cor. 12:31-13:8)
The 4th Sunday after Epiphany (January 30, 2021)
Two weeks from tomorrow it will be Valentine’s Day; the day once observed to remember the fidelity and fervent love of the martyr St. Valentine for God and others. To be sure, the occasion remains a day of love but with a whole different look. It is now marked by expressions of romantic love: roses, chocolates and Hallmark cards.
Before us this morning in this text from I Corinthians, within which we have arguably the greatest description of Christian love ever written. No, it is not a love letter. It is an exquisite exhortation to love and to love with a love beyond any that this world can even imagine… a love that is more valuable to the world than anything else you and I have and can give.
Now, that is saying something, is it not! God has graciously given us a true treasure trove of gifts. In our baptism into Christ, He has given us the forgiveness of all our sins… heavenly status as co-heirs with Christ… even His own Spirit on deposit in us. Through the mouths and pens of His chosen prophets and apostles, God has also given us the precious gift of His Holy Word, that Word that is the very witness, testimony, of Jesus, the Savior of sinners. As recipients of this saving Word, we are gifted to be God’s witnesses of truth and life to our world. On top of this, God has also graciously given us all sorts of abilities, both physical and spiritual, along with monetary resources and abundant opportunities to be those witnesses of the Gospel in our community and the world.
We have been richly blessed. It is tempting to think then that if love seems to be in short supply sometimes, it’s no big deal. However, clearly the Holy Apostle of the Lord, St. Paul, is saying it is an extremely big deal! He insists that as wonderful and as essential as all these gifts are to each of us personally and to the church corporate, they are nothing without love!”
Consider this, Fellas, what would that woman in your life consider more important, that you give her lots of attention, spoil her with candy and flowers, and give her that beautifully worded expression of love via Hallmark this coming Valentine’s Day, or that you demonstrate your love for her all year long in the ways you treat her, talk to her, and do things with her? I think we all know how she would respond. Chocolates and special attention are great, but what do these once a year tokens of our love compare with making her feel loved all year long? Without a year-long commitment of love, our Valentine gifts seem nothing but perfunctory, self –serving, and hollow gestures!
So it is within the church. Without a genuine love that seeks to use all that God has given us for the sake of others, all our actions and doings, as flashy and as noisy as they might be, will still only be as hollow as a big, base, drum.
The Apostle Paul’s original audience was the Christian church at Corinth. There was no community of Christians anywhere who enjoyed more blessings than they did. They had it all: wealth, good preachers, and spiritual gifts galore. In fact, in his opening remarks Paul states, “I always thank God for you because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in Him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift…”
I think we can even safely say that few, if any, other congregations of souls at that time or since have ever been so blessed with all these spiritual gifts, especially those of the more spectacularly miraculous nature. In chapter 10 we find this remarkable listing of spiritual gifts: “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of knowledge… to another faith… to another gifts of healing…to another miraculous powers… to another prophecy… to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues…”
We might be inclined to say, “Wow, this must have truly been a “happening congregation”… so alive in the spirit…so well equipped to make disciples of Jesus Christ!” Well, we would be wrong. All these gracious gifts of the Spirit, and yet, there was still something conspicuously and tragically absent. You guessed it. There was no love. They rejoiced in their gifts to be sure, but they were using their gifts only to benefit themselves.
In fact, Paul spends most of his letter scolding this spiritually rich congregation. In chapters 1-4 he chides them for splintering into factions… in chapters 5 & 6 for tolerating gross sins in their midst… in chapters 8-10 for tolerating the eating of meat sacrificed to idols regardless of the damage this was causing to their brothers and sisters’ consciences and faith… in chapter 11 for their discrimination of who could partake of the Lord’s Supper based on how wealthy people were… and in chapters 12-14 for their insistence on judging who were superior Christians based upon which kind of gifts they possessed.
As a consequence, here in chapter 13, as Paul says his aim is to show them “a more excellent way.” That more excellent, or superb, way involves a love beyond all loves; a love that looks at all one possesses as gifts to be utilized for the loving benefit of others, especially that of their fellow members in the Body of Christ.
This love, he wants them and us to understand, is not just something that is nice to have, but in the Body of Christ it is essential to have. Without love all our gifts mean nothing and fail to fulfill the purpose for which God had graciously given them to us in the first place.
Paul delineates the necessity of this love by using a literary device known as hyperbole. He offers three exaggerated illustrations of having gifts without love. He postulates: “If I speak in the tongues of men and (even) of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and (even) understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and (even) if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and (even) if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Now, many of the gifted among the Corinthians had begun to elevate the ability to speak in tongues above all the others. It was almost as if they were viewing the ability to speak in tongues as the best evidence of all that God was favoring them. Accordingly, those so gifted began to look down their noses at others who did not have this miraculous ability to speak in a foreign language that they had never before learned. And to show how blessed they were by God, those who could speak in tongues would start blabbering away in the midst of the assembly whenever they felt like it, apparently in an attempt to outdo each other. But no one could understand what they said. So what good was it to others?
Just imagine, however, the potential for great good such an ability could have in speaking the Gospel to foreigners. Like the apostles on the day of Pentecost, who were each given this gift of speaking in tongues, you could proclaim the Savior to people in their own native tongue. But that blessing was not being witnessed in the congregation at Corinth. Instead, that sinful, selfish, desire to be better than every body else that resides in everyone of us, made these gifted people simply show off their ability without any concern at all whether anyone else was benefiting from their gift. And you can bet no one was. In fact, their incessant babbling was driving people away, assuming that they were crazy loons!
This is still the case among the so called “charismatic” groups today. They insist that if you can speak in tongues then that is the sure sign that you have truly been baptized by the Spirit; or born again. Of course, they then insist that if person can’t speak in tongues then, he or she is at best a second class Christian and at worst, no Christian at all! Instead of building up others they are tearing them down.
Later in chapter 14 Paul quite clearly points out the utter fallacy and blatant lack of love this attitude about speaking in tongues actually exhibits. Besides telling these tongue speakers that they have a childish attitude and should desire rather to have the gift of prophecy by which they could actually benefit people by preaching God’s Word in an understandable way to them, Paul rather bluntly tells them that when they enter the worship assembly they should speak only one at a time and then only if they have an interpreter, and if not then they should sit down and shut up!
Why could Paul speak so boldly and critically to these gifted people? Because, as he says, if the gift of tongues is used merely to elevate and benefit oneself and not others, it doesn’t matter what human language you speak, or even if you speak in the tongues of the holy angels themselves, your speaking is nothing but an irritating, noisy, clanging, gong or crashing cymbal. And who wants to listen to that! It is just so much noise. Such a self-centered use of ones gift demonstrates a total lack of love that is not fitting those who follow the Lord of Love, Jesus Christ.
In a similar vein, even the gift of prophecy, which Paul later elevates as the gift that can have the greatest benefit for others because it proclaims God’s Word to people, still is nothing if it is merely used to elevate oneself in the eyes of others. “Look at me! Aren’t I a great preacher? God has given me to know all these things, even mysteries hidden from everyone else. Don’t you wish you were me?”
What could leave a more sour taste in our mouths than to listen to someone preach to us with an attitude like that? We would be so turned off that we wouldn’t even listen to their message. Even if they preached the right Gospel, it would be buried by their bravado! What good would such a prophet be to the church? See how essential love is even for the prophet of God! As one theologian as stated, “Without (love) even the most extraordinary spiritual gift is worthless” (Lockwood, p.455).
And talk about being of no value. What if you and I have been graciously gifted by God with all the world’s goods, but merely saw them as something to expend on our own pleasures, giving little to help the needs of others or the needs of God’s kingdom work through our church? We profit no one? Is this love? At the same time, even if you and I do give generously in the offering plate but do so only to get a good tax deduction, or merely to impress others, or even to try to earn favor with God, such giving stinks to high heaven and profits nothing! Only that giving which stems from a true love for God and our brothers in Christ is a sweet fragrance in the nostrils of God and will be blessed by God to be a blessing.
Imagine if God, who has all wealth and ability, did not use them for the benefit of anyone except Himself! We would know of no benefit whatsoever. His grace would elude us. We would know only of His wrath. We would still be lost in our sins.
But God’s love is beyond all hyperbole! His love moves Him to use all that He has for your benefit and mine. There is no human being that I know of that has the love to truly give away every thing he has, even his own body and life, for the sake of others. But our God does. We see that complete sacrificial love in the cross of Jesus! In that love, in the flesh of Jesus God has even atoned for our failures to use our gifts in love. He already suffered the punishment for our lack of love. How’s that a Valentine for you!
There in the cross of Jesus we see the character of true love, the love God has for us and the love that we are to have toward each other in the Body of Christ. “Love as I have loved you,” Jesus says.
And lest, we somehow still do not get the message of the real character of this love or if we begin to confuse it with the world’s concept of love, Paul spells it out for us. We read: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…” This is a love beyond all hyperbole!
What a blessing all those gifts given to the Corinthians would have been to that congregation if they had only been guided and utilized in this kind of love! Imagine what a blessing you and I could be to this congregation and our community if we were so motivated to exercise and use our gifts by this same love. I wonder, would we even recognize the place?
So essential is this love, that Paul makes the almost unbelievable remark: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Love is greater than faith? Aren’t we saved by faith? Yes, but Paul is not speaking about our trust in God’s promise to save us in Jesus Christ. He is speaking about that extraordinary gift of faith, that can move a mountain. It is that faith that inspires others to believe. And yet, Paul says, love is even greater than this faith. Why? Because, as one theologian has worded it, “God is not called ‘faith’ or ‘hope’ absolutely; He is called ‘love.’ Love alone makes us like God…” (Bengel). The apostle John says it this way, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (I Jn. 4:7).
God has loved us in Christ to be a true Valentine to the world!