The More Excellent Way
Topic: Spiritual Gifts Passage: 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:13
“THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY”
1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13
 31 And I will show you a still more excellent way.
 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
There have probably been more songs written and sung about “love” than any other single subject. It has been that way for thousands of years, and it certainly remains true today. Not all of them find a place on “Billboard’s Top 100,” but men and women never cease in their attempts to give musical expression to both the finding and loss of “love.”
The interesting thing about such songs is that most of them have little to do with “love” at all...at least not in the way that the Bible depicts the topic. You see, the world has a totally different perspective of “love” than does the Lord.
When the world discusses “love” it tends to do so on the basis of emotion. That’s why we speak of “falling in and out of love.” Even the dictionary defines love as “a tender, passionate affection for another.” And while there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with the feelings associated with love, left alone those “feelings” do not measure up to the biblical ideal. Genuine “love” is certainly more than a feeling that we feel when we have never felt that way before.
C.S. Lewis attempted to sort all of that out when he wrote of The Four Loves nearly sixty years ago. In a series of lectures on the four Greek words for “love,” he argued that although one type of “love” differed in quality and character from all of the others, each was considered to be “good” when properly expressed. And therein lies the problem...how are as sinners—we who are by nature separated from the God who Himself is called “love” (cf. 1 John 4:8)—to be expected to “love” in the manner in which God has prescribed?
We have come this morning to that passage in our Bibles that has been called “the love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. If you have been to very many Christian weddings, then you have no doubt heard this passage read or recited as the ideal description of “love.” One commentator has even labeled it “a psalm in praise of love.” Two generations before C.S. Lewis, the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond penned a beautiful essay based upon this chapter, in which he extolled the virtues of “love.” What he entitled The Greatest Thing in the World, the Apostle Paul had earlier called “a still more excellent way.”
That phrase, found at the very end of chapter 12, is the one that introduces this chapter. We also must note that chapter 13 it falls right in the middle of the apostle’s corrective instruction to the Corinthian church regarding their misuse of “spiritual gifts” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1). There are some commentators who see this chapter as an “interlude” or a “digression” from the topic Paul has been discussing, but I assure you that is not the case. Instead, 1 Corinthians 13 is the mortar that holds chapters 12 and 14 together.
Therefore, I propose to you that even though “love” is the principle subject of this chapter it is not actually the main topic. Instead, the apostle feels the necessity to say some things regarding the proper role of love in their use of the gifts. Specifically what this passage is teaching is that the exercise of “love” in the life of the church takes priority over the exercise of the gifts, because “love” is the more excellent way. Paul will support that statement by showing us three aspects of “love” that demonstrate its superior quality, namely its necessity, its character, and its permanence.
In the first place, we are able to note in verses 1 through 3 that...
Love is essential (verses 1-3).
Here in the opening paragraph, we see that “love” is superior to the “gifts” because without “love” all the “gifts” are meaningless. The presence of “love” is essential if the “gifts” are to operate in the manner in which the Lord has prescribed. We should be clear at the outset of this discussion that the “love” of which Paul writes throughout this chapter is “αγαπη-love.” It has often been described as “the highest form of love,” because it speaks of the “love” which God demonstrates as a result of His character, as well as the “love” that He demands of His people. In order for any of us to “love” this way, God must equip us.
“God so loved the world,” we read in John 3:16. The two great commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus charges His disciples to “love one another” the same way that He has loved us, and He described that kind of love as being willing to “lay down” one’s life for another (cf. John 15:12-13). Throughout the New Testament, “love” permeates the discussion of what it means to be a Christian and how to live as one. Therefore, as Paul devotes this memorable portion of his letter to the subject of “love,” the purpose is to do more than provide a “love poem” for a wedding ceremony. Herein lies the kernel of Christian living, especially as it relates to serving one another in the church through the proper exercise of the “gifts” with which the Lord given us to glorify Him and to make Him known.
There is a very unfortunate translation dating back to the King James Version found in these three verses, and it has resulted in a great deal of confusion in the church, especially over the last century. Nearly every modern version correctly reads, “If I speak in the tongues...if I have prophetic powers,” et cetera, whereas the King James translators had rendered it “Though I speak...though I have the gift of prophecy.” There is a huge difference, because “though” suggests that something is certain. It says that it is so. But the original text will not allow for that. Instead, Paul is speaking hypothetically: “If it were possible for me...” is what is he intends to say.
When he writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,” and so on, he is not saying that he is actually able to do that, or that he is even admitting that an “angelic language” actually exists. He is no more implying that he speaks in an “angelic tongue” than that he is literally “delivering up his body to be burned.” Our Pentecostal and charismatic friends believe the mention of “tongues of men and angels” to be a reference to a “prayer language” granted to Spirit-filled believers, and one to be exercised in private devotions and conversations with the Lord. The difficulty with such an interpretation is that it finds no additional solid biblical support. Instead, it tends to read into the text something that is not there. Consider the fact that wherever angels are found speaking in Scripture, they are always communicating with men in a known human language.
But Paul’s point is not to argue whether or not “unknown” tongues exist, but rather that every “gifting” of God for His church must be exercised in “love.” If it is not, then it is as disturbing as “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” or to be considered as “nothing.” God-given and received “love” is the source that empowers the proper operation of the “gifts” within the body of Christ. Apart from “love,” they are useless. Therefore, “love” is essential. In fact, without “love” all the “gifts” are meaningless.
It has been said that “Love to be love must be given away.” “Love” is, therefore, superior because of its selfless character. It is essential. But in addition...
Love is effectual (verses 4-7).
Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, satirically wrote, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” We may hear those words as a humorous overstatement, but upon further reflection they appear to be taking a jab at the localchurch. Had the Corinthians been around when Swift said them, and had their consciences been more tender than they actually seem to have been, the believers there likely would have been convicted by such a statement. Their overemphasis on the spectacular “gifts” like “tongues...prophetic powers...and...knowledge,” to the exclusion of “love,” exposed their lack of spiritual maturity. They certainly did not seem to be “loving one another.”
In verses 4 through 7 we find a list of qualities which describe the kind of “love” to which the apostle refers. It bears similarities to “the fruit of the Spirit” that we read about in Galatians 5(:22-23). And even though we frequently hold up this list of qualities as a paradigm for Christian behavior, we must again keep in mind that it appears within the context of “spiritual gifts.” How is “love” manifested? How is it recognized? How will we know it when we see it?
Interestingly, Paul sandwiches this listing of “love’s identifiable characteristics” in between two nearly synonymous terms. In verse 4, we read that “Love is patient,” and in verse 7, we are told that “Love...endures all things.” The distinction lies in the type of “staying power” of which each word speaks. “Patience” (“μακροθυμεω”) in verse 4 can be thought of as “passive suffering” in the face of adversity or opposition;” whereas “endurance” (“‘υπομενω”) speaks of “active perseverance” that refuses to quit when the going gets tough. So, if “love” was a person, what would it look like? These descriptors tell us that...
“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.”
We could take time to define, describe, and even illustrate each of these characteristics this morning, but they speak for themselves, do they not? Were we to wrap them up collectively and put a label on them, we might call them “selflessness,” or even “self-sacrificing.” Later on, Paul would provide a summary-statement of these qualities to the Christians living in Philippi, saying, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Now, that’s “love!”
Do you know anyone who is like that? Throughout the entirety of my life I have met only one Person who has embodied these qualities consistently and without exception. His name is Jesus. According to Ephesians 4(:7-16), He is the One who—through His obedient life, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, and glorified ascension—has given “gifts” to His followers...those who make up the church. And He has done so, as that passage explains, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Jesus alone is the embodiment of “love.” And we have been called to “follow His lead.” That means living in complete dependence, by consistently submitting ourselves to Him so that His Spirit will begin producing those same traits in us. And as those qualities are being developed, we are told that the world will sit up and take notice. Jesus Himself said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Could it be that the Gospel has not taking greater hold on our community because it is not seeing His “love” being manifested through us in the way that the Lord has prescribed? True “love” cannot help but find expression. Once “the love of Christ” has taken hold of us, we will “love” God with all of our being, and we will express that “love” through our care for one another and our service to others. We will not retreat to our “safe spaces” and “comfort zones” when opportunities to share that “love” are made known.
Few of us would deny that the “love” being described within this chapter is essential, but do we truly believe it is effectual in carrying out God’s purposes? Do we really believe that the Lord will reach others for Himself through when we allow His “love” to shine forth from us? It is the only way for our “gifts” to be exercised effectively. This afternoon and this week, at our block party and our Vacation Bible School, will you join with us in sharing the “love” of Jesus Christ with those around us? And lest we forget, this is what we have been called to. It is why we exist as a church.
“Love” is essential, because without “love” the “gifts” are meaningless, and “love” is effectual because of its selfless character. And in concluding this chapter, the apostle also wants us to know that...
Love is eternal (verses 8-13).
The reason that is so is because “love” outlasts the “gifts.” In other words, it endures beyond them. It is superior to the “gifts,” because “love” is preeminent. That is the point of this entire passage. “Gifts” are good, and “gifts” are necessary for the present age. But “love” is superior and will still be in operation long after the need for “gifts” has passed.
Paul enters right into that thought in verse 8, stating without any ambiguity, “Love never ends.” Those three words provide the thesis statement to this entire chapter. The implication is that the “spiritual gifts” will reach a terminal point, but “love” will endure. The word that he chooses to convey the “never ending” quality of love (“πιπτω”) has the idea of “never being tripped up or stumbling.” It never falls...and it never fails.
In verse 8, we are told that “prophecies”...“tongues”....(and) “knowledge” will all one day “pass away” or “cease.” That is because, as verse 9 reveals, they are only “partial” or “incomplete” means by which the Lord communicates His truth to His people. These and the other “gifts” were given to serve a “now” purpose, whereas “love,” because of its eternal and complete nature, will outlive them. One day the “gifts” will be no more, and that is because there will one day be a full and more complete revelation of God that will far exceed them.
In verse 10, Paul calls that full revelation of God “perfect.” “When the perfect comes,” he writes, “ the partial will pass away.” There has been much debate over what is being referred to here, and two main interpretations have dominated the debate. The first is that “the perfect” refers to the close of the canon of Scripture, and suggests that when the last inspired book of the Bible was written there was no longer any need for the “partial” revelation provided by the “gifts.” Proponents of this position, therefore, tend to view the manifestation of the “spiritual gifts” as a part of the bygone apostolic age. Many of the arguments for that view can be compelling.
The other prominent view is that “the perfect” has reference to the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the present age. The Greek word for “perfect” (“τελειοs”) can be used in support of either position, so context has to be the key factor in considering which of the two is the more accurate interpretation. That being said, it would seem that the “face to face” reference found in verse 12 speaks of that day when Paul (and all believers) will at last “see” Jesus as He truly is. On that day, both the apostle and we “shall know fully, even as (we) have been fully known.” The writer’s compelling argument for the present proper exercise of the “gifts” in “love” is that one day—sooner than any of us might expect—we will see Jesus “face to face.”
So to be clear, “the perfect” has nothing to do with some form or state of “spiritual perfection” in the present age. All human knowledge is partial, and it will always be that way. Were it not so, then we would know everything that God knows, and that would make us His equal. That cannot and will not happen. Eternity, I believe, will be a continuing learning and growing experience that far exceeds anything that even the most intelligent and perceptive among us can possibly now imagine. Perhaps we will be exploring galaxies throughout the vast expanse of this limitless universe that not even the most powerful telescopes that man can construct are now able to see. And, perhaps, as we look on with wonder and amazement, the same Lord who gave His life in order that we might know the forgiveness of sins, may lean toward us and gently whisper in our ear, “I made that for you to enjoy.”
In describing this process of Christian maturation in verse 11, he writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Paul is not speaking pejoratively here. He is merely saying that, for now, we are unable to get a true image. “We see in a mirror dimly,” he reminds us. Things will remain a “riddle” to us for a while longer. The context is not dealing with “childishness” as opposed to “growing up,” per se, but with the stunning difference between the present age and that which awaits us in the one to come.
Even with this thought, Paul is not content to leave us with our heads in the clouds. It is well and good for us to look toward things to come from time to time, but we must remember that our work down here below is not yet finished. Thus, the apostle concludes with these memorable words found in verse 13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” This, then, is the “more excellent way” that first introduced this chapter.
Gene Getz was one of my more memorable seminary professors. It was he who first made me aware of Paul’s frequent mention of the “faith, hope, and love”—trilogy throughout his epistles (cf. Galatians 5:5-6, Colossians 1:4-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and 5:8). Dr. Getz would refer to them as the believer’s “marks of maturity,” a description that applies neatly to the way that Paul brings those terms together at the conclusion of this chapter:
- • “faith” toward God as we trust Him to forgive and accept us in Christ.
- • “hope” for the future which has been guaranteed to those who are in Christ.
- • “love” for the Lord and for one another as we live together within the context of a community of brothers and sisters of similar “faith” and “hope.” These are the three spiritual “imperishables.”
Regarding the eternal character of “love” and its present application to the church, N.T. Wright has written these highly perceptive and greatly challenging words:
The point of (1 Corinthians) 13:8-13 is that the church must be working in the present on the things that will last into God’s future. Faith, hope and love will do this; prophecy, tongues and knowledge, so highly prized in Corinth, will not. They are merely signposts to the future; when you arrive, you no longer need signposts. Love, however, is not just a signpost. It is a foretaste of the ultimate reality. Love is not merely the Christian duty; it is the Christian’s destiny.
Although this chapter is exhilarating and fills us with excitement at the prospect of what is yet to come, it also leaves us with a rather large challenge for the here and now. When we read this description of “love” and then take a look into a mirror, we immediately recognize—or at least we should recognize—that this is not describing us, but rather the One in whose righteousness we stand. In a later epistle, Paul would remind these same Corinthians that “For our sake (God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are able to love Him and one another only because “he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Songs of love produced by the world do not come near to depicting “love” as it is described in these verses. Despite the sentimental messages of these songs, “love” is not words that we say or feelings that we have. It is not even deeds that we do. It is something that comes to us from an outside Source. “Love” happens to us when God Himself invades a life. And when He does, He brings to life a dead heart, infusing it with His Spirit and rendering it capable of loving and living for His glory. “In this is love,” wrote Paul’s fellow-apostle John (4:10), not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Have you met this One who has demonstrated His “love” in such an intimate way? Until you do, then you remain incapable of loving as it has been described for us in this passage.
Sad to say, an over-emphasis placed upon the work of Holy Spirit is neither “holy” nor “spiritual.” It is not “holy” when it ignores a sound understanding of the Scriptures; and it is not “spiritual” when it appeals to the carnal nature. That being said, we must not de-emphasize the work of the Spirit altogether, as more theologically-conservative churches are often tempted to do. I cannot help but wonder how Paul might have responded to what one writer has labeled our modern-day “cerebral Christianity,” which has generally implied that we can get along quite well without the Spirit now that we have become “mature” in our orthodoxy.
Let me just say, in response, that we have not yet arrived where we need to be with regard to loving as we ought. To think that we have reveals that we still “see in a mirror dimly.” “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Let us, therefore, take the “gifts” God has granted to this local body, bathe them in His essential, effectual, and eternal love, and faithfully serve or Lord, one another, and those around us until “the perfect comes.” That is, after all, the “more excellent way.”
I mentioned earlier how the description of “love” found in 1 Corinthians 13 bears striking similarities to “the fruit of the Spirit” spelled out in Galatians 5. That is because “love” is inseparably related to all of the other “fruit.” There is simply no real “spiritual fruit” apart from God-given “love.” At the end of our lives, we are each going to be evaluated not by the number of “gifts” we display or by the talents God has given us, but by how much “fruit” we have borne as Christians.