Wednesday, July 27, 2011

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3 : THE PRIORITY OF LOVE

TEXT : 1 Corinthians 12:31 -  13:3   
TITLE:     The Priority of Love
 DATE :    24  /07 /2011

(i)                 The priority of Love ( 1 – 3)
(ii)               The properties of  Love ( 4 – 7)
(iii)             The permanence of Love  (8 – 13)      

1 Corinthians  12 – 14 forms  a unit of thought in Paul’s  first letter to the Corinthians. Here  he addresses the matter  of spiritual gifts in the church .

 From Chapter 12 we established  the following principles:
(i)               Spiritual gifts must be  Spirit empowered  and Christ -centered  ( 12:1-3)
(ii)             They are of a  great variety  and they must be used for  spiritual good (12:4-7)
(iii)      We have no reason to believe that all  the  spiritual gifts  that  are  available are  necessarily mentioned here . The list of 20 or so gifts is illustrative  rather than definitive. We also have no reason to believe that  all the gifts mentioned here  need to be in operation today. Certain gifts e.g. apostles , prophets , tongues, miracles by laying on of hands etc are foundational gifts. They were foundational to the early church , and they served as signs of authentication  of the gospel ministry of the early church  , because the New Testament  , the final  and authoritative Word  of Jesus was not yet   recorded for future generations. This does not mean that  the Sovereign Holy Spirit  cannot do  miracles of healing or causing people to speak in tongues  wherever He wishes . But it is not normative in a society where the written Word is  available . ( 12:8-10)
(iv)            The Holy Spirit is the Sovereign Dispenser of gifts . We do not pick and choose them as we will (12: 11)
(v)          Spiritual gifts are important to the healthy life of the church. Just as all  the members of  a physical body are important to each other , so everyone with their  spiritual  gifts  is important in the church . No one can say :” You don’t need me … I don’t need you …” . Each  one is a  vital part of the body ( 12:12 - 30)

The context of all Paul’s teaching  is this terrible division in  the church  . This  is all due to  a wrong focus . Their whole approach  begins with  focus on  self  rather than focus on God  in Christ and on one another .This is the human default  view from which we all need to be delivered .  This kind of attitude  is  exemplified in Chapter  11:21, where the  most visible expression of unity – that of eating together,    received this rebuke :  “ Each one  goes ahead with his own meal…” . In our immediate context however,   Paul addresses  the  view  that  had arisen  in the church  that the spiritual gifts , which the Holy Spirit gives to the church  are used for  self centered  purposes, when they were in fact designed  for the  edification of the whole church . This has brought us to the end of chapter 12 , where the apostle  Paul is about to make a masterstroke , thus settling any disputes on the gifts once and for all . I am now introducing you to the famous Love chapter of the Bible.

What follows now in terms of Paul’s argument is absolutely  vital. Chapter 13  forms part of Paul’s exposition of the spiritual gifts. In fact,  this chapter is  ‘ in the middle ‘ of his discourse on spiritual gifts. He is about to make further comments  on  the use  of some of the foundational gifts of prophecy   and  tongues in Ch 14  ,but he  stops his flow of thought  and introduces this vital subject  on  the more excellent way   - Love !
Now that is profound ! Graham Scroggie  says that "on each side of this chapter, the  tumult of argument and remonstrance still rages. But within the chapter all is calm..."[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. 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,  but have not love, I gain nothing.

1. What Paul does here,  is to give  the Corinthian church an interpretative principle  for the  use of spiritual gifts in the church . He gives them a set of spectacles  through which they must look if they  hope to be successful in the application of the spiritual gifts in the church.  We learn a  significant lesson  here on how  Paul handles conflict by addressing  the matter  of attitudes and motives in our actions .  Remember , that he is dealing with a church full of self centered individualists .
What does he do ? He introduces  a vital  biblical  perspective  which is guaranteed  to destroy all self centeredness :  “Love” ! This  word  “ love”  must not be confused with the  modern self centered,  feeling based  notion of love . We are  talking about  a  godly love . The  Greek Word   for this love is “ agape” . It is an ‘other centered’  love .  The objective or focus  of this love is not  ‘self ‘ – but others . This  love begins with “love  for  God” , and it  continues with “love for our neighbours” . It is summarized  by  Christ  as  the greatest commandments  ( Mk 12:30,31) . It is this  set of  spectacles which we must wear in the employment of our spiritual gifts .

The source of  love  is rooted  in God’s  own deep and profound  love . God’s  greatest and grandest attribute  is  His love .  GOD IS LOVE! ( 1 Jn 4:8) . This is who He is .   The most profound  demonstration of the Love of God  is  the gift of His only Son – the Lord  Jesus ( John 3:16)  .  By this love gift for us  , God destroys all arguments as to why unholy  sinners should be kept out of His holy  place– heaven. This love  covers all our sins  and makes us fit for heaven . But more than that , we are told in Romans  5:5 that  this love is also  poured ( a lavish  overflowing)  into our hearts  through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us . This love not only flows to us , but from us . This is why the apostle John says : “ Beloved , let us love one another, for love is from God , and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” ( 1 Jn  4:7)
So ,  the exercise of love , based  on God’s own love ( a communicable attribute of God )  becomes our priority and motive for  all that we do and say. Our own church mission statement  ( 1990)  affirms  this priority .  Eastside Baptist Church exists  to :  
  •  To love  God  (Worship)
  • To love one another  (Fellowship)
  • To  love  a lost World  ( Missions & Evangelism)
Central to our mission statement is that word “Love” .Those are the spectacles we wish to put on when we   would consider  how we should exercise our spiritual  gifts .

2. Spiritual gifts  practiced without  this love  are  empty  and meaningless . They are like a skeleton  without  flesh . They are like a tree without fruit  . They are like noisy gongs  or clanging cymbals  - much noise  but no music !
Paul makes  a vital point  here .  He is saying that Christian love must govern and direct all that we speak (tongues/ prophecy), all that we think (understanding mysteries /having knowledge)  and all that  we  do  (faith /sacrificial giving)  .  The absence of love  makes  the best gift  ‘nothing‘ . It makes the best tree fruitless . One  may be a very gifted individual  or church  , but if what you do is not bathed in the spirit of love ,  the  Word of God says  “you  are empty …  you  are  nothing “ .   

Love makes the spiritual gift  truly come alive .  It is  like the soul  to the body . It gives real personality to our being . Please note  that love  is not  actually considered a spiritual gift in itself . Love is more properly  listed as a fruit  in the Scriptures ( e.g.  Galatians 5:22) :   “the fruit of the Spirit is love , joy , peace , patience…. “  .  It is a fruit. This picture actually helps us to understand  the point  better .
The tree is the church . The branches of the tree  are  like the  spiritual gifts, all rooted in the tree  .  Love is one of the chief  fruit of the tree . It is certainly the choicest and sweetest of fruit  . The fruit is  what  makes the tree useful and valuable   What  makes  the Christian   a valuable person ? Not simply their giftedness , but their  fruitfulness ! Think of it again  . A  tree and its branches  without fruit  is useless. That is why Jesus cursed the barren fig tree ( Matt  21:18-19- which incidentally is a picture of barren Israel ) . Fruitfulness is what we were designed and  saved  for . Remember ? Your spiritual gifts should be a blessing  for the church .    Spiritual gifts expressed  in  selfless  love  for the common good  of the church is what we are looking for  .
This is so important to understand .  I do not have to remind you, that we live in a day and age, when the  ‘spirituality’ of church life  is mostly  measured by performance . It  is mostly measured by  what natural and spiritual gifts men and women  bring  into the body . Performance is everything .  The inner motive  is often not  considered  -  as long as  everything looks  good on the outside ! So too , people  mostly judge a  church  by outward impressions . In a market driven environment  we constantly fall  for this temptation . That is why  so much energy and focus is used in  this area . We know  that modern people ( as is true for  people of  all ages) are  attracted to personalities   and silver-tongued orators ;  they are  attracted to beautiful  music and aesthetics ;  they are attracted  by  miracle ministries  (healing, tongues, prophecy) .  People  think that  these are signs  of a  vital  spirituality/Christianity.  The heart of man has really not changed much in this regard . Our text however teaches us  that the sign  of  a  truly gifted church is that love prevails in all that we do ! This also  means  that we speak the truth in love ; we do our deeds  in love .  Unfortunately many people claim to speak in tongues, but cannot speak the truth in English. Many  claim to do all sorts of miracles and casting out of demons, but they cannot cast sin out of their own lives.
We are not wanting to downplay the gifts. We simply want to see them  expressed  with a true biblical motive . That is what the apostle Paul teaches us to do.  We simply want to put the gifts  into correct  perspective, and handle them with EXTREME care, because Satan uses  these to DECEIVE God's people. Surely this is an area  in which Satan has caused  considerable havoc . He has  made much gain in the division of the church by getting people to  focus  on the  expression  of  gifts , devoid  of love !
Has it ever occurred to you that  Satan can imitate gifts , but  cannot manufacture the Fruit of the Spirit, especially Christ-like Love? It just isn’t  in  his nature!
The use  of miraculous gifts doesn’t even prove that we are Christian . Non – Christian religions speak in tongues. Non Christians  can perform miracles of healing, and do remarkable miracles ( e.g. fire walking) . Extra-ordinary gifts do not prove that we are saved (see Matthew  7:22). Wicked people like Saul and Judas participated in power manifestations. Judas was sent by Jesus to preach and work miracles (see  Matt 10:1).  Many may have these gifts and yet go to hell. Judas Iscariot had them and went to hell. Christ tells us, that many of those who claimed to have them will on the judgement day depart to hell. Jesus told His disciples, upon promising them these extra-ordinary gifts for the task at hand, not to rejoice that the devils were submitting to them, but because their names were written in the book  of life in heaven (Luke 10:17).

We must put the emphasis, where the Scripture puts it. We must include this vital  teaching  concerning the priority of love in the exercise of our gifts  .  We can have all the  gifts in the world. That proves nothing about us .   Are  we wrapping our spiritual gifts  in love  ? How are we doing  in the  realm of love?
We need to examine ourselves much with regard to this issue – the priority of love. Much  blessing may yet  be absent, because we yet fail to take seriously the priority of agape  love. In John  13:35, Jesus  makes this weighty observation: "All men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another."
I submit then , that the Spirit of God is saying to our church this morning  “  if  you do not have love, you  have  nothing, and that if you  have love, whatever else we may lacking presently , we have what matters most.
Next time we shall , God willing  consider the properties of that love .

[1] (G.Scroggie: The Love Life of the church; p.13)

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