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Paul interrupts his discussion of spiritual gifts and callings with a beautiful section about a “more excellent way,” which is the way of love.
He begins in 1 Corinthians 13:1,
1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
His opening statement sets the tone and establishes the direction that he is taking. Paul does not renounce spiritual gifts or callings but speaks of the possibility that some gifted believers may use (misuse) their gifts and callings without love. Perhaps Paul had observed this and sought to correct it.
In Matthew 14:14 we read about Jesus,
14 And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.
Again, we read in Matthew 20:34,
34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.
The Jews looked for miracles as signs of power that they expected of the Messiah. But Jesus set up no public demonstrations of power to prove that He was the Messiah. He did not heal people to show His power, but was rather motivated by love, or “compassion,” an inner yearning to relieve the hurt, sickness, and blindness of the people.
Neither were Jesus’ acts just momentary outbursts of love; no, love was a way of life for Him. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world,” but more than that, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). One can show love without being love, but it is only when love is a constant way of life that a person IS love.
Jesus is our prime Example of the way in which spiritual gifts ought to be exercised.
Specifically, Paul says, if a believer has the gift of tongues and can speak with “the tongues of men and of angels,” he does not impress God at all unless the love of God dwells in him. Paul was speaking from God’s point of view, for those same believers might indeed impress men and women in the church. Yet we need to put on the mind of Christ, so that we are impressed with the things that impress God, rather than man. Soulish nature tends to love a good show; the spiritual man shows love.
A “noisy gong” was used to get people’s attention. In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used of a battle shout or signal. It is often said that spiritual gifts function to get people’s attention, so that they may hear the gospel. While this is certainly true, apart from love, such uses of spiritual gifts may do more harm than good. When spiritual gifts are used to convert people to religion, or to get them to join a church, or to raise funds, such religion does not conform men to the perfect mind of Christ, but to the imperfect mind (and ways) of the church.
The purpose of spiritual gifts is to assist the church in bearing fruit. In fact, love is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Gifts are not the goal, but the means to achieving the goal. When we stand before God to make an account of our lives and say, “See my spiritual gifts,” God will reply, “Where is your fruit?”
Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7:21-23,
21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [anomia].”
Jesus was not speaking of unbelievers, but of those claiming to believe in Jesus. As “Spirit-filled believers,” they exercised many spiritual gifts of healing, exorcism, and miracles. However, the law of God was not written on their hearts, so they were lawless. In other words, they gave themselves the power to reject any law that they did not believe or understand, instead of asking God to change their own hearts to conform to His standard.
God gave the law not just to regulate behavior but to set the standard of divine love toward God and one’s neighbor. The Old Covenant regulates behavior by legislation; the New Covenant writes the same law upon our hearts. The Old Covenant demands behavior without changing the heart. The New Covenant changes the heart in order that men’s behavior conforms to the image of Christ. The entire change of heart is expressed in a single word: LOVE.
If the law is written on our hearts, we will have the nature of Christ, and then it can be said, “I too am love.” To the extent that believers disagree with the law—or even cast it out altogether—that is the extent to which the law is not written on their hearts.
When people tell me, “We would not want to go back under the law,” I ask them which sins they want to legalize, which laws they believe are inconsistent with His love-nature, and which laws they find either disagreeable or uninspired.
Unfortunately, many believers cast away the law as evil, but they flock toward the demonstrations of spiritual gifts that are presented by ministers banging on noisy gongs. But do not misunderstand me. I am always happy when people are healed or delivered, even if the spiritual gift is devoid of love. But love is “the more excellent way” of exercising spiritual gifts, and the law is the expression of God’s love-nature.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2,
2 And if I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Balaam was a classic false prophet in the Old Testament. He was never referred to as a false prophet, but only as a prophet. Some of his prophecies form part of Scripture, such as in Num. 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:3-9 and 24:15-24. He prophesied truth, but not from a heart of love. There is no evidence that Balaam ever prophesied falsely. His problem was that he was false to Christ—that is, his priorities were wrong. He was loyal to men and to himself, rather than to Christ.
Likewise, the sorcerers of Egypt performed miracles in Exodus 7:10-12, 22, and again in 8:7, but were not motivated by love. The implication is that if believers are not motivated by love, they differ little from Balaam, or from the magicians of Egypt, or even from many psychics today.
If one has the gift of prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, or faith, but has no love, he is “nothing.” How many nothings are out there impressing people with their spiritual gifts? It is often difficult to discern, because one’s stage presence can be quite different from one’s personal life. I have been around ministers all of my life, and I have seen much discrepancy. Sometimes these things are reported in the news. Most of the time it remains hidden to men, though not to God.
I do not expect ministers to be perfect. Everyone falls short of the glory of God. However, when sin becomes a way of life that must be hidden from the public, then there is a problem. Paul saw such problems already developing in the first-century church. The same problem is much greater today after centuries of development.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3 (NASB),
3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
The old Greek texts differ in this verse, for some leave out “to feed the poor” and “to be burned.” Ivan Panin’s Numeric English New Testament, which determines inspiration according to the built-in mathematical patterns, reads this way:
3 And if I dole out all my goods, and if I give my body that I may glory, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Hence, Panin determined that if the extra phrases in some of the ancient texts were to be left in the Scripture, it would destroy the mathematical patterns that are seen in every inspired text. Having studied his writings, I defer to him and conclude that a later scribe added the two phrases by way of explanation—sort of a personal commentary on Paul’s original writing.
Even so, Paul’s meaning is clear. One may give up everything, and even be willing to die for Christ, but if a person does not have love, such actions have no value in the sight of God. There are many who would do anything for Christ, but they would do little or nothing for their neighbors. Their good works for Christ are mere “wood, hay, straw” (1 Cor. 3:12) that will be burned up at the day of reckoning.
Going beyond Paul’s actual teaching in this passage, we may also look at the apostle’s definition of the love of God in Rom. 5:7-10,
7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
There are many who would love their neighbors, but not their enemies. Many love the founder of their own religion or denomination but not their enemies. The love of God is demonstrated by the fact that Jesus Christ was willing to die for His enemies—not waiting for them to became friends. He died for unbelievers as well as for believers.
There are some theologians who argue that Christ did not die for the whole world but only for those that He foreknew would turn to Him and be saved. This is their way of explaining and maintaining their carnal view that most men will be lost forever. But Scripture clearly refutes such a view in John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, and John 12:32, where the Apostle of Love tells us that Christ died for the whole world.
Such love is the basis for the latter part of Rom. 5:18, where Paul contrasts the first Adam with Christ:
18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
In other words, Christ was willing to die, knowing that his “one act of righteousness” would result in “justification of life to all men.” His righteous act on the cross did not merely give men the potential of justification. No, justification to all men was the actual result, even as the sin of Adam resulted in condemnation to all men.
For this reason, too, we read in 1 John 2:2,
2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
Hence, the promise of God to bless all nations (Gen. 12:3) and to make everyone His people (Deut. 29:10-15) was fulfilled by the righteous act of Jesus Christ. It is an accomplished fact, and only the timing of each person’s individual salvation is yet to be determined. All will indeed “be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22), but “each in his own order” (1 Cor. 15:23).
It was the love of God that caused Him to establish the New Covenant, which is based upon the promise, vow, or oath of God to save all mankind. While most of the biblical covenants were based upon the promises of God, perhaps the most striking example is found in God’s second covenant mentioned in Deut. 29:1. In Deut. 29:12, 13 we read,
12 that you may enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into HIS OATH which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This oath was similar to the New Covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in that it did not depend upon the will of men. We then read of the scope of this promise, or oath, in Deut. 29:14, 15,
14 Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, 15 but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today.
Most of those who were not present could have been classified as God’s enemies. Certainly, most would live and die as unbelievers. Yet God made an oath to them as well as to those present.
This is the love of God, which forms the basis of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 13.