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As far as real love is concerned, Paul says that of all the wonderful gifts that God has given us, this is the greatest gift. Anyone can possess it. No one can find God without it. And 1 John says that anyone who does not have it is a murderer and a liar and does not know God.
Paul takes two different routes in describing biblical charity in 1 Corinthians 13. First he describes what it is greater than; and then he tells us its characteristics. Let's take a brief look at Paul's analysis.
1. The Greatness of Real Love
a) It is greater than tongues.
Paul says, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not charity, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbol." A characteristic of much of the heathen worship was a type of tongue speaking. The worshipers also used a clashing and clanging of cymbols. (Bone--9:131)
Speaking in tongues means speaking in words that you did not make up and did not understand…another language Many of the converts from paganism continued to speak in other languages after they were converted to Christianity. It was a prized gift and considered a mark of divine presence and favor. God was able to use these "tongues of men" in building his church, but apparently some who spoke in tongues began to say that theirs was the greatest gift. But Paul goes on to say that tongue speaking was really of little value in teaching and it might even drive some people away from the church. So if you speak in tongues, do not abuse it or consider it a sign of superiority. God does not grant a gift for self-edification.
Without a doubt human words have power. Words can win or wound, kiss or kill, inspire or infuriate. But Paul reminds us that our words, minus the love of God, are like the "sounding brass and the tinkling cymbol."
b) It is greater than prophecy.
What a gift prophecy is. The prophet did two jobs. He preached God's truth and he also foretold future events. The most exotic of these two gifts is telling the future. Throughout the world today, people hope to get a glimpse of the future. Nearly 1500 newspapers in the U.S. print horoscope columns, and we devour them along with the breakfast cereal. Jean Dixon and other so-called fortune tellers have enormous followers. At times God has given certain men the gift of glimpsing into the future. And what a marvelous gift that would be.
But a second job of the prophet and the one that most nearly characterized the prophetic role, was that of preaching. In deed this job of taking the word of God and speaking it to men has been one of the most viable and glorious in the Christian Church.
Many pulpit giants have moved many men and women to receive Jesus Christ. We are all grateful to them and their gift. But says Paul, if "I have the gift of prophecy and have not charity, I am nothing." Matthew 7:22 paints a picture of those who will say in the last day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name?" The answer comes back, "I never knew you. Depart from Me, you that work iniquity."
c) It is greater than insight and knowledge.
The text says, "And though I...understand all mysteries and (have) all knowledge...and have not (charity), I am nothing." Our world is full of hidden mysteries. I have always been impressed with those few brilliant individuals who with a burst of insight could begin to unravel mysteries. Thomas Edison was a wizard of inventions. His insight into the mysteries of the physical world produced over 1000 inventions. In the field or religion there are also brilliant men who have great skill in unraveling the spiritual mysteries of God. We need such men to help us know God better. But if a man unravels all the mysteries of the world and lacks charity, it is nothing.
And then there is knowledge. We live in an age of knowledge explosion. No man can possibly keep up with the volumes of books and tons of information that is produced each year. We live in an age of computers that store huge amounts of information in data banks.
If knowledge were the golden key that could unlock the door to solving all human conflicts, our problems would be over. But the sad truth is that all the strides in knowledge have done very little to solve man's problems. In fact, in many ways, knowledge by itself compounds our problems rather than solving them. Nothing by itself is so hard, dead, and cold as knowledge.
In verse 8 Paul says that real love is the great gift. Prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled, and knowledge will pass away. But charity (real love) never fails.
Some years ago a pastor visited a railroad man who was called the toughest man in town. As he attempted to speak to him of God, he cursed the church, the Bible, and the preacher. He threatened to throw the preacher out bodily if he ever returned again. As the minister made his watchful retreat, he said quietly, "Mr. Baldwin, God loves you, and I love you, too."
He was not prepared for what happened. Almost instantly the man melted. He fell to his knees and wept uncontrollably as he emptied his heart of hatred and sin. It was God's love that overwhelmed him. That rough railroader was beautifully saved and changed.
d) It is greater than faith.
This seems like a strange thing for Paul to say in verse two and then later in verse 13. He says, "And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." The reason this seems so odd sounding is because the whole Christian life begins with an act of faith. Ephesians 2:8 says, "For by grace are you saved through faith..." Then the writer of Hebrews reminds us, "But without faith it is impossible to please (God)." How can real love possibly be greater than faith?
Part of the answer comes from the type of faith that Paul is describing--he is talking about a miracle working faith or a faith to move mountains. Just because a man is able to work a miracle, it does not mean that he is God's man or that he gets his power from God. Satan also has great power and is called the "Prince of the powers of the air."
It is also possible to have the wrong kind of faith, a faith that does not save. One of these is a mere faith of the head; it doesn't do anything. James calls it a "dead" faith. Another faith is a faith that knows all the facts. A person may know that Jesus lived and died and arose and still be unsaved. There is even a demonic faith because James says that even the demons believe in this way.
Another problem with faith is that it sometimes fails. On one occasion Jesus could do no mighty works because of the unbelief of the people, and the disciples failed on occasion when their faith weakened. So real love is greater than faith because it is never false, it is never wrong, and it never fails.
e) It is greater than benevolence.
Paul says, "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." The word that is used for giving here suggests giving out bit by bit like a bird to its young until nothing is left. Is it possible for me to give away all that I have to the poor without real love? Indeed it is.
The Pharisees often gave to the needy in order to be honored by men. They would announce their giving with trumpets. Jesus said of them in Matthew 6:2, "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."
True giving is Godlike. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God loved and so God gave. Not only did God give us his Son, he keeps on sharing his blessings with us each day. He loves us so much that the giving never stops.
f) It is greater than martyrdom.
Paul says, "And though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." There have always been people that have been willing to lay down their lives for a cause. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were willing to be placed in the burning furnace. In the year A.D. 20 a Hindu by the name of Zarmenchegar burned himself to death in Athens. The boastful inscription placed on his tomb: "He made himself immortal." (Broadman 10:371) During the time of the Vietnam War, one young man set fire to himself and burned to death as a protest to the war. (Sweeting--Love--41)
In the course of Christian history, many have died for Jesus. In Paul's day most were by stoning, by the sword, or by crucifixion. Still later they were fed to hungry lions as sport. Later during the Inquisitions and the persecutions of Mary in England, burning became the common way. But Paul tells us martyrdom can result from something other than devotion to God. It may result from fanaticism or self-glorification or love of an idea. And yet the martyr may have no real love in his heart.
2. The Characteristics of Real Love
As we begin looking at verses four through six, we are given some of the characteristics of real love. Paul does this in two ways. Three of the characteristics tell us what real love is. Then he also tells us eight things that real love is not. Actually this is not a true definition of charity (real love), because real love defies definition.
But we do have a perfect example of it in Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 13, we could actually substitute the word Christ for charity or love. What we would then have is a perfect character sketch of the Lord Jesus Christ, because he is love.
a) It is patient.
The word that is used for patient literally means "a great suffering." It always describes patience with other people and not with circumstances. Chrysostom said it was the word that is used of one who is wronged and who has the power to take revenge but who does not do it. Patience describes those who are slow to anger. (Barclay 9:133)
Jesus was "long-suffering" and patient. He spent his entire life healing the sick, feeding the hungry and comforting the grieving. But in the end, he was disappointed by weak-willed disciples; his own nation rejected him; his family misunderstood him. After the nails had done their cruel work, He cried out saying, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
b) It is kind.
There is much which goes on in the name of Christianity and religion which may be "right" in a legal sense, but which is unkind. There was never a more religious man than Philip the Second of the Spanish Inquisition. He honestly believed he was doing the will of God by murdering those that were of a different religion. He was a religious man, but he was not kind.
Kindness has been described as real love in action. It is those things we do for someone in need. True kindness does not try to pick out the one to be helped. If you have God's love, you may end up helping someone that is unloveable and uncouth.
c) It honors God.
This may seem a strange paraphrase for the sentence, "Charity does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud..." But all of these are caused by a misunderstanding of God's gifts. At the Church of Corinth there were some who were jealous because they did not have the flashiest gifts; they were not great prophets, or miracles workers, or teachers or tongue speakers.
Here is a sin that we need to be saved from. It is sometimes hard to praise God when someone has a gift we do not have or is given a position higher than ours. Yet all gifts are given by God and are used by him to build up his kingdom.
There is the story told of how the devil was crossing the Libyan Desert when he met a number of his demons tormenting a holy hermit. They tried to involve the hermit in sins of the flesh, tempting him in every way they knew to do, but to no avail. The sainted man shook off all their suggestions. Finally after watching in disgust at their failure, the devil whispered to the tempters, “What you do is too crude. Permit me one moment." Then the devil whispered to the holy man, "Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria." A scowl of malignant jealousy at once crossed the serene face of the hermit. Real love is able to rejoice at the achievements and gifts of others because it knows God is honored.
d) It is never rude.
Look at the meaning of this text: "Charity is not rude," "...doth not behave itself unseemly," " it is never haughty," or "it is not ill-mannered."
Jesus was never rude. Even with the worst of sinners, he was a gentleman. The only time he was harsh and impatient was with the hypocritical religious leaders who thought they were better than the common people. Jesus is able to refine us as well. He is able to take us out of the gutter, and cause us to clean up our houses, and lives, and speech. Time and again I have seen character quieted and changed by the real love of Jesus.
e) It is never selfish.
Our text says, "Charity is not self-seeking." Psychologists speak of a "narcissistic complex," which means that we are in love with ourselves. The term comes from Greek mythology about a young man, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. He eventually starved to death because he was unable to pull himself away from his reflection. We now live in an age that some have called the "Me Generation." We are so in love with ourselves that we can't think of anything else. We are selfish and self-centered.
But selfishness is not the way of Christ. He declared that his purpose in life was "not to be ministered unto, but to minister..." (Matthew 20:28). The ego driven person thinks of himself as supreme and others as unimportant. But if God's love is in us, we will not think that way. God's love is different.
f) It has no temper.
Our text says, "Charity is not easily angered." It is so easy to think of anger as one of the minor sins. Some even brag of it like it is a virtue. Almost everyone has a temper, but not everyone has learned to control it. Some try to excuse their anger. A student once said to a teacher, "I lose my temper, but it's all over in a minute." The teacher answered, "And so is the hydrogen bomb. But think of the damage it produces." Anger is a destructive force.
Jesus once told a story about a man who had two sons. One of those sons left home and "squandered his wealth in wild living." He committed many sins which we have heard condemned again and again. But he eventually ended up at his father's table.
But it was the older brother who was left out in the darkness at the end of the story. He was the one who was lost. Why? This older brother had many qualities which we admire. He never did many of the bad things his younger brother did. He was a faithful worker in his father's fields; yet Jesus did not have one kind word for him. When his prodigal brother returned home, the story says he was "angry and refused to go in." Why was he angry? Simply because he lacked real love in his heart.
g) It holds no resentment.
The text says, "Charity keeps no record of wrongs." The word used for keeping records is an accounting word. It is the word used to enter an item in the record book so it will not be forgotten. This is exactly what so many people do. One of the great arts in life is to learn what to forget. So many people nurse offenses against themselves to keep their anger warm. They brood over the wrongs to keep from forgetting them. Christian charity has learned the great lesson of forgetting.
The desire to "get even," is a powerful one, and one that Satan can use very effectively. I have seen many cases where one person was offended, and the other person did not even know about it. He had never intended to offend the person. It is amazing how easily we get our feelings hurt over small and imaginary snubs. And like any sin, the desire to get revenge has high cost. Revenge is like an acid that destroys the container. The one who keeps a record of wrongs is the one to suffer. His anger eats away at him. And forgiveness is the only way to cure the problem.
h) It does not delight in evil.
From the context this phrase does not so much seem to be condemning evil, but rather the malicious pleasure that some of us take in the wrong-doing of others. For some strange reason we take pleasure in learning that someone has stumbled and made a mistake. That is not the way of real love.
Real love looks for the good and not the bad. A man who raises turkeys said that when a turkey is wounded and gets a spot of blood on its feathers, the other turkeys will peck at that spot until they peck the wounded bird to death. People can be like that. We find someone who has slipped into a sin that we do not have, and that makes us feel self-righteous. Always remember that you have your own sins and tomorrow it could be you.
i) It rejoiceth with the truth.
The truth is a powerful thing, but men do not always want to hear it. Many of the godless kings of Israel did not want God's truth and so they went to find false prophets. The messenger of God can be destroyed, but the truth of God cannot be destroyed.
The preacher and teacher are always under pressure to soften the word of God. People who tell the truth will suffer for it, because men do not like to hear unpleasant things. But the truth is more important than peace.
j) It always protects.
The Bible says, "Charity beareth all things." The Greek word means to "cover like a roof." Real Love is a retreat from the storms of life and "covers like a roof." A great aid in helping us to accept the failures of others and to cover them is to remember that God has covered our sins. George Herbert wrote, "He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself." (Sweeting--Love--71-2)
k) It always trusts.
This does not mean that charity is gullible. When Jesus was kissed by Judas in the garden, he didn't say to him, "Oh, Judas, what a beautiful kiss. I'm so glad you have changed your mind and are greeting me with love." No, he understood this was a traitorous action and said, "Would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" Nevertheless real love is ready to believe the best unless it knows it is wrong. Real Love is willing to give another chance.
l) It always hopes.
No cause, no situation, no person is ever totally hopeless. There is always a place to begin again. Love will find it; it never gives up.
There are three attitudes toward hope. There is first of all the pessimist. He has no hope. Then there is the optimist. He is full of hope. Finally there is the man who calls himself a realist. If he were truly a realist, he would be cautiously hopeful, but most realists I have seen are really pessimists that don't like the label. Real optimism is based on hope and confidence in God. Real Love is always hopeful.
m) It always perseveres.
The Bible says that charity "endureth all things." It never quits; it never ends.
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