The Corinthian church had many problems, and one of them was with spiritual gifts. Some of them had “flashy” spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues or prophecy. They used their gifts to exalt themselves above other Christians.
As a result, others felt left-out or useless or even cheated by God. I can imagine one of them saying, “Why can’t I be the guy who says something prophetic? All I got was the lousy gift of helps—help him, help her, help everyone—that’s all I ever do!”
1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are Paul’s instructions on the proper use and place of spiritual gifts in the church. It seems strange to the reader to find this little chapter on love tucked in-between them.
We often hear chapter 13 read at weddings as a kind of poem on love in marriage. But the reason it’s tucked in-between chapters 12 and 14 is because Paul intended it to be a reminder of the love that Christians are to show to one another.
To these Corinthian Christians fighting over many things, including what were the best spiritual gifts, Paul says,
But covet earnestly the best gifts:
and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
They should desire the “best gifts” (κρείττονα, κρείττων, JAPN, more useful, more advantageous, better). The “best gifts” are those that are most useful and helpful for others, not the ones that make you look good.
But there is something that is “more excellent” than spiritual gifts. That something, of course, is love. Without love, a spiritual gift becomes a weapon to put others down instead of a tool to build them up. Paul makes a long list of great things that are useless when there’s no love.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,
and have not charity [an old word for love],
I am become as sounding brass,
or a tinkling cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
And though I have the gift of prophecy,
and understand all mysteries,
and all knowledge;
and though I have all faith,
so that I could remove mountains,
and have not charity,
I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2)
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor,
and though I give my body to be burned,
and have not charity,
it profiteth me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Love is what makes everything in the church good and useful. If someone is a gifted and talented person, but without love, their gifts and talents are quite worthless.
Years ago, in a Bible Camp in Minnesota, there was a young girl who boasted that she could sing better than anyone. And so, in the dining room, she sang some Christian song the name of which I have since forgot. Her voice was impressive, even incredible. But her body language said something different—she sang with her arms crossed and an angry glare on her face. There was no love there and so the song was worthless.
If someone is a great prayer, but doesn’t have love, their prayer is useless. If someone stands up for the faith in the public square, but doesn’t have love, their bold witness is worthless. Anything you do for God’s kingdom, if it isn’t done in love, you might as well just stay home and be a couch potato. At least then, you wouldn’t be giving your Lord Jesus a bad name.
No, without love, anything we do becomes tainted with pride or jealousy or greed. We need love, in our churches, and in our marriages, and communities. But what is this love that is so important? It really can’t be defined, but it can be described. What we see in the next verses is…
THE GREATEST DESCRIPTION OF LOVE
Notice that not one word of this description is sentimental. There are no mushy, see here dear, I bought you a Valentine’s Day bouquet because my heart goes pitter-patter for you! None of that! There is nothing about how my heart flutters when I am near you. The entire list is about the behavior of love. These are the behaviors that should be present when someone loves another.
In terms of practical application, that means that when we don’t have the feelings of love for someone, we can still choose to show love for them. I enjoy the feelings of love as much as the next person, but please, let’s don’t limit love to feelings. As Christians, we should aspire to a higher love—this love described for us here.
The old KJV word, “charity” (ἀγάπην, ἀγάπη, NASF, love) is a good word here. The translators didn’t just choose it because the word “love” wasn’t around, they chose it deliberately. When we hear the word “love,” we tend to think of feelings. But when we hear the word, “charity,” we tend to think of doing something for someone.
First, we see that…
1. Love Is Patient
Charity suffereth long, (1 Corinthians 13:4a)
To “suffereth long” (μακροθυμεῖ, μακροθυμέω, VPAI3S, to be patient, enduring) means to be long-tempered. It means to endure the bad qualities of someone else, and not in a resigned, passive way. Patient love doesn’t give up on a person.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest political enemies was Edwin M. Stanton. He called Lincoln a “low cunning clown” and “the original gorilla.” “It was ridiculous for people to go to Africa to see a gorilla,” he would say, “when they could find one easily in Springfield, Illinois.”
Lincoln never responded to the slander, but when, as president, he needed a secretary of war, he chose Stanton When his incredulous friends asked why, Lincoln replied, “Because he is the best man.”
Years later, as the slain president’s body lay in state, Stanton looked into the coffin and said through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” His animosity was finally broken by Lincoln’s long–suffering, nonretaliatory spirit. Patient love won out.
Who is it that tries your patience? How can you have the loving patience you are supposed to have with them as a Christian?
We must understand the strength to be patient comes from God, and to have that strength, we must pray for it. Pray like Paul prayed for patience for the Colossian Christians. He prayed that they would be, “Strengthened with all might, according to [God’s] glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (Colossians 1:11).
By the way, did you notice that he prayed for joyfulness to go along with their patience and long-suffering? It’s probably a good indication that you are really being patient in a godly way when you are joyfully patient.
2. Love Is Kind
and is kind; (1 Corinthians 13:4b)
To be “kind” (χρηστεύεται, χρηστεύομαι, VPUI3S) means that you are gentle with people, ready to show compassion.
In 2012, in Plano, Texas, a cop pulled Hayden Carlo over for having expired stickers on his car. Carlo…
…told the officer he had no excuse for the expired sticker.
[He said] “…there’s no explanation for why I haven’t done it, except I don’t have the money…it was either feed my kids or get my registration done.”
The officer wrote a citation and handed it to the 25-year-old. Carlo says when he took it, he could not believe what he saw.
“I opened it up and there’s a 100 dollar bill. I broke down in my car what else could I do.”
The officer never told anyone about the $100 gift. But Carlo’s grandfather, Billy McIntire, was so moved by the kind gesture he wrote a letter to the department…
Carlo was able to update his the registrations on his car and his wife’s car with the money. He’s now driving to a new job and providing for his growing family, after a gift from the last person he would have expected to help during tough times.
“He helped me out when I needed it and I appreciate that. I’ll never forget that man,” Carlo says. “It definitely restored my faith in God.”
These first two characteristics of love—patience and kindness—are also attributes of God Himself. Here are just two verses:
6 And the LORD passed by before [Moses], and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, (Exodus 34:6)
Remember why Jonah did not want to go preach at Nineveh? He said:
…Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness… (Jonah 4:2)
God is and has always been patient and kind with humanity; and with you and me!
Robert Ingersoll, the well–known atheist of the last century, often would stop in the middle of his lectures against God and say, “I’ll give God five minutes to strike me dead for the things I’ve said.” He then used the fact that he was not struck dead as proof that God did not exist.
Theodore Parker said of Ingersoll’s claim, “And did the gentleman think he could exhaust the patience of the eternal God in five minutes?”
Christians want to be godly. The word “godly” means to be concerned about being like God. What do you think of when you think of being godly? Avoiding sin? Hating sin? Being holy? Praying a lot? Those are definitely part of being godly. I know many godly Christians who do those things. But to be godly—to be like God—you will also strive to be patient and kind with those around you.
Next, the Bible shows us how love should not behave.
3. Love Does Not Envy
charity envieth not; (1 Corinthians 13:4c)
Envy is to have negative feelings over another’s achievements or success. The Corinthian Christians had a lot of problems with envy. The issue of spiritual gifts like prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so on was just one of the areas where they experienced envy.
It’s easy to see why envy would prohibit feelings of love. How can you love a person when you want something that they have? Any love you show will be a pretend love so that you can get what you want.
There’s a wonderful example of love not envying in 1 Samuel. Jonathan was the son of King Saul, and certainly in line to be the next king. David was a young shepherd with no claim to the throne except that the Lord had chosen him to be the next king! Saul was intensely jealous of David and tried to kill him again and again.
But Jonathan, the Bible says, “loved [David] as he loved his own soul” (1 Samuel 20:17). Jonathan did everything he could to protect David from Saul, even though he knew that David would become king instead of him. That is love without envy!
When a church is busy being envious of each other’s spiritual gifts, or social status, or income, or whatever else, they will be unlikely to be serving one another as they’re supposed to be doing. They will be focused on achieving what someone else has, too busy to do anything.
Or, they will be full of self-pity because they don’t have this or that. I’ve known Christians who refused to serve because someone else was better than them, so why bother?
Love will not be concerned about what others do better, and in fact, will be glad that others do some things better. How would it look if the church was only as talented or gifted as the least talented or gifted person?
Let’s take the next two descriptions of love together,
4. Love Does Not Arrogantly Boast
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, (1 Corinthians 13:4d)
The word, “vaunteth” (περπερεύεται, περπερεύομαι, VPUI3S, to be boastful) means to “heap praise on oneself” (BDAG) or to brag. Being “puffed up” (φυσιοῦται, φυσιόω, VPPI3S, proud; puff up) means to be arrogant or prideful.
It’s impossible to boast and to love at the same time. Boasting is thinking of one’s self, while love thinks of another person. It’s impossible for us to brag about ourselves without putting someone else down.
In WWII…the Navy allowed men to have as much ice cream as they wanted…
One muggy afternoon in the Pacific, two freshly minted ensigns [the lowest commissioned officer rank] aboard the battleship New Jersey, the flagship of the Third Fleet, decided they wanted some ice cream. Unfortunately, the gedunk line was [extremely] long, with dozens of sailors waiting patiently for their turn at the ice cream bar.
Immensely conscious of their exalted rank, the two decided to jump ahead in the line. When they tried to cut in at the head of the line, saying “Gangway for officers,” there was grumbling in the ranks behind them. Then a strong voice rose above those of the other men in line, calling out, “Get back where you belong!”…
Just as the two brand new officers were about to deliver a severe dressing-down to the insubordinate sailor who dared to challenge their authority, a rather stocky, craggy-faced fellow stepped out to confront them
It was none other than William F. Halsey, aka “Bull” Halsey, who ranked just “slightly” above them as full admiral and commander of the Third Fleet. “Bull” was patiently waiting for his turn in the gedunk bar line and wasn’t about to tolerate this sort of arrogant selfishness.
A loving Christian will not be boastful or arrogant:
- A Christian will not try to use their position or authority or seniority in the church to push others around.
- A loving husband will not use his rightful authority as husband to arrogantly push his wife into decisions.
- A loving parent will not use their rightful authority over their children in an arrogant or boastful way.
- A loving older brother or sister will not arrogantly try to control their younger brothers and sisters.
5. Love Does Not Act Shamefully Or Rudely
Doth not behave itself unseemly, (1 Corinthians 13:5a)
The word “unseemly” (ἀσχημονεῖ, ἀσχημονέω, VPAI3S) means to behave unbecomingly, shamefully, disgracefully or rudely.
Love does not intentionally violate what is proper, whether according to the Bible, or even what your culture or community around you says is proper. Someone might object, “But it would be wrong to change the way I dress or talk so as not to offend someone else.” No, it wouldn’t be wrong or hypocritical—it would be loving. We tend to worry about our rights, which leads to a focus on ourselves, and keeps us from loving.
How many times have you heard (or said): “I don’t care what other people think…”? Love cares about what other people think and behaves in a way that is decent according to accepted standards of one’s culture.
The loveless person is often rude in their language. They talk loudly on their cell phones, swear even in the presence of children, play their music loud enough to be heard for blocks around, and so on.
They dress in a way that is sure to offend someone, and they revel in the idea that someone is offended. They simply don’t care about the feelings or sensitivities of others.
I think this is something that is getting worse as our culture moves away from Judeo-Christian values. Offending other people, not fitting in, and being a bit of a rebel are all valued today. The catchphrase is, “Who cares what others think?” You can be sure that love is far from their hearts.
Yes, there are times that we shouldn’t care what other people think. One example: John Paton, a missionary to the South Pacific, was discouraged by others from going. He was told that the cannibals on those islands would eat him. He replied to one such detractor:
Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.
There are times not to care about what other people think. But a loving person always behaves in ways that are polite and sensitive to others. A rude, impolite Christian is simply wrecking their witness to Christ.
Maybe you’re thinking, “This sort of love is too much. I have to feel something in order to love someone. I can’t just choose to love and be long-suffering, kind, not envious, not considering myself so much…that would be too much of a sacrifice.”
The Lord Jesus didn’t think that dying on a cross was too much of a sacrifice for loving you. Jesus’ love for us was not based on His feelings for us. His love for us was not based on our love for Him.
8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
Don’t miss that. You did nothing to earn His love. Yet what do we expect from other people? We expect them to earn our love! That line that Jesus once gave about loving our enemies just goes in one ear and out the other. It just can’t be. But Jesus modeled enemy loving when He loved us despite our sin.
“Ah,” I’ve heard Christians say when I’ve challenged them to be like Jesus, “…that’s Jesus; that’s different, we can’t be like him.” But we are supposed to be like him!
Is there someone you have a hard time loving? Look to Jesus for the example and the strength to love—really love them. Start by praying for them and praying that God would change your heart toward them. Choose to be patient, choose to be kind, choose to think of them more than yourself.
Finally, have you ever considered deeply the reality that Jesus did, in love, die for you? Many people who say they are Christians (and everyone who are not Christians) view Christianity as a religion. Dry, cold, and without love. You come and put in your time. You keep your nose clean.
But true Christianity is a relationship. It’s recognizing that Jesus died for your sins personally. It’s having a warm, personal trust in Him as your Lord and Savior. It’s waiting for the day that you will meet Him face to face. It’s loving Him deeply because He first loved you.
Is that the love you have for Jesus?
If it isn’t, then, please, I urge you to seek the Lord. Don’t let this go until you replace your cold, dead religion with a warm, personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
 John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 339.
 John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 338.
 We mustn’t think that envy is a harmless sin. Eve was jealous that God was holding back on her, and that led to her disobeying God and plunging the world into this nightmare of sin. The next account of envy in the Bible is when Cain was jealous of Abel, which led to murder. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because of envy.
 Dirty Little Secrets of World War II by James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Noft. Perennial, 1994, Page 318 qtd in http://www.itslikethis.org/the-risks-of-pulling-rank/
 qtd in John Piper, Filling up the Afflictions of Christ; the Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).