Sermons on 1 Corinthians | The More Excellent Way | 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3

The More Excellent Way

The More Excellent Way (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3)

A teacher in an adult-education creative-writing class told her students to write “I love you” in 25 words or less, without using the words “I love you.” She gave the class 15 minutes. A woman in the class spent about ten minutes looking at the ceiling and wriggling in her seat. The last five minutes she wrote frantically, and then read the class her results: “I’ve seen lots worse hairdos than that, honey”; “These cookies are hardly burned at all”; “Cuddle up-I’ll keep your feet warm.”

That lady, whether she knew it or not, was able to define love. No doubt she once came home from the beauty shop in tears, and her husband wisely said, “Why, I’ve seen lots worse hairdos than that, honey.” No doubt she had burnt cookies to a crisp, but her husband ate them and said they weren’t burned at all. No doubt she had been cold one night, when she hadn’t shaved her legs in days, and her husband said, “Honey, come on and cuddle up. I’ll keep your feet warm.” Her husband was able to put his needs and his wants on the back burner and put his wife’s needs first.

That’s what real love is all about. We hear all the time that so-and-so has fallen in love or perhaps that so-and-so has fallen out of love. I don’t believe that for a second. It’s not possible to fall in love. It’s possible to fall in infatuation or to fall in lust, but you cannot fall in love. Rather than an emotion, true love always involves sacrifice, putting someone else’s needs in front of our own. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph 5:25, 28-29). “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12-13). “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 Jn 3:16).

I can’t help but think of Liviu Librescu. Librescu was a Jew who had survived the Nazi holocaust and persecution in communist Romania. He had come to Virginia and was a respected aeronautics professor at Virginia Tech. He was lecturing to a class full of students on April 16, 2007, when a gunman came to kill the students in his class. Librescu wedged himself at the door and told his students to jump from the windows. The last person to see Professor Librescu alive appears to have been Alec Calhoun, a student who turned as he prepared to leap from a high classroom window to see the elderly academic holding shut the classroom door. The student jumped and lived. Minutes later, the professor was shot dead.

The essence of love is always found in sacrifice-whether an elderly professor holding shut a door or the perfect Son of God hanging on a cross. Our sacrifices will likely never reach the point of laying down our lives for others. Our sacrifices may be nothing more than handing our spouse the remote when the Colts are a touchdown away from a Super Bowl win. But love is always sacrifice.

The Corinthians so desperately needed to hear about true love, for they displayed so little true love to one another. Those who spoke in tongues thought they were better than those who could not. Paul, in chapter twelve, offers the unity of the body as a corrective against such thinking. Here, he shows the superiority of love.

Love is a Better System, v 31

“I will show you a still more excellent way.” “More excellent” in Greek refers to a throwing beyond.The term was used in classical Greek to refer to the altitude of a star or to an exorbitant price. The word refers to things which are far, far beyond other things. In fact, this word has come into English as “hyperbole,” the literary device of great exaggeration.

Paul also says that he will demonstrate this more excellent way. He, like he did concerning self-sacrifice back in chapter 9, holds himself up as an example. That becomes quite evident as Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,” for example, in verse 1. Examples are powerful teaching tools, and Paul here holds himself up as a model.

In holding himself up as a model, Paul is going to show the Corinthians that more excellent way. How is love “a more excellent way”?

Love is a more excellent way than spiritual gifts. Notice fully what Paul writes at verse 31: “Earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That had to cause the Corinthians to sit up and take notice. You see, the Corinthians thought spiritual gifts, especially tongue speaking, were the epitome of Christianity. Paul says, “Not so fast. Love is the epitome of Christianity.”

We need to be careful about making any test an epitome of Christianity. We have a real tendency to do that, don’t we? “Brother Lewis was such a good person. He came every time the doors were open.” Never mind that he refused to help his neighbor put that ramp on the side of his house after his wife had her stroke. “Brother Johnson was such a good preacher. He stood for truth like no other man I’ve ever known.” Never mind that his children had to walk on egg shells to keep from upsetting that temper.

Please don’t misunderstand me-worship and doctrine are vital; Scripture teaches that. Yet, Scripture teaches that love is the most important aspect of following Jesus. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8).

Tertullian, a leader of the church in the early third century, wrote, “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.” Is that the kind of sacrificial, more excellent love that we have for one another?

But, why was love so much better for the Corinthians than their spiritual gifts? It has been noted that much of 1 Corinthians 13 stands diametrically opposed to everything the Corinthians were. John Chrysostom, an excellent preacher in the late 4th century, in preaching on this text, said, “Each one of the things mentioned by him was a sufficient medicine to heal their wounds.”

Notice what Paul does here. For example,

  • The Corinthians were jealous. “While there is jealousy and strive among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (3:3). Love, however, “does not insist on its own way” (13:5).
  • The Corinthians were puffed up. “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (4:6). Love, on the other hand, “is not arrogant” (13:4).
  • The Corinthians boasted in wrongdoing. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:1-2). Love, rather, “is not arrogant” (v 4) and “does not rejoice at wrongdoing” (v 6).

How much do we need this medicine? Are we jealous of one another? Are we arrogant? Do we boast in wrongdoing?

Love is Better than Spectacle, vv 1-2

“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.”

It isn’t clear if Paul envisions individuals actually speaking in the tongues of angels or if he simply says, “If it were possible to do that and I didn’t have love.” Yet, that’s not important, for Paul’s point comes through loud and clear: If I can speak in all these different tongues but I don’t have love, the sound is empty and meaningless.

The Greek word for “gong” is copper. The Copper Bowl of Dodona, at the oracle of Dodona, was said to sound all day and therefore “copper” was used to describe a person who talked non-stop. Have you ever known someone who talked and talked and talked and never said a word? That’s the idea here. If we don’t have love but can speak in all kinds of tongues, we’re talking, but it’s nothing but hot air.

If I have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if my faith can move mountains, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. What Paul says here is somewhat surprising, for as he rebukes the Corinthians for their elevation of tongue-speaking, he makes the point that prophecy is by far the greatest gift. “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy . . . . The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation . . . . The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues” (14:1, 3, 5). Yet, without love, the one who prophesies is nothing.

Understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, which comes through prophecy, is useless without love.

Moving mountains without love is pointless. Jesus says that with proper faith, his disciples could move mountains: “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt 17:20). I’m fully convinced that the disciples could have moved mountains. If they needed the mountain to move for some valid reason and had sufficient faith, the mountain would have gotten up and moved. Yet, without love, even such love would have been pointless.

What’s the point of all this? Simply that love is better than spectacle, that love is better than miraculous gifts. Why? We need to understand this in the context of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians had an ego problem when it came to gifts: They really believed that if they could speak in tongues, they were better than those who could not.

Any time an ego is involved, love flies out the window. Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard, but Naboth refused to give the king the inheritance of his fathers. When Ahab sulked in his palace, Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (1 Ki 21:7). Jezebel had Naboth killed, and Ahab went and took his vineyard. Jezebel stroked Ahab’s ego, thus Ahab went along with Jezebel’s evil plan, a plan that caused the Lord to send Elijah to Ahab to say that Ahab would die. No love, but great ego.

The same thing happened with Cain. Abel’s offering was accepted by God, but God had no regard for Cain’s offering, “so Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Gen 3:5). Why? Because his ego had been harmed. He then went and killed his brother. John, often referred to as “The Apostle of Love,” juxtaposes love and Cain’s treatment of Abel: “This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 Jn 3:11-12).

The Corinthians, quite like Jesus’ disciples, wanted to be great, and they sought greatness through great spectacle, but love is far better.

Years ago, a Johns Hopkins professor gave a group of graduate students this assignment: Go to the slums. Take 200 boys, between the ages of 12 and 16, and investigate their background and environment. Then predict their chances for the future. The students, after consulting social statistics, talking to the boys and compiling much data, concluded that 90 percent of the boys would spend some time in jail.

Twenty-five years later, another group of graduate students was given the job of testing the prediction. They went back to the same area. Some of the boys-by then men-were still there, a few had died, some had moved away, but they got in touch with 180 of the original 200. They found that only four of the group had ever been sent to jail.

Why was it that these men, who had lived in a breeding place of crime, had such a surprisingly good record? The researchers were continually told: “Well, there was a teacher . . . .” They pressed further and found that in 75 percent of the cases it was the same woman. The researchers went to this teacher, now living in a retirement home. How had she exerted this remarkable influence over that group of children? Could she give them any reason why these boys should have remembered her? “No,” she said, “no, I really can’t.” And then, thinking back over the years, she said musingly, more to herself than to her questioners: “I loved those boys . . . .”

That love the teacher demonstrated was more important than anything else. It was more important than arithmetic, than writing, than history, than grammar. It was love that changed their lives. That lady could have sought to become great in any number of ways: through getting a Ph.D. and teaching in a famous university, through running for office and changing the country. But, what did she do? She loved and changed countless lives. Are we seeking greatness through love?

Love is Better than Sacrifice, v 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.”

The Greek for “I give away” means “I feed with a small morsel,” as a child or invalid. The idea is clearly charity. There have been those who have given away all that they had. The early Christians “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). “Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).

Early Christians often were delivered up to fire for their faith.

The whole point here is motivation. We mentioned earlier that love is sacrifice, and Paul uses the example of sacrifice here: sacrificing for the poor and sacrificing for the Lord. Acts makes a good point about the motivation for sacrifice. We just read the about Barnabas. Immediately after we read of Barnabas, we read of Ananias and Sapphira. Why is Barnabas remembered kindly, while Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead? Barnabas gave with pure motives; Ananias and Sapphira did not.

Is our sacrifice prompted by love? Do we contribute generously to the church because we love God and we want to see his work prosper? Do we do what’s right out of love for God, or out of fear of what others might think? Do we give to the needy because we love them, or so they’ll leave us alone? What is our motivation for sacrifice? Is that motivation love? Do you, out of love, need to come and offer yourself as a living sacrifice this morning?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.

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