It is certain that all of us will die someday. It is a sober reality that plagues the human heart and often people don’t want to discuss this reality. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes that it is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting since death is the destiny of everyone. So, When you die, what would you want people to remember you by? Would it be your intelligence? Humor? Athletic ability? Trustworthiness? All of these are good things, but I believe the most important character anyone can be remembered for is their love. The two greatest commandments in Scripture are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.
When writing to the Corinthian church, Paul knew what others used to remember him by before his conversion. He may have been smart, passionate, and religious, but he knew that all of these gifts profited him nothing without love. Now, he sees the folly of the Corinthian believers. They are having inner conflicts, disputes, sexual immorality, and yet are arguing over which of the spiritual gifts are superior. I believe this is why Paul wrote one of the most poetic messages of the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 13: to remind the Corinthians that no matter what spiritual gifts they possessed, whether it’s eloquence, knowledge, faith, or sacrifice, its nothing without love.
Let’s read what Paul wrote through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 13, starting with verse 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. 2 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. 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. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
In verses 1-3, Paul is expressing that love is imperative and superior to all other gifts. Without love as the motive for our eloquence, knowledge, faith, and sacrifice, we are nothing. In verses 4-7, Paul is illustrating the shape of love, what it is and isn’t, and the difference between authentic love and selfish love. Finally, in verses 8-13, he states that love is eternal. There is a total continuity between the love that is expressed here and forever in heaven and its the only gift mentioned that never ends. For our purposes, we will be focusing on verses 1-3 and answer the statement why everything is nothing without love.
The first point Paul addresses is that eloquence without love is annoying. Look at verse 1. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Paul here uses intentional exaggeration to say that even if He knew all the languages of the world and could speak as eloquent as an angel, but was not motivated by love, then he would be as empty, unharmonious, and useless as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. As you know, cymbals only sound good in the context of a musical piece along with many other instruments. In the same way, if someone speaks eloquently, but they have not love, it sounds terrible.
A couple years ago a friend and I started an apologetics outreach at the University of Louisville. Our desire was to convince Atheist intellectuals that the Christian worldview was historically accurate, scientifically defendable, and philosophically compelling. For 8 weeks, we blasted them with arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the moral argument, teleological argument, and ontological argument (briefly explain).
One night, we were having a heated debate and a skeptical student got very angry with us. He was a linguistics major and the most intelligent college student that I had ever met. He looked at the Christians in the room, had tears in his eyes, and made this statement: “If you truly believe that I am lost, that I will burn in a fiery hell forever, then don’t just win me over by arguments as if I am some competition, but act in love like your Jesus and then I might believe.” I was shocked for two reasons. First, the most intellectual atheist didn’t care about the arguments as much as how we treated him. Second, I realized that my supposed zeal to reach the lost, to fulfill the great commission, wasn’t because I wanted Jesus to be magnified but so that others would see how smart I was.
The saddest part about this story is that a few weeks later my friend wrapped up his last discussion defending the existence of God and whispered to me afterwards: “Man, we demolished their worldview.” Fortunately, God gave me grace to see my own blindness, repent, and recognize the truth to this famous saying: Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care!
Christian, what is the motive of your heart? This is what the Lord looks at. Are you memorizing the Bible so that you can look good in front of others or because you love to learn God’s Word. Are you motivated to learn evangelism skills to argue or because you desire to persuade people to believe in the gospel? Are you coming to church so that you will be approved by others or are you coming to church because your Savior is being worshipped here? I trust that the latter is true in all these cases!
The second point Paul addresses is that spiritual insight without love is nothing. Look at verse 2. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. The gift of prophecy here is the ability to know mysteries and to gain knowledge. In the Bible, a mystery is a truth which is at least partially revealed, but not fully understood. According to Paul, the meaning of marriage was a mystery. Now we know the truth about Christ’s union with His church is illustrated by Christian marriage (Eph. 5:22-23). In Genesis 3, God promised to crush the head of the serpent. Now we see that this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who defeated Satan at the cross. The union of Jews and Gentiles in the church was a mystery in the Old Testament. Now, Gentiles are adopted into the covenant through the blood of Jesus Christ. Paul says that if he had all this knowledge plus faith to remove mountains, but had not love, He would be nothing. I find it hard to believe that someone can have all this knowledge and still stay humble enough to have faith that can remove mountains. Paul is using these extreme examples to show us the utter importance of love.
William Booth was a British Methodist preacher who founded The Salvation army in 1865. Booth was known for preaching repentance and salvation to the poorest and most needy, including alcoholics, criminals, and prostitutes. He had a large organization and began sending missionaries around the country. On one occasion, a group of women missionaries were sharing the gospel, informing unbelievers about the death, burial, and resurrection. They were explaining the Bible from the beginning to the end. The women missionaries became frustrated because these people did not get converted. They were praying diligently and teaching the Bible the best they could. Out of frustration, they sent a letter to William Booth and asked him what they should do next. William Booth responded to the letter and sent it right away to the women missionaries. When they opened up the letter, they only saw two words: “Try tears.”
Christian, let me ask you. Are you weeping over your family members, coworkers, and friends who are lost? Do you desire to see them here with us today, rejoicing that Christ has paid the penalty for their pride, lust, and anger? In Romans 9:3, the Apostle Paul had such a heavy heart for the lost that he said: “For I wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people.” This is a powerful statement that can only be produced by the Spirit of God, who grieves for the lost world. I pray that every time we pick up the bible, attend a Sunday service, volunteer at VBS, or read a theologically heavy book that our heart’s desire would be to love God and our neighbors with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
The third and final point that Paul addresses is that Sacrifice without love gains nothing. Look at verse 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. Here, Paul is not addressing a specific spiritual gift but he is demonstrating to his audience that even great personal sacrifice without love gains nothing. It may be assumed that the ultimate sacrifice is made, either by giving up all of one’s possessions for the sake of the poor or giving up one’s life on the mission field as a martyr.
Paul, however, does not grant this assumption as proof for great love. People can give away possessions for any number of reasons, and some of those can be self-serving rather than sacrificial. I can give away money to charity so that I receive a better tax return or give all my possessions away so that others will think I am a great person and esteem me. Not only does Paul say that giving all possessions without love is worthless, but even if one dies as a martyr, if its not motivated by love, they gain nothing.
A martyr is one who dies for their religious beliefs. It originally meant “witness” because the early Christian witnesses were often persecuted or killed for their faith in Jesus. Now, God is not calling for believers to purposely seek out death. Jesus even told his disciples: “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” However, we must be willing if necessary to lose our lives for His sake. If someone joins the military, they train to be prepared to die in the service for their country, but that doesn’t mean they will be put in a situation where they will die. In the same way, Christians are in a spiritual battle and are to be prepared to die for the Lord, but they shouldn’t actively seek for it. If they do, they will be tempting God, motivated by self-interest rather than a love for God’s glory.
Christian, let me ask you. Are you sacrificing your tithes and offerings to the church out of guilt rather than with joy and thanksgiving? Are you sacrificing your time, energy, and money to your kids out of obligation or because you love them? When you go on a mission trip and put your life in danger, are you doing it for your own pleasure or because you desire to see Christ glorified among the nations? God isn’t concerned as much about our outward behavior, but the inward motive of our hearts.
You may be asking, how then can we possibly possess this type of love? You can’t. That is why we need the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God saves sinners. See, man is by nature sinful and separated from God without any hope, but God, rich in His mercy and grace, provided the means of man’s salvation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The word gospel literally means good news, but to understand how good it is, one must first understand the bad news. When man fell in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:6) by their willful disobedience towards God, they were separated and every part of man, including his mind, will, emotions, and flesh were corrupted by sin. Man is now hostile towards God (Rom. 8:7) and their every desire is to love evil rather than good, resulting in man being eternally condemned in Hell. It is in Hell that man pays the penalty of sin against a holy God. Without any solution to this problem, there would be no hope for humanity. However, God in His mercy and grace, provided a solution, a substitute for our sins, Jesus Christ. He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might become righteous. He paid the penalty for our sins so that we could restore our fellowship back with God. Because God has made a way for sinners, He calls all of us to repent (turn, have a change of mind), of our sins and trust in the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8). Those who believe in Christ (Rom. 10:8) are not only saved from hell but also given a new nature, a changed heart, and a new desire and attitude to worship and give glory to Almighty God (2 Cor. 5:17). It is God who regenerates us from death to life by giving us His Holy Spirit. When a believer repents and believes in the gospel, they will produce the fruits of the spirit and be known for their love.
Jason Tuskes was a seventeen year old high school honor student and was close to his mother, disabled father, and younger brother. Jason was also an expert swimmer and enjoyed to scuba dive in his free time. One day he left home to explore a spring and underwater cave near his home in Florida. His plan was to be home to celebrate his mother’s birthday. However, Jason became lost in the cave. In his panic, he got wedged into a narrow passageway. When he realized that he was trapped, he shed his yellow metal air tank and unsheathed his diver’s knife. With the tank as a tablet and the knife as a pen, he wrote one last message to his family: I love you Mom, Dad, and Christian. Then he ran out of air and drowned. A dying message–something communicated in the last few seconds of life is something we can’t ignore. God’s final words to us are etched on a Roman cross. They are blood red. They scream to be heard. They too, say, “I love you, and this love from God should be the foundation of our love too.”