The most excellent way: Devotional Commentary for April 23-29
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NASB)
This is the Word of God. May the Spirit of Truth give us wisdom and insight to receive what has been conveyed through His Word by His Inspiration.
Who can separate us from the Love of God!
13:1 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.
Following his extensive exhortation on spiritual gifts and talents, Paul promises to show us the most excellent way with which the Holy Spirit cultivates godliness in us. That most excellent way is Love, God's Love. This is not the commonplace affection shared by human beings reflecting dispositions of favor toward one another. It is a godly characteristic which God ascribes to His children so that His Love might govern our attitudes and behaviors in every aspect of human relations or attachments.
Paul introduces God's Love as the most excellent way by affirming its relevance to spiritual gifts. He specifically mentions the gift of tongues and confesses that his own gift, given for the edification of the church, is of no spiritual effect or value unless it is expressed in Love, God's Love. He contrasts Love against the gift of Tongues, probably because the gift of Tongues is held in the highest esteem by Christians, due to its uncommon manifestation and the appreciably difficult challenge of attaining fluency in multiple languages. He actually intensifies the contrast by raising the stakes beyond the human sphere to the angelic realm. Although not clearly depicted, by alluding to the tongue of angels, Paul underscores that even the utmost expression of the most highly esteemed gift is of no spiritual value unless it is expressed in the righteous sentiments of Love, God's Love.
Paul does not deride any gift. But he reiterates that, if his attitude remains wanting in Love, his activities would be as effective as a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal; just a noise maker in spite of his gifts. Hence, Paul’s allusion to both the possible—Tongue of men, and the impossible—Tongue of angels, affirms that nothing on earth or in heaven can ever attain its full spiritual value and effect without Love, God's Love.
Neither man’s highest regard nor angelic excellence can imbue anything with meaning and significance without Love, God's Love. Even most highly cherished gifts are not able to fill the void created by the absence of God's Love. Therefore, Love is the most excellent way, indeed the only way, for meaning and significance in the exercise of spiritual gifts in particular, and Christian living and service in general, because God is Love and His Love is our wisdom, our strength, our power, and our confidence in light of God's Will and Purpose.
13:2 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.
In much the same way as in verse one, gifts of discerning what God has revealed, understanding of mysterious things, or even having faith that moves mountains add nothing of any spiritual value, if Love is missing both in the receiving and the exercise of the gifts. The absence of Love in the exercise of the gifts of prophecy, understanding, and faith is extremely consequential, because seeking to exercise God's gift outside of the framework of His Love directly interferes with the work and authority of the Holy Spirit within us. Paul candidly admits that he himself would amount to nothing if his gifts are received, used, or expressed without Love, God's Love.
Gifts of prophecy might give him knowledge about the future and the wisdom to teach. Understanding could empower him to discern all mysteries and cause him to possess all knowledge. Faith might generate confidence, enabling him to take daring actions, or attain extraordinary miracles. Nevertheless, the Christian cannot reap any spiritual benefit from just the mechanics of exercising the gifts. Like tongues and interpretation of tongues, Prophecies, understanding of mysteries as well as faith and miracles of faith are legitimate spiritual gifts. However, unless they are applied in Love, God's Love, they will be devoid of profitable spiritual gains.
To be sure, any gift could be paraded in public and gain populous acclamation, once conferred. A charitable attitude of true godly Love is the only godly attribute which makes the gifts the consecrated means by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes God’s purpose for the gifts. Neither uncommon discernment nor unparalleled miracle of faith could ever yield a spiritually relevant outcome without Love. Paul confesses that, without Love, he would be nothing—even of no significant spiritual identity despite impressive spiritual endowments.
13:3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Paul considers two more highly regarded religious exertions to confirm that Love is still the only source of true meaning to all spiritual experiences. These two practices are of great religious significance to outward piety and superficial devotion. First, he cites generous giving, which is a good and acceptable practice. Second, he mentioned burning oneself in fire, which is sacrilege, except in cases of martyrdom suffered at the hands of persecutors for the cause of the Gospel or fatal persecution due to one’s Love for God.
Such practices and experiences may draw impressive admiration from fellow men who are easily captivated by outwardly contrived effects. Nevertheless, the spiritual impact of such practices is virtually nonexistent. To do anything without God's Love is to put oneself before God. That is defiance, disobedience, and outright rebellion. The essence of Paul's message in these three verses is that, the gift of God can only be effective when operated by God in the framework of His own Love.
The subject matter of our meditation is God's transcending Truth that is beyond us, but works in us to transform us; His Love working in us. The subject of love is probably one of the most frequently discussed points in human relationships. In Christian circles, we talk about several kinds of sentiments which are labelled, different types of love. Taking our cue from ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, we speak of four specific words which delineate four different contextual perceptions of love, reflecting man's varied expressions of fondness.
- Philía "φιλία": Denotes an affectionate regard or friendship between equals. A virtuous fondness, a dispassionate care, a brotherly love encouraging loyalty among friends.
- Storge "στοργή": Indicates deeply rooted care or empathy within the family especially parents toward children.
- éros "ἔρως": Means sensual passion, reflecting the desire for physical intimacy.
- Agápe "ἀγάπη": Connotes love or fondness without a return from the object of the passion. Unconditional love given without demanding a returned favor.
These terms contemplate love as the expression of one's fondness or affection toward someone or something. That is, these expressions reflect that affections or warm dispositions are the inherent positive qualities of love as we know it. However, the true value of love is in the divine essence of God's Love.
What Paul describes here is far from being the expression of our own personal fondness or affection of any kind. It is God's own attribute which flows into the heart of His redeemed children, enriching our lives with the capacity for godly Christian living.
As Christians, we struggle with issues of Christian living and service, because we either misunderstand or disregard the intentions and purposes of our loving Father in calling us to service. We get in the way of the Holy Spirit Who is in us to do the work of our Father in the right way with the right attitude and behavior; that is, with His Love for the edification of the church. Our actions must always be carried out as the expressions of the work of the Holy Spirit conveyed in the Love of God directly flowing from Him through us.
God's Love helps us overcome our own inhibitions and self-centeredness as we serve Him through everything He accomplishes in us.
- Because of God's Love, everything we do becomes service to others.
- Because of God's Love, we edify others instead of seeking our own glory.
- Because of God's Love, we become givers instead of hoarding for ourselves at the expense of God's work.
- Because of God's Love, the needs of others become God's purpose to fulfill through us.
- Because of God's Love, we rejoice in blessing others instead of being consumed by our own insatiable appetite.
- Because of God's Love, His gifts become alive in us.
- Because of God's Love, our lives bring glory to Him and convey His blessings to the world around us through His enabling gifts and the power of His Love.