Over the last month we have looked at Paul’s marvelous description of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. I have reminded you that Paul is not speaking to a marriage enrichment seminar; he is speaking to the church. His words do not focus merely on love in marriage but on love within the body of Christ and in our everyday relationships.
Over the course of our study we have seen that love recognizes that our greatest sense of fulfillment will be found strangely, not by getting from others, but from giving to others. Love gives people time to grow. Love treats other people with kindness and courtesy. Love desires the best for people and realizes that what is best is to embrace the Lord and His direction for life and eternity. Love doesn’t keep score. Love gives other people the benefit of the doubt. Love spotlights the best in others rather than spotlighting their weaknesses. Love cherishes the truth and hates all that is evil. Love never gives up. We’ve seen that just as the presence of love covers a multitude of sins, so the absence of love causes a multitude of sins.
We need these reminders. It is so easy for us to get distracted.
- It is easy to become so distracted by discussions of theology that we forget that we are called to follow Him in our living.
- It is easy to be so distracted by the burdens and trials of life that we forget that we belong to a God who loves us and will see us through the fiercest storm.
- It is easy to be so distracted by our experiences that we forget that the experiences are meant to draw us to God rather than for those experiences to become our source of hope and confidence.
- It is easy to become distracted by the business of doing and growing the church and forget that the church is about people, not programs.
This is what was happening to the Corinthians. They were so wrapped up in trying to decide which spiritual gifts were the most significant that they forgot their first responsibility: to relate to each other in love. As we conclude the chapter, Paul concludes his parenthesis on love and drives home his point.
LOVE IS THE CONSTANT OF LIFE AND ETERNTIY
It is difficult for us to read the first words, “love never fails” without a sense of confusion. Many of us have witnessed the apparent failure of love. Marriages have ended in divorce. Friendships have ruptured. Children have disowned parents. Siblings have become like strangers. Churches have split.
When Paul said “love never fails”, he was not saying that love will always have success. John MacArthur writes,
Love is not a magic key that Christians use to unlock every opportunity and guarantee every endeavor. Love is not a spiritual formula that, faithfully applied, automatically fulfills our desires and produces human success. Love does not always win, at least not in the usual sense. Jesus Christ was love incarnate, yet He did not by His perfect love succeed in winning every person to Himself. He was ridiculed, maligned, denied, rejected, and crucified. Paul could be called the apostle of love, yet he did not leave a trail of perfect successes wherever he ministered. He was persecuted, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and, like his Lord, put to death because of what he said and did in love.
Because love does not overpower human will, we cannot always accomplish our purposes, no matter how loving, spiritual, and self-less we may be. But no godly work can be accomplished without love. Success will not always be a part of love, but love will always be a part of true spiritual success.
I think the illustration of Jesus is very instructive. Jesus loved perfectly and yet the crucifixion makes it appear that His love failed. However, as we have gained a measure of perspective over the years we see that Jesus’ love did not fail. It is still changing and transforming people. It was because of the love of Jesus that you and I are here today.
When you feel that love has failed here are two things to keep in mind. First, we do not see the whole picture. Paul is going to drive this point home in the next verses. Just because our love may seem to lack immediate effect does not mean that it has failed. Often the seeds of love bear fruit differently than we expect.
Second, we need to remember that love’s effect is dependent somewhat on the response of another. We don’t love in order to get a response (that would be selfish). However, if someone refuses to be loved our hands are tied. If a Doctor gives you a prescription and you refuse to take the medicine, has the medicine failed? Has the Doctor failed? No. In the same way, love does not fail because someone does not respond to it.
Love is the essence of Heaven. Love is an investment that will not fluctuate or lose its value. Love is the way God changes lives. We must not give up on love simply because we have been hurt or because we haven’t seen the result we hoped to see. God manifests Himself through love.
WE DON’T YET SEE CLEARLY
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
As I have gotten older going to the Eye Doctor has been more and more of an adventure. After I take my contact lens out the doctor will cover my eye and ask me to read from the chart on the wall. I want to read the fine print but I am finding that I can read less and less of that chart because the rest of it is blurry. When the Doctor says, “What do you see on line 5” I have to answer, “I only see a blur of black and white.” Paul says our life in this world is like that eye chart, we only see in part. This manifests itself in two ways.
We don’t see correctly. Even though we recognize our sinfulness we still don’t see the horror of our rebellion fully. We don’t understand what holiness means so we aren’t able to grasp what an offence to holiness our sin is to God.
Think about a child. They know they are in trouble and have committed an offense. They know they shouldn’t have been playing with matches but they don’t understand the danger and destruction they could have caused. They know that they weren’t supposed to go near the street but they don’t grasp the devastating consequences their actions could produce. Children may think their parents are arbitrary and cranky because they don’t see the wider consequences of what they do. Likewise, we feel the pangs of conscience but don’t understand how deeply sin affects our relationship with God. If we saw clearly we would fight sin more forcefully.
We also don’t see God’s love correctly. God loves us in a much greater way than you and I realize. We think God loves us like we love each other. We often love sentimentally. We sometimes love conditionally. God’s love is eternal, constant, and depends on God’s nature rather than our behavior. When we don’t receive an immediate response to our love, we give up. God does not. God’s love sees us not for what we are but for what we can be. Even if we could fully grasp how perfectly God fulfills the description of 1 Corinthians 13 we would still only grasp a small dimension of God’s love. It is like trying to comprehend the size of the ocean while standing on the shore. We are amazed by the vastness but are unable to grasp how vast it really is. So it is with God’s love.
We don’t see God’s attributes correctly. We can’t wrap our minds around God’s eternal nature, His sovereign control of the universe and the concept of the Trinity (that God is one but manifests himself in three distinct and separate persons). No matter how detailed our theological understanding, we are still like a scientist trying to understand DNA. No matter how learned the scientist, they are still only seeing the elementary truths of DNA. We are left to oversimplify something that is complex and profound. God is greater than our minds can comprehend. He explodes our categories and defies our imaginations. Our descriptions of God are like trying to draw a picture of someone using stick figures.
We don’t see right and wrong correctly. We make judgments about behavior based on our perceptions and desires rather than on God’s standards. All we see are the immediate consequences. We don’t see how our actions impact the people around us. We don’t see the impact our actions have on future events, on the environment and on how we will respond to future situations.
We tell our children to obey us because “we said so”. What we are really saying to our kids is this: “You don’t see everything that I do. You must trust me.” In the same way, since we don’t see the full impact of our choices (we only see the immediate pay off), God calls us to obey Him “because He said so”. This is not a power play by God. It is an expression of love that is anchored in being able to see the bigger picture.
We do not see clearly. When you look through a dark glass you can make out some things, but not others. If you have to drive in a snowstorm or a driving rain sometimes you can’t even see the car in front of you. If you drive in the fog there are times when it is difficult to see the center line, much less other cars or hazards in the road.
Paul says this is the way we are in this life. We do not see clearly. We don’t see all the factors and issues of life.
- We don’t see how God is using trials or difficulties to mold us or to enrich someone else.
- We don’t see how a struggle now can result in needed strength for later.
- We don’t see how a warm greeting toward someone today could open the door for a life-changing opportunity tomorrow.
- We don’t see how our simple prayers change the circumstances of others
- We don’t understand why God allows the tragedies that strike the world
- We don’t see the fears and insecurities that others carry with them
- We don’t know why two people lead similar lives and one gets sick and the other does not.
Our Response. Because these things are true there are two responses. First, we should be humble. We need to recognize our own limitations and recognize that we only see a small part of the truth. We should be soft with others because we know that we do not really understand what is going on in that other person’s life. We should be humble and patient in time of difficulty because we don’t know what God is doing in us.
Second, we should trust God. If you were traveling through dense woods you would want to go with someone who knew the way. Our senses fail us. We think we are going in the right direction but may actually be going in circles. We need someone who sees more clearly and knows the way. The only way we can navigate the dangers of life is to trust God as our guide. We must trust His Word which serves as our map for living. What He tells us sometimes seems counter intuitive but He knows the way, we don’t.
I have been told that it is a powerful experience to get cataract surgery or laser eye surgery. You walk into the office with life literally out of focus and you walk out seeing with new clarity. Paul says that kind of experience is coming in our spiritual lives. Though our sight is hampered now,
when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
Perfection will not come until we reach Heaven. But in Heaven it will be like someone turned on a light in a darkened room. We will see and we will say “Aha” as understanding dawns. God will be more awesome, questions will be answered, the beautiful will be more clearly defined and stunning, people will be more precious, and all sense of competition will be gone.
By far the greatest blessing of that future day will be the fact that we will truly know the Lord. The barrier will be gone. For the first time in our lives we will understand holiness, sin, mercy and most of all, love. We will experience God’s love with its overwhelming warmth. We will know what it is like to be truly secure, fully known, completely understood, and wonderfully loved.
Paul says we are currently like children. Our perspective is limited. Our arguments are petty. We tend to see the world revolving around us. But there is coming a day when we will grow up. We will understand. We will rejoice.
Corinth was known for their production of mirrors. The Corinthian mirror was made of polished metal that, at best, gave only an imperfect reflection. Paul says this life is like looking into that polished metal. We see images but they are distorted and indistinct. When we get to Heaven that distorted image will be replaced by the clarity that comes from seeing something face to face.
Pictures of the beaches of Hawaii or the mountains of Switzerland are beautiful. However, the pictures are only two-dimensional representations of the real thing. The real thing far surpasses anything even the finest photographer can capture. Our understanding of life is like the picture. The life God has for us is far greater.
It is time now to put everything together. The people in Corinth were fighting over who was most significant. Their focus was in the wrong place! It’s not about the ranking of gifts, it is about using those gifts for God’s purpose to enrich and build up the church.
So what should we learn from all of this? First, it is time to put aside the pettiness of division. The people of God are to be different than the rest of the world. Our goals and values should be different. Instead of ranking each other we should encourage each other. There is far more at stake than the petty treasures of this life.
Second, we should see that we need to be more diligent about love. If you can listen to Paul’s words and not sense a lack in your own life you aren’t paying attention. There are sinful attitudes for which we need to repent. There are tempers that need to be brought under control. There is gossip that needs to cease. There is pettiness that needs to be overcome. There are facts that need to be checked. There is grace that needs to be extended. We must seek God in prayer and ask Him to teach us how to love as He does. We need to stop focusing on ourselves and focus on honoring Him and serving each other.
Third, we should be looking past the elementary and purely concrete things to that which is spiritual, supernatural and eternal. Let me try to show you what I mean,
- Instead of focusing on merely learning information about love we should be striving to practice and demonstrate love.
- Instead of claiming to be spirit-filled we should show we are spirit-filled by the Christlikeness of our character.
- Instead of arguing with another about our viewpoint we should share our viewpoint with the humble understanding that we now see through a glass darkly. We should approach disagreement recognizing that we both seek truth and we need to help each other find that truth.
- We should focus on what the Scriptures say (believing it to be God’s revelation to us) rather than running after the formulas and principles of men.
- We should refuse to despair when life becomes difficult and instead trust that God has a plan that is good, even though that purpose is currently hidden from our sight.
- We should recognize that the victories and applause of this life must never become so important that it leads us to act in an unloving way toward each other. The trinkets are temporary. Love is eternal.
Paul reminds us that Faith, Hope and Love are the three things that will still be here when everything else is said and done. All three are important. I think he calls love the greatest because in the church it is the characteristic that will mostly greatly impact others. We’ve spent five weeks talking about love. Now it is time to start putting our talk into practice.