The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany February 3, 2008
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
58(1-8), 372, 412, 58(9)
God grant to each of us the grace to live each day as though yesterday was Christmas, today is Easter, and tomorrow is Judgment Day. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
One of the great and continuing joys in the life of the child of God is the sure and certain knowledge that we do not and cannot pay for even one single sin. This is such a profound comfort because it leaves absolutely no doubt about our eternal future. How so? Since the payment for sins does not lie within our ability or within our sphere of influence, there is no way we can foul things up with our usual failures and inconsistencies. The payment was made in full by another and the books have been forever reconciled. God the Father has declared the innocent death of His Son to be of greater value than the sum total of all of mankind’s sin. In other words, no matter how many or how great the sins of the human race, the payment of Jesus Christ was more than enough to pay for that sin.
How then can anyone be lost? Only through unbelief—the rejection of Jesus (actively or passively) as the one and only Savior from sin. Why, again, is this such a comfort? Because I choose poorly and I exhibit such profound inconsistency. If I had to guess at the path to Heaven, or if I had to save myself by my own consistent acts of righteousness, I would, without question, fail. Of this I am sure. Temper, emotion, impatience, frustration, pride—all combine to taint and condemn to failure even the most elementary decisions in life. Even if God had arranged a multiple choice question that I had to answer correctly to save myself—such as, “Which is the greatest: faith, hope or love?”—I have little doubt that I would fail even such a simple test.
Here is where our text comes into play. Along with all of Holy Scripture these sacred words not only point the correct and only path to heaven, they provide perfect guidance in the sort of questions that continually confront us during our time of grace on earth. Our text is found recorded in the first letter to the Corinthians, the thirteenth chapter:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 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, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
So far the verbally inspired words of God Himself. What a comfort to know that these words are altogether true and right, “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). With complete confidence in the Word of God we pray, “Sanctify us through Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” (John 17:17). Amen.
Dear fellow slaves, things look different from the outside looking in than they do from the inside looking out. Lives, for example, that look glamorous and exciting from the outside often look hollow and lonely on the inside. Christians who appear pious and righteous on the outside see their own sinful thoughts and deeds from the inside. Jobs, families, congregations—they almost always look better from the outside looking in, but it is the insider’s view in all these cases that is the more accurate.
Yet isn’t it interesting that the insider’s view can also, at times, be the least accurate and most unrealistic. Sometimes our own faults escape “beneath the radar” of our own awareness, that is, our most glaring weaknesses are hidden from view simply because they reside too close to home. For example, despite the fact that our eyes are set more or less in the middle of our faces, we would have no idea what we looked like if not for the aid of a mirror or some other reflecting surface. So it is that we commonly miss the things closest to us, like the mistakes we make in raising or disciplining our children, or the impressions we give by the way we talk or act, or even the image we present by how we dress or care for our bodies. The point is that we not only at times see ourselves as worse than others see us, we also at times see ourselves as better than we really are. We are truly mixed up creatures!
The same sort of phenomenon holds true in a Christian congregation. At times we can honesty recognize our own faults and shortcomings. At times these things develop gradually and have to be pointed out to us by an outside observer or by the Holy Spirit through his Word. We have crystal clear examples of this sort of thing in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters two and three. Some interesting questions present themselves as you read through those letters. Do you suppose, for example, that the members of the Church in Ephesus knew that they were loveless? Probably not until the Holy Spirit pointed it out to them. I’m sure they knew all of the positive things mentioned in that letter: the works, the labors, the patience, the lack of toleration for false teachers or for evil in general. On the other hand I wonder if any at all recognized that they had “left their first love” (Revelation 2:4). Do you imagine that Pergamos saw itself as a “compromising church” (cf. Revelation 2:12ff) tolerating false teachers, or that Thyatira believed they were a “corrupt church” (cf. Revelation 2:18ff), or that Sardis thought of itself as a “dead church” (cf. Revelation 3:1ff), or Laodicea as a “lukewarm church” (cf. Revelation 3:!4ff)? All of these churches had their strong points. We can’t help but wonder if they knew anything about their weak points.
What about us as individuals, congregations, and synod? Do we have blind spots? How can we know? And is it really that important?
We answer the last question first. Is it really that important? Remember the Holy Spirit’s words to Ephesus—the church that lacked only love: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen: repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lamp stand from its place—unless you repent” (Revelation 2:6). The answer is “Yes!” it is vitally important that we learn to recognize our own sinful weaknesses. Here, in fact, is where our text together with the letters to the seven churches and our own congregation all intersect. They meet at this great truth from our text: “Without love, faith is nothing.”
Have you ever been stopped dead in your tracks by a particular Bible verse? Several parts of this inspired text had that effect on me and here is where we also return to the comfort of not having to make choices to save our souls. Suppose God the Father gave you a multiple choice test as to which of these three is greatest and most important: faith, hope, or love. Which would you have chosen?
My guess is that I would probably have chosen faith. Think about it for a moment. Is love greater than faith? Our text tells us that without love we are nothing, but what about faith? How can we be nothing if we have faith? We know without a doubt that if saving faith is found in our hearts on Judgment Day, we will celebrate for an eternity with our Lord in Heaven. So how can love be more important than faith? When we have faith, we are indeed “something” in God’s eyes. The inspired words of Holy Scripture teach us that we are God’s children through faith in Jesus. Certainly that is more than “nothing” to God.
The simple explanation is that without love there can be no faith. What could the Holy Spirit mean by “I am nothing” but that saving faith cannot be present in the absence of love? A man with saving faith is a child of God. God would never refer to one of His own dear children as “nothing.” It is clear then that without love, faith is dead.
This thing about love is serious business after all, isn’t it? When we first hear that we might lack love we imagine that our good ship of faith has just grazed the iceberg and will continue to steam along its merry way bound for heaven. Our text makes it clear that the damage must be repaired or we will most certainly sink. It is not possible to have a saving faith without love for love and faith cannot be separated.
What then, we begin to wonder, is this “love” that we need so desperately? What is it and how do we know if we have it or not? Here is the slippery part—trying to define this special “love.” This love is not simply a feeling and it is not simply an action. It is both of those things and more. Our text draws a picture as good as human words can produce. It does so by telling us both what this love is, and what it is not. “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” [vv.4-8a]
We begin to see both why the love described in our text is so difficult to define and why it is so important to the child of God. This is not something we can provide for ourselves. Something so magnificent can only come from God. “Without love there can be no faith” is a true statement simply because only faith in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can produce such love in the human heart. We have often been guilty of treating love as a spice of luxury in the bread of faith. It is rather the essential ingredient. It is that which you cannot remove without ruining all.
The second fact demonstrated so clearly by our text is that without love, deeds cannot be good. Though it is true, as James says in his letter, that we ought to “show our faith by our works,” (James 2:14ff), yet it is also true that “without faith (which cannot be separated from love) it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Our text spells it out in words that even our own dulls minds can hardly fail to understand: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” [v.3] To put it still another way, “Even if I do all the right things, I have done nothing at all in God’s eyes if I have not done it out of love.”
Here again we look into our own hearts and we see very little of the love described in our text. We cannot, for example, take our own name, put it in place of the word “love” and have it ring true. Give it a try; see if it holds up. More often than not we do not “suffer long… practice kindness… rejoice in the truth, bear all things, hope all things, believe all things.” The negative list usually describes us better. We “envy, parade ourselves, are puffed up, behave rudely, seek our own, are provoked, think evil thoughts, and rejoice in evil.”
What am I to learn from all of this—that I am not a Child of God after all? By the grace of God we are indeed His children and heirs of heaven. What we are here to learn is rather that we are indeed sinners. Yet here too is where we have to stop looking at our own hearts—for there we will always find evil—and look instead to our Lord Jesus Christ for our comfort and assurance. He is the one man who could rightly substitute His name for the word love in our text and have it read perfectly true. Why would God condemn such a man? Jesus was condemned not because he was perfect, but because on Him was placed the sum total of all our sins. God now sees the perfection of His Son in you and me. Jesus received all of our lovelessness and we received all of His perfect loving obedience. What a great trade for mankind—life for death, perfection for sin, love for hatred. In Christ we have traded the terror and condemnation of our sins for the comfort and assurance of forgiveness—a good trade indeed!
Finally, dear Christian, do not imagine that this sort of love is something you yourself can supply. Pray that God would increase your supply, day by day, for this is clearly a divine gift. All other gifts will pass away. Only three will remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest is love. Why? Faith will remain until the end of time, but it will then be replaced by what we can see with our eyes. Hope will remain until the day of judgment, but it will then give way to the realization of the bliss of heaven. Only love will remain unchanged into eternity.
This is the gift our Lord offers us here and now. Grant this, Lord, unto us all. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.