A More Excellent Way: Love

Last spring I went to a conference in Lafayette, Indiana and the topic was long-term planning for churches, strategic ministry planning. Now these type conferences are all over the place, they come in many forms. Some are all about making small churches into big churches. Others are about going from small budgets to big ones. Still others are about how to build structures that look very corporate and business-like. I went to this particular conference because it wasn’t about any of those things. This conference was about the glory of God, and how to plan well in order to make an impact in communities for the gospel, for Jesus Christ. It wasn’t about numbers or money or prestige, only about living life in a way, as a body of Christ, to make Christ known in our little world. So over a couple of days we were able to get some ideas on how we can do just that, and in addition I picked up four books that they recommended on the same topic to continue learning in that.

Now I realize that just mentioning “long-term strategic planning” for churches, just saying that can raise all sort of questions in some of your minds. Like, “That sounds like a business, a corporation, that is what we do each year at the office. Is that really something a church should be doing?” Some might say, “Let’s just do what the Bible says: preach the word, teach the word, fellowship, equip the saints. That should be the extent of what we do as far as planning goes. Just do that and do it well.” Some people may resist planning for churches simply because it usually represents change. Planning means planning to do something, something different perhaps. Some might say, “Let’s just keep things exactly as they are, make that the plan: no plan and no change.” That can certainly be comfortable, that is true, and to some degree easy and maybe even seem safe. Some may say, “I came here because of how things are done now, I like how things are as is. Why change anything? Why plan for something new? If it works, don’t fix it.” And so planning – just bringing up the topic – can raise concerns, and I am aware of that risk. And yet, biblically, planning is important.

We talked last Sunday as we wrapped up 2 Peter about something that God is very passionate about, and that is change. Change in us. He is committed to changing us to make us more like His Son Jesus Christ. As Christians we don’t have an option in obedience to say, “God, that is enough change, no more change!” No, as Christians we are to be changing, and if we are individually changing to be more like Christ, then our church will be changing too. It is full of people whom God is changing.

Some of you would not know this, but over the last few months, just a few months, there have been an incredible amount of ministry ideas given to us as elders by all of you. You, people who are changing, growing in Christ, being burdened to serve, coming to us and saying, “Let’s do this out of a love for Christ,” or “Let’s do that because we love our Savior and want to make Him known.” It has been a magnificent thing to watch and hear about and discuss. God is, no doubt, stirring up a people, I mean you and me, as those who are wanting to serve Christ through ministry together. So many good ideas, so many passions, so many heartfelt desires to do something, to serve each other, our communities, even people hundreds or thousands of miles away. 

It is so exciting. Some of the ideas? Ministries to the poor, widows and orphans, ministry to families who have members with special needs, ministry to children who don’t have access to specialized educational opportunities, ministry to families who desire to adopt children into their homes, ministries involved with the foster care system, ministries to families with babies in our church body, ministries involving music, ministries of evangelism, biblical counseling and training ministry, ministry to people living here from other cultures by teaching English as a second language, teaching ministries, ministries teaching children to study and memorize God’s Word, ministries to singles. I know you’re probably looking around and saying, “There are not that many people here; that’s like three ideas per person!” No, there are more people here than that. I know I have left some out, but this is a sampling of what I am talking about and how God is stirring us up for service. And with each of these, the emphasis is not simply meeting practical needs, it’s not just social justice and never sharing the Gospel. Instead, it is meeting practical needs, loving our neighbors and each other, in order that we may have an entrance into the lives of people whose paths we would never cross normally, for the sharing of the good news of the Gospel of Christ! How exciting is that?

My point is that as God grows us we will not be able to remain neutral on some of these ideas. As God grows us together we will want avenues to serve side-by-side with each other in true gospel ministry, sharing the love of Christ, sharing the message that the Messiah, our Savior has come! And that He still saves all those who cry out to Him in repentance and faith. And so planning helps with this. This is why planning is important. Which ministries do we pursue, and why? Where is God leading us, and how do we know that He is? These are some things we are working through as leaders, praying through and seeking counsel on. What is our mission, where are we headed? What has God prepared us, uniquely prepared us to do as a church?

You may say, “Okay, where are you going with all this?” Well, here is what I am saying: I just simply want you to know that we are thinking about direction, about change, trying to understand where God has us going so we can jump on board 100%, so you can pray for your leaders. But here is another very important thing that I want all of you to remember, all of your pastors here want you to know this: this church has been founded on some things that will not change as long as your current elders are here. This church and its leaders have had a great passion from the very beginning. That is a commitment to the Word of God and to God’s glory. The foundation of any church ought to be built on Jesus Christ and the written revelation of His Word, the Bible. We have never gone soft on God’s Word. We believe it and we teach it, and if you are here with us you know that. What do we have if we don’t have Christ and God’s revelation to us? We have stood and we do stand on God’s Word. And everything we do is subject to it. Some things must never change, and this is one of those things.

So here is the thing – What is the direction that we should go in? If what we have stood for, historically, is non-negotiable and we all understand that, if we commit to holding to God’s revealed word and to the person of Jesus Christ, then holding on to them, where do we go? What ministries do we pursue? What passions do we follow? What drives all of this, what motivates our decisions? How do we plan for the future as a church body?

Most of you have no idea how I and your other leaders have been engaged with these questions, wrestled with them, and prayed over them. We want to lead well, and yet we are mere men. And so I mentioned at the beginning a conference that I attended. At that conference several books were recommended. I have read two of them and almost three. Since you may be curious I’ll give you the titles. This is not a full endorsement of all these books by any measure, but they are the ones I have read: The Church of Irresistible Influenceby Robert Lewis, Who Stole My Church by Gordon MacDonald, and Maximum Impact: Living and Loving for God’s Glory by Wayne Mack. Reading these books, I have come to at least one conclusion regarding church life and church planning. At least one conclusion about how you and I, how all of us must live life together in ministry. At least one overriding thing that must drive what we do when we are within these walls, and must drive what we do when we live life either together or apart when we leave this building. What is this thing that must drive us? Love.

So with planning, I wonder if a question could be, “Because we love our Lord, how can we maximize our love for each other and for those who need a Savior?” And so this morning I want to begin a short expositional teaching on 1 Corinthians 13. A series of messages looking at 1 Corinthians 13. I want to preach on love. 

Here is what I hope as we go through this chapter together. My hope is that each one of us individually, that we will give ourself to this teaching fully. Not because they are my sermons – that is insignificant – but because it is God’s Word. 

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

My hope too is that we will all look not at our neighbors’ heart but at our own heart on this issue of love. I hope that we all come away in one unified chorus saying, “Lord, help me to love like this, give me a heart of love not only for you but for my neighbors.”

Just to give Wayne Mack credit and to express my appreciation to him, I want you to know that I will be referring to his book often and sharing some of his illustrations with you. He, I believe, has pleased the Lord with his excellent treatment of 1 Corinthians 13. He has certainly challenged me.

So what is our direction? Where are we headed as a church? What should be our guide in practical decisions regarding ministry creation, implementation, and direction? Yes, our foundation is God’s Word, it is our sure foundation in what we believe and what we preach and teach. But in the matter of ministry decisions, what guides us? We will discover that together I believe as we give ourselves to God and learn to love in greater ways for the glory of our Savior. 

Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 12. Today I want to give a quick background of what leads up to this magnificent chapter, chapter 13 on love. Chapter 13 is not written as its own book, it has a context, and so I want us to see how and why Paul gets to chapter 13 on love. Why did Paul, as led by the Spirit, find it necessary to write what he did in chapter 13? 1 Corinthians is a very interesting book. It was written to Christians. In chapter 1 Paul says they have been sanctified, they were recipients of the grace of God, and they were gifted by God. Paul is writing to Christians. However, Christians are not without problems. I’m sure that is not news to you! This letter reveals many, many problems in this early church and Paul addresses them. If you see problems in the church, we shouldn’t see that as unusual. Problems arise, but we can be thankful that those problems are addressed in the Bible, as Paul addresses some of them here.

What are some of the problems that this church in Corinth was facing? Well, there was pride and arrogance among some. Immorality among others, and the church wasn’t handling it rightly. Civil, court matters were addressed among believers. Marriage and divorce is addressed. The matter of Christian liberty and idolatry. He addresses issues of relationships and helps us better understand why we sometimes behave as we do. He even talks about, teaches on how to take the Lord’s Table, because some abuse of it had been going on in the church. And then in chapters 12-14 Paul gets to spiritual gifts. When we think about spiritual gifts that are given to Christians we need to think about serving, ministry, who we relate to, other people as Christians. We need to think about how God wants us to serve people around us. We should not think of spiritual gifts in a way that puts us at the center of it. Spiritual gifts are first of all God centered, but are also others centered as we will see.

Speaking of spiritual gifts too, we need to see that they help us to be fruitful Christians. The Corinthian Christians were confused about how to make a real impact for Christ, and this wrong thinking was at least in part based on wrong thinking about spiritual gifts and how to use them. In chapter 12 we can see that they considered those who were in possession of some gifts as more holy than others. They liked to elevate the extraordinary gifts as more important than the more ordinary ones like preaching or teaching. This elevating of some gifts led to things such as pride and a lack of submissiveness.

It is not my intention here to talk specifically about the gifts of the Spirit, particular gifts such as tongues or miracles. I will just say that I believe that the extraordinary gifts were given to accompany the message of the New Testament and to validate it before it was written and completed. Miracles and tongues continued and followed the apostles to give proof of their apostleship and to validate their message as those speaking on behalf of God. I understand that there is controversy today over gifts and again, it is not my purpose here to get into that now, maybe we can do that another time.

1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. 

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. 

And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12)

Spiritual gifts for the church at Corinth were everything. You cannot help but see the “me-centeredness” in how the Corinthians approached spiritual gifts. It was as if it were a contest or provided a ranking of sorts in peoples’ minds. People were perhaps being categorized as important and unimportant based on their gifts. This is so wrong to do.

If you think about our bodies, we have body parts that we don’t ever even think about. We don’t think about their existence ever, until they stop working. Insignificant parts until…a clogged artery going to the heart. Or a gallbladder. Anyone thinking of their gallbladder this morning? Probably not. Unless it’s diseased, then you’re thinking about it. This seemingly insignificant part can shut down not just itself, but the entire body. One tiny vein ruptured in the brain can cause massive body-wide damage or even death. Those parts we think little about are important for us to function normally and to function well. If one part suffers the whole body suffers. If one part stops functioning the whole suffers. And so Paul is trying to correct some thinking about spiritual gifts. And it’s important for the working of a healthy church, fruitful ministry, making an impact for Christ. 

As important as each gift is, as important as your particular role is in this church, how necessary each part of the body is for the church to function as God intends, there is an even greater matter to be addressed. In fact all of the gifts, all of our gifts, our ministry, come to nothing, are of no value, are useless, counterproductive, a waste of time, if there is one thing missing. One thing, and that is love.

Paul says it this way in the last sentence in chapter 12, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” He brings into this discussion they key ingredient that must be included in any kind of Christian service, and if this one thing is not there then we might as well stay on the sideline, just sit on the bench. That’s how strongly Paul talks about love in chapter 13. Paul doesn’t just say that in passing then move on, he goes on to spend an entire chapter describing what love is and how it looks. People in the first century must have been just as confused about what love is back then as we are today! They needed a lot of explanation, as we do too. And so we are going to take our time going through chapter 13 in the weeks ahead.

I mentioned change at the beginning of this message, ministry direction for our church, I asked what will drive our service and decisions that need to be made regarding ministry involvement as a church. One major driving factor will be how can we best love each other and love those outside these walls with the people we have here and the resources that God has given us and will give us in the future.

But please don’t fail to think about yourself individually as we talk about love. As we go through this chapter together you can be sure that God will provide specific opportunities for you and for me to demonstrate the kind of love we will be talking about here. Maybe in ways that you have never thought of, never dreamed of.

Some may be tempted to say, “Love for several weeks? That is all churches want to talk about these days is love.” Well that may be true, but don’t think that through a biblical study on true Christian love there won’t be significant points of conviction for all of us, because there will be. This discussion on love will also be a discussion on sin, which is not loving as we ought. What I mean is that none of us, no one here has loved as radically as Paul describes love here.

And so I ask you to prayerfully come each week expecting to be changed through this teaching. Not just changed in some small area of life where you just haven’t quite got it right yet, but changed in every area of your life for the sake of your neighbor and for the glory of God. Are you ready for that? I’m excited about what God will do through this as we learn to love one another biblically for the sake of our Lord. So next week: 1 Corinthians 13, Lord willing.