The Importance of Love

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. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

We ended last week with the last sentence in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, where Paul wrote, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” I hope you heard that message last week. I rarely mention previous messages, but I am compelled to say that if you weren’t here last week, I do want to encourage you to go to our website and download that message and listen to it. I say that because if you weren’t here, I want you to know where we are and why we are in 1 Corinthians 13 for the next few weeks. I believe strongly that God has us right here as a church in this chapter, and I explain why in that message from last week.

“And I will show you a still more excellent way.” This he said after a lengthy discussion on spiritual gifts. Paul is teaching on the importance of fruitfulness in ministry in 1 Corinthians, as we discussed last week. He and we should ask ourselves the question, “How can we be most fruitful as we serve our Lord on this earth?” Sometimes when we ask ourselves that question we may immediately start thinking about “grand” things. We may think about having a large platform from which to speak, we may think about study, and put a high priority on study and knowledge so as to be able to debate, and convince, and win verbal battles. We may even think about martyrs. Stephen in the first century, William Tyndale burned at the stake, and others who have become well known through death as a martyr. That is the thing about martyrs right, who can forget them? And sometimes their message in life becomes more powerful after death.

What does it take for you and for me to be fruitful in life and in ministry to our Lord? What gift is necessary in order to have the greatest impact? You may say, “I’m a homeschool mom, I don’t really have a platform for big ministry” Or, “I’m just a regular guy, I don’t even communicate well, what really can I do that is fruitful or impactful?” What circumstances are needed to maximize our usefulness in the Kingdom of God? Those are good and interesting questions to consider, and must have been some of the questions that the Corinthians pondered that led Paul to write 1 Corinthians 13. Because what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13 is he argues that it is not the gift that is most important, it is not our circumstances that are most important, and it is not our skills that count the most. In fact, Paul communicates to us that we can all maximize our fruitfulness no matter what our gift is, and no matter what our circumstances are, no matter what our level of skill may be! You’ve got to love this, no one is left out.

What I am saying is that every one of us right now can live in fruitful ministry. You don’t have to wait on anything. You don’t have to wait for the right time in life, the right season of life. You don’t have to wait until you graduate from school, or until you retire, or until your kids move out of the house. You don’t even have to wait until you get well, or until you feel better, or until you heal emotionally, or have more energy, or until you get more rest. You don’t have to wait until you know more Bible, your prayer life improves, or until all of your relationships are in order. You don’t have to wait on any of those things in order to live fruitful lives for Christ, as long as what you do is bathed, washed, saturated with true, biblical, Christlike love. How great is that?

This love can go with you anywhere, anytime, and can provide an incredible impact and glory to God in whatever you or I do. It doesn’t take major planning or big change or direction in life. No, it is just…as you go, whatever you are doing, whoever you are with…love. God has equipped every believer with a gift or gifts that enable each one of us to have fruitful lives of ministry. So this equipping is very important. Everyone has an important role in the church, in ministry, and in life in general, and that role is played out well and to the glory of God, and for the good of our friends and neighbors, if it is saturated with love as God describes love in His Word.

I remember a story I heard about a missionary who enjoyed complaining. He came back to the states from the foreign mission field and was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow pastor. This missionary began to complain about his assignment. He said, “I hate the culture in which I serve. I don’t like anything about it. I don’t like their customs, their food, I don’t like the way they live, in fact I don’t even like the people.” My friend asked, “What are you going to do?” And his reply was, “I’m going back, I guess that is where God has put me.” My friend told him, “Don’t bother. Do them a favor, don’t even bother going back, not with that attitude.” There was no love. A gifted man with well honed skills, but one thing he lacked, and that was love.

Let’s look at how God elevates love as an attitude and an action as a necessary component in the work that we do.

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. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

It is interesting how Paul writes these first three verses. He puts himself, hypothetically, in the text, supposing that he is someone who possesses extraordinary abilities, and as one who has done great things. As he does this he points out that even if he were some super servant and could do incredible works, the most gifted of the gifted, that he would still fall short, woefully short, not even just short but he would damage the ministry if he lacked what? Love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)

Tongues was a highly prized gift among the Corinthians. Tongues had been elevated to that of a superior gift. Some thought if they could just get this gift, they would have it made among the spiritual. My place in the church and among my friends would be set if I just had the gift of tongues. What is the gift of tongues? Well if we look back to Acts 2:5-11 we can see that the gift of tongues gave a person a miraculous ability to speak in languages that he had not studied or learned. What we see in Acts 2 is people speaking in languages in this way. Foreigners understood what was being said in their own languages! That passage says, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, and devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” What a ministry tool, right? No language barrier with this gift of tongues. 

Paul mentions not only the ability to speak in the tongues of men, but also in the tongues of angels. We don’t really know what it means to speak in the tongues of angels. In the Bible we see angels speaking in human languages, they know the languages of those to whom they minister. Having tongues of angels may mean an ability to speak and communicate and understand every language.

And so Paul speculates or supposes for argument’s sake that he had the ability to go anywhere in the world and speak proficiently, being the greatest linguist in the entire world. He would be able to articulate truth to all. If you have traveled abroad you know the challenge of language. Even here we meet and associate with others whose original language is not English. But even still, even the English language differs depending on where you grew up. What Paul describes is a life without communication difficulties at all. For one that has spent his life trying to communicate truth, that is huge! But what does he say? “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

He is saying, “If I can communicate truth as the most profound linguist known to man and angels, but fail to love with my words and the attitude behind them, I am as an irritating, noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. With skill I speak, but with the heart and mind I make it of no effect.” By way of application we may be able to speak other people’s languages and communicate with skill. We may be able to talk with the old and with the young. We may be able to speak the language of various generations and even cultural groups. We may be the chief of all communicators with how we link words together, how we speak with color and emotion. Our words may even be rich with truth, full of doctrine, accurate renderings of God’s Word. But if our words are not permeated, motivated, saturated and overflowing with love, it’s not just that they are not best, it’s that they are not even helpful, they are useless. So much so that people will be turned off and annoyed by them. How important is love for the cause of Christ, for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ? It is so important that if we do not possess it our words are useless.

Speaking of communication – preaching can be done outside of love. Counseling can be done without love. Evangelizing can be done apart from love. Training children can be done with no love. And when it is like a what? A noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. Sometimes we may think, “I just need some better techniques, I need help communicating, I need skills to speak truth.” We may think that, but let’s ask ourselves, “Might it be that what is missing is not skill, but could it be love?” Every time we open our mouths, is love the motivator?

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. (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Paul, again placing himself in this, supposes that he could have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge. In other words, he would know everything there is to know about God. Every insight into who God is and every insight into all Bible doctrine. He would be the expert, the foremost leader, a complete resource for anyone who wants to know something about God. Can you imagine that? Ask him anything and get a complete and thoroughly accurate answer. In fact, if you mix this with a perfect ability to communicate, what a gift, right? This guy could win the world, right? Perfect speech and perfect knowledge.

None of this, “Umm…I’m not quite sure what to say or how to say it.” No, he would know both. Oh, and add to this all faith, enough to move mountains! What is coming together here is the perfect man, isn’t it? With all of that, what is left? What more could anyone want or need? What is needed? What is missing? Love. And without love, what does Paul say? “I am nothing!”

When Paul speaks of faith here, I don’t think he is in any way minimizing the important of faith. Faith is hugely important for Christians. After all, we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). We have access to God by faith (Romans 5:2). Faith produces joy and peace (Romans 15:13). We are saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). We live by faith (Galatians 2:20). Faith produces works (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Faith is very important. But get this, faith without love is powerless. In Galatians 5:6 we read, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The way faith expresses itself is in love toward other people. When we truly love other people as an expression of our love for God, what really happens? What happens is that we put aside our own desires, our own wants, the things that we tend to put up as most important in our lives, we put those things aside and we focus on what other people need. And the putting aside of what we desire most is an act of saying, “God, I trust you to provide whatever it is I need. I’m not going to focus on those things, I’m going to focus on you and your needs. I’m leaving whatever I need to God.” Do you see the act of faith in that? To truly love others, really love others, is an act of faith on our part, that is to trust God.

Faith is important, no doubt, but love is elevated and it an expression of faith. Paul even ends this chapter in verse 13 by tying faith and love together but again, putting love at the top. “So now faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”

What does all this mean in terms of fruitfulness in ministry, fruitfulness in our lives? We do want to be fruitful, right? Good ambassadors of Christ, as Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians. What does this mean for us? It means that we can have strong convictions about truth, and believe that God is all-wise, sovereign, loving, and just. We can understand and believe that Christ is Lord, that He is our Savior, that we can be clothed with His righteousness, and one day live in a perfect place called heaven. We can believe that people around us are lost and in need of Christ and that sin is awful. We can not only believe these things, but we can communicate them well in our language. But unless we do so in love, people will often reject, ignore, or even resent what we have to say.

I have witnessed parents giving their kids truth, real truth, biblical truth in ways that make their children cringe with disgust, where is the love? Most of you have heard of a man named Augustine. He was a wicked man before conversion. He was an extremely intelligent man. He rejected Christ for a long time. Eventually he did come to Christ. Before salvation he often heard a man named Ambrose preach. He rejected his preaching. He was turned off by what Ambrose said, but one thing he could’t turn off was the love that Ambrose showed. Eventually because of that love Augustine came to Christ. So what do we do with this?

We talked last week about ministry. What ministries do we pursue as a church? What ministries of service do we pursue as individuals? What is God preparing you and me to do for Him? We know that He has created us and saved us for good works from Ephesians 2:10. What are we to do? We are to love. When we open our mouths we are to love. When we meet a stranger we are to love. When we discipline our children we are to love. When we are driving to church we are to love. When we are preparing lunch, planning our day, repairing the car, buying clothes, listening to a sermon, praying, going to school, sharing the gospel, checking Facebook, listening to music, we are to love. When we are thinking of new ministry ideas and how to be involved we are to love. When we are reproving someone biblically we are to love. When our children want to talk, or are angry and rebellious, when our boss blows up, when our spouse refused to talk, when someone cuts us off, when we can’t pay the bills, when we get a call at bedtime, when we are falsely accused, when others fail to love. We are to love.

It is interesting the way this chapter is written. The first three verses don’t really define love that comes later. The first three verses are intended, I believe, to simply show the importance of love. To put love in its proper place of importance in our minds. To show us the unmistakeable importance of love. To show us that it must permeate all of our thoughts, all of our actions, it must be in all that we do, everything. That is its place. And so I hope we are getting that, so much so that you and I, that we will begin to examine all that we do, everything, and ask, “Is what I am doing right now saturated in love?”

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. (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)