The Measure of Love

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1 Corinthians 13:1-3

INTRODUCTION: Please turn with me in your Bible to 1 Corinthians 13 – what is often called “the love chapter” in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 13 is considered by many to be some of the finest words ever written about love in the history of the human language. The rhythm and balance of Paul’s phrases, the power of his words, the majesty and wonder of the concepts he describes have thrilled and challenged people’s hearts for generations. The language is high and exalted. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit this is certainly one of Paul’s finest moments in all his writings. It ranks right up there with Paul’s closing words in Romans chapter 8, another passage of Scripture which interestingly enough is also about love.

Some people consider 1 Corinthians 13 to be such a perfectly written expression of love that they object to analyzing it any further. “Let it stand on its own,” they say. “Don’t analyze it; don’t dissect it; just read it and live it.” There’s a lot to be said for that approach. A lot of things in life are better left alone. You can study a flower, picking it apart petal by petal, but you destroy its beauty in the process. That’s the way some people look at 1 Corinthians 13. “Don’t pick it apart; you will destroy it.” The major difference is that in picking a flower apart, when you are finished, you no longer have the flower to appreciate. In studying 1 Corinthians 13 closely, analyzing its various parts, when you are finished, you still have the whole chapter to go back to. You haven’t destroyed it. And when you go back to read it as a whole you do so with a greater appreciation and understanding of its individual parts.

Other people argue that 1 Corinthians 13 is not a stand-alone chapter and therefore should not be treated alone. They point out, correctly, that Paul writes this chapter in the larger context of his teaching on spiritual gifts in the church. Paul introduces the theme of spiritual gifts in chapter twelve and he continues it in chapter fourteen. The purpose of chapter thirteen is to teach the Corinthians that the practice and pursuit of spiritual gifts must always take place within the context of love.

These commentators are absolutely right when they say we should read chapter 13 in its context. We should always read scripture in context. But at the same time, there are many Scriptures we can read outside of their original context without doing damage to their meaning. For example, John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 takes place in a context. The context is Jesus’ words to the Pharisee Nicodemus who visited him by night. The context adds to our understanding of the verse and the circumstances in which these words were originally spoken. However, the verse can also stand alone without suffering any loss of meaning. It’s the same way with 1 Corinthians 13. It takes place in the context of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts. But it can also stand alone as a beautiful description of love.

And so I would like to take the next three weeks to study this passage together. This week we will look at verses 1-3 where Paul talks about the measure of love. Next week we will look at verses 4-7 where Paul describes the character of love. And the third week we will look at verses 8-13 where Paul proclaims the superiority of love. My prayer is that God will use this portion of Scripture to make us a more loving people, that our lives may be channels of God’s love spilling over to other people each and every day that we live. God is love. And we are to love others as Christ loved us.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 – 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

How do you measure your life? How do you measure the value of the things that you have done or accomplished? One standard the world likes to use is how much money you make. We even talk in monetary terms of how much a person is worth. “Oh yeah, he’s worth a million dollars,” or “She’s worth $10 million.” According to this measurement, the more money you make, the more important you are. It is obviously a skewed system. Under this system we place higher value on our sports heroes than we do on teachers, or social workers, or parents who raise their children. We clearly saw how wrong this system was after September 11th when various athletes spoke out that the firemen and police officers and emergency workers were the real heroes we should look up to. But that was a while back, and now we seem to idolize our sports heroes once again.

Another way people try to measure their value in life is according to their status. Status is simply how people rank you compared to other people. A medical doctor by education and training has status. The captain of the cheerleading squad or the quarterback on the high school football team by popularity has status. Celebrities I guess by definition have status. Status is often connected to money but not always. A small-town mayor may not pull down a huge salary but would still have high status in his or her community.

There are many other ways people try to measure their value in life. Some measure value according to a person’s productivity, education, talents, impact for good on others, the list goes on. Here in verses 1-3 Paul introduces a different measure – the measure of love. Love is the true measure of all that we say, all that we have, all that we do. Without love even our best accomplishments are nothing in God’s eyes. Paul takes this concept and applies it to three different areas. He looks at a person’s speech, at a person’s gifts and at a person’s sacrifice.

I. You cannot measure the value of your words by the impressiveness of your speech. (verse 1)

First he looks at a person’s speech. Look at verse 1: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)

Commentators are divided over what Paul means when he refers here to “speaking in the tongues of men and of angels.” Some point out that this was a common way to refer to eloquent speech. The person who spoke in the tongues of men and of angels spoke with great eloquence and style. Others point out that this verse takes place in the context of a discussion on spiritual gifts and especially the gift of tongues. Therefore they feel it must refer to the gift of speaking in tongues. Either interpretation is possible. The Corinthians actually struggled with both issues, and I think it highly probable that Paul intended both meanings to be picked up by the Corinthians.

    A. The most eloquent speech may communicate nothing of value.

The Corinthians in Paul’s day were very much caught up in speech. They were talkers and debaters, and they valued strong, fervent, bold, persuasive speech. They valued eloquence. Apparently a number of them looked down on Paul because they felt he lacked these qualities. We read in 2 Corinthians 10 that some described Paul as follows: “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (2 Corinthians 10:10)

Now Paul himself admitted that he was not the most eloquent of speakers. He says in chapter two of 1 Corinthians: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God . . . I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-4)

Unfortunately, this emphasis on speech contributed to divisions in the Corinthian church over who was best: Paul, Peter or Apollos. Now Apollos, he was the Corinthians’ type of man. We read in Acts 18 that “He [Apollos] was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor . . . he spoke boldly . . . he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate.” (Acts 18:24-28) Now that was the kind of speech that the Corinthians found impressive. Bold, persuasive, eloquent – everything that Paul was not.

    B. The gift of tongues can be selfishly applied.

The Corinthians were also impressed by the gift of tongues. The spiritual gift of tongues is the Holy Spirit-given ability to speak in a language which you have not learned. Acts 2 records that the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was accompanied by speaking in tongues. Jews from many nations had gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. The disciples spoke in other languages which they had not learned but which were understood by these people from the other nations. Paul speaks of the gift of tongues as a valid gift of the Spirit which, when properly used, builds up the body of Christ.

Paul spends much of 1 Corinthians 12-14 instructing the Corinthians on the proper use of tongues. The Corinthians wrongly viewed speaking in tongues as a sign of special status. Those who spoke in tongues viewed themselves as more important than those who did not. Sure all the gifts were special, but they felt the gift of tongues was the most important of all. And they began dividing themselves into two groups: the special, elite group that spoke in tongues, and the non-special, non-elite group who did not. Instead of building up the body of Christ, they were selfishly flaunting the gift of tongues for their own benefit and tearing down others around them.

And so the Corinthians were caught up in speech. They were especially impressed by eloquence and by speaking in tongues. Paul says that impressiveness is a false measure. You cannot measure the value of your words by the impressiveness of your speech. The most eloquent speech may communicate nothing of value. Adolf Hitler was eloquent and persuasive. And the gift of tongues can be selfishly applied and used to hurt others rather than build them up. Sadly this still happens today in some congregations.

Paul says that the proper measure of our words is not impressiveness, but love. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) The primary motivation in all of our words, in all of conversations should be love. What can I say that will build this person up, encourage them, benefit them, draw them closer to God? Eloquent speech or speaking in tongues may impress other people, but not God. God measures your words by your love.

And so Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” The gong and the cymbal are loud and boisterous, but ultimately empty, hollow, clashing, devoid of meaningful content. Paul says you cannot measure the value of your words by the impressiveness of your speech. God uses the measure of love.

II. You cannot measure your spiritual maturity by the extent of your gifts. (verse 2)

Next Paul talks about a person’s gifts. If you cannot measure a person by the impressiveness of their words, how about by the extent of their gifts? Look at verse 2. Paul writes: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

We have seen that the Corinthian church was enamored with spiritual gifts. God had blessed them with many gifts. We find a whole list in chapter twelve: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, helping others, administration. And we find other gifts listed in other parts of Scripture.

Now there’s nothing wrong with spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are God’s idea. The gifts are essential for building each other up and functioning as the church of Jesus Christ. And when used properly, spiritual gifts do exactly that. The gifts are good in themselves. God does not give bad gifts. And so the problem is not with spiritual gifts but with the misuse of spiritual gifts, with the misunderstanding of spiritual gifts, and with an improper emphasis on some gifts to the exclusion of others.

The Corinthians made a grave mistake when it came to spiritual gifts. It is a mistake that people still make today. They made the mistake of confusing spiritual gifts with spiritual maturity. And unfortunately the two do not always go together. Verse 1 taught us that you cannot measure the value of your words by the impressiveness of your speech. Verse 2 teaches us that you cannot measure your spiritual maturity by the extent of your gifts.

    A. The highest gift of prophecy.

Paul mentions three spiritual gifts in this verse – the gifts of prophecy, knowledge and faith. First, the gift of prophecy. The spiritual gift of prophecy is the Holy Spirit-given ability to speak God’s words to man. Paul speaks about the gift of prophecy as the highest gift of all. Paul gives instructions concerning prophecy in other parts of Scripture. The purpose of prophecy was for the strengthening, encouragement and comfort of the church. Prophets were to take turns in speaking. The church should carefully weight and test the prophet’s against Scripture. In the early church prophets gave specific revelations from God.

Does God still work that way today? I don’t see any reason why he can’t, but just as with the early church, we have to weigh carefully any supposed revelation from God. I believe the gift of prophecy is largely exercised in the gift of preaching today. God speaks directly to the hearers as they are being addressed through the preaching of his word. And so Paul points to the very highest spiritual gift – prophecy, the speaking of God’s words to man – and says “If I have this gift, but have not love, I am nothing.”

    B. A lavish gift of knowledge.

Next Paul mentions the gift of knowledge. The spiritual gift of knowledge is the Holy Spirit-given ability to have understanding or insight into the mysteries of God. This may involve a word of knowledge – where God supernaturally gives a person direct knowledge about something they would not have known by natural means. It may also involve special understanding or insight into Scripture.

Notice how Paul speaks of a lavish gift of knowledge here. Not just a specific word here or an insight there, but the ability to understand all mysteries and all knowledge. Wouldn’t you like to understand all mysteries? To be able to explain the trinity, the incarnation, predestination and free will, the end times, to know all the mysteries of Scripture? And not just the mysteries of Scripture but the mysteries of the universe! To understand the inner workings of atoms and galaxies, to understand how light can be both a particle and a waveform at the same time, to find the cure for cancer and explain how the bumblebees fly? And then not only understand all mysteries, but all knowledge as well! Paul exaggerates the gift almost to the point of omniscience – knowing everything there is to know. And that’s exactly his point. Even if you were omniscient, even if you knew everything that God knew, if you did not have love, you would be nothing.

    C. A powerful gift of faith.

The third gift Paul mentions in this verse is the gift of faith. The spiritual gift of faith is the Holy Spirit-given ability to trust God for impossible things. Faith is certainly important in the Bible. The person coming to God must have faith. All things are possible to him who believes. We are saved by faith. Once again Paul speaks of a great faith here – a powerful faith that can move mountains. But Paul says, even if I have that kind of faith, “Mountain move – poof, its gone!” – without love, I am nothing.

The point is this: you cannot measure your spiritual maturity by the extent of your gifts. God gives his gifts freely to all who believe. Spiritual gifts are not a sign of spiritual maturity but of God’s grace. Paul says, you can prophesy, you can have great knowledge and great faith, and still be nothing. Spiritual maturity is not measured by your gifts, but by your love. The gifts are important, the gifts are essential to the body of Christ, but love is the ultimate measure of your maturity in Christ.

III. You cannot measure the size of your reward by the depth of your sacrifice. (verse 3)

You cannot measure the value of your words by the impressiveness of your speech. Secondly, you cannot measure your spiritual maturity by the extent of your gifts. Thirdly, you cannot measure the size of your reward by the depth of your sacrifice. Look at verse 3: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)

Just as Paul wrote about speech in the highest terms (“speak in the tongues of men and of angels”); and he wrote about the gifts in the highest terms (“prophesy, understand all mysteries and all knowledge, have faith that moves mountains”); so also he writes about sacrifice in the highest of terms. In fact he gives two examples of the most extreme sacrifices a person can make.

    A. Giving all that you possess to the poor.

The first example is giving all that you possess to the poor. Some people find it very hard to part with money. Money has a grip on their souls, and the more they make, the harder it is to give. That’s sad, because the Bible teaches that it is actually more blessed to give than to receive, and those who hold on to their money tightly never learn the joy of giving. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be wise with our money. But the Bible teaches us that we should be generous, especially to those in need.

Some people give, but they give out of wrong motives. They may give out of guilt or compulsion or out of the desire to receive something back. Once again, the Bible teaches us that we should not give under compulsion or expecting to receive back, but we should give freely, willingly, cheerfully.

Is there a reward for those who give? Yes. Jesus spoke about rewards for those who give. But the person’s motivation has to be right. Jesus told his disciples: “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2-4) So yes, there is a reward for giving. But it is not automatic. We must give with the right motivation.

You cannot measure how large your reward is by how much you give or sacrifice. I imagine Bill and Melinda Gates have probably given away more money than all of us combined will make in a lifetime. Think about it. That’s a lot of money. Now I’m not going to judge their hearts, because I don’t know them personally, but let me just make this statement. If that giving was not motivated by love for God and love for others, then they have gained nothing as far as reward.

Paul’s example in verse three is even stronger. He speaks not just of giving a lot away, but giving it all away. I’m guessing the Gates’ family probably has some left over for themselves. But even if they gave it all away, if they did not have love, then they would still gain nothing.

C.T. Studd (1860-1931) is an example of a man who actually gave it all away. C.T. Studd lived about a hundred years ago. He inherited several hundred thousand dollars from a wealthy father and felt compelled by God to give it all away before he married. Actually, he kept a few thousand dollars which he presented to his wife on their wedding day. Her response? She said, “Charlie, what did the Lord tell the rich man to do?” “Sell it all.” “Well then, we will start clear with the Lord at our wedding.” And they gave that away too! Their testimony that day was: “Henceforth our bank is in heaven . . . we thank God . . . that now . . . we are in that proud position (to say) ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”

C.T. Studd and his wife then went off to Africa as missionaries for the remainder of their lives. And the money that they gave away? That money was instrumental in developing Moody Bible Institute, the Salvation Army, George Mueller’s orphanage and Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission – four of the century’s most well-known and effective missions for the Lord. Paul’s first example is giving away all of your money to the poor.

    B. Surrendering your body to the flames.

Paul goes on to give a second example of great sacrifice: surrendering your body to the flames, an act of martyrdom resulting in personal suffering and loss of life. Giving away all your money is hard enough. Laying down your life is harder. Voluntarily surrendering yourself to a painful death would have to be the greatest sacrifice of all. Many of the early Christians surrendered their bodies to the flames, to the lions, to the sword. Countless Christians around the world today continue to suffer for their faith. But Paul says even if you give your life away in the ultimate sacrifice, if you have not love, you gain nothing.

Polycarp (died about 155 A.D.) was one of the early Christians who gave up his life for Christ. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna. As a young man he knew the apostle John and sat under his teaching. As an old man, at eighty-six years of age, he was arrested for his faith and told to renounce the teachings of Christianity or be burned at the stake. He fed the guards who captured him and asked them for an hour of prayer which they gave him. He took two hours instead, and we are told that he prayed with such fervency and grace that the guards said they were sorry that they were the ones who had captured him.

He was then brought into the stadium and told, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, ‘Away with the atheists,’” which is what the Romans called anyone who refused to worship the emperor. Polycarp waved his hand at the stadium full of people and said, indicating them, “Away with the atheists.” The magistrate pressed him, “Swear the oath; deny Christ and I will release you.” Polycarp replied: “Eight-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I then blaspheme my king who saved me?” “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by Caesar and pretend that you do not know who I am, then hear me plainly, I am a Christian. But if you would learn the teachings of Christianity, then assign a day and give me a hearing.” “You threaten me with fire that burns for only a season and after a little while is quenched. For you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.” Polycarp was then burned alive at the stake.

C.T. Studd gave all his money away. Polycarp surrendered his body to the flames. We gasp at their sacrifice. We can hardly imagine giving half of our money away. (Some of us struggle even with giving a tenth!) We shudder at the thought of a painful death. But even C.T. Studd and Polycarp, as great as their sacrifice was, if they did not do it out of love for God and neighbor, then they gained no reward. That is what Paul is saying. “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

CONCLUSION: You cannot measure the value of your words by the impressiveness of your speech. You cannot measure your spiritual maturity by the extent of your gifts. You cannot measure the size of your reward by the depth of your sacrifice. The words that you speak, the gifts that you have, the sacrifices that you make – none of these have any value apart from love.

These are just three examples Paul has given to make the greater point. Nothing you say, nothing you have, and nothing you do has any value apart from love. Love is the true measure of all things. If I teach Sunday School or preach sermons or visit the sick, if I have not love I am nothing. If I work my job, raise my kids, support my family but have not love, I gain nothing. If I accomplish all that I set out to do, realize all my dreams, meet all my goals and objectives in life, but have not love, I accomplish nothing.

How do you measure your life? Money? Status? Accomplishments? The biblical way to measure your life – all that you say, all that you have, all that you do – is by love. Don’t wait until the end of your life to suddenly realize that you have been using the wrong measure. May God help us to measure our lives according to that which will truly last – the measure of love.

© Ray Fowler

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