The Preeminence of Love
Tim Temple


Open your Bibles, please, to I Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 1:

I Corinthians 13

1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2And 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, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

The passage before us is a masterpiece of literature in general and Scripture in particular. It is probably one of the most famous chapters in all of the Bible. To attempt to interpret it for you is very much like the physics student who faced the exam question, “Define the universe, and give two examples.” It is really beyond ability from a human standpoint. To make a beginning in that direction, we want to think about the first three verses, which form the first section of the chapter. I have divided the chapter into three parts: “The Pre-eminence of Love” in verses 1-3, “The Perfections of Love” in verses 4-7, “The Permanence of Love” in verses 8-17.

Understanding What Love is

We want to think about these first three verses today. As we look at this masterpiece of literature, which has been quoted by atheists and Christians alike, we need to consider the importance of understanding love. I don't think we will be able to understand the message of this chapter if we don't understand exactly what this love is that the Apostle Paul is writing about. In the King James version, the word is “charity” all through the chapter. Therefore, traditionally that is what this chapter has come to represent. That is really unfortunate because the English word “charity” really doesn't picture, in our usage of the word “charity”, all that this chapter implies. In the seventeenth century when the Bible was first translated into English, authorized by King James, the word “charity” did accurately represent the Greek word that is translated “love”. But by this time, several hundred years later, the word “charity” has taken on a narrower view, and it has come to represent giving to the poor or giving to those in need. We will see as we go through these verses that there is still a sense in which that is true, but really it is much broader than that. The Greek word that is used here is the word agape . I am sure you have heard that term before, because this concept of the chapter has been taught more accurately in recent years with the understanding of the word agape .

Interestingly enough, the word agape was not in wide use before the translation of the New Testament. In fact, originally when the Greek New Testament first began to be studied, the idea was that this was a special word that the New Testament writers had coined. More complete archaeological studies and more complete theological study has revealed that the word was in use in the secular Greek even before the translation of the New Testament, but not to a very wide extent. It appears that the New Testament writers were the first ones to popularize the word and to use it very extensively at all. There are several other Greek words that are translated legitimately with the word “love”, but this is a very unique one. Probably the New Testament writers used it because they appreciated its meaning and they vested it with new significance.

God's Love for Us

Keep a marker here and turn to I John, chapter 4, because the best illustration of the true meaning of the word agape is found in this one little verse. Verse 10 says:

I John 4

10Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Notice what that verse says. Do you want to know what love is? John says, “Herein is what love is–not that we loved God, but that He loved us.” What this verse is saying is the best example that you can think of, of man's love for God is really not a good illustration of what love is. You think of all those people who have given their lives in the service of Christ, some who have even physically given up their lives. The most glowing example of a martyr that you can think of, John says under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is not really a good illustration of what love is. Someone may say, “Why would that be true? Isn't it a great thing to die in the service of Christ? Isn't it a good thing to give up your career plans and go spend the rest of your life in some forsaken place?” There is a sense in which that is love, but by comparison that kind of love is love of the lovely. Why do people do things like that? Because they appreciate what God has done for them, because they understand what God has done for them, and they respond in love.

Incidentally, let me digress for a minute and say that that ought to be the basis of service for the Lord that we do, not trying to earn His love. I hope you will see before we are through that we already have His love. We don't serve Him in order to earn His love; we serve Him because we have some kind of an understanding of how much He loved us. But John says here in I John, chapter 4, that is not agape . What is a real example of love? What is agape love? Notice the middle of the verse: “…but that he loved us…” God's love for us is love of the unlovely. God's love for us, in fact, is love of His enemies. Turn back to Romans, chapter 5. Let me remind you that God's love for us is love of those who do not deserve to be loved. Our love of God is of One who loved us first. Notice in verse 10:

Romans 5

10For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

It is not the major subject of this chapter, but in establishing the principle which he is talking about in Romans, chapter 5, the Apostle Paul says, as he builds his case, that we were reconciled to God when we were His enemies. In fact, in verse 8, we read that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. So agape love is love of the unlovely or the undeserving, even love of our enemies, Christ's kind of love. Technically, lexicographers have defined agape as a love that proceeds from the nature of the lover rather than the worth of the person loved. Think about that for a minute. Someone else has tried to hone that definition down a little more and says, “love that gives regardless of the expectation of return”. That hits it a little more directly, doesn't it? Why do we do the loving things that we do? How often do we do those things because we think, “I'll get something in return.”? That is not God's kind of love. God loved us while we were His enemies. He had no expectation–if we can put God's thinking in a human form, if we can bring it down to a human level–that we would ever return that love. Christ died for us while we were His enemies, and He had no assurance that we would return that love and that we would accept Him as our Savior. This is the concept that we are talking about in I Corinthians, chapter 13–God's kind of love, love that is given regardless of any expectation of return on that investment.

Importance of Love In the Exercise of Spiritual Gifts

Besides understanding the significance of the word “love”, we also need to recognize the importance of the context in which this chapter falls. Turn back to I Corinthians, chapter 13. It is important to remember that this classic chapter that is so familiar even to unbelievers is not a chapter that stands by itself. It is, rather, a part of Paul's bigger letter to the Corinthians. This chapter has been picked out and published all by itself to the point that we might think that this was a little pamphlet that was written separately from everything else, but remember what we have been talking about in this part of Paul's letter to the Corinthians. We have been talking about spiritual gifts. We have been talking about the Body of Christ. We have been talking about believers working together. So this chapter is not a parenthesis or a digression. It is, rather, an extremely important part of the matter of spiritual gifts. This chapter is an integral part of God's instruction to us about how to treat each other as fellow-believers and how to stand together and reach the outside world.

Even though this is a very significant chapter, we need to keep in mind its context. Paul has been showing that the existence and the exercise of spiritual gifts among Christians is vital to understanding the nature of the Church, the Body of Christ. Those spiritual gifts, we have seen, account for the diversities among Christians that sometimes, if we don't understand the doctrine of spiritual gifts, make us think that we are the only ones that are right and everyone else has something wrong with them.

I hope you have been paying close enough attention to the Scripture to see that those differences between us are actually part of God's design, and He deliberately designed us so that together your strength will compliment my weaknesses and my strengths will compliment someone else's weaknesses. There is that diversity there which these chapters talk about. These differences that God has made within us, these different spiritual gifts that He has given to all of us, make possible that interdependency of the Body of Christ that is so vital to accomplishing on earth what He wants to accomplish through Christians. So the location of this chapter is very, very significant. It is a part of our understanding of that relationship that is supposed to exist between believers and the exercise of our differing spiritual gifts.

Eloquence Without Love is Meaningless

As we go through the chapter, Paul is going to present the importance of exercising our spiritual gifts with love by presenting hypothetical situations, and you will note a kind of sarcastic tone in some of these hypothetical situations, but that is his plan as he talks about this important subject of God's kind of love. In verse 1, Paul presents the hypothetical situation of the emptiness of eloquence without love:

I Corinthians 13

1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Is there anything more discordant than just banging on a piece of metal? That is the thought that he has here. Probably Paul is referring to the gift of tongues because when we get over to chapter 14, we are going to see that the gift of tongues was very prominent in the church at Corinth. In fact, it is the subject of a lot of discussion there. I think it is definitely true that he begins with that subject because there is so much talk about Christianity, and the first thing we know about Christianity is what people are saying about their beliefs. The thing we associate with the Christian religion is the Christian preacher standing in church, so he begins with that thing which is most obvious about Christianity. Notice that he says, “If I do not exercise love when I speak, then it is just like banging on a piece of tin, banging on a piece of brass.”

While we are looking at this verse, this reference to speaking with the tongues of angels is not a reference to the fact that there are two kinds of tongues–the tongues of men and the tongues of angels. Those who are excited about the gift of tongues will quickly point out that the Scripture says there is a tongue of angels and there is a tongue of men, and they will quote this particular verse or refer to this verse. Remember that the context here is hypothetical, and as we move through these other verses, we will see that Paul is speaking in extremes. He is talking about this extreme as compared to that extreme, so what he is saying is, “If I could speak to the very best extent that a human could speak, if I could even speak with the eloquence of an angel and didn't do it with love, it would be meaningless.” He is not saying that there are two kinds of tongues. In fact, in every Biblical instance where the gift of tongues is recorded in any detail, and there are two or three places, it is always a known language that the people are speaking. It is one of the languages of people extant at the time the speaking is being done. We never have any recorded instance in the Scripture of a babbling kind of talk. It is always a known language.

Likewise in every instance where angels speak, and we have six or eight places in the Bible where angels are recorded as having spoken and their message was recorded. In every place those angels spoke in known human languages. They spoke in a way that the hearer could understand. It was not some kind of babble that they couldn't understand or that had to be interpreted to them. They spoke in human language, so this verse is not to be used to say that there is a worship language of the angels and that there are human languages. That is not what this verse is about. The point of this verse is that if a person were perfect in eloquence, if a person could speak as beautifully as an angel speaks and yet exercise that ability without love, without a genuine interest and concern for the hearers, then it would accomplish very little indeed. If I stand before you or any other public speaker stands before you with the motive to impress you with our ability, then as far as God is concerned, that message is absolutely wasted. It will have no eternal, lasting effect on the hearer. Eloquence is something with which people are very easily impressed. We can probably all think of eloquent speakers whom we have heard, and it is enjoyable to hear someone who can make a beautiful speech. But what the Scripture says is that no matter how beautifully that person speaks, if his purpose is something other than pleasing God or other than ministering to the people who hear him, then it is wasted as far as any spiritual value is concerned.

The Inadequacy of Insight Without Love

Another illustration that Paul gives is in verse 2, the illustration of the inadequacy of insight. He talked first about speaking, but in verse 2, he says:

I Corinthians 13

2And 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, and have not charity, I am nothing.

The gifts that Paul mentions in this verse have to do with supernatural insight. We talked in our last study about the fact that particularly in that first century, God gave men the ability to understand His mind so that the New Testament could be recorded. Some of those gifts were only being given during the years that the New Testament was being recorded, but Paul is talking about those gifts of insight, of being able to understand the things of God and relate them to other people–the gift of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of understanding. Again, the point is the same as in verse 1; all of these impressive abilities amount to nothing if they are only being done for the sake of impression.

It probably would have been a very exciting thing to hear the Apostle Paul preach or to hear Peter preach or to hear John or one of the other writers of the New Testament. Wouldn't it have been exciting to hear them as they spoke some of the things that wound up being written down in the Bible? Incidentally, not everything they spoke was recorded in the Bible, but much of it was. But if Paul had been motivated by simply impressing people, then it would have been completely worthless.

In fact, it is interesting to me here in verse 2, that little phrase, “I am nothing,” is simply a translation of the Greek word for “zero”. He just says, “If I have all this insight, but I have not love, zero.” Paul says, “If I have all these impressive abilities, and I have not love, zero, zip, zilch, nothing. It is just not there, even if people might be impressed.”

Uselessness of Unselfishness Without Love

Verse 3 points out the uselessness of unselfishness without love, which is exactly what Paul is describing in verse 3. He says:

I Corinthians 13

3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Those are very unselfish things to do, aren't they? That is what he is talking about. “If I were to give all of my goods to feed the poor…” Do you see the extreme he is talking about? He is not saying, “If I help the poor…”, he is saying, “What if I were to cash in all of my assets and give it to the local food bank? What if I were willing to die for my faith, give my body to be burned? If I don't do it for the love of God and for the love of God's people, then zero, zilch, nothing.”

Let's think about this matter of unselfishness for a moment. Contradictory as it might seem at first glance, it is possible to be unselfish for the wrong reasons. I want to be careful how I handle this. An illustration that comes to mind is–perhaps you have seen this happen–where a spouse will be married to an alcoholic husband or wife. They will have all of the trials that go with that kind of a relationship. Then that spouse will die. Before long we hear that the surviving spouse has married another person with a very similar problem. We wonder why in the world does that happen? There are many reasons why that happens, but one of the reasons–this is not true in every case, and I hesitate to use this illustration because I don't want to appear unkind to anyone–is that there are some people who enjoy being thought of as a martyr. There are some people who enjoy having other people look at them and say, “My, my, my, look him. Look at her. What patience he or she has with that alcoholic spouse or that drug-dependent spouse. Look at the virtue of that person.” You see, it is possible to be unselfish for selfish reasons, to be able to be a martyr. Sometimes people do that to try to merit salvation, to atone for some past sin. There are many reasons people can be unselfish other than genuine concern. Paul says, “Even if I were to give up my life and did it for the wrong motive, it would be wasted.” Someone may say, “Wait a minute. Why would anyone give up their life for the wrong motive?” Have you ever heard of the kamikaze pilots in World War II? Those men willingly gave their lives for the glory of the emperor.

One of the major problems that we have with terrorism in the world today is that those terrorists with a Muslim background have been taught and they believe that if they die in the service of their country, they will go instantly to Paradise. That is a wrong motive, you see, but people are even willing to give their lives for wrong motives. That is very often done on a smaller scale. People who don't give up their lives will give up great portions of their time and their money in order to get the attention of the community or the attention of their church or the attention of even a smaller circle of people.

The Attitude of a Broken Heart

God says to us in I Corinthians, chapter 13, that what we are dealing with is your motive. Why do you do the things that you do? If you are doing them for something other than the love of God, then you are really wasting your time as a Christian. I Corinthians, chapter 13, is not the only place this concept is mentioned. Turn to I Samuel, chapter 16, which is the time when David was anointed king over Israel. God told Samuel, the prophet, to go out to Jesse's house and to call Jesse's sons out, “And one of those sons,” God said, “I will tell you to anoint as king.” But part of God's instructions to Samuel as he got ready for that anointing process is down in verse 7:

I Samuel 16

7But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.

Notice that last phrase again: “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” Why would all these things that Paul has been saying be true even though they are so contrary to human thought–doing things for other people and it being a waste? This verse expresses the key thought. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. You may do some very impressive things from an outward standpoint, some things that other people would be very impressed with, but God is looking at your heart. God is impressed only with the heart attitude.

This same thought is expressed in Psalm 51, verses 16 and 17. This whole Psalm is David's prayer of confession after his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. As he is praying to the Lord, he says in verse 16:

Psalms 51

16For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

David has caught the thought of this matter of God's looking on the heart. David said, “Lord, I understand that if confession consisted of just making a sacrifice, then I could do that.” No one could have done that better than David. He was the richest man in the world at that time. He could have given a thousand cattle for sacrifice. He could have done any number of things for outward show. One of the reasons that God said that David was a man after His own heart was that David understood that what God wanted to see was a broken heart. Let me tell you today, an application of this principle is that when you are convicted of sin, what God wants to see is not primarily a great turnaround in your life. Now, He does want to see that, and He will give that; but the only way that He will give that is if He sees that your heart is broken about that sin.

Obedience Rather Than Sacrifice

Turn with me to I Samuel, chapter 15, which is a good illustration of this very point. The difference between David and Saul, and we have talked about this before, is a very important concept. Saul had been told to destroy the Amalekites–men, women, cattle, everything; but we are told that Saul spared the best of the cattle, and he kept the king alive. Then in verses 13 and 14, Samuel found out about that, so he came out to talk to Saul. Notice how Saul greets him, in verse 13:

I Samuel 15

13And Samuel came to Saul: and Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the LORD [a very pious greeting] : I have performed the commandment of the LORD.
14[Then those terrible words. I think Saul may have remembered those words for the rest of his life.] And Samuel said, What meaneth then the bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?

“You say you have done what God said? Why do I hear those sheep?” Don't you know that was a horrible thing for Saul to hear? He had just told this big lie, and he had been caught right in the middle of it! In verse 15, Saul immediately had a rationalization:

I Samuel 15

15And Saul said, They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.

Unfortunately that may sound very familiar to some of us. People who are liars are extremely good at rationalization when they are caught, but in verse 22, we have Samuel's answer:

I Samuel 15

22And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

Samuel said, “Saul, God told you to kill those sheep and to wipe out everyone. Regardless of your motivation, you have disobeyed God. The biggest sacrifice you can give is not nearly as important to God as your obedience to Him. To obey is even better than sacrifice.” A popular concept, even among Christians today, is the idea that the most important thing you can do is praise God. I heard a very well-known Christian leader say, “Listen, Satan is allergic to praise. As long as you are praising the Lord, Satan can't do anything.” Baloney! Satan hates to hear us praise God, but if we are willing to sin and not come to grips with that sin, Satan will let us praise all we want to. He is not allergic to praise. In fact, one of Satan's greatest tools is the fact that we can find some way to at least outwardly, verbally sing the praise choruses and say the Christian cliches and talk about the Lord even when we are harboring sin in our hearts. Let me tell you something: What Satan is allergic to is a broken and a contrite heart. That is what he has no defense against.

As I have pointed out several times before, that is the difference between David and Saul. There is not nearly as much sin recorded in the Bible, and probably not as much sin recorded in history, about Saul as there is about David. Saul probably was a better man as far as sin goes than David was; but God took the kingdom away from Saul, in this passage that we are looking at, and gave it to David. Why was that? Because David had a broken and contrite heart when he was faced with his sin. That doesn't mean that David went around sinning, saying, “Oh, I know the Lord will forgive it if I just get my heart broken after its all over with.” It doesn't mean that at all. It just means that David was a lot like you and a lot like me. He knew how to sin, and he would find himself in sin before he even realized it. Sometimes he would find himself committing a sin when he knew it was a sin, and he did it anyway, just like you do and I do. But when the Spirit of God would finally get through to David with his sin, and sometimes it took longer with David because God had to use prophets in those days because he didn't have the indwelling Holy Spirit, immediately David would say, “I have sinned.” He didn't try to rationalize it away like Saul did. He immediately came to grips with it, and God said, “That is a man after My heart.”

Response to Those In Need

One of the principle issues of Scripture is the fact that man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. Let me ask you as we conclude, what is your motivation for the things that you do? I never cease to be amazed at the way God times things. It doesn't happen all the time, but so many times it does happen that a passage that we are studying will fit in directly with something that is going on in our lives or in our church or something else that we are studying. I don't know whether you have realized it or not, and I don't even know if you would agree with me or not, but it is so fascinating to me that we would come to this passage about the motivation for service on a Sunday after a week during which this church has poured out its heart to a family among us whose teenaged son went to be with the Lord. There have been so many expressions of love verbally, and in many cases with physical action, toward this family. Having been sort of in the middle of all that, I sense that all of that was done simply as a means of serving the Lord by serving His people. I am able to use that as an illustration because in a time of tragedy and in a time of shock, it is easy to respond in that way. From my perspective, it seems that people that hardly even knew this family came forward and said, “If there is anything I can do, anything at all, let me know.” It is an interesting example to me of how God makes even the most tragic situations praise Him. God has brought great good out of that even though certainly there will be needs for a long time in the hearts of his family.

There is no way in the world I could have timed our study of I Corinthians, chapter 13, to come out on this particular Sunday. Who would have imagined a week ago that we were about to go through the experience? That is why we say that the Word of God is alive and powerful. But that is not my major point. My major point is why don't we serve the Lord and serve each other like that even when there is not a crisis? Just think back, those of you who were involved in this situation, about the way you respond in a time of real crisis, really deep hurt and need. In most cases, I think we sincerely and genuinely respond to the Lord through that family. What God wants us to do is to operate that way all the time even when it is not a shock and even when it is not a crisis or an emergency. We need to look for opportunities every day to serve the Lord by serving His people or in some other way to be motivated in the things that we do not by the circumstances, but by love for Jesus Christ, love that is given without any expectation of return. Why not operate that way all the time? That is the point of I Corinthians, chapter 13–love without any expectation of return. That ought to be our daily experience.


Jesus talked in Matthew, chapter 6, about a lot of seemingly good things–giving and praying and fasting, but in each of those cases, he said, “If you do these things to be seen of men, then you have your reward.” As I have pointed out several times before, if you are going to do things just to impress people, then you had better do it up right because all you will ever get from that is whatever attention you will get from those people; but if you are going to do those things to please the Lord, you don't have to worry about what kind of response you will get from people. People may not even notice it. There is a beautiful verse in Hebrews, chapter 5, that says that God is not unrighteousness to forget your works and labor of love which you have showed unto the Lord in that you have ministered to the saints and continue to minister. Agape love is done without any expectation of return, and it may not get any return. The people that you minister to may not even notice it. They do in crisis situations like we have talked about, but on a day-to-day basis people may not even notice it. God does not forget it. The specific promise of the Word of God is that He does not forget those things that are done for other people in His name. That is God's kind of love. If you are doing it to be seen of God, then He will take care of the reward–maybe not in this life, but His promise is that your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

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