One of the most frightening passages to me in all of the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13. That’s right, the passage people love to read at weddings, the passage stamped on countless Hobby Lobby canvases, the chapter of love, gives me the chills. It is a sobering passage, despite the sappy and sentimental ways it is often used. And it has much to say to those involved in ministry at any level.
So what makes 1 Corinthians 13 such a sobering and urgent passage for those involved in any kind of ministry?
First, we see that Christian ministry that lacks Christian love is worthless to God.
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 ESV)
Very simply in the first three verses of this chapter, Paul is telling us that Christian ministry without Christian love (i.e. love for other Christians) does not please God in any way. In fact, you could say that a ministry lacking Christian love is worthless in God’s sight.
Paul pulls no punches in these verses, making it clear that regardless of what you do in the church, even if you have the most visible, the most public, and the most influential of ministries; if you are not carrying out those ministries out of the overflow of love for God and your brothers and sisters in Christ, what you’re doing is not pleasing to God. God may use you to bring glory to his name, but it will profit you nothing. God may help people through you; but you’ll get no greater intimacy with God or reward from God because of it.
Christian ministry without Christian love is like drummer crashing cymbals with no rhythm. It’s a banker dressed in a three-piece suit, brokering big deals with imaginary customers and Monopoly money. Christian ministry without Christian love is nothing but worthless noise, according to God.
What that means is that you can preach with fire, fill the seats of your church, deliberately and meticulously cross your theological Ts and dot your doctrinal Is, strategize and execute mission statements like a boss, win converts, raise up men to lead the church into the next generation, and risk your life in radical evangelistic service to Christ – and personally profit exactly nothing for it all in the end.
These are serious words that must not be glossed over casually, especially when you consider how Paul defines and describes the kind of love he is talking about. His description of Christian love makes the matter all the more urgent.
Second, we see that the love we are called to is a love much higher than we are prone to live out.
Here’s how love is described in those verses:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)
The description of love here is a deeply Christian love, shaped by the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, who laid down His life for sinners to save them from the just penalty of their sins.
Christian love is a love that lays down personal rights and personal preferences for the good of others. It is a love that gets its hands dirty to benefit others. It is a love that sweats, and sacrifices, and willingly suffers for the good of another.
Each of the descriptions of love that Paul gives here are verbs. Not adjectives; verbs; fifteen of them to be exact. These are not merely the things that love is. These are the things that love does.
Now, rather than give each of these verbs a cursory glance, I’d rather dive a little deeper into a just a handful of them. The first one sets the stage for the rest, and the last few summarize the whole list.
Consider the first verb used to describe Christian love here. “Love is patient” (or “long-suffering”). Christian love suffers long. In the words of one author, “The picture is not just that love is able to wait for a long time but that love receives wounds without evening the score. Love rolls with the punches” (Evan May, Love Gives Life, Kindle ed.).
Christian love begins with the assumption that I am a sinner living in the midst of sinners, which means I know I am going to be sinned against and am determined to extend grace to my brothers and sisters in Christ when they sin against me. Love is patient.
Can you imagine a church where a foundational and shared commitment of each member was to shower grace upon one another in the face of their many sins? Where the people were committed to one another through thick and thin? Where the entry level commitment of a member was to stick with it and press on with one another despite the sins that would inevitably hurt them, ultimately because of Christ and His faithful love?
Then consider the last few verbs in Paul’s description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13. He says,
“[Love] bears all things.”
That is, it puts up with all kinds of difficulty.
“[Love] believes all things.”
That is, it trusts that God is up to only good at all times.
“[Love] hopes all things.”
That is, it waits for God to make it all things right in the end.
“[Love] endures all things.”
That is, it doesn’t run from difficulty, but stands up under it. It keeps going when things get difficult.
“Love never fails.”
That is, it is indestructible, it never ends, and it never comes to a point where it refuses to love.
The fact is, Christian love is far more committed to the other Christians than what most of us have probably ever experienced in a local church. Yet, these are not the ideals of a wishful-thinking God. These words are to be used for serious, sober, and careful reflection in the body of Christ. Do our relationships as members of local bodies of Christians illustrate this paragraph in our Bibles? If we desire to obedient to God and to glorify the God who has saved us, then we must be explicitly committed to showing truly Christian love to one another.
Now, here is where things get real for me. Perhaps I am alone in this. If so, please allow me this moment of personal reflection, if for no one else’s benefit but my own.
This passage begins to really pierce my heart beginning at verse 4, because if I am honest with the Lord and myself I have to admit that my love for the church at times looks nothing like what is described there.
In our church, we express our commitment to one another in the form of a very thorough membership covenant. That covenant begins this way:
“As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, purchased by His righteous blood and baptized according to His command, we enter into a solemn covenant with one another as one body in Christ before almighty God in response to His grace toward us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We covenant, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us, the following:”
The covenant then goes through various areas of the Christian life specifically, for each member to commit themselves to, in light of what God commands in Scripture. Then, about halfway through, there is this commitment:
“We will walk together in brotherly love, exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require. We will practice humility in our relationships, considering one another as more important than ourselves. We will pray for one another and serve each other in all seasons of life. We will pursue and practice biblical peacemaking… We will be slow to take offense and always ready for reconciliation and forgiveness, remembering how much we have been forgiven by God.”
Our team of pastors believes that these commitments accurately reflect the teaching of the Bible regarding relationships within the local church and between brothers and sisters in Christ. While we try to make it clear that our church covenant is in no way a pledge to perfection in our love for one another, we also do not want to dilute the Bible’s teaching on this topic.
Yet, I will be the first to admit that my love for my brothers and sisters in Christ frequently falls far short of these stated commitments. If my actual commitment to my brothers and sisters in Christ were put in writing, I suspect it would look something a bit like this:
“As a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, purchased by His righteous blood, I enter into a very casual and completely breakable agreement with you all that says and pledge to do the following things when I feel like it.
For instance, I will walk with you for an unspecified amount of time, exercise sporadic care and watchfulness over you, but will hardly ever admonish you because that’s a little too uncomfortable. I will practice humility in my relationships with you as long as people notice my humility, and will at my own discretion consider you as more important than myself as long as you all do the same to me.
Furthermore, I will tell you that I am praying for you and then forget to do so, and will serve you to varying degrees in various seasons of my life. I will practice biblical peacemaking, whatever that is, and be slow-ish to take offense and always ready for others to make things right with me, remembering how great I am and how big of a deal I am in God’s eyes.”
Paul’s words in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13 wouldn’t be so daunting to me if the description of Christian love from verse 4 on were a little less extreme. The simple fact is that my love for my brothers and sisters in Christ is rather lame compared with the description of Christian love given in that passage. I suspect yours is as well, at least from time to time.
And yet, there is a third reason this passage should sober us up, as if the first two weren’t enough cause for trembling.
Third, we see that Christian love is absolutely necessary to spiritual maturity.
The simple idea in the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 13 (vv. 8-13) is that love is permanent. It is what we will be doing for eternity. It is what we will be doing after Jesus returns and heaven and earth are made entirely new. The relevance of the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is to show that what is truly advanced in the Christian life, is love; that the epitome of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, is love; and that without it, all the other things we do in the church are of little value.
What to do?
So many voices in evangelicalism these days challenge Christians to live radical lives in service to Christ; to not waste their lives on futile endeavors; to leave it all out on the field for Jesus, come sweat, blood, and tears.
I agree with these voices in principle. However, I wish more of them would remind us of the fact that according to 1 Corinthians 13 (and other passages), the truly radical Christian life is lived out (in the vast majority of cases) in the context of a specific local church, where a Christian gives his life to a specific group of other Christians, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things, in order to illustrate the love of Christ to men and glorify the God who loves his people with a love of unfathomable strength and durability.
If you find yourself convicted as a result of reading this post and are wondering what you should do in response, I’ll close by offering three quick bits of counsel.
First, remember how loved you have been and continue to be by God. Paul puts it simply in Ephesians 5:2 when he says, “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Let the truth of Christ’s love for you dwell within you, leading you to love.
Second, if you see that your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ is clearly lacking, confess your sin to God. Confess your failure to love as sin against God and against his people. I continue to find that open and honest confession of sin is often the match that lights a fire of spiritual renewal and refreshment in my walk with Christ, something the Scriptures attest to as well, I believe.
And finally, don’t forget the power that is available to you from God, to enable you to live this life of love. We are not left to our own strength and our own resources to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. He has given us of His Spirit to enable us for these things. As Gordon Fee says in his commentary on 1 Corinthians: “The life that is touched by the never-ceasing love of God in Christ is in turn enabled by the Spirit to love others in the same way” (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 640). So then, walking by the Spirit, let us love one another to the glory of God.