The more excellent way

I remember at school the teacher saying, ‘empty barrels make most noise’;

those with the least going on in their heads were the most likely to be noisy. The teachers at my school believed that less talkative and noisy children are more thoughtful and display a more desirable trait than those who speak first and think later. Perhaps our society has changed a bit since I was a child as we seem to value those who speak and perform more than those who are quiet and contemplative. Speaking out, expressing opinions, performing seem to be more valued today, not bad characteristics per se, but perhaps we are beginning to over-value those who speak first over those who think first.

The Corinthians were very much like ourselves: they valued performers and those who sought the limelight. The ‘greater’ gifts that Paul spent time explaining and teaching about in chapter 12 were valued by the Corinthians more than the less showy gifts. We’re seeing a growing list of problems at this church as we work through this letter: divisions over leadership, gross sexual immorality (that was accepted and encouraged), division over food rules, drunkenness and partying at the Lord’s table (whilst some went hungry), now Paul deals with inappropriate use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s closing statement at the end of chapter 12 Paul probably best reads as follows: ‘You eagerly desire the greater gifts, but I will show you a more excellent way.’ That ‘more excellent way’ is the subject of chapter 13.

  1. Without love: nothing

Paul mentions what we can consider be ‘greater gifts’ in the first three verses of chapter 13: tongues, prophecy, faith and showy self denial. First tongues: he says, if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. We need to work out what the tongues of men and angels are before thinking about what Paul meant here. Whenever we see this word ‘tongues’ some of us are rather conditioned to think that it is the thing we have seen on American Pentecostal TV shows or perhaps something we have observed in what has become known as ‘charismatic’ churches. I have observed this phenomenon in my church experience and it appears to be defined reasonably well as ‘ecstatic speech’ – having neither grammatical rules nor apparent intelligibility. This phenomenon of ecstatic speech as a religious experience is not unknown in the pagan world – and I believe that that’s a telling fact. In any event most Christians equate ecstatic unintelligible speech with ‘tongues’. It is surprising that this view is so widely held, as the bible gives a very clear description of what ‘tongues’ actually is. In Acts 2, the apostles spoke in ‘tongues’ – what was the impression of those who heard? Luke records the following: ‘each one heard them speaking in his own language’. ‘Tongues’ as described in the New Testament is a God-given ability to speak in a language that others (familiar with the language) understand, but which the speaker has not learned. There isn’t much doubt about this, and as we study 1 Corinthians 13 and 14 we should keep this definition firmly in view. Ecstatic speech is not biblical tongues, speaking foreign languages is.

Tongues was a sign to the Jews, a sign that they were not listening to God’s communication to them to repent and acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah (more of this in chapter 14). If we think about languages for a moment we will recall that languages were actually a judgement of God on mankind – specifically designed to create nations and prevent the whole of mankind coming together in false religion (Genesis 11). One day Jesus will come and he will be king and the wrongs of mankind will be put right. In chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians Paul indicates that tongues were a sign to Jews associated with their rejection of the Messiah. In view of this it seems that tongues has some association with the favourable conditions that the Messiah will bring, namely a restoration of common language and conditions that resembled the situation in the world before God’s judgement on the mankind at Babel.

Paul speaks of the tongues of men and of angels and some have claimed that the phenomenon of tongues is thus ‘angel language’. Again we should interpret Paul’s words in light of biblical evidence. In all of the utterances of angels in the bible they never speak in a language other than that of the human beings they address. If we take a look at what Paul said in the first few verses of chapter 13 he talks of tongues of men and angels, gift of prophecy and fathoming of all mysteries, and faith to move mountains – he contrasts these extraordinary, extreme and unlikely (if not impossible) events with lack of love. In this context it seems most likely that Paul is using hyperbole to make his point and if that’s the case we can probably assume that the tongues spoken in Paul’s day did not include angel language(s) (if such a thing exists at all), but was restricted to human languages. But to get back to the point, Paul is saying that you may be able to speak in tongues (unlearned languages) and you may even have the extraordinary gift to speak in Angel language, but if you don’t have love, the sound you make is like a gong or the clanging of a symbol – it counts for next to nothing! Next Paul says if you have the gift of prophecy in such measure that you know all the mysteries that have puzzled mankind and have no love you are nothing! And if you have faith to move mountains but lack love you are nothing! And lastly if you don’t have love, you can give all your money away to the poor and boastfully give yourself to hardship – but you will gain nothing.

What’s Paul saying in summary? Gifts have importance, they are for the common good, but if Spirit-given gifts are exercised in the absence of love, they are being misused. The gifts must be exercised within the environment of love or else they become nothing at all. So what exactly is love? Paul gives an extended definition in verses 4 to 7.

2. Love is

This is a tricky word for us to define in our English language, we use the word to describe the physical act of union between a man and a woman: ‘making love’. We use it to describe a liking for things – ‘I love fish and chips’ or ‘I love shopping’. And we use it to describe the mysterious and powerful desire we sometimes have to be with another – ‘I’ve fallen in love’. Finally we use it to describe the bond of devotion to another person – like the love of a parent for a child. In Paul’s day there were three words used for love, eros, which is to do with physical attraction and ‘love making’ (and incidentally we get the English word ‘erotic’ from this Greek word), philia which was to do with fondness (from which we get words ending in –phile or =philic to indicate a liking for something. E.g. Angloophile) and agape which was about devoted love. If we take philia and agape we see some significant contrasts. Let’s call them ‘fondness-love’ and ‘devoted-love’. Fondness-love is all about how the thing loved brings pleasure to the one who has the fondness-love. I love fish and chips or I love chocolate – these things are valued (or loved) because they bring pleasure to the one doing the loving. I suspect that ‘falling in love’ falls into this category and much of the love sung about in popular music is this sort of love – love that makes me feel good. In contrast devoted-love is concerned with the value of the thing loved and bringing benefit to that thing or person, often at the expense of the one doing the loving. It’s not a love to make me feel good, but a love to make the one loved feel good. The parent who spends time, energy and resources to bring up a child demonstrates this devoted-love, a spouse who cares for an ill husband or wife does so too. Note again that devoted-love is about esteeming the object of the love, not about the benefit that love brings to the one doing the loving. in fact often this devoted-love is costly to the one doing the love. This is the sort of love Paul speaks about in these verses.

So what is this love like, first it is patient and kind. It’s easy to be patient and kind to nice people, people we like, but what about the people that get under our skin and are just plain annoying – Paul simply says love is patient and kind. What about the person in the car who cuts across you or the person who get’s in your way when you are in a hurry to catch a train? Patient and kind says Paul!

There are some things that love is not: envious, boastful or proud. Love thinks about the other person first, imagine you have just done something rather well and you are boasting about it – how does that make the other person feel – small and inadequate, that is not love says Paul. Another person in the church does well in some way, do you share their happiness or curl up inside with envy: envy is not love says Paul. Being proud of our achievements is not love either. All of these traits seems to be about showing how we are more important that others – but love is not about me, me, me – it’s about putting the welfare of others first.

Ever found it tempting to enjoy someone else’s misfortune? or to quietly undermine another person? – gossip is such a delicious activity, we enjoy destroying someone else’s character because it makes us feel much better than them – that’s not love says Paul. How dare he/she do that to me! I have their card marked! No, says Paul, love doesn’t get angry quickly and keeps no record of wrongs.

We live in the era of ‘spin’. Governments frequently take news stories and pieces of information and spin them to fit in with their plans and desire for a good image. Bad stuff gets buried. Truth is suppressed and lies become re-badged as ‘mis-speaking’. So often truth is lost in our world, and we easily become embroiled in this. But love rejoices with the truth.

Paul’s list of love’s qualities is not only beautiful but practical; love protects, trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. These are remarkable statements of the power of love!

3. Love lasts

Some things change, but love doesn’t. Paul returns to the gifts of the Spirit that form the subject matter of chapters 12-14 and he informs the Corinthians that these gifts are given on a temporary basis. Prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled and knowledge will pass away. Paul speaks of a present partial knowledge as well as an incomplete prophesy, a situation will change when ‘completeness comes’. The completeness Paul speaks about he describes as akin to growing up, at one time he was a child in his talking, thinking and reasoning, but on maturing to adulthood these childhood ways were put behind him. So what does this maturity mean? Paul has more to say: presently he says only a reflection in a mirror is seen, but at maturity the reflection gives way to face to face sight. Impartial knowledge gives way to complete knowledge.

Just when does this maturity and completeness come? There are two suggestions; one is when Jesus returns and the other when the New Testament revelation is complete. I tend to favour the second view for three reasons, first if Paul had meant that ‘completion’ is the return of the Lord Jesus he would probably have been a bit more explicit than he was. Second, three things remain: faith, hope and love and these are contrasted with the things that pass away, it seems that on Jesus return, faith and hope will give way to the reality of being in Jesus’ presence, they will remain only until Jesus returns – but love will remain as it is in God’s character. And thirdly the evidence to an unbiased observer is that these sign gifts have ceased.