“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love...I am nothing.” I Corinthians 13:1, 2
It was the great preacher of Ecclesiastes who cried, Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless. He was speaking about the meaninglessness of life, all of life’s work and riches, all of life’s ambitions, and all of life’s treasures, dreams, and aspirations. He said, “It’s all meaningless unless a man has the fear and knowledge of the Lord God in his heart.”
Knowing God is the only thing that makes life worthwhile!
I Corinthians 13 is the New Testament version of that same truth. The Apostle Paul is crying out
Nothing! Nothing! It’s all for nothing!” He, too, is speaking about life, but he is speaking about life in the church—how one can possess many great gifts, many godly virtues—yet have it all be for nothing unless one has the love of God in his heart.
Love is the only thing that makes our lives of service worthwhile. Without love, it is nothing.
Whether we are talking about gifts used in the service of Jesus Christ in His church, or gifts used in the service of Jesus Christ in the classroom, or in the hallways or in the office, we know that if we do not have love, all our efforts, all our training, and all our hard work is in vain—it means nothing.
The Prerequisite of Love
As we look at the gifts Paul mentions in the opening verses of this chapter, we notice that these are no small gifts. Paul mentions speaking in the tongues of men and even of angels. From what Paul writes in Chapter 14, it is clear that in the church of Corinth speaking in tongues was a highly valued gift. It made quite an impression on the congregation.
Yet, Paul writes: “If can speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Even if I have the gift everyone wants, but I do not have love it amounts to nothing! In that metaphor of a resounding gong and clanging cymbal we find a reference to the way pagans would often go to the temple and greet their gods (and still do to this day). Upon entering the temple of their deity, priests and worshippers would bang the gong in order to get the attention of their god (perhaps to wake him up).
Psalm 115 reminds us that the idol gods have ears but cannot hear. They are lifeless. So, the banging of the gong and the clanging of the cymbal accomplishes nothing. It is just a loud noise that rings forth in vain. It is meaningless. No one hears it. It amounts to nothing and accomplishes nothing.
Paul’s message to the church is profound. He is saying that if God’s people do not possess love (which is not so much a gift of the Spirit but the fruit of the Spirit), then all their speaking, all their exercising of their gift means nothing. It is all just a bunch of noise that is not heard by God. It is meaningless. God turns a deaf ear to those who do not have love in their hearts.
Next, Paul speaks about the gift of prophesy. Looking again at Chapter 14, it is clear that Paul exalts the gift of prophecy above speaking in tongues. Paul would rather have everyone prophesy than speak in tongues, because prophecy results in the strengthening and edifying of the church. Prophecy results in the Word of God being revealed to God’s people. But even that important gift means nothing it if is not accompanied by love.
The same goes for the ability to fathom all mysteries and knowledge. It is also true for those who possess faith enough to move mountains. If love is not present, it is all for naught. Even acts of charity— helping the poor and needy is meaningless without love. Making the ultimate sacrifice (offering our body to the flames for our faith), even this is for nothing, if we have not love.
Think of how this applies to us in our situations. As a Pastor, I need to be reminded of the need to love all the time. Keep in mind, the Bible does not teach that love is something we simply possess. It is not as if all we have to do is take inventory of our hearts each day before we leave home to be sure we have got love: Briefcase? Check. Greek New Testament? Check. Car keys? Check. Sandwich? Check. Love? Check.
No. Love is not something we merely possess. God’s Word teaches us that love is an exercise.
Love as an activity. On a daily basis, we are to show love, demonstrate love, exemplify love, pour out love, and shower love upon others as an offering to God.
That love must form the basis, the motivation, and the foundation for all that we do. As a Pastor, I can work for hours on end in my study, I can know my Bible front to back, I can read every book on my shelves, I can be up to date on all the theological issues of our day; I can write articles for theological journals, I can preach twice every Lord’s Day, lead all the Bible studies and societies, I can chair meetings, and make every sick call and shut-in visit, I can be a real superman. But if I have not love, if God’s love is not present in my ministry, if God’s love is not seen in my actions, if it is not heard by my words, if it is not experienced by the congregation, then all that I do is in vain. It is all for naught.
The same is true whether you teach or study, labor as a staff member or factory worker. You can be the most efficient worker in your field, handling problems with ease; but if you have not love, your actions are all for nothing.
The Challenge of Love
There is something else we need to know about love. Loving is not easy; loving is a challenge. As a Pastor, I can tell you that it is not always easy to love God’s people. They can be a very unlovable bunch. There are people you meet in the church and outside the church that are simply not deserving of your love.
They are unkind, disrespectful, and inconsiderate. They might be stubborn, closed-minded and conservative to a fault. There might be others who are lukewarm and appear to lack any zeal or passion for Christ and His church. Among God’s people we also find those who are immoral, ungodly, unsubmissive, and hypocritical.
Yet, the reality is they all need to be loved. God calls us to love not just the people we like, or the people who like us, or who share our passion and zeal, or who happen to agree with us, or the ones who live moral upright and decent lives. The reality is, God calls us to love enemies as well as friends, unbelieving neighbors as well believing neighbors, and those who are unkind to us in church as well as those who are kind. In short, we are called to love the undeserving as well as the deserving!
That is our duty and calling before the Lord Jesus Christ. We serve Christ and His Kingdom, by loving—by loving the unlovable, by bearing with the unbearable, by suffering the insufferable, and by tolerating the intolerable. That kind of love is something our God sees and hears and also takes pleasure in.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”
It does not take a Christian to love someone who is lovable. It does not take a Christian to love someone whom you like or who gives you love in return. But it does take a Christian to love someone who does not return your love or to love someone who is altogether unworthy of love.
The Portrayal of Love
The type of love required of us is not from below but must come down to us from above, from our God and Father in heaven. This becomes all the more evident as we consider the portrayal of love.
We are all familiar enough with verses 4-8 of I Corinthians 13 to know that it is widely recognized as one of the most comprehensive and beautiful descriptions of love found anywhere—not only the Bible but also in literary history. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul describes love in a positive fashion by saying what it is, as well as in a negative fashion—by saying what it is not.
It is not my intent to go through these virtues one by one, but rather, focus mainly on the first attribute. Paul writes, “love is patient.” The fact that Paul begins with patience simply reiterates what we have said thus far. Our love will be challenged. Our love is going to be tested and tried.
That is all the more reason for our love to be patient. A love that is patient will overcome all trials. Speaking of patient love, James
1:19 says, everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
As we know all too well ourselves, anger is perhaps the greatest threat, the greatest predator to Christian love. So, James recommends patience as a means of counteracting anger, as a way to overcome it and conquer it. Patience protects love; patience insulates love.
If our love is patient, then we will show the quality of righteous restraint. We will not lash out in anger even when our spouse or a fellow worker lashes out at us. We will not seek to settle the score when we have been wronged. Rather, we will be patient. We will be slow to become angry and quick to love, for that is what love does.
This kind of love is not indigenous to us humans here on earth. This is not a love that some are just lucky to be born with, while others go begging. No. The type of love we are called to exercise and exemplify is supernatural. It comes to us from above, and it is the same love that our Lord Jesus Christ exercised and demonstrated while He walked the earth.
It is the same love that Christ showed to those who were ungodly and unloving and undeserving. Come to think of it, this is the same kind of love that our God showed to us when we were ungodly, unloving, and undeserving. I John 4:10 says, “And this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” And Romans 5:8 confirms that love when it states, “God demonstrated His love for us in this: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
Our God loved us even though we were dead in our trespasses and sins, even as He saw our vile hearts, even as He read the thoughts of our corrupt minds. We were ugly and unlovable, yet through Christ His Son, God’s love covered over those ugly blemishes and stains. God’s love saved us and transformed us and made us alive again.
So now, God’s love becomes the standard for our love. We Christians are to have the love of Christ Jesus in our hearts. This is the kind of love that ought to be present in the classrooms, on the job, in our social gatherings, our homes, and our churches.
You have to have love because without it all your labors and all your efforts will be for naught. The same love that changed us and transformed our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus—that won us over for God—can also be used to change the hearts and minds of others.
God can use our patient love, our understanding words, our kind gestures, and our forgiving spirit as a tool of the Gospel whereby others who are lost in their sin and undeserving of love and mercy, are won over to Him. They are won over even as they see and experience the love of Christ first hand, as we show it to them, and as we apply that love to them.
That is why love is the most excellent way. That is why love is a prerequisite for ministry, for seminary, for marriage, for life in the church, and life in this world … because, if we have not love, we are nothing, and all we do is nothing.
Rev. Keith Davis is the pastor of the Lynwood United Reformed Church in Lynwood, Illinois.