1 Corinthians 13, an oft-quoted scripture passage for weddings, is also referred to as the “love chapter” in the Bible. It argues for the primacy of love in all our endeavors in serving others and the Lord. As you seek to serve others in the Lord, be warned and reminded that if you serve without love, your serving will be for nothing.
Consider The Context
Our scripture passage follows a lengthy discussion regarding spirituals gifts, and how spiritual gifts are unique and indispensable within the body of Christ, the Church. To provide the context of 1 Corinthians 13:1-4, consider the following verses:
12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed1 Corinthians 12:1,4-7,11
12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
12:11 All these (spiritual gifts) are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
The apostle Paul in chapter 12 is teaching the Corinthians, and us, that in the church we are different in our giftings, serving, and activities and all these differences are God-ordained, God-empowered, and God-given. Therefore, spiritual gifts should not to be rejected or discouraged, but rather viewed as indispensable and needed for the common good.
In short, God decides on the gifts, God empowers the gifts, and we use them for the common good through serving others.
A More Excellent Way
It is within this context of unique spiritual giftings that Paul introduces the “love chapter.” Paul has just given a “green light” to all the spiritual, ready-to-serve, Christians in Corinth. He is affirming their use of their spiritual gifts and unique calling, and as they are heading out the door to pursue their ministry and use their gifts, he must point their eyes to a foundational truth for all who serve the Lord. He says:
12:31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.1 Corinthians 12:31
Wait… what? Paul is saying that there’s something better than using our God-given and God-empowered gifts in service to others?
Yes! There is something better.
There is something more worthy of your passionate pursuit.
There is something more worthy of your consideration.
There is something more worthy of your time, energy and focus.
There is something of so much more importance, that if you miss this thing, then all the work you do for God, without this one thing, means you gain nothing.
It doesn’t matter if you endure suffering in serving God.
It doesn’t matter if you experience pain and loss in serving God.
It doesn’t matter if you endure sleepless nights, loss of job, or loss of health in serving God. And it doesn’t matter if you sincerely believe you are doing things for God’s glory.
Paul teaches, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-4, that if you miss the better thing, all you do will be for nothing.
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
That one thing you must ensure you have in your life, in your ministry, as you use your God-given, God-empowered gifts to serve others, is love.
Our passage is teaching that all our ministry will be for nothing if we do not have love. It is a passage seeking to instruct Christians to keep love their primary priority. Therefore, to pursue love, we must make love our priority.
You may do great things for God and others, even miraculous and supernatural things. You may do things that by all accounts look to be the most Christ-like things ever, and yet, you can do those things without love; and if you do, even those great things—without love— are considered nothing and gain nothing.
There are three hyperbolic illustrations Paul gives, of using God-given, God-empowered gifts in service to others, and what their result is if you don’t have love.
The first illustration is in verse 1 regarding the gift of tongues. The gift of tongues, as you can read in Acts 2, is the supernatural ability to speak in a language that you don’t naturally speak. Paul mentions this gift and says “if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love… I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal..”
Being a noisy gong or clanging cymbal, when you’re trying to communicate with someone, is not a helpful or good thing. It’s a useless form of communication. The goal of language is to communicate something, but if all you’re producing is, at best, described as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal, then you may be speaking in the supernatural, but it’s failing to do anything. Which means if you don’t have love in your speech, even if your words are supernaturally empowered by the Holy Spirit, without love you’re doing nothing more than making an annoying noise.
The second hyperbolic illustration is in v2, which says “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.” Paul lists three more supernatural God-given, God-empowered gifts, used in ministry: Prophecy, Knowledge, and Faith. He is exaggerating their use to make his point by saying “understand all mysteries..all faith.. move mountains”, because no one understands all mysteries or by all faith is moving mountains. His point is even if you have all of this supernatural, God-empowered ability, and use your gifting to do the miraculous, without love, you did nothing.
The last hyperbolic illustration given is regarding the gift of serving. In v3 he says “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” We’ve all sacrificed for others at some point in our life. That’s what Paul means when he says “If I give away all that I have,” he is referring to personal sacrifice in serving others. He gives the most dramatic example of self-sacrifice by suggesting you give away ALL your possessions and, beyond that, you give away your own life as well. The phrase “and if I deliver up my body to be burned,” means if I sacrifice my body to even a painful death of being burned by fire —perhaps the most painful death at that time besides crucifixion. He gives this dramatic illustration of sacrificial giving of property and even of one’s own life to argue that you could do all of this, but if it is without love, you ultimately accomplish nothing.
In other words, you can do something significantly beneficial to others. You can make meaningful and costly sacrifices. You can suffer loss, even loss of your own life in service to God, believing it is to gain you something, and in the end, it gains you nothing.
Make Love Your Priority
Supernatural gifting of language, supernatural gifting of prophecy and faith, sacrificial giving, and by extension, using spiritual gifts in serving others, if done without love, will gain you nothing. Which means, above every work of ministry, above any act of service, that which must be a higher aim is love. You make love your priority.
To make love your priority, you must take all your ministry endeavors, all your spiritual gifts, all your activities, your serving, your unique callings and ask of each one: “Am I loving in these things?”
When you’re in the midst of hard situations, of difficult relationships, and dealing with issues where the right move is unclear, take time to examine your heart. In those moments, ask God to help you keep love your priority as you seek to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.
Keep the truth always before you that significant impact, supernatural change, and even great sacrifice is not sufficient, in and of itself, to validate your work before God. Your primary priority must be that you have love in all your endeavors.