The Supremacy of Love
Series: Love Is
Humans were made with a longing not just for good things, but for the greatest things. What is the greatest thing? In this verse, Paul concludes his treatment of love by holding it up as the greatest thing.
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
One of the unexpected effects of COVID for me is that it’s kinda diminished my love of sports. Nonetheless, I’m still a casual fan, and one favorite pastime of sports fans is debating who is the greatest. In hockey there is little question; Wayne Gretzky is even known as “The Great One.” In baseball it’s probably Babe Ruth. In basketball it’s typically a two-man debate: Michael or LeBron. Football tends to be more complicated: Maybe Jerry Rice, Tom Brady, Jim Brown. We do it with things other than sports: We don’t just want to buy a good product; we want to buy the best product for the best price. Humans were in fact created not only to want good things, but to want the best thing, what the ancients called the summum bonum, the highest good. Today we’re wrapping up our series of sermons in 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter all about love, and as we do, we find the Bible’s answer to that question: Love is the greatest thing. Greater than the greatest athletes, greater than the greatest products, greater as we saw last week than even the greatest spiritual gifts, and greater we will see today than even the greatest virtues, love is the greatest thing. Therefore, pursue love.
Greater than faith and hope
Our verse lists three virtues: Faith, hope, and love. They are the chief Christian virtues. Paul has dealt with the most extraordinary spiritual gifts in the verses that came before this verse: Prophecy, tongues, special knowledge. Now he says these three great virtues remain: faith, hope, and love. Virtues are different from gifts. Gifts are not given to every Christian: Some have the gift of prophecy, others the gift of tongues, others the gift of knowledge. It’s not a moral flaw to lack one of these, and it’s possible to have them, and use them in a very morally flawed way. But faith, hope, and love are essential to every Christian. It is a moral flaw to be lacking in any of them. So all three of these virtues are greater than the greatest spiritual gifts, and yet even among them, love is the greatest.
Why is love the greatest of these? Well, Paul doesn’t actually explicitly tell us, and as a result, there is some diversity of opinion among scholars. Some want to say that in verse 13, Paul is saying that faith, hope, and love, all three, abide forever. This is in contrast to the extraordinary spiritual gifts in the verses that precede it. The problem remains for them, though: If all three abide forever, why is love the greatest? Better in my estimation is the view of church fathers Tertullian and Chrysostom, along with the reformer Calvin, that love is greater than faith and hope because when the perfect comes, love will remain, while faith and hope will not, at least in the narrow sense. You can define faith and hope broadly: Faith is trust, hope is expectation of the future. In that sense, of course, they will remain. However, Paul often uses them narrowly: Faith is trust specifically in the redemptive work of Christ who we do not now see. Hope is the expectation of what is not yet here, what once again, we do not see. He says in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that now we walk by faith, not by sight.
Compare that to verse 12 of our passage, which says that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” So the “now” is the time period we live in now, the “then” is the perfect, the time to come. Verse 13 then says, “Now” faith, hope, and love remain, meaning now, in the present age, these 3 remain, but the greatest of these is love. Why? For the same reason love is greater than the extraordinary gifts: When the perfect comes, faith and hope in the narrow sense will no longer remain, but love never ends. That fits the context.
God’s ultimate appointed end for us, then, is not a strong faith and a sure hope, but a great love. We need faith and hope in this life; Paul’s not downplaying those here. But he is up-playing love. And it makes sense with the rest of the Bible. The Bible tells us God is love; it never says God is faith or hope. Before time began, God was love, eternally existing in loving relationship within Himself between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He needed no faith to believe without seeing, because He sees all things. He needed no hope in something for the future, because He declares the future Himself. He created us in His image to love. Faith in the narrow sense of trust in the redeemer only became necessary when a redeemer became necessary: in other words, when we sinned. And hope was always meant to reach its fulfillment in eternal life. But the point of our lives and of eternal life from the beginning was that we would exist forever in the love of God, loving Him and loving one another.
And so even when we see God’s purpose in saving us described, faith is the instrument through which we receive salvation, and faith alone. Hope is the expectation of the completion of that salvation. But the goal of the salvation itself is to restore us to our original purpose of love. It’s why in Galatians 5:6 Paul can say, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” It’s why even though faith alone saves, James can say that faith without works of love is dead. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 13 even we read that if I have all faith, but have not love, I am nothing. On hope, listen to this from Colossians 1:3-5 – “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” So there faith, hope, and love are together again, but notice the relationship between love and hope: Paul says he heard of the love that they have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. Because they had the hope of heaven, the Colossians were able to lay down their private interests on earth to serve one another’s interests. Hope is meant to cause love.
So now, in this life, today, faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love, because God’s ultimate goal in our redemption is love, and when the present age is over and Jesus returns, the goal will be realized: Faith will give way to sight, hope will be realized, and love will be perfected. So here’s the important question for us now: Are your faith and hope remaining alone? Is your faith working through love? Is the hope laid up for you in heaven causing love for all the saints? Think about Bible reading for example. Might it be that part of the reason many of us struggle to do it consistently is because we lose sight of the end goal? A good reason to read the Bible would be to feed your faith. Reading your Bible exposes you to the truth, on which you can then exercise faith. But that’s not really the ultimate goal actually. The ultimate goal is that faith would then work through love, that the true things you see about God would lead you to a response of praise, often expressed in private prayer, that it would lead you to turn from sin and put on righteousness, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Not only that, but there is a second commandment like the first great one to love the Lord your God, and it’s to love your neighbor as yourself. When James talks about faith without works being dead, the kinds of works he has in mind are works of love toward your neighbor, especially your neighbor with material needs. He’s saying if your faith and hope don’t make people dear to you, such that you will inconvenience and sacrifice your time, resources, and energy to alleviate their misery and serve their joy, that faith and hope are dead. The greatest of these is love. Therefore, pursue love.
Therefore, pursue love
Now I’m cheating a bit here because I’m getting these words from the first two words of chapter 14: Pursue love. We’ve just spent week upon week going bit by bit through this glorious picture of love in chapter 13. It started with the necessity of love, then moved to a description of love, and then ends today with the absolutely supremacy of love. So what should we do with that? Chapter 14’s answer is simple: Pursue love. If love is the greatest possible thing in the world, greater than the most extraordinary gifts, greatest among even the greatest virtues, why give your life to anything else? We’re all pursuing something in life; there is something that gets you out of bed in the morning. Let it be love. And on the days when you’re struggling, and you’re in pain, and you aren’t sure you can get out of bed in the morning, there is still a reason to get out of bed, because no matter what you are going through, there is still a God to love, there is still a church to love, there are still images of Him to love. Pursue love.
Now, how do you do that? Pursuit is like the language of running. If I were to tell you to run to City Hall, how would you do that? You’d need a description of City Hall, to know what it is and where it is, so that you can run toward it. That’s what Paul does for us in 1 Corinthians 13. He describes love, even showing us how it’s different from our world’s concept of love, so that we can run toward it, and away from whatever is not it. There are two basic possible types of desires in every human: Loving desires, and sinful desires. Since both are possible, it won’t do for us to simply follow our hearts. When you hit Broad St, you can go right or left, so it won’t do for you to simply follow your heart. You have to know which way is the right way, and then choose it. So for our desires, we have to know which ones are loving desires, and act on them, while also knowing which ones are sinful desires, so we can run away from them.
That’s what 1 Corinthians 13 does. Starting in verse 4, it says here’s what love is: Love is patient and kind. When you have the desire to bear a non-ideal situation as coming from your heavenly Father, act on that. When you have the desire to serve the interests of another, whatever the cost to yourself, act on that. On the other hand, love does not envy: When you feel upset at another’s success, run away from that. Don’t indulge it. Love does not boast: When you feel the desire to talk about your comparative greatness, run in the other direction; talk about God’s comparative greatness or someone else’s. Thus the list continues: Love is not arrogant or rude, it is not selfish, it is not irritable, it does not assume, meditate on, or plan evil against others, it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, then back to the positives: It rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
So you’ve got a choice to make. Which desires will you act on? In which direction will you run? Toward love, or away from it? And that choice is not simply a choice you make once. It’s made in thousands of small decisions, when desires for love or its opposite come up, and you choose which ones to act on. As you do, you will progressively become more loving, or you will progressively become more hateful. Loving action has a way of entrenching or strengthening loving hearts. To put it more biblically, we reap what we sow. C.S. Lewis said it like this:
“The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning. The same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction. The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them…Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.”
You see what he’s saying? When you choose to worship God during a hard situation instead of complain about it, that is a decision of infinite importance. When you see a need and you take an hour out of your day, 50 bucks out of your pocket to meet it, that is a decision of infinite importance. When you speak well of others instead of yourself, when you say no to something that would have made you happy because seeing another person made happy actually makes you happier, when you overlook a wrong instead of criticizing it, when you assume the best about someone else, when you confront wrongdoing, when you speak what’s true, when you bear hardship in the path of love, take God at His Word, look forward to heaven…All these things are of infinite importance, because each of them moves you one step closer in the direction of love. Each gets you one stop closer to the one destination worthy of your pursuit.
And yet, we all must admit that when faced with these thousands of small decisions, we have run in the other direction. The fact is, we aren’t just walking down Spring Garden St, choosing whether to turn right or left, and if someone just tells us how nice City Hall is, if someone just tells us that left is the way to get there, we’ll go. The fact is, by nature, we’re all already on Broad St, running in the opposite direction. And though God has told us that’s the path to destruction, though God calls us to turn around, though God tells us how beautiful the other path is, we keep running away. We don’t just need Him to instruct us; we need Him to come and get us. We’ll only ever pursue love if love pursues us first, and that’s what love did. The ultimate reason the greatest of these is love is because Jesus is love, the love that came for us.
He so pursued love that He pursued us when we were His enemies. When He faced the thousand choices of infinite importance, He chose love every time. And when He faced the ultimate choice of love: To preserve His life or die for His enemies, He chose love once again. And He is the proof that love is greater even than death, because He overcame death when He rose from the dead. We confessed earlier all the ways we run in the other direction, and we were right to do that, but let’s put Jesus’ name in there and see how it sounds: “Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; Jesus is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not seek His own; Jesus is not irritable or resentful. Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…So now, faith, hope, and Jesus abide, these three, but the greatest of these is Jesus.”
So exercise faith in Him, set your hope on Him, and He will forgive you your refusal to love, and He will actually turn you around. He will give you the power to choose to run toward love, but the battle will not be over. In every Christian the battle between our desires truly begins: There is now a new desire springing from love, a new sense that God and others are dear to us, implanted in us by the Spirit of Jesus, and there is the desire for sin, still present from who we were. So keep putting your faith and hope in Jesus, especially when you fail. And in the thousand little decisions you will face as you go from here today, choose to act on love. Every time you do, you not only take a step in the right direction, but you start to look a bit more like Jesus, the one who is love. You need love more than anything else. If I have the most extraordinary gifts in the world, if I make the most extraordinary sacrifices imaginable, but God and people are not dear to me, I am nothing. And love will outlast everything else I could possibly pursue. Even faith and hope serve the end of love. Pursue it, because God’s love will not stop pursuing you, until He brings you to your final destination, where He will pour out His love on you forever, and His work of perfecting your love will be complete. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.