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The Voice of Sovereign Grace / Doug Agnew
The Truth Network Radio
December 5, 2022 1:00 am


The Voice of Sovereign Grace / Doug Agnew

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December 5, 2022 1:00 am

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Well, let's go to the Word tonight. We come now in our journey through the book of 1 Corinthians to one of those well-known chapters in the Bible, one that quite possibly has been read at every wedding you and I have ever attended.

It's often called the love chapter. Of course, I'm talking about the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Let's read these wonderful verses again, and perhaps for some of us this will be the first time you've heard these inspired words.

That may very well be the case for little Adrian and Levi tonight, but for most of us this is more than likely the hundredth time we've heard these words. Still, for others, if you think about it, it may very well be the last time you hear these wonderful words that have been in your mind and thoughts and guided your steps over the years of your lifetime. Whatever your stage of pilgrimage on this earth, let's hear the Word of the Lord tonight with attention and faith and eagerness to heed what the Lord will say. 1 Corinthians 13.

Would you stand with me in honor of God's Word? If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away. As for tongues, they will cease. As for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.

When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For 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 now faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love. This is the word of the Lord.

Let's pray. Holy Spirit, you have inspired the words, the sentences, the thoughts that we've just read, and you intend them to profit us by teaching and rebuking and correcting and training us. Would you use the word before us tonight to do these very things in us that we might be a church that loves and serves as Christ has loved and served us. I pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.

You can be seated. Well, I've already alluded to the fact that our text tonight is among the most familiar to us in all of Scripture. The thing is, 1 Corinthians 13 is often read and expounded in isolation from its context. But Paul wrote this famous chapter in the middle of a specific letter to a specific group of Christians with specific issues that needed to be addressed. What this means then is that these 13 verses were not intended to merely be a generic poem about love that we maybe frame in calligraphy and hang on the living room wall.

Nothing wrong with that. I'm sure I have two or three versions of decorative 1 Corinthians 13 somewhere among my earthly possessions. But this familiar chapter has a context, and that context is crucially important for us if we are to understand and rightly apply these beautiful words. These verses are not about love in the abstract. This chapter is not a treatise on love in some sort of generic sense. Paul is not trying to say all there is to say about love. Rather, he is addressing particular imbalances within a particular church.

So what were those imbalances? Well, we've already seen this in the first 12 chapters, but Corinth had an ego problem. They loved the showy, the credible, the ostentatious, the clever, because it made them feel important and smart and successful and spiritual.

They admired what they admired because of the prestige that it brought with it. And we've seen this over and over again in Paul's letter. I won't take the time to review it in detail now, but think back to how Paul addresses one misplaced affection after another in his letter to the Corinthian church. And the common denominator in these misplaced affections is a focus on making much of self, whether it was their partisan spirit of loyalty to Paul over there or Paulus over here, or their preoccupation with clever rhetoric, whether they were indulging in sexual sin or indulging in a legalistic prohibition against even touching someone of the opposite sex, whether they were arguing about the purity of the meat being sold at the market or over who got to sit where during communion, or whether it was debating about whose spiritual gift was better than everyone else's, Corinth was forever focusing their attention on whatever would increase personal prominence, self-esteem, and individual credibility.

And so in chapter 13, Paul finally just yells, stop. Corinth, you're busying yourself with a hundred different things, but every one of them is futile because you're neglecting the one thing that makes all of that meaningful, and that one thing is love. Egocentric ostentation was Corinth's problem. Biblical love was the solution. But Corinth was so bad that they were in danger of not even getting love right. Paul needed to give a meticulous explanation of the value and the nature and the permanence of love, lest they misconstrue even this most basic of Christian virtues. Do you think that we might be a little bit like that sometimes, blinded by our own character flaws and self-centeredness to the point of thinking that we know a lot more truth than we really do, or to the point of believing that we're a lot further down the road of sanctification than we really are?

Idols die hard, and of all the hard to kill idols that we cherish, self-glory must certainly be the hardest to mortify. And so we do well, church, to heed what Paul has to say regarding love, both in the generalities as well as in the specifics. Well, Paul makes three points about love here in chapter 13. The first has to do with the value of love, its importance. The second has to do with the nature of love, what it's like, and then finally with the permanence of love. Love outlasts all other virtues, therefore it must be of utmost importance.

So let's consider each of these in turn. First of all, the value of love. We see this in verses 1 through 3. These opening verses contain several conditional statements, if-then statements, and each of the ifs assumes the absence of love.

Paul says, if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, and if I give away all that I have and even deliver up my body to be burned, but I do all those things without an underlying motive of love, then it amounts to noise and nothingness and even loss. You've probably all seen the movie It's a Wonderful Life. The premise of the film is that George Bailey, the character that's played by Jimmy Stewart, he's a philanthropist, a civil servant who has done everything for everybody else. He's driven to the point of suicide, believing that his life of sacrificing for others was just a huge waste of time.

And so an angel comes along and gives him a glimpse of what life would have been like in the town of Bedford Falls if he had never been there, if there had never been a George Bailey. 1 Corinthians 13, 1-3 is sort of like that. It presents us with the picture of what spiritual gifts, particularly the ones that Corinth valued for all the wrong reasons, what spiritual gifts would look like if love weren't part of it, if love weren't in the equation. All the things we admire and cherish and look to for affirmation and a sense of self-importance, if devoid of love, are a grim picture of emptiness and futility and waste. It's a testament really to the supreme value of love. But notice that it's the user of the gift who is diminished by the absence of love, not the gift itself.

Paul says, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. I am nothing. I gain nothing. The problem is not with the gift. It's with the way the gift is being used and with the motives from which the gift is being used. God may still use the gift for good, but its benefit will be lost on the user. You see, sometimes the effectiveness of our spiritual gifts isn't really a good validation that we've been using the gift properly. I may successfully drive a nail into a wooden plank with the handle of a screwdriver.

That doesn't mean I'm using the tool well or correctly. And so it is with these amazing spiritual gifts that God has given us. We cannot measure our obedience by the effect of the gift alone. Just because a preacher preaches and people get saved doesn't mean he's preaching in love. Just because a martyr lays down his life and books are written about his amazing sacrifice and people even come to faith because of the story of his martyrdom doesn't mean his sacrifice was made in love. The ends don't validate the means.

And there's a warning for us here, church. Corinth was blinded to their true condition by what they saw as great validation and credible evidences of their spiritual successes when all the while they were driven by selfish motives. And if that sort of self-deception was a possibility for them, it's certainly a possibility for us. We don't need to fall prey to the same tendency. We need to avoid the temptation to measure the value of our kingdom work pragmatically by its results. We need instead to evaluate our motive. Am I laboring out of love for others?

Because if I'm not, I'm wasting my life no matter how many notches I may have scratched into my gun barrel. Spiritual gifts are to be utilized from start to finish with the intention and motivation of demonstrating love to others. And so a preacher is to preach, a prophet is to prophesy, a martyr is to lay down his life, never out of a sense of self-fulfillment, self-promotion, self-glory, self-display, but always out of love for others.

It gives itself away. And we all say a hearty amen, and we nod vigorously and affirm the value of love, and we convince ourselves that yes, indeed, we are driven by a motive of love, but are we really? Well, Paul doesn't let the matter rest safely in the realm of the abstract. He gets very specific now about what love actually looks like.

So as to leave absolutely no doubt in our minds about whether or not we are motivated by love. And so in verses four through seven, Paul describes for us, secondly, the nature of love, the nature of love. These descriptions are in opposition to everything that Corinth valued and practiced. In fact, almost all of these character traits that Paul is going to mention in these verses have a direct reference to some vice that Paul has earlier in his letter already addressed at Corinth. Paul is saying, Corinth, you may think you're full of love, but the pattern and habits of your life betray you.

Love is actually the opposite of how you've been conducting yourself. And there's really nothing complicated about these qualities that Paul mentions. They're pretty straightforward. The complication isn't in understanding what they mean. It's in doing what they require, right?

That's where it gets difficult. So let's briefly walk through these qualities as a quick measure, a quick litmus test of the genuineness of love in our own hearts and lives. First, Paul says that love is patient and kind. The old translations say that love suffers long and is kind. Patience implies a context of difficulty.

It implies a context of suffering. This quality is not demonstrated until there's hardship to be endured. And notice that Paul pairs this quality of patience with kindness. In the midst of difficult circumstances, love not only endures the difficulty, puts up with it, but goes beyond mere endurance to demonstrate kindness in the midst of the difficulty. Many people can endure hardship, but what is distinctive about love is that it endures with kindness. Kindness is a distinctively Christian trait. In fact, the word used here in verse 4 only appears a handful of times in ancient Greek literature, and every time it appears, it's in a Christian context.

This wasn't a virtue that the world at large valued. It is distinctively Christian. Chrysostom described it as the virtue which breaks the spiral of passion, anger, and resentment. It's the relief valve that diffuses difficult situations and diffuses strained relationships.

It's Joseph forgiving his brothers in Egypt and giving them food and lodging. It's Jesus saying from the cross, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Next, Paul says that love does not envy or boast. Again, we know what these words mean.

I don't need to define them. Let me simply draw your attention to the relationship between envying and boasting. They go hand in hand. Those who are prone to envy are also prone to boasting. Those who boast a lot probably have an underlying struggle with envy. You see, envy is begrudging something good in someone else, right? And the only reason we would begrudge something good in someone else is because I don't have it in the same measure. It's ultimately a pride problem, an ego problem. Envy grows in the soil of comparison, and when it comes up short, it tries to balance the scales by either belittling the other or by boasting and exaggerating and bragging about itself. So envy and boasting are really bedfellows, but love rejects them both.

Paul goes on, love is not arrogant. It doesn't cherish an inflated sense of its own importance. Maybe like the Christian who feels underappreciated, so he leaves his church. Knowing that once he's gone, everyone will see how much he actually did, and they'll beg him to come back, only nobody notices that he's left.

Turns out he wasn't as important as he thought himself to be. That's what it's like to have an inflated sense of our own value, and it's antithetical to the self-giving, self-effacing nature of love. Verse 5, love is not rude. And you know, as I studied through this list this past week, this is the quality, this is the trait that intrigued me the most, I think, because to our contemporary mindset, all of the other qualities make sense at some level, but this one, I think, runs the most contrary to what we perceive as virtuous.

Let me try to explain what I mean. It's easy for us, I think, to see patience and kindness as inherently good qualities. It's plain to us that envy and arrogance are to be condemned, but rudeness is different. In fact, as we study its meaning and how it would have been understood in Paul's time, we almost come away thinking of rudeness as a virtue rather than a vice.

The word rude there in the ESV is the Greek word askemoneo, and it has to do with propriety and seemliness. In fact, the KJV translates it as doth not behave itself unseemly. This word only shows up three times in the New Testament, and each time it has reference to what the group deems as appropriate versus what the individual deems as appropriate. The frame of reference as to what is seemly or unseemly is out there, not in here.

Now, we live in a culture that reverses that frame of reference a hundred percent, right? Propriety, seemliness, modesty, manners, and so on are not defined by what other people think or expect or desire, but by what the self thinks and expects and desires and wants. Whether we're talking about dress or speech, appearance or body language, customs or manners, in general, culture today scoffs at the notion that I should conform my behavior to what others expect of me as an act of deference and respect to them. Instead, we value what?

Self-expression, authenticity, individualism. We, in fact, make dismissing the opinions and comforts of others the virtue and mock the idea of manners and etiquette and social propriety and decorum. Our world is a wear your bedroom slippers to Walmart kind of a world and do it proudly, regardless of the propriety and seamliness of it.

And in fact, our day and age seems to elevate those who are the most dismissive of social taboos and norms as being the praiseworthy ones. I remember going through a phase in my teenage years of not combing my hair back when I had it. And one day at the breakfast table, my mom said, Eugene, you didn't comb your hair this morning, to which I replied, I know it doesn't really bother me.

And she said, well, Eugene, we're the ones who have to look at it all day. The point was I don't groom myself because it makes me comfortable. I do it because it makes those who have to be around me comfortable. The virtue then is not in not caring about what other people think.

The virtue is in restraining my inner slob as an expression of respect and concern for others. Ours is a culture that prizes comfort over deference. And this expresses itself in many ways, not just in our grooming and dress. We express our lack of seamliness in how we speak to each other and how we shake hands and how we drive and how we walk through the mall and how we engage in the elements of corporate worship and how we carry ourselves around the dinner table and how we play sports.

In fact, any time we are interacting with other people, we are either conducting ourselves with seamliness or we're being unloving. One commentator I read said, Jesus did not make a virtue out of nonconformity. In Corinth, agape-prompted social relations became contaminated and distorted with eros piety. Agape, of course, is the selfless love that Paul is calling us to demonstrate. Eros is the Greek word for another kind of love, an erotic, self-oriented sort of love. And so agape-prompted social relations became contaminated with eros piety means that Corinth was excusing away their obligation to defer to others, even in matters of cultural custom and manners, and instead, prizing their personal passions and preferences and even going so far as to view that impassioned self-centeredness as some sort of perverted piety and virtue.

And that's what we do, isn't it? We are masters at pressing the definition of virtue into molds of our own making so that we can remain selfish and still call it love. But love, Paul says, is not rude, does not behave unseemly. Next, he says love does not insist on its own way. It's not out to grab attention or demand control.

It doesn't elbow its way into conversations or rush ahead to be first in line, first to speak, first to suggest a solution. It's more interested in hearing than in being heard. Now, it's certainly possible to do all these things in an insincere way, to defer outwardly while inwardly you're deceiving. But Paul says love isn't like that. Verse 5, it is not irritable or resentful. So these qualities are not merely outward behaviors.

They're outward behaviors that are governed by genuine inward attitudes. Verse 6, love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. If we're loving others, we don't get giddy over their failures.

In fact, we sincerely rejoice when they succeed. Someone described verse 6 like this, if the situation is bad, love wants to help. If the situation is good, love wants to celebrate. Very quickly then, verse 7, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

To bear with something means to cover it up, to put up with it, to absorb it. Love is the opposite of a tattletale. It covers up what is displeasing in another person. That phrase believes all things doesn't mean that love is gullible. Hopes all things doesn't mean that love is naive. These phrases refer to belief and hope with reference to God's providence. Love has faith in God in all circumstances.

It hopes in God at all times. And therefore, love can remain constant no matter what, precisely because it believes in hopes that no matter what, God's wisdom and care are being carried out. Paul concludes this section on the nature of love by saying love endures all things. And this final statement anticipates the next paragraph in which Paul will defend the permanence of love.

Unlike so many other things, even virtuous things, love never ends. Now before we consider the permanence of love, it struck me that many of the qualities Paul mentions in verses 4 through 7 are qualities that can be easily distorted and misapplied. Take kindness, for example.

I know people who are sickeningly sweet in their kindness to the point of being disingenuous and patronizing. Paul says love is not irritable or resentful, and yet there's clearly a place in the Christian life for righteous indignation. I think we do well to recognize that each of these virtues has the potential of being distorted, misapplied, carried to an unhealthy extreme, and it takes wisdom to avoid that. At the same time, I think we need to acknowledge that it is not inherent in us to naturally exhibit or even want to exhibit these qualities, and so we'll often look for excuses to avoid having to live up to them. And we might excuse away our sinful irritability by calling it righteous indignation.

We might get ourselves off the hook of having to foster true kindness by convincing ourselves that truth is more important than pandering niceness. Corinth had some major blind spots that kept them from seeing themselves as they ought to see themselves. They needed this apostolic correction.

Grace Church, we need it too. We need to come to see these virtues as precious to God and therefore worthy of appreciating and developing in our own lives. Love is of utmost importance, and love looks like these qualities.

Therefore, we ought to be pursuing these qualities in our interaction with each other. But finally Paul highlights for us the permanence of love in verses 8 through 13, and he does this by comparing love to the revelatory and sign gifts that had upstaged the virtue of love at Corinth, as we'll discover in chapter 14 especially. The gifts of prophecy and tongues and knowledge were very visible and credible and impressive in Corinth because they loved impressive things.

We're holding these gifts in higher esteem than love. So Paul begins raising their estimation of love by reminding them that love, unlike the gifts of prophecy and tongues and knowledge, is permanent. Verse 8, love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away. As for tongues, they will cease.

As for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part, we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. There is coming a day when God will declare the final judgment on all things. He'll reveal the truth about His Son in the Gospel for everyone to see. He will expose every injustice and right every wrong. He'll fulfill every promise, and this will be done in full view of the human race. Paul says elsewhere that in response to this day, every knee will bow.

Every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Now fast forward with me to that day and think with me about the pointlessness of preachers declaring God's truth when God Himself has already declared it for all to hear. Think about the worthlessness of secret knowledge on a day when all secrets have already been revealed. Think of the needlessness of prophets foretelling events that have already come to pass. These gifts and activities would have already served their purpose, and to cling on to them still on that day would be pathetically redundant. It would be like, as one preacher said, standing on the surface of the sun and turning on a flashlight.

How underwhelming the light of the flashlight would be. The priorities that Corinth valued to the neglect of love were things that will ultimately be flashlights on the sun, temporary, obsolete vestiges of a bygone era. But love, that will be just as virtuous and glorious and beautiful on Judgment Day as it was last Thursday. Love is an eternal, unchanging virtue, an everlasting gift.

Why then would we spend our lives bragging about how bright our flashlights are, while neglecting the very virtue that will outlast and outshine these lesser gifts. Paul then compares these temporary sign and revelatory gifts to childhood in verse 11. When I was a child, I spoke thought and reason like a child, but when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

Corinth's infatuation with ostentatious displays of spiritual gifts to the exclusion of love was childish. Next he compares these temporary sign and revelatory gifts to reflections in a mirror. Verse 12, For 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. Reflections in a mirror are incomplete. They're mediated. They're imperfect.

They're temporary. But the real thing is perfect and permanent and real. In the same way, the gifts that mesmerized Corinth were indirect, mediated, and temporary in nature, while the virtue that they were omitting, the virtue of love, was in fact perfect and permanent. Now understand that Paul's point is not to say that the spiritual gifts, even the ones that won't be necessary in glory, are unimportant now.

He's not saying that. In keeping with Paul's analogies, Corinth was very much living in the era of the child. They were living in the era of the mirror. And so those temporary means were necessary, but they were incomplete and imperfect. Paul was not saying that those imperfect spiritual means were unimportant. He was simply exhorting them to remember that since the gifts are temporal and love is eternal, do not neglect the one because you're so enamored with the other. Use the gifts in a manner and with a motive that always keeps judgment day in sight.

Selfless love must always temper our zeal to impress and be impressed. Well this brings us then to Paul's conclusion in verse 13. He says, so now faith, hope, and love abide these three. These three virtues, unlike prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, abide or remain.

In other words, they are eternal. Yet even among these eternal virtues, one rises above the rest, and that is of course love. The greatest of these is love. Notice that Paul doesn't give us an explanation as to why love is superior to faith and hope.

Evidently, the superiority of love is self-evident. I suppose we could speculate a bit and observe the fact that faith and hope as we know it now will be somewhat transformed in glory. Only God's children who believe God and rest confidently in Him now will need to believe Him and rest confidently in Him for all eternity, but faith will be different then because it will be grounded in sight to a degree that it is not at the present. Hope is the same. We hope in God now and our hope will forever be in God, but the hope we have then, a hope that we'll be able to see its object, is not the same kind of hope. It's not the same degree of hope that we experience now.

So both faith and hope will go through some measure of transformation, but love is the greatest because love as we know it now and as we know it then is grounded in the nature of God as revealed in Christ, and this will never alter. It will never become redundant. It will never grow obsolete.

It will never become irrelevant. Love is permanent. As we close tonight, I simply want to exhort you not to let your familiarity with this text instill in you a dismissiveness of the principles contained here.

Church, love is going to be with us forever. We need to be learning how to love. We need to be pursuing the traits of love because they won't come naturally on our own if we don't conscientiously pursue them. And in pursuing these qualities, we need to guard against the very human tendency of abstraction. As long as I can keep virtue in the abstract, I can insulate myself from conviction and failure. As long as I can think about love generically and avoid Paul's pointed specifics, I can continue to neglect the virtue of love.

You see, it's only when it becomes concretely measurable that we can begin developing a virtue such as love as a consistent trait in our personal lives. It's easy to answer yes to a general question like, do I love others? It's much more difficult to answer yes to a specific question like, was I kind to my wife this morning? Did I suffer long with that employee yesterday? How much attention did I draw to myself in that meeting last week? The poignancy is in the specificity of it. So don't let yourself off the hook by keeping everything vague and general.

But then lastly, I must add this. If you pursue these qualities honestly and deliberately, you will fail. You won't measure up.

You can't measure up this side of glory. You will not live up to them with any degree of perfection or consistency. So does that mean quit trying?

No. God didn't include 1 Corinthians 13 in His Word so that we could just read it and then feel terrible about how far short we fall of it. He intends us to pursue these virtues, but He also intends our failure in living up to these virtues to drive us to the only one who has ever lived up to them perfectly. And that is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love. And Scripture says that He became self-centered, egotistical, arrogant, envious, narcissistic, cruel. All the things that we are, He became so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He assumed the place of the condemned unloving Corinthian in order to save the elect at Corinth. He assumes the place of the condemned unloving member of Grace Church to save the elect of Grace Church. So read 1 Corinthians 13 and conform your character to its demands, but when you fail, don't let the Christian look to Christ, who is the pristine model of selfless love.

Let's pray. No greater love has anyone than this, than that he lay down his life for his friend. But Lord, we can't even seem to do martyrdom right, because even in that, we are consumed with our reputation and legacy and praise. But you, you have not only died, you even suffered the wrath of God in your death, and you did it in our place. We cannot appreciate that measure of love as we should, but Lord, teach us to. And as you teach us to be astounded at your great love, would you enable us to demonstrate that love to others that the world might look and see and know that we are yours because of the love we have for each other. Father, we love you only because you first loved us, and we thank you for that love in Jesus' name. Amen.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-05 10:54:09 / 2022-12-05 11:06:49 / 13

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