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The Greatest Thing in the World
I tried following the example of a missionary I once heard about, but I did not get very far.
This missionary decided that every day of her life she would read the four verses from our New Testament passage for today, which list the sixteen characteristics of love. For the word ‘love’ she would substitute her own name and see how far she could get with the list. The moment she reached a characteristic that she knew was not true of her she had to stop. Her aim was, one day, to get through the whole list.
The four verses (1 Corinthians 13:4–7) start with ‘love is patient’. So I substituted my own name and started with ‘Nicky is patient’. I do not think it will come as any surprise to those who know me well that I am afraid I had to stop there!
The great evangelist D.L. Moody was once staying with a party of friends in England. On Sunday evening as they sat around the fire they asked Henry Drummond, who was one of the party, to read and expound on a portion of Scripture. After some urging Henry drew a small New Testament from his hip pocket, opened it at 1 Corinthians 13 and began to speak on the subject of love. D.L. Moody wrote in response:
‘It seemed to me that I had never heard anything so beautiful. The one great need in our Christian life is love, more love to God and to each other. Would that we could all move into that love chapter and live there.’
Henry Drummond begins his book, The Greatest Thing in the World, ‘Everyone has asked himself the great question of antiquity as of the modern world: What is the summum bonum – the supreme good? You have life before you. Once only you can live it. What is the noblest object of desire, the supreme gift to covet? In the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul takes us to Christianity at its source; and there we see ‘the greatest of these is love.’
God is love. We deceive ourselves if we think we can love God and hate other people (1 John 4:20). Love should be number one on our spiritual priority list. It should be the main thing in our lives. Love is, indeed, the greatest thing in the world. It is, in the words of St Paul, ‘the most excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12:31).
1. Source of lovePsalm 100:1-5
The psalmist exhorts us to ‘Shout for joy to the Lord … Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs’ (vv.1–2). He tells us to ‘enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name’ (v.4). ‘Enter with the password: “Thank you!” (v.4, MSG). ‘Be thankful and say so to Him’ (v.4, AMP).
Why? What is the reason for such joy, thanksgiving and praise? The psalmist gives the answer in verse 5: ‘For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.’
God is good and he loves us. This pretty much sums up the message of the entire Bible. It is his love that is the source of our love. ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). We need to understand that he loves us and accept his love.
Lord, we thank and praise you for your amazing love for us. Thank you that you made us and we are yours. We are your people. Thank you that you are good and faithful. Thank you that your love endures forever. Thank you that your love is the source of our love for you and for others.
2. Characteristics of love1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13
Henry Drummond writes, ‘Paul ... has given us the most wonderful and original account extant of the summum bonum. We may divide it into three parts. In the beginning of the short chapter we have love contrasted; in the heart of it, we have love analysed; towards the end we have love defended as the supreme gift.’
- Love contrasted
The description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most beautiful and best-known passages in the entire New Testament. Paul places it in the middle of his teaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ.
He lists nine gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:27–30. At the start of the chapter he also listed nine gifts. There is an overlap of five. So thirteen gifts are listed in all. Paul has been describing the importance of these gifts for the body of Christ to function fully.
He is not diminishing the importance of gifts by talking about love. Rather, he is saying ‘gifts are very important, but love is even more important.’ We desperately need the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be properly exercised in the church today. However, as in Paul’s day, love is even more important. It is ‘the most excellent way’ (v.31).
In fact, Paul says if we have all the gifts and give everything we have to the poor and die the death of a martyr but we have not love, we gain nothing (13:1–3). He is not criticising the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy (vv.1–2), anymore than he is criticising philanthropists or martyrs (v.3). He is simply stressing the importance that everything we do should be done in love.
- Love analysed
He then lists sixteen characteristics of love. Every time I read this list I feel deeply challenged. I know how far short of all these characteristics – not just the first one! – I so often fall. Once again, I love The Message translation:
‘Love never gives up [‘Love is patient’, NIV]
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”,
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end’ (vv.4–7, MSG).
- Love defended
Everything else is temporary. Love is permanent. All the gifts of the Spirit will one day be unnecessary. Some have argued that what Paul is saying here is that the gifts of the Spirit would cease at some point in history. In fact, he is saying the very opposite. He is saying that the gifts of the Spirit will not cease until we see Jesus face to face (v.12). As yet we do not see Jesus face to face and therefore the gifts of the Spirit have not yet ceased. We still need them desperately.
But, the greatest thing in the world is love. Faith, hope and love are a great trilogy, but ‘the greatest of these is love’ (v.13).
Lord, we desperately need this kind of love in the church today. Help me to love more like the way St Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Help us as a church to be even more loving. May we make our love for you, and for each other, the highest priority of our lives.
3. Supremacy of loveSong of Songs 5:1-8:14
The word ‘love’ or ‘lover’ appears over and over again in the Song of Songs. It is all about romantic love between a lover and his beloved. They are overcome by love for one another. The beloved says that she is ‘heartsick with love for him’ (5:8, MSG).
There is a strong element of physical and erotic love. Both describe the physical beauty of their marriage partner (5:10–16; 6:4–9). As one commentator put it, ‘The Song of Songs is a long, lyric poem about erotic love and sexual desire – a poem in which the body is the object of desire and source of delight, and lovers engage in a continual game of seeking and finding in anticipation, enjoyment and assurance of sexual gratification.’
But their love goes way beyond the physical and the erotic. The beloved says, ‘This is my lover, this is my friend’ (5:16c). There is nothing better than having someone as your marriage partner, your lover and your best friend.
In yesterday’s passage the lover says, ‘You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water’ (4:15). Each human being has a never ending flow of beautiful and wonderful resources. One should never run out of conversation. There is a never ending fountain.
As the Song of Songs draws to an end, there is a beautiful description of the never ending quality of love: ‘Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave’ (8:6). And now, after the resurrection of Jesus, we can say that love is even stronger than death. ‘Love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8).
The fire of love stops at nothing –
it sweeps everything before it.
Flood waters can’t drown love,
torrents of rain can’t put it out.
Love can’t be bought, love can’t be sold –
it’s not to be found in the marketplace’ (Song of Songs 8:6c–7, MSG).
Lord, thank you that love is stronger than death. Thank you that many waters cannot quench love, and rivers cannot wash it away. Thank you that nothing in the world compares to the importance of love. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love it would be utterly scorned.
Thank you, Lord, that this is only a picture of how our love for you is meant to be. Thank you that this love should be the highest priority in our lives. Thank you that your love cannot be bought or earned, but only gratefully and humbly received. Thank you that you love the world so much that you gave your only Son for us (John 3:16).
1 Corinthians 13:1–7
These incredible verses need to be read constantly in homes, schools, businesses … everywhere. They should be studied, learnt and practised.