During the last half of the nineteenth century, an evangelist by the name of Henry Drummond wrote a sermon called “The Greatest Thing in the World.” It was about love. It was based on I Corinthians 13, which is certainly one of the greatest chapters in the Bible. If people know anything about 1 Corinthians, this is probably the chapter that comes to mind. This chapter teaches that love is greater than faith, that love is greater than hope.
When I think about this chapter–and particularly that verse with which the chapter ends: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love–” I think of a sermon that the theologian Emile Bruner preached some years ago, entitled, “Faith, Hope and Love.” Bruner lived in Zurich, Switzerland, and often preached in the church in that city. Stories of his sermons circulated throughout Switzerland. In his sermon he wrote that all of us have a variety of problems with which we deal, and among those there are three chief problems. First, we have a problem with our past. How do we get rid of the sin and the punishment due us for all the sins of our past? Secondly, we have a problem in the future, which is death. How do we deal with that? Finally, we have a problem in the present, which is how to get along with one another.
The question is how are we to deal with these three problems–the problem of the past, the problem of the future, and the problem of the present? After posing these questions Bruner turned to 1 Corinthians 13 and said, “God’s answer to our problem in the past–that problem of sin–is faith in the work of Jesus Christ who died for our sin in order that our guilt might be removed. The answer of God to our problem in the future–that problem of death–is the Christian hope that though we die, yet through the power of Jesus Christ we shall live again. God’s answer to our problem in the present–the problem of alienation and estrangement–is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ that works through us.”
I suppose it is because of this problem with the present that this chapter has been so popular. We have a problem in the past, but it is easy not to be concerned about the past. We forget about that. And we tend to push future problems from our minds. But we cannot escape our problems in the present. Every day–things we do, places we go, people to whom we speak, what we try to accomplish, what we fail to accomplish–all of these can bring our problems freshly to our minds. So Christian people, down through the ages, have turned back to this great chapter of the Apostle Paul and have read it as an inspired expression of the kind of life that we should each exemplify, and of what should be seen in a dramatic way in the Church of Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 13 is a difficult chapter to preach on because it is so profound, but it is not hard to analyze. The preface to this chapter is a carry-over from chapter 12: “And now I will show you the most excellent way….” Paul then goes on to make three points. First, he talks about the importance of love in verses 1 through 3. Secondly, he talks about the nature of love in verses 4 through 7. Finally he talks about the permanence of love in verses 8 through 12. He wraps it all up with the summary that proclaims, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).