The Greatest Thing in the World
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
This week’s lessons challenge us to ponder the depth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.
In the context of the entire book of 1 Corinthians, Paul has repeatedly set love over against the things that the Corinthians thought were most important. He contrasts love with the supernatural gifts. He also contrasts love with the idea of wisdom. In verse 3, Paul contrasts love with doing good deeds, even to the point of becoming a martyr for the sake of something good. He says you can be famous for doing extraordinarily good works, but if you have not love, it profits you nothing.
It is good to have knowledge of spiritual things, of course. Paul is not saying that knowledge is unimportant. But he is saying if you possess that knowledge without love, it is worthless. What about tongues and prophecies and healings? Recall our analysis of chapter 12 and the different points Paul makes concerning tongues. When he gets to the end of his argument, he tells them not to forbid the speaking of tongues. This is Paul’s way of saying tongues are important in their place, but if you have such gifts without love, you do not actually have the Holy Spirit in your life, and, therefore, speaking in tongues counts for nothing.
Does it mean that we should not do charitable works? Aren’t good works important? Yes, these are important. The Bible says you have been ordained by God to do good works if you are a Christian. But Paul says it is possible to do those things and not be born again; therefore, he is right when he says if you do not have love, you can do all those things and it will count for absolutely nothing, because it does not spring from the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.
The American Puritans were committed to disabusing men and women of any false confidence they might have in spiritual things. They lived in a culture where people were all too ready to believe that their spiritual priorities were all in order. So, the Puritans spent much of their time disabusing their listeners of the idea that just because they knew certain things, just because they could be models of piety, they were therefore in a right relationship to God. They said, “You can exhibit all those supernatural gifts and be a model in your community yet still be lost and go to hell.”
One might say at this point, “If it is possible to know all mysteries and even to do miracles like the early apostles did, and if it is possible to be so noteworthy for good deeds that under certain circumstances I might even be willing to die for my faith – if it is possible to do all of this and still be lost – how can I know that I am saved?” You can know you are saved if the love of Jesus Christ is found within your heart. If you can say, “Regardless of my failure to understand spiritual things properly, regardless of my failure in the area of charity, I really do love Jesus and I want to serve him. By his grace, I find that I am also able to love the brethren,” you can know that God has done something supernatural in you and you can be assured you are saved.
In 1 John, the Apostle John wrote to a group of believers who were unsettled by competing spiritual priorities. Particular people had come into their midst who seemed to be more worldly-wise than the members of this early church. These outsiders said, “What you have come to believe is so rudimentary. In order to be spiritual you have to go on from those basic beliefs to a greater level of knowledge.” So the Christians to whom John was writing began to question themselves. They thought, “Maybe we haven’t understood things perfectly enough. Maybe we’re still outside the kingdom and we need to delve a little deeper into knowledge in order that we might enter in.”
In response to their thoughts, the Apostle John gave them three tests by which they could know if they were Christians. The first test asked them who they believed Jesus was, because those who do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God are not Christians, regardless of whether or not they are obeying his commandments. John’s second test forced them to consider whether they were striving to obey the commands of Jesus Christ. The final test was about the preeminence of love. John wanted them to think about the depth of their love for the Lord, and whether or not they were really loving one another.
Why are knowledge and good deeds worthless without love?
How do we know if we are saved?
What three tests did John give to help believers know if they are saved?
Study John’s tests mentioned in today’s lesson in 1 John 2:3-11, and think about your own answers.