Love: the Greatest Christian Virtue
Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked; thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
In Christ Jesus, who has loved us and now calls upon us to love, dear fellow redeemed:
We are confessional Lutherans, who belong to a confessional Lutheran church and a confessional Lutheran church body. We place a good deal of emphasis upon true doctrine and faithfulness to the Bible. That is only proper, seeing that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God. We are convinced that the Apostle Paul’s claim is true: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Therefore we are not ashamed to take our stand on Scripture, even when others might mock us or fail to stand with us, for we believe it to be “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
It might surprise us, then, to read the apostle Paul’s evaluation and conclusions regarding the greatest of Christian virtues. With all of Scripture’s emphasis on maintaining the truth and avoiding error, we might easily conclude that God would value a keen mind and faithfulness to His word above all. While a keen mind is indeed a gift from God and faithfulness to the word is certainly one of God’s expectations, our text is very clear when it states, “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The very heart of the gospel message is the love of God for us poor sinners, and its ultimate object is to instill love within our hearts. My dear friends, let us consider today LOVE—THE GREATEST CHRISTIAN VIRTUE! Join me as we consider love’s vital importance, love’s actual meaning, and, finally, love’s enduring nature!
I. Let’s Consider Importance of Love.
Paul’s words, as he opens this text, are powerful and perhaps even a bit shocking. He writes, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.” We value good preaching. We value individuals who have a keen insight into the truths of God’s word. We value faith, for after all we are saved by faith and are impressed by those who in faith accomplish great things. We value generosity. We value a willingness to sacrifice for God and His kingdom. We value all these things, and we see these things here at Immanuel in the lives of many of you sitting here today. But how vital and important is love in comparison with these other virtues? Paul tells us that if we could preach a sermon as well as the angel Gabriel, but did not have love, we would be like an empty, clanging gong! If we had an absolutely perfect understanding of all of the doctrines of Scripture and could explain them without hesitation, and if we had great faith and accomplished great goals for God and His kingdom, and yet had no love, we would be nothing. If we were to give all we owned to help the poor; if we would sacrifice our lives for our faith—and yet had no love, none of these other things would matter, nor would they do us any good. That is how important love is, for love is the greatest Christian virtue!
I have known any number of very intelligent men, who had an excellent grasp of Scripture and were very knowledgeable in biblical languages and Bible history, and yet were unsuccessful in the pastoral ministry. They simply failed to love the people they were called to serve. I recall one gentleman, in particular, who was called to serve a small-town parish. I would never question his faith, and his zeal was evident in everything he did. However, he ministry lacked love. He informed me one day that he had solved the problem of keeping the sanctuary of the church clean. If he found a dead fly on the altar, instead of removing it himself, he would leave it there to test the dedication of the ladies who volunteered to clean. If the fly remained on the altar for more than one week, he would visit the volunteer for that week and suggest that she had failed in her duties, and thereby demonstrated a lack of proper concern for God and His house. In short order, he claimed, there were no dead flies to be found in the church. Unfortunately, several ladies were also seldom to be found in the church thereafter!
My dear friends, it is important today that we know our Scriptures well, for most people within our community or society lack solid biblical knowledge. The souls of many people depend upon hearing the truths we can share. At the same time, however, we must be careful that we share those truths in love. Paul urges us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It is very possible to tell the truth, but to do so in such a way that we turn off everyone who is listening.
In our week day evening Bible Studies we are considering how we might better share our faith. This past week, one of our members reported to the group on the first section of C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. He reported that Lewis compared the natural state of man to being in a hallway surrounded by doors opening up to all the different world religions. He said that Lewis encouraged those of us who have entered the door leading to biblical Christianity, and who have come to know, understand, and rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ, to treat others who have not yet entered that door with respect and honor. Not that you would respect or honor their false religious convictions, but that in love you would recognize them to be the objects of God’s love in Christ. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, including all of those people who believe in false gods and profess false religions. Let us, therefore, recognize how important it is for us to practice the virtue of Christian love, as we reach out to others with the very important truths of the Bible. Yes, LOVE IS THE GREATEST CHRISTIAN VIRTUE! It is vitally important!
II. The True Meaning of Love.
Let us consider, secondly, it’s actual meaning! Love is a virtue, which is greatly misunderstood in our day. Many young men believe they know all about love, yet their actions reveal that lust rather than love motivates them, and this is sin. Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5: 28). Many young women are seeking love, but their minds are filled with all sorts of romantic ideas, that in the end are completely self-serving and do not resemble at all the love about which Paul speaks in our text. Paul writes concerning love’s actual meaning: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked; thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Love is an active virtue. It controls what we speak. It guides us as we make decisions. It moves us to respond in ways that will uplift and encourage. Love is not quick-tempered and hurtful. Love does not give way to jealousy. Love does not seek to be the center of attention, nor does it serve itself. Love puts the best construction on everything, even when the situation does not look promising. It rejoices in those things that are true and good. It stands the test of time, even when times get rough and demands are made. Love strives to look to the future with confidence and with the help of God, the strength of our Savior, and the indwelling power of the Spirit—it does not fail!
Is this type of love a part of our lives? Is this the virtue for which we strive? I must confess with shame that all too often my life suffers from a lack of such love. How about you?
Dear children, has God made you fast, or smart, or musically inclined? Do you brag about your gifts, and then laugh at children who are slow, who struggle with their studies, or who always hit the wrong note with their instruments? To do that is to fail to love. Your God wants you, out of love for Jesus, to encourage your friends, relations, neighbors and classmates, so that together you may all glorify your Savior.
Dear young adults do your words and actions reveal a careful concern about the feelings and well-being of others, or do they betray a rudeness towards others and an overwhelming concern for self? If the latter is typical of your life, you are falling into sin and need by the grace of God to repent of such sins.
Dear adults, do our words and actions demonstrate that we are willing to bear all things and endure personal sacrifices for the benefit and welfare of others? Or do they reveal our quick tempers and our willingness to overlook the truth, especially if the truth does not flatter our egos?
Love; true biblical love is a source of strength and healing, joy and confidence. It proceeds directly from our faith, which is based upon the grace—that undeserved love of God for us. If God could and indeed did love us in spite of our sins; if God sent His Son, which He did, to die for us to redeem us from sin, death, and hell—then in faith we will want to respond both to our God and each other with love. Yes, LOVE IS THE GREATEST CHRISTIAN VIRTUE!
III. The True Nature of Love (It’s Enduring Forever)
Consider, finally, love’s enduring nature! Paul writes, “Whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
God revealed His truths to us human being through the prophecies of the ancient biblical writers. God has given various gifts to individuals within His church down through the ages—the ability to speak in foreign languages, the knowledge of Christian doctrine. But when the end of time arrives, and we enter into eternal bliss those prophecies will no longer be needed, and those gifts will cease to exist. We will enter the perfection of heaven, where only perfect love will abide.
Here in this world, we see the changes that occur as children grow to adulthood. Childhood can be such a self-centered time, but we hope and pray that as we mature our outlook will be sanctified by the Spirit, and we will grow in love. We do not yet understand everything perfectly. We know spiritual matters only in part and can view God only as through a darkened mirror. But the time will come in view of God’s grace and blessing, that we will know our God perfectly, even as He knows us. His love will encompass us and flow through us even as it once did in Eden before our first parents’ fall.
So, my dear friends, while both faith and hope will dissolve in the face of God’s divine presence, love will remain. That is why LOVE IS THE GREATEST CHRISTIAN VIRTUE! Amen.
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