Love: The Most Excellent Way

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”  Galatians 5:22-23

It’s no mistake that Paul places love first in the list of the fruit of the Spirit because from love flows everything else.  Love is foundational to our faith.  A lawyer once asked Jesus what the most important commandment was.  Jesus said it was first to love God with all of who we are and secondly to love others.  In 1 John 4:8 we are reminded that “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

In our study of this first fruit of the Spirit, we’ll look at what is perhaps the most famous passage on love in the whole Bible.  I am talking about the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  Even people who are not regular church-goers might recognize this passage from the last wedding they attended.  We will consider just the first paragraph of this passage:

And I will show you a still more excellent way.  1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And 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. 3If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3

Paul shows the “still more excellent way” of love.  And how does he convince us of the superiority of love?  He makes a series of comparisons.  He describes some things that might really impress the Corinthians and then says — love is even better.

#1 Love is better than extraordinary spiritual gifts.

One chapter earlier Paul began to write about the spiritual gifts which he continues into the following chapter, chapter 14.  So in the middle of his explanation of spiritual gifts comes this teaching on love in chapter 13.  He says if speak in the tongues of men and of angels or if I have prophetic powers, but if I am missing love, I am nothing.  The gifts of tongues and prophecy are what we would call extraordinary spiritual gifts.  There continues to be healthy debate in the church today around the exact nature of these gifts and whether or not they continue today.  Regardless of what your view might be on these gifts, Paul says love is better.

This may have been very shocking for the Corinthians to hear.  It would seem that many in that church were seeking these extraordinary spiritual gifts as a way to validate or legitimize their faith.  They wanted to experience things like speaking in tongues as a sure way to know that their faith was real.  This is still taught in some churches today.  They teach that you aren’t truly saved and you have no real assurance of salvation until you can speak in tongues.  This is an outrageous lie!   For one, consider the fact that many unsaved people in the Bible experienced the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.  Judas was given the gift of healing the sick and casting out demons.  Balaam, who is condemned in both the Old and New Testment as a wicked man, was given the gift of prophecy.  The disgraced King Saul was known to be “among the prophets.”  The magicians in Egypt performed miraculous signs before Pharaoh.

So Paul is saying that it is not the extraordinary spiritual gifts that legitimize our faith.  But what does?  Love!  Love is how I know that I have really and truly received the Holy Spirit and have been born again.

Jonathan Edwards puts it this way:

“The Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, and when the former enters the soul, love also enters with it. God is love, and he that has God dwelling in him by his Spirit, will have love dwelling in him also.”  (Charity and It’s Fruits, p.7)

Love is how I know that my faith is real.  Even the most extraordinary spiritual gift is not testimony to the validity of my faith.  Love is the true sign that I belong to him.

#2 Love is better than extraordinary knowledge.   

Not only is love better than extraordinary spiritual gifts, Paul says that it is better than extraordinary knowledge.  He says if he were capable of understanding all mysteries and had all knowledge, but lacked love, he would still be nothing.

This hits a little closer to home, doesn’t it?  In our reformed evangelical community, we are more likely to lean on our knowledge and doctrine rather than something like speaking in tongues.  We can be easily dazzled by those we believe to be smarter than ourselves.  We assume if they know their Bible, that they must be spiritually mature.  But Paul says here it is possible to have all knowledge and still be nothing without love.

I love what John Piper says in his latest book, Expository Exultation: “The Devil can do exposition.”  He could easily sign our doctrinal statements.  He could stand up on a Sunday morning and present a true teaching from the Bible.  He hates it, but he acknowledges that it is true.  What is he missing?  Love!  This is why love is superior even to all knowledge.

#3 Love is better than extraordinary faith.

Paul takes it a step further.  He says he can have all faith so as to remove mountains and still be nothing.  This is clearly a reference to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 17 where he says that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move a mountain.  I have faith.  I have seen God do some remarkable things.  I’ve never seen a mountain move but I am nevertheless convinced of God’s power.  But Paul says you can have faith to move mountains but still be nothing without love.

Now, Paul is not contradicting what he says elsewhere in the Bible about salvation coming through faith and faith alone.  It’s not that faith and love is what God requires of us.  As Paul says in Romans 1:16 the gospel “is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes.”  Faith alone is a means by which we lay hold of our salvation.

Martin Luther put it this way “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”   True faith is always accompanied with other things.  This is why James says “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17).”  So true faith will give evidence of its’ existence through works and through love.

#4 Love is better than extraordinary spiritual performances.

I can give away all that I have so that I have nothing left to give but myself.  Yet without love I gain nothing.  I can give myself up to deliver my body to be burned and still get nowhere.  There is no deed that I can ever do to make up for the lack of love in my heart.

How can we cultivate love in our lives?

Three thoughts:

-1- We must have a growing experience of God’s love for us.

-2- We must fan the flames of our love for God.

-3- We seek to love others with the love we ourselves have received.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you think of some stories or passages of Scripture that illustrate the importance of love?
  2. In the sermon Pastor Billy made the case that some of the Corinthians were seeking the extraordinary spiritual gifts (like speaking in tongues) to prove or validate their faith.  For instance, they thought that if they could speak in tongues, their faith must be genuine.  How would you challenge someone who held this view today?
  3. Some people look to their ability to speak in tongues to prove their spiritual maturity (verse 1).  Others look to their knowledge of the Bible (verse 2).  Still others might look to the great things they have done (verse 3).  Where are you tempted to look to measure your spiritual maturity?
  4. Paul says that love is the real test of spiritual maturity.   Why do you think Paul points to love?
  5. Why do you think real love as the Bible defines it is such a rare thing in the world and even in the church?
  6. In what areas of your life do you need to cultivate a more loving attitude?
  7. How would your life be different if it were ruled by love for God and love for others?
  8. What is one thing you want to be sure to remember from this passage?


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