Love – The More Excellent Way
By Alexander Strauch
“...I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).
Dwight L. Moody, the Billy Graham of the 19th century, tells of his life-changing encounter with the doctrine of love. It began when Henry Moorhouse, a twenty-seven-year-old British evangelist, preached at Moody’s church for a week. To everyone’s surprise, Moorhouse preached seven sermons in a row on John 3:16. To prove that “God so loved the world” he preached on the love of God from Genesis to Revelation. Moody’s son records his father’s description of the impact of Moorhouse’s preaching:
“For six nights he had preached on this one text. The seventh night came, and he went into the pulpit. Every eye was upon him. He said, ‘Beloved friends, I have been hunting all day for a new text, but I cannot find anything so good as the old one; so we will go back to the third chapter of John and the sixteenth verse,’ and he preached the seventh sermon from those wonderful words, ‘God so loved the world.’ I remember the end of that sermon: ‘My friends,’ he said, ‘for a whole week I have been trying to tell you how much God loves you, but I cannot do it with this poor stammering tongue. If I could borrow Jacob’s ladder and climb up into heaven and ask Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Almighty, to tell me how much love the Father has for the world, all he could say would be: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”’”
Unable to hold back the tears as Moorhouse preached on the love of God in sending His only Son to die for sinners, Moody confessed: “I never knew up to that time that God loved us so much. This heart of mine began to thaw out; I could not keep back the tears. It was like news from a far country: I just drank it in. So did the crowded congregation. I tell you there is one thing that draws above everything else in the world, and that is love.”
As a result of Moorhouse’s influence, Moody began to study the doctrine of love. This changed his life and his preaching. He later said: “I took up that word ‘Love,’ and I do not know how many weeks I spent in studying the passages in which it occurs, till at last I could not help loving people! I had been feeding on Love so long that I was anxious to do everybody good I came in contact with.
“I got full of it. It ran out my fingers. You take up the subject of love in the Bible! You will get so full of it that all you have got to do is to open your lips, and a flood of the Love of God flows out upon the meeting. There is no use trying to do church work without love. A doctor, a lawyer, may do good work without love, but God’s work cannot be done without love.”
D. L. Moody could not have been more biblically correct when he said, “God’s work cannot be done without love.” This is the message of the most famous love chapter in the Bible, First Corinthians 13.
The More Excellent Way
It is universally agreed that Paul is the greatest pioneer missionary, scholar, teacher, evangelist, and hero of the faith. Yet he knew that all his brilliance, multi-giftedness, and sacrificial dedication meant nothing if it were not bathed fully in love. No other New Testament writer spoke more about love or provided more practical leadership examples of love than Paul. Through the lifetime ministry and letters of Paul, God gave His church, and all its leaders and teachers, a model of loving leadership. In all of Scripture nowhere is it more clearly and forcefully stated that love is indispensable to leading and teaching than in First Corinthians 13.
Paul wrote this passage in response to disruptions that arose in the church of Corinth regarding spiritual gifts. To correct the church’s misguided views of spiritual gifts and its overall self-destructive way of behaving, Paul promised to show the Corinthians a “more excellent way” to live (12:31). He wanted them to know there is something far more important than supernatural gifts, something that transcends the most excellent gifts and performances, something that if absent will render all gifts worthless. That something is love.
The love Paul speaks of is primarily love for fellow believers. This love was defined by Jesus Christ when He gave a new commandment to all His disciples to love one another “just as” He had loved them (John 13:34-35). This love gives itself in total self-sacrifice for the good of others. Jesus exemplified this new pattern of love by humbly washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:4-17) and selflessly sacrificing His life on the Cross for others. John puts it this way, “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers [and sisters]” (1 John 3:16).
To silence any doubt that love is the “more excellent way” and to jolt the Corinthians’ wrong thinking about spiritual gifts, Paul uses all his rhetorical skills to communicate with eloquence and force that love is the “more excellent way.” He writes, “And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 12:31 – 13:3).
Let’s take a close look at this passage to gain a clearer understanding of what it says.
Without Love, Even Heavenly Language Sounds Annoying
The purpose of spiritual gifts was to build up and unite the body. Yet the Corinthians’ enthusiasm over the supernatural gift of tongues caused pride and disorder in the church body. The independent-minded Corinthians used their gifts for personal ego gratification, which caused division within the body.
To correct this distortion, Paul captures their attention by hypothetically picturing himself as “the world’s most gifted tongues-speaker,” being able to speak eloquently in “the tongues of men and of angels.” Such a gift would have greatly impressed the Corinthians. But Paul declares that even if he had such an exalted experience because of heavenly giftedness, he would be “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” – that is, an annoying, loud, empty noise – if he did not act in love, as described in verses 4 through 7. The beauty of his miraculous speech would be distorted without the grace of love.
Paul is not merely saying that his speech would a clamorous noise, but that he himself would be a hollow, annoying sound. He would not be what he should be; he would be seriously deficient in his Christian life and not living according to the “more excellent way.” The reason Paul would be an empty noise is that he would be a loveless tongues-speaker. He would be using the gift of tongues to glorify and serve himself rather than to serve or build up the church, which is the goal of love (1 Cor. 8:1)….
Without Love, Knowing It All Helps No One
Paul next speaks of himself hypothetically as possessing the gift of prophecy in such full measure that he would know “all” mysteries and “all” knowledge. He would thus have the theological answers to all the mysteries of God that people crave to understand. He would be a walking, talking encyclopedia of knowledge.
Some people love to display their intellect and theological superiority. They are proud of their learning and speaking ability. Such pride had become a serious problem at Corinth. Some people were arrogant because of their knowledge and puffed up with self-importance. They wanted recognition for their prophetic insights and superior wisdom, and they looked down on others with lesser knowledge and giftedness. As a result of their arrogant misuse of knowledge, they harmed the church body (1 Cor. 8).
Knowledge without love inflates the ego and deceives the mind. It can lead to intellectual snobbery, an attitude of mockery and making fun of others’ views, a spirit of contempt for those with lesser knowledge, and a demeaning way of dealing with people who disagree.
...So Paul states that even if he had all-encompassing knowledge, apart from love he would be “nothing” – a spiritual zero. He insists that a loveless prophet, a loveless scholar, or a loveless teacher is worthless to the discipling of God’s people. ...Only with love can knowledge be used according to the “more excellent way” to protect and build up the church (Eph. 4:11-16).
Without Love, Risk-Taking Faith Is Worthless
The third spiritual gift Paul presents is faith (1 Cor. 12:9). He imagines himself possessing the most excellent gift of faith imaginable, “so as to remove mountains.” Like Abraham, he would believe God for the impossible and actively trust Him to do miraculous works. He would be a powerhouse of prayer, a spiritual risk taker, a virtual George Müller, greatly admired and sought by all. He would be a courageous David racing out in battle to kill the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Sam. 17:32). But even with such a powerful spiritual gift, if love is not present, the gift becomes a means of glorifying oneself rather than serving others.
...No wonder Paul declares so emphatically that such a powerful gift without love is worth “nothing.” Paul means what he says. Without love, he knew he would be spiritually fruitless rather than a spiritual powerhouse.
Without love, the Christian leader is on the wrong path of the Christian life. But when faith is combined with love, the body of Christ is built up and advances forward on the royal road, the “more excellent way” of love.
Without Love, Giving All One’s Money to the Poor Is Unprofitable
Paul next considers giving away all his worldly possessions…to feed the poor. He gives it all and reduces himself to abject poverty. Surely this is the ultimate, altruistic action. Wouldn’t such giving be, by definition, love? Not necessarily. Paul makes it clear that the most extraordinary, self-sacrificing action can be done without love.
Self-sacrifice can be done for self-interest as illustrated by Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. This couple sold their property and gave money to the apostles to distribute to the poor (Acts 5:1-11). However, they gave without love. They were not really concerned about the needs of the poor, but about themselves. They did not love God or their neighbor. Like the trumpet-blowing Pharisees whom Jesus condemned in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-5), Ananias and Sapphira gave in order to enhance their personal prestige in the sight of the church. They gave to receive the praise of people. Their love was hypocritical love (Rom. 12:9). They gave to the poor, but without the true, inner motivating power of love, so their giving profited them nothing. Although they gave money to the poor, they were spiritually bankrupt, and God rejected their gift.
Paul says, therefore, that if he gave all he owned to the poor but did so apart from love, it would be unproductive, useless, worthless, and of no eternal value. Even after such sacrifice he would be a spiritually bankrupt man. He would not be humbly serving others, but would be serving himself.
In contrast, when one is moved by love to meet the needs of the poor, giving all of one’s possessions profits everyone. Such is the love that motivated the Lord Jesus Christ to give up the riches of heaven and become poor for us. For that reason, “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). Jesus gave according to the “more excellent way.”
Without Love, the Ultimate Sacrifice of One’s Life Is Pointless
Finally, Paul envisions himself as the ultimate hero of the faith. In an act of supreme sacrifice, he surrenders his body to the painful flames of martyrdom for Christ. Such a sacrifice would certainly inspire other believers to faithfulness, greater dedication, and courage. It would provide a powerful witness of the Gospel to nonbelievers. But Paul warns us that even suffering and martyrdom for Christ can be done for the wrong reasons.
Some people take great pride in suffering for their faith. For others, it is worth dying in order to be remembered as a hero of the faith. In the early years of Christianity, becoming a martyr became at times a means of achieving great fame. One historian comments, “It soon was clear to all Christians that extraordinary fame and honor attached to martyrdom.” …Recognizing the potential for such adulation, Paul finds it necessary to say that offering up one’s life apart from love is a worthless sacrifice, an empty religious show, a hollow performance. When it is motivated by the welfare of others and the glory of Christ, however, martyrdom becomes the ultimate sacrifice of love.
Jonathan Edwards, in his book Charity and Its Fruits, summarizes God’s perspective on love and self-sacrifice this way: “[God] delights in little things when they spring from sincere love to Himself. A cup of cold water given to a disciple in sincere love is worth more in God’s sight than all one’s goods given to feed the poor, yea, than the wealth of a kingdom given away, or a body offered up in the flames, without love.”
Only when martyrdom is the result of love for God and others is it the “more excellent way.”
…Without love, our most extraordinary gifts and highest achievements are ultimately fruitless to the church and before God. In Paul’s way of thinking, nothing has lasting spiritual value unless it springs from love.
– Taken from The 15 Descriptions of Love: Applied to All Christian Leaders & Teachers by Alexander Strauch, pp. 9-18. Copyright © 2018 by Alexander Strauch. Used by permission of Lewis and Roth Publishers. lewisandroth.com