It is virtually impossible to exaggerate the importance of love. Nothing is more basic to true spirituality than this singular virtue. Nothing is more central to Christian living. At the very heart of authentic discipleship is love. Without love, we are nothing. When Jesus was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36), He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (v. 37). Christ then added a second commandment that follows directly from the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). In this, Jesus asserted that our love for one another is the identifying badge of discipleship (John 13:35). The Apostle Paul further maintained that such love is the fulfillment of the Law (Gal. 5:14). That is to say, love meets every requirement of the divine standard. It is a debt that can never be repaid, so love must be given continually (Rom. 13:8). In Christian living, love is not a secondary matter — it is a primary matter. Love is never incidental. It is fundamental.
Tragically, this was the very point at which the church in Corinth fell short. By all outward appearances, the Corinthian Christians had everything going for them — strong teaching, lofty knowledge, profound giftedness, dynamic worship. Nevertheless, there was one area in which this early church was glaringly deficient: love. They had everything except love. Thus, in reality, they had nothing.
This underlying problem in the Corinthian church was due primarily to their pride. They were selfcentered, self-focused, and selfabsorbed. As such, they gave undue prominence to certain spiritual gifts while, at the same time, they devalued the more important virtue of love. In particular, the Corinthians elevated the public speaking gifts of preaching and teaching, promoted prophecy and speaking in tongues, and prized knowledge and learning. They treasured flashier, showier gifts that pandered to their emotions and catered to their flesh.
There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with these spiritual gifts. After all, these are gracious gifts given by God Himself. But in the Corinthian church, these gifts no longer served as means of grace to a higher end. Instead, they had become ends in themselves. Addressing this self-consumed arrogance, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13, a profound passage of Scripture that emphatically underscores the priority of love. In the Apostle’s view, love is so basic, so fundamental to the Christian faith, that one has absolutely nothing if there is no love.
As Paul addressed the subject of love, he clearly emphasized that Christian love is the sacrificial selfgiving that seeks the highest good in another. In this, the Apostle was stressing that all genuine love requires costly sacrifice. The Bible says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16, emphasis mine). Because God loved, He gave what was most costly to Him. In short, there is no love where there is no sacrifice. True love costs.
This is in contrast to other forms of love that we know. For example, we know of love that is reflected in a romantic or sexual attraction. There is also the brotherly love that we experience between friends. But Christian love transcends all these. This love is a God-like love — supernatural, Spirit-produced. Such authentic love is not a mere shallow, sentimental feeling. On the contrary, this kind of love runs much deeper, being deeply rooted and firmly grounded in the will.
Further, this selfless love is the volitional choice that puts the welfare of others before one’s own personal interests. This kind of love is more concerned about giving than receiving. In other words, it is not merely directed toward those who are easy to love. For example, Jesus said that even unbelievers love those who love them. But true Christian love extends to those who are a challenge to love, even to one’s enemies.
With this in mind, Paul composed the first three verses of this “hymn of love” in the first person. Within the hymn, he assumes a lowly posture in order to communicate his essential point to these proud believers. Paul makes himself the focal point in order to best reveal their need for love. By this, Paul demonstrates love as he prioritizes it.
First, Paul states that speech without love is nothing. The Corinthian believers treasured the eloquence of public speakers. Athens, the iconic city that was the center of Greek philosophical thought, was located only forty-five miles from Corinth, and it exerted a cultural influence that caused the Corinthians to prize the rhetorical skills of their compelling orators. They elevated the public speakers of the Greek world, placing them on high pedestals. These golden-tongued persuaders were the proverbial “rock stars” of their day.
What is more, the Corinthian Christians highly esteemed the spiritual gift of tongues. They sought the highly-charged, emotional atmosphere that came with these ecstatic utterances. They were excited by high-voltage surges of tongue-speaking. But all of this came at a great price. Because of this deep infatuation, they depreciated the importance of what they deemed to be everyday, garden-variety, plain-vanilla love.
Paul emphatically counters this idea. He writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Here, the Apostle speaks with hyperbole. Using himself as the example, Paul reasons that regardless of how well he speaks — even if he speaks in heavenly or angelic languages — he is nothing but a cacophony of noise if he does not have love. He could preach the greatest sermons, teach the profoundest lessons, offer the wisest counsel, or give the strongest witness, but without love, his words are empty and hollow. They are all sound, no substance; all rhetoric, no reality; nothing but hot air.
Second, Paul asserts that knowledge without love is nothing: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing” (v. 2). The apostle again utilizes hyperbolic language in order to grab the attention of their arrogant minds. Paul argues, “Suppose I have the spiritual gift of prophecy. Suppose I know every mystery of God’s eternal purpose. Suppose I know the future. Even suppose that I know everything there is to know. Even with all this knowledge I am absolutely worthless if I do not have love.” In other words, Paul explains that if these conditions hold, he is a spiritual zero — a highly-gifted, much-applauded zilch.
Third, faith without love is nothing. Paul continues, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (v. 2). Such mountain-moving faith indicates great trust in God, the ability to believe Him even in the face of enormous difficulty (Matt. 17:20). This faith is an unwavering, unshakable confidence in God. But even if Paul has such indomitable trust, he is still nothing without love. Without love he is spiritually useless, and His trust in God is pointless.
Fourth, sacrifice without love is nothing. Paul adds, “If I give away all that I have … but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). The Apostle now extends his reasoning yet further. For the sake of argument, if he gives away all his earthly belongings to provide food for the needy, but he does not have love, what does that make him? With self-condemnation, he declares that he remains nothing without love.
As a case in point, consider the Pharisees. They appeared in houses of worship and stood on street corners. They blew their trumpets and gave their alms to the poor. But what did it profit them? Jesus said that they had already received their reward — the honor of men — in full. Theirs was a buy-high, sell-low religion, and their net spirituality was zero.
Finally, martyrdom without love is nothing. Paul now pushes his point to the very limit. He imagines, “If I deliver up my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (v. 3). The Apostle reasons that if he makes the ultimate sacrifice and surrenders his body to be burned (presumably in the name of Christ) but performs this deed without love, he is nothing. On a scale of one to ten, Paul would be a zero. His sacrifice would bring much pain but no gain. With keen discernment, the Apostle does the math and quickly calculates the bottom line: anything times zero equals zero.
The Corinthians desperately needed to hear this truth. Without love, nothing else matters — not speech, not knowledge, not any religious activity. Not even martyrdom is of consequence. Apart from love, authentic Christianity says that nothing matters.
This is the significance of love to which Paul speaks. Without love, all somebodies are nobodies. Anyone wrapped up in himself makes for a small package. Subtract love from any spiritual pursuit, and it adds up to nothing. Multiply anything without love, and it equals nothing. Bottom line, giftedness without selfless love amounts to nothing.
The question then begs to be asked, “Where is such supernatural love found?” There is only one source. This kind of love is the fruit of the Spirit. Genuine love is produced in those who abide in Christ. This God-given love belongs to those who walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–24). This is where we will find love for our lives. So, let us continually look to Jesus Christ, the supreme model of selfless, sacrificial love (John 13:12–17). And, let us rest in His infinite love toward us. The more we love Him, the more we will love others.
(This article originally appeared in Tabletalk magazine, February 2012)
Steven J. Lawson is the President of OnePassion Ministries. Dr. Lawson is also the Professor of Preaching at The Master’s Seminary and Teaching Fellow with Ligonier Ministries. The author of numerous books and articles, the latest of which is The Daring Mission of William Tyndale.