The Greatest of These is Love

June 9, 2019 / No. 3988

In this message, we will consider the last verse of I Corinthians 13: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity [or love], these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

What are the distinguishing marks of a mature Christian? What is it that should attract you to another believer? What is it that you should work to develop and aim at in your own spiritual growth in Christian character? What is it that should mark you out as a believer and as a Christian to an unbelieving world?

If we were not in I Corinthians 13 and I had not just read the last verse of that chapter, I think we might give the wrong answer to those questions. We might say about someone: “Here is a godly man who has his family in order—such a nice family.” Or, we might say, “Here is a godly woman. She is so gifted and she has so much to contribute to the body of Christ.” Or, we might say, “Here is a godly man. He really understands doctrine and the Reformed faith well.” Or, we might say, “She is so good at talking to new people who come into the church.” Important as any of those things might be, those are not the main distinguishing marks of a mature Christian.

Consistently, the New Testament answers the question (What are the distinguishing marks of a Christian?) with the trio of Christian graces and virtues mentioned here in I Corinthians 13:13: Faith, hope, and love. This is the essence of what it means to be a Christian. This is what God produces when He works in us by His Holy Spirit.

In this message, we come to the last verse in this marvelous chapter on the subject of love. It is a rare chapter in the Scriptures. It is rare to find a chapter that focuses on one idea. This is something like Hebrews 11, which deals with the subject of faith and over and over again repeats, “by faith,” or “through faith.” Here it is love, or, in the KJV: charity. It is something like a carpenter driving in a nail. You hear that word over and over again. Now the chapter ends with one final hammer-blow, with perhaps the grandest statement in the whole chapter: Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

And now abideth…. Those are the first words of the text, and they bring this chapter to a dramatic conclusion. The word “and” could better be translated “but,” because this is not a soft conclusion but a strong conclusion: But now abideth. But indicates a contrast, a shift in direction of the conversation. You pay attention when someone says but. In this conclusion, we see the contrast in the next two words: but now. This leads us back to the previous verse, where twice we read the word “now.” There it was in contrast to “then.” Now, in the present, in contrast to then, which is to come. Now we know in part, but then we will know as we are known. Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then we will see our Savior face to face. And after contemplating knowing as we are known and seeing our Savior face to face, the apostle pulls us back to the present—but now, in the present. This is what is important for you now, you are still here.

But now abideth…. That word means to remain or to endure or to continue to exist. And it has the meaning of continual existence, in contrast to other things that have ceased to exist. Some things stop and other things continue. Now, he says, these things continue. The contrast here is especially to verse 8, where he talks about apostolic, temporal gifts that, he says, fail, cease, and vanish away. Those pass from the scene, whereas this new trio of gifts (faith, hope, and love) remains and endures in the present.

Now you understand and see what the apostle Paul is doing here, and the strength of his argument, as he speaks to the church at Corinth. Corinth had majored on the minors. Corinth was enamored with those temporary, spiritual gifts. The Corinthians gave importance to the less important things that passed away. They focused on giftedness rather than on godliness. They made the temporary things permanent and they saw those as an end rather than as a means to the end. Faith, hope, love—these remain.

But now abideth faith, hope, love. I want first to say something about each of these and then point to their importance.

Faith. Faith is trust in God. It is the dependence of the soul on Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Faith is believing all that God has revealed in His Word. Faith is a spiritual gift. It is granted by God to the elect, and it is that by which they embrace Jesus Christ set forth in the gospel. Faith is the fruit of regeneration. The text says that faith abides, that is, faith will never become extinct. Faith is the work of God as a result of regeneration, by which one is united to Jesus Christ. It continues to grow throughout the life of the Christian, even though it may, at times, wane and become weak. It will never vanish. That is because when God has begun the inward work, He will perform it till the day of Jesus Christ. The reason it remains is not because it is an expression of human free will but because it is the result of the sovereign will of God. By grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.

By including faith in this trio, the apostle puts a premium on faith. Here is an outstanding mark of a Christian. He believes, he trusts. He is saved by faith in Christ alone, not by works. Show me a Christian, and I will show you his faith.

Second, hope. Like faith, hope is directed towards God. Hope is forward looking. Hope is the soul’s positive confidence in God regarding the future. Hope is a steadfast assurance that God will keep His promises and that God has good in store for me as one of His children. Hope is the anchor of the soul, the Scriptures say, which draws us heavenward. Like faith, it is an outstanding mark of a Christian. Just think of how Peter describes it in I Peter 3:15: “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” They are going to see not only your faith, but also your hope. Maybe what you believe will seem strange to the world, your faith. But your hope will come forth in joy. And they will ask, “Why do you have this hope? Explain it to me.” Show me a Christian, and I will show you his hope.

Now abideth faith, hope, and then, third: love. This hardly needs comment. The love described here is the love between believers that we have been looking at in this chapter. This love is a commitment. This love is sacrificial rather than selfish. This love is dynamic and active rather than passive. This love is not empty words, but it displays itself in longsuffering, in kindness, in humility, in not keeping a record of wrong (that is, in forgiveness). It displays itself in the joy of success in others, in bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. And like faith and hope, it is an outstanding mark of a Christian. Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another,” because love is Christ-likeness.

Now abideth faith, hope, and love. They, as it were, rise to the surface; they are the essence of the Christian life and experience, the marks of true spirituality and godliness, the fundamentals of Christian expression. If you are uncertain as to what it means to be a Christian, here is what it is. These are the tests of true spirituality: trust in Jesus, hope in heaven, love for the brethren. These are more valuable, these are more important, than any spectacular or miraculous gifts. This is how God works. This is how we know that God is working—where faith and hope and love are evident.

But the greatest of these is love. Greatest is superlative, that is, it singles one out from the rest. Only one can be the greatest. Paul is saying here that among all the gifts that God gives in the church, among all the virtues that the Spirit produces and develops in believers, among all the Christ-like characteristics in a Christian, among all the abilities and talents that believers may have and use in the church, above them all, at the head of them all, outranking them all, is love. And any one of them, without love, is nothing. So you might be able to speak with tongues of men and of angels, you may prophesy, you may understand all mysteries and knowledge, you may give your body to be burned, you may give all your goods for the care of the poor, but without love, that is nothing. Anything minus love is nothing. So love stands at the head. Here is the height of spiritual growth, here is the clearest expression of spiritual maturity—not tongues, not knowledge, not miracles, not the bestowing of your goods to feed the poor, not giving your body to be burned. No, not even faith and hope, but love. And that should speak to us that we strive to grow in love, to show more love to those around us. This is what God prioritizes, and so should we.

Love is superior, love is supreme. Why? I have five reasons. The first and second reasons we have touched on already.

The first reason that love is superior is that love is eternal. In verse 8, it never fails. Compared to the other gifts, which will cease and vanish away, love never fails. Compared to faith and hope even, love is superior because it is eternal. Some day when we step through the gates of heaven, we will, as it were, leave faith and hope at the door because our faith will become sight. Our hope will be realized as we come into the presence of Jesus Christ. That is verse 12: “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” Is that not our hope? It will be realized. It will be fulfilled. It will become sight in that moment. Whereas, in that moment, our love for Christ will grow exponentially. It will, as one commentator put it, explode. Our love for one another will be perfected and multiplied. In heaven there will be no selfishness, no hurt feelings, no misunderstanding, no egos, no self-serving or self-pity. But we will simply love one another. That will be the wedding of Christ and His bride consummated. That love will endure undiminished into all eternity.

Second, love is superior because God is love and because God loves. This is an attribute of the being of God. In contrast to faith and hope, it is an attribute of the being of God. Does God believe, does God trust and depend on any other? Does God hope for something that He does not yet possess? Is He longing to be filled with something that He does not yet have? No. But He is marked by love—eternal, sovereign, immutable, infinite love. So love is superior because God is love.

Third, love is superior because it benefits others. John Calvin explains it very simply this way. Why is love superior? And he answers, “because faith and hope are our own, whereas love is diffused among others.” Faith and hope benefit the one who possesses them, but love benefits others. Love always requires another as an object. It cannot remain within itself. So love is superior because it benefits others. That is not to say that our hope and our faith cannot encourage others too. But love is always directed towards others.

Fourth, love is superior because it is the fulfillment of the whole duty of God for man. What is the summary of the law? It is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. That is our primary responsibility. That is the sum of all that God requires of us. For this we were made by God in the beginning. And when we come to heaven, and in glory, we will do this perfectly and eternally: love God and love one another. So love is superior.

Fifth, love is superior because it is the primary work of God’s Spirit in the believer. The primary gift of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22 we read that the fruit of the Spirit is (and you know the next word) love. This stands at the head of them all. This is a summary of all that follows. Think of the woman in Luke 7 who anointed the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus asked, “Why did she do it, Simon?” And He told the parable of the two debtors. She did it because she loved much. Think of Saul of Tarsus. He went to Damascus breathing out threatenings. He went there to arrest, for the slaughter of the Christians in Damascus. God worked his conversion, and, with the Spirit working in his heart, Paul came to Damascus, and what did he do? He joined himself to those believers. He loved them, he fellowshipped with them. Nothing else can explain it but love. This is the primary work of the Spirit. So we read in I John 3:14, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.” And it is not because of the loveliness of the object, but because God has worked this in the heart, to love one another.

Prophecies, tongues, knowledge, these shall cease, says the apostle. Now, that is, for the present, these abide: faith, hope, and love. But then even faith and hope shall be no more. But love, this will be the essence of our life with God. And this will be the essence of our life with one another to eternity: Love.

What do we conclude from this for ourselves?

In the first place, it gives an emphasis and a priority—personally and as a church. As you look at your own spiritual life, the emphasis must be on faith, hope, and love. Are you growing in faith? Is your trust in Jesus Christ becoming stronger? As you grow in your understanding of things eternal, do you become more in love with heaven and less in love with the earth so that your hope grows? Does that hope express itself in a joy in your life, a stewardship in your life that directs all of your living? Faith and hope and love. Is your aim to grow especially in love? Do you funnel all your energies, all the means of grace, all your prayers, all your Scripture reading, towards this great spiritual characteristic? Are you maturing in your love for the brethren?

I trust that that is the fruit of studying this chapter, that, in yourself, you have grown, in your longsuffering, your kindness, your contentment, your patience, your humility, your sacrificial love. And I trust that it has not only grown within you, but in your relationships, in your homes, in the church of Jesus Christ. This is the emphasis and priority not only for the individual but for the church. That is what Paul has in mind here particularly as he writes to the church at Corinth. This was the missing element in the life of the church at Corinth. This is what should mark out the church to the world and what the church should be aiming at. Are we a people of faith and hope and of love? Are the marks of verses 4-7, the behaviors of love, characteristic of us as the church so that, perhaps, we could even replace the word “love” there with the name of our church? If, as the apostle says, love is the greatest of them all, then this should be our goal, this should be our aim as the church of Jesus Christ to be a church that is characterized by these behaviors and these virtues of love. Is this what others would say of us? Is this how, in the words of Jesus, all men would know that we are disciples of Christ, that we have love one for another? If God puts a priority on this, then so should we.

Second, a concluding thought. Be careful judges of Christian character. Do not be too easily impressed by talent and ability, by position and status, by wealth, by knowledge, by achievements. Why do I say that? Because we are drawn to those who impress us. And if we are drawn for the wrong reasons, then, as it did in Corinth, it will create divisions and parties in the church. If we are drawn to a character not because of love and faith and hope but for these other things, then the same problems that were there in the church at Corinth will develop in the church here. They gathered around those with gifts. They gathered around or were envious of those with status and position. They gathered around those with some knowledge and worldly wisdom. They gathered around those with some wealth. When that happened, the result was that there was division in the church. And the apostle says that the greatest display of Christian virtue in the church and to others is love.

Love is not impressive. It is humble, it is sacrificial. So be careful judges of Christian characteristics.

Third, and final. Let love pervade all our relationships, in the church, in the home, and beyond the walls of church and home. Husbands, love your wives with the love of I Corinthians 13. Wives, love your husbands with the love of I Corinthians 13. Parents, love your children with the love of I Corinthians 13. Children, love your parents with the love of I Corinthians 13. If we love, that is where it will start in the closest, daily relationships of our life.

And then, let us love beyond the walls of the church and home, to the stranger, the needy, the unbeliever. In the words of Jesus: to the enemy who despitefully uses and persecutes you. Think of the people you work with, your neighbors. Let this be on display. The greatest of these is love. Let our efforts and our activity and our aiming at spiritual growth be funneled toward this: faith, hope, and above all, love. Amen