The phrase we consider in this message, at the beginning I Corinthians 13:5, speaks of our behavior or our activity: “Doth not behave itself unseemly.” Of the fifteen expressions of love that are given here in these verses, perhaps this one is the most surprising and needs the most explanation. We would not really expect, when talking about love, that something like this would be said, that it does not behave in an unseemly or in an inappropriate or unbecoming way.
Then, what does that mean: “doth not behave itself unseemly”? At the end of the verse in my Bible, there is a footnote that says, “doesn’t behave itself rudely.” Well, what does that mean? And when we understand what that means, how does that relate to love? How does inappropriate behavior relate to love? What has that to do with love anyway?
The literal idea of behaving in an unseemly way is to behave in a way that is out of order, or not orderly, not suitable, not appropriate. That is the idea. There is a behavior and there are words for Christians that are suitable and that are becoming. So the Scriptures speak of walking worthy of our calling, and of walking worthy of the gospel, and of walking in a way that is becoming believers. There is an appropriate way for a Christian to behave, and there is an inappropriate way. This is saying that a Christian is one who is determined to conduct himself in every situation in which he finds himself in life in the appropriate, orderly manner.
This word comes from a root word that means scheme or pattern or fashion or form. It implies that there is a proper form or scheme or order for living. Behind this is the idea that God Himself is a God of order and not of confusion. He is that in His own life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the perfect unity and function of each of the persons of the godhead. God is a God of order in His decrees. He has ordered everything with a purpose. He does not work in history in a random way. Nothing happens by chance or by accident but according to God’s decree and under His control. God is a God of order in His work of creation. In the beginning He created a world, and even in its fallen state we are able to recognize the beautiful order of the world that God has made. God is also orderly in His providence. He is orderly in the governing of history and His government of all the affairs of mankind. Just think of an example in Scripture, the example of Joseph being sold into slavery and the way that Joseph explains that: “Ye meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to save much people alive.” God ordered that. So, God is a God of order.
Because of that, God has in His creation of man and of human society established institutions for order. Think of institutions such as marriage, the home, government, employment, or the institution of the church. These institutions are given by God to regulate our lives, to bring order to our lives.
Then we can think of God’s order for man also from the point of view of time. God created time. There was a day in which time began. God is the eternal God and was before time. But, for man, God has created the order of time: days, hours, minutes, even seconds, and weeks and months and years and seasons and centuries. God has created this order of time in which man lives. Man cannot exist in chaos. That is even true as we consider fallen man. There is an order and structure in human society that God has established there. We use calendars and we use clocks and we organize our days and the events of each day. We live in a house in which we arrange our furniture in a certain way. We have a place for clean dishes and dirty dishes, and clean laundry and dirty laundry. And as we go out on the streets, there are traffic laws. God is a God of order, and man needs order so that he may live. Without order, where there is chaos, it is impossible to accomplish anything, and especially, we will see, impossible to love.
So, we have relationships: marriage, parents and children; in the workplace of employer and employee; authority structures in society. We exist in time and we exist in relationships. We do not live randomly and chaotically. You do not have a family that you live with one night and then decide, well, I’m just going to go to this house, and this will be my family for today. And this will be my home for tomorrow. Or, this will be the car that I drive today. No, there is an order and a structure that is necessary in society. And that is really universally recognized.
Now, the point of the text is this: Christians, believers, in all of their living, recognize these structures, these relationships, these institutions. And in these structures and relationships they behave themselves accordingly and appropriately. Perhaps the wisdom of Solomon helps us to understand this. In the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, he says: “There is a time to kill, and a time to heal; there is a time to break down, and a time to build up; there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance; there is a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” In other words, there is an appropriate time for each of these things. At a wedding, you rejoice; at a funeral, you weep. He is talking about appropriate behavior in different structures of life. When someone acts or behaves in an inappropriate way, in an unseemly way, especially if that is something that is done in a public setting, we cringe and say, “What was he doing? What was he thinking?” We are embarrassed for him. We are embarrassed for ourselves. We look away.
Now, these are things that we know and that we teach to our children. We could speak of them in terms of manners and modesty. What are manners? Manners are simply this, that there is a way to behave that is appropriate to a situation. There is a way to behave at church and there is a way to behave at home. There is a way to behave in familiar company and there is a way to behave among strangers and in public. There is a way to behave on the playground and there is a way to behave at the dinner table. There are ways to behave toward parents, toward siblings, toward your boss, toward a police officer, toward a teacher, toward a child. There is an appropriate behavior toward people of the opposite sex and there are inappropriate behaviors. There are appropriate things for marriage and there are inappropriate things for outside of marriage, and so on.
Love does not behave itself unseemly. Manners. And modesty. Modesty is really self-control. It is temperance in different settings. There is a modesty, a self-control, that we should exercise in the way that we dress, in the way that we speak, in the way that we eat, in the way that we spend our money, in the way that we use our recreational time. Manners and modesty. These are things that we teach our children.
Now, for the Christian, his behavior is governed primarily by the moral law of God, the Ten Commandments. They tell us what is right and what is wrong. There are things that God commands, and those are appropriate. And there are things that God forbids. Those are, or course, inappropriate. How, now, does this appropriateness of behavior fit with a discussion of love? That should not be very difficult for us to answer, because the ultimate requirement of a Christian’s life is love. Love for God and love for man. You love the Lord your God and you love the neighbor as yourself. That controls your conduct. We live by the law of love.
When we love God, we live before Him, we serve Him from moment to moment, we live consciously in His presence, we are aware that we stand in a relationship to Him, that we are in covenant with God as His people. And that, for a Christian, is a controlling motive for all his living and for all his obedience. We do not obey God to get things from Him. We do not live a certain way in life out of fear of God’s judgment because we are scared of Him, but because we love Him and He loved us. We live in this world. We use the things that God owns. We are thankful for our salvation. We are thankful for everything that we have from Him. We confess that God has sovereignly ordered our life and put us in every relationship and situation in our lives. So we serve Him in love.
Manners and modesty really come back to the heart issue of love for God. Let me give one simple example of that. We want to teach our children manners with regard to eating, with regard to food. That is a matter of your love for God because, think of this. What are food manners? Well, we sit, we thank God for the food, and then we eat quite deliberately and moderately. To eat like a glutton, to dive in without waiting, is not to love God. Even just think about that with regard to the one who has prepared your meal. Your mother has prepared a meal, she set the table, there is a portion for everyone who will be at the table. And if you come in and you sit down and you grab the food and you chow it down before anyone else gets an opportunity, you are not then grateful to her for the preparation of the food. That is not love in your manners. That is true especially with regard to God. So, the Bible speaks of gluttony as idolatry. Think about that. You have made an idol of the food and you have made an idol of yourself.
That is just one little example. We teach our children to love God. And because they love God, they will live moderately, modestly, and with manners before God and in their relationships of life. In our love for God we want God to be glorified in all of our conduct. We realize that, as Christians, we bear God’s name in our lives and before the world. Our love for God governs our behavior in every circumstance and situation.
That is true also with regard to our behavior toward others. Because we love them, we behave appropriately toward them and in their presence. Why does how I behave around others matter to me? It matters to me because I love others. I respect them. I respect their ‘space.’ I am careful not to offend them unnecessarily. I am conscious of the feelings of others. In the relationship in which I stand with every other human being, they are first and not me. I put myself second in every relationship. That is love. (We are going to go on to that in the next phrase: “seeketh not her own”). Love puts the other first in every situation.
One of the greatest examples in Scripture of this is Paul himself and how he carried himself as a minister and a missionary, as a pastor in the different churches in which he labored. When he came to Corinth, he did not make himself a financial burden. He makes the point that he labored with his hands so that he would not be burdensome to them. When he could have rebuked the church at Corinth with the authority of an apostle, he pled with them as a gentle father. When he dealt with new Christians (I Thess. 2), he was careful about his manner and he cherished them and was patient with them as a mother who cares for a growing infant. When he stood before princes and governors, Paul was careful to be respectful of them. There is even in the ministry of Paul an example of his apologizing, repenting, because he had been disrespectful. That is in Acts 23. He was careful to behave appropriately in the different situations, as a witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, the question that the text puts to us in this message is: Do you behave appropriately, in love for your fellow man? How do you treat your wife in public, for example? How do you drive your car in busy traffic? How, as a woman, do you dress? How do you relate to your next-door neighbor as a Christian? How do you speak to your children as a loving parent? How much noise do you make in the house when others are sleeping? Love does not behave itself unseemly. So, you see how it relates to love.
Now this is a specific word that is tailored by the apostle, under the inspiration of the Spirit, for the church at Corinth, and it really, in some ways, is kind of a summary of everything that Paul has to say to Corinth in this book. What is the proper way to behave in the church of God—this was the issue in Corinth. They were not behaving properly as the church of God. Their behavior was unseemly, unbecoming. And it was especially unbecoming toward each other. They were not loving one another. There was chaos in the life of the church at Corinth. So, the apostle says in chapter 14, verse 33: “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.” And he finishes that chapter by saying this: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” In other words, if there is love in the church, there will be order in the church, there will be appropriate conduct in the life of the church.
You see there the point of application for us. It is this: if there will be love in our homes, there needs to be structure in our homes. And, vice-versa, if we would have structure in our homes, we must love one another in appropriate ways in the relationships that God has given to us. That also applies in the church. That is, of course, a very important word today, not just as we observe society and the breakdown of structures and the chaos that overwhelms our society, but also in the church and in our own lives. Let us not just apply this to the world and observe it there, but think about our own life. Is there structure in your daily life? Is there a pattern and an order to the way you live in your Christian homes?
There is a time to work and there is a time to play. There is a time to sleep and a time to wake up. There is a time to eat and a time to refrain from eating. Do you have that kind of appropriate behavior in your home, and by that kind of appropriate behavior do you have a structure where you can love one another appropriately? That is missing in society, is it not? The breakdown of institutions such as marriage. Man redefines the institutions that God has established, and he overthrows authority structures as God has put them in place in society. You see that also coming into the church, in the chaos in the worship of the church similar to what Paul describes in chapter 14. And all of it is driven by what? Self-love. How do I get what I want? What is it that pleases me? And disorderliness and chaos are the result of that self-love.
As we think about disorder that sometimes comes into our own lives and our own homes, it is really the same cause, is it not—selfishness. It takes work to maintain order in your life. It takes work to maintain order in your home. It takes work to prepare a meal for a family dinner. It takes work to assemble a family together for devotions. It takes work to get grumpy teenagers out of bed and organized for the day. And that hard work does not make us happy. So we sometimes, quite selfishly, set aside the structure and the order. What happens, then, is that there is chaos. And in that chaos, we are not loving one another. We are not even able to love one another in appropriate ways. There is a free-for-all, a kind of anarchy that can come. We need structure to love, and love creates structure. Love recognizes God’s order—let all things be done decently and in order. Love does not behave itself unseemly.
There is a pattern for us in Jesus Christ’s behavior. He loved us, and in His love for us He followed the order that God had set down for Him. He followed that order in humbling Himself by coming into this world. He followed that order in the human relationships that God put Him in, so that, in Luke 2, as a child, even when His parents could not understand Him, He was subject to them. He followed that order in His behavior in the life of the church. Think about this: He was well known in the synagogue in Nazareth because that was where He went, and He never stood up to preach or to teach until He was anointed by the Holy Spirit and sent and commissioned by God to do this. Think about that: the Son of God, sitting in church, sitting in a synagogue, receiving instruction from someone else. When Satan and others tried to tempt Him as the Messiah, the Son of God, He behaved in appropriate ways and He did not succumb to temptation. As a citizen in the land, He behaved in appropriate ways. Think of what He said to the Jews when He was asked whether it was appropriate to pay taxes. He said: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” And even when He was arrested and tried and sent to the cross, He did not break out from the authority that God had placed over Him, but He conducted Himself as the servant of God and a messenger of God in this world.
We are to live with that kind of a pattern before the world. As witnesses of Jesus Christ, we are called to convey by our lives the gospel. And, in our speech, the hope and the joy that is ours. As we convey the gospel, our own life should never stand in the way of that witness. Think about it this way, that Christianity and the message of Christianity is offensive enough. As we bring the gospel, we want the only offense to be the gospel. We should not let our conduct become the excuse to the unbeliever to avoid the claims of the gospel. We could put that another way: having the truth and understanding the truth and believing the gospel does not give us an excuse to be rude and offensive ourselves towards others. A Christian who loves God and who loves others is doubly charged to be courteous and inoffensive himself. Love does not behave itself unseemly.