This article emphasizes the vital need for Christian character for assembly blessing and prosperity.
I think if I had been looking for the ideal assembly, I might have “joined” the one in Corinth. Why? Well, it had been the fruit of the labors of Paul himself. Priscilla and Aquila of note were among its original membership. Apollos had nurtured it through his eloquent teaching. And among its members were distributed every gift that the Spirit could endow for the assembly’s continuance. Furthermore, there was a family, that of Stephanus, who had given themselves over to serving fellow believers.
The worship in Corinth must have been sweet, the Bible readings must have been delightful, the ministry profound, the prayers weighty, and the gospel preaching powerful, with blessing upon saint and sinner.
However, I would have changed my mind once reading past the opening nine verses of the first letter to the Corinthians. For it is soon evident that such was not the case. Although possessed of every advantage, the Corinthian assembly had become home to every kind of problem an assembly could encounter. There were problems with unity (ch 1-3), sanctity (ch 5-7), legality (ch 6), liberty (ch 8), idolatry (ch 10), authority (ch 11), ministry (ch 12, 14), and expectancy (ch 15). And even among these it was possible to sub-group other problems.
So, what was wrong? How could such spiritual privileges deteriorate into such carnal practices? Was there something more they required? To address this question, the beloved apostle writes Chapter 13. While the chapter seems parenthetic, or a digression of thought, it is actually a lyric to expose a terrible deficiency that underlay the Corinthian state of affairs, and without which feature any assembly is sure to falter. That feature is called in 12:42 the “more excellent way”- the surpassing way of love.
Love (agape) – incorrectly translated “charity” – is the first of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. It is the word most uniquely linked with Christianity. The word does not appear in classic Greek literature. There, “philo” and “eros” were commonly used, designating friendship and physical love respectively, and these depended upon a desirable recipient for expression. Whereas, the love in this chapter and throughout the N.T. depends upon a gracious, benevolent source, regardless of the quality of its object. It is said to be the “love of God” but it would be more accurate to call it “God-like love” for it is first seen in Him, but is also to be seen in believers, brethren, husbands, and wives (1Jn 2:10, Eph 5:2,10, Tit 2:4).
This love poem stands alone in its sublime dignity, and exegetical treatment would tend to detract from its lofty demands. However, a simple overview of its construction and content would suit our purpose just now of seeing its necessity and measuring its presence in each assembly. We might love God, and love His assembly, but loving each believer in the assembly, demonstrating that love in a practical way, is the God-like grace that enables service and worship to glorify the Father and exalt His Son in our midst.
We readily note that there are 3 stanzas:
In stanza 1 (vs 1-3), it is LOVE ABSENT. Spiritual exercises most obvious and perhaps most esteemed by the Corinthian assembly are noted. They deal with matters of communication vs 1, revelation vs 2, supernatural demonstration vs 2, and consecration vs 3. The least important is dealt with first, the most important last-this seems opposite to the Corinthian estimation. But whether the least costly or most sacrificial, if unaccompanied by love to my brethren, that ministry or service is declared to be (a) a nuisance to others (vs1), (b) of no advantage personally (vs 2), and (c) unfruitful as to future reward (vs 3).
How solemn that activity and participation in the assembly that one would engage in so diligently and that seems so costly, could go for nothing, if not rendered in a spirit of love and consideration toward others in the assembly, but rather for one’s own end and aggrandizement.
In stanza 2 (vs 4-8a) it is LOVE ACTIVE. From the A.V., we note there are 7 positive and 7 negative statements to describe love’s virtues. These statements show, not a passive sentiment, but an energetic, active grace responding to every condition encountered in assembly life. We see in this number the perfection of a love that was first shown to us by God, was shed abroad in our heart at conversion, and applicable, no, necessary for every circumstance to be encountered. That love is not here described as evident in good times when assembly life seems to sail smoothly. But it is seen shining, suitable, and sufficient when there are problems and perplexities, adversities and afflictions, contention and conflict, pride and envy, and when distress and division like dark clouds threaten the tranquility and fellowship of the assembly. In this section of the chapter, every problem in Corinth is brought under review and seen as preventable or remedied by the application or infusion of this greatest of all graces in their communal life. Each of the characteristics of love stated could be applied to one of the problems enumerated.
How about our own circumstance and our own assembly? One used to think that a message on love was merely sentimental and soft. “Give us truth!” was the cry. But the passing of years has given witness to difficulties in assemblies, and difficulties among servants, and difficulties in families with all the contention it entails. And often, “holding fast” was the shibboleth. We are most certainly to hold fast and earnestly contend for the faith; but it must always be done in the graciousness of the spirit of this love that seeks the welfare of others with a view to the glory of Christ and the preservation of harmonious fellowship in the assembly. “Love seeketh not its own” is diametrically opposite to every natural inclination.
Stanza 3 (8b-13) deals with LOVE ABIDING. The supreme value of this love over all gifts and service is the fact that it is permanent. The three gifts in vs 8 were temporary. Tongues would gradually pass away, prophecy and knowledge would abruptly end with the completion of the Scriptures. And, in fact, all gifts will come to an end when we reach heaven. But, this triplet of graces often found together in the N.T. – faith, hope, love -will ever remain. Of them, the greatest is love, for it emanates from the heart of God, it is the mark of true discipleship when displayed toward one another, and it makes every menial act and every lofty service true gold.
May the evidence of this causeless love be seen growing and abounding in every assembly in our serving God and in serving one another.