The More Excellent Way
July 24th, 1966 @ 10:50 AM
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 13
7-24-66 10:50 a.m.
On this radio KIXL and on this television Channel 11, you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled The More Excellent Way. It is a sermon, an exposition of the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, which is Paul’s message and exhortation that we baptize the gifts of the Spirit in love.
Out of all of the years that I have been a preacher, not one time have I ever heard in my whole life anybody present the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians in the meaning and in the context, in the way that Paul meant it. It is taken out of its context, it is taken away from its meaning, and it is presented always as a beautiful, incomparably heavenly hymn on love. Now you remember it: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy” [1 Corinthians 13:1-2]—and then on and on it continues—“and have not love, I am nothing.” Then it closes; “And now abideth these three: faith, hope, love; but the greatest of the three is love” [1 Corinthians 13:13]. So always, in every instance that I have ever heard it presented, it is that presentation on love [1 Corinthians 13:1-13].
However, Paul is not talking about that as such. The importance of the chapter lies in its contextual location. We would not have objected—we would not have objected anything Paul under the inspiration would have done—but we would not have objected to Paul’s sudden bursting into a glorious exaltation of love. There is nothing wrong with that. That would have been fine. But that has nothing to do with what he has written here. What Paul is doing is—in this section of chapter 12, chapter 13, and chapter 14 of the first Corinthian letter—he is discussing the pneumatikon, the charismata, the gifts of the Spirit [1 Corinthians 12:4]. And he starts off in chapter 12, “Now concerning the pneumatikon,” the spirituals. Then later on, as he discusses them, he will call them the charismata, the grace gifts of the Spirit. “Now concerning the pneumatikon, my brethren, I would not have you ignorant” [1 Corinthians 12:1]. Then chapter 13 is a continuation of the discussion of the pneumatikon [1 Corinthians 13:1-13]. Then chapter 14 is a continuation of the discussion of the pneumatikon, the charismata, the charismatic grace gifts of the Spirit [1 Corinthians 14:1-40].
So when we look at the passage, any fundamental and primary and first rule of the understanding and of the interpretation of Scripture is this: you cannot ever take a passage out of its context and away from its meaning and use it as a proof text for this, or that, or the other. Always the first and primary rule of interpretation is that whatever is written must be understood in its context.
That’s why sometimes a newspaper will just nearly ruin a fellow. “He said it all right; that’s what he said; I heard him say it.” But he said it in a context with syllables before, and extenuations after, and explanations all around. You can take anything that a man says out of its context. You can do anything with it and sometimes they do.
And you find that in Scripture all the time. That’s why it gives rise to all of these different interpretations. No attempt on the part of the expositor or the commentator or the preacher to make a thing say what it says, but taking it out of its context and using it as a proof text.
I one time read a sentence: “a text without a context is a pretext.” That’s the truth. Now when we look at this, when we look at this, it must be, if we have any hope to arrive at the inspired meaning of God in the text, when we look at it we must look at it in the whole passage. So Paul starts off, “Now concerning the pneumatikon, the charismata, the gifts of the Spirit, my brethren, I would not have you ignorant” [1 Corinthians 12:1].
Paul faced the same problem in his day that we face in our day, namely ignorance of the gifts of the Spirit. And I do not know of any subject on which the people of the Lord are more without knowledge. And it’s a tragedy, for it is given rise to the turning over of the spirituals, the gifts, to groups who are excessive and fanatical and unsound in their teaching. I can just see the whole development of it in Christendom. And I see it around me on every side today. The pneumatikon, the charismata, are in the hands of people who, first, they take the subject to excess. Then there is a natural opposition to it, reaction against it, and like a pendulum, and it swings the other way, and it swings the other way to cold and dead formalism. So on one side we have excess and fanaticism, and on the other side, the pendulum sways to an absolute rejection of anything that has to do with the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.
Well, such a thing ought not to be. Let’s get our Book down, let’s get our Bible down, let’s open these pages and let us see what God has to say to us. “Now concerning the pneumatikon, my brethren, I would not have you ignorant” [1 Corinthians 12:1]. Now before I go on may I make one other feeble observation here. The devil is delighted and most eagerly willing to counterfeit any of the signs, and miracles, and gifts, and works of God. He delights in it. When Moses and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh and did those wonderful things in Pharaoh’s sight, Pharaoh called for his enchanters, and for his seers, and his necromancers, and all of the rest of that ilk and kin, and they did the same things. They counterfeited God’s signs [Exodus 7:11, 22, 8:7]. When Micaiah stood before Ahab, a true prophet of God, there stood at his right hand Zedekiah, a false prophet to contradict and interdict and intercede in everything that God was saying to the king [1 Kings 22:1-28]. That’s true everywhere in this world today. Wherever you have a true preacher of God, you’ll find a false one. And wherever you find one expounding the truth of the Word of the Lord, you’ll find a dozen who are distributing error and misleading God’s people.
The counterfeiting of Satan; “Now concerning the pneumatikon, my brethren, I would not have you ignorant” [1 Corinthians 12:1]. Then when I turn the page to chapter 13, a continuation of the pneumatikon [1 Corinthians 13:1-13]; and then to 14, the continuation of the discussion of the pneumatikon [1 Corinthians 14:1-40]. In chapter 12 he’s talking about the purpose of the gifts, how they are related to the church as a whole [1 Corinthians 12:1-31]. In chapter 14 he’s talking about the perversion of the gifts and especially the abuse of speaking in tongues [1 Corinthians 14:1-40]. And in chapter 13 he’s talking about the dedication of spiritual gifts to the motivation of compassionate, sympathetic, and godly love [1 Corinthians 13:1-13]. The gifts are to be used not to minister to pride or ostentation or personal advancement, but they are to be dedicated in godly love for the helpfulness and the blessing of the brotherhood. So when I look at the text here I come to chapter 13. It is not an interlude, it is an interlink between 12 and 14 [1 Corinthians 12-14]. It is not a digression; it is not a change of direction; it is rather an intensification of the theme. Nor is it, as I have said, a dissertation on love. It is rather an appeal that we take these gifts and dedicate them to the good and the blessing of the people of the Lord into passionate understanding and sympathy. For you see Paul avows that the spiritual gifts, the pneumatikon, the charismata, the spiritual gifts without love are wayward and willful and minister to personal pride. But love without the spiritual gifts is cheaply sentimental and unoccupied. But the gifts in love bless the name of the Lord and the congregation of our Savior.
So let’s begin now:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I have become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
[1 Corinthians 13:1-3]
Though I have the gift of tongues, speaking in the eloquence and in the fervor of men and of angels, if my words, and my sentences, and my perorations, and my thoughts are not motivated by a love for the people to whom I speak, I—not the gift—I am nothing; it profits me nothing.
There are men whose greatness in forensics lies in their eloquence alone. The genius of their speaking is spent in the fray of words and in the foam of soon forgotten rhetoric. They are hollow themselves. They are empty themselves. And their eloquence and rhetoric actually is like a sounding brass, the metallic castanets and like clanging cymbals. They need to be touched on their lips with the live coals from off the fire of God’s altar of love and compassion. The gift of eloquence in itself profits the speaker nothing unless back of it is an overflow of an abounding compassion and sympathy and love for the people to whom they speak.
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; yea though I have all faith, so that I could change the topography of this earth, and have not love, I—not the gift—I am nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:2]. But it’s hard to get below or beyond or behind nothing. I am nothing; it profits me nothing. All of the intellectual achievements, all of the academic rewards and attainments, and all of those things that go with the gifts that sometimes God in nature bestows upon a man, unless they are dedicated in loving compassion and motivated by an outpouring of the soul for these to whom we could bless, I am nothing. The possession of it is unrewarding. “Yea, though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:3]. Not that the gift is nothing, not that the philanthropy is nothing, but the man who gives it is not profited. He is nothing.
Philanthropy, Paul says—philanthropy itself is not nothing—philanthropy, a gift, can be a blessing to a cause or an institution however the motive. There is a man who gives a great endowment to an institution because he hates his son. Or here is a man who bestows a gift for purposes of pride and ostentation. Or here is a man who makes a gift because he wants the image of being a generous person or a fine community civic leader. Or here’s a man who bestows a gift because he thinks he can buy his way into heaven. Now the gift may be blessed of God in that institution, but when a man gives a gift for any other motive than one of devoted compassionate love, the man himself is not blessed. For philanthropy, to be a blessing to the man who bestows it, he must give out of the fullness of his heart.
One of the things that I read in the life of Andrew Fuller and William Carey was this: a little band of Baptist ministers gathered in Kettering, England and there formed the first modern missionary endeavor. And William Carrey said, “I will go down into the well if you hold the ropes.” So William Carey went away to India—the first modern missionary—and Andrew Fuller, the devoted and compassionate preacher of Jesus, stayed back in England to support God’s missionary. And Andrew Fuller went from house to house and place to place asking money for the support of the missionary. He came to a rich nobleman’s office in London and made his appeal. And when he had finished, the nobleman reached in his pocket and he took out an English gold coin to give him, and flung it on the table very contemptuously. Andrew picked up the gold coin and pushed it back across the desk and said to the rich nobleman, “I cannot take it for my Lord demands the heart.” Stung by the rebuke the nobleman slowly picked up the gold coin and returned it to his pocket, sat down, took out his checkbook and wrote a generous check for God’s missionary, handed it to Andrew Fuller and said, “Take this for this comes from the heart.” Philanthropy carries with it no blessing to the giver unless, the apostle says, it is motivated by godly and Christian love.
“Yea,” he continues, “though I give my body to be burned” [1 Corinthians 13:3], for martyrdom can be dedicated to fanaticism. One of the most unusual things that I have read in Christian history is this: in those first Christian centuries, God’s people sought the stake, and the mouth of the lion, and the ravenous beast, and the categorical slaughter with great eagerness. Because they loved God so much? No! But because they sought the martyr’s crown and the martyr’s faith. They were fanatically religious. But Paul says, “Though I give my body to the flame and do not offer my body as a sacrifice because I love God and the brotherhood, it profiteth me nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:3] Then he describes, he delineates that godly love:
Love suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not; vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked,
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things
[1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 7]
—this kind of godly motivation, this kind of Christian love.
Well, first of all I must say a word about what kind of love this is. The King James Version uses the word “charity,” charity always, charity, charity. Well, it is interesting, so let’s look at it. There are many Greek words that are translated “love,” many of them, a whole list of them. Philagathos is love for what is good. Philadelphia is the love of the brotherhood. Philanthropia is the love for mankind. Philosophia is love for wisdom. Phileō is love for a friend. Agapē is the love like “God is love,” 1 John 4:8. God is agape. Agape is the love of John 3:16, when Christ was offered for us on the cross.
There are many Greek words translated “love.” But one of the astonishing things of the Greek language is this: there was another Greek word that was commonplace and used in literature, in conversation in everyday life. It was the Greek word for “love” used by the metaphysician and the philosopher, used by the mythologist, used by the poet and the dramatist, used by the man on the streets. It was the word eros. Eros was also the name of the god of love; in Latin, Cupid, the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. In Greek his name is eros the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. And yet as common as that word is, eros, it is never found, not once, in the Bible. It is never used in the New Testament, for eros carried with it a connotation of sensual carnality.
When Jerome, the great and sainted Christian scholar, translated the Scriptures out of Greek into the Latin Vulgate, he came across this word: agapē. And he hesitated; should he translate it into the Latin word for love, amor. But Jerome did that same thing in the Latin language that the inspired authors of the Bible had met in the Greek language. Amor in Latin had a connotation of sensual carnality.
So Jerome chose the word charitas, charitas. Charitas is the Latin word for “dearness” in the sense of costliness, preciousness, esteemed admiration, charitas, a godly and holy and exalted affection and esteem and preciousness. And this is our word “charity.” In 1611 when the King James Version was translated, agapē and charitas and charity meant the same thing. It was a holy and a godly and a heavenly love. And so beautiful was it expressed in the brotherhood of Christ’s saints that finally the word came to mean to us in our language today: charity, goodness to others, benevolence, philanthropy, sympathy, compassion to others, charity.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
And though I give my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not—charitas, agapē—charity . . .
[1 Corinthians 13:1, 3]
—the love of the heart that would motivate what is God, I am nothing. Now this agape, this charitas, this charity is not weakness. But it is strength! It is the kind of a devotion that can sit up all night long and in the morning say, “But I am not tired.” It is the kind of devotion written in the twenty-ninth chapter of the Book of Genesis, where the story is told of Jacob who served, who worked for Rachel seven long years; then added another seven long years as the chapter concludes. But it was to Jacob as but a few days—fourteen years—“as a few days for the great love he had for her” [Genesis 29:18-20, 27-28]: charitas—and that is the most moving, powerfully moving of all of the exhibits; the baring of the human soul.
Do you remember in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, the Lord appeared before him above the brightness of a brilliant noonday’s Syrian sun? And if you’ve ever been in Syria at noonday, how bright, how sparklingly dazzlingly bright is that golden orb. Above the glory and the brilliance of that noonday sun did the Lord appear to Saul of Tarsus, breathing out, threatening and the slaughter against the church of Jesus. And the Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou Me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:1-5].
Did you ever think, “What did the Lord mean?” “Saul, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:5], to fight against the goad. What did the Lord mean? It is very patented and plain what the Lord meant. Years and years and years later at the end of his missionary journeys—in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul is recounting that day that the call of the Lord that he be an emissary to the Gentiles—and the years, and the years, and the years, and the years had not diminished that memory. And Paul says, “When the blood of Thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and I kept the raiment of them that slew him!” [Acts 22:20] Isn’t that remarkable? After the years of his life, the death of Stephen was as brilliant and as startlingly real as the day that Saul stood there and watched God’s first martyr die! Had Stephen died with implications on his lips and blasphemies on his tongue and curse words flowing from his mouth, Saul would have thought that’s the way men die. But when Stephen died and the rocks had beaten him to his knees [Acts 7:58], the Book says he knelt down and prayed, saying, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge, and Lord receive my spirit.” And he fell asleep [Acts 7:59-60]. Isn’t that remarkable how the Book says, not that he died, he fell asleep in Jesus? And the Lord stood up in heaven [Acts 7:55-56]. The only place in God’s Book where it says Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and the Lord stood up to receive the spirit of His martyr. That’s why the Lord said to Saul of Tarsus, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:5], to fight against the goad. Stephen’s death had done something to Saul’s soul. Just avowing to you that this charitas, agape charity, godly love is not weakness. It is strength.
Now we must hasten. The last part of the chapter is Paul’s presentation of the impermanence of the gifts and the imperishable nature of this godly and Christian love. “Love never faileth: whether there be prophecies, they shall fail” [1 Corinthians 13:8]. I wish we could put all these sermons together. Do you remember my sermon last Sunday morning? Katargēthēsontai , render useless, no need for a prophecy when it is fulfilled. They shall fail, not in the sense they will not be fulfilled, not in the sense they break down, but they’re useless, katargēthēsontai. They will be rendered fruitless. Same thing about knowledge, uses the same word, katargēthēsontai. And whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away, it shall become useless [1 Corinthians 13:8]. No need for we have the full orb message of God, no need for a little piece or a speck of it. And whether there be tongues, they shall cease [1 Corinthians 13:8]. He changes the verb there, and he changes the voice, hēsontai, which is a middle. And whether there be tongues, they shall hēsontai, they shall automatically cease of themselves. Not needed for we know in part, and we prophesy in part [1 Corinthians 13:9]. These things, Paul says, are little pieces, they’re little portions, they’re just little segments, they’re fragments, and they’re swallowed up in the whole when the teleios—when that which is perfect is come—when the teleios come to mature, the consummation; when that is come, then that which is in part shall be done away [1 Corinthians 13:10]. It is no longer needed. It’s useless.
I can illustrate it with an acorn. To make an acorn permanent would be to destroy the hope of oak forests forever. But to sacrifice an acorn is to have a forest of them, boughs thick hanging down on every tree limb. The part, the little piece which is designated by God for a teleios, translated here, perfect, for a maturity, when that maturity is realized, the part is done away, it is useless. It has no further need. Then Paul’s going to illustrate it in his own way—I’ve done it with an acorn—he’s going to do it in the simile and metaphor of a child. “When I was a child, I spake as a child,” the gift of tongues; “When I was a child I understood as a child,” the gift of prophecy; “I thought as a child,” the gift of knowledge; “But when I became a man, I put away these childish things” [1 Corinthians 13:11]. For these belong to the infancy, the babyhood of the church, and they are no longer needed.
What need we now of a man who says, “I have a revelation from God,” when the whole fullness of God’s revelation is here in the Book I hold in my hand! What of use when a man says, “I have the gift of knowledge,” and he stands up and he judges between this prophecy and this prophecy as to which one is pertinent for us now, when I have the complete, the teleios, the consummation, the mature, the whole revelation of God here in the Book? He is not needed, he is not needed; they belong to the infancy of the church when we didn’t have the Bible, and the people gathered together knew not what to do. But the part is now swallowed up in the whole. And the infantile things are useless now in the maturity of the man.
Then Paul continues. That brings to him the thought of the ultimate consummation, when the teleios, the purpose shall come in the presence, in the parousia, in the glorious coming of our reigning, living Lord. “So,” he says, “that now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; then shall I know as God knows” [1 Corinthians 13:12]. Now we see through a glass esoptrou, esoptrou. When you think of a looking glass, today you think of a mirror such as is perfectly made, it is lined with silver, it is beautifully polished. And we can see ourselves—the Lord help us—exactly as we are. There I am, ugliness and all, misshapen and all. There I am, you look at me, a perfect image. There was nothing like that in this ancient day. All of the looking glasses, all of the mirrors that the women used were pieces of polished metal. And if you’ve ever looked at yourself in a piece of polished metal, the image is indistinct and wavy and hard to make out.
“So,” Paul says, “We see now as though we were looking in a esoptrou, a polished piece of metal, and it is indistinct, and it is wavy. Translated, “in a glass, darkly,” the Greek word is enigma, in an enigma, in an enigma. We don’t understand. There are so many facets of our lives that are shadowy and indistinct. There’s not anybody in this audience this morning or who listens on this radio or television that has not asked himself ten thousand times, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand this illness. And I don’t understand this circumstance. And I don’t understand this providence, and I don’t understand this sorrow, this heartache, this disaster and despair. I don’t understand,” all of us will in that circumscribed world of “I can’t see, I can’t understand, it’s shadowy, it’s an enigma.” But there is coming a day says the apostle when we shall see “face to face” [1 Corinthians 13:12]. No wavy shadowy metallic glass, polished mirror in which to look, but we shall see, face to face, and we shall know even as God knows. What a glorious promise.
Then he closes. “And in this day and in that day, there shall endure, abide forever, faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest is love” [1 Corinthians 13:13]. All of these indistinctions shall give way to distinctness. All of these un-understandings shall give way to perfect knowledge. All of these fragments and portions, transitional, shall give way to the perfect hope, the consummation. And all that shall remain is our faith in God, and our hope in God, and our love for God. Faith will ever be the basis of our enjoyment of our Lord. Hope will ever be that instrument by which we shall seize on and cling to the promises and the goodnesses and the glories of God. We’re not done in this world, and we’re not done in the world to come. It goes on and on forever, and love will ever be that unchangeable virtue by which all things subsist, even faith and hope.
Why, my brother, it’s the charitas in your heart, it’s the agape in your soul, it’s the charity in your life that makes joy a blessing, that makes giving a triumph, that makes our service acceptable, that makes worship in church a little bit of heaven. That’s what makes God’s people what they are.
I could imagine a successful doctor not loving his patients, a clever lawyer not loving his clients, a rich merchant not loving his customers, a brilliant professor not loving his students, a professional preacher not loving his parishioners, but I could never think of a sweet, dear, wonderful Christian not loving God and not loving God’s people.
There abideth faith, hope, love, and the greatest is the charitas, the agapē, the charity of our souls poured out before the Lord and His people [1 Corinthians 13:13]. Oh, it’s rich and full of meaning when we sit at the feet of Jesus and reap in His blessings.
Now we are past our time, and while we sing our hymn of appeal, somebody you give himself to the Lord. A family you, come into the fellowship of the church, a couple, a child, a youth, one somebody you, as God shall say the word, open the door, lead in the way, speak to your heart, as God shall invite, come. “Here I am, preacher, I give you my hand; I give my heart to the Lord.” Do it, when we stand up in a minute to sing, stand up coming, make it now, “Here I am, preacher, here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.
I. The context of the chapter
part of its importance is its contextual location
1. It is taken out of
context and always presented as a hymn on love
is in the midst of Paul’s discussion on the gifts of the Spirit
Chapter 12 – the purpose of the gifts(1
a. Paul faced problem
we face today – ignorance of the gifts
Two extremes – abuse, fanaticism and neglect, cold formalism
Devil delights in counterfeiting God’s signs
Chapter 14 – the perversion and abuse of the gifts, especially tongues
Chapter 13 – the highest uses of the gifts
Chapter 13 is not an interlude, but an interlink between 12 and 14
Appeal we dedicate gifts to the blessing of the people of the Lord
gifts without love are wayward, willful, minister to personal pride
II. Love the motive for the employment of
all spiritual gifts(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
however fervent, eloquent, do not profitthe speaker without love
of prophecy, knowledge, faith, profitless to the possessor of the gifts without
itself is not nothing; can be a blessing however the motive
when man gives a gift for any other motive than one of love, the man himself is
Even martyrdom may be welcomed because of fanaticism
III. The characteristics of true Christian
love(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Greek words that are translated “love”(John
3:16, 1 John 4:8)
Commonplace Greek word eros not used in Bible because it carried with it
a connotation of sensual carnality
Jerome translated agape into charitas
agape, charity, is not weakness, but strength(Genesis
29:20, Acts 7:56, 59-60, 22:12-13, 20, 26:14)
of spiritual gifts; imperishable nature of love(1
gifts are fragments, pieces of a greater whole
teleios, the maturity is realized, the fragments are no longer needed
gifts cease in the sense that they are swallowed up in the whole
three graces, faith, hope, love, endure forever