The More Excellent Way
July 24th, 1966 @ 8:15 AM
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 13
7-24-66 8:15 a.m.
On the radio 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, or The Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Baptized in Love. The sermon concerns the most famous of all of the love chapters or the writings of any kind, secular or sacred on the subject of love. And if you would like to turn in your Bible to the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, you can easily follow the message of the morning; 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
No small part of the significance and the importance of the chapter lies in its contextual location. It is in the midst of Paul’s long discussion on spiritual gifts. And chapter 13 is not as though the apostle suddenly burst into a song, a hymn, a paean of praise on love. But it is rather a discussion of spiritual gifts in the hands of love.
Chapter 12 is a discussion of spiritual gifts as they are related to the church. Chapter 14 is the discussion of the perversion of spiritual gifts and especially the abuse of tongues. And in between this chapter 12 on the purpose of the gifts and chapter 14 on the perversion of the gifts, you have this chapter 13 which is a discussion of the true spiritual motivation of the heavenly gifts.
Now chapter 12 begins: “Now concerning the pneumatikon,” the spiritual; or as he uses the word several times later on, “Now concerning the charismata,” the grace gifts, “my brethren, I would not have you ignorant” [1 Corinthians 12:1]. Paul faced in his day the same problem that we face in our day, namely, ignorance concerning spiritual gifts, the pneumatikon, the charismata, the grace gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows upon all of the members of His church. Now we have left almost altogether the teaching and the instruction concerning the pneumatika, the charismata; we have left that teaching almost altogether to extreme groups, to the fanatical, with the consequence that it has taken the form of excess and abuse or fanaticism. Then, of course, you have an opposite pendulum reaction of neglect and formal coldness. All of these things arise because of our ignorance of spiritual gifts.
Another thing; Satan is also very willing and very eager to counterfeit all of the works of God. When Aaron and Moses performed their glorious signs in the presence of Pharaoh in Egypt, the enchanters and the sorcerers of Pharaoh imitated those miraculous signs of these true emissaries of God [Exodus 7:10-8:7]. When Micaiah stood before Ahab as a true prophet of God, to oppose him stood Zedekiah, a false prophet [1 Kings 22:13-28]. Satan always will oppose the truth through a counterfeit. If there is a true preacher of Christ, there is also a counterfeit, a false and an empty preacher of Christ. If there are signs that God does among His saints, there are also signs that Satan does counterfeiting the true works of heaven.
So Paul faced the same problem in his day that we face in our day; ignorance concerning spiritual gifts. And the twelfth chapter is a discussion of the apostle on the purpose and the relationship of those gifts in the household of faith, in the church. Now the fourteenth chapter is a discussion of the perversion of those gifts and especially the gift of speaking in tongues. And the thirteenth chapter in between is a continuation of that discussion begun in chapter 12. Chapter 12 introduces the pneumatika, the charismata. Chapter 14 is a continuation of that discussion introduced in chapter 12. And chapter 13, the in between chapter, is a continuation of that discussion of the pneumatika, the charismata.
In all of my life I have never heard the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians presented as Paul wrote it here in the Bible. It is always taken out of its context and used as a glorious tribute to love. And not one time in all of my life have I ever heard an exposition of the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians presenting what Paul was saying, not one time. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is not an interlude in this discussion on the charismata. It is rather an interlink. It is not a digression, a change of direction in the discussion of these pneumatika, it is rather an intensification of the theme. Nor, as I said, is it a turning aside as though Paul burst out into a glorious song about love. It is rather a discussion of the spiritual gifts, the charismata in the hands and motivated by godly compassion and human love and sympathy.
So as we turn to the chapter we are going to see Paul avow what he wrote in the last verse of the twelfth chapter and the first verse of the fourteenth chapter. And those Greek words used here are almost identical: “Covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way” [1 Corinthians 12:31]. That’s the way he closed chapter 12, and this is the way he begins chapter 14, “Follow after charity, after love, and desire spiritual gifts” [1 Corinthians 14:1]. For, you see, Paul avows that spiritual gifts without love are wayward and given to excess and abuse. But love without spiritual gifts is cheaply sentimental and unoccupied. But spiritual gifts in the hands of love, and directed and motivated by love, bless the household of God and extend the kingdom of our Lord. So let us begin.
Paul avows, “Though I speak with the tongues,” the gift of tongues:
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 though I have the gift of knowledge and understand all mysteries, and though I have the gift of 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]
Here is the image of a man who has all of the endowments, natural by birth and charismatic by the visitation of the Holy Spirit. He is a gloriously endowed man, and yet, if he has not the burning coal of compassion from off God’s altar, these gifts profit him nothing. Now Paul does not say the gift is nothing. He says the man who possesses them is not profited if he does not have the love and sympathy and compassion of God in his heart.
Since I have begun preaching these sermons on the charismatic gifts, I have received many letters. And most of them come from people who say that they are sanctified. Yet the spirit they express in those letters is bitter and castigating. Isn’t that a strange thing that the people who are supposed to be the most sanctified usually exhibit the worst and the most caustic and critical spirit? However we may have the gift of knowledge or the gift of understanding, and however we may be endowed in eloquence, in forensics, if we have not the spirit of compassion and sympathy and love, we are in ourselves nothing!
A long time ago I came to the conclusion, that when a man stands up to criticize or to lambaste, he ought to be in that moment in his most humble and prayerful pouring out of his soul before God. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I,” not the gift, “I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal” [1 Corinthians 13:1]. There are men whose greatness is found only in their forensic abilities. Their genius expends itself in a spray of words and in the froth of easily forgotten rhetoric. Their hearts are removed though they have the gift of marvelous eloquence. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become empty and hollow, like a clanging symbol” [1 Corinthians 13:1], like the castanets; the metallic sound of metal keeping time with some rhythmic beat.
“Yea, and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have the gift of faith, so that I could change the very typography of this earth, and have not love, I am nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:2]. The deeds that a man does, profit him nothing, unless what he does is motivated by the great outpouring of his heart for human need. “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 13:3].
Now he does not say there that the gift of philanthropy profits nothing. It is the giver who is not profited unless what he does is done in love. For the gift of philanthropy, however it is bestowed, can profit an institution or a great noble cause. Here is a man who gives because he hates his son; or, he gives for purposes of ostentation, or to be known as a generous man, or to brighten his image in the community, or to buy his way to heaven. There are many reasons why a man might give. And whatever he gives will bless the cause to which he bestows the endowment. But Paul says the giving does not bless him unless it comes out of heart of deepest sympathy and compassion and love. God demands the heart. A man may look at the gift, but God will look at the motive that lies back of the gift.
One of the things I well remember in the life of Andrew Fuller and William Carey was this: when William Carey as the first modern missionary said to the little society of Baptist ministers, “I will go down into the well and you hold the ropes.” So William Carey went away to India, and Andrew Fuller stayed in England to support God’s missionary. And as Andrew Fuller went from house to house and place to place beseeching funds for that first modern missionary enterprise, he called upon an English nobleman. And when the eloquent and gifted preacher made his appeal to the English nobleman in his study, in his office, the English nobleman pulled out of his pocket a gold coin, an English guinea, and flung it on the table in contempt there for the missionary.
And Andrew Fuller picked it up and pushed it back across the desk to the rich man and said, “I cannot take it, for my Lord demands the heart.” And stung by the rebuke, the English nobleman slowly picked up the gold piece and put it back in his pocket, thought for a moment, sat down at the desk, wrote out a check, handed it to Andrew Fuller and said, “Take this, for this comes from the heart.” “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:3].
“Yea, though I give my body to be burned” [1 Corinthians 13:3], for you see martyrdom can be the fruit of fanaticism. One of the strangest things that I read in the story of the church is this: in those first centuries the fanatical Christian sought—eagerly sought—martyrdom, for they desired the personal glory of the martyr’s crown. Not because they had a great love for Jesus but they were fanatical. “Though I give my body to be burned, and it is not motivated by a great commitment in my soul to God and to helpless men, I am nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:3].
Then Paul speaks of what this love is:
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked,
Rejoiceth not in iniquity,
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
[1 Corinthians 13:4-7]
Now the characteristics of this love that God will bless; there are many words in this Greek New Testament that are translated “love,” many words. Philagathos is the love for that which is good, philagathos. Philadelphia is the love for the brethren; philanthropia is the love for mankind. Philosophia is the love for wisdom and learning; phileō is the love we express toward a friend. Agapē is the love like God, 1 John 4:8: agapē, “God is love,” agapē—that is the love of John 3:16, of Christ on the cross.
There are many words like that, but there is a common Greek word for love used by the philosophers, the metaphysicians, the mythologists, and the man on the street. And to the amazement of anyone who would ever study classical Greek literature and read the Greek New Testament, anyone converseth with the Greek language, he would be startled and amazed that that word for “love” is never found in the Bible, never. It is the word eros, the Greek word eros was also the name for the little god of love. The Latins call him “Cupid,” and Cupid in Latin is the son of the Latin goddess of love, Venus. In Greek, Eros, the little god of love, is the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. And you would expect that that common, ordinarily used Greek word for love, eros, would be found in the Bible. It is never seen, for it carried with it a connotation of sensuality and carnality.
When the sainted translator and scholar Jerome took the Greek New Testament Scriptures and translated them into the Latin Vulgate, why, he had before him this word agapē, agapē. And the common Latin word for love is amor. And normally Jerome would have translated agapē by amor, but here again the same hesitancy that caused the inspired Greek writers never to use the word eros caused Jerome to discard the Latin amor which also carried with it sensual carnality.
So Jerome chose a word, charitas, charitas, charitas. The Latin charitas is, actually it means “dearness” in the sense of costliness, respect, esteem, adoration. And out of that word charitas; the King James translation took the word built on charitas, our charity. And in 1611 the word “charity” meant that high, and godly, and holy emotion in the hearts of the saints of God for their Lord and for the brotherhood. So beautiful is the word, and so Christian is the word, that finally it came to mean in modern English the expression of our interest in those who are helpless and in need; charity. And that’s why you have it translated:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity—charitas, agapē—I am become as sounding brass.
Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, give my body to be burned, and have not charity—charitas, agapē—it profiteth me nothing.
[1 Corinthians 13:1, 3]
This, Paul avows, is not a weakness but it is a strength. This charitas, this agapē will sit up all night long and in the morning humbly say, “But I am not tired.” This charitas, this charity, this agapē will work seven years for Rachel and then seven more years for Rachel, and it will seem as nothing because of the great love wherewith he loved her [Genesis 29:20, 27-28]. This is the strength of God in the people of the Lord.
I do not think there is any doubt what God meant when He said to Saul, breathing out threatening and slaughter against the people of Christ [Acts 9:1], when the Lord stopped him and met him on the road to Damascus the Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” Now listen, “And the Lord added, It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:4-5]. What does God mean? “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” I don’t think there’s any doubt what the Lord meant, for in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Acts when Paul describes that conversion on the Damascus road [Acts 9:1-18], and God’s call to him to be a minister to the Gentiles [Acts 9:15], Paul said, “But Lord, when the blood of Thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting unto his death, and I kept the raiment of them that slew him” [Acts 22:20]. Why, that was years, and years, and years, and years later, yet that scene of the martyrdom of God’s sainted Stephen burned as brilliantly and as brightly in his memory that day in the after years as when he stood and watched Stephen die! [Acts 7:54-60, 22:20]
How did Stephen die? With curses and blasphemies on his lip asking God’s implications upon those who took his life? That’s why Jesus said, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:4-5]. Stephen died kneeling down and praying; “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” [Acts 7:60]. Such love, “The meek shall inherit the earth” [Matthew 5:5], this love—charitas, charity, agapē—never faileth [1 Corinthians 13:8].
Then Paul closes the chapter with a discussion of the impermanence of gifts; the transitory, transitional nature of spiritual gifts, and the imperishable and eternal nature of this godly kind of love. So he writes, “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail” [1 Corinthians 13:8]. I wish I could put all of these sermons together. Katargēthēsontai; remember my sermon a Sunday ago? Whether there be the gift of prophecy, it will become useless. Don’t need it anymore. When the prophecy is fulfilled and God has given us the blessing, don’t need the prophecy anymore. Whether there be tongues, they shall katargēthesontai; changes the verb and the voice of the verb, they shall automatically cease of themselves. And whether there be the gift of knowledge it also shall katargēthesontai; it shall become useless. Don’t need it anymore “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part” [1 Corinthians 13:9].
Paul is avowing these things are just fragments. These things are just pieces. These things are just portions, just parts. And as such they are transitory, and transitional, and will be swallowed up in the whole; pass away. You know I can illustrate that. And he’s going to illustrate it here in the next verse. I can illustrate that from my own observation. To make permanent an acorn, would be to render forever oak forests impossible. But to look upon the transitory, transitional, impermanent nature of an acorn is to have a forest full of them with the boughs of the tree hanging thick with them. That is the way with spiritual gifts. They have a purpose. And when they’ve served their purpose they cease to exist. They are taken away; just as when you have a little piece it belongs to the whole, and when you possess the whole, well, that little piece there is swallowed up in the whole revelation.
Then Paul will illustrate it, “When that which is perfect is come,” teleios––when the mature, when the thing for which it is reaching out toward, when we mature, when the consummation is come––“then that which is in part shall be done away” [1 Corinthians 13:10]. Then he illustrates it; “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, “And when I was a child 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].
These things belong to the babyhood of the church. They belong to the infantile life of the church. And when we have the full orbed revelation of God, first in the Book, then the gift of the prophet to tell us the revelation of God is automatically unnecessary. And the gift of tongues, a sign from God, is unnecessary, and the gift of knowledge, to know what is the answer of God to the laborer and the worker of the church, is unnecessary [1 Corinthians 13:8]; for we have the full revelation. No longer as infants do we need these signs and these gifts [1 Corinthians 13:9-11].
Then that leads him to speak of the ultimate and final consummation. “Now here in this life we see through a glass, darkly,” esoptrou, “we see through a glass, darkly” [1 Corinthians 13:12]. When you read that you think of a pane of glass that is smoked and you’re trying to see through it. An iskon were those polished mirrors that the women used in that ancient day. They did not have the beautiful silver-backed mirrors that our women have today which will present a perfect image––and that’s bad for so many of us. And the mirrors that the women had in that ancient day were polished bronze, they were metallic. And they gave an indistinct image. If you’ve ever looked at yourself in a polished piece of metal, it is wavy, and it is shadowy, and it is distorted, and it is never perfect. So Paul says this is our condition in knowledge and understanding now; weak here, and we seek, and we try, and we ask, but the image is not distinct, and we can’t see it perfectly and fully.
But someday we shall see without any mirror, without any wavy, shadowy image. “We shall see face to face: and then shall I know even as God knows” [1 Corinthians 13:12]. Think of it, think of it. Thousand times a thousand times in your life will you say, “I don’t understand God. I don’t understand this sorrow, and this sickness, and this death, and this disappointment, and this frustration, and this defeat. I don’t see it and I don’t understand it.” You never will in this life. But someday, someday when you see God face to face you will know even as God knows [1 Corinthians 13:12].
Then he closes this incomparable chapter. “There abideth,” when all of these transitory gifts are gone [1 Corinthians 13:8], “there abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” [1 Corinthians 13:13]. Faith will ever be the basis of our enjoyment of God. Hope will ever be that divine expectation and assurance that we have in our Lord. Love will ever be the unchangeable subsistence in which all of other things abide, even faith and hope itself. “Love endureth,” imperishable, “forever” [1 Corinthians 13:13]. And having in our hearts that godly charitas—charity, agapē—giving becomes a joy. Service becomes a pleasure. Worship in the church is like a bit of heaven. It is love that makes a soulwinner.
I could imagine a doctor, successful, who didn’t love his patients. I could imagine a clever lawyer who doesn’t love his clients; a rich merchant who doesn’t love his customers; a brilliant professor who doesn’t love his students; a professional preacher who doesn’t love his parishioners. I could never imagine a man who had the Spirit of Jesus, whether a doctor, a lawyer, or a merchant; whether a pastor, or an evangelist, or a missionary who had the Spirit of Jesus who did not love his people. And this is God’s will for our lives; however we serve, and with whatever gifts the Lord has bestowed upon us, to dedicate our service and our ministries to our Lord because of the love for Him and His people in our souls.
You know I had a beautiful poem here to read. Isaac Watts took the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians and made a beautiful hymn out of it. All of you who want me to read this hold up your hands. All right, hands down. I didn’t intend to read it but everybody wants me to so I shall. Isaac Watts, as you know, is the incomparable hymn writer. We sang his beautiful hymn this morning. And he turned it into a beautiful song.
Had I the tongues of Greeks and Jews,
And nobler speech than angels use,
Yet love be absent, I am found
Like tinkling brass, an empty sound
Were I inspired to preach and tell
All that is done in heaven and hell,
Or could my faith the world remove,
Still I am nothing without love.
Should I distribute all my store
To feed the hungry, clothe the poor,
Or give my body to the flame
To gain a martyr’s glorious name.
If love to God and love to men
Be absent, all my hopes are vain;
Nor tongues, nor gifts, nor fiery zeal
The work of love can e’er fulfill.
[“Religion Vain without Love,” Isaac watts]
That’s what he wrote about three hundred years ago. Well, the Lord bless us as we sit at the feet of our blessed Savior and learn of Him.
Now while we sing our song of appeal, on the first note of that first stanza, you come. Somebody give himself to Jesus [Romans 10:9-10], somebody put his life in the fellowship of our church; a family, or just you; a child, a youth, however God shall press the appeal to your heart, make it now, come this morning, while we stand and while we sing.