What makes the Church more like Heaven?

Posted on 18 Feb 2018, Pastor: Rev Hans Vaatstra

Manuscript of this sermon is available for reading services.

18 February 2018 11 AM
Rev Hans Vaatstra
Readings: Galatians 5:16-26
Text: 1 Corinthians 13


What makes the church look like heaven?

Reading Galatians 5:16-26 Text: 1 Corinthians 13

In the previous chapter we have been discussion the spiritual gifts which God gives to each member in the church so that when we each utilise our gift whatever the gift may be the church thrives just as our bodies thrive when all our limbs and organs are intact and doing what they should be doing.

However it is possible that when we exercise our gift we do more harm than good. This is what happened in the church at Corinth. Some were very knowledgeable, others had the ability to speak in tongues, others were well off and had the ability to contribute financially.   But they were getting nowhere because of factions and elitism in the church driven by envy and ambition. What was missing?  Love!

What is love? Unfortunately modern definitions of love are often at variance with the Biblical definition. These days love can mean fondness, or is confused with eros which is the Greek word for erotic affection. The word used here and elsewhere in the NT is agape which is the same word used in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Or in Matthew 22:27 where God commands us to love him with heart soul mind and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves, even if the neighbour is our enemy or we don’t like our neighbour.

This love, is a love which originates with God. It is a divine love and it becomes a way of life for the person who is in a living relationship with God.

One of the clearest expressions of this divine love is found here in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous letter of love which has three obvious divisions. 1 love is indispensable. 2 the elements of love and three the permanence of love.

  1. 1. Let’s consider the first one. Love is indispensable. Paul illustrates the point in three ways. “If I speak with tongues of men and of angels but do not have love I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. ”I can imagine that if you were to listen to the brassy monotone of a banging gong after a while it would be rather irritating.

Similarly the gift of speech, heavenly or otherwise without love becomes meaningless or irritating noise to the listener. It wouldn’t matter who said it, not even Paul himself since he’s writing in the first person here.   Obviously some in the church at Corinth were irritated by the practice of tongue speaking which is why Paul needed to regulate it so that it would be edifying rather than annoying. You may think you have a gift that others need to benefit from. Love helps us to get it across in a beneficial way.

In verse 2 Paul says much the same thing about knowledge and the gift of prophecy. No matter how much great information is passed on it is without value unless it is accompanied with love. It’s the same with faith, even the faith that can move mountains is according to Paul, worthless without love. If Paul were writing to the 21st century church he would say well it is no good trying to prove how spiritual you are by showing everyone how much theology and scripture you know. Without love it means nothing. We find in Revelation 3 that the Ephesians were theologically savvy. They were able to put some of their own clever teachers to the test and find them wanting.  But they had lost their first love and Jesus said unless they repented He would remove their lampstand. In other words they would cease to be a true church. Knowledge on its own means nothing. As Paul said earlier in chapter 2: 14 it is only through the spirit of God that we understand the Word of God and it is the Spirit of God who gives us the fruits of the Spirit.  The foremost fruit is love.

To drive the point home Paul uses a third illustration. If I give all my possession to the poor and I deliver my body to be burned but have not love it profits me nothing.” You could be one of the world’s richest men.  You could be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, donate not just millions but tens of billions to charity. According to 1 Corinthians 13 if your philanthropy is not done in love then you’d still be a spiritual bankrupt. If you didn’t give money away out of love then why else would you but for self-glorification?

It is not that Paul depreciates generosity per se any of the other spiritual gifts. Its just that if they are exercised without love then Paul says that they have no spiritual value.

That then raises the question what is love? We move to the next point

  1. The elements of love. The thing we notice about the list of characteristics is that they have little to do with feelings or sentimentality and everything to do with behaviour.

Love is patient. When you are patient you are willing to wait, a long time if necessary for something to happen. For example we can think of those imprisoned for their faith in Christ. All it might take is a recantation and they’re free. But because they love Christ more than that and prefer to be ill-treated in prison than deny their saviour. Furthermore patience endures an offence without retaliating. Proverbs 19:11 says A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger and it is his glory to overlook an offence. “ Love is patient.

Love is also kind. It doesn’t just overlook an offence but pays back injury with kindness. Isn’t that the way God deals with us? He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. He doesn’t punish us according to our iniquities but as the Psalmist says “As high as the heavens are above the earth so great is God’s loving kindness towards those who fear him.” It is easy to be kind to friends!  But while we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to Him through his son. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us!  There you have a loving-kindness which goes way beyond sentimentality. It’s a love which we are called to imitate.

Paul continues. Love is not jealous. We could also use the word envious. In Corinth the non-charismatics might have been envious of the tongue speaking and prophesying charismatics who may have been proud and boastful about their special gift and so you end up with a ‘them & us’ situation.  But love does not boast. The charismatics in Corinth may have had to learn that lesson in case they thought they were a cut above the rest. Love isn’t proud or puffed up doesn’t think more highly of oneself than others but as Paul wrote elsewhere considers others as more important than self.

Neither does love act unbecomingly or rudely. For example love does not act improperly towards a young woman and then refuses to marry her. Love isn’t rude like that.

Love is not self-serving. They say that you can tell a person of character by the way they present themselves towards their prospective employers or other important people.  The person with the loving character is seen by the way he addresses his servants, the poor man in the street, the drunk or drug addict, the ex-convict, the solo mum with no money and three kids whose fathers are nowhere to be seen.

Love doesn’t go standing on ‘my rights.’ We see plenty of that these days. When a public figure made a suggestion that a certain segment of the population serve their country rather always than demand their rights, the response was nothing short of outrage.  Love is not self-seeking but is prepared to give up one’s own entitlement for the sake of others.

Love is not provoked, in other words not easily angered. It isn’t touchy. Love doesn’t have a quick temper which barely hides underneath a respectable façade but at the slightest offence real or imagined is quick to take umbrage and snap back at the alleged offender.

If a real offence has been committed love keeps no record of wrongs.  Love doesn’t have a long file of personal grievances which are dragged up at the slightest pretext. Love doesn’t harbour grudges or try to shift blame. Love doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness.  It is not fake self-righteousness which feigns moral indignation in the face of immorality but behind closed doors secretly revels in it.

Love doesn’t dwell on what is wrong with others but rejoices in the truth and in what is right about others Love gladly puts oneself aside to rejoice with others in their successes and good actions.

Finally, verse 7 again emphasises the selflessness of love. Love bears all things believes all things hopes all things and endures all things. Love is generous in its openness and acceptance rather than cynical and suspicious. Love lives in hope even when disappointed over and over. Love is always ready to give someone a second chance and to forgive seventy times seven.

Well there you have the important elements of love.

But what is it about this love that is so different from affectionate love or the love brought on by attraction between a man and a women or the love between friends.

Essentially the difference is that this love described here in 1 Corinthians 13 is the kind of love God shows us. If a young man is passionately in love with a young woman it is because he finds the young woman lovely. But God loves what is unlovely. As John 16 says, God loves the world, in other words people of all nations, races and tongues not because we are so lovely but because God is love. One commentator used the term ‘self-originating”.

That’s the kind of love Paul describes here in 1 Corinthians 13. It is self-originating love which is seen perfectly in Jesus Christ and which is learned by the followers of Christ. Furthermore as Paul put it at the end of chapter 12 it is the more excellent way and the distinguishing mark of the true Christian. As Jesus put it in John 13:35. “All men will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” So we’ve seen that love is indispensable, we’ve also considered the elements of Biblical love, in the third place, love endures.

  1. An enduring love. Verse 8 says love never fails. Prophecy will be done away with tongues will cease, knowledge will pass away. Some take that verse and those which follow to the end of the chapter as signalling the cessation of tongues, prophecy and knowledge as special revelation which comes directly from God. The reasoning behind that comes from verse 10 which says, “When the perfect comes the partial will be done away with.” In other words with the coming of Christ, his humiliation and exaltation, and then with the completion of the Canon of Scripture, God’s revelation for the church of all ages is perfected. In Christ and the Bible we have all we need for faith and life therefore there is no further need for these so called revelatory gifts. So, ultimately what remains is love.

Others argue that perfection won’t be reached until Christ returns and ushers in the eternal age and that is when tongues prophecy and knowledge cease. So they would argue that this passage does not support the cessationist position.

However the New Testament period does show that tongues speaking which we read about in the book of Acts and Corinthians disappeared in later years. For example, when Clement of Alexandria wrote his letter to the Corinthian church in AD 96 no mention was made of tongues speaking in any of the 65 chapters of that letter. On the other hand knowledge and prophecy do continue, although not as miraculous revelatory gifts but so that we grow in our knowledge of the Bible.  Prophecy also in the sense that the work of preaching teaching and applying the Bible is an ongoing task for the church. That work will continue till the end of the age. Only then will our knowledge of God be complete; when we see God face to face in the new heavens and new earth.

Now as Paul puts it we see as in a mirror, then we will see face to face we will see the face of Jesus and know God’s word fully. In verse 11 the Corinthians were depicted as children playing with toys. You expect a child to act like a child but then you also expect that over time a child will mature and put away childish things. Well for the church that maturity comes with a deeper understanding of Christ and the Bible and a more consistent practice of Christian virtues, the greatest of which is love.

So Paul concludes now there remain faith hope and love these three but the greatest of these is love.  These three virtues, faith, hope and love are often mentioned together in the New Testament. The gift of tongues and prophecy as new revelation may cease but the three important virtues remain. But why is love greater than the others?  It is because there will come a time when faith becomes sight according to 2 Cor. 5:7 and when hope becomes reality according to Romans 8:4. That’s not to say that in the new heavens and earth there be no faith or hope at all. There will still be faith as trust in God. One would also think that hope will be there in our new lives since we’ll never stop looking forward to what God may have instore for us or what work he would have us do in the life to come.

Nevertheless the greatest of these is love. Why? Because God is love and it is God’s love which makes the church on earth resemble the church in heaven more than any other virtue.  Therefore love is the most important spiritual gift that we have.

The practice of Christians love or as the KJV translates agape, ‘charity’ is the clearest evidence that the Spirit had been poured out on the church. Love among our brothers and sisters in the church gives us a measure of heaven on earth. Love makes citizens of the kingdom of God. Because we know something of the height breadth and depth of God’s love in Christ, we are also able to love.