by Spiros Zodhiates
Dr. Zodhiates concludes his exploration of the implications of Paul’s teaching on our future state, when we shall live eternally in the light of God’s glory.
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“. . . but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
People from all walks of life—and all degrees of spirituality—might agree that love is the greatest force in the world, yet each would probably mean something different by it. To a teenager it would mean romance, to a businessman the motivation for promoting sales of anything from perfume to records, to a nurse the “tender–loving–care” technique of helping the sick and poor, and so on.
Yet in each instance they would be thinking of only one phase of love. When the Apostle Paul declared the superiority of love over all other virtues, he was not speaking merely of kindness, or affection between husband and wife, or professional solicitude, but of the highest and purest form of love that can come to man—the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit.
Why does Paul say that love is greater than faith or hope? We have seen that they are coexistent and co-essential—that is, that you can’t have one without the other. Nevertheless, Paul declares love is superior to faith and hope. Why?
First, without God’s love and its creative inspiration in our innermost selves, we could have no faith or hope in Him. It is God’s love touching our hearts that causes our faith and hope to spring up in response to Him. Therefore, love is greater than faith or hope because it is the ground of their existence. Furthermore, faith and hope are not ends in themselves; they lead us to love God in return. And in that love we also come to love all whom God Himself loves.
Love is also superior to faith and hope because it has a larger application. Love does not go forth to God alone but to our fellow men also. Because love has a supreme regard for the welfare of others, it is of greater excellence than anything that concerns the self alone. Love is the debt I always owe and am always paying.
Faith makes us God’s dutiful servants; hope makes us His joyful carolers; but the love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit makes us His own acknowledged children, for “every one that loveth is born of God” (1 John 4:7). Therefore, though faith and hope are as enduring as love, “the greatest of these is love.”
But are faith, hope, and love all that constitute true religion? What about wisdom, courage, patience, obedience, zeal, purity, and the like? On analysis, we find that these are all the outcome of faith, hope, and love. Possessing these three virtues, we possess all others. Spiritual wisdom, for instance, is really the operation of faith, hope, and love upon knowledge and discernment. In like manner, courage depends upon the measure of our faith, the brightness of our hope, and the intensity of our love. Examine all other virtues that belong to religion and you will find that they are either the immediate result of faith, hope, and love, or are so related to them that they cannot fail to exist when faith, hope, and love are fully present.
Paul emphasized these three virtues especially as he wrote to the Corinthian believers because he wanted to give them God’s standard for evaluating their Christianity. There was quite a bit of confusion in the Corinthian church over such items as the gift of tongues, of prophecy, of knowledge, and other matters. Paul wanted them to see that they could only measure the quality or quantity of their Christianity by possession of the basic virtues: faith, hope, and love.
As Christian believers, we are sorely in need of this standard today. Here we have the absolute standard of Christian character. This criterion enables us to judge whether we are really Christians at all, and then, if we are truly Christians, to understand how far we have advanced in the Christian life. It is a dangerous thing to rely solely on an initial decision for Christ as the ground for your salvation, without having any subsequent evidence of or effort toward growth. In that great day when God’s infallible standard is applied to all, many persons who thought themselves high on the scale of Christian values will prove to be at the bottom, and many who thought humbly of themselves will be exalted.
Moreover, Paul holds up these three qualities before the Corinthians not only as a standard but also as a stimulus. It is not enough merely to know what these things are. We must strive with God’s help to excel in them. This is the “more excellent way” in which anyone who is a believer may strive to attain an ever–unfolding dynamic spiritual maturity now, and sinless perfection in the life to come. If this growth toward Christian maturity were a matter of great intellect, or talent, or wealth, most of us would become discouraged, certain we would surely fail in such a competition. But in the matter of faith, hope, and love there is nothing to prevent any believer from doing his best. In fact, the humblest among us may attain as much as or more than the most gifted.
“But how am I to love?” you ask. Not by an effort of will, by copying others, or by following a set of rules. It is only by contemplating the love of Christ that your heart can be slowly changed. Look at Christ dying upon the cross because of His great love for you and for all sinners. Allow yourself to be drawn to Christ, remain side by side with Him who loved us and gave Himself for us, and like Him you will draw all men unto you, like Him you will be drawn unto all men. There is no mystery about it. We love God, we love others, we love everybody, we love our enemies, because He first loved us (Drummond, “The Analysis,” Addresses, 56–8).
© From To Love Is to Live, an exegetical commentary on 1 Corinthians 13, 1967, revised 1998. Available from AMG Publishers.