The Greatest of These Is…

Weddings1 Corinthians 13 is probably the most widely read passage at weddings. True, it’s the most beautiful description there is in Scripture about love – yet the context of the passage is not about marriage. It is about serving one another and when you think about it, that is what marriage is really all about.
I’d like us to examine this passage under three headings:

The motive is Love (12:31-13:3)
The quality is Divine (13:4-8)
The purpose is maturity (13:9-13).

  1. The Motive is Love

“And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3)
Do you see how important love is? The gifts of prophecy, knowledge, faith, giving, mentioned here are valuable or worthless depending on one thing: Motive. Listen to how these verses are translated in the Message translation.

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The question I must ask myself therefore is this: Why am I serving? Why am I not serving? What is my motive?  Our motive must be love.

  1. The Quality is Divine

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Love is probably the most devalued and debased word in the English language. That is why this definition is so important for it defines authentic love.  Several years ago, someone challenged me to replace the word love in this passage with my name. Stephen is patient. Stephen is kind. Stephen does not envy. Stephen does not boast. Stephen is not proud. Stephen is not rude. It sounds lovely. The only problem is it’s not true – ask Joanna and my children. And for years that was my problem with this paragraph. It set a standard I could not meet. No one can meet it. No one. No one, that is, except Jesus.

For in reality, this quality of love is divine. Insert Christ’s name in place of the word love and see if it rings true. Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. Jesus is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Jesus never fails. “Rather than let this scripture remind us of a love we cannot produce, let it remind us of a love we cannot resist – God’s love. Some of you are so thirsty for this type of love.  Well, God loves you. Personally. Powerfully. Passionately. Others may have promised and failed. But God has promised and succeeded. He loves you with an unfailing love. And his love – if you will let it – can fill you and leave you with a love worth giving. What is done in love lasts. In other words, what is done in Christ will last. When we are serving in the name of Christ, in the power of Christ, we are serv­ing in love. The tasks we do are not as important to God as the heart in which we do them. Our motive in serving must be love. The quality of love is divine

  1. The Purpose is Maturity

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-13)

Notice the emphasis of these verses is on growing up – from childhood to maturity. And marriage helps us achieve that like no other institution on earth. In verse 11 Paul describes in the past tense how he has grown then in verse 12 he looks forward to further growth. The reason? God has not finished with us. This is the reason why marriage is so important – why you need one another’s gifts and abilities to help you grow together to maturity. And with God’s help you will.

When kindness comes grudgingly, you’ll remember his kindness to you and ask him to make you more kind. When patience is scarce, you’ll thank him for his and ask him to make you more patient. When it’s hard to forgive, you won’t list all the times you’ve been given grief. Rather, you’ll list all the times you’ve been given grace and pray to become more forgiving. For when you do, you will discover a love worth giving, a love worth sharing, not just today but for ever.


A sermon delivered today at Christ Church, Virginia Water at the wedding of Toby & Belinda.