Prominence or Profitableness in the Assembly
E. H. Betts, Teignmouth
WHEN the Apostle Paul said, " Covet earnestly the best gifts ; and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way " (1 Cor. 12. 31), he had in mind the life and activities of the assembly. There is no doubt about this, for the passage in which these words occur (1 Cor. 12. 31 to 13. 13) is set as a jewel in the very heart of a group of chapters dealing with assembly life and activity. We have in fact these subjects amongst others : coming together for the Lord's Supper (ch. 11), diversity of gifts and functions within the unity of the body (ch. 12), the mainspring of all assembly activity, viz., love (ch. 13), and lastly, control of gift with a view to comely order " when the whole assembly is come together " (ch. 14).
Love of Prominence.Paul was painfully aware of the tendency in Corinth to indulge a carnal fancy for the ostentatious—a fondness for the exercise and display of those gifts which may bring the possessor into prominence. Knowledge was in high esteem, to the detriment of love and tender care for the weak conscience. But knowledge puffs up, said the Apostle, whereas love builds up (ch. 8. 1). Tongues—the gift lending itself to display—stood at a premium in Corinth. And of it Paul said, surely not without a keen edged play on the sense of the word " edify," " He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself, but he that prophesieth edifieth the assembly " (ch. 14. 4).
Here, then, in our verse (12. 31), the Apostle is about to bring to light an important secret, the secret of profitableness in assembly life and fellowship—the means and the guarantee of edification. And we have at once " Though I speak . . . and have not love I am nothing."
The Secret of Profitableness.
We may well give heed to his burning words. For a like fondness to that of the Corinthians for display may be ours too. What value, we must admit, we set, all of us, on eloquence ! What primacy of place is readily yielded amongst us to the facile ministry of speech ! What powers of entertainment it may hold for us! But dwell for a moment on the tremendous import of this concessive clause : " Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels . . ." Could we but hear one thus richly gifted should we not hang on his lips ? Should we not treasure up the very sounds themselves and as long as possible enjoy their mere reverberations in our memories ? Indeed. And yet there is a condition. " Though I speak . . . and have not love, I AM nothing." Here is the secret itself. Love is the spring of vitality, of living force, of effectiveness in all we do. If love is not my urge, my impelling force and my compelling motive, no matter what my clarity, my fluency or my use of stored-up truth, / am nothing.
We must not allow ourselves to think that in using these words " lam nothing," the apostle has inadvertently fallen into an extravagant form of speech. He means what he says. He means it, literally. For love, divine love, inworking in the hearts and lives of the members of the assembly, is the very ' stuff' of assembly life. Without it, whatever notable gift may be exercised, whatever talent may be laid under contribution or stores of Biblical knowledge brought into play—without love, we repeat, there is no real contribution to assembly life or assembly growth, no heightening of the beat or throb of the life of its real being.
The Hallmark of Life.
For love, divine love, has been implanted in every saint of God. We have been made partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1. 4). And God _is love. That is His nature (1 John 4. 8, 16). The Spirit says by the Apostle John, " We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death " (I John 3. 14). Here is a challenge which may well halt every one of us in his steps; for love, we see, is the very hallmark of life. When, accordingly Paul says, " Though 1 speak . . . and have not love, 1 am nothing," he refers not to human sentiment or to mere emotionalism ; nor is he thinking of the milk of human kindness, desirable though this be. Much less does he mean the sweetness and amiability of the natural man. For though this is an excellent thing in its right sphere, yet under the figure of honey it was prohibited as an ingredient of offerings made by fire to God. What the apostle did intend us to understand by love is the operation, the movement towards our brethren, the controlling activity, of this new implanted nature and the complementary rejection and merciless judgment and refusal of the old nature. If we wish to know whether it is by the one or by the other that we are being moved and motivated, let us make ourselves intimately acquainted with the marks, the lineaments—in short, the character—of divine love as set forth in that great classic chapter, 1 Cor. 13. Let us bear in mind, as we study it, that its great and only perfect exemplification is seen in Christ, and especially in that which moved Him to go to and to endure the Cross, with its death of public shame and mental anguish and physical agony..
The Marks of Love
Here are the features of love :—
It bears long and patiently, and so has no outbreaks of ill-temper or petulance.
It is kind, for it is intrinsically unselfish.
It does not covet the possessions or the gifts of others, for again, being essentially unselfish, it rejoices in the well-being of its brethren.
It does not show off. Never once could our blessed Lord be detected in or suspected of so doing.
It is not self-complacent: it is, contrariwise, self-sacrificing and esteems others better than itself.
It does not seek its own advantage or prominence or way.
It is not provoked to paroxysms of anger. (The word " easily " in 1 Cor. 13. 5, A.V., has been interpolated in translation.)
It does not think up evil of people, especially of its brethren.
It does not hail the fall of another, though that fall may seem to open up avenues of advance for itself or its friends.
It does rejoice in the truth and its prominencj, whatever the cost.
It bears (and so covers) all things for the good of its brethren.
It bears up in hope above all untoward circumstances.
It believes good of the brethren, in spite of appearances.
It endures when prophecies, tongues and knowledge pass away; and it will endure for ever and ever.
The Quality of LoveCalvary love—" love Divine, all loves excelling." That is the love of which the seed or germ has been planted in every saint of God. That is the pulse of life which if cultivated will produce times of relreshing, fruitfulncss for God, revival.
But we see that love is made of sterner stuff than natural amiability. Love is prepared to suffer. Love would go to the wall. Further, let us remember those words of deepest divine truth, " f rebuke and discipline as many as I love," for they convey to the mind an oft-forgotten quality of the love of God, of which we speak. Love does not always set out to gratify. It may hurt. For true love would see its object free of evil. Tins is a truly divine property of love. " Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He re-ceiveth " (Heb. 12. 6). Divine love is that which if necessary " seeketh me through pain."
The Cultivation of LoveLet us cultivate this precious life, this love, within ourselves, and encourage it in others. Let us, in the light of the Cross, where we, in all that we are by nature, were judicially terminated in the sight of God—let us be merciless to self. We cannot live in a vacuum. Either the old self or the new nature is in control. The new nature is love. It has the vitalizing, refreshing characteristics and qualities we have set down above. But only as we are kept near to the Cross can it be in active operation. " I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live ; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2. 20). " Not 1, but Christ." Let us keep this up. Let us translate into practical everyday living and assembly life that which is true of us in our standing before God. Let us walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him. If we live in the Spirit, let us walk in the Spirit. And then we shall sec the lovely array of spiritual fruit which will be forthcoming (Gal. 5. 22, 23), love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (i.e. self-mastery, self-control). Perhaps, from the practical standpoint, the last of these is the greatest, and in assembly life and fellowship the most needed.
Certain it is that if only six in an assembly of average size walked according to this rule it would bring to that assembly a stirring and a refreshing heavenly breath. If the majority so walked in consistency, there would be Revival. " In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace upon them, even upon the Israel of God " (Gal. 6. 15, 16).