The Body of Christ - 1 Cor. 13
H. Beattie, Bury St. Edmunds
11. THE BODY OF CHRIST - 1 CORINTHIANS 13
Paul now reveals to the Corinthians the vital secret which lies at the very heart of the Christian life - the inspiring and all-pervading Spirit of love. If the gifts graciously granted are to build up the local assembly, this strong, true love must be the energising factor. As Ephesians 4. 15-16 reminds us, “But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love”. Outside of this, nothing can be built up for eternity.
The first three verses show the colossal results obtained by those in possession of gifts imparted by God, results which may bring no glory to Him and no reward to those exercising them. This is a sobering thought! Corinthians may have expressed the most sublime messages in other tongues, scaling lofty heights of eloquence in the transmission of divine truth. They may have told forth marvels in the spiritual realms and led multitudes to a clearer appreciation of the revelations of God. In the domain of Christian endeavour, they may have given evidence of a faith that removed mountains and advanced from conquest to conquest. Inspired by a sense of duty, they may have continually rationed themselves to supply the needs of others. They may even have made the supreme sacrifice of life itself in the holocaust of persecution. The divine summing-up is clearly marked in these first three verses. Bereft of the genuine inspiration of the Spirit of love, their exercise of the gift of tongues amounted only to a hollow clanging sound, and the net result of their prophesying and their total abnegation of self diminish to zero. What is the reason for this? The scribe’s answer in Mark 12. 33 supplies it: to love God “with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”.
The challenge of these verses is inescapable. The fruit of the Spirit is love. If the mainspring of the believer’s life and witness is not sincere love, then the Spirit is not bearing fruit. There may be results as organised service reaches its desired peaks, but all, to use an earlier similitude, is classed as wood, hay and stubble. Nothing for God 1 Paul reaches the core of the matter in Romans 5. 5, “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost”, “that the righteousness of the law may be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit”, 8. 4. Peter may have gone from one catastrophe to another in his work and witness, but he passed the crucial test by his whole-hearted exclamation, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee”, John 21. 17. On this blessed foundation, he built up very much for the glory of God and for the perpetual benefit of His people.
This admirable section of the Epistle provides the answers to every one of the problems of the church at Corinth. Are there divided groups centred around proud place-seekers in chapter 1? From this key passage comes the solution. These men could not be inspired by love, for love vaunteth not itself. The position is clarified. Do carnal philosophers babble in chapter 2? Love could never produce inflated discourses like theirs, for love is not puffed up. Is it difficult to understand and associate in team work in chapter 3, recognising the value of the brother planting and the other watering? Love envieth not; love is not jealous. Do the Corinthians scrutinise and accuse the servants of the Lord, calculating their defects and judging their motives in chapter 4? This could not be due to the activity of the Spirit of love in their hearts, for love does not engage in the mathematics of evil; love does not thus reckon up. Is flagrant sin tolerated even when recognised in chapter 5? Meekness is not weakness. This is a totally different matter to that in chapter 4.They judged when they ought not to have done, and omitted to act when God’s honour demanded. Love rejoiceth not in wrong, but in truth. Had lawsuits become commonplace in chapter 6? Love does not seek its own things. Are there domestic problems in chapter 7? Swiftly the solutions are grouped as Paul says, Love covers a lot; love does not suspect; love looks on the bright side; love supports without complaining. Have stumbling blocks been inadvertently placed in the path of the weak brother in chapter 8? Has a miserly spirit developed among Christians as they fail to support the work of the Lord in chapter 9? Love is kind and good-hearted. It will never willingly cause a child of God to stumble, no matter how complex the sacrifice involved. Love will never forget to provide available funds for the work of the Lord at home or in other lands, for love is kind. Only a spirit which is foreign to the Spirit of God can commend full-time workers and forget to support them. It is certainly not the Spirit of love. It is a wicked spirit. Does participation at the table of demons inspire horror in chapter 10? Love finds no joy in iniquity. Are the irregularities in connection with the Headship of Christ and the gathering for the Lord’s supper a cause of dishonour to Him in chapter 11? Love does not act unbecomingly. Is the truth concerning the membership of the body of Christ little understood in chapter 12? This should be as clear as crystal to every truly born-again one, for love is not self-centred. Are divinely granted gifts being abused in chapter 14, as Corinthians carnally toy with most sacred things? If I have not love, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Are there mysteries about the resurrection still unfathomed in chapter 15? Now we see through a glass, darkly - then, face to face! Love will reveal itself in our blessed Saviour in its eternal, infinite fulness. The Second Man, possessed of full knowledge (unlike Adam) is the Lord from heaven. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
Twice, before closing the epistle, the apostle catches the echo of chapter 13. “Let all that you do be done in love”, 1 Cor. 16. 14 R.V. Then in his warm-hearted, beautiful closing salutation, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus”, 16, 24. To write thus exclusively to the Corinthians of all people, showed that Paul was inspired by that blessed affection for God and His children without which all is meaningless chaos. “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him”, 1 John 4. 16. How can we define love? Only from the Scriptures can the true meaning of the love of God be gleaned. We must never allow man’s feeble ideas to influence our thinking in this connection. God is light and God is love. There is a perfect balance between these attributes. And the Word of God teaches us clearly that this wonderful love that brings the solution to all our problems and the satisfaction of our highest aspirations has been perfectly revealed in the person of the Son of God. “Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us”, 1 John 3. 16 R.V.
Does love suffer long? Is it patient and even-tempered? Our Lord’s agony in the garden, His arrest and trial, His sufferings at the hands of the soldiers and on the cross reveal in all its intensity His patient, long-suffering love. Is love kind and good-hearted? He had compassion on the multitudes; He wept over Jerusalem. Does love avoid envy and jealousy? Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification; for even Christ pleased not himself, Rom. 15. 3. Does love refuse to boast? He accepted the lowly place when returning to Nazareth because of their unbelief, and remained silent before Herod. Love is not puffed up. When the multitude would come and take him by force to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain Himself alone. Love does not act unbecomingly. Our Lord is always the Perfect Man, as polite at the door of the Emmaus house as in the well-loved home at Bethany. Love does not seek its own things. He who was rich beyond the bounds of our highest imagination became poor, so that we might be enriched by the treasures of His grace. Love is not soon irritated. When He was reviled, He did not retaliate. When He suffered, He did not threaten. As His executioners drove the nails into His hands and feet He pleaded for their pardon. Here is love personified. Love that does not try to make a long list of all the defects, in order to castigate. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings”, Luke 13. 34. Love can only joy in truth. The whole course of our Lord’s earthly life and ministry is based on this. He keeps the Father’s commandments. He abides in the Father’s love.
Love bears all things. Love is not suspicious. Love sees the bright horizon. Love endures and abides under perplexing conditions. Again and again in the Gospel story we see Him thus in the varied circumstances, and we worship at His feet, for here is the vital secret of blessing, either for the individual believer or for the assembly - the constraining love of Christ, 2 Cor. 5. 14.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Paul has given in these sterling verses of chapter 13 a beautiful picture of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of our Lord that should challenge and empower all our hearts.
The age-enduring quality of love then fills the thoughts of the apostle. Have the Corinthians been occupied avidly, to the exclusion of all else, with the machinery of the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and the word of knowledge? How un-Christ-like is such psychic speculation! The abolishing of these gifts, temporal gifts, is foretold. As believers even now, our knowledge is partial and our teaching is limited. But we have grasped something of the love in Christ that came from the eternal ages, revealed itself to our hearts, and advances in its majestic fulness for evermore. It never fails. But the reflection of the truth on the polished metal mirror of our present possibilities is still obscure. There is much we fail to grasp. Soon we shall see our Lord face to face, and in the blaze of His splendour and glory, revelation will be complete. Our full knowledge of the things concerning Himself, and of Himself, will encounter the full knowledge He has always had of His beloved people. His high priestly prayer of John 17. 24-26 will receive an abundant response, as the Father’s love and the fulness of the Son of His love inundate every redeemed heart without limitation. What joyous communion in that day!
But the parenthesis is closing. The apostle must return to answering the questions from the Corinthians. But he wants to leave us a solid basis to rest on while we await maturity. Faith in the promises and Word of God will protect the trusting heart from every fiery dart of the wicked one. Hope will continually fill the expectant heart with joy and peace in believing. Love will make of the surrendered heart the dwelling place of the Father, the Son, and the Comforter, John 14. 18, 23. And we shall realise that the greatest of these is love. We shall know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge. We shall be filled unto all the fulness of God.
In 1 Corinthians 12. 31 Paul had promised a more excellent way. Chapter 13 has outlined the pathway very clearly. Chapter 14 begins on this new note: Follow, follow after, pursue, press towards - love!