Going to Church: Worthless?

Paul is admonishing the local church at Corinth toward unity through maturity in the faith. He is presently addressing the local church’s idolatry of the spiritual gifts. He does not discredit the spiritual gifts, but has instead stated that there is a better way than merely seeking after the spiritual gifts (12:31).

As we work through Chapter 13, I want to consider whether we are adding to the noise of religion or are doing something together that is actually beneficial. Does our existence as a local church merely add confusion to the airways, or will we profit ourselves and others genuinely and sincerely? After all, we want to profit spiritually from our religion—else it is worthless.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

13.1 Ἐὰν ταῖς γλώσσαις τῶν ἀνθρώπων λαλῶ καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, γέγονα χαλκὸς ἠχῶν ἢ κύμβαλον ἀλαλάζον.  2 καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω προφητείαν καὶ εἰδῶ τὰ μυστήρια πάντα καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γνῶσιν, καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω πᾶσαν τὴν πίστιν ὥστε ὄρη μεθιστάναι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐθέν εἰμι.  3 καὶ ἐὰν ψωμίσω πάντα τὰ ὑπάρχοντά μου, καὶ ἐὰν παραδῶ τὸ σῶμά μου, ἵνα καυθήσομαι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐδὲν ὠφελοῦμαι.  

4 Ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ ζηλοῖ ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ περπερεύεται, οὐ φυσιοῦται,  5 οὐκ ἀσχημονεῖ, οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς, οὐ παροξύνεται, οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν,  6 οὐ χαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ, συγχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ·  7 πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.  

8 Ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει. εἴτε δὲ προφητεῖαι, καταργηθήσονται· εἴτε γλῶσσαι, παύσονται· εἴτε γνῶσις, καταργηθήσεται.  9 ἐκ μέρους γὰρ γινώσκομεν καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν·  10 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον, τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται.  11 ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.  12 βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι διʼ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.  13 νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη· τὰ τρία ταῦτα, μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη.

Adding to the noise (v. 1-3)

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

In the First Century, there was much religious noise. There were many religious beliefs and practices, and it would have been very difficult to wade through them in order to discover the truth and consider it. Human religion has only multiplied and become more diverse. The rise of the postmodern age is marked by a certain relativism perpetuated by what I call the noise. There are many people making many truth claims, doing many religious things. As a result, the world is a very confusing place to live in. Why even try to discover or consider the truth, especially about God? In all likelihood, no matter what religion or philosophy you choose, you’ll eventually be proven wrong simply because there are so many.

Paul, here, distinguishes between religion he believes to be nothing and religion he believes to be something. To speak in tongues without love is to be a noisy gong or clanging symbol. It’s merely noise. To have knowledge and have the ability to proclaim God’s word without love is nothing. If one has the type of faith that moves mountains but has not love, he or she is nothing. To give all one’s possessions to feed the poor and even be martyred because of what he believes or claims without love profits nothing.

In three verses, Paul deconstructs all human religion. Consider what nearly all human religion teaches. Feed the poor. Die for what you believe. Be endowed with certain abilities so that you might be honored. Practice the rituals of the faith because they accomplish something spiritually. Here, Paul calls their bluff. Being able to speak in tongues means nothing. The ability to preach means nothing. Having all knowledge is worthless. The one who appears to have much faith is nothing. The one who gives up his or her possessions to feed the poor accomplishes nothing concerning spirituality. Even to be martyred does not profit a single person spiritually.

Paul does not claim that these religious expressions are not good. He claims that they, themselves, do not profit the individual practicing them. Think about each one. The gift of tongues is gibberish to most. After a person has spoken in tongues, he has not gained anything. After a person has preached, he has not gained anything by the preaching itself. The one who knows things gains nothing by his knowledge—except to say he is knowledgable which is not a great gain. Someone who has faith is no better off than someone who does not; it does not change their outlook or circumstances. Faith doesn’t do that. Those who give up their possessions to feed the poor are not promised many more possessions or wealth in this life. They have simply lost their possessions or wealth. Those who give up their very lives lose their lives on this earth. They do not gain for themselves as a result of dying.

Consider the breadth of human religion. It tells us that, in order to gain something we give something. Scripture tells us exactly the opposite. We are no better off by practicing any manner of human religion or by doing the things that the world considers pious or spiritual. We don’t actually profit spiritually from those things. People practice religion in order to get something from God. They believe that the more pious, self-abasing, or mystical they appear to be, the more favor they can acquire from God, the more they can be filled with the Spirit, the better off they are in the judgment, the more they will be able to enjoy heave or paradise or whatever. Paul is realistic. No practice can manipulate God in to giving you what He might not of given you already. It is worthless religion. Any religious group, denomination, or local group that teaches you can earn anything from God is merely adding to the noise of human religion without profiting you. No wonder people don’t think attending church is worth their time. According to Scripture, it mostly isn’t.

Definition of love (v. 4-7)

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

There is a more excellent way than merely pursuing the spiritual gifts, and Paul calls that way love. Here, he defines what love is and does. We already learned, in the previous 3 verses, that biblical love is not something we practice or feel. It is something we have, which makes it different than the spiritual gifts. Love is something that abides. It is something that drives our actions. If love abides, then, we are driven to practice good works instead of practicing good works in order to gain something. This is why Paul claimed that the gifts are worthless without love. Love is the driving factor, not the works themselves. This means that love must be placed within us as an abiding presence. It is provided on the front end. So, we cannot earn God or heaven. We don’t activate God, He activates us. Whatever profit there is for us, it is given on the front end as a gift rather than something we must earn. Our works are, then, a response to God’s good gifts rather than a poor attempt to earn something from God. Our works are acts of praise rather than invocation. True religion is a response to God rather than a means by which to invoke him or get to heaven. All those who are truly saved, have love really abiding with them, respond by gathering together in order to practice and praise. Anyone who gives you an opposite order, as if the things of God are not a gift, is lying to you.

Here is how you know that love is abiding with you. Love is patient and bears all things. If you have love abiding with you, people don’t have to please you, and you don’t have to get your way. You tend toward kindness rather than harshness. You don’t get unrighteously jealous. You don’t brag about your good works or flaunt your spiritual gifts. You don’t have to constantly draw attention to yourself. You don’t seek your own desires, preferences, placement, status, or place before God. You are not provoked by the actions and words of others as if you must judge them or react to them. If someone does wrong against you, you are quick to forgive and not hold whatever it was against them. Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, meaning that those who have love abiding with them feel a need to address sin with patience and mercy. Those who have love abiding with them rejoice with the truth and yearn for the truth, even when it means they might be wrong. Those who have love abiding with them bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things—simply meaning that those with sincere love bear with others, endure all hardship, and are optimistic about their outcome and the outcome of the world. True, sincere religion results from the abiding presence of love being placed with us. It is a response, not an invocation—for it is impossible to invoke God (or beckon the Spirit) by any human work or spiritual gift.

The excellence of love (v. 8-13)

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 

Love never fails. Why? It is something not of us. It abides with us. Gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are given to us but are of us. When we die, they are gone. They will be done away. If I find my identity in my religion or preaching or whatever I do that I consider to have worth, I lose myself as I age and eventually perish. Love, since it is of God and abides with us, never fails.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Paul explains by referring to the natural progression of human life and the maturing process that should accompany aging. As we grow into adulthood, we mature into adulthood—leaving childish things behind. Such are the spiritual gifts. On this side of the resurrection, we are all like children. In the resurrection, we will leave our childish thoughts about spirituality behind because we will mature into adulthood. We see things so dimly from our current perspective—though a glass darkly. In the resurrection, we will know fully (here a relational term instead of a mere factual term like was used previously) as we are fully known.

Faith, hope, and love are revealed as the three things that abide, making faith, here, different from the type of faith previously described. The type of faith previously described was something that came from the individual. Now, true faith is described as an abiding presence—something that is caused by an external agent (God) to abide with those He chooses. Faith, hope, and love drive us to praise. They are not means by which we can invoke any divine being or travel to a certain destination like heaven. The greatest of these three abiding presences is love. In fact, I believe that love comes to abide first and makes it possible for the other two to abide.

We don’t practice the gifts to profit ourselves, which is the mark of every false religion and philosophy. Instead, we already profit because of Christ’s work. We simply practice the gifts, works, and our religion to build others up without expecting a return on our investment. That’s how you know what true religion is. It does not seek self gain or selfish promotion. We are not playing games, here. God has saved us. He has given Himself to us. Therefore, we praise Him and tell others about Him and invite anyone who is in Christ sincerely to join us as we respond to His grace alone. There is no need for invocation when God’s presence abides. This is love. 

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