If you had asked an ancient Hebrew rabbi to describe to you the central confession of the Israelite religion, he would have responded with the Shema:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
If you were to ask Jesus to tell you about the greatest commandment, you would hear the Shema repeated with a further relational application:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind …you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37, 39)
“On these two commandments,” Jesus said, “Depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:40) All the ethical meaning of scripture, all of the legal import of scripture, and all of the prophetic words of scripture can be summarized in these two commandments. Read other blogs tagged Shema.
What’s love got to do with spiritual gifts?
This remarkable summary is given magnificent expression in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 13 is often read on its own, apart from its context in the book of Corinthians. This beautiful passage is valuable in its own right, but it will help you as you read it to know that it is placed in the context of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.
It seems that some in the Corinthian church not only believed that the gift of tongues was the greatest spiritual gift, but they also believed that everyone ought to have that gift. Because of its sensational nature and mysterious quality, the gift of tongues had attracted a great deal of attention and caused serious divisions within the Corinthian congregation.
At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul taught that the gift of tongues is far less important than some of the other gifts. He went on to say, in chapter 14, that one ought to pursue the kind of gift that edifies or builds up another person–the gift of prophecy, for example. The spiritual gift of tongues may easily be misused:
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. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
It is not often that we think of a gong or a cymbal as being out of tune. I recall the first time as a youngster when I saw someone tuning a drum. I thought, “Why should you tune a drum? You just bang on a drum and it makes a noise.” But, as any trained musician knows, these instruments must have a certain quality to them. They must have a certain response. They must indeed have a certain pitch as well, of course, as being played at the appropriate time with a greater or lesser amount of volume depending upon the nature of the piece.
Let your actions be motivated by love.
Similarly, Paul says that to have the mysterious gift of tongues, to be able to speak “with the tongues of men and of angels,” to exercise that sensational gift without love, is to have a gong that offers nothing but clamor and noise.
If I have all faith so as to be able to remove the mountains, Paul says, but do exercise that faith in the service of others, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly taught that we are to
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
The danger is that, as we do good deeds, the temptation comes to do them for the sake of being noticed. When we make that mistake, when we fail to act out of love for another person, we have no reward with the Father who is in Heaven. “It profits me nothing,” as Paul says. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
This is not to say that the gifts we have been given, or the acts we do out of piety, are not important. Paul makes his point in this passage by placing the matter in its most extreme form: whatever the gift, whatever the devotional behavior, if we act out of selfishness, if we act outside the sphere of love, then we can expect no reward, no profit, no edification, no meaning, no significance. There is no substitute for love.
The importance of love for the church
When we come together for corporate worship, we must recognize the importance of love among us. There is no substitute for the giving and receiving of love in the family of God. It is the sine qua non without which there is nothing. Too many churches appear as if they believe the following:
- Well, we don’t have love, but we’ll have stained glass windows.
- We don’t have love, but we’ll have choir music.
- We don’t have love, but we’ll have a beautiful building.
- We don’t have love, but we’ll have a fine preacher.
- We don’t have love, but we’ll have a great bit of special music.
- We don’t have love, but let’s see what kind of monument we can build.
As you see below, I originally gave this message in 1990. Some contemporary additions to this list might be:
- We don’t have love, but we listen to the right podcasts.
- We don’t have love, but we have three types of coffee outside the sanctuary.
- We don’t have love, but we launched our own church app.
- We don’t have love, but we make great videos.
This approach to church life will never succeed.
If you had asked an Israelite, “What is the heart of your religion?” he would have told you, “Love the Lord your God.”
If you were to ask the King of kings and Lord of lords to teach you the greatest commandment, He would tell you, “Love the Lord your God all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love has no substitute.
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Sloan delivered at Tallowood Baptist Church on June 24, 1990.