Calvary Road Baptist Church


First Corinthians 12.31-13.3


As we rapidly move out of winter weather to the beautiful spring weather, with Easter next Sunday, with the vacations that inevitably follow in the summer, let me share a train of thought I once had. I sat in my study and thought about the summer vacations our family used to go on when I was a kid. I am telling you, those were times of the most frustrating agony and the fondest memories. Of course, these memories are the memories of a child, with all the distortions of a child’s memory.

If you are as old as I am, you may remember the days of route 66, the filling stations instead of gas stations, and then if your summer vacation times were like ours, you may also remember the agony that came during travel time in those days. It is simply amazing how automobiles could be transformed into cruel instruments of torture at the beginning of a vacation by fathers determined to relax and have a good time, only to turn them right back into normal cars as soon as you get home.

I wonder if all fathers get tense and raise their voices at their kids and wives while packing up the car, going back and checking through the house to make sure that nothing is left on, so you can leave at the most ridiculous hour of the morning to embark on your anticipated leisure time. Then, as you go driving across the country on those narrow two-lane highways, the car would become a prison and a hothouse. No air conditioning in cars when I was a kid. A canvass water bag hanging from the radio antenna and rubbing back and forth on the quarter panel in the wind. No bathrooms at conveniently located rest stops, either. Just mile after mile in the hot sun, sometimes with the windows rolled up to keep the grasshoppers and other bugs out of the car while driving through farm country. My dad mastered the art of keeping on those narrow two lane highways with his left hand and occasionally reaching back to smack me or my little brother with his right hand . . . to keep us from crying and fussing because we needed to go to the bathroom so bad we were in pain. Mom was asleep.

Then we arrived. Whether we lived in North Dakota, South Dakota, or the southern tip of Florida, we seemed always to manage to arrive in Wheeler, Texas at three o’clock in the morning. I always wondered why dad never cared that he woke my grandparents up at that wee hour, but I always got a spanking if I woke him up at that time of the morning. Now, of course, I know the answer. There were no places to stop along the way in those years before roadside motor hotels became so popular. Anyway, we were so excited to be at granddad’s house that we would always sit around the kitchen table while my sweet grandmother would fix a huge breakfast of pork sausage, eggs over easy, toast and jam, and a huge glass of rich milk fresh from the cow the day before, for us so we could go to sleep. Of course, being farmers, they would have to stay up another hour or two, cause it would be time for the morning chores of milking the cows, feeding the mules and horses, slopping the hogs, and numerous other things. Wouldn’t do them any good to try to get back to sleep for just an hour or so. I wonder why grandma and granddad were always tired and just a tad bit irritable the first day we visited them. However, things quickly settled down and everyone had a good time for two weeks while eating them out of house and home. Steak and pork chops every day for dinner, with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, fried okra, and iced tea in quart Mason jars. Supper would be a bowl of mush, a piece of toast, and a glass of milk, followed by a huge piece of grandma’s chocolate cake or chocolate pie.

One time, I think I was about six years old, there was an emergency. About an hour after sundown, the grownups noticed that my little brother, Greg, was missing. I think Mom went out and screamed for him, as only she could do, but he did not answer. Of course, we were miles out in the country, and you could see anyone approaching at least a mile away from granddad’s hilltop farmhouse, so it was not as if someone sneaked up and kidnapped him. The greater danger would be wild dogs or coyotes. They waited a little longer for him, not knowing whether to be mad at him or scared for him. You see, my little brother was the kind of kid who listened only when he felt like listening. If he did not want to stop doing what he was doing, he would just tell my folks he did not hear them call for him. That was his favorite line for about fifteen years.

Well, it was getting really late and still no Greg, so they organized a search party, looking, and calling everywhere on that farm’s 180 acres they imagined he could be. However, when they all gathered back, still no Greg. I seem to remember that they stood on the cement slab out in front of the farmhouse, under a light on a telephone pole that had a million bugs and gnats flying around it. They discussed where he might be until they ran out of ideas. When everyone ran out of ideas or anything to say, they all paused for a while, and the crickets stopped chirping, and they heard something. It was a very faint sound coming from the barn, so we all rushed over to see what it was making the sound. Shouldn’t have been anything in there except the Ford tractor, quite small as tractors go, with back tires up to about here.

When we got over there, illuminated by that light we had been standing under, we all saw my little brother sitting on the metal seat of a that little Ford tractor, with his hands on the steering wheel, going “Urdn, urdn, urdn.” All the time we had been looking for him, and yelling and screaming for him to answer, he had been in that barn, with a little straw cowboy hat on, playing on the tractor, pretending he was driving it. Oh, you’ve never seen a group of people so happy. My folks were so delighted that nothing was wrong with him that they blistered his four year old behind and put him to bed to show it. Then the grownups and I went into the kitchen and they talked about how scared for him they had been. Understand, my brother deserved to be spanked, because he was my little brother. Actually, Greg was a better kid growing up than I ever was. His spanking was appropriate because he did not heed the calls of his parents. Other than that, his behavior was just what you would expect from a little boy. Just as happy as he could be sitting on that tractor seat, going through the motions, holding on to that steering wheel, without getting a single thing done.

Folks, though there is nothing wrong with a child pretending to function and not actually accomplishing anything, God expects more of His children. Amen? However, how many of us here this morning simply go through the motions without actually accomplishing anything for the Savior? Each one in his or her own self-absorbed little gospel tractor, pretending to be out in the Father’s field which is white unto harvest, but actually in the barn doing nothing. Activity, of course, but without productivity of any kind. Just like my little brother, except instead of saying “Urdn, urdn, urdn,” you might say the occasional “Praise the Lord” or “Amen.”

The Corinthians were like that. They just sat around on their little gospel tractors and didn’t really do anything for God. Oh, they talked about “ministry,” but they didn’t accomplish anything, you see. The cause of Christ was actually unaffected by their lives. The reason they didn’t accomplish anything was because they never did get around to starting up the engines of their little Ford tractors. They were too busy going “Urdn, urdn, urdn.”

In our text for this morning, the apostle Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts that he had dealt with throughout First Corinthians chapter 12, but now begins to put things into a larger perspective. The way he does this is to set spiritual gifts against the backdrop of that which is really and truly important to Christian service . . . love. Folks, let us pretend your Christian life and place of service is like a little Ford tractor. As well, let us each pretend to be my little brother, Greg. Then we will see how the Apostle Paul attempts to persuade us how necessary it is that our little Ford tractor engine is actually running to get the job done for Christ. Distilled down to one sentence: You cannot accomplish anything for God without love. Love, you see, is the fuel the Christian’s life and ministry engine actually runs on. In First Corinthians 12.31-13.3, the Apostle Paul shows this to us, first, by showing love’s importance and, second, by showing love’s impact.


12.31    But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

13.1      Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

13.2     And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

13.3     And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.


You see Paul referring to mysteries in verse 2, where he lumps together a number of matters to deal with them all at one time?




In the first phrase of verse 31, we see Paul’s disclosure. He writes, “But covet earnestly the best gifts.” Two things are to be noticed in the development of spiritual gifts, those spiritual capabilities imparted to you by the Holy Spirit when you came to Christ, if you truly are a Christian. First, there is what I call cultivation. We already know, from First Corinthians 12.7, that every single Christian has at least one spiritual gift. For that to be true, the gifts must be given at the time of salvation, or else that verse would not be true in the case of every believer. There is overwhelming evidence to conclude that, contrary to common Pentecostal and Charismatic thought these days, one does not get additional spiritual gifts later on, after conversion. That said, what does Paul refer to when he urges his readers to “covet earnestly the best gifts?” It needs but a little explanation. God does not inform anyone what spiritual gifts He has given to them when they trusted Christ. His plan is for the believer to serve Him in various ministries, to study the Word of God, to seek His direction in life, so that believer will begin to discover the gift or gifts that he possesses. What I am talking about will necessarily include some experimentation. Being a Sunday school teacher or helper for a while, asking to help out in various church ministries, serving as an usher or greeter. You see, you’ll never know that you’re gifted for this or that until you try your hand at it. Some people will never know what their spiritual gifts are; because they are so afraid of failure, they won’t try anything. Too bad. The reason this kind of cultivation of gifts is necessary is because so many spiritual gifts require a considerable amount of spiritual maturity or Bible knowledge before they can be properly used. For example: A person may not realize until years of devoted study of scripture have passed that he has the gift of teaching. Why? He has not previously learned enough of God’s Word or sufficiently demonstrated his trustworthiness to be given an opportunity to try his hand at teaching. That’s the first thing to notice, cultivation. The second thing to notice in this verse is quality. Paul refers, here, to “the best gifts.” That he refers to “the best gifts” means that there are best gifts. That means some spiritual gifts are better than others are. They are more useful and more productive. What you and I need to realize is which ones are the best gifts, Biblically. Unfortunately again for our Pentecostal and Charismatic friends, the gift of tongues always comes out on the bottom of every list and comparison of spiritual gifts that Paul makes. That means (and there is more evidence of this in the next chapter that I will not now address), every other spiritual gift given to Christians is superior, is more productive, is more useful, than the gift of tongues. Therefore, it is the cultivation of gifts and the various qualities of gifts that Paul discloses here.

Now, notice the second phrase of verse 31. This is Paul’s direction. “and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” Quite obviously, from the carnality displayed so prominently by the Corinthian Christians, it should not surprise us that they were off track in the area of spiritual gifts. According to First Corinthians 12.1, they were very ignorant in this area. Therefore, Paul sought to remedy the problem by providing them with some direction. His direction, first, involves revealing. That is what the word “shew” means. Though spiritual gifts are nice, and some people spend a great amount of time dealing with them, there is something that Paul desires to reveal to his beloved Corinthians beyond that. His direction, next, involves realizing. The word “way” refers to a path or a way of life. The word “excellent” is a word that implies that what Paul is about to deal with is far and away superior to even the best of the spiritual gifts. Quite literally, Paul is seeking to alter the course of these people’s lives. Most of them are genuinely saved. They’re going to heaven when they die. However, for the purpose of them being effective in their service to God, instead of sitting around going “Urdn, urdn, urdn,” with their spiritual gifts, without actually getting anywhere, Paul will further show the importance of love by showing them the impact of love.




To show the impact of love, Paul shows what happens when love is missing. It is like showing my little brother, Greg, what happens when the tractor engine is actually on, and then showing what does not happen when the engine is turned off. He had a good time when the engine was turned off, but that is only because he had no idea what could be done with the engine turned on and consuming fuel. In First Corinthians 13.1, with love missing, notice what you are.


“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”


Let me make some comments and then we’ll try to agree on what Paul is saying here. The word “though” establishes a condition. It’s almost like Paul saying, “Let’s just suppose, for instance, that I speak with tongues of men and angels.” He is setting up a hypothetical situation. Now notice the word “tongues.” This word is used by Paul to refer to languages.[1] The word never means anything more than languages, just like English and Spanish, Latin and Greek. “Tongues” is never used in the Bible to refer to a prayer language or an angelic dialect. Never. “Charity” simply means love. Not sexual or erotic love. Lord willing, we will see a great deal more of what love really is in the next few weeks. However, for now, understand that “charity” translates the Greek word for love in its purest and most noble sense. “Sounding brass” and “tinkling cymbal” simply refers to noise.[2] It’s the kind of harsh noise that’s made by clanging metal objects together. Like this. Okay, what does Paul mean in this verse? He is saying that no matter how eloquent your speech happens to be, if you speak not from a heart of love, you have become only a maker of noise. That’s all you are . . . a maker of noise. You can even talk angel talk, which has always been Hebrew or Greek in the Word of God, by the way, and the effect of your great speech, without love, is to leave you a maker of noise. That is all you are without love. Have you ever heard the hollow words of someone who stood before you and talked to you, but without love? Then you know what I mean. Though his or her words are nicely spoken and have wonderful content, you do not really want to hear anything from someone you do not think loves you, do you? Of course not. Have you ever spoken to him using words prompted by a heart filled with love for him? Have you ever demonstrated to your wife, or to your kids, the truth spoken in love. Try it sometime, if you think he does not hear you when you talk. Words without love is just noise.

In verse 2, with love missing, notice what you are worth.


“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”


You may be a vast repository of prophetic insight, with a comprehension of the things of the Word and of the future. You may have the consummate understanding of those things which were once hidden in ages past, but are now revealed, called mysteries. You may even know all of the implications and ramifications of theology. You may even have a great warehouse of faith. However, if you have not the love to which Paul is referring, you are worthless to the cause of Christ. Please understand that you are not necessarily a worthless human being without love, but you surely are worthless insofar as the beneficial effects you produce are concerned.

I wish every young man aspiring to the ministry would make a special study of First Corinthians 13.2. I remember spending all the time I wasted sponging up knowledge and caring nothing for love. Now I wish that I had sponged up more love along with some of that knowledge.

Listen to me. You can know to love someone. However, knowing to love them does not help them nearly so much as actually loving them. You tired of going urdn, urdn, urdn? Tired of pretending and not actually accomplishing anything? Then start majoring on loving people. If you feel like you are worth nothing now, maybe it is because you are not worth anything. Begin serving God with real love for others and you will be worth a great deal to the cause of Christ.

In verse 3, with love missing, notice what you benefit.


“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”


Wow! Paul is talking about real sacrifice here. This is ultimate sacrifice. This is also a verse that religious liberals and army generals do not like very much. What good does it do for a young soldier boy to give his life for his country without the motive of love? No good. That is why, in the Old Testament, God did not want anyone in a fight who did not want to fight. Only volunteers. As well, what about those who give to charities? What about United Way, the Heart Fund, Jerry’s Kids, World Vision, etc.? What good does giving do for the cause of Christ if you give with the wrong motive? No good, that is what. Without love, you benefit nothing.


This morning, we have seen how critically important love is to the cause of Christ. Though spiritual gifts are important, though mysteries are important, though doctrine is certainly important, it is this thing called love which is vital, which is indispensable, and which cannot be substituted. It is the one ingredient in the recipe, which cannot be eliminated.

In the near future, Lord willing, we are going to begin to learn exactly what love is. I am very sure that young lovers, that husbands and wives, that teens, and all the rest of you, will discover some things about love that you did not know before. Some of you will come to understand that you have never given love. Tragically, some of you will also discover that, apart from God’s love given to you, you have never received love. Not real love anyway.

Perhaps you are here this morning and when you came in the front door, you were in hot pursuit of knowledge. Or maybe you were in hot pursuit of the development of or the discovery of your spiritual gifts.

I want you to listen to a man who has learned some, but by no means all, of the hard lessons on this subject. There is something to be sought after more than knowledge of every Bible related subject. There is something more effective than the most effective spiritual gifts. It is love. Do you want to sit in the seat of a little Ford tractor and just go urdn, urdn, urdn? Will that satisfy you? Or do you want to go out into the field and begin harvesting?

Unfortunately, many professing Christians, many husbands and wives, and many parents, are content to urdn, urdn, urdn. However, if you want your life to count for something, you had better come to church as often as you possibly can, and learn how to love people the Bible way.

Tired of feeling utterly worthless? You probably feel that way because you are worthless to the cause of Christ. However, you do not have to be worthless to the cause of Christ. By being a lover of the brethren and a lover of the lost, you can become a vital cog in the machinery, an important link in the chain. Only then will you begin to benefit from giving of yourself.

Are you buying into the world’s nonsensical notion that you need to look out for yourself, that you have come to the point of making sure you are okay, that you have to think about yourself now? You are wrong, my friend. I would bet beans to buckshot that the reason you do not feel like you are receiving love is because you have never really given love, not real love, not God’s kind of love given God’s way.

How does a person go about loving, really loving, truly loving? Turn to Galatians 5.22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love.” Real love is a by product of the unencumbered presence of the Holy Spirit. If you are a Christian and you do not have love, it can only be the result of a sin problem that is grieving and quenching the Spirit of God. Deal with that and He will give you love. However, if you are not saved, then you have never really experienced the love of God in Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” How can anyone expect love from any other source while refusing and rejecting God’s offer of love?

[1] Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 431.

[2] Ibid.

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