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(I Corinthians 13:1-3) Seven Minus One Equals Zero

(I Corinthians 13:1-3) Seven Minus One Equals Zero

Ref: 1 Corinthians 13:1–3

What do you get when you subtract 1 from 7? 6 right? Well, not always. This simple equation may work in arithmatic but not in Christianity. God says that if you take good attributes such as faith, hope, prophecy, spiritual discernment, worship, mercy, and service, and subtract love from them, you end up with nothing. This is the divine equation and it always comes out the same: anything minus love equals zero.


7 – 1 = 0

I Corinthians 13:1-3

Of all the cities of ancient Greece that would have had a twisted view of love, it would be Corinth. 

Of all the churches that would be in need of teaching on the subject of true love, it would be these former adulterers and thieves and homosexuals and fornicators and swindlers who had come to faith and joined the church in Corinth.

They had lived for their own lusts and their own pleasures. They had extorted and stolen from neighbors and employers and perhaps each other.

Now they are in the assembly where giving is better than receiving; serving is better than ruling.

This would be a life-changing perspective.

They knew how to use people to their own advantage, but they had to learn how to serve people.

They knew how to have sexual relations with other people, they had to learn purity outside of marriage and fidelity inside of marriage.

They naturally followed the motivations of greed and self-advancement and could use people and manipulate relationships to get what they wanted, but they knew nothing of the spiritual motivation of love.

This wasn’t just a problem with the Christians in Corinth; it’s necessary for every Christian in every culture, every century, and every church.

We’re all infected with the wrong kind of love: self-love, self-promoting, self-advancing, self-appreciating, self-defending, self-enamored, self-increasing love, self-enhancing love.

Just watch a toddler in the nursery. Who taught him to pitch a fit when his toys were taken away. He’s gotten old enough to evidence the characteristic trait of human nature - selfishness. 

This past week I went to the grocery store to grab some fruit and some vitamin-enhanced bottled water a couple of bags of non-fattening chips and a dozen doughnuts – because I believe in balance. 

I noticed a mother – somewhat haggled and worn out by her little 2 or 3-year-old daughter who happened to be standing up in the back of the buggy, literally screaming at the top of her lungs. This little red-haired girl was just having a meltdown. Her cute little face was as red as her hair – she was standing on the tiptoes of her little tennis shoes – white-knuckled – holding on to the edges of the grocery cart – she was mad. If she had been bigger, we’d all been dead. There would be no survivors. And this bedraggled mother was saying over and over again as nicely as she could, “No, you can’t have it . . . no you can’t have that.” 

How about toddlers who come to church here? Do you think that’s the solution? Get ‘em in church. They’ll act spiritually.

  • Do you think that down in the toddler rooms right now, we have rampant sharing going on?
  • Here, I’ve got more than enough Cheerios, you have some.”

Early on, we crave to get . . . we have to learn how to give.

We want to be served . . . we have to learn how to serve.

In fact, we all want to be loved, and we might even have an idea of what that looks like, but we have to learn how to love.

What’s interesting, though, is that once you see the genuine item, you intuitively know it’s true love. Even kids can spot the genuine item.

This week, someone sent me several things children said about true love. I thought they were great . . . would you like to hear some of them?

Rebecca, age 8, said, “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend down to paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her . . . that’s love.”

Danny, age 7, said, “When my mommy makes coffee for my daddy, she takes a sip before giving it to him to make sure the taste is OK . That’s love.”

Chris – age 7 – said, “Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he’s handsome.”

Elaine – age 5 – said, “Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken.”

I like the direction these are going, don’t you? These kids understand agape.

Karl doesn’t get it . . . he said, “Love is when a girl puts on perfume, and a boy puts on shaving cologne, and they go out and smell each other.”

Lauren said, “I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.” She’ll catch on later.

One more: Jessica – age 8 – delivered a profound truth, “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot because people forget.”

The world’s been trying to get it right for thousands of years now.

To the Greeks, they focused on storge – family love; natural love that comes from being in the same clan or family.

They emphasized the word philia—the love of mutual attraction. In our last session, I called it EHarmony love. I didn’t get any hate mail either, so I was a little disappointed. 

The downside of philia says, “I’ll love you if you love everything I love.” When this person says they love someone with this kind of love, what they’re really saying is, “I love you because you’re so much like me.”

Another word that was heavily used was eros – erotic, stimulating, thunder and lightning feelings that temporarily intoxicate the senses. It ought to lead to the commitment of soul and mind and body – but the world never moves on. They can’t since agape is, at its core, Divinely inspired and engineered commitment.

Storge love says, – I love you because you are in my family

Agape says – I love you and choose to treat you as a member of my family.

Philia can mean – I love you because you are like me;

Agape means – I choose to love you even if you are unlike me.

Eros says – I love you because you meet my needs and make my heart beat:

Agape – I love you and commit my heart to meeting your needs.

By the time Paul sent his first letter to the Corinthian church, they had become enamored with the public, miraculous, front-page news of Spirit-empowered demonstrations, and they were actually embroiled over self-centered disputes and self-promoting disagreements.

They were actually imitating the self-centered culture around them. What’s even more dangerous, they were in the process of moving Corinth inside the church. They were brought into the assembly their old way of life – where they were first, and everybody else came last, where they mattered, and no one else came close.

Paul puts on the breaks in his discussion on spiritual gifts and closes chapter 12 by saying, “Listen, let me tell you about a more excellent way to live and serve – it’s with the foundation of self-less, servant-like, people-first, God’s glory most kind of loving.

It’s called “agape” . . . the love that makes up its mind to live and serve with love.

And you can’t miss the fact that as 1 Corinthians opens, Paul begins by using himself as an example. 

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.

What Paul will do here in this paragraph is say, “Listen, if even one of Christ’s Apostles has it all together but doesn’t have agape, he’s not accomplishing anything.

Notice verse 2.

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.

In this paragraph, Paul is going to teach us something radical: we could call it Divine mathematics. He will present the hypothetical possibility of adding 7 amazing qualities of spiritual life and dynamic ministry. But without love, those 7 qualities add up to nothing. Seven wonderful attributes minus love equals nothing.

Here’s the Divine mathematical equation:

7 – 1 = 0!

Let’s look at this list together.

  1. The first dynamic element is eloquence.

Notice again verse 1.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…

Paul is no doubt referencing the gift tongues. The Corinthians’ enthusiasm over the supernatural, public, sensational, up-front, and in-the-spotlight gifts was leading them into prideful disorder.

One author referred to it as charismatic chaos.

Paul immediately captures their attention by saying, “Listen, imagine if I were the world’s most gifted tongues-speaker – what if I could speak in all the tongues in the world.” [SOURCE: Adapted from Alexander Strauch, Leading With Love (Lewis & Roth, 2006), p. 11]

The word for tongues here, “glossa” which gives us our word glossary, might be better to understand what Paul is saying if we translated it, “languages.” 

If I were fluent in all the languages of mankind – yet without love, I’d only be impressing myself. To the world, I’d be ineffective. 

Next, Paul has them imagine even further, “If I could speak with the languages of the angels. . .”

Now, the Bible doesn’t teach any kind of unique or special angelic language or dialect. In fact, throughout the record of scripture, whenever they speak to men or women, they always speak in the language of the person being addressed. They evidently have been given the ability to communicate the message of God in whatever language their hearer understands. [SOURCE: Adapted from John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians (Moody Press, 1984), p. 331]

Paul is basically saying, “If I were given the supernatural ability of the angels to address mankind in whatever their language – I mean if I were the super hero missionary who could show up in any country and before any people group with any language, yet didn’t have love, I would be, notice, nothing more than a noisy gong and a clanging symbol.”

Your translation might read, “sounding brass.” This was a brass gong that was struck. The “tinkling cymbal” doesn’t quite translate the noise of crashing, clanging cymbals.

Paul is referring to the percussion section of ancient music. These two instruments gave off noise, more than music. [SOURCE: Adapted from Roy L. Laurin, First Corinthians: Where Life Matures (Kregel, 1987), p. 228]

There’s no such thing as a cymbal solo . . . there are no symphonies written for cymbals.

But they can be effective if they are timed and timely.

Paul says – if you say and sing whatever you say and sing – even if you can do it in every known language on the planet, without love serving as the leading instrument – you’re only making noise.

Paul is actually hinting at something more than just symbols here. In the first-century worship of Dionysus, the clanging of cymbals and the striking of gongs accompanied their ecstatic utterances as they reached their fever pitch of false worship.

I believe Paul is hinting that the church in Corinth is looking and sounding more like a pagan religion than the holy, redeemed people of God.

Without love, communication becomes noisy, confusing, and contradictory.

A noisy cymbal never attracted anyone to the name of Christ. A noisy saint never edified anyone in the church.

Paul anticipates his audience saying, “You’re right, Paul . . . anything we come up with saying needs to be said with the right spirit for it to be meaningful or fruitful . . . but if God gives you something to say, it really doesn’t matter who you are or how you say it – it’s God’s words. 

“Who cares how you say it? What matters is that you simply deliver it. Love doesn’t matter!”

Paul says, “Oh, really?” He then lists three gifts that involved revelation from God – the very truth of God.

Verse 2.

If I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge . . .

Prophecy is the ability to publicly proclaim God’s truth accurately and authoritatively. I agree with one author who pointed out the two-fold aspect of prophecy – it can be revelation or reiteration. [SOURCE: John MacArthur, Daily Devotional: Drawing Near (Crossway, 1993), August 5th.]

In other words, it can be receiving from God new revelation – which I believe ceased with the completion of the canon of scripture – or it can be, as it has been now for nearly 2,000 years – reiteration – that is teaching/repeating what God has already said.

Paul is saying, “If I have the ability to both tell the future or receive new truth from God – or the ability to preach and teach what God has already revealed, yet don’t love my students, notice at the end of verse 2, “I am a zero.”

Paul goes on to add to prophecy all mysteries. This is an understanding of God’s ways yet unexplained. Redemptive truth once hidden is now revealed through scripture.

Paul adds to mysteries all knowledge. In other words, if I were a walking Bible encyclopedia . . . to have the theological answers to any spiritual mystery or question – I mean I knew it all . . . yet lacked love, Paul said, “I would be a big zero.”

A full head with an empty heart adds up to nothing. [SOURCE: Robert G. Gromacki, Called to be Saints: 1 Corinthians (Baker, 1977), p. 160]

It’s possible to know a lot about the facts of the Bible and very little about God's heart.

  • Earlier, Paul emphasized this point, “Without love, communication becomes noisy confusion. 
  • Here Paul is saying, in principle: sharing insight with others without showing interest in them is entirely ineffective.

That’s why the mark of the disciple was never knowledge. 

Jesus did not say,

  • “They will know you are my disciples by your I.Q.” “They will know you are my disciples by your SATs.” Praise God for that, right?
  • “They will know you are my disciples by your insight”
  • In fact, He did not say, “They will know you are my disciples by your knowledge of the future!”

Hey, we know the future . . . have you ever thought about that? We know it.

Everybody’s dying to know what happens after you die. We know!

In fact, we can describe heaven for people . . . down to the pavement.

Have you ever had anybody say, “Wow, you know what my future state is gonna be after I die? In that case, what must I do to be saved? I’m comin’ to your church!”

What makes them wonder after the gospel is when they see you acting in a loving way toward your boss at work who just trampled all over you. The fact that you still care what kind of job you perform without appreciation . . .

What gets their attention is the fact that you care about somebody in that classroom next to you that you really don’t know and most people don’t really care about.

The old axiom is true: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

That’s why the mark of the disciple is what? “They will know you are my disciples by your agape – love.” (John 13:35)

Paul seems to anticipate people searching for perhaps another loophole. “Okay . . . so what if we don’t try to be eloquent. In Fact, what if we don’t say anything at all! Let’s just say we act with great faith in the power of God and great things happen.”

Paul adds, “Imagine if I had all faith so as to remove mountains . . . I am nothing.”

Here’s the 3rd point Paul is making:

Without love, a reputation of faith becomes a farce.

Paul is suggesting that all faith is not as important as some love.

And would you notice, Paul does not say, “Without love my acts of faith become nothing – he says, “Without love, I am nothing!”

Here’s how to be a nothing: demonstrate all the gifts without demonstrating any grace . . . and Divine mathematics adds it all up and says, that equals nothing. 

Oh yea . . . well, I’ll back up my loveless heart with acts of love – that’ll be worth something!

Just watch!

Oh no . . . Paul addresses that next . . . notice verse 3. And if I give my possessions to feed the poor

Listen, Paul, I don’t love people, but I’ll feed ‘em. Look at my checkbook – look at all the charitable contributions. God is surely impressed with what I give away.

Paul uses language here that’s very descriptive. The verb ywmizw means to literally feed by placing morsels of food into the mouth. [SOURCE: R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of 1 & 2 Corinthians (Augsburg, 1937), p. 551]

You are literally ladling out the soup, one spoonful at a time – until all the food is gone and all your money is gone to buy more food.

Paul says, “It’s worthless to God.”

That’s true because God isn’t impressed with what you do as much as He is in who you are. We focus on the works of our hands; He focuses on the condition of our hearts.

To give without love profits you nothing.

Truth be told, without love there are a myriad of motives:

You give to make your conscience quiet

You give to put the unpleasant need out of sight

You give to look like you care

You give out of a sense of obligation

You give what you really don’t want to have anyway

You look like others around you and gain respect and attention by giving

The Rabbis of Paul’s day taught that you never needed to give away more than 20%. So Paul is upping the ante—in fact, he’s talking about unheard-of generosity. [SOURCE: Adapted from MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, p. 335]

But even if you gave everything you owned away, and didn’t love the people you gave it away to, or love God who created mankind, your giving is worthless to your own account.

This is Divine mathematics. 7 – 1 = 0!

We’ve looked at 6 elements that all add up to zero without love:

Paul is covering all the possibilities of life without love. He’s addressed what you say and how well you can say it: he’s talked about what you believe and how much you know it; he’s talked about what you give and how much you give it; and now he moves to the ultimate demonstration – surely this would get the attention and approval of God.

Verse 3b.

And if I give my body to be burned, and do not have love, it profits me nothing.

If I give my body to be burned. It’s possible that Paul is referring to the ancient custom of branding slaves. Perhaps Paul is referring to someone going into slavery so that someone else can be freed – allowing their bodies to have burned into them some brand.

I personally believe, given the ascending significance of sacrifice in this paragraph, that Paul is thinking of someone dying a martyr’s death.

Christians were not yet being burned at the stake as they will one day. But criminals and enemies of Rome were. However, Paul is a Roman citizen and one of the guaranteed rights of Roman citizenship is that you could not be executed by being burned alive. No matter how criminal or vile. A Roman citizen could not be executed by burning. [SOURCE: Lenski, p. 552]

Paul says, “What if I were willing to lay aside my rights as a Roman citizen and die this horrific death.”

Even that would be nothing without agape.

In other words, Paul’s point is this: Without love, giving the ultimate gift gains nothing.

Seven characteristics minus love equals nothing.

7 – 1 = 0!

How do you avoid becoming the sum of these Divine Mathematics:

  1. Whatever you say, ask, does it sound loving?
  2. Whatever you do, ask, is it done with love?
  3. Whatever you think, ask, is it balanced with love?
  4. Whenever you respond, ask, is it covered in love?
  5. Whenever you serve, ask, is it motivated by love?
  6. Whatever you give, ask, is it generated by love?

You say, “Stop. . . slow down.” No. . . I did that on purpose. You don’t need to write anything down or try to remember those 6 points. 

It is whatever you are doing plus love that matters.

It is whatever you are saying, plus love, that makes a difference.

Whatever you are doing or saying or giving or serving or sacrificing – without love, it is nothing.

Author and speaker Jerry Bridges gave a vivid illustration of this Divine Mathematics. He said,

Write down, either in your imagination or on a sheet of paper, a row of zeros. Then anther line . . . then another . . . keep going until you fill up the page on both sides. What do they add up to? Exactly nothing. But go back to the beginning of your list and simply add some positive number. A 2 or a 5. And immediately, all those zeros have value. That is the way with your gifts and faith and zeal and talents. They are zeros. But put love in front of them and they will have eternal value. [SOURCE: Quoted in Strauch, p. 15]

Everything without love is always worth nothing.

Everything with love is always worth something . . . always.

These are convicting words. And don’t forget, he’s writing these words to a church . . . to a people who really want life to matter.

Well Paul, how can I tell if what I say and what I do and how I serve and what I give has love added to it?

I almost hear Paul saying, “I’m glad you asked . . . that’s next.”

In our next session, Paul will answer that by saying, “Let me show you what true love really looks like. I want to show you how life acts with love added to everything.”

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