Several years ago there appeared on Broadway a political satire called Of Thee I Sing. The opening scene of that musical took place in a smoke-filled hotel room. A group of what we might call super delegates had gathered. They had chosen a man to represent them, and now they were looking for a platform on which he could campaign. They had all kinds of suggestions, and then one of the delegates looked at a chambermaid who was there to clean up the room and asked her, "What do you think the people of the country want?" She responded, "Love. Everybody wants love." And love became the major plank for the platform. It's not so outlandish in comparison to current political platforms based on words like "hope" or "change" or "integrity" or "truth." All of those words get thrown around in today's political campaigns, but they don't mean much. The politicians might was as well be shouting about "bear" or "hot dogs and baseball" or "shopping at the mall."
When we look at the New Testament, we sometimes have the sense that the apostles, the writers of the New Testament, got together in a church council and wanted to find a message that would be very user-friendly. Somebody suggested, "How about love?" and they adopted it. And all of the apostles who wrote stayed on that message. Again and again we are told that we're to be people of love. You can't quarrel with that. It's a good platform, until you get down to examining what love really means. In some cases the devil's in the details. In the New Testament, God is in the details.
In 1 Corinthians 13, after having established that love is essential for Christian ministry, Paul takes a stab at defining love in verses 4-7. He tells us what love is by showing us what love does. There are fifteen different phrases that the apostle uses to show us love in action. The first two—love is patient, love is kind—function like the headline for what follows. Then there are eight things that love doesn't do: It doesn't envy. It doesn't boast. It's not proud. Then Paul concludes with five things that love does do—five things that characterize a person who really loves God and people. Love rejoices wherever truth is found. It always protects. It's in constant trust of God.
Love always hopes.
Finally, Paul says that this love of which he speaks always hopes. The ancient world was devoid of hope. In Acts 16, Paul makes a great turn in his ministry when he gets a vision of a man in Macedonia. In the vision the man pleads, "Come and help us." If there was a culture in the ancient world that didn't need help it was the Greek culture. The Greeks had everything. They had the great philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. They had orators, men who could hold people spellbound. They had architecture like the Parthenon, that magnificent temple built over 2,000 years ago that still astounds us. They had the arts. They had their great plays by Sophocles and Euripides. They had sports, huge stadiums in which athletes competed. One classical historian says of the Greeks that anything the Greeks needed they had invented. Anything that they wanted they had. But he was wrong. There was one thing they did not have. They did not have hope. Because they did not have hope, they gave themselves to all kinds of sensual indulgences. It's true of that culture; it's true of our own.
The historian Matthew Arnold put it this way: "On that sad pagan world, disgust and secret loathing fell. Deep weariness and sated lust made human life a hell." As Paul said, they were without God and they were without hope (Ephesians 2:12). And if there was one city in Greece that typified the hopeless condition of a people, it was the city of Corinth, a great throbbing, commercial center surrounded by two great seas. Ships came to it from all parts of the world. At the center of this city there was a temple to the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility and sexual love. We are told at one time in Aphrodite's history she had between 5,000 and 10,000 temple prostitutes to do her bidding. You can be sure that with women doing personal work, those sailors became easy converts to that religion. Moral people despised Corinth. A "Corinthian" was understood as someone totally debauched. Corinth was full of slimy worms—of thieves, robbers, idolaters, and the sexually perverted. It was moral darkness without hope.
Then one day a little Jewish man from Tarsus showed up in the marketplace there. By his own admission, he felt very weak. He said he was afraid to speak into that darkness this word of hope, but he did. I'm sure that at first the Corinthians who heard him walked away mocking him. But then some came to listen, perhaps to laugh at him, and they stayed, because the message this little Jewish man preached—the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified—somehow grabbed hold of them. These people cast themselves with a reckless abandon upon God's truth and grace, and they were changed. Listen to how Paul expresses that in 1 Corinthians 6:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
These folks had been filthy, and now because of Paul's gospel by God's Spirit, they were clean. These folks had been unholy; now they were set apart to God. They were wicked, and because of the gospel Paul preached, the Judge of all the universe had declared that they were righteous. They were changed.
Paul's hope was not based on wishful thinking. Wishful thinking doesn't work. A woman has a son who turns his back upon her and his values. The woman says, "But Henry is such a good boy, and I'm sure that he will turn out all right." The reality is that Henry is not a good boy. He's stolen and dealt drugs. The police have several files on him. If that mother thinks Henry has the potential to really turn his life around and be a whole, new person, she doesn't have real hope. There's nothing in Henry that will make the difference.
But the gospel comes to men and to women. It came to the people in Corinth in the ancient world, and it comes to people today. And when people come to embrace the gospel, the person, the work of Jesus Christ, they are changed. The filthy are cleansed. The unholy are set apart to God. The wicked are declared righteous. Whenever you see a woman or a man, no matter who they are, don't ever dismiss them as hopeless. If you are someone who takes the gospel of Jesus Christ seriously, to say that someone is hopeless is to slam the door in the face of God. This love of which Paul speaks always hopes because it's based in the person of Jesus Christ.
Love always endures.
Paul then says that love endures. I'll speak honestly. I hardly know how to touch this. Several years ago, Bruce Waltke and I led a tour in Turkey of the churches in Revelation. On the last night, we were in the city of Izmir and were having dinner at one of its nicer hotels. Bruce was there, I was there, and our guide was there. The guide had been in the United States at least ten years and spoke English flawlessly. As we were eating, he began to ask us questions, serious questions about the Christian faith. I said to him, "If you're a follower of Islam, and if you died tonight, would you be sure you could stand in the presence of Allah?" "No," he replied. "There are five things that Muslims should do. I've done two out of five." Then we began to talk about the gospel. We talked about it long into the night, and before we left I said to him, "Look. You're serious about our conversation, I know. It would not be faithful of me not to ask you if right now you'd like to put your trust and confidence in Jesus Christ." He said to me, "You don't know what you're asking me. Do you know what would happen if I did that? If I announced it to anybody, my wife would leave me. My family would disown me. My boss would fire me. I may want to leave to go back to the United States, and the government would not give me an exit visa. I'd give up everything. You go back home tomorrow. I would not expect you would support me, and I would starve to death in my own culture." As far as I know he did not trust Christ that night. But there are people who have made that decision and suffered all of that loss and endured those hardships because they are Christ followers.
If you think that Romans 8:28—"All things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are the called according to his purposes"—is a promise that you'll have a middle-class life in a lovely little church in a nice little town where you may even get a pass to the country club, you're wrong. Paul did not promise that. In fact, look at the apostle who wrote these words and see what he suffered:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
When they whipped Paul, he bled. When they stoned him, he groaned. When he was exposed to the elements, he froze. You ask, "How did he do it? Why did he do it?" Look at the church today. More people were martyred for the faith in the last century than all the other centuries combined. It's also true that there are more Muslims who converted to Christ who have gone back into Islam than have remained Christians. Put your finger on any part of the map and it will bleed Christian blood. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have been imprisoned, and they have cried out to God for deliverance, and no angel has come to open the gates of the prison. No earthquake has come to deliver them. They've suffered. They've bled. They have died. Or even more impressive, they have suffered, they have bled, they have been released, and they've gone back into the ministry again.
Love endures. Why? Because Christians are masochists and we love to be beaten? Paul's answer to that in 2 Corinthians 5 is that Christ's love constrains us. Because we're convinced that One died for all, and therefore all died. And that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
That deep conviction kept Paul going. It has caused Christians throughout the centuries to endure all kinds of hardship. Look at the life of our Lord. What's most impressive? Not that he turned water into wine. Not even that he walked on the Lake of Galilee. What I think was most impressive was that in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing what it meant to go to the cross, he could say, "If possible let this cup go from me, but nevertheless, not my will but yours be done." In saying that, he went into the darkness, separated from the Father for the first time in all of eternity. He chose suffering over ease. I believe that the greatest anthem of praise the church has ever sung has been in the groans of its martyrs, of those who would not quit, because they had a faith in Jesus Christ and they lived for a better world, a better time.
Who is qualified to teach a theology of suffering? Not someone with academic degrees, but someone with stripes and wounds—someone who has lived it. Suffering is not going to make it as a plank on anybody's campaign.
There's one more thing I'd like to do as we look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It talks about love, but I often put my name where "love" is, and I'd like to do that now. Lest you sit there and judge me for doing this, I'd like you to put your name there, too.
Haddon Robinson is patient and he is kind. Haddon doesn't envy, doesn't boast. He's not proud. Haddon Robinson isn't rude. He's not self-seeking. He's not easily angered, and he keeps no record of the wrongs done against him. He doesn't delight in evil, but he rejoices wherever truth is found. He always tries to protect, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Again and again I have prayed, "Forgive me, but do this work in me." Amen.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.