"If I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (1 Cor. 13:3).
Wrong motives rob even the greatest sacrifice of its spiritual benefit.
So far in his denunciation of loveless ministries, Paul has addressed what we say, what we know, what we believe, and how we give. Now he comes to the apex of his argument: how we die. Many Christians have made the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom, but even that is useless without love.
In Paul's time, many slaves were branded with a hot iron to identify them as belonging to their master. For that reason, some interpreters believe Paul was referring to becoming a slave when he spoke of delivering his body to be burned (1 Cor. 13:3). Others think he was speaking of burning at the stake—a death that many Christians suffered at the hands of their persecutors.
Although death by burning wasn't a common form of persecution until after Paul wrote to the Corinthians, I believe that's what he had in mind in this passage. In verses 1-2 he used extremes to make his point: speaking with the tongues of angels; knowing all mysteries and knowledge; having all faith, and giving all one's possessions to feed the poor. The horrible, agonizing pain associated with death by fire is consistent with those extremes.
Jesus called martyrdom the highest expression of love (John 15:13). But it isn't always a godly or loving thing to do. Many people have died for lesser reasons. You may recall stories of the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, or more recently of monks or students who burned themselves in protest of some political or social injustice.
Even Christians aren't exempt from wrong motives. It is reported that many Christians in the early church developed a martyr complex, wanting to die for the faith so they could become famous like the martyrs before them. Many deeds that look sacrificial on the surface are really the products of pride.
If the ultimate sacrifice is useless without love, so is every lesser sacrifice. But love sanctifies them all. So let God's love govern everything you do!
Suggestions for Prayer
Memorize Romans 5:8 as a reminder to praise God for the many sacrifices He has made for you.
For Further Study
Read Revelation 2:1-7.
- What strengths did the church in Ephesus have?
- What did the Lord say about its one glaring weakness?