"GREATEST OF ALL"
"And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (1 Cor. 13:13)
INTRO.: A hymn which reminds us that of faith, hope and love, the greatest is love with all of its blessings is "Greatest of All." The text is taken from an eight-stanza poem based on 1 Cor. chapter 13 by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885). The poem actually begins:
"Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost, Taught by Thee, we covet most,
Of Thy gifts at Pentecost, Holy, heavenly love."
A bishop in the Anglican Church and a nephew to famous English poet William Wordsworth, Christopher published the poem in his Holy Year of 1862, which was expanded in 1863. This work contained 127 of his hymns, including "O Day of Rest and Gladness" and "O Lord of Heaven and Earth and Sea," both of which have appeared in some of our books. Besides these, the vast majority of them have not survived in common usage.
Several tunes have been used or suggested with the hymn, including one (Atkinson) by Walter O. Wilkinson and another (Charity) by John Stainer. The Hymnal 1940 of the Protestant Episcopal Church and the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal both use one (Capetown) composed in 1847 by Friedrich Filitz. The 1925 Hymnal Church of the Brethren uses one (Paraclete) composed in 1869 by Uzziah C. Burnap. And several other Mennonite hymnals, including the 1959 Christian Hymnal, the 1987 Zion’s Praises,
and the 1992 Pilgrims’ Praises, all entitle the song "Therefore Give Us Love" and use a Scottish folksong (Hey Tuttie Tattie) often associated with Robert Burns’s "Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled." Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "Greatest of All" appeared in the 1923 Choice Gospel Hymns edited by Thomas B. Mosley; and the 1935 Christian Hymnal (No. 1) edited by L. O. Sanderson, both with a tune composed and the chorus probably added by John Bunyan Herbert (1852-1927). This version was copyrighted in 1923 by the Gospel Advocate Co. Herbert, who is perhaps best remembered for the tune to "What Shall It Profit?", selected four stanzas and rearranged their order. I will follow his order for stanzas 1 through 4 and then add two that he omitted.
The song emphasizes the importance of genuine love.
I. Stanza 1 (orig. 7) says that the greatest of all is love
"Faith and hope and love, we see, Joining hand in hand, agree,
But the greatest of the three, And the best, is love."
A. The work of faith, the patience of hope, and the labor of love are all important: 1 Thess. 1:3
B. These things all join hand and agree, just as the Spirit, the water, and the blood all agree: 1 Jn. 5:7-8
C. However, one reason that the greatest and best is love is that love is involved in the first and second greatest commandments: Matt. 22:36-40
II. Stanza 2 (orig. 4) describes the characteristics of love
"Love is kind and suffers long, Love is meek and thinks no wrong,
Love than death itself more strong: Lord, give us that love."
A. Love is kind and suffers long: 1 Cor. 13:4
B. Love is meek and thinks no evil: 1 Cor. 13:5
C. Love is more strong than death because it endures all things: 1 Cor. 13:7
III. Stanza 3 (orig. 2) tells us that faith is nothing without love
"Faith that mountains could remove, Tongues of earth or heaven above,
Knowledge–all things–empty prove, Without heavenly love."
A. Faith that could remove mountains is nothing without love: 1 Cor. 13:2
B. Tongues of men or angels are nothing without love: 1 Cor. 13:1
C. Even knowledge can puff us up, whereas love edifies: 1 Cor. 8:1
IV. Stanza 4 (orig. 5) reminds us that prophecy is nothing without love
"Prophecy will fade away, Melting in the light of day;
Love will ever with us stay: Give us heavenly love."
A. Prophecy was one of the miraculous gifts used in the revelation and confirmation of the word: 1 Cor. 12:10
B. Therefore it was fade away because like the other miraculous gifts it was in part: 1 Cor. 13:8
C. However, love will ever with us stay and should because it is the fulfilment of the law: Rom. 13:10
V. Stanza 5 (orig. 6) explains that when faith and hope are gone love will remain
"Faith will vanish into sight; Hope be emptied in delight.
Love in heaven will shine more bright; Therefore, give us love."
A. We walk by faith now, but when we see Christ as He is, faith will vanish into sight: 2 Cor. 5:7, 1 Jn. 3:2
B. We now hope for what we see not, but when we receive that which we desire and expect, hope will be emptied in delight: Rom. 8:24-25, 1 Pet. 1:3-5
C. However, love will continue to shine more bright in heaven because we shall be in the ver presence of the God who Himself is love: 1 Jn. 4:8
VI. Stanza 6 (orig. 8) asks the Lord to shed His love on us
"From the overshadowing Of Thy gold and silver wing
Shed on us, who in Thee sing, Holy, heavenly love."
A. We should desire the Lord to overshadow us just as a hen does her chicks: Matt. 23:37
B. Therefore, we must seek to dwell under the shadow of God’s wings: Ps. 17:8
C. If we do, the love of God will be poured out in our hearts: Rom. 5:5
CONCL.: Herbert’s chorus continues to stress the value of heavenly love:
"Greater than faith, greater than hope, Is love, heavenly love;
The greatest thing in all the world Is love, heavenly love."
One stanza (orig. 3) that is omitted in all hymnbooks that I checked is as follows:
"Though I as a martyr bleed, Give my goods the poor to feed,
All is vain–if love I need; therefore, give us love."
This hymn is undoubtedly not well known among us at all, but it has an important message. May we continually remember that genuine love as taught in the scriptures is the "Greatest of All."