Our love is often little more than a sentiment. When the Beatles sang “All you need is love” in 1967 they captured our fascination with and our ignorance of love perfectly. The song does not reflect on the meaning of love, nor does it explain what love does. It highlights the priority of love, but it cannot explain why love should enjoy such prominence. If we want to understand true love we have to turn somewhere else and there is no better place than 1 Corinthians 13.
Love, as we find it in 1 Corinthians 13, gives meaning to our service and sacrifice (v. 1-3). It is not simply a feeling, but fuels action. Love gives birth to virtue (v. 4-7). Without love the patience, kindness, humility and compassion that believers are called to would be impossible. Clearly, love is vital to the Christian life.
As we reach the end of the passage Paul highlights another aspect of love: the permanence of love. In verse 8-12 Paul mentions many things that will “pass away” or “cease”. Surprisingly, he says that knowledge and the gifts of tongues and prophesy (which the Corinthian church coveted) have a short shelf-life. There will be a time when they will no longer be necessary. This does not mean that they are bad, but simply that they serve a purpose and that once that purpose has been served (which Paul compares to growing up or seeing with greater clarity, v. 11-12) they are no longer necessary. Right now, they are important, but some day (when we see “face to face”) they won’t be. Love, then, should govern even these gifts.
Paul closes the chapter with a reminder of what will “abide”: faith, hope and love (v. 13). Yet even here he elevates love to prominence. Why? According to Heb. 11:1 faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. Also, we are saved in hope, but “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). One day, when we meet our Lord in glory, we will see “face to face”. Our faith will be realized, our hope will be fulfilled, but love...? Love will be perfect, but it will not be replaced.
God is love (1 John 4:8). The closer we are to our Lord, the more his love will be revealed through us. How are you growing in love?
Because of Christ,
In his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul makes it clear that our sacrifice and service mean nothing without love. This is not simply a feeling, but fuels action: it is a choice, a commitment that governs and guides everything we do. It seeks the good of others. That is how God loves us: for our eternal good and his glory. But what does Christian love look like? Verse 4-7 tells us.
First, “Love is patient and kind”. Patience is the opposite of being short tempered and is often used to describe God’s attitude towards us (for example 2 Pet. 3:9). Then add kindness, which tells you what that patience looks like while it puts up with other people.
Second, “love does not envy or boast”. These are two sides of the same coin. Pride is antithetical to love. Pride envies; it wants the good of others for itself. But love is not displeased with the success of others. Pride boasts; it flaunts its good in the face of others. But love rejoices in others, not in self.
Third, “it is not arrogant or rude.” Again pride is portrayed as the opposite of love. The Corinthians were prone to pride and it manifested in an arrogant, dismissive, party spirit (that is how the term is used in chapter 4). If you think so highly of yourself and so little of others, it is no wonder that you become “rude” (act disgracefully). True Love would rather be disgraced than disgrace another.
Fourth, “It does not insist on its own way”. This is in keeping with the previous statement. “My way or the high way” is not love. Loving others means we value their opinions and input.
Fifth, “it is not irritable or resentful”. Do we have a short fuse? That is the opposite of love. This often goes with a “resentful” spirit. It means that you keep a record of wrongs committed against you. Love, however, is eager to forgive (see Ephesians 4:32).
Sixth, “it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love rejoices in what is true. Wrongdoing here not only points to the evil done to us, but to others. We do not delight in another’s pain. Love is not indifferent, but committed to truth.
To sum it up: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (v. 7). Do we practice love?
Because of Christ,
What is true Christian love? In his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul used a unique word to describe love: agape. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, because this is not a romantic or temporary love. As Leon Morris explained, it is “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love.” This, because of our union with God in Christ, is how believers should love one another.
To drive this point home Paul uses hyperbole in the opening three verses. A quick glance at 1 Cor. 13:1-3 reveals a life of supreme gifting and sacrifice… that amounts to nothing. Why?
Take the first example. In verse 1 he mentions the gift of tongues. This gift is discussed in great detail in the following chapter, because it was clearly a gift that the Corinthians valued. Paul takes that appreciation for the gift of tongues and turns it on its head: even if he had the most exalted form of tongues (the tongues of angels), without love it would simply be noise. What would the point of such a gift be without love?
His second example, prophesy, follows the same pattern. This, too, is discussed in chapter 14 and again it is clear that this gift was valued by the apostle Paul and the Corinthians. But even if they had such “prophetic powers” to understand all God’s mysteries and comprehend all knowledge, it would be meaningless without love. It would probably boost our egos and build our reputations, but it would not bless God’s church.
Paul also mentions faith that can move mountains (v. 2) and selfless sacrifice (v. 3). Somehow these get lost in the excitement surrounding the aforementioned gifts, but they are just as good and commendable. Yet, if they aren’t infused with and motivated by love, it profits nothing.
What is Paul saying? Whatever else we may believe about ourselves and our efforts, if they are not motivated and permeated by love, they mean nothing. And by nothing, we mean nothing. They will serve no spiritual good, will not benefit anyone, will not glorify God, and will not edify the body of Christ. Love has to be the priority.
Because of Christ,
First Corinthians 13 is one of the most striking passages in the New Testament. Adolf Harnack called it “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote”. If you’ve taken any time to study the chapter, you’d probably agree.
The main theme of the passage is love, but not the love between a husband and wife, or between a parent and child. The main focus of the passage is on the commitment to love within the local church. The context makes this clear. In the preceding chapter Paul addresses the varied gifts within the body of Christ, the church: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4). These gifts, if they function well, serve to build the body. However, when these gifts are used for self, rather than service, they harm the body. That is what happened in Corinth.
While some looked down on the gifts and service of others, they exalted their own. This focus on self, rather than service, weakened the body and prevented the church from doing what God had called it to do. How do we ensure that the variety within the body builds rather than breaks? There is a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), and that way is love.
What is love? We know the Greek word that Paul used very well: agape. The word is used a total of 116 times in the New Testament. This was the most appropriate word to describe how God relates to his children, and how God’s children should relate to each other. This love is not romantic or temporary. It is seen most clearly in the cross of Christ, which God set forth as the supreme manifestation of his love for his children. It is, in the words of Leon Morris, “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought whether they are worthy or not.”
That is agape love. In experiencing this love we are transformed. That transformation becomes clear in how we begin to love what God loves: his children. This is the challenge: have you experienced God’s love revealed on the cross of Christ? If so, do you love what He loves?
Because of Christ,