This week at our home church in Pinson, we launched into a new series on spiritual gifts, a subject that I will be writing extensively about over the coming months. For the spiritual gifts series, A large majority of our time will be spent in 1 Corinthians 12-14. If you aren’t terribly familiar with those passages, chapters 12 and 14 are where Paul outlines the longest part of his teaching on The gifts of the Spirit. 1st Corinthians chapter 13 – the so called “Love chapter,” often heard at weddings – is written in the context of those two chapters.
To really understand 1 Corinthians 13, you need to read it in the context of its surrounding chapters, and I will post chapter 13 below with a bit of context from both chapters 12 and 14 so that the near context of this Bible chapter is highlighted properly.
Before that, it would be beneficial to write a bit about the origin of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Initially Paul went to Corinth after having left Athens (see: Acts 18) Paul met Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth, who were tent-makers just like Paul. Paul worked with them, and apparently discipled them and taught them about the Kingdom of God AS THEY WORKED TOGETHER. They were very well trained, it appears, as we see them discipling the fiery preacher Apollos later on in the book of Acts.
In addition to tentmaking discipleship in Corinth, Paul also spoke about Jesus every week in the Synagogue. After some time, Paul was kicked out of the synagogue by abusive Jews, but not before Crispus, the synagogue leader, and several other Jews were saved by believing Paul’s Gospel proclamations. Despite fierce opposition from some other Jews in the area, Paul and the newly baptized Jews, along with some Romans and Corinthian Greeks formed a house-church. Apparently the opposition to that fledgling church was so fierce that Paul considered leaving but God encouraged him in a vision one night to stay in Corinth, and so he did for 1.5 years, strengthening the church there. (See Acts 18:9-11)
Later, after Paul left, the church was beset with leadership strife and had many questions for their founder. 1st Corinthians is Paul’s letter of reply to them – answering their questions and correcting some of their division and foolish behavior. One of their main questions appears to be about Spiritual gifts – and they were a congregation so strong in the operation of these gifts that Paul noted in the opening of his letter that they didn’t lack the presence of a single gift in their midst – they had them ALL. (1 Corinthians 1:7)
But they did, unfortunately, lack something much more important than the operation of the gifts of the Spirit – the want of which was causing all kinds of controversy and division. They lacked love for each other. You can see that lack in Paul’s opening appeal in 1 Cor. 1:10:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
AND, you can see it in his most glorious call to love in 1 Corinthians 13:
Here it is, via the NET Translation: (Chapter 12 is in brick red color, Chapter 13 is black text, and chapter 14 is blue)
(Chapter 12) And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. 29 Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? 30 Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? 31 But you should be eager for the greater gifts.
And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison.
(Chapter 13) If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit.
4 Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. 6 It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 10 but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
(Chapter 14 Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.)
Please note – the following writing is not an extended exegesis of this passage. It’s not particularly deep, doesn’t go deeply into the original languages, and does not take a scholarly approach to the text. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of most Christians, myself included, are simply NOT ready to go that deep into 1 Corinthians 13, because we are not living out the obvious, surface commands of this text. As Paul metaphorically notes elsewhere, I do not believe most of us are ready for the meat of 1 Corinthians 13, but just the milk. (See: 1 Corinthians 3:2, and Hebrews 5…and yes, I am well aware that my analogy breaks down a bit here)
Let us focus on five WORDS from this passage that we need to keep in mind as we read 1 Corinthians 13:
1. NOTHING. Ultimately, the Spirit says here in His Word that we can have what is potentially the highest and most potent spiritual gift available – prophecy – and that gift is worth all of nothing without love. NOTHING. We can have the most obvious/stirring/controversial spiritual gift – tongues – and, apart from love, what is it worth? NOTHING. We can have an incredibly impressive knowledge of the Word and of God – Master of Divinity degrees and Ph.D’s to spare, but paired with a lack of love, what is that knowledge worth? NOTHING! We can have incredible Faith – the kind that ACTUALLY MOVES MOUNTAINS…and if we don’t have the kind of love that Paul describes here…what does it amount too? NOTHING. We can pour out our lives on behalf of the poor and hungry and orphan – but if we do not do it with love and in the kind of love that is described in 1st Corinthians 13…how much does it count? NOTHING. We can even suffer and be martyred for the Kingdom, but if it is not done with and in love – IT COUNTS FOR NOTHING. Ponder that. Meditate on that. This is, honestly, astonishing.
2. and 3, Patient AND Kind: The second and third words to focus on relative to 1st Corinthians 13 are the words “patient” and “kind.” I believe that since Paul listed these two descriptions first, then the first two characteristics of the kind of love that he is writing about are patience and kindness. There is no such thing as biblical love that is not primarily characterized by patience and kindness. Consider this illustration:
Some very dear friends of ours have recently had trouble with a snake in their house, and I understand that they considered calling me for help to extract the snake. That is usually a bad sign when people encounter a snake, and the first person they think of calling is the preacher! (In this case, I believe that the reason they called me is because I spend a lot of time in the woods, and have captured snakes on numerous occasions before. At least…I hope that is the reason)
Anyway, lets say that my friends actually called me. My first question would be, “Can you describe the snake?” If their first two descriptors were something like, “Well- it had four legs and brown fur,” I would stop them there, and say that they weren’t dealing with a snake at all. Similarly, Love that is NOT patient and NOT kind is not Biblical Love. How do I know? Because it is right there in black and white: LOVE IS PATIENT. LOVE IS KIND. We talk about “tough love” from time to time, and I will admit to you that love must be incredibly persistent and not spineless. That said, if your brand of love can not primarily be described with the words “patience” and “kindness,” then you might have a furry, four-legged snake on your hands. In other words, to speak even more plainly – Love that is not patient and kind is NOT LOVE. And therefore – IT IS NOTHING. U.S. Paper money that is not greenish and rectangular is not worth anything. Love that is not patient and kind isn’t either.
Some astute readers right now might be thinking something like, “You know what? Paul’s understanding of love sounds kind of naive.” And yeah – it really does – mainly because the lover in this case leaves themselves so vulnerable to pain and injury. In that regard, I will note that there are two main types of people that don’t worry about being hurt. #1 The truly naive and oblivious, and #2 – Those who are ULTIMATELY protected by a mighty power. That said, the bottom line is that 70s one-hit-wonder band Nazareth had it right: Love does indeed hurt.
4. LONG-SUFFERING. The fourth word to consider from 1st Corinthians 13 is: “long-suffering.” Love will suffer. Another word for patience used in vs. 4 is “long suffering.” The definition of the Greek word there is, “to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes and troubles.” Love bears all things…Love protects…Love endures all things. In this day and age, we have a saying…”I’m DONE!” Or, “I’M SO OVER…” him, or her, or whatever. Those expressions are not applicable to love. Why not? Because: LOVE NEVER FAILS. IT NEVER QUITS. It BEARS ALL THINGS. And yes, therefore, it suffers. Consider 1 Peter 2:20 “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” And, consider this insightful quote from John Piper:
Wherever there is love there is pain—love suffers long (makrothumei) . . . endures all things, bears all things.” This is realism and therefore comforting. If two people, or two thousand people, are in a relationship of love, all will be hurt. And all will need to “suffer long” and endure and bear all things. (Commenting on 1st Corinthians 13)
5. Greatest: The fifth and final word to consider in 1st Corinthians 13 is the word “Greatest.” LOVE is the GREATEST thing we are called to. NOTHING is more important. God is Love (1 John 4:8), God So Loved The World that He sent His Son (John 3:16), The Greatest Commandment is to LOVE God and LOVE His people. (Matt. 22:36-38), By this (LOVE) All will know you are my disciples – if you love each other. (John 13:35) According to Jesus’ answer to the question of ‘what is the most important commandment,’ the highest and greatest and most important thing that God calls us to is to be lovers of God and lovers of people, and 1st Corinthians 13 outlines for us quite clearly what that love should look like,
Allow me to close this little exhortation, as I often do, with a quote from friend of the blog Charles Spurgeon (slightly modernized by me for 2016 readers):
THE grace of charity, or love, is absolutely essential to true godliness. So essential is it that, if we have everything else, but have not love, it gains us nothing. The absence of love is absolutely fatal to vital godliness; so says the Holy Spirit in this chapter. When, then, you read the apostle’s high accolades of love, do not say, “This is a fancy virtue to which certain special saints have attained, and we are bound to admire them for it, but we need not imitate them.” Far from it. This Love is the common, everyday uniform of the people of God. It is not the prerogative of a few; it must be the possession of all. Do not, therefore, however lofty the model may be, look up to it as though you could not reach it: you must reach it. It is put before you not only as a thing greatly desirable, but as absolutely needful; for if you excelled in every spiritual gift, yet if you had not this, all the rest would gain you nothing whatever.
One would think that such excellent gifts might benefit us a little, but no, the apostle sums them all up, and says of all of them, “it gains me nothing.” I pray that this may be understood by us at the very beginning, otherwise we might manage to slip away from the truth taught us by the Holy Spirit in this place, and should excuse ourselves from being loving by the notion that we are so unimportant that such high virtue cannot be required of us, or so weak that we cannot be expected to attain to it.
You must attain it, or you cannot enter into eternal life, for if any man have not the Spirit of Christ he does not belong to Christ, and the Spirit of Christ is sure to birth in us the love spoken of here in our text, which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”