We’ve made it to the “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 13 contains an extended description of what love should look like. First off for the summary, though, make sure you take note of the context of the chapter as a whole. It’s in the middle of Paul’s discussion of unity in the body of Christ, even as the body works out the spiritual gifts that have been given. 1 Corinthians 11 dealt also with worship services, as 1 Corinthians 14 will also deal with. The entire book of 1 Corinthians addresses division in the body and fighting off the infection of sin and division.
So keep that context in mind for the famous chapter on love. While we read it at weddings, it would also most likely fit into the top ten most commonly ripped from context passages of Scripture. It’s behind “Judge not” and “I can do all things through Christ,” but it would give “I know the plans I have for you (plural)…” and “Train up a child…” a run for third. Now, on to the chapter as a whole:
First, you see the importance of love. It’s more important than any one gift. Why? Because all of us can, and must, love. That’s why. You are responsible for not loving—you are not responsible for not speaking in tongues or not being a martyr.
Second, you see the characteristics of love. Love rejoices in truth, in righteousness, but not in evil or arrogance. Love is kind and forbearing, and it endures many trials thrown at it. This should not be taken that love puts up with abuse, either from within or without, but rather that when the world comes apart, one does not stop loving. Remember, this chapter comes after Paul has stressed the importance of truth—which love “rejoices in” (v. 6). There should be no taking this chapter to indicate love is more important than truth. Love is more important than being right about who the greatest country singer of all time is—those are trifling matters.
But love does not exist if the Truth (John 14:6) is removed.
Finally, the chapter ends with a reminder which people may do fails, but their character, their love, remains. Paul illustrates by speaking of childhood, how he (and we) was initially childish, but then he grew up. Growing up moved him from selfishness toward love—and that should be true of all of us.
Then, we will take the last verse in focus. It features what is called (by several New Testament scholars, I don’t remember where it originated but I heard it from Dr. Duvall years ago) the “Pauline Triad,” referring to “faith, hope, and love.” Paul uses these three together somewhere around seven or eight times (depends on the search syntax in Logos). Like most good preachers, I think he had some favorite sayings and ideas he returned to, and here we find a good idea that’s worth repeating.
In focusing on this, we should look at what these three are. Faith and hope are linked in their connection to the future—both see and act on the assumption that the world is not as it will be. Love looks at the world and sees that it is not as it should be now, and acts on that.
What does that mean, practically?
Faith and hope act based on seeing the future which God has called us to. We grow in Christlike-ness. We act in obedience, trusting that God will answer that. We do not lose heart because Jesus is coming again and will judge the living and the dead. All of these are driven by hope and faith, a view of a God-saturated future and conviction that it will happen.
Love, meanwhile, looks at the world right now and sees that it is wrong. Things are not as they should be, and something should be done about it. Love builds bridges between people, strengthens relationships among the distant, and relieves the suffering of those in need. And then, love does even greater: in love, we draw others to a right relationship with God. We do not stop, for love never fails until people are reconciled to God through Jesus. We are not satisfied to feed the hungry, though we see the need to do so.
This is what love does: it is the willful choice to treat someone as God would treat them. Love is self-sacrificial, love is caring, and love prioritizes the long-term benefit of others.
So let’s go love.
1. The Greek word for “hope” is “elpis.” Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek suggested that one could remember this vocabulary word by knowing that “Elvis fans have ‘elpis’ that Elvis is alive.” And thus it has stuck. I’ve struggled with agape and philadelphia and kerusso… (love, brotherly love, preaching) but never with elpis. (Words transliterated rather than trying a Greek font.)
2. If you use 1 Corinthians 13:1 to claim that there is a spiritual gift of speaking in “angelic languages” (or the “tongues of angels”), then consistency requires that you take 1 Corinthians 13:2 to claim there is a spiritual gift of knowing all mysteries, all knowledge, and actually, physically, removing mountains. If v. 1 is completely literal, then v. 2 is as well. If, however, v. 2 speaks of exaggerated giftedness that is out of reach, then consistency suggests that v. 1 speaks of the same idea.
3. There is a significant difference in “not keeping a record of wrongs” from v. 5 and allowing continued abuse. Do not go back to an abuser based on “not keeping a record of wrongs.” That wrenches that line out of God’s expressed concerned for justice and righteousness which permeates the whole Bible.
4. Paul is still looking forward at the return of Jesus when he hits “the perfect comes…” in verse 10. Then, we will know God as fully as God already knows us.