1 Corinthians 13 is a text that I’ve read at nearly every wedding over which I’ve presided. That’s great; these are certainly fitting words for such an occasion. But there’s a flip side to such familiarity. If we come to 1 Corinthians 13 and we only hear a word about romantic love, I’m afraid we’re not hearing all that God would intend. In fact, many scholars say the description of love here is less about human love and more about the divine love we’ve experienced in Christ.
The reality is that Paul writes these words to a people who are having a hard time staying together. Let’s face it: these Christians in Corinth are light years away from the sentimentality of a wedding stage. Throughout this letter, we see a church dealing with a host of problems:
- It is a church that has become deeply divided, w/ factions that claim to follow Paul or Apollos or Peter;
- These divisions are evident in the malpractice of the Lord’s Supper;
- There is widespread sexual immorality among them, including a man (at best) sleeping with his step-mother; and some in the church are proud of this!
- The church is dealing with lawsuits among believers, divorce, food sacrificed to idols…the list goes on and on.
But here in chapter 13, in the context of a teaching about spiritual gifts and the nature of the body of Christ, Paul calls the Corinthian church to a distinctly Christian way of love. Paul sees love as the response to the abundant problems in the church at Corinth.
He begins by saying, And now I will show you the most excellent way (12:31). The phrase “most excellent” literally means to transcend, to throw beyond. The way Paul points them to is a way “beyond measure,” which is important given that the Corinthians continually compare and measure themselves against one another. They are a people obsessed with status, social advancement, and self-promotion. Paul wants to move the Corinthians past all of this to a way that is beyond measure.
This most excellent way, the way “beyond measure” is, in a word, love.
He begins by talking about some of the ways the Corinthians would have thought about the spiritual life: speaking in tongues, gifts of prophecy, understanding mysteries, mountain-moving faith, even giving all of one’s possessions to the poor. These are all components of the spiritual life in the minds of the Corinthians. But Paul’s argument is this: What good is spiritual activity if you take love out of the equation?
He says such activity is useless, comparing it to a clanging cymbal. Apart from love, all our gifts and efforts amount to nothing. Take the point about giving away everything you own to help the poor. This is certainly commendable, right? Absolutely. But the Word says that without love, such action is nothing more than baptized self-interest. It’s giving for show. The giving is only done to curry favor in the eyes of others or, even worse, to earn mercy and grace from God. Why else would you be giving if not out of love?
Love is the key ingredient of Christian community and experience. Without love, all our actions and abilities culminate in this phrase: “I am nothing.” You can’t take love out of the picture and still call it Christian. We might imagine Paul saying to a church today:
Without love, your church budget is worthless.
Without love, your ministry programs are pointless.
Without love, your faith is dead.
The point is that no matter how magnificent the accomplishment, when love is missing, the exercise becomes vain, selfish, and fruitless.
Thankfully God sees fit to give us a vibrant picture of love in the next few verses. Starting in v4, love is the subject of 16 straight verbs. These are not qualities or attitudes, but actions. (As we’ve noted, the kind of love we’re seeking is an active love.) Rather than “love is patient” and “love is kind”, a better reading of these verses would be “love responds with patience” and “love is being kind.” So if you’re a practical sort of learner, this section is right up your alley. Paul is taking love out of the abstract and making it extremely practical. Love moves in these distinct ways, always for the sake of others.
The agape love described here has an all-encompassing scope: it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
Jill Severson tells the following story:
My parents got married when they were 19 and recently celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary. But today things aren’t easy for them. My Mom struggles with Alzheimer’s. Something about the evening makes her even more confused. Medical professionals have a term for this: Sundowners. It’s a common experience for folks with Alzheimer’s. For Mom, when evening comes, she gets disoriented and demands to be taken “home.” My parents live in an apartment facility for the elderly, so we’re never sure what she means by “home.”
One night I was watching TV with them in their apartment and Mom started pleading, “I’m tired. Can someone help get my coat and take me home?” At first her questions are addressed generally to the room and then to me. She eventually gets frustrated and cries out at my Dad in disgust. “Why won’t you take me home?”
Two years ago my Dad had his voice box removed so it’s difficult for him to talk. He can’t comfort his frightened wife. But my mother can’t remember the surgery so she demands, “Why won’t you talk to me?” He shakes his head back and forth. This makes her angrier. “He just shakes his head and never talks to me,” she shouts to the room. She calls him selfish, uncaring, and a host of hurtful words and names. My Dad’s eyes are filled with tears. He’s a tough man. Strong language is not foreign to his background. But he understands what she is really saying: “I’m scared and confused.” That’s what really breaks his heart.
Finally my Mom decides that she could spend the night “here” (her apartment). She turns as sweet as she had been horrid. She tells my Dad, “You’re a good man, we can stay here can’t we? We’ll be fine for tonight.” She goes to her room and gets ready for bed. Coming to my Dad one last time before retiring she puts her hands on each arm of his chair, gets her face about a foot from his, and with the most endearing look asks, “Do you have something to say to me?”
And he mouths the words, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replies. And then she goes to bed.
There is an active love at work in this relationship, a love that responds in patience and kindness, a love that bears all things and endures all things. And such love is a window into the divine love that never fails. Stories like this are tricky, though, because all human love is limited and finite. The point isn’t “go out and love like this,” although that’s a perfectly fine thing to do. The point I want to stress is this: this is how God loves you!
Literally, a love that “never fails” is a love that never “falls out.” The phrase that is found in the Bible more than any other is this one: Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever. This is the standard refrain of praise throughout the Bible. God is to be praised for His goodness and the enduring, eternal nature of His love. The same love is extolled in the words to the popular praise song: “Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.” God loves with an eternal love that is “beyond measure.” I mean, how can you measure something that’s eternal? I’m not sure you can, I think you only hope to glimpse it.
But this is how God has loved us. Eternally, never failing, without measure. As C.S. Lewis says, “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.” His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on us.
And it is the eternal nature of that love that makes it “the greatest of these.” Faith, hope, and love make up Paul’s standard triad of the Christian life. But as important as faith and hope are, love stands supreme because love has an eternal quality to it.
The Word says that prophecies and speaking in tongues and knowledge will run their course. Our current experience is like seeing dimly in a mirror. But a day of completion and perfection is coming when we will see face to face, a day when we will be fully known.
One day, faith will become sight.
One day, hope will be fully realized.
On that day, all that will be left is love: the love God has for us, the love we have for Him, and the love we share with one another.
Until that day comes, the Word of God calls us to Pursue love! (1 Cor. 14:1, ESV). For the greatest of these is love.
If the greatest of these is love, then love should never be the one most lacking among us. Love is our core value, the most excellent way, the way “beyond measure.” We should always be pursuing the divine love that prompts God to pursue us.
Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” At the cross, we see the lengths God is willing to go in order to pursue us in love. At the empty tomb, we see the power of His eternal love, a love that is greater than death.