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Exploring the Depths of 1 Corinthians 13

In the vast repository of biblical wisdom, few passages capture the essence of love as beautifully as 1 Corinthians 13. Often read or recited at weddings, this chapter transcends the romantic context, offering profound insights into the nature of love that extend far beyond human attraction, emotion, or effort.

There are two facets to Paul’s short dissertation on love that we will examine in this post. First, we will look at the different verses and statements Paul writes in the context of the wider letter. Second, we will explore what these statements mean to us today as we look at ourselves in the mirror of our network of relationships.

But first, to set the context for this discussion, let’s start at the beginning.

God Is a God of Love

The reason why Paul can say what he does about love in the context of his letter to the church at Corinth is that God, our Creator and Sustainer, is first and foremost a loving God. He loved us so much that he sent his only Son to come to earth to live, teach, suffer, die, and be resurrected. In so doing, he saved us from our sin and opened the way for us to have an eternal life spent in relationship with him. In all this he demonstrated the kind of cosmic sacrificial love that should fire any discussion of love among us and our spouses—or anyone else with whom we come into contact.

In short, God calls us to love one another (see John 13:34–35; cf. Romans 13:10; 1 Corinthians 8:1; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 4:16; Philippians 1:9; Colossians 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8). When we do, we model what it means to be loving in a sacrificial way toward others in our lives, even when they are decidedly unlovable (as we all are at times).

Jesus was as clear as he could have possibly been when he said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). He is our ultimate example and inspiration.

1 Corinthians 13 in Context

The letter to the Corinthians that Paul wrote addressed the church that he, Silas, and Timothy had established on his second missionary journey. Corinth was a prosperous town that was situated at the crossroads of commerce in its surrounding region. Therefore the members of the church to whom Paul wrote this letter were a little further socioeconomically removed from other early church congregations: They lived in relative comfort and had most of their basic needs met.

The church at Corinth was set in a Hellenistic (Greek) context, both culturally and religiously. There were twelve places of worship to multiple deities in the city at the time Paul lived and worked there with his Christian friends Aquila and Priscilla. Because of these and other influences, the fledgling church struggled with immaturity and immorality, and Paul wrote this letter in response to what he had heard about the church after his tenure in Corinth was over.

When we look at this amazing and wonderful chapter today, we can easily find aspirational concepts to integrate into our lives. Again, that’s why this passage is so often read at wedding ceremonies. But Paul wrote these words to the church in the context of how they used their spiritual gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:1–11) and how they communicated with one another. To a church that was rife with conflict, Paul spoke these words to encourage them to love one another as an act of preserving the unity of the body of believers in their town (see 1 Corinthians 12:11–30).

That said, let’s take a look at this amazing chapter and unpack it part by part.

1 Corinthians 13 Today

Our Best Efforts Fail Without Love

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (vv. 1–3).

Paul uses hyperbole in his instructions to his readers in the church, establishing a comparison between doing something with love as opposed to doing it without love. (Think Mother Teresa without the acts of service.)

Here Paul speaks to an individual’s motivations as much as anything else. Evidently in the church there were reports of people using their material and spiritual gifts to make others feel small, of setting up comparisons and feeding personal pride rather than considering the abilities and situations of others. Here Paul asserts that even if he had superhuman knowledge paired with all of the sacrificial goodness one could ever hope to demonstrate, none of it would mean anything without the gracious foundation of love underneath it.

How often do the littlest, tiniest things in our relationships trip us up? How often do we make molehills into mountains, and in so doing make others feel “less than”? This happens in our everyday relationships—both in our marriages and families and in our work relationships. Consider the husband whose eagle eye on the bank account makes his wife feel controlled, her generosity restricted; the boss whose dogged determination to prop up his or her image leaves peers and employees swimming in a wake of despair; the mother whose sole focus seems to be on whether or not her children present the right image of her to the other families at school and at church.

Each of these situations are loaded with potential for good, but each of them can also be corrupted when love isn’t present. So when we go above and beyond for someone and expect their gratitude—or worse, make them feel like they now owe us a favor—that’s the kind of situation Paul is talking about here.

Try as we might, all of our efforts to build into the lives of others will backfire unless the foundation underneath those efforts is love and consideration and concern for the people with whom we live our lives.

What Love Is

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (vv. 4–7).

Here Paul’s instructions were specific for the people in the church at Corinth. As they related to one another, this was the standard they were being called to uphold. In every single facet that Paul described, they were to treat each other in a way that built unity, that pulled their church family closer together, that demonstrated and reflected Jesus’ love.

Please take the time to look carefully at each statement in this passage. As we interact with others in our families and in our wider relational circle, how do we demonstrate the patience, kindness, humility, and consideration for others that we as Christians are all called to reflect?

Are we ever self-seeking? Easily angered? Do we keep a ledger of wrongs that other people have inflicted against us? Do we ever rejoice when something bad happens to someone we know? As we relate to our spouses and children, is our first instinct to protect them, to trust that they are in God’s care and doing the right thing, to hope for the best for them? And during those times when they are unlovable, do we persevere in showing them love?

Imagine the looks around the room when this letter was read to the gathered congregation for the very first time. These words convict us today just as much as they did the people who first heard them. Paul’s call to love is a straight-up call to self-sacrifice, to trust in God, and to hope for the best, brightest future for all whom we encounter on a daily basis.

This constitutes a call to a perspective on life that relentlessly puts the needs of others before our own. Why? Because that’s what Jesus did for all of us, and that’s how we reflect his love to others. And when we do, unity is encouraged; family grows closer; marriages are healed; estranged relationships are restored.

Think about this: What is the first fruit of the spirit? “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23).

Here Paul again reinforces his main point: no matter our situation or circumstance, followers of Jesus should have love as their first impulse.

Love Is Permanent

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears (vv. 8–10).

Here Paul speaks directly to the issues that plagued the early church at Corinth. While some people put their gifts on display to perhaps fuel their pride, the only result was division and dissention. Paul reminds these gathered people that all gifts and all knowledge will eventually pass away. After all, no one on this earth throughout history, let alone in that early church, had a handle on God’s full revelation. How could they and how could we? We are, after all, imperfect human beings living in a fallen world.

Paul also speaks to priorities here. Unity in the midst of diversity is a calling for all believers who find themselves in community. Is there a worship leader who hangs on to his or her Sunday spotlight like it’s a right instead of a privilege? That voice, that ability to play an instrument, and even that passion to leads others in worship will pass away. What won’t pass away? The love shown to another when we allow them to participate, and even make way for them to lead in their own way. This is just one example of many we could point to in the context of church life.

As the authors of the NIV Study Bible write, “Love supersedes the gifts because it outlasts them all. Long after these sought-after gifts are no longer necessary, love will still be the governing principle that controls all that God and his redeemed people are and do.”

How many of us can read “Love never fails” and look in the mirror and say, “Yeah, that’s me. I never fail to show love to my family or friends or coworkers.” Truly, the wise writer of Ecclesiastes said it best: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Any parent will tell you that they fail. And sadly, for most of us the memories of times we have failed to show love far outweigh the memories of the love we’ve shown to others.

Yes, we fail. We are human. But there is another who was just like us, and he understands what it’s like to live in our context. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16).

What never fails? The love of God for his people. For those of us who fail—and that’s every single one of us—God’s love and grace never has failed, and it never will fail.

The Pursuit of Maturity

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (vv. 11–12).

Mentioned earlier was the widely held belief that the members of the church of Corinth were immature in their understanding of the Christian life. They allowed deviations from God’s commands to infiltrate their congregation and normalized unacceptable behavior on a number of levels. Here Paul called them to understanding, to maturity, and to a perspective that looked beyond the petty issues that caused division in the church. Paul called them instead to look to the example of Jesus himself, who demonstrated for us in his teachings and in his actions just what sacrificial love for one another looks like.

In our own families, how often do we see maturity issues? This question is different for families who have toddlers than it is for families whose kids are adults. But the realities are the same no matter what the circumstances are: We are called to move forward in the ways we relate to one another, not backward.

When our little kids move into a new phase of life, we encourage their growth and celebrate those milestones. As adults, do we do the same? Does the discovery of the first gray hair elicit the same celebration? Okay, maybe that’s a bad example, but Paul calls believers to maturity and to the pursuit of Bible-centric wisdom and knowledge with Jesus as our shining example. As we prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to help us to become more like Jesus, our position should be one of expectant forward motion in the Christian life: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

All That’s Left in the End

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (v. 13).

How did the first hearers of this message respond to this last statement? One would hope that they would engrave it in stone and hang it in the front of their gathering place. As should we all.

Of all the things that Paul has talked about in this chapter—superhuman knowledge, sacrificial attitudes and actions, prophecies, tongues, gifts and abilities—only three things will last. In the Christian life, these three summarize all of the fruits of the spirit and stand alongside Jesus’ call to love God and love others.

In response to a question about which commandments were the greatest, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). Place these three things in that same category.

Among those who pursue a relationship with Jesus, faith, hope and love will always endure, no matter what else disappears. But the greatest of all Christian virtues—the one that most reflects the heart- and soul-altering life of Jesus in the life of a believer—is the ability and the motivation of the individual and the congregation to give love away.

When we show the love of Jesus to a broken and hurting world, we defy the darkness of our current age. Hearts are changed; people get the help they need; the message of the gospel moves forward; and our personal lives, our families, our workplaces, and our church homes move toward a higher and better standard.

When we pursue Christian maturity in our own hearts and lives, we will also foster the best aspects of love in our lives. As love for Jesus and love for others grows in our hearts, we will demonstrate patience, kindness, and lack of envy, boastfulness or pride. We will not dishonor others, be self-seeking, be easily angered, or keep any record of wrongs. We will not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. We will always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere.

What believer in Jesus; what Christian parent, boss, leader, or influencer wouldn’t want to build those Spirit-inspired attributes into their lives? As Jesus himself said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

At the end of our lives, the one thing that believers in Jesus would most want to be known for is the love they showed for Jesus and the love they showed toward others. Here again we look to the words of our Savior for inspiration: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

By Mike Vander Klipp, a senior editor with the Zondervan Bible Group, where he’s been privileged to work for the past three decades. He and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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