By Sam E. Stone
This week concludes a study of key passages in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Members of this first-century congregation had written Paul with several questions. We have considered some of their concerns in past weeks.
Today’s study of 1 Corinthians 13 is best understood when we realize that it is sandwiched in with a discussion of spiritual gifts (chapters 12–14). Some in Corinth were evidently concerned about which gifts were the most impressive and important. The apostle put things into proper perspective in this beautiful love poem. The last line of chapter 12 introduces the topic—“And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”
The Necessity of Love
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Even if one can speak in tongues of men or of angels, without love it means nothing. Tongues are languages. (See last week’s lesson on Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.) The apostles spoke in tongues they had not learned when the church began (Acts 2). Some at Corinth had the gift to do this as well (1 Corinthians 12:10). Wonderful as this is, Paul explained that such ability means nothing unless it is motivated by agape love, intelligent goodwill toward others.
The apostle continued, If I have the gift of prophecy, can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, without love it isn’t enough. Jesus commended faith that can move mountains (Matthew 17:20; 21:21), but even if one has that faith, it is not enough if it does not include love. One might even give everything he possessed to the poor and then die a martyr’s death, but these too would be inadequate by themselves. God looks at the heart. God is love. When it comes to his children, it should be, “Like Father, like child.”
The Qualities of Love
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Paul described true love as both patient and kind. He explained what love isn’t and what it is. It does not envy, does not boast, it is not proud. Some Corinthians took pride in their spiritual gifts, but such pride is not appropriate for the believer. Does not dishonor others . . . not self-seeking . . . not easily angered . . . keeps no record of wrongs. Rudeness and selfishness characterized the Corinthians’ behavior in worship (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). Love keeps no documentation of another’s failures.
Love . . . rejoices with the truth. True love cannot be indifferent to moral issues (Proverbs 17:15; Galatians 2:5, 11). Love can rejoice when the truth is spoken. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love endures wrong without complaint, gives people the benefit of the doubt, remains hopeful for tomorrow, and holds on to faith.
The Endurance of Love
1 Corinthians 13:8-13
Prophecies . . . will cease . . . tongues . . . will be stilled . . . knowledge will pass away. These dramatic gifts had just been discussed (12:8-10). Eventually they no longer will be needed. Love, however, is permanent. Knowledge and prophecy are not the last word. Like the scaffolding of a building, these spiritual gifts are not intended to remain forever. Once their purpose is fulfilled, like the scaffolding, they have completed their task. Using himself as an example, Paul told how it was for him as a child. Then he used to think in a different way than when he became an adult. With finality Paul closed the door on his childhood and accepted adult responsibilities.
Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Even the best first-century mirrors were woefully inadequate. In Heaven, we will see the Lord face to face, in a perfect relationship (1 John 3:2).
Paul concluded this section with the familiar words: Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. These three qualities are often grouped together in the New Testament (Romans 5:2-5; 1 Peter 1:21, 22). Paul spoke of living by faith (Galatians 2:20) and our blessed hope (Titus 2:13). Here he affirmed that agape love is most important of all. Love is the basis for both faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:7). As. J. W. McGarvey put it, “Faith shall be lost in sight, and hope in fruition” (Romans 8:25).
God himself is love, and love is the basis for our redemption.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.