I used to think very differently about the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians in the Bible. Time and maturity have a way of developing a deeper appreciation of the timeless Word of God. ◊
Of course, many weddings include a reading of the Bible as part of the marriage ceremony. I’ve attended countless weddings that include the reading of the famous and beautiful chapter 13 from the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Christians in Corinth, better known as 1st Corinthians 13.
This chapter has become somewhat of a cliche for the Church and modern wedding ceremonies. I regretfully admit that I had become tired of hearing this text read at weddings as it strikes me as an overused ceremonial standard. Worse is that I know we had a friend read this passage at our own wedding many years ago.
Shame on me.
Thankfully, I don’t think that way anymore. Time and maturing wisdom raises up greater appreciation of the timeless Word of God.
The Love Chapter in Context
The writing of the entire Chapter 13 is actually exquisite. It is beautiful in phrasing, form, and content. It rises and flows like a melodic poem while packing a punch that leaves no one untouched. Theologian John Piper refers to this passage as:
“the most beautiful passage he [Paul] ever wrote – beautiful in the combination of morally luminous thought combined with aesthetically arresting prose. Some would say poetry.1
I think so too. When one views this passage in the context of the difficult topics that Paul deals with in Chapters 12 and 14, this Chapter 13 becomes highlighted as not only a gem of a written passage, but a beautiful and immortalized heart, mind and soul challenge to the entire Church.
And for every one of us then and now as well.
To be clear, the church at Corinth was not known for its loving or lovely behavior. The city of Corinth (about 45 miles from Athens, Greece) was a bustling center of commerce and travel in the Roman Empire. As a port town, its reputation for immorality was notorious. The verb “to corinthianize” – meaning to live an immoral life – was coined here.2
This early Christian church community was established shortly after Pentecost. Paul spent almost 2 full years in this vibrant city building up and teaching the growing group of Christ-followers. But beyond sexual sin and immorality (incest, adultery), there were issues of divided factions over teaching leaders, lawsuits among Christians, marital status, idol worship, self-indulgent behavior, and public worship practices. Even the administering of the Lord’s Supper. All of these are addressed in Chapters 1-11.
In Chapter 12, a whole chapter is focused on the use and source of spiritual gifts. The gifts of the Spirit are varied and rich, and derive from the same Spirit of God, manifested for the common good of the Church. Paul speaks of gifts delivering supernatural wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, speaking various languages (tongues) and the interpretation of tongues. All of these gifts working in service as varied members of the body, though many, as one body, baptized into one body identified with Christ – whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.
All parts of the body are to give honor to one another with no discord in the body, but with the same care for one another. Paul closes the chapter with a powerful instructional link to the next chapter: “And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
The more excellent way is love. Here is the full poetic and profound text of the so-called Love Chapter – 1 Corinthians 13:
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.
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.
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. 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.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
While Chapter 14 dives into specific details of a personal spiritual prayer language versus the speaking in a tongue that prophesies or declares an edifying word for others for their up-building, encouragement and consolation (14:3), the juxtaposition after Chapter 13 highlights Paul’s emphasis on Love as a Christian Christ-follower. The extended explanation of tongues and spiritual gifts leads one back to the simple comparison of Love against even any of the profound set of Spiritual Gifts.
Yes, Love trumps everything – even great spiritual gifting whether they be tongues, prophecy, giving, and faith. Love is the greatest of all things. And God is Love. And the Spirit of God in us is the only way to Love like this.
Actually, so Wow. I must really rethink my Love as practiced daily in the context of all human dealings in the Body of Christ and outside the fellowship of believers – at work, at home, in community, and in the world. Even in the active exercising of any spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are for the servicing of God’s hand in and outside the Church. And this Love, only through God, is beyond and superior when aligned with the Spirit of God and achieves what the Spirit desires in this world in need of such Love.
Do you practice Spirit-filled Love?
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres….And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.“ – 1 Corinthians 13:6-7,13
1 Why I Love the Apostle Paul – 30 Reasons, by John Piper, Crossway, Wheaton, IL 2019, p. 92.
2 Harper Study Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1965, Notes, 1 Corinthians, p 1698.