The church in first-century Corinth was plagued with social divisions and rivalries. Paul explained to them that God gives different people different abilities—not so that some people can exalt themselves over others, but so that everyone will work together for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). No one is self-sufficient, and no one is unnecessary.
Near the end of chapter 12, he again explains that God appoints different roles in the church. He asks, Is everyone in the church an apostle? Of course not, he implies. It’s silly to expect everyone to have the same role (vv. 28-30).
Nevertheless, some gifts are better than others, and Paul encourages the Corinthians to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). But even if they get better gifts, how are they to use them? He explains: “And now I will show you the most excellent way.”
This superior pathway, he says in chapter 13, is the way of love. Love is not a gift that some people have and others don’t—it is the way in which all gifts should be used. This is what the Corinthians needed most. Indeed, without love, all the other gifts were pointless.
Without love, we are nothing (verses 1-3)
Paul begins with the spiritual gift that the Corinthians valued the most: “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.” No matter how special the words are, if they aren’t helping anyone, they are just noise.
“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.” Eloquent preaching, deep wisdom and strong faith are all wasted if they are not being used to help others.
“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.” Even great sacrifices, if done for selfish purposes, fail to do anything for us. Selfish actions, no matter how good they appear on the outside, do not improve our standing in the eyes of God.
A description of love (verses 4-8)
Real love is not proven through spectacular performances. Rather, it is demonstrated in much smaller things we do in everyday life: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
This is a description of God himself, and this is the life that the Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy with one another. This is the life God wants us to enjoy forever—and the life he wants us to have now, as well.
Love “does not dishonor others,” Paul says. “It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” God encourages us to participate in this life now: freed of selfishness, fits of anger and grudges.
The reason that God wants us to live this way is because this is the way God already is. He does not keep a record of wrongs—he has already forgiven us for everything we’ve done. He does not tell us to do something he has not already done himself.
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Unfortunately, we often fail. Paul is describing a way that we, of ourselves, cannot achieve. But Christ in us has already achieved it, and God wants us to participate with Christ in his perfect life by trusting him and letting him live in us.
Love is eternal (verses 9-13)
Paul makes a quick comparison between love, which is eternal, and the spiritual gifts favored by the Corinthians: “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.”
After the return of Christ and everything is made right, love will still be an essential part of life. But in that perfect age, there will be no need for prophecies or tongues. When we all have knowledge, there is no need for a “gift of knowledge.” Those things will pass away; they are temporary.
Paul then compares this to stages in human development that we are already familiar with: “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.” Prophecy, tongues, and other gifts are designed for the immature, for those who live in this age; they (unlike love) are not part of mature life in the kingdom of God.
“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.” Our life, even the best spiritual life, is on a far lower level than what we will later enjoy. We know only a fraction of what that future life will be like, but God knows exactly what we are now, and what we need to be; we can trust him to work it out for our good.
In the end, three virtues will still be needed: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” This is what we all need most, because it describes the life of God himself, the life he wants us to participate in now and forever.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2010 and updated in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
The Greeks had a word for it: agapē
Ancient Greek had several words for love: erōs for erotic love, philos for love between equals, storgē for the love of parents and children, and agapē. Although the verb form of agapē was common, often as a synonym for other types of love, the noun was rare.
This changed when Jews in Alexandria translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. They preferred the word agapē, and by using it to describe God’s love for his people, they gave it a more distinctive meaning. It was associated with the goodwill and generosity of a person in power toward one without power. It was a love that was freely given, without expecting things in return except for gratitude and loyalty.
When the New Testament was written, agapē was again chosen to describe the kind of love that God has for his people, and the kind of love that he wants his people to have toward one another: a love that is freely given, whether or not the other person is able to give any favors in return. Because it never keeps track of failures, it is a love that never ceases to be given.