Love is the Greatest Thing
(1 Corinthians 13)
“A text without a context becomes a pretext for a prooftext,”»1 yet 1 Corinthians 13 is often divorced from its context and read at Weddings and Funerals without interpretation. It is the “greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote,”»2 yet when we lift it out of its context we lose so much of its force.»3 Although it is not formally paraenesis, it is certainly intended to teach and exhort the Corinthians.»4
In chapter 12 Paul began his discussion of spiritual gifts, in order to counter the Corinthians over-emphasis on the gift of tongues. Using the metaphor of the body, he outlined the need for diversity. In chapter 14 he goes on to specifically address the gift of tongues, emphasising that intelligibility and order are most important in public worship. Chapter 13 seems, on the surface, to be a digression. But simply because we can skip it and still make some sense of chapters 12 and 14 does not mean that it is misplaced.»5 Paul wants to show that not only are they over-emphasising one gift over all others, but that they are forgetting the bigger picture of what Christian living is all about in the first place. So if he didn’t have chapter 13 in his mind, or ready-made, he would have had to write something very much like it anyway.»6
This chapter fits in very nicely with Paul’s main thrust in the letter as a whole, which is to present the Corinthians with a better picture of true “spirituality” in order to counter their divisive tendencies.
The structure of the passage is fairly straightforward:
Verses 1-3 All you need is love
4-7 Love changes everything
8-13 Love is the greatest thing
I have used the titles of popular songs about “love” as headings for these sections. Paul’s view of love is, of course, very different from that of popular culture, being less “romantic” and more concerned with attitude and behaviour.
All You Need Is Love (12:31b - 13:3)
12:31b The chapter division is “absurd” according to Calvin»7, since this is the heading for all that follows. The way of love is more excellent, but not because it is the highest of the spiritual gifts»8. Here it is not a gift at all, but a “way”, an approach to the whole issue of gifts»9 and indeed to the whole of the Christian life. Paul perceives that, “given the Corinthian triumphalism and over-realized eschatology he must do more than simply urge the believers to seek the greater gifts [cf. 12:31a].”»10
Verse 1 Whether the Corinthians themselves thought they were speaking in the tongues of angels, is a moot point»11, although there are parallels in ancient sources which would indicate that this was possible.»12 Fee makes the point that, “One can make a good deal of sense of the Corinthian view of ‘spirituality’ if they believed that they had already entered into some expression of angelic existence.”»13 Paul points to himself saying, “If I speak in the tongues of men...” because he himself did speak in tongues (cf. 14:18), and the points he is about to make apply to him just as much as them.»14 But this is more than Paul reminding himself - it is pastoral empathy designed to make the rebukes here slightly more indirect, if no less powerful.
Instruments like gongs and cymbals were used in the pagan worship of Dionysius and Cybele.»15 Paul is perhaps making another reference to their former pagan practices.»16 He does not, however, equate tongues with pagan noise, but himself; it is the person who speaks in tongues who is like a clanging cymbal if they have not love.»17
Verse 2 Prophecy appears again from the list in 12:28. To fathom all mysteries means to understand and grasp the things which God has revealed. “All knowledge” would probably include that, but is perhaps wide enough to include non-religious “knowledge” too. It may even refer to “words of knowledge” as one early manuscript seems to suggest.»18 The point is, even if they were to know everything there is to know (even theological knowledge!), or possessed the gift which Paul sees as most important (prophecy, see 14:1) it meant nothing, and signified no great advance in their spirituality as they may have thought.
Faith that can move mountains echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 17:20,»19 and refers to the special gift of faith referred to earlier (12:9) rather than to the faith which all Christians have by definition.»20 Even omniscience and mountain-moving faith are worthless to the one who has them, without love! This is a pointed reminder that to imitate Christ (11:1) means more than merely imitating his miraculous deeds and powerful words.
Verse 3 Psomisorefers to parceling out one’s possessions and giving them away, either once in a grand gesture or in a long-term programme»21 (“to the poor” is not in the Greek, but may be reasonably implied). This again echoes something of Jesus’ teaching.»22 Philanthropy is good in itself and good for the person on the other end of it, but without love it leaves spiritual “accounts” as empty as bank accounts.»23
The second half of the verse says, “if I hand over my body” but it is not clear what follows that. The most likely reading is, “if I hand over my body so that I may boast,” but this seems to make less sense than the well-attested, and similar sounding, textual variants which refer to burning.»24 On textual, grammatical and historical grounds the first reading is to be preferred however:»25
- Kauchesomai has almost all the ancient manuscript support,»26 and is the harder reading. It is difficult to see why it would have been added later.»27
- The grammatical form of the main variant reading is unknown in New Testament times (and is a “grammatical monstrosity” in Koine!»28) but did come into use later, when a scribe may have added it.»29
- Historically, Christians were more likely to be beheaded than burnt when Paul wrote this letter,»30 although martyrdom by fire became more common in later years.
Boasting is not intrinsically evil,»31 and could refer to another method of giving to the poor. Some people were known to have “sold themselves into slavery, and with the price received for themselves have fed others.”»32 It could also refer to martyrdom, the most extreme form of self-giving - whether it was by sword or by fire.
Verses 1-3 show us the way of love. As Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians, on a similar subject: “Without love, nothing is pleasing to God.”»33 A deed without this context is a pretext for a profitless existence. Using hyperbole, Paul asserts that whatever spiritual gifts or achievements he may possess (he lists five), without possessing and exercising them in the context of love, nothing is gained coram deo.»34 None of these things makes one truly “spiritual.” In fact, “in this divine mathematics, five minus one equals zero.”»35
Love Changes Everything (Verses 4 - 7)
Paul now goes on to define this love. He does so in such a way that the Corinthians can be left in no doubt that this is a rebuke and they must change, since they fall short on these specific things.»36 This is the sort of love which, if universally practiced, would put an end to all the divisions in the Church.»37 Love is personified throughout this section, but it is obvious that Paul means “the person who loves” is patient, kind et cetera. The fact that love is personified reminds us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and that true love is only seen in us when we imitate God, by imitating Jesus.
Makrothumei literally refers to having a long nose,»38 and is almost exclusively used to refer to patience in relationships rather than in difficult circumstances.»39 When confronted with personal offense, then, the loving thing to do is to take a deep breath in through the nose - the longer the nose, the longer the pause and the more time to consider a response. Lack of this aspect of a loving character would obviously be conducive to further dissention in Corinth.
Kresteuetai is the other side of patience, the active response. Love is slow to anger, and quick to repay evil with kindness, rather than with revenge. Love is not skilled in delivering devastating one-line “put-downs” whenever it is confronted with a personal attack, although given the alleged Corinthian love for slogans, the Corinthian Christians probably were.
Ou zeloi This may refer to some sort of proselytism / competition between factions along the lines of Galatians 4:17-18, or it may refer to the covetousness stirred up by excessive talk about charismata. The second is likely given Paul’s insistence that love ou perpereuetai does not cause envy in others by boasting about its own achievements.
Love ou fusioutai unlike the Corinthians of course, who Paul has rebuked for just this problem throughout the letter.»40 They were arrogant when they really should have been ashamed»41 at the damage their attitudes were causing in the Church. Ouk aschemonei refers to behaviour “in defiance of social and moral standards,”»42 often sexual,»43 but verbal coarseness and generally indecent or crude behaviour is also ruled out, since it is guaranteed to tear down others rather than build them up.
Ouj zhtei' taV eJauth'" - Paul has already indicated that they should imitate him in this»44 and seek not their own advantage but the advantage of others. Self-centredness is immensely divisive,»45 and could cause them to be “touchy”»46 when they felt their interests were not being adequately addressed. Love, however, does not fly into paroxysms of rage or make dramatic gestures of discontent at the slightest provocation.
Ou logizetai to kakon - Touchiness leads to the making of lists and an unforgiving attitude. This would hit home forcefully to a Church like the one in Corinth, which was riddled with factions, each no doubt taking note of how the others reacted. “The man who loves does not compile a dossier about his neighbour.”»47 In verse 6 adikia is (unexpectedly»48) parallel toaletheia - the Corinthians ought not to delight in a feeling of superiority over others, but they are to rejoice not merely with the “good” but with the “truth” - wherever that truth is found, even in an “opposing” faction.
The repeated panta in verse 7 stresses the ongoing attitudes displayed by the loving person. These are wider than the Corinthians specific situation. The mention of pisteuei and elpizei anticipates verse 13.
Paul defines love in ways calculated to make the Corinthians wince at their own lovelessness, and to encourage them to repent and change. Paul’s distinctive “other-person-centred” ethics, as also reflected in Romans 12 are evident here, and are an application of the second great commandment to “love your neighbour.”»49 He goes on to explain the place of spiritual gifts in the bigger picture, not merely correcting their behaviour this time, but the over-realized eschatology which lies behind their lovelessness.
Love is the Greatest Thing (Verses 8 - 13)
Verse 8a belongs with 8-13, and anticipates the conclusion of verse 13. Love will never fall»50 unlike the “gifts” which are merely temporary. Prophecy and knowledge will, literally, be abolished. Paul uses katargeo four times in verses 8-13 to emphasise the point.»51 The verb with tongues, however, is pauo in the middle voice. It is an indirect middle with the meaning “tongues will cease of themselves.” Pausontai not a deponent middle»52 since:
- A future active form was in common use. This is rare with verbs having deponent middles.»53
- The frequent appeal to Luke 8:24»54 to show that pauo in the middle voice must be deponent»55 is illegitimate, wrongly concluding that the elements cannot “cease of themselves” - they can if their ceasing is presented as voluntary obedience to the personal rebuke of Jesus. The appeal to Luke 8:24 ignores this stylistic personification of the elements and therefore makes false conclusions.»56
- Deponency involves middle forms with active meanings.»57 Pauo is transitive when active in meaning,»58 yet it lacks a direct object in 13:8 and is surrounded by passive forms (of katarego).
If Paul had used katargeo it would have meant that speech has no place in the new creation. It is not part of his purpose to draw attention to this fact here, but his use of pauo may suggest that speech will be a part of our eschatological existence; so rather than being abolished once and for all, it will be transformed - our present languages and even the gift of tongues ceasing, to make way for a transformed language.»61 I do not think Paul’s change of verb or the fact that tongues are not mentioned in verse 9 means the gift of tongues will cease sometime before “the perfect” comes, and I certainly don’t think that we can put a date on it as some cessationists do,»62 but nothing here implies that it will necessarily continue either. The cessation / non-cessation argument cannot be settled from this text.»63
Verse 9 states that prophecy and knowledge are not themselves imperfect, but they only lead to partial knowledge»64 which is why they will be abolished. If the Corinthians thought that their gifts of prophecy and knowledge were a sign that the kingdom of God had come, Paul says the opposite. They are only provisional pointers, not the signs that eschatological reality had arrived. “By their very nature, eschatological realities endure,”»65 and these gifts will not. So this is a powerful corrective to their over-realized eschatology; they thought they had “arrived”, that they were more spiritual than other Christians, but they were deluded. When perfection arrives none of the things they valued so highly would count for anything, unless they were done out of real love.
Verse 10 There have been several suggestions for locating to teleion; the three most popular are:
- Upon completion of the NT canon
- With the maturity of the church
- When Christ returns.
Despite the popularity of the first option throughout church history, it does not take adequate notice of verse 12. When perfection arrives we will know God face-to-face, but the best that can be said since the completion of the canon of Scripture is that we know God “face-to-book.”»66 Despite the claims of some that “man has come of age” in the past 150 years, or that a certain teacher has brought “perfection” of knowledge,»67 option 2 falls on the same verse - we still do not know God face-to-face. Perfection, then, is that state of affairs which will be ushered in when Christ comes again»68 (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:7).
Verse 11 is another way of making the same distinction between the now and the not-yet, the present age and the age to come. Until Christ returns, we are but children. We think, speak and know God like infants. But when perfection arrives it will be like the arrival of manhood - we will not need childish props anymore. There are some things we will not need in the new creation; the gifts of prophecy and knowledge are just two; as Karl Barth himself says, “no more volumes of Church Dogmatics will be written”»69 and we won’t even need a Bible!»70 So far from being indicators of super-spirituality, the gifts remind us that we are still imperfect beings living with “imperfect provisions for an imperfect world.”»71 If they are still with us, then we have definitely not “arrived”.
Verse 12 Paul again points out the difference between the now and the not-yet, which they had not grasped. Now, all our wisdom and knowledge, even our knowledge of God, is but a poor reflection of what it will be then. What we possess now is true and undistortedknowledge of God,»72 but it is indirect»73 and partial knowledge, such as a mirror gives (and Corinthians mirrors were excellent).»74 One day, Paul would know God as fully and as deeply as God knows him.»75 The Corinthians could not claim to have such knowledge. To do so would be like a child pretending to be an adult, or mistaking a picture for the presence of a real person.
Verse 13 is tricky.»76 What remains forever? It is pointless to argue that faith and hope cannot endure forever because in the new creation faith is replaced by sight»77 and hope is finally realized.»78 We cannot decide the issue in advance without looking at the text itself to see what Paul says. There are several suggestions for ways in which all three of these things could remain into eternity.»79
The issue hangs on nuni de. In verse 12 arti was used to describe the “now” in a temporal sense; nuni however, can bear the logical sense as “a marker of a summary statement.”»80 If Paul had wanted to unambiguously signal another “now-not yet” distinction he could have done so.»81 It would be strange to say that only faith, hope and love remain “now, at the present time” anyway, since Paul’s argument above concerns spiritual gifts remaining in this present age too.»82 It is best to see all three as being of eternal value. Even if all three do not last forever, it is true to say that faith, hope and love are the only present realities with eschatological significance (as opposed to the “gifts”). Love is placed last (only here in all occurrences of the triad in the NT)»83 for emphasis, not because it refers to the love of God.»84
We are left to guess how love is the greatest thing.»85 Perhaps it is because it is an attribute of God himself - he loves but he does not have faith or hope, as we do.
In this final section Paul contrasts spiritual gifts which are temporary and of use only in this present age, with love, which will never fail. The word for love throughout this chapter is, of course, agape. The meaning of love is not inherent in this particular word however, because it can be used for other kinds of love, including lust!»86 This chapter is itself the best definition of what love is. It was Paul’s antidote to divisiveness in Corinth, and a correction of their misguided views of “spirituality.”
1. What spiritual “exercises” would you say are most valuable and worthwhile? Insert them into verses 1-3 and see if it hurts!
2. Read through verses 4-7. No doubt you have seen the opposite of this kind of love in other people’s behaviour. Which of these aspects of love does our community most need to hear? Which do you?
3. What is it we look for in new converts that makes us think they have “arrived” as Christians? Is it something which will survive the second coming?
4. How would you critique the practice of reading this text at Funerals and Weddings?