1 Corinthians 13

By: A.C. Ling          

  Love, is one of the most intricate words in the English language. It describes an action, a feeling, a mental state, and relationships. N. T. Wright says:


“The very word ‘love’ causes us all sorts of problems in the English language. Our vocabulary has become impoverished. Where Greek has four words, we have at most two – ‘love’ and ‘affection’. All right, there are related ones like ‘fondness’ and ‘compassion’, but none of them come near to what Paul is talking about. The older word ‘charity’ has come to be associated so closely with the splendid work of organizing and administering relief for those in need that it has ceased to be useful as a translation here.”[1]

 In chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, Paul explains and dissects this word. To a Christian,

‘love’ is more than just a word – it’s the a pillar and cornerstone of the Christian faith. Originally, this text was written to the church of Corinth. Paul’s emphasis on the idea of love, is that love is superior and must govern any exercising of the gifts of the Spirit. Despite the fact that Paul’s words were specific to spiritual gifts, his teaching about love branches out into many other aspects of daily life. “As John Calvin observed, “I have no doubt that Paul intended it [1 Corinthians 13] to reprimand the Corinthians in an indirect way, by confronting them with a situation quite the reverse of their own, so that they might recognize their own faults by contrast with what they saw””[2] Love should dictate how we choose to act in our daily life, it should affect our mindset about people and situations that we encounter, and it should control our tongue. But above all, love should be what our identity as a Christian is rooted in. Paul’s teaching about love is one that should echo throughout the rest of church history.

There are two major themes that can be seen as the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Society and culture has long defined love as an emotion or a feeling. The definitions and descriptions of love, given in 1 Corinthians 13, characterize love as a way of life. The second theme throughout this chapter also defines love as an entity. In the 4th chapter of his first letter, John writes, “Anyone who does not love does not know G-d, because G-d is love.”[3] Along with John’s writings, Paul’s background as a believer, and the audience to whom he was writing to, that entity is best equated to G-d. With those two definitive themes, there are two veins that must be explored to understand the depth of what love truly is.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

            In the first section of the chapter (vv. 1-3), Paul focuses on describing familiar religious practices and shows how without love, they are futile: speaking in tongues (v.1), prophesy, understanding mysteries, and knowledge (v. 2), and self-sacrificing philanthropy (v. 3). The first two verses are a follow-up to the previous chapter where Paul explains the beauty of spiritual gifts and where their places are in the church. “The New Testament speaks about two different
phenomena with the labels “tongues”. Xenolalia (Acts 2) is a gift of the Spirit that enables
people listening to hear in their own language; glossolalia (1Cor. 14:4) to “speak in a tongue” equals to “pray in a tongue”, or to “speak in the tongues of angels”.[4] Tongues and knowledge were gifts that the Corinthians were particularly fond of. Paul also includes prophecy in his list, which Paul himself says later on in his letter: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”[5] and “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”[6]. Clearly, Paul also has a spiritual gift that he is fond of. But including all of them in one list shows Paul’s desire to explain that love must be a concrete element in all gifts, no matter how important or favored they are. The same framework also applies to charity, assumably to the poor. As a teaching of lifestyle, Paul could be going one of two ways. On one hand, he could be addressing the idea that the Corinthians could be “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons” and saying that love is the only righteous motivation to act out these gifts. On the other hand, he could be speaking into an inconsistency of areas in the Corinthians lives where love is lived out. With G-d being the definition of love, Paul is reminding the readers that spiritual gifts are rendered useless if they are not rooted in G-d.

            Paul’s statement to “speak in the tongues of men and angels” is not only pertaining to everyday speech. He’s specifically referring to the gift of tongues, the ability to speak a heavenly language, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul later, in 1 Corinthians 14:2 says “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to G-d”. Presumably, Paul’s statement is most likely how the Corinthians understood the gift of tongues. Having the gift of speaking in tongues meant that you had the ability to verbally connect with G-d on a higher level than those who didn’t have the gift. To the human ear, it doesn’t make sense. Paul calls out the people who were speaking in tongues as a way of profit or personal benefit. He uses the analogy of a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. The Corinthians would be familiar with the negative connotation of his analogy because of the culture they lived in. Hays summarizes, “Thus Paul’s point in verse 1 might be paraphrased as follows: “Even if you can speak with the heavenly language of angels, but have no love, your high-toned speech has become empty like the empty echo of an actor’s speech or the noise of frenzied pagan worship.”[7] As Paul explains later in his letter, speaking in tongues is meant to personally build oneself up. The only way to build yourself up in love, is to do it so that you can better love others. Appearing to speak in tongues, by babbling incoherently, is a clear display that it’s not of G-d. Since speaking in tongues is a gift from G-d, Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that G-d must be the source. Despite the fact that speaking in tongues, was revered mode of communication, but without love – it meant absolutely nothing.

            Prophecy, was a gift that Paul valued highly. In the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul explains that the purpose of prophecy is to build the church up. Prophecy means speaking a word from G-d to the gathered congregation. Paul explains prophecy in detail in chapter 14, but his main point about prophecy, like all other spiritual gifts, is that without love, it means nothing. One of Paul’s streamlined, and consistent desires is that the church would be unified. If you had the gift of prophecy, you had a unique calling and expectation to facilitate in the unification of your church. With Christ as the head of the church, all things decided and done, must fall under the purview of Christ. Prophets allow for a unique revelation, to the church, regarding what Christ wants from and for his bride. Again, the church of Corinth and the church of today is at risk of hearing the words of false prophets. Prophesying in love is a combination of both doing it in love and it being from G-d. Prophecy requires two parties, G-d and the prophet. Since G-d Himself is the definition of love, He cannot give a word that is not, ultimately, rooted in love. With that, the only other party left in a prophecy the prophet. Paul calls prophets to deliver the word of love, in love.

            Knowledge is one of the most sought-after traits, for the Corinthians and for us today. “Knowing all mysteries may be a seperate gift from prophecy, but it could also be coordinate with it.” [8]Whether the knowledge is gained through deep reflection or understanding of mysteries is gained through some sort of revelatory nature, it means nothing if love is not a component of it. The search for knowledge is a noble one. The Corinthians were surrounded by people of all faiths who made knowledge a priority. One of the forerunners in the pursuit of knowledge were the Greeks. One reason that Paul may have found it necessary to talk about knowledge is because the Corinthians may have fused the noble and healthy pursuit of knowledge with the idolatrous pursuit of the Greeks. To seek and pursue knowledge in love, is to pursue wisdom. There is a fine line between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is the pursuit to understand, interpret, and research something to gain more insight on it. Wisdom is taking that insight and using it. A wise person will use their knowledge for the betterment of humanity, more specifically, to the Corinthians, the church. In his letter, James states that “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask G-d, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”. In the Old Testament, G-d tells Solomon to ask for whatever he wants, and He would give it to him. Solomon asks for wisdom and knowledge. The greatest knowledge and wisdom can only come from G-d. The person who received knowledge and wisdom from G-d is called to use it in love. Coming together to find an amicable solution to a problem as part of a council, rebuking a brother or sister, or making a leadership decision for a ministry, are just some examples and situations that one can find themselves in where wisdom and knowledge rooted in love can be applied. Paul’s ending statement of verse two points out an important detail that affirms the esteemed perception of being able to prophesy or to be knowledgeable and wise. He concludes that if love is not present in the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, or wisdom, that person is nothing. Being that these three gifts are held in high regard, if one possesses any of these gifts, it comes with a superiority complex. To have these gifts and to still be considered nothing, would be a wounding and humiliating identity to carry. But more than that, being nothing also comes with the implication that one is useless. This shows just how important love is and how necessary it is for it to be grounded and present in these gifts.

            Paul finishes this portion of his talking about charity and self-sacrifice. Both of these aren’t necessarily “spiritual gifts” but they play a paramount role in the Christian life. To
give up one’s possessions to feed others is a mandate for true discipleship [9]. Charity resounds throughout the Bible, from the times of the Old Testament to the teachings of Jesus, generosity has always been a command and expectation of Christians. Self-sacrifice is more than a command, it’s a necessity for a believer. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24, ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”. There has been a debate as to what “giving up ones body” meant in the original Greek text. Hays observes:

“The meaning of the second example is complicated by a notoriously difficult textual problem: some ancient Greek manuscripts read hina kauchēsōmai (“to be burned”), while others read hina kauthēsōmai (“so that I may boast”). One of the usual objections against “be burned” is that Christian martyrdom by fire was not yet known in Paul’s time; however, this objection carries little weight, for traditions of martyrdom by fire were thoroughly familiar in Judaism, as demonstrated by the narratives of the Maccabean martyrs (e.g., 2 Macc 7:1-6; 4 Macc. 6:24-30).”[10] Despite the debates, “so that I may boast” is the preferable and accepted translation. That definition, hina kauthēsōmai, brings a need for clarification in this context. This was not the first time that Paul had written about ‘boasting’ in his letters. His previous and latter examples of boasting seem to be directly connected with the heavenly rewards that believers will receive, for how they lived their life. Given the accepted definition and Paul’s writings about the matter, in this context, giving oneself up can be understood as, “if I give myself up for the purpose of receiving a heavenly reward”. Here, Paul is attacking the intent of self-sacrifice. A sacrificial act, for the purpose of a future gift, isn’t sacrifice. The people who Paul was speaking to, may have had that perception of self-sacrifice. Love, is the only noble and true intention that one can have behind sacrifice for it to be a legitimate sacrifice. G-d, has displayed the ultimate sacrifice through His son, Jesus Christ. When compared, human sacrifices could never amount to the degree that is found in the sacrifice that He made. When that idea of supremacy is embraced and understood, one has no choice to realize that their sacrifice is less of a sacrifice and more of an act of love.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

            In verses four through seven, Paul begins to expound on the attributes of love in two ways. The first, is a more thorough and specific explanation and expectation of what should be seen in someone who is acting in love. The second, is a more thorough and specific explanation and expectation of who G-d is. Longman and Garland write, “Certainly every expression in the Bible that refers to G-d’s love shows G-d in action; in love He sent His Son to be our Saviour and our Redeemer. Likewise, Christian love for others is a love that will engage in loving acts – acts of kindness, tenderness compassion, protection, perseverance, and so on.”[11] The first description he gives is patience and kindness. Patience is the willingness to tolerate shortcomings. At face value, this seems like conceited definition. But patience in love, is the willingness to tolerate shortcomings in others, because you know that you also have flaws. But sometimes, the self-admittance of being flawed aspect isn’t always present. The greatest display of patience in love is being able to tolerate shortcomings in others, despite the fact that you have very little shortcomings in that area. The perfect display of patience is seen in G-d’s actions, thoughts, and words towards us. G-d, having no shortcomings, is patient with our flawed race. Throughout history and throughout scripture, G-d has proven Himself to be lovingly patient with His creation. Kindness is the one of the ways we can choose to treat other people. Those who love, are respectful and compassionate towards other people. Kindness is yet another attribute of the Almighty G-d. And yet again, Paul is not saying kindness is a way to go about love, he’s saying that acting in kindness is love. Kindness is the attribute of G-d that sees people as His creation. G-d does not see race, gender, economic status, or political affiliation. His respect and compassion towards people is equal and constant throughout. In the same way, Paul urges the Corinthians to have this sense of inclusivity and unbiasedness in the way we see and treat other people. For the rest of this section of his letter, Paul takes the angle of describing what love is not. Paul’s angle of describing what love isn’t, paints a picture of what the Corinthians were actually like. Love is not envy or boastful. Envy sprouts from a spirit of ungratefulness. From that spirit, jealousy is born. Jealousy can drive people to do and say things that could wound or hurt people. That spirit breeds discontent. Someone that is filled with love is thankful for the things that they have. Instead of looking at what they could have, they look at what they do have and rejoice in that. Love is thankful. Boasting is the act of having an excessive ego and verbalizing it. Love is more about others and less about you. Paul teaches the Corinthians that humility is a key aspect of love. In order to love someone to the fullest extent, you must care only about them and not about yourself. G-d’s greatest display of humility was to send His Son as human being to us. G-d could’ve chosen, from the beginning, to offer salvation through any other means. Instead, He chose to take on human form, a lesser form, to live among us and save us. Paul continues on writing, ‘love does does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.’ The common thread found throughout all those statements is that the focal point is taken off of self and directed towards others.

            He finishes this portion of his letter with four more statements about love. Love bears all things, to bear is to be present in and with. Paul knew that the nature of love grows in relationships. Relationships are the crux of unity, which was another area that Paul was a strong advocate for. Humans, being flawed, are bound to face low points in their lives. Those low points, making mistakes, and being flawed, is where Paul pushes for the Corinthians to bear with one another. Love will always believe the best in people. Love will always hope for the best in people. Love will always be there, until the very end.

            The letter of Corinth was written to a specific audience, but it was also written for the universal Church. Love as an attribute of a person is paramount to the Christian lifestyle. But the most important thing that can be drawn from this passage is the person being described. Love, above all, must be defined as and seen as a person before it can be applied in life. G-d has displayed love in the most clear and pure way. From the beginning of time, G-d’s actions have spelled out love. Through creation, His relationship with Adam and Eve, the Old Testament heroes of faith, and throughout the New Testament, G-d embodies love. His desire, is that the Church today, would embody and reflect that same love.

Selected Bibliography

  1. Wright, N. T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
  2. Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
  3. Congote, Gregory OSB, “An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:1-3” (2009). School of Theology and Seminary Graduate Papers/Theses. 736.
  4. Snyder, Graydon F. First Corinthians: A Faith Community Commentary. Macon, GA, USA: Mercer University Press, 1992.
  5. Taylor, Mark Edward. The New American Commentary: 1 Corinthians. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2014.
  6. Longman, Tremper, and David E. Garland. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

[1] Wright, N. T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

[2] Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

[3] “1 John 4:8.” In Holy Bible ESV Bible. Crossway Books, 2016.

[4] Congote, Gregory OSB, “An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:1-3” (2009). School of Theology and Seminary Graduate Papers/Theses. 736.

[5] “1 Corinthians 14:1.” In Holy Bible ESV Bible. Crossway Books, 2016.

[6] “1 Corinthians 14:5.” In Holy Bible ESV Bible. Crossway Books, 2016.

[7] Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

[8] Taylor, Mark Edward. The New American Commentary: 1 Corinthians. Nashville (Tenn.): Broadman & Holman, 2014.

[9] Snyder, Graydon F. First Corinthians: A Faith Community Commentary. Macon, GA, USA: Mercer University Press, 1992.

[10]  Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

[11] Longman, Tremper, and David E. Garland. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

About the Author matteroftheology

In a culture where personal preference runs wild, it is important to look to what the bible says about topics talked about in our every day lives. On this page you can expect difficult topics to be examined and talked about. In writing it will not simply be my own personal preference. I have no right to push personal preference on anyone believer or not. However, if the bible is in fact the word of God, and God has spoken, then we need to know what He has said despite what our personal preferences might be.

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