Striving for Unity – 1 Corinthians Chapter 13: Love is…

By Jenny Fulton

Say it with me. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love…”

How much of this section can you say from memory? How familiar are you with it?

Most people have read or heard 1 Corinthians 13 in some context or another. It’s often referred to as “The Love Chapter” and is frequently read at weddings. The biggest danger to this high level of familiarity is that it’s easy to assume we know all there is to know about it and therefore have a hard time learning anything new.

Within the context of 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 directly follows the discussion of spiritual gifts in Chapter 12. To review, in chapter 12, we learned the Corinthians were arguing over spiritual gifts and were seeking to attain to the most prominent positions within the church with the most prominent gifts. At the end of that chapter, Paul essentially said, “Now, you all are earnestly desiring the greatest gifts, and yet, I will show you a more excellent way.”

While spiritual gifts are great and are given by God, they aren’t the most important aspect of the Christian life. In fact, without the key element of love, all the spiritual gifts are useless and without value.

Without the key element of love, all the spiritual gifts are useless and without value. #BibleStudy #1Corinthians #love

Verses 1-3: Without Love…

* Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

In these verses, Paul references three of the spiritual gifts he discussed in chapter 12: speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge; and two more behaviors that aren’t in that chapter but seem to be other spiritual gifts: generosity and sacrifice. In response to the way in which the Corinthians are striving for the best gifts, Paul presents a hypothetical situation: “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels… If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains…[1]

What Paul seems to be saying is that even if you were to attain to the highest level of attainment with each of those gifts, if you didn’t have love, it wouldn’t mean anything. In chapter 12, Paul said the gifts were given for the benefit of others, but can you effectively help or be of use to someone if you don’t first love them?

For example, speaking in tongues, without love, becomes meaningless, noisy gibberish.

Prophecy without love becomes harsh, unfeeling judgment.

Knowledge without love leads to arrogant elitism.

Generosity without love places others under slavish obligation to the giver.

Sacrifice without love turns into resentment, anger, and a heavy expectation of the sacrifice being acknowledged and answered.

Without love, none of these gifts benefit either the holder or those with whom they interact. Without love, none of these abilities encourage others in their walk with God or point people to Him. Without love, each of these talents, that are meant to be incredibly powerful forces for God within the body of believers, become incredible instruments of destruction.

Being gifted isn’t enough. Instead, the working out of that gift must begin in the heart and spirit – it must begin with love. #love #unity #1Corinthians13 #gifted

Verses 4-8: What Love Is, Isn’t, and Doesn’t

* Image by Bessi from Pixabay

But what is love? In these verses, possibly among the most famous in the Bible, Paul gives a description of what God’s love – His agape love – looks like and acts like, what it is and what it isn’t. These characteristics can help us discern whether or not we are truly acting and speaking from a place of agape.

What Love Is:

  • Love is patient. The Greek word for patience used here, makrothumeo, is used in other passages to describe God’s willingness to wait and withhold final judgment so that all may come to repentance. Applied to people, this idea could be understood as the quality of waiting and withholding anger and judgment, giving opportunity for repentance and God’s work in another’s life.   
  • Love is kind. It seeks “to provide something beneficial for someone.[2]
  • Love rejoices in the truth. It affirms and takes joy in that which expresses the solid, immovable reality of God and His world.
  • Love bears all things. The Greek word here for “bear” is oteyo and is most commonly translated as the idea of covering and protecting. Love covers and protects all things. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “To be recommended, then, is the translation “covers all things… Hence v. 7, amplifying what is said about faith, hope and endurance by a reference to the covering up of unfavourable things, offers an apt summary of vv. 4–6, which show that the love which is rooted in God’s love, and which has already entered this world of death, is the eschatological reality of full self-giving to one’s neighbour.”[3]
  • Love believes all things. It has complete trust, reliance, confidence.
  • Love hopes all things. By its nature, it has an ability “to look forward with confidence to that which is good and beneficial[4]
  • Love endures all things. It remains firm with a tenacity “to continue to bear up despite difficulty and suffering[5]
  • Love never fails. True, godly agape love, regardless of what we think the outcome suggests, never fails. It begins in this temporary life and continues on into our eternal one.

What Love Isn’t:

  • Love isn’t jealous. The Greek word for jealous contains the idea of pursuing something with great passion or zeal. To be jealous is to strive for and have great zeal for one’s own benefit and advancement to the detriment of others. Love doesn’t do this. Instead, it seeks the good and benefit of others above itself.
  • Love isn’t arrogant. It doesn’t become proud or believe itself to be better and superior to others. Arrogance believes itself to be above others, to be beyond instruction and correction. This attitude is not found in agape.
  • Love isn’t provoked. It isn’t easily stirred up to anger by every little offense. In a sense, given Paul has been described as being provoked to anger by the unrighteous behavior of others (Acts 17:16), I assume this characteristic is written by him, in this context, in reference to the many ways in which the Corinthian Christians have become easily angered by one another, which has contributed to the divisions among them. 

What Love Doesn’t:

  • Love doesn’t brag. It doesn’t excessively praise itself.
  • Love doesn’t act unbecomingly. It doesn’t behave immorally and in defiance of God’s moral standards.
  • Love doesn’t seek its own. It doesn’t demand or seek after things for its own pleasures or benefit. Instead, it seeks what is good and beneficial for others.
  • Love doesn’t take into account a wrong suffered. In the Greek, the phrase, “take into account,” carries the idea of keeping a record of something. Love doesn’t keep a mental record of all the ways in which people have wronged or sinned against it. If you or someone you know keeps such a list and a confrontation results, you can be sure the list holder isn’t speaking or acting out of agape.
  • Love doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness. It doesn’t affirm, validate, or take joy in that which contradicts, oppresses, or suppresses the solid, immovable truth and reality of God and His world.          

Verses 8-10: The Temporary Nature of the Gifts

* Image by John Iglar from Pixabay

Following this list of the behaviors and characteristics of love, Paul contrasts the forever, never failing nature of agape with the temporary existence of some of the most sought-after gifts in the Corinthian church – those of prophesy, tongues, and knowledge.

Prophesy is a word given by God for the hearers for a specific time and place, but it ends as soon as the Word has been given.

If someone has the gift of tongues, that gift is given to them by God as its needed, but it, too, ceases once the need for it has passed.

There is also an end to knowledge. Once a person has expressed all they know about a subject, there is nothing more for them to say on that matter without being repetitive.

Knowledge and prophesy provide partial glimpses into the greater picture of God’s plan and purpose. They were never meant to, and are unable to, provide a full, complete understanding of God. Instead, they serve as puzzle pieces, or clues, to guide people into the next steps of relationship and greater understanding of God.

Paul says that when the perfect comes – when the full presence of God arrives in those last days, the partial – those gifts that aided us in our growth and understanding, will be done away with. We’ll have no more need of them since we will fully experience and know God Himself in all His greatness, glory, love, and goodness.

Verses 11-12: Growing Into Fullness

* Image by Bobby Louvre from Pixabay

In Matthew 18:3, Jesus tells the disciples, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.[6]” According to Jesus, being childlike is a good thing. In fact, it’s essential for entering the kingdom of heaven. But here in these verses, Paul refers to speaking, thinking, and reasoning like a child as elements to be set aside as one grows into maturity.

Is Paul contradicting Jesus? I, and I think you’d agree, say absolutely not. In fact, I believe they are speaking of two completely different things and making two completely different points.

While Jesus is referring to certain characteristics of a child that by nature make them more open and accepting of the reality and truths of God’s kingdom, Paul is comparing the limits of a child’s understanding to the limits of the spiritual gifts.

In verses 9, 10, and 12, Paul discusses the nature of a partial verses full understanding. It only makes sense, then, that the verse between them, verse 11, is referencing the same point by use of a different analogy. Children speak, think, and reason, to the best of their ability, out of a limited mental capacity and smaller set of data. This impacts their behavior. As they grow and their mental facilities develop, they gain a greater understanding, a fuller picture of life, and the behavior adjusts (or should adjust) accordingly.

This same point of partial verses full is made in verse 12 with the analogy of looking at an imperfect reflection displayed on polished metal (their mirrors at the time) and then beholding that same image when standing face-to-face with it. The first gives you an outline, an idea. The second provides you with perfect clarity, for “now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.[7]

Nothing in this world will ever provide us with a perfect picture or understanding of God. The spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of helping one another grow in our understanding, but they are not the end-all, be-all of the faith.

The spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of helping one another grow in our understanding, but they are not the end-all, be-all of the faith. #spiritualgifts #unity

Verse 13: The Greatest of These

* Image by Thanks for your Like • donations welcome from Pixabay

Because we can only see dimly and understand partially, we must, for now, rely upon:

  • Faith — “the aassurance of things bhoped for, the conviction of things not seen,[8]
  • Hope – “and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.[9]
  • Love – 1 Corinthians 13, “but the greatest of these is love.[10]

Take-Aways

  • While it’s wonderful to have talents, gifts, and abilities, they should never replace our call to love others as God loves them.
  • With love, each God-given gift becomes a powerful force with which to bless and encourage others.
  • Without love, the gifts become empty and/or have the capacity to destroy those for whom they were intended to build up.
  • Each gift is a partial piece of a greater whole. We shouldn’t expect to provide all the answers or solve everyone’s problems by means of our gifting alone. We need each other as much as we need God. And above all, we need His love pouring through us to love others.

United or Divided?

In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity… 

Things That Divide Us:

  • Valuing the gift above the Giver
  • Exercising our gifts from a selfish heart that doesn’t love others
  • Thinking that our gift, or someone else’s gifting, can provide all the answers

Things that Unite Us:

  • Pursuing love – love for God and love for others
  • Loving others with God’s agape love that displays the characteristics in this chapter
  • Valuing God above all else and remembering that our giftings have been given by Him to be used for others on His behalf
  • Exercising our gifts from a loving heart that seeks the benefit of others above ourselves
  • Recognizing that our gift is a small piece of a greater whole.
  • Valuing and respecting the gifts of others as also having been given by God as more ways to build up the body of believers

What Do You Think?

  • What stood out to you from this chapter?
  • Which of the characteristics of love stood out to you the most?
  • Which gifts have you been given?
  • How can you love others with your gift?
  • In what ways do you think your gifting can display God’s love to others and help them know and understand a little more about Him?

In this Series

Women, Join In!

For almost a year, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

_ _ _

* Cover Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay


[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 13:2.

[2] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 749.

[3] Wilhelm Kasch, “Στέγω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 587.

[4] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 295.

[5] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 307.

[6] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 18:3.

[7] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 13:12.

[8] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Heb 11:1.

[9] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ro 5:5.

[10] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 13:13.

27 comments

  1. You have written an amazing overview of this chapter. So often we hear the words “Love is… ” and don’t go deeper to analyze what this truly means. Thank you for your insights. Your blog makes scripture come alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been memorizing 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 and so this was especially dear to me. Thank you for sharing your insights and enthusiasm for God’s word. It’s contagious and inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jenny,

    I really enjoyed your commentary on 1 Cor. 13. Those passages have rung loudly in my heart especially over the last three years being apart of a church that boasted spiritual gifts, overestimated spiritual authority and lived in a prosperity mindset based on obedience. Those passages blow a hole right through all those wrong arguments. Since when is being a Christian about me?

    I definitely think writing is a gift you have and would love to support you in some way, I’m just not sure how. I also enjoy writing and wonder if God would use us to build each other up somehow. I definitely want to own copies of your books is the least I can do. I’m not sure how up to par my editing skills would be to give you any help. You articulate yourself much better than I could.

    Keep up the good work friend! I know you mentioned this year has been rough, anything I can specifically pray for?

    Tammy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Tammy, thank you for reading and responding. Church struggles are really rough and I’m sorry for the share you’ve had. Thank you, also, for your compliment and offer to support me in my writing. I’m currently looking for people to be part of my launch team for my upcoming book, am looking for people willing to read and review the book either before or after it’s released, searching for opportunities to share my heart across various platforms, and of course, would love for you to purchase my books. 🙂 If you would like to and/or are able to support me in any of those ways, I would greatly appreciate it.

      If you feel God has called you to write and share what He gives you, I would definitely encourage you to do so! There are some great online writing communities that I can recommend in a private message if you’re interested in growing in and pursing this interest further.

      As far as this past year and prayer, it has been about as rough for us as for most people. We miss seeing our friends in person. You could certainly pray that the Covid restrictions in NM are lifted and that we’ll have more opportunities to get together with people again.

      To return the request, how can I pray for you?

      Like

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