Today we start our next series though one of the greatest and yet misunderstood portions of the Bible. We often relegate it to weddings or Valentine’s Day, but the reality is it apples to every interaction we have in our day.
Of course, I am talking about 1 Corinthians 13.
This week we are going to look at the context and the first three verses.
Paul is writing his first (really second) letter to the church in Corinth to help correct some disturbing reports about their behavior and beliefs. Change a few cultural references and Paul’s letter could be a brilliant wake-up/reminder to the American church. It is refreshing (and depressing) to know that nothing has changed since Paul’s day. The church continues to struggle with balancing cultural influence with Biblical truth.
Chapter 13 follows chapter 12 (imagine that!), which along with chapter 14 are Paul’s treatises on spiritual gifts. He lists the variety of gifts that are bestowed by the Holy Spirit to help show who God is (focusing on speaking in tongues and prophesy in chapter 14). He then speaks about the body – how we are all part of one body and that we are responsible for each other.
We are not to be isolated or hate one another because of doctrinal differences or race or culture. Instead, we are to be cognizant if one area is suffering (say the persecuted church or those dying of hunger) and react as if our leg was injured or we had some internal ailment.
We are bound to one another. There are not Protestants, Baptists, Anglicans, the Cambodian church, the African church, etc. before God. There is simply His Church – left to be His hands and feet here on earth.
The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.1 Cor. 12:25-26 MSG
When Paul wrote his letters there were no chapter breaks. He did not send 16 various letters to the Corinthian church we later compiled into one letter. This was one massively longer letter. Therefore we have to read it with continuity and stop looking at chapters as standalone documents.
Paul finishes chapter 12 connecting the imagery of the body to the gifts. But before we get too comfortable and hang our hat on our giftings, Paul says something interesting…
“I will now show you a more excellent way…”
That is his transition into this section on love! (Pretty cool set-up, huh?)
He starts by saying it does not matter what we do. I can speak in tongues but if I do not love, it is nothing. I can be kind and generous, but if it is not rooted in love it does not matter.
Why does love matter so much?
Because it is the most basic commandment Jesus left His disciples, and it speaks directly to the heart of God.
While here on earth, Jesus was asked – what is the most important thing a person can do?
Is it give lots of money? Be a good person? Donate my time? Practice religious piety? Pray without ceasing? Heal people in your name? Vote for a particular party? Or build a cathedral to Your might? Is it hide away and come to know You solely?
Jesus’ answer is well-known and often quoted: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Mt. 22: 37-40 MSG)
The phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself” appears nine times in the Bible. When Jesus answers the Pharisees in Matthew 22, He is quoting the first commandment, to have no other gods before God, and Leviticus 19 where, amid other laws and commands, Israel is told to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Later, Jesus is dining with His disciples for the last time. He has already shown them what love is by washing their feet. He tells His disciples He is leaving (indicating His death) and then says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, emphasis added).
But what does that tangibly mean?
Enter 1 Corinthians 13.
Too often we relegate this chapter to weddings or think it marginally applies to the love between two people – but to do so is to ignore the greatest tangible explanation of what it means to “love God and love people.”
Again Paul starts by saying, it does not matter if I have the gift of tongues or prophecy (the focus of chapter 14) or if I have all the head knowledge one can muster. It does not matter if I have a passionate faith – one where I practice charity, give in abundance to the poor and am ready to die for my faith – it all of that is not rooted in love it – means – nothing.
In his commentary on these opening verses, William Barclay noted: There are times when faith can be cruel. There was a man who visited his doctor and was informed that his heart was tired and he must rest. He telephoned his employer, a notable Christian figure, with the news, only to receive the answer, ‘I have an inward strength which enables me to carry on.’ These were the words of faith but a faith which knew no love and was therefore a hurting thing.”
Warren Wiersbe put it this way: You may possess all these, says Paul, but without love you are nothing. There are men in the Bible who illustrate this. For instance, Balaam was a prophet, but he had not love, and therefore he betrayed his prophetic office. Caiaphas, the High Priest, had discernment, for he knew that one must be slain for the nation, but he was without love, and he became a leader among those who crucified the Lord of glory. Judas Iscariot had knowledge, all that he could acquire at the master’s feet in three years, but he had not love, and he betrayed the Lord.
Simply put, the outward signs of our faith are of little value unless we are grounded, rooted, fully embedded into God’s love.
The love of God is the answer to all the problems, not only in Corinth, but in our cities and church today. The only way to safeguard and rightly use our spiritual gifts is by administering them in the love of God.– Alan Redpath
This is an invitation to check our motives. If we have moved from a place of love to piety or the actions of faith; if we have allowed party or being a good person to replace true worship; if we look for constant affirmation and an easy life as signals we are doing it right, Paul invites us to realize our works are nothing and instead invites us to a “more excellent way.”
The Amplified Bible puts Paul’s invitation this way: And yet I will show you a still more excellent way [one of the choicest graces and the highest of them all: unselfish love].
We will get to how Paul defines that unselfish love next week. In the meantime, I invite you to read over 1 Corinthians 13 is various versions. Bible Gateway is my favorite tool for that (you can even read two versions side by side).
I also invite you to take some time to journal where in your life you have allowed the actions of faith: saying the right things, being seen at the right places, giving of your time, talent, resources, and yet are doing it from a cold, or ungrateful, or obligation-driven heart. Who/what are you allowing to tell you who God is (or stands for) instead of spending time with Him?
God wants to show you a “more excellent way” to be His salt and light in this world. During this season especially we need to lay down our shields of party and pick up the banner of love.
It might sound trite, but I guarantee you if you give God space to speak through this chapter, you will find that the banner of love truly has the ability to change everything.
Until next week friends.
- Alan Redpath The Royal Route to Heaven
- Warren Wiersbe New Testament Commentary (affiliate link)
- William Barclay’s Commentary of 1 Corinthians