God’s Love & 1 Corinthians 13

Audio of God’s Love & 1 Cor. 13 (21 min, 56 sec)

God’s Love & The Cross

I’ve been meditating lately on 1 Corinthians. For so many reasons I believe the church in the West needs to heed this book right now!

Not the least of which is that factions and divisiveness became the norm for the Corinthians (as they, sadly, seem to be becoming for the church in the West), and 1 Corinthians is a letter from God (written by Paul) to bring back a oneness centered around Christ and Him Crucified (see 1 Cor. 2:2).

The chief problem, it seems, for the Corinthians was that they lost sight and focus on the gospel. They assumed the gospel, and then majored on other non-gospel issues that true believers could disagree on. To remedy this, Paul elaborates on the gospel and why it is so contrary to worldly wisdom and ideas (the very kind of wisdom and ideas that the Corinthians were, sadly, immersed in).

In 1 Cor. 1, Paul writes:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Cor. 1:22-24

I’ve been thinking especially about why Christ’s crucifixion seemed, “folly,” and weak to non-believing Jews and Gentiles, but is “power” and “wisdom” to believers.

Then, a question emerged that seems to make all the difference:

Was Christ self-interested or “others-interested”?

If He was self-interested (which is the only thing the world understands), then the cross was:

  • foolish – because He was innocent of all charges against Him, and it was silly not to defend Himself and vindicate His name
  • weak – because He was ousted and beaten by Rome and the Jews; He claimed that legions of angels could fight on His behalf (Matt. 26:53), yet He died a criminal’s death

But if Christ was “others-interested” (which is God’s definition of love, see 1 John 3:16-17, for instance), then the cross was:

  • wise – because in it, God showed the one way He could be totally just and also, simultaneously, forgive sinners (see Rom. 3:26)
  • strong – because by His death He defeated sin and it’s penalty (death and judgment) for all, not just for Himself

In other words, one’s entire perspective of the cross hinges on whether Jesus should act out of self-interest or others-interest. Or, to use biblical language, whether Jesus should act in self-love or true love.

Seeing that the value of the cross completely changes depending on whether we view it with eyes of self-interest (like the world who couldn’t make sense of it) versus “others-interest” (like God who loved an unlovable world, see John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; etc.), we may now better appreciate the gravity of God’s love articulated in 1 Cor. 13–a love that, “is not self-seeking,” (1 Cor. 13:5). In fact, we might see how this concept of, “others-interested-love,” is woven throughout 1 Corinthians (for instance, at 1 Cor. 8-10, where they are told to live sacrificially for the sake of others’ consciences, or 1 Cor. 11, where they are chided for selfishly eating without waiting for others, etc.), all framed around, “Christ and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2).

So, to help meditate on the aspects of God’s love in its proper context, I’ve found D. A. Carson’s, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, to be eye-opening and convicting. Since it is a bit academic, I am recounting the pertinent section on 1 Cor. 13 (from chapter 2) in my own (simplified and modified) language. The rest of this post comes from

D.A. Carson on 1 Cor. 13 Love (pp. 51-66) – Simplified & Modified by Brian Holda

1 Corinthians 13 is between 12 and 14

1 Cor. 13 is a masterpiece even when read on its own. However, 1 Cor. 13 is an integral part of Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 12-14, and thus we should read this chapter with the backdrop of 1 Cor. 12 and 14.

1 Cor. 12 closes with Paul writing: “Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way,” (vv. 30-31).

In other words, Paul is saying that not all prophesy, speak in tongues, etc., but you must earnestly desire the greater gifts. He hasn’t explained what those greater gifts are yet (that will be fleshed out more in 1 Cor. 14). But before taking up that point, he sees that the Corinthians think very highly of themselves, and their spiritual gifts are almost a badge of honor to them. So he must point out that the supreme fruit of the Spirit, love, could get left aside if he only addresses what the “greater spiritual gifts” are.

The More Excellent Way…Of Love

Thus, after commanding them to, “earnestly desire the higher gifts,” (1 Cor. 12:31a), he adds, “And I will show you a still more excellent way,” (1 Cor. 12:31b).

Notice that he calls love a, “way,” as opposed to a, “gift,” (1 Cor. 12:31). Paul’s point is that the love he is about to discuss can’t be categorized as one “gift” among many, but an entire “way” of life–an overarching, all-embracing style of life that is worlds more important than claims about this or that charismatic gift.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Paul is saying the charismatic gifts aren’t important. Rather, he is showing that if too much attention is paid to them, believers may overlook the absolutely crucial importance of the entire way of life that ought to characterize every believer. So then, after the 1 Cor. 13 chapter on love, he will resume his discussion of which gifts are most important (in 1 Cor. 14).

Love, then, is not a charismatic/spiritual gift but an entire way of life. And without love, as 1 Cor. 13 will show, all spiritual gifts will be utterly worthless. It is this way of life that gives meaning and depth to any spiritual gift God gives. And, in Galatians 5:22-23, love heads the list of virtues that Paul calls, “the fruit of the Spirit”–that is, the harmony of 9 grace-attributes which form a mature Christian character and prove that the Spirit indwells someone.

1 Corinthians 13:1: Special Tongues Without Love

So now we turn to chapter 13.

In 1 Cor. 13:1-3, Paul writes in the first person. He empathizes with this, even as he later will tell us that he, too, speaks in tongues (see 14:18).

The way 1 Cor. 13:1 is written probably signals intensity near the end: “If I speak in the tongues of men and EVEN of angels…” It’s not clear if Paul is saying angelic tongues exist or whether it is hyperbole to prove a point. Regardless, that is not the important part. Instead, Paul/God’s point is simple: No matter how great my gift of tongues, without love I am nothing more than a resounding gong or clanging cymbal.

This value judgment is meant to be shocking. Notice that Paul doesn’t merely say that the tongues itself is a noisy gong or cymbal. Rather, “I, myself,” am this. In fact, the Greek literally rendered is, “I have become only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal.” It’s as if my action of speaking in tongues without love has left a permanent, negative effect on who I am. That it makes me, at the least, empty, meaningless noise.

1 Corinthians 13:2: Special Faith Without Love

In verse 2, Paul goes on to highlight other spiritual gifts. The faith mentioned here is a spiritual gift of faith (as opposed to saving faith)–a special faith that can move mountains. Again, notice Paul’s conclusion: If he doesn’t couple love with these dramatic spiritual gifts, not only do the gifts lose value, but, “I am nothing.”

1 Corinthians 13:3: Special Sacrifice Without Love

In verse 3, Paul goes on to consider incredible sacrifice: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned…” The result is the same as using miraculous gifts: “without love, I gain nothing.”

My charitable giving and willingness to be martyred while remaining loyal to the truth do not in themselves prove I have a higher spiritual position and the love of God in me.

Love is Indispensable

In all of this, if there is no love, I gain nothing. In this divine mathematics: 5 – 1 = 0. In other words 5 gifts done without love brings me to nothing.

Reading 1 Cor. 13 in the context of 1 Cor. 12-14 makes Paul’s point clear: you who think you are superior because of your spiritual gifts, have overlooked the most important thing. Your spiritual gifts in themselves don’t say anything spiritual about you. Similarly, you who claim you are “extra spiritual” because of your great charity and sacrifice, have nothing apart from Christian love. You remain a spiritual nothing if love doesn’t characterize your grace-gifts.

If Paul were addressing the modern church, perhaps he would extrapolate further: You Christians who prove your spirituality by the amount of Bible knowledge you have, understand nothing. And you who think the evidence of the Spirit is your style of worship, are spiritually bankrupt. And you who insist that speaking in tongues attests a second work of the spirit, if love doesn’t characterize your life, there is not evidence even of a 1st work of the Spirit!

In none of this does Paul devalue spiritual gifts. Instead, he sees little value of the gifts if love is not behind them. In other words, love is a needed foundation for any accurate assessment of gifts (“spiritual” or otherwise). Any gift is dispensable without love. But love is indispensable.

1 Cor. 13:4-7: Characteristics of Love

In these verses, love is not so much defined as described. And this description is practical more than theoretical. Not one element in this list is sentimental. Everything is behavioral. Paul shifts between what love is and what love isn’t.

Throughout, love is personified: it is love itself that is kind, doesn’t boast, etc. Paul doesn’t say the person who displays love does these things. Rather, love itself does these things. Thus, love powerfully takes over here.

When love is absent, notice what happens. It breeds all sorts of inferiority and superiority complexes. Verses 4-5 seem to respond directly to such traits.

“Love is patient and kind;” (1 Cor. 13:4a)

Patient suggests not merely willingness to wait a long time, or enduring suffering without giving in, but also enduring injuries done to you without trying to retaliate (compare Prov. 19:11 – “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense.”).

Love is kind–not merely patient or enduring wrong, but quick to pay back with kindness what it received in hurt.

“Love does not envy or boast;” (1 Cor. 13:4b)

Now we read things love DOESN’T do. For starters, love doesn’t envy: people without certain spiritual gifts must learn that lesson (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:30). Nor does it boast: those with certain spiritual gifts must learn that lesson.

“Love…is not arrogant,” (1 Cor 13:4c)

More broadly, love is not arrogant or proud (literally, “puffed up,” a word Paul has already applied to the Corinthians: 1 Cor. 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1).

“Or rude;” (1 Cor. 13:5a)

Love isn’t rude: that is, it doesn’t behave improperly toward others (like 1 Cor. 7:36, where the same word is used about a man who improperly provokes a young woman’s affections and then refuses to marry her). It is well said that you can spot a gentleman not by the way he addresses his king but by the way he addresses his servants. You may address a king in a way that seems courteous, but is really just enlightened self-interest.

“It does not insist on its own way;” (1 Cor. 13:5b)

More foundational, love is not self-seeking. Not only does love not seek what doesn’t belong to it, but love is willing to give up for the sake of others even what it is entitled to. Again, look to the love of Christ shown at the cross.

“It is not easily angered,” (1 Cor. 13:5c)

In personal relationships, love isn’t easily angered. “It is not touchy, with a blistering temper barely hidden beneath the surface of a respectable facade, just waiting for an offense, real or imagined, at which to take umbrage,” (p. 62).

“It keeps no record of wrongs,” (1 Cor. 13:5d)

But what if actual hurt is done against you? Well, love, “keeps no record of wrongs.” Love doesn’t have, “a private file of personal grievances that can be consulted and nursed whenever there is possibility of some new slight,” (p. 62).

“Love does not delight in evil,” (1 Cor. 13:6a)

When love is in the presence of real evil, instead of, “keeping a record of wrongs,” it chooses not to linger there. Love isn’t a fake self-righteousness that pretends to be morally grieved with juicy gossip, while secretly enjoying the crudeness and vulgarity. God forbid! Nor does love enjoy endless discussions about what is wrong with churches and institutions we serve. Instead, love takes on such subjects only when righteousness demands it needs to be talked about, and no longer than that.

“Love…rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:6b)

But, if there is any report of something right or truthful happening, love will quickly rejoice over that. Love isn’t looking to track down what is wrong. Instead, it gladly focuses less on self, and chooses to rejoice with others about what is right, instead.

“It always endures, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” (1 Cor. 13:7)

Verse 7 sums it up. The keyword is, “always.” This word is used 8 times in 1 Cor. 13:1-7 (translated as, “all,” or, “always,”), and 4 times in verse 7 alone. It may purposefully contrast a view of the Corinthians that, “all things are permitted,” (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23). That is, that God’s grace and Spirit has given them full liberty to always do as they please.

Whereas, in contrast, Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 13 that Christian love always endures, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. This shows the voluntary relinquishing of personal freedom demanded by love (see 1 Cor. 8-10 where Paul talks in depth of this).

Christian love always endures and always trusts. This doesn’t mean it’s gullible (cf. Prov. 14:15). Instead, it means that love gives the benefit of the doubt, instead of being suspicious or cynical.

Love also hopes for the best, even when disappointed by repeated personal abuse. It hopes against hope and is eager to give offenders second chances and “seventy times seven” forgiveness (Matt. 18:22).

Love perseveres: “When the evidence is adverse, [love] hopes for the best. And when hopes are repeatedly disappointed, it still courageously waits.” (Robertson and Plummer, as qtd in Carson, p. 63).

What’s Different About 1 Cor. 13 Love?

God’s love is unique from all other love because it is “self-originating.” God loves what is unlovely. When a man tells a woman, “I love you!” at least in part he means that he finds the woman lovely.

Whereas, John 3:16 says that God loves the world, but the world described there is not lovely at all: it is completely under judgment. God loves the world only because of who He is. And this is how Christians learn to love. We don’t do this perfectly, of course, but we make strides toward this love when grace changes our character. As this happens, how we treat another person becomes less and less dependent on how lovely they are being or acting.

Love and Spiritual Gifts

So why is an exposition on God’s love (1 Cor. 13) in between 2 chapters on spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12 & 14)?

  1. God’s love is shown as the, “more excellent way,” (1 Cor. 12:31) in contrast to arguments and demonstrations around spiritual gifts.
  2. The presence of this love is an infallible test of the Spirit’s presence.

The various spiritual gifts, while very important and valued by Paul/God, can be duplicated by pagans. Even in the Bible, false prophets (Deut. 13:1-3), a donkey (Num. 22:28), a blood-thirsty murderer (1 Sam. 19:24), and a demon-possessed girl (Acts 16:16-18) can all exhibit true prophecies.

But God’s love cannot be manufactured or duplicated. It only comes from God’s indwelling Spirit. This is why Jesus himself says God’s love is THE EVIDENCE of being his disciple: “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another,” (John 13:35). And similarly Paul writes elsewhere that “love” is the preeminent evidence of having God’s Spirit inside you through faith in Christ (Gal. 5:22).

Whatever differences exist between charismatics and non-charismatics (in Corinth or current-day), no one can afford to ignore what is central, characteristic, and irreplaceable in biblical Christianity: God’s love (as seen in 1 Cor. 13)…a supernatural change in the Christian to seek what is actually best for others over self.

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