Have you ever taken the time to consider what 1 Corinthians 13 is sitting in the middle of? The whole chapter is such a beautiful treatise on love, and contains some of the most well-known verses of our time. But so often those verses are lifted out of their immediate surroundings to be applied to a wedding, or to raising children, or to treating others kindly. I think these can be fine applications, but without the context they fall a little short of the much deeper point Paul is making.
Looking to the context helps us realize that Paul is actually taking our temptation to overemphasize and falsely exalt some spiritual gifts over others to task. If we look at 1 Corinthians 12 we find Paul informing us about different types of spiritual gifts as well as painting a metaphorical picture of the church as one body in Christ, yet containing many members who perform varied and equally important tasks. He anticipates the problems we tend to have in the church concerning the more visible gifts–everyone wants them–and promises to show us “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31).
And from there we jump into chapter 13. Immediately Paul concludes in verses 1-3 that speaking in tongues, having prophetic powers and understanding of all mysteries and knowledge, vast faith and self-sacrificing generosity amount to absolutely nothing if they are not motivated and accompanied by love. Basically that everything he spent so much time outlining in the previous chapters are worth nothing to anyone in the church without love backing them up. In fact, they are worse than nothing, they are distracting. Paul compares speaking in tongues without love to being “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (v1). These gifts which God graciously gives us upon salvation are a tremendously rowdy distraction from the purposes of God without his love running through them.
And what is love? Queue the oft repeated, beautiful refrain here.
- Does not envy
- Does not boast
- Is not arrogant
- Is not rude
- Does not insist on its own way
- Is not irritable
- Is not resentful
- Does not rejoice in wrongdoing
- Rejoices in the truth
- Bears all things (literally: puts up with all things)
- Believes all things
- Hopes all things
- Endures all things
I think it is good to stop here and try to unclothe ourselves of the ways we’ve heard this passage applied, and instead think of it within the context Paul has so carefully placed it.
–To be loving means that when I practice my gift of knowledge, I am patient with those to whom I share knowledge and that I am not rude while I teach them, or boastful of the knowledge I have received as a gift of the Spirit.
–To be loving means that when I give generously I do it with great kindness and without arrogance.
–To be loving means that even though I am full of faith, I am not irritable or resentful toward those who lack faith, but that I bear with them, and endure their unbelief, encouraging them to a better way.
–To be loving means that when I preach the Word of truth that I do not insist on my own way, but am careful to present God’s way, because I know love rejoices in the truth, and I want my people to know God’s truth as the only way to salvation.
I know we can apply this description of love in a lot of different ways, but first let’s apply it to the way we practice the good gifts God has given to us for the benefit and flourishing of His bride, the Church. Paul is giving us a heads up that in order to be an effective steward of the gift you’ve been given, you must be a good student of what is means to love others.
This brings us to the verses that immediately follow Paul’s description of love. Here Paul makes a comparison between the eternality of love and the temporality of the spiritual gifts. Love never ends, he says, but tongues, knowledge and prophecies will all pass away. The reason they pass away is because as humans we only have partial knowledge of that which we speak and read about. We do not share in God’s omniscience, so whatever we learn about our Father, his world and his ways will only ever be a small piece of a very large and humanly incomprehensible puzzle.
In addition, when the “perfect” comes, what need will we have for these gifts? We will be reunited bodily with Christ in heaven, and our need to minister to one another with these spiritual gifts will pass away in the presence of the author of all truth and wisdom. Paul says in verse 12, “For now I see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” What a glorious day that will be! We will know fully those things which now we scratch our heads and wonder about, search commentaries for clues and pray earnestly for illumination about. But it is not for us to know all these things now, and no amount of study will give us total knowledge of them anyway. It would do us all good to remember that no theologian in history had complete understanding of the mysteries of God, and we should not presume to think that we do either. And so, as we diligently seek the truth, we must be patient with ourselves and with others until the time to know fully arrives.
In contrast, Paul says, “Love never ends” (v8). Now here is something we can grasp, know, and practice–perhaps not with the precision of perfection–but with the understanding that God has loved us first and in the greatest way: in giving up Jesus Christ’s life for those who were enemies with him. There is a simplicity to this concept of love that the smallest children understand and can practice: the laying down of one’s life for others. This kind of service will never end, it will never pass away. Indeed, it is the stuff of heaven, and we who practice it imperfectly today in anticipation of Christ’s return will get the pleasure of loving others rightly and well for eternity. To love is the better thing, Paul tells us, because it will never pass away. There will always be chances to practice love, now and for eternity.
So, even though these spiritual gifts will no longer be needed, love will always be needed, and required, because it is the very language of heaven, as well a characteristic of our most perfect Father, whom we are called to imitate.
We can be a very task oriented people, and so I can understand why it is so tempting to put on a ministry hat and do that task to the very best of our ability. The problem with this comes when we allow our love and passion for the task to outweigh our care and concern for God’s people. The spiritual gift is meant to serve the body, and not the other way around. If you cannot practice your gift without being demanding, insisting on your own way, being rude or impatient, or being envious, then it would be better for you to cease that ministry altogether than to continue being a noisy distraction to the body of Christ. And the truth is, when we practice our gifts with unloving attitudes, we are actually drawing people away from Christ and toward ourselves, because our obnoxious attitudes drown out the great symphony of God’s love which is on display when we rightly practice his given gifts within the Church.
Let us therefore be careful to practice our gifts with a heart full of the love of God, which is beautifully exemplified in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And isn’t that just what a spiritual gift is for, to lay down our lives in faithful ministry for the benefit of those around us? That they would be drawn toward God who is able to give them mercy, forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven, where the tune of our Christ-unified hearts will be the great song of love.
Women’s Ministry Director