The greatest is love (May 31, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 

Preaching or writing on 1 Corinthians 13 is as daunting a task as improving on a Rembrandt painting or duplicat-ing a sonnet of Shakespeare. 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and most beloved passages in the Bible. It is a masterpiece!

This deservedly famous chapter must be understood in its context rather than lifted out and romanticized as a hymn to love. It is not a prescription for marital bliss or a poetic ode on saintly virtue. Rather, it is the climax of Paul’s theological and ethical instruction aimed at correcting the Corinthians’ divisive distortions of the nature of Christian community.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3: The greatest spiritual gifts are worthless without love
Paul, speaking here in the first person, holds himself up as an example. What he has to say is true of himself and everybody else.

Whether a person speaks using ordinary human language in a powerful as did Apollos (see 1 Cor. 3:5-6; Acts 18:24-19:1) or in ecstatic outbursts of angelic speech (which Paul will discuss in detail in chapter 14), it is just worthless noise unless love shapes what is spoken. Paul compares such talk to the discordant sounds of a noisy piece of brass (probably not a musical instrument, but a device for amplifying actors’ voices in the theater) or a clanging cymbal. Such instruments were well known to the Corinthians from religious processions and ceremonies of the mystery religion honoring the goddess Cybele.

And the same is true for three other spiritual gifts claimed by some of the Christians in Corinth: prophetic powers, knowledge of mysteries and mountain-moving faith. Without love, these spiritual gifts are worthless.

Even extreme examples of generosity or self-sacrifice, giving away everything one owns or submitting to physical suffering, profit one nothing. The traditional translation of verse 3b “ … giving my body to be burned” is based on a different Greek word that is found in several important manuscripts and could have been easily confused with the Greek word for boasting. The NRSV translation is based on the fact that there is no evidence of self-immolation during this period. Paul does boast about his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7: What love does
Rather than an abstract definition of what love is, Paul defines love in terms of what love does. Love is patient and kind. Love does not put limits on what it withstands, believes, hopes and endures. This does not mean that “love is infinitely incredulous and utterly indiscriminate in its believing and hoping. Love does not make its adherents into foolish Pollyannas,” as commentator Richard Hays remarks.

It is especially important to notice the statements about what love does not do. They describe behavior that is attributed to the Corinthians in other parts of this epistle. Several of the NRSV translations for the Greek terms used to describe that behavior in verses 4-5 are rather weak and could be replaced by more forceful terms. “Envious” could be “fiercely jealous,” “arrogant” could be “puffed up,” “rude” could be “behave shamefully,” echoing the improper behavior mentioned in 7:36. “Does not insist on its own way” could be translated “not self-seeking,” echoing 10:24. “Not irritable and resentful” could be more powerfully translated as “not easily annoyed and doesn’t keep score of wrongs.”

In verse 6, “wrongdoing” could be translated as “injustice,” more clearly reflecting Paul’s rejection of the Corinthians’ practice of taking fellow believers to court to settle disputes.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13: Love is the greatest spiritual gift 

Paul concludes his carefully structured description of love by contrast-ing it with what some Corinthians especially valued: prophecy, speaking in tongues and spiritual knowledge. Each of those gifts, as valuable as they are, come to an end just as childhood with its immature ways comes to an end (or should!) when adulthood arrives.

Paul recognizes that our present view of ourselves and our world is reflected to us like the mirrors in an amusement park: distorted and confusing. He is confident that ultimately our partial knowledge will be made complete just as we are fully known. This is a divine passive indicating that God is the one who fully knows us.

Faith, hope, and love are all vitally important spiritual gifts, but love is the greatest one.

For discussion 

The Greek word used for love in this passage is agape, self-giving love that recognizes value in the beloved without expecting anything in return. What examples of agape love have you experienced? What examples of agape love have you seen in your congregation? Do you see similarities between the issues Paul faced in the Corinthian congregation and congregations today?