Essential, Extraordinary, Eternal Love – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13 in the Church
Love. What exactly is love? It is somewhat hard to define, isn’t it? Just to get a taste of this, go to dictionary.com. It lists out fourteen definitions for love as a noun, eight definitions for love as a verb, and six idioms for love. The definitions range from “a passionate affection” to “a score of zero in tennis.” (What affection has to do with losing in tennis, I have no idea.) Love can certainly be one of those abstract principles that is somewhat hard to nail down. Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, we need to try, for love is one of the key concepts that permeates the Christian life and experience.
If you were to ask any Christian where in the Bible they would go to learn about love, almost anyone who has been in the faith for any length of time would certainly send you to 1 Corinthians 13, often called “the love chapter.” A pretty good name for it, it seems, as the word love is mentioned nine times in 13 verses. Must be important, right? Part of the reason we are so familiar with this chapter is that not many a Christian wedding goes by without it being read. No matter how quickly it seems to be forgotten in the heat of newlywed arguments, a wedding just does not seem to be a wedding without the love chapter. It is certainly a classic. And as with all classics, there is a deeper appreciation to be gained when one comes to understand more about them. Although 1 Corinthians 13 can stand alone as a powerful treatise on love, it’s impact becomes even stronger when one realizes that it is nestled within a book about God’s people, the church. Even more specifically, it is smack dab in the middle of a discussion on God’s presence in the church through the spiritual gifts.
In this passage, Paul becomes a poet, speaking truths to the Corinthians about love in creative verse that is as beautiful as it is powerful. There is much to be gleaned from this passage—many details about love as well as a few overarching principles. The passage actually breaks down quite conveniently into three main truths on love. As we come to understand these truths in the depths of our minds, and most importantly, our hearts, they will transform the way we live our lives. Let’s take a look…
The first thing we see about love here is that it is essential. Love is fundamental, basic, elemental. It is as vital as the air we breathe, as oxygen is to life. Without love, life would mean little. Something without love becomes nothing. No love, and our actions are futile. Through a chain of “if” phrases, Paul writes that if a person has certain things but does not have love, that having those other things matters little. The things he speaks of correspond to the spiritual gifts. But perhaps what is more powerful is what follows those “if” phrases. The first speaks of a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Gordon Fee points out that this is a reference to the instruments used in their pagan religions, which we saw previously was characterized by the mute, lifeless idols. This phrase is symbolic of emptiness. A hollow noise. This signifies that using our gifts in ministry without love offers nothing of value. Paul’s point is certainly clear throughout these first three verses: If I exercise gifts without love, I give nothing (vs. 1). If I exercise gifts without love, I am nothing (vs. 2). If I exercise gifts without love, I gain nothing (vs. 3). I give nothing…I am nothing…I gain nothing. See how essential love is? If someone uses their spiritual gifts without love, they might as well not bother. It is like baking a cake without flour or running a touchdown without a football. It is futile.
Why? Well, for one, it is an issue of motives. Our gifts are intended to be used for the building up of the body. Our gifts are not given for ourselves, they are given for others. This is an important shift in perspective. We serve because we love the ones we are serving. We shepherd out of love for the people we are shepherding. We teach since we love those we are teaching. Using our gifts should flow out of a love for God and for others, not because it makes us feel good or gives us a feeling of satisfaction, meaning, or significance. Yes, perhaps these latter things will be byproducts for using our gifts, but they should not be the motivations. The motivating force behind the use of our gifts should be love.
Secondly, love is not only a motivation, but it is a power that flows through our gifts into the lives of others. People should feel God’s love more deeply because we have used our gifts out of love for them. As we use our gifts in the church, love is able to permeate the church. It is life-giving oxygen for the body. And if we are doing works in the church for other reasons, they are empty of the true power of God, because they are empty of love.
So, we see that love is essential. But not only is it essential, it is also extraordinary. Love is an amazing thing. And while it is not easy, when love in its pure form is exercised to the extreme capacity, it can be extraordinary. Take a look at this extraordinary love…
Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love does not envy.
Love is not proud.
Love is not rude.
Love is not self-seeking.
Love is not easily angered.
Love does not delight in evil.
Love rejoices with the truth.
Love always protects.
Love always trusts.
Love always hopes.
Love always perseveres.
Love never fails.
Now do you see why love is so extraordinary? And the pinnacle of love is certainly God’s love, put on display through the person and work of Jesus. It was in him that the world got a glimpse of the heart of love…the selfless giving up of oneself for another. That is the gospel in all its richness. That is love.
One thing that strikes me when I read through this list is the idea of selflessness in love. It is certainly at the core. For if you flip these things around and look at their opposite, you get a great picture of selfishness. Love is patient. Impatience is rooted in selfishness. Love is kind. Being unkind is usually spurred on by selfish desires. Thus, the opposite of love is looking out for self…defending self…exalting self. True love is quite the opposite. True love is selfless.
Many times when my kids get into fights (and I actually have the gumption to deal with them in a good way), I will often ask them, “Who are you supposed to be putting first?” Even though they might be tempted, I have never once had them answer “myself.” They certainly know in their heads, at least, that it is others they are to put first. But knowing this is one thing. Doing it is another, isn’t it? Knowing this is easy. Doing this is hard. Knowing about love is easy. Doing love is hard.
Perhaps one thing that can motivate us to do the hard work of love is the final truth we see here in this passage. For in addition to love being essential and extraordinary, it is also eternal. Love will not cease like prophecies. Love will not be stilled like tongues. Love will not pass away like knowledge (vs. 8). For one day, when we are in heaven, the spiritual gifts will no longer be necessary. Why? Because the spiritual gifts are the ways God’s Spirit manifests Himself in the church, His body. And when we are in heaven, we will no longer need God to manifest Himself in these ways. At that time, we will be, in a very real and physical sense, present with God in a way we have never been before. We shall see Him “face to face” (vs. 12). As Revelation 21:3 says, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
Love is eternal. Unlike the spiritual gifts, it will never end. It lives here in the present, alongside the essential virtues of faith and hope. But out of those three, love is the only one that will endure forever. So, in all things, love should reign supreme. It should be valued more than any gift. It should be exalted more than any ministry. It should be held in the highest esteem. It should be practiced. Love should pour forth through everything we do. It should flow through our gifts to permeate the body with its life-giving power.
Certainly, there is no doubt that spiritual gifts are of great value. We know that faith is vital. And hope is indeed important. But then there is love. Love is the greatest.