1 Corinthians 13 is one of those chapters that is often referenced without any consideration for its context. More often than not, it is read out at weddings… it is, after all, all about love, isn’t it? But to take it out of context is not only to do a disservice to the text, but also to do a disservice to ourselves. We need to recall that this is the middle of Paul’s three-chapter discussion on true spirituality. In other words, at the heart of authentically Christian spiritual expression lies not ecstatic experience or supernatural gifting – but love. And a very specific kind of love: agape.
In English, the word love is used to mean different things – ranging from lust through to appreciation. In biblical Greek, they had a variety of words to choose from to express different ideas – like eros for sexual love, and philos for brotherly love. But the New Testament tends to favour the word agape when it speaks of love. The Biblical writers took this word and infused it to mean the kind of love that defines the character of God. As John reminds us in 1 John, God is love.
So, having discussed how God by his Spirit gives many spiritual gifts, in accordance with what his church needs, Paul now stresses the controlling factor of true spirituality: agape love – love that is as God. If we read verses 4-7, replacing the word love with Jesus, we would be reading a description of the character of Christ!
But why is love the controlling factor of true spirituality? Because, says Paul, one could be the most spiritual person in the world and yet still the most destitute if you didn’t have love. Without love, one could speak in unknown languages – of men and angels – and be no better than the pagans. Without love, even if you could speak prophetic words, understand the secret plans of God, know all things, or have incredible trust and yet be nothing. Without love – philanthropy gains nothing.
I can’t help but think of Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”
In other words, one can do all sorts of things ostensibly for God and yet still not be doing the will of the Father. What is his will? How do we summarise his laws? Matthew 22:37-40:
Jesus replied, “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
The other point that Paul makes here in chapter 13 is that, unlike spiritual gifts, love is eternal. The gifts of the Spirit are for this age only – they are to equip and encourage and strengthen the church. But when Christ returns, we will be made fully like him. We will be perfect as Jesus is perfect – the gifts will no longer be necessary. Love, though, will continue. Love is what should inform our every action here this side of eternity. But love also defines the character of God. If anything, we will love more in the new creation – not less; we will be more like Jesus – we shall be able to love completely, even as Christ loves us completely. Boy – I’m longing for that day!
Lord Jesus – please help me to love more. I admit: I feel the allure of sensational gifts. And I know that it isn’t wrong to desire spiritual gifts. I know that it is right and proper to do so. But please change my desires – for spiritual gifts and for everything else – so that what I desire springs from love. I want to love you better. I really, really do. My love is so imperfect. And I want to love others better. Please help me to do so. Please, form CHrist in me. I know that love will last forever…. I want to experience more and more of what is eternal: LOVE now. Please – show me more of how much you love me – the height, depth and width of your love. And then change my thinking, renew my mind so that I will love you more how you love me, and others more as you do.