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Love in 1 Corinthians 13

Study of Love in 1 Corinthians 13 

            


        To understand anything about the depth of this passage, we must first break down this incredible passage of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 or the “Love is…” passage. The other parts of the passage play into the entire narrative of 1 Corinthians, but this segment gleans an apparently inspired message of the nature of God that must be understood to grasp the weight or the kavod (glory) of this chapter. William Barclay gives his insight into the kavod of this chapter. “For many, this is the most wonderful chapter in the whole New Testament; and we will do well to take our time in studying words the full meaning of which could not be sufficiently revealed in a whole lifetime.”[1]

        First, we must understand a study of such a deeply profound and delightful book will seem to be a drop in the ocean of wisdom, but I shall attempt the same: to take my time and try to express a profound and deep study of the chapter in light of the grandeur of the grace of God found in these words. We must then start with the word that transcends us and has plenty of studies done on it, Agape. The word study that will follow shortly after will be of the Hebrew word Hesed which may give insight into the source of this powerful scripture.

        1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says, Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.[2] Next is finishes and sums the last few verses up in 1 verse and gives grounds for their truth. Love never fails.[3] The Greek word that was used here is agape and it denotes divine love[4]. The main thing we need to know about this word in scholarship and in our lives, this charity love (as KJV translates it) is the glue of all other loves. All loves can be seen in perfection only when they are subjected to this greater love. The word hesed holds a similar power and it can be said that hesed is a higher love because of the kavod of this love, or the weight of it. Kavod literally means weight but is used in a similar was as to talk about the grandeur or glory of something and is used to denote glory more than literal weight throughout most of the scriptures. What does this all mean? There is a love, agape, that stands as the perfect love and should be not only seen as a lofty ideal but as the one who came, died, rose and will bring all things back to their perfection.

            It seems like I may have made a large conclusion off of one word so to understand the context of this section, we must understand the letter’s intention. In Professor Charles Gaulden’s lecture notes on the reason why Paul wrote this specific letter, he gives two reasons.

1.     “Chloe’s people” have sent Paul reports that there are serious divisions in the believing community at Corinth (I Cor. 1:11: 11:18).

2.     The second reason for Paul’s writing First Corinthians was for Paul to answer several questions posed to him by the Corinthians themselves, as possibly brought to him by the delegation from the house of Stephanas (I Cor. 16:17). [5]

The place where this chapter falls is directly behind a long letter that both rebukes and sheds a clear light on what is to be practiced in the church to set them apart from the extremely wicked surroundings of a port city life under roman control. He then interjects this to not just lighten everybody’s mood but to show the kavod of the wisdom he passes on. He was trying to lead the church away from the mindset of legalism that could result from a harsh letter. He begins this segment, or chapter if you’d rather, by saying, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”[6]

            It’s quite evident what he is doing and, within the context of the epistle as a whole, it stands as a holy interjection to reveal the deep truth about love I mentioned earlier, specifically the empowering nature of Agape. Without the context of the previous chapters training these Christians how to love God properly and live in his goodness as a new creation, this chapter loses its weight in reality. It becomes meaningless poetry. This specific section takes the former chapter (which talks about spiritual gifts), and basically say, “these aren’t the source of life. These are by products. Would you like to know what the source is?” and it goes directly into the love is section. This transition is where the kavod of this part of the chapter lies: It connects these rebukes and trainings with Love himself and reveals how living a godly life is a byproduct of a surrender to perfect love – one that is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, honoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered and that keeps no record of wrongs.

            The western Christian church has a pretty decent understanding that our Christianity lives through the relationship with God, but if you were to ask people to imagine Jesus, they might describe him as a short, wide stone worker and carpenter that is middle eastern, but they will most likely not imagine him smiling. This is the problem with our western thinking and understanding of this scripture. Paul, the least and the greatest apostle, is trying to reveal this relational element of the father as it relates to life on earth. We must understand this in the context that Paul was a pharisee, one that believed the law was his salvation. Of course, we hear a zeal and a sort of angst behind these words, he is trying to save others from a wrong way of living that he knew didn’t lead home.

            Before we move on too fast, I believe there is a grace given in these verses that hasn’t been explicit in my writing thus far. Truly, we are to live like our Messiah, so this stands as instruction still. To love anyone with any sort of love, that love should be found with a connection to Agape or it is futile. C.S. Lewis, in his incredible book on the four loves says this when relating the loves to one another, “We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, lovingkindness, wisdom or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked [in heaven] to turn from them, so dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love. All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His.[7] All loves can be found as mere branches off of this tree called Love, Agape.

            Now that we have an inkling of the grace and glory found in the first section, the second section, verses 8-13, seem to have an odd eastern, bible-speaking feel to it that is hard to fully grasp for the casual reader. It reads, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”[8]

            In these verses, William Barclay has three things that he believes this last section has to say about Christian love.

1.     He stresses absolute permanency.

2.     He stresses absolute completeness.

3.     He stressed its absolute supremacy.[9]

I believe this succinctly speaks into the absoluteness that is revealed about love in these verses.

            To start, what does absolute permanency mean? It, simply put, means when all things pass away, when the earth and heavens are stripped down to their core to be rebuilt, there will be three things, and love will stand above them all. He is speaking into the fears and doubts of the end of time and reassuring the believers that as all will fade away one day, love will never. love is unable to be conquered and it is revealed in other places in the scriptures, like in Song of Solomon. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”[10] The main point that Paul is making in this regard is not that love is not only eternal, but it is untouchable. Nothing in existence and in nonexistence can move love. The power to save has been given to the strength of love and that is something to rejoice in.

            Next, what is meant by completeness? This is where some cultural context could be brought in. The city of Corinth was known for its mirror production. As they were producing mirrors out of highly polished metals, there was an apparent imperfection to the image that was portrayed. There are a few things to be understood in this. The initial understanding of the mirror is simply that even if we were presented with the kavod of a perfect reflection of God, we can only see it through the window made of horn or the mirror made with metal. It isn’t until we inherit the face to face encounter with God that we could truly understand all his love. This leads us into the weird placement of the verse that talks about being a child. This is simply an analogy that is related to this life and what is to come. We are children, who think, speak, act like children in comparison to when we will be face to face with God in eternity and become adults. The main purpose of this is to give hope in that we will one day see the King in his glory and all anxiety and fears will be set aside while reality wipes over us.

            Finally, what is meant by love’s absolute supremacy is that everything loses color and flame without love. Even in the final three things, faith and hope are inferior to love. Faith without love is cold, and hope without love is grim.[11] Everything that is good and is called good can only be called good in its relation to Love Himself. We see kingdom imagery all over the place in the scriptures: we are rulers, God rules, bad rulers, good rulers; however, here we see that love reigns and one that loves reigns well. Here we have a parallel with love as superior and with God as love[12] that is not to be ignored.

            To look like God is to talk in the dust of the rabbi. To walk in this perfect love is to take a step towards our chief end – to rule. I believe there is an incredible amount of deep and moving truth that exists within the pages of the Westminster Catechism, but to look at the chief end of man, we must look at the intention in creation. It would be hard to argue anything else created by the Father for a purpose would have a different chief end. We were created to rule and to walk in our rulership over the world, even now. How do we do this? We attempt, with everything in us and being empowered by the same spirit as Jesus has, to embrace Agape, and to walk in his footsteps on earth.



[1] WILLIAM BARCLAY, LETTERS TO THE CORINTHIANS (Place of publication not identified: WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX, 2019). 138

[2] NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2017). 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

[3] NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2017). 1 Corinthians 13:8a

[4] Strong's Greek: 26. Ἀγάπη (Agapé) -- Love, Goodwill, accessed August 14, 2020, https://biblehub.com/greek/26.htm.

[5] Charles Gaulden, August 13, 2020. 4

 

[6] NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2017). 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017). 138

[8] NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2017). 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

[9] WILLIAM BARCLAY, LETTERS TO THE CORINTHIANS (Place of publication not identified: WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX, 2019). 147-148

[10] NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2017). Song of Solomon 8:7

[11] WILLIAM BARCLAY, LETTERS TO THE CORINTHIANS (Place of publication not identified: WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX, 2019). 148

[12] NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2017). 1 John 4:8

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