1 Corinthians 13 is often called “the love chapter.” It’s one chapter in a letter that Paul wrote to a church in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was a wealthy city, and the people in the church were very gifted. But there were many problems in the church.
Up to this point, Paul has addressed:
- divisions in the church
- worldly ideals that had crept into the church
- some who were involved in sexual immorality
- some who were waging lawsuits against other believers
- some who were misusing communion
- many who boasted about their spiritual gifts and felt others were unimportant in the church
Chapter 13 comes after all these problems. It’s clear that these Christians were not loving each other. In fact, the opposite was true: they were being selfish, greedy, and proud.
The Worth and Worthlessness of Spiritual Gifts
Some of the Corinthians considered their spiritual gifts to be the most important, so Paul begins chapter 13 by commenting on certain gifts:
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. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV)
Paul references some incredible gifts given by God to the believers in Corinth. The ability to speak in a language not your own (tongues), so you can communicate the good news about Jesus Christ to unbelievers, is an amazing gift. But Paul says that if you do it without love, it’s no better than beating on a drum. The same goes for prophecy—that gift given by the Holy Spirit for godly insight into important spiritual matters (knowledge). If people exercise knowledge without love, Paul says they’re useless. Then Paul gives three actions: exercising mountain-moving faith, giving generously to the poor, and suffering physical persecution for your faith. Yet again he says all these amazing deeds are worthless if they aren’t motivated by love.
It’s important to note that our entire being is encompassed in these examples: what we say (tongues), what we think (knowledge), and what we do (faith that moves mountains, giving to the poor, suffering).
The Mark of a Believer
Jesus told his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV). The quintessential mark of a mature believer in Jesus is not correct doctrine or the possession of great spiritual gifts (although these are important)—it is love.
Paul has shown how worthless every other religious act is without love. But what is love?
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. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV)
Love Is Permanent
Paul tells us that this kind of love will outlast everything else.
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. . . Now I know in part; then I shall know fully . . . And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NIV)
Paul refers back to the three spiritual gifts considered by the Corinthians to be of primary importance: tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. His point is simple: a time is coming when these spiritual gifts will no longer be necessary.
Paul calls this “completeness,” and it happens most likely when Jesus returns during his “second coming.” Then we will “see face to face” and will “know fully.” At that point, spiritual gifts will have served their purpose and will no longer be necessary. Such wonderful gifts have an expiration date.
Even things as important as faith and hope pale in comparison to love. Currently, we need faith in order to trust God about what is to come, and as believers, we hope in Jesus’ return. But love outlives both faith and hope.
Love is greater than these because once Jesus returns and those who believe in him go to eternity with him in heaven, they will no longer need faith and hope. The Person (Jesus) and his promises they had trusted in have come; what they had hoped for is here. Yet love will remain.
Love Is Only Possible by God’s Power
What does this mean for us now? Too often we believe we’re mature because we possess great gifts, talents, or knowledge. Yet having these gifts means nothing if not accompanied by godly love. These gifts are temporary; love is permanent. These gifts are great, but love should be our priority.
Love isn’t something we conjure up ourselves. It’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and we can only love through yielding to God’s Spirit. We can never attain the love God prescribes in our own strength, but Jesus promises that everyone who trusts in him will be given God’s Spirit (John 14:16-17).
Is love your priority in life right now?