Read the passage here.
Today we’re looking at 1 Corinthians 13, which is probably one of the more familiar scripture passages for most people. However, as we noted last week, it’s probably also one of the passages most taken out of its immediate context. So as we talk about it today, we want to make sure that we keep that context in mind.
Therefore, here is a very quick review of some of what we discussed last time. Specifically, we noted that chapters 12-14 seem pretty clearly to hang together in Paul’s line of thought. That is, chapters 12-14 are all connected. And as we also noted last week, they hang together by virtue of the topic introduced by Paul in 12:1 – that is, “Now about the gifts of the Spirit…” And we posited that Paul’s concern is around the abuse of the gifts of the Spirit, especially how some in the Corinthian community are ranking the gifts, and therefore ranking those who demonstrate certain gifts (i.e. “this gift is better than that gift.” “And I have this gift and so I am more spiritual than that person who only has that gift…”). So what we have in chapters 12-14 is Paul’s response to this attitude or this situation. Specifically, Paul says:
- In ch. 12, that there is no hierarchy of the spiritual gifts. All gifts are given by the Holy Spirit. And all gifts are given for the building up of the Body and all given gifts are necessary for the building up of the Body. There is therefore no basis for privileging certain gifts or disparaging other gifts because they are all for the Body.
- In ch. 13, our chapter today, Paul identifies love as more important than any spiritual gift for the Body. “Why are you so concerned with what gift you have when you should be concerned about how well you love?” asks Paul. Obviously, we will talk more about that today.
- And in ch. 14, which we will look at next time, Paul reminds the Corinthians that spiritual gifts are for the building up of the Body. Which is to say that if they are not being used to build up the Body, then what good are they?
So having reviewed the larger context that governs our specific passage, let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 13.
So with respect to the propensity to forget or ignore the immediate context as we’ve already noted, our passage today isn’t in and of itself particularly difficult to understand. We can consider this in line with the chapter’s three paragraphs. That is:
- vv. 1-3: Gifts vs. Love
- vv. 4-7: Characteristics of Love
- vv. 8-12: Love and the kingdom.
Now why I’ve labeled this paragraph in this way will I hope become apparent. But the basic idea is that, according to Paul, love has a role in the eschatological kingdom that spiritual gifts do not have.
So, a few words about each of the paragraphs:
Beginning at vv. 1-3, let’s just make a few observations. Firstly, the basic thrust of the paragraph, again, is setting Love against and above spiritual gifts. And as we discussed last week, this is undoubtedly because of the emphasis that has been placed upon spiritual gifts by the Corinthians – and especially certain kinds of spiritual gifts.
And so, we might also speculate that Paul’s comparisons here aren’t random, but specifically aimed at countering the Corinthians’ assumptions, and especially their pride. In other words, here Love is better and more important than tongues, prophecy and knowledge, faith, and asceticism. So if they are going to boast, Paul might say, they should boast not in their gifts, but in how well they love.
And if we consider our larger passage, chaps. 12-14, we can immediately recognize Paul’s emphasizing love as more important than speaking in tongues or prophecy. But we should also recognize the Corinthians’ anti-somatic tendencies – that is, their tendency to disparage the body (“if I give all I possess…”, “give my body over to hardship…”). I’m not entirely sure what Paul specifically has in mind when he says, “if I have a faith that can move mountains…” But the point I’m trying to make is that Paul isn’t speaking abstractly or theoretically. Paul is responding to a very specific situation that is occurring among the Corinthians. That is (we can assume) the Corinthians may be demonstrating all kinds of spiritual gifts, but they are not loving one another. And that, says Paul, is a problem.
In vv. 4-7, then, Paul tells us what Love should look like. And again, we can probably assume that Paul identifies those qualities that he does precisely because of what is not being lived out in the community in Corinth. Therefore, it’s worth noting how the characteristics Paul lists can so easily arise out of a “what about me” attitude. That is to say, when we are thinking in terms of what about me, we are prone to impatience, to envy, to boasting, pride, keeping records of wrongs, and etc. Now that is impossible to verify, obviously. It’s impossible to know if that was Paul’s motivation. But given what we can know about what’s going on in Corinth, especially around spiritual gifts, it seems to me to be at least plausible.
In contrast to these things, Paul says, “Love is patient, love is kind … [Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” So again, we might speculate that these are precisely the things that the Corinthians are not displaying – and Paul wishes they would.
The chapter closes, in vv. 8-13, with Paul providing an eschatological foundation for his argument. That is, as we alluded to earlier, in the eschatological kingdom spiritual gifts will not have a place. Love however, very much will. This should be fairly evident, but let’s explore it just a little bit. In this paragraph, Paul points specifically to prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. For our purposes, it’s easier to consider prophecy. And prophecy functions specifically where human beings are not privy to (or paying attention to) the will and voice of God. That is, prophecy (we might say) is the word of God breaking into human ignorance and willfulness. But when the fullness of the kingdom comes, such breaking in is unnecessary. We won’t need God to speak into our temporal (and fallen) existence because we will be fully in God’s presence.
Though it isn’t one of the things Paul lists here, it might be helpful to think about the spiritual gift of healing (and here we don’t need to distinguish between the gift of being healed and the gift of being able to heal others). In the fullness of the eschatological kingdom, the spiritual gift of healing will be unnecessary because there is nothing from which we will need to be healed. Therefore, in the final kingdom, the gift of healing will (presumably) cease.
Now the following is an aside, but it’s interesting to think about. We’ve talked before about the holiness of vocation, of work and calling. But in the in-between time, in our fallenness, we have a tendency (perhaps) to think of certain vocations as more holy, more Godly than others. These are usually pastoral ministry, missionaries, and similar so-called religious vocations. But aren’t these precisely the vocations that will be entirely unnecessary in the kingdom. What vocations will still exist? Well if the story of the garden tells us anything, vocations like farming, taking care of the earth, taking care of one another. It seems to me that raising goats and building houses have far more eternal utility than pastoral ministry. And that begs the question, why do we think certain things are more spiritual than others?
All of that is to say that, for Paul, the gifts that the Corinthians are so clamoring over – the ones that they think are so spectacular, so important, so spiritual – are not kinds of things that will matter at the end of all things. What will matter? And therefore, what does matter? Love. So, if we are to be kingdom people living in the already-but-not-yet, isn’t this what we should be much more concerned about?
So if we were to [over-]simplify Paul’s point, we might say that the Corinthians are concerned about the wrong things. Would Paul likewise say to us that we are concerned about the wrong things?
Recently, I came across a podcast that looks at several expressions of charismatic, Evangelical Christianity. Specifically, it looks at phenomena like (what used to be called) the Airport Vineyard Church and the so-called Toronto Blessing (this is where I am now). In other seasons, it also looks at Bethel Church in California, and the International House of Prayer.
If you are unaware, each of these have been noteworthy in (relatively) recent Christian history as purported “revival” moments (or something similar), especially of the charismatic variety. The Toronto Blessing, for example, was known for gatherings which featured widespread speaking in tongues, many people being “slain in the Spirit,” spiritual laughing and roaring, and many other things.
So, at various times, places and events such as these have become the center of intense attention because of the perception that “God is moving.” The perception and belief was that, at these times and places, God was “pouring out His Spirit” in an exciting, fresh, and powerful way. Now I’m not here to judge the validity of such claims. But in these cases, the judgement that “God was moving” or that God was “pouring out His Spirit,” seems largely (or entirely?) based on the signs and wonders that were being experienced or witnessed.
Now my personality tends towards skepticism, and I have certainly been skeptical about some of the claims that came out of Airport Vineyard, Bethel, and etc. For example, I have a hard time believing that the Holy Spirit reveals Himself or moves among us by bestowing gold teeth, or showering congregations in gold dust or jewels. However, by and large, I do believe that God can and does work in such ways – or, if not in those kinds of ways, at least in ways that are beyond our expectation and understanding. Certainly the experience reported in Acts 2 shares some things in common with these reports.
Having said that, here’s my question. Why is it that we think the strongest evidence of God’s Spirit is signs and wonders instead of people loving one another deeply? To put it another way, why are we so impressed, why are we so enamored with churches or gatherings that claim these kinds of experiences, that demonstrate these kinds of “abilities,” instead of those communities that seek to love one another well? And more to the point, what is it that we desire? If we ask for a pouring out of God’s Spirit, what is it that we are looking for?
Why do we think the mark of God’s presence is power or productivity? Why do we think the evidence of God’s blessing is spectacle or size?
And so, what is it that we seek to be? Or what should we seek to be?
Now I should reiterate the point, in case it’s unclear or has gotten lost, that Paul is not opposed to spiritual gifts or manifestations – he’s clearly for them. But he’s concerned about the attitude of the Corinthians around them and therefore towards each other. He’s concerned that the question of what gifts are for (which is one another – gifts are for the Body of Christ) has been lost in the fixation with what gift I have. So Paul’s answer to the question, “what should we seek…?” is Love. Paul says we should seek not particular gifts; we should chase after not particular manifestations. We should seek and desire to love one another. Paul’s better way – Paul’s “most excellent way” – is Love.
A few weeks back, we asked the question, “What does it mean to be salt and light?” And we sort of framed that in the sense of, “How would we want to be known?” But keeping in mind today’s passage, perhaps we might also ask, “How do we want God to move in us?” “How do we want God to move through us?” Again, it’s not wrong to want and ask for the other things. But if we take Paul seriously, if we take scripture seriously, the first thing, the most important thing surely must be, “God help us to love one another.”
As told to us in John 13, Jesus Himself said to His disciples,
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”John 13: 34-35