Passage – 1 Corinthians 13
Some of us will remember Prime Minister Tony Blair reading this great passage from 1 Corinthians at the funeral of Princess Diana on the 6th Sept 1997 in Westminster Abbey. There was barely a dry eye in the Abbey! Most of us have attended weddings where this ‘’purple passage’ of scripture has been read with great warmth and then lovingly applied to the bride and groom by the vicar. 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most well known and loved of all passages in the Bible. Often you will see parts of it on Christian posters. But, as is the case with most well-known passages of scripture, it is often taken out of context. The passage is nothing to do with marriage, nor is it a celebration of human life. It is a stinging rebuke to a church that has become so full of itself spiritually that it has ceased to do what Jesus commands his followers of every age to do, love one another! One writer describes it “not so much a purple-prose passage as a purple-faced passage” as Paul puts his finger on the Corinthian’s failings.
What was the problem? (v1-3)
Paul spent chapter 12 describing the role that spiritual gifts play in the building up of the church, ending with this exhortation, “But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” (12:31). He returns to this theme in chapter 14, picking up where he left off- “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts.” (14:1) In between Paul says- “I will show you the most excellent way” (13:1). In these first three verses he mentions no less than seven spiritual gifts, starting with the one dearest to the hearts of the Corinthians- speaking in tongues (or other languages as the footnote says). They were celebrating this above all other spiritual gifts and had made it a sign that a believer had truly arrived spiritually. Sadly this is an error that continues to be made by certain strands of the church. But Paul puts them in their place- “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (v1) The tongues may be positively angelic but if there is no love for your fellow believer then it is as edifying as a child noisily banging a drum. All you want them to do is stop. Paul follows this up with several more spiritual gifts (prophecy, mysteries, knowledge, faith, giving, martyrdom) each exercised with great gusto, but sadly no love. The spiritual result in terms of building the body of Christ? ZERO! Paul commends the Corinthians in 1:7 of “not lacking any spiritual gift”, but what they were failing to do was exercise those gifts out of love for one another.
What was the solution? (v4-7)
Paul then describes love. Several different words could have been used for love but the one Paul chooses is agape meaning sacrificial, other-centred love. He begins with
what it is- patient and kind- and then what it is not- envious, boastful, proud, rude, self-seeking, easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs, not delighting in evil but rejoicing in the truth. And then what it always aims at- protection, trust, hope, perseverance. Love is not just a feeling or an emotion, it requires decision-making on our part and is a real test of our character. And such love is perfectly embodied for us in the Lord Jesus Christ. As you read the rest of this first letter from Paul you’ll discover that this love was sadly absent in the Corinthian church. And even towards the end of his second letter as Paul prepares to visit them again he writes- “For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear there may be quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.” (12:20) The history of the church shows that we frequently trip up and spoil our witness before a watching world by failing to love one another. Christians and churches fall out over styles of worship, social action, spiritual gifts, church strategy, marriage, gender and more.
Why does it matter? (v8-13)
Paul ends by putting spiritual gifts in their place. They are an important, God-given means by which the body of Christ is built up, but rather than being a mark of having arrived spiritually, they are a mark of our spiritual immaturity. Paul says that one day “prophecies will cease”, “tongues will be stilled” and “knowledge will pass away” because spiritual gifts are temporary in impact. Just as a toddler matures and leaves the nursery, the Corinthians need to mature in this area and see spiritual gifts for what they are. Once Christ returns and we inhabit the new heaven and new earth, what we presently see as “a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.” But what about love? Well that is not simply for the here and now as Paul ends- “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (v13) In the new heaven and new earth there will be no need for faith as we will be walking by sight. There will be no need for hope because we’ll be in possession of everything we once hoped for. But love will remain because God is love (1 John 4:16). Nothing can overcome love because nothing can overcome God. So as we actively and sacrificially choose to love one another, in the way the Corinthians weren’t, we’re demonstrating albeit imperfectly to an angry, divided, and Godless world, a totally different way to be human and the way of life that will ultimately prevail.
Points to Ponder
-Who can I practically show love to by texting, phoning, writing to, making a meal for or paying a visit? Are there people who have been on my mind but I haven’t contacted them? Maybe this is God’s way of directing you their way?
-Are there any fellow Christians who I am at odds with and there is unforgiveness in my heart towards them? Don’t wait for them to make the first move, go and reconcile.
Prayer- Dear Lord God. Thank you that you are love and have demonstrated your love for us in giving your Son, the Lord Jesus, as the sacrifice for our sins. Thank you for your Spirit by which we are able to love. Help us to love each other for your glory. Amen