by Rev. Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor
In this New Year, we pick back up this series on the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. This letter was likely written some 20-30 years after the resurrection of Christ to the nascent Christian church in this metropolitan city.
Young and fragile, their divisions over several matters (see earlier posts) threaten to unravel their Christian community. Paul has spent considerable time addressing the particularity of their conflicts but in this famous 13th chapter he moves away from the specific and casts a vision that gives them the foundation for all unity – “a more excellent way” (12:31) for them to be the church.
I Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Up to this chapter Paul has dealt specifically with the people’s competition over which spiritual gifts were “better” and which ones deserved more attention. Paul has tried to affirm all spiritual gifts as critical for the whole body of Christ working together. “Many members, one body” serving many functions. We cannot do without one another, Paul teaches here to them and to us.
The 13th chapter sets apart the “greatest gift” – love. The gift of Christ-like love, to be specific, is greater still than prophesying, understanding, power, faith, hope, generosity with possessions, personal sacrifices, speaking in tongues… none of it has any power without love.
The word love in the original New Testament Greek language can be translated at least three different ways. Love can be eros in the Greek, meaning romantic love. Not in this chapter. In other places in the New Testament the Greek word phileo is translated to love which means a brotherly kind of love as in Philadelphia, known as the city of brotherly love. That is not the translation here. In chapter 13, the word agape is used here for love in the original Greek. Agape is unconditional love. Without condition of acceptance or reciprocation, agape love is the highest form – the Christ-like way of love. This is the love to which Paul is calling the Corinthian church and the love to which we are called.
It seems hopeless at the outset. How are any of us capable of this kind of love? How can we consistently love in this way? But for the grace of God, of course. We are in constant need of prayer and surrender to the love of God for us, connected and in tune with Christ like love in order to have any hope of attempting to love others this way. I Corinthians 13 shows us the kind of love God has for us in Christ – a kind of love that “is patient, kind…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, (God’s) love never ends.”
The Christian community, then and now, is to strive by Christ’s example for this kind of love in our connection with one another. Our strength and vitality depend on it. Love is the greatest gift. If in all of our questions and quandaries and debates we can ask – what does Christ’s love require of us here? – we are on the right pathway toward unity in the body of Christ.