Love and 1st Corinthians 13

Love is our topic of the week because Love has been on my mind a lot this week. This blog isn’t as clearly defined because it is a very complex subject.

First Corinthians 13; 4-13 is a very popular Bible reading at weddings because it’s central theme is about love. The language changes depending on which version of the Bible you read from. There are over 50 versions of the Bible in English alone to pick from. The version below is a popular one.

New Testament 1st Corinthians 13; 4-13

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and I have not love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in differences, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Love never fails. It’s a beautiful thought. But is it true? We’re going to look at love this week. Does love conquer all? Is love all that is necessary for a successful relationship? ( A complete analysis of what 1st Corinthians means religiously follows my ramblings.)

Most of us fall in love (or what we may think of as love) more than once in our lifetime. But often these love relationships don’t last. Otherwise we’d all get married about the time we’re 13 and live happily ever after. Was this a bad thing to fall in love? Did we make a mistake falling in love? I say no. We learn things about ourselves and about love by being “in love.” And one of the things we learn is that just because we fall in love with someone doesn’t mean that we are meant to spend our lives with them. That’s true even if they love us too.

Because a successful long term relationship requires more than love. It requires and deserves daily attention to keep it strong, backed with the will to make it last. A successful relationship requires common values in the couple, not common interests…. common VALUES. Common values, combined with honesty among partners engenders trust. And trust is an imperative for a successful long term relationship. Can you love someone and not have common values…yes you can, so clearly love doesn’t account for all here.

And it requires skills. Skills that you were most likely not taught. Effective communications skills. How to recognize your partners communications style and temperament and then how communicate with them for maximum effectiveness. How to negotiate power and decision making in the relationship. Parenting and discipline. Family and friends. Finances and goals. How to fight fair and a lot more.

Without these skills you will never have a successful relationship long term, even one built solidly on love.

How do you acquire the skills? Lots of reading. Work with a counselor….not when the relationship is in trouble but early on when you establishing the patterns you will use in your entire relationship.

We will feature discussions on these skills in future entries.

Additionally, we have a testing and pastoral counseling program that we offer to couples to help make this happen over a period of three months. We’d be happy to discuss the specifics of the programs and costs with you on a person to person basis.

Lastly, what follows is an analysis of the Biblical passage 1st Corinthians 13. I pulled it off the internet years ago and I can’t find the name of the author….but I want to state that this is not my original writing.

The Way of Love – 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and best loved passages of the Bible. The structure and beauty of the chapter are evidence of a highly skilled author. The unusually high literary quality of the chapter and the strong connection between 12:31 and 14:1 have led to the theory that someone other than Paul wrote chapter 13 and inserted it into 1 Corinthians at a later date. Regardless of one’s conclusions on that question it is a fact that 1 Corinthians 13 has most frequently been studied out of context as a source for understanding the Christian view of love.

First Corinthians 13 has been called “The Hymn to Love.” It is more structured than much of Paul’s writings. The chapter can be divided into three clear divisions. Verses 1-3 contrast love with other religious actions and attitudes. Verses 4-7 describe love (primarily in terms of what it is not). Verses 8-13 return to the contrasting of love with other religious and theological concepts. The similarity of verses 1-3 and 8-13 has led many commentators to describe the chapter in terms of an ABA’ pattern. This pattern of writing was considered an evidence of stylistic expertise in the biblical world. Further, the sentences are more balanced than is usually the case in Pauline writings and the vocabulary is powerful. These facts have led some to conclude that Paul did not originally compose chapter 13.

If he did not compose the chapter two possibilities exist. Someone else prior to 1 Corinthians could have written it and Paul, knowing it, quoted it here because he thought it fit. The other possibility is that someone inserted it into 1 Corinthians after the letter had been written. This is the less likely explanation. Though chapter 13 interrupts the connection between 12:31 and 14:1 it does not interrupt Paul’s flow of thought. The language of prophecy and tongues figures prominently in chapter 13. These gifts were mentioned in chapter 12 and will become the main subjects of chapter 14. Chapter 13 certainly appears to be part of the flow of thought
not a later insertion.

Close examination shows that the literary quality of the chapter can be exaggerated. Though it is much more artistically written than most of Paul’s letters, chapter 13 is still prose. All efforts to interpret it as poetry and to put it into verses have failed. The idea that Paul was quoting a hymn to love that he had heard and memorized is not the most likely explanation.

A very probable explanation of the unusual nature and structure of chapter13 is that Paul was adapting some “sermonic” material that he had developed in the past. Through several years of preaching and polishing it Paul had developed the balanced sentences and the pointed vocabulary. The adaptation to the Corinthian situation provides the emphasis on prophecy and tongues and keeps it from being as evenly structured as we might expect in a hymn.

The key word in chapter 13 is love. The Greek word throughout the chapter is agape. It is often said (correctly) that agape does not refer to emotional love, but to seeking the best for the other person without regard to the closeness of relationship with that person. It is important to remember that linguists and Bible scholars do not have an ancient dictionary full of definitions (Webster’s Greek Dictionary, 3rd edition, A.D. 47). Rather the meaning of biblical words is determined by close observation of how those words are used. First Corinthians 13 is one of the major resources for understanding the meaning of agape. Paul’s use of the word throughout chapter 13 helps us understand that agape seeks the best for the other person.

Verses 1-3 describe the importance of love. Three conditional sentences are worded and ordered to hammer away at the Corinthians’ absorption with speaking in tongues. Fee (p. 630) makes a very important observation:

It is hard to escape the implication that what is involved here are two opposing views as to what it means to be “spiritual.” For the Corinthians it meant “tongues, wisdom, knowledge” (and pride), but without a commensurate concern for truly Christian behavior. For Paul it meant first of all to be full of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which therefore meant to behave as those “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be his holy people” (1:2), of which the ultimate expression always is to “walk in love.” Thus, even though these sentences reflect the immediate context, Paul’s concern is not simply with their over-enthusiasm about tongues but with the larger issue of the letter as a whole, where their view of spirituality has caused them to miss rather widely both the gospel and its ethics.

If the Corinthians – or we – miss the message of chapter 13 the purpose of the whole letter of 1 Corinthians will likely fail. This may be the reason Paul gave his best writing skills to the message of this chapter.

The point of verse 1 is that speaking in tongues without love is meaningless noise. The inter-testament Jewish book, the Testament of Job, speaks of people speaking ecstatically in the angelic dialect. Paul does not commit himself to such an understanding of what the Corinthians were doing as they spoke in tongues. Rather, he is open to the possibility that the Corinthian phenomenon was a human matter or angelic speech. Either case does not matter unless the speakers have love. Without love the most elevated and religious speech is empty, hollow, meaningless and perhaps even pagan. Thus verse 1 is frontal attack on the Corinthian pre-occupation with speaking in tongues.

However, Paul moves to other religious values in verse 2. Prophecy, understanding mysteries, knowledge, and faith are all weighed in the balances and found wanting if not accompanied by love. Prophecy is the gift Paul will promote in chapter 14. There is no need to rehearse the centrality of faith in Christianity. Paul is not “picking” on the Corinthians in verse
2. Any religious value or expression is meaningless without love.

Verse 3 moves beyond spiritual gifts into sacrificial religious commitments. The Greek literally speaks of parceling out one’s possessions presumably to feed the poor. The verb means to feed by putting little bits [of food] into the mouth. Though such acts of mercy would have been highly approved in Judaism (see Matthew 6:1-4) Paul sees no value in it if done without love.

The final clause in verses 1-3 is textually uncertain. Some ancient manuscripts read, “If I hand over my body that I might be burned.” Others read, “If I hand over my body that I might boast.” The evidence suggests that the “boast” edition was more likely original. In either case the important part of the phrase is in handing over his body. To totally give up oneself to God brings no benefit for the person who makes that sacrifice of self without love. Whatever our most significant spiritual achievement may be it is nothing without love.

Verses 4-7 attempt to define the character of love. The sentences of this section are short, several times a single Greek verb expresses the whole idea. The first two phrases are positive. Love is long suffering and kind.

The next eight expressions describe love negatively. The first three reject the idea that love is boastful or arrogant. The fourth denies that love behaves inappropriately. Love is not self-seeking. The sixth and seventh elements are especially relational in nature. Love is not easily angered or provoked. It does not keep record of wrongs. The final negative element in this list states that love does not rejoice in evil. At this point Paul returns to a positive statement. Instead of rejoicing in evil, love
co-rejoices in the truth. The shift from rejoicing to another Greek word, “co-rejoicing,” indicates the fact that love operates in the community of faith.

Verse 7 concludes the central section of chapter 13 with four positive, parallel sentences. All four consist of two words in the Greek text and the first word is identical in all four. That first word is “all things” (one word in Greek). The first and last sentences are parallel in that they seem to refer to endurance or patience. The two middle sentences are related in that they deal with faith and hope. The first phrase of verse 8 sums up the four elements of verse 7. Love never fails. It endures, it believes in the present, and it hopes for the future. Even more than the Energizer bunny,love just keeps going.

Verses 8b-13 return to the meaninglessness of religious virtues without love. Paul points out the lack of value in prophecies, tongues, and knowledge by reminding the Corinthians that those virtues will someday cease. In both ancient and contemporary culture permanence is the mark of quality. No matter how highly one might value prophecy, tongues, or knowledge those virtues are temporary.

Verses 9-10 further points out that prophecy and knowledge are partial rather than complete. As a result there is built in obsolescence in prophecy and knowledge. Paul could have easily moved to verse 13 at this point.

However, he inserts two illustrations before coming to his conclusion. The partial quality of the spiritual gifts valued so highly by the Corinthians compares poorly to the final relationship that God intends. In fact, their fascination with their spiritual gifts is like childish immaturity. What God has in mind is as different as adult maturity. The Corinthians have a long
way to go. Their understanding of spiritual realities is no better than the knowledge gained by gazing into a poor quality mirror.

Paul’s conclusion is a bit surprising. We would expect him to say that only love abides forever. What he states is that faith, hope, and love remain forever. But the greatest of these is love. The importance of love is not that it is the only eternal reality. Faith and hope are also eternal. Love’s importance derives from the fact that its absence makes faith, hope, and any other religious virtue meaningless.

We may or may not be tempted toward a Corinthian understanding of spirituality. We may or may not swing to an opposite extreme of reducing life in the Spirit to correct creeds. But we dare not forget Paul’s powerful exhortation of the centrality and eternality of love. However we may end up being religious, we will never be Christian without love. The teaching of Jesus and of the New Testament confronts us with the demand for love of God and of neighbor.

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