Covered: 1 Corinthians 5-14
Scripture Memory: Anger – Proverbs 15:1
This week our readings are all in 1 Corinthians. In all likelihood, the thirteenth chapter is the passage here most familiar to all of us. Indeed, it is one of the best-known passages in the entire Bible. We have all heard its beautiful words read at many weddings. But, is Paul writing about love within marriage here, or about something else? Let’s take a step back and look at the wider context to help us understand this “love chapter.”
The apostle Paul is writing, of course, to the young church in the city of Corinth. Corinth was on a 4-mile narrow piece of land connecting the northern and southern provinces of Greece. Those trading north and south had to pass through it, and boats carrying cargo from east to west could save a long passage around the land by passing through it as well. Thus it became a great commercial center and attracted a diverse, multiethnic group of ambitious, talented people. Additionally, some have said it was one of the most “success-oriented, sex-obsessed” urban centers of its time. For example, the temple of Aphrodite stood on a hill above the city, and each night 1,000 temple prostitutes came down to sell their wares. Paul writes in chapter 6 that members of this church body had formerly been sexually immoral, idolaters, thieves, and adulterers, among other things. This is the setting for this five or 6-year-old church to which Paul is writing.
First Corinthians 13 probably did not sound as lovely to that church’s ears as it does to ours at first reading. Paul writes of being patient, kind, of not boasting, of not being rude; where did he come up with this list? If we look earlier in the book, we see these ideas already discussed, as traits the Corinthians were not displaying. So this list is a rebuke, pointing out to these believers what they are not doing. But it’s more than that. Tim Keller teaches that this text is about how we get a supernaturally-changed heart – a heart that can truly love.
At the beginning of the chapter, Paul outlines what this changed heart is not. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not 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 have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (v.1-3). The Corinthian church was filled with people who were gifted and talented, who had the gifts of prophecy, teaching, and visionary leadership (v. 1), but Paul wrote that if they didn’t have a heart of love, these were all worthless. So he is telling us that talents and gifts, even when used in ministry, are not the same as a supernaturally-changed heart. And notice in verse 3 when he writes of giving to the poor and dying for the faith; even these virtues, these morals, are worthless to God without a heart of love. In other words, we can live an incredibly moral life without a supernaturally-changed heart. Now why does he mention a gong and a cymbal here? Temples of the Greek gods would feature large processions of worshippers. These temple worshippers would use the gong and cymbals in pagan worship to get the attention of their gods saying, “Look at what we are doing for you.” Similarly, we can obey God’s law, attend church, and give to the poor (all good things, of course) as a way of showing God what we are doing for Him, just like the pagans with the cymbals. But this is worth nothing without a heart supernaturally changed by God to love.
So if we don’t get a changed heart of love by using gifts for ministry or by our morality, how do we? Paul goes on to write, “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.” Notice that Paul doesn’t say “Love consists of patience and kindness”; he’s not defining an abstract concept here. He also doesn’t say “You should be patient, you should be kind”; he’s not giving them a behavioral checklist. Instead, he is personifying love. He’s talking as if love is a person. He doesn’t do that with faith or hope, only with love. Perhaps he’s making some crucial points by depicting love as a person. First, perhaps he does this because that’s the only way love comes into someone’s life, by being loved by another. We meet and learn love in the form of another person; before love is something one does it has to be someone one meets.
Secondly, perhaps Paul writes about love with a specific person in mind. “Love is patient” can also be translated “Love is long-suffering.” Perhaps Paul was thinking of the one who cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and who suffered for the Corinthians, and for us, patiently. “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” Perhaps Paul is remembering a thief dying on the cross, with absolutely no hope left, to whom one dying with him expressed, “I’m the Messiah, the son of God; today you will be with me in paradise.” “Love never fails.” Perhaps Paul is thinking of Jesus on the cross, looking down at His friends who have denied, betrayed or forsaken Him, and at the ones mocking and jeering at Him. And, Keller teaches, in the greatest act of love in the history of the world, He stayed. He did not fail us. He stayed until He said “It is finished” and had paid for our sins. He was forsaken on the cross so that He will never forsake us. So perhaps we can read verses 4-8 in this chapter, not as something we must do, but as someone who has saved us. As Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Written by: Jennifer Harris
Sources: Timothy Keller, “Love, the Most Excellent Way.” and Timothy Keller, “Love’s Way to Grow Up.”
Photo Credit: Aung Soe Min