Called to Love
1 Corinthians 13
1 Corinthians 13
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. List the features that characterize Christian love.
2. Contrast the nature of Christian love with the worldly idea of love.
3. Identify a unique, personal way to demonstrate Christian love.
How to Say It
Moses. MO-zes or MO-zez.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, July 24—God So Loved the World (John 3:16–21)
Tuesday, July 25—Conquering Love (Romans 8:31–39)
Wednesday, July 26—Love One Another (John 13:31–35)
Thursday, July 27—Loving One Another Fulfills the Law (Romans 13:8–14)
Friday, July 28—Let Us Love (1 John 3:11–18)
Saturday, July 29—Love Defined (1 Corinthians 13:1–7)
Sunday, July 30—The Greatest Gift Is Love (1 Corinthians 13:8–13)
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
—1 Corinthians 13:13
Why Teach This Lesson?
Popular songs abound in lyrics about love. Love is generally understood as a romantic emotion, something that makes us feel special about another person. But feelings may change daily, so we think we fall in or fall out of love all the time.
Paul understood love in a much deeper way. He based this understanding on the way God has shown his love to us. For Paul, love was not simply an emotion. It was a commitment of lifestyle. We love by doing, not by feeling. This lesson teaches the essential value of love in the Christian community. The thread that ties all actions together should be love. Great abilities or spiritual gifts are a destructive factor in the church unless they are used in love, in selfless service for others. In this view love is not temporary but eternal. Drawn from the famous Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13), this lesson is a timely reminder of what constitutes love from God’s perspective.
A. Action Love
“I just don’t know,” Jane said, “whether we can learn to love each other again.” She was speaking to a counselor while Craig, her husband, sat next to her in silence. Several months earlier, Jane had discovered that Craig was having an affair with a woman he had met on a business trip.
Jane responded by forcing Craig to leave their home until he made up his mind. After three weeks in a hotel, he renounced his sinful behavior and begged for forgiveness. She was willing to try but was skeptical about the future. “Could it really ever feel the same?” she asked. “We’ve been through so much together, but I just don’t know if I even love him anymore.”
In response the counselor pointed out that love is primarily a sense of commitment rather than an emotion, although we do often have loving feelings. Loving commitment to another manifests itself in a way of living. Love, in other words, is a set of behaviors, a way that we act toward others. Despite her anger, Jane was clearly acting in a loving way by attempting to forgive Craig. The counselor was, therefore, hopeful that the relationship could be healed.
Many of us live in a culture where the word love is used so often and so casually that it has become virtually meaningless. We say that we love God, but we also say that we love our family members, chocolate ice cream, and the sales at Wal-Mart®. Paul clarifies that love is not a feeling but rather a mode of living. He stresses that nothing we do can possibly bring glory to God if we do not exhibit a loving spirit.
B. Lesson Background
First Corinthians 13 is a key part of Paul’s solution to the problems of a divided church. Up to this point in the letter, he has discussed several serious issues that were points of conflict for the Corinthian church. These ranged from sectarianism, to sexual sin, to lawsuits among believers, to divorce, to Christian liberties, to propriety in worship.
Chapter 12 begins a long section on the pride and arrogance that had entered the church through, ironically, the use of spiritual gifts. That discussion continues into chapter 14, but Paul pauses to give the short answer to all the questions thus far: love. Love for one another, properly understood, will put everything into perspective. Love will unify the church and empower believers to glorify Christ together.
I. Mathematics of Love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
A. Spiritual Gifts Minus Love (vv. 1, 2)
1. 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.
The first three verses of today’s text establish the importance of love as a guidepost for the exercise of spiritual gifts. Paul frames his argument with a series of statements based on a formula: “If I do X, even if I do X to the highest possible degree, but do have not love, then I am nothing.” In mathematical terms, this formula may be restated as, “X minus love equals zero,” where X is any one of the spiritual gifts under discussion. Without love, nothing we do makes any difference in God’s sight.
Paul’s first example is that of speaking in tongues. The miraculous, Spirit-given ability to speak foreign languages is a great thing to the Corinthians. But suppose someone could speak not only tongues that other human beings use but also could speak the language used by the angels in Heaven (whatever that language may be). This surely would represent the highest form of speaking in tongues!
Yet a person who spoke that angelic language out of selfish motives—to draw attention to self or to demonstrate personal spirituality—would be of no use to anyone. As far as God is concerned, without love even the most elegant speech is like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal—in other words, just loud noise. Therefore, a tongue that is empowered by the Spirit must also be guided by genuine love.
2. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Paul gives more examples. Suppose that someone has the gift of prophecy, the ability to speak on God’s behalf and perhaps even to predict the future. Also imagine a person who is so endowed with prophetic insight as to have all knowledge and to understand all mysteries, with a profound awareness of the mind of God. Even such gifts, Paul says, are worthless if not exercised in love.
Faith here is not “saving faith.” Rather, it refers to a supernatural gift of especially effective faith (see comment on 1 Corinthians 12:9 from last week’s lesson). Jesus once spoke of a kind of faith that was great enough to move a mountain into the sea (Matthew 17:20). Such faith would indeed be impressive to other people! Yet God will be impressed only if the prayer is offered in a spirit of love.
B. Self-Sacrifice Minus Love (v. 3)
3. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Generosity is not listed as a manifestation of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, but Paul does include it in the list of gifts in Romans 12:6–8. All Christians are obligated to give, but some are specially gifted to give more freely to those in need.
Ultimate giving is found in the phrase surrender my body to the flames. This probably refers to some act of Christian martyrdom. It’s one thing to give your money to feed the poor but much more to sacrifice even your very life for the faith! But even the most extreme self-sacrifice is worth nothing in God’s sight if it is done without love.
Cheap Talk, Rotten Walk
The young man, trying to impress his girlfriend, told her, “I would climb the highest mountain to be with you. I’d walk through a snake-infested jungle to be with you. I would swim the widest river just to be able to be with you.” Then, after he kissed her, he said, “I’ll see you at church Sunday if it’s not raining.” There is no limit to the promises some people are willing to make! We call that cheap talk.
At other times there is indeed the fulfillment of a noble task but from wrong motives. At a hospital near a town where I once ministered, there was a man who would go into patients’ rooms to pray with them. He seemed to be such a loving and kind individual. But it was discovered that he would slip rings from their fingers as he held their hands. On other occasions he would see jewelry or other articles on a surface and pocket them. Love was not the motivation by which he served. What a rotten walk!
It is the scoundrel who makes the headline news, but the compassionate ones make the heart new. They are the ones who have answered the call to minister to the poor and downcast through the years. No cheap talk, no rotten walk, just giving themselves day after day to caring for the needs of others. This pleases God.
II. Characteristics of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
A. What Love Is, Part 1 (v. 4a)
4. Love is patient, love is kind.
After stating that no act of service is valuable in God’s sight without love, Paul moves on to specify just what love is. Saying that love is patient means that love does not express itself through vengeance, retaliation, or by giving up on people quickly. Instead, love actively extends kindness to others, even those who do not “deserve” our grace.
What Love Does
A man visits his wife in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s disease. Daily he stops by to see her. He reads to her from the Bible. He tells her how nice the weather is and how the children and grandchildren are doing. He holds her hand and sings some of her favorite hymns to her. After two or three hours he leaves, only to return the next day for the same routine. Only this is not a routine. This is love.
Another man has a wife in the same nursing facility. She too has Alzheimer’s. For the first few weeks he visits daily. Then the visits become every other day, then weekly. Then he comes only at Christmas and on his wife’s birthday. His thought is, “This is not fair. I’ve got a life to live.”
Both couples had stood before the same minister years ago. They recited vows to each other that said they would love, honor, and cherish each other in sickness and in health. Those vows were to be in effect until death would separate them. One’s man’s love suffered long, the other refused to “suffer” for long. One man was self-seeking while the other man served his wife and his Lord. Which choice would you make?
—A. E. A.
B. What Love Isn’t (vv. 4b, 5)
4. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
Paul now emphasizes some things that love is not or does not do. Envy is a desire to obtain what other people have, often accompanied by feelings of bitterness or hatred. Envy and covetousness are never motivated by genuine love.
At the same time, a person who loves does not try to make other people envious by making a display of the things that he or she has. Paul may be thinking here of the pride the Corinthians are taking in their spiritual gifts. All gifts are given by the same Spirit and are of equal importance in God’s plan (1 Corinthians 12:4–7, 14–26). Thus it is senseless to boast about them or to envy what someone else has received.
5. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Neither does love behave in a rude manner. That means that love does not lead us to do anything that we would be ashamed of later. In this context Paul probably is thinking especially of envious or prideful things that we may say. Pride and envy are eliminated categorically by the fact that love is not selfish: love always leads us to act in the best interests of the other person (compare Philippians 2:4).
Neither is love compatible with a quick temper. Of course we may be angry at the sins that people commit and we may be frustrated by their poor choices. But these feelings should be motivated by genuine concern that the person is doing something harmful to self, others, or the cause of Christ. Keeping no record of wrongs means that we should not continue to harbor ill feelings toward those who make us angry. Instead, we should forgive and forget.
C. What Love Is, Part 2 (vv. 6, 7)
6. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
As we have seen, many of the Corinthian Christians seem to be prideful and arrogant about their spiritual gifts. Others may be angry and resentful toward those individuals. When they feel this way they may delight to see the arrogant ones fall into some sinful behavior. But the person who harbors such sentiments is no more loving than the person who constantly boasts about personal abilities. Love always rejoices with the truth in the sense that it makes us happy to see other people succeed and do the right thing.
7. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
These four qualities summarize the way that love responds to other people. The repetition of always emphasizes that we are to act this way despite anything that anyone may do to us.
These qualities do not suggest that love must be naEFve but rather that love always remains positive towards others. As such, love does not break under pressure but instead always bears up. The Greek verb for protects can refer to the idea of something remaining watertight, so that no harm comes from the outside. Love always continues to expect and hope for the best from people even when we must wait a long time to see it.
III. Greatness of Love (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
A. Things That Will End (v. 8)
8. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
The Corinthians apparently take great pride in certain spiritual gifts. But a time is coming when they won’t need prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. Even when that time comes, however, love will continue to be the guide. We will always need love, both in this life and the next. For this very reason Paul opened the discussion in 1 Corinthians 12:31 by calling love “the most excellent way,” which is superior to the selfish pursuit of spiritual gifts.
B. Why They Will End (vv. 9-12)
9. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
Through a special gift of knowledge (v. 8), some of the Corinthians have supernatural insight into spiritual matters. This insight can guide their counsel and teachings. Other Corinthians are empowered to prophesy. But the Corinthians’ knowledge and prophecies of God are only partial (in part). Any person who takes pride in these gifts should realize that he or she doesn’t know everything!
10.… but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
This verse is not a prediction in the original Greek but rather is a proverb. Paul is, in other words, making a general statement about how things normally work. The word being translated perfection can also be understood to mean being “mature” or “complete,” depending on context (compare Matthew 5:48; 19:21; 1 Corinthians 2:6).
As a rule, something that is partial or incomplete is discarded when the complete thing comes onto the scene. If someone gives me a photocopy of an article from a magazine, I do not need to keep those photocopied pages after I have gone out and bought my own copy of the whole edition. Why this principle is important is the subject of the next verse.
11. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
Paul now gives an example of the principle he stated in verse 10. A child thinks and talks about things according to his or her limited physical and mental capabilities. For this very reason, the things that children say and do often amuse us by their simplicity.
But as we grow older, these simplistic ways of thinking are replaced by a more mature perspective. The new perspective is based on a better, more adult understanding of the world around us.
12. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Paul now applies the principle of maturity to the use of spiritual gifts. As he noted in verse 9, the revelatory gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and the like are partial and incomplete. They reveal many important things about God and his will, but they don’t reveal everything.
Paul compares the knowledge of God that the Corinthians receive through these gifts with a reflection in a mirror. Fine mirrors are manufactured in Corinth at the time, but ancient mirrors are not made of glass like ours today. Instead, they are made of polished metal and therefore cannot give a sharp image; the picture they offer is dark, a pale reflection of one’s actual features. The gifts, similarly, give us a partial knowledge of God but not the complete picture. This is not due to any lack on the part of the Spirit but rather simply to our inability to comprehend him fully.
Yet the time will come, Paul says, when the Corinthians’ partial knowledge is to be replaced. Scholars are divided on the specific experience to which this verse refers. Some say that Paul is thinking of the second coming of Jesus, a moment when the glorified Christ will reveal himself to the world and all will “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Others believe that Paul is referring more generally to our life in Heaven, where we will dwell in God’s direct presence and behold his perfect glory.
Still others think that this refers to the more complete knowledge that comes to the church as a whole when the New Testament is finished by the end of the first century a.d. Those who hold this theory point to Exodus 33:11 where Moses’ “face to face” conversations with God refer to clear communication (since literally seeing God’s face meant death; Exodus 33:20).
Whichever theory is true, the point not to be missed is that of all the things that are temporary, love is not one of them! Paul brings this thought home in the next verse.
Visual for Lesson 9.
Ask students to fill in this blank: “Love is greater than __________.” Use this image to set the tone for the responses.
C. What Remains (v. 13)
13. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Above all, our thoughts are to be guided by love. Indeed, God is love, and anyone who truly knows anything about God will show godly love to others (1 John 4:7, 8). We have not seen God in this world, and we do not know everything about him. As such, we must exhibit faith, trusting that he knows best because we do not understand all his ways and plans. Hope is not wishful thinking but rather the confident assurance that we eventually will be in his eternal presence if we live a faithful life (compare 1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Both faith and hope are critical to our lives now. But both of these will, to some extent, become obsolete later on. In Heaven we will have what we now hope for; “hope that is seen is no hope at all” (Romans 8:24). Our faith will be replaced by complete confidence as we see the reality of God’s eternal promises. But love will never be obsolete: it will continue to characterize our relationship with God and other redeemed saints forever.
Love is therefore the greatest of the three in the sense that it never ends. When we exercise our spiritual gifts with love, we are acting with eternity in view.
In Paul’s day the great Oracle at Delphi was a major tourist attraction. Legend had it that Delphi, a little over 100 miles northwest of Athens, was the center of the earth. A famous temple to the god Apollo housed a sacred stone marking the spot. Worshipers of Apollo could come to this temple to ask the idol for advice, similar to modern fortune-telling.
Answers came cryptically through a prophetess, who went into a trance and spoke in nonsensical gibberish. These ravings were “interpreted” by priests at the temple to provide the answer to the supplicants’ questions. Despite the obvious flaws of these practices, the oracle at Delphi remained a significant aspect of Greek religion for hundreds of years.
The best advice that pilgrims to Delphi received did not, however, come from a raving prophetess or priest of Apollo. Rather, the best advice came from the famous inscription over the doorway to the temple: Know Thyself. Worshipers were, in other words, to reflect on their own motives, weaknesses, and limitations before approaching.
The Corinthians were obsessed with spiritual gifts that offered special insights. As a result, they knew marvelous things about God and his ways, but they obviously did not know their own hearts. For this reason they failed to see that their actions were not truly driven by love or a desire to please God. Without love their greatest efforts could never truly glorify him.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati