And I will show you a more excellent way … the greatest of these is love.
(1 Cor 12:31,13:13)
So many wonderful sermons and discourses have been preached on the text from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians chapter 13 – “the love chapter.” At the same time, it is often the case that messages on 1 Corinthians 13 are detached from the context to which this chapter is vitally connected, namely chapters 12 and 14. While in once sense it is understandable how this happened, as this chapter is a literary masterpiece on its own; it has been called “the greatest, strongest, and deepest thing Paul ever wrote.” However, to really understand what Paul is teaching, we must study 1 Corinthians 13 in light of the rich variety of spiritual gifts described in chapter 12, and the proper use of those gifts in the church explained in chapter 14.
The word used for “love” in this chapter, agape, is a unique Greek word, which is essentially defined by the manner in which it is used in the New Testament. Agape stands in stark contrast to the ideas of love in Greek culture understood with the words eros – sexual desire, and filia, referring to the affection between friends. The text of 1 Corinthians 13 quite clearly breaks down into three parts. First in verses 1-3, we see the necessity of love; verses 4-7 reveal the superiority of love; and finally verses 8-13 affirm the permanency of love.
First as to necessity of love, we learn that even if one should operate in all of the highest of spiritual gifts, to the greatest use possible, without love, one produces nothing, gains nothing, and is nothing. Love is necessary for the proper use of all the spiritual gifts. Even gifts of mercy and sacrifice, which one might consider loving, can be meaningless if done in the absence of love.
As to the superiority of love in verses 4-7, Paul contrasts love’s behavior with the behavior of those who place an inordinate value of spiritual gifts. In these verses love is depicted as patient, kind, not envious, arrogant, or rude, not irritable or resentful, not rejoicing in evil, but rejoicing in truth. More than a definition of love, this is a picture of what love looks like in action.
Finally then in verse 8-13, in contrast to the spiritual gifts, which are for time alone, love will go on manifesting itself forever. While the gifts are bestowed for a temporal purpose, and once having served that purpose, cease to be, love never fails, it never comes to an end. While the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge have no use once the perfect comes, love will always be in operation for eternity.