As a pastor I have had the opportunity to officiate a few marriage ceremonies in the past few years. In every ceremony I have officiated I have found myself encouraging the couples from the famous “Love Chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13. And while this is a great passage to use in weddings or any time that we want to reflect on love it is easy to let Paul’s words become simply inspirational with no real bearing on actual situations in the real world. Yet, when we look at the book of 1 Corinthians as a whole we can see that the Love chapter isn’t delivered as some sort of abstract inspirational text but is in reality the climax of Paul’s argument in trying to address very real situations in the church of Corinth. Understanding the situations leading up to chapter 13 gives us profound insight into what living this kind of love looks like.
The first issue that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians is divisions around teachers. On this Paul writes:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
13 Is Christ divided?
Paul then develops his argument by contrasting the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). The wisdom of the world, according to Paul, is prideful, divisive, cliquish, it’s all about titles and who’s the best. Yet the wisdom of God seems like utter foolishness. The greatest example of this is Christ crucified. To the world the ministry of Jesus seemed like a failure. It was short lived and ended in a brutal death at the hands of the Romans. To the world Jesus looked like someone to be pitied, like someone who was weak, and yet this was the very wisdom of God.
Paul goes on to speak of God’s wisdom as coming from the Holy Spirit to whom all believers have access:
12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1Corinthians 2:12-14)
Then Paul puts real teeth to his argument by saying:
1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere human beings? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
The important thing to realize here is that this is all one argument though it is covering many chapters. The church in Corinth is becoming more characterized by the wisdom and ways of the world rather than the wisdom and ways of Christ. They are not being disciples of Jesus but rather trying to put a Christian veneer on the ways of the world. Then Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:18 “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.”
From this point on Paul addresses pride, arrogance, sexual sin, law suites by believers against one another, food sacrificed to idols, abuses in communion, and abuses of spiritual gifts. The interesting thing is that Paul sees all of these issues as manifestations of the same core issue. They are not living by the wisdom and Spirit of God but rather by the wisdom of this world. And then he closes chapter 12 with, “And yet I will show you the most excellent way…”
This brings us to the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13.
1 If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
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. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 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 the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a 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.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
When we read these words in context of the whole book we find that they aren’t abstract at all. In fact they are tied to real life struggles face by even modern Christians.
Have you ever found yourself getting arrogant because of the teachers you follow?
Have you ever defined yourself and your group by a pet doctrine or the one who teaches it over and against those who don’t follow your doctrine or spiritual guru?
Have you ever demanded your rights even when it hurt the conscience of other Christians?
Have you ever taken communion and failed to recognize the importance of your connection to fellow believers (seeing them as the body of Christ)?
Have you ever become puffed up because of your own spiritual gifts or felt like less than others because you may not have such spectacular gifts?
Have you ever failed to realize that you and the gathering of other Christians around Jesus are the very temple of God, the very place where God dwells?
Have you ever thought that your relationship with God was just a solo endeavor?
I can answer “yes” to all of the above questions. But Paul, encourages us to consider a better way, the way of love.
When I am being led by love I don’t have to get caught up in defining myself by my favorite teachers, authors, or doctrines. In fact I can hear truth even when it comes from folks with whom I might have theological or philosophical differences.
When I am motivated by God’s love I don’t demand my right to do this or that thing that I want but rather consider others.
When I am living around the reality of Christ’s love I take the Lord’s Supper realizing that I am part of a community of people that make up the body of Christ and that I need others in my journey as much as they need me. I can’t let unforgiveness or selfishness rule for I am under the rule of Jesus.
When I am aware of God’s love for me then I can treat spiritual gifts as just that: gifts, not badges or trophies. I can also receive from those who might be more gifted without feeling jealous because I see the same love giving to and through them.
I think the modern church has a lot more in common with the church of Corinth than we realize. My prayer for the church, myself, and whoever reads this blog is that we can be motivated, led, and more aware of God’s love, for it truly is the wisdom that transcends and overthrows the kingdoms of this world.