The passages in 1 Corinthians 13 are probably one of the most well known and most recited passages in the Bible. Paul pens one of the most inspired set of words on the nature of love. It is no wonder that it is often repeated and recited at weddings and that most of us are very familiar with it. However it is precisely our familiarity with this passage that can be an obstacle to us actually understanding Paul’s true meaning. I do not think that Paul wrote it with marital love primarily in mind even though it certainly has applications within marriage. What then was the crux of Paul’s message in this passage?
The keys to the crux of Paul’s message lies in the context. The first broad context is the obvious one; the passage is found in the first letter to the Corinthians. A church that Paul throughout the letter points out were struggling with grave moral failures: they were divided and lacked unity, they fought over who was their true leader, they fought one another and sued each other, there was idolatry and sexual immorality. Paul writes the letter to instruct, discipline and correct them.
The second key context is where the passage on love is located in the letter. I have always found its location puzzling and odd because it is sandwiched between Paul’s discourse on spiritual gifts. In chapter 12 he writes about the various gifts given by the Holy Spirit. In chapter 13 he switches to the excellence of love and then chapter 14 switches back to spiritual gifts where he compares the exercise of two particular spiritual gifts. Why put this passage on love between his discourse on love ? Why not before or after?
I think the reason is because his passage on love is an answer to a specific question, a question that the Corinthians had answered in a manner contrary to the gospel and what Christ had taught. The question is – who is the truly spiritual person? How do you define and measure spiritual maturity?
The answer that Paul provides is simply that the truly spiritual person is the one who loves well.
Paul had diagnosed the church’s fundamental problem; they lacked spiritual maturity, they were “infants in Christ” using the wrong measure for spiritual maturity. The Corinthians were using their ability to exercise spiritual gifts as a measure of their spirituality and likeness to God. Paul locates his discourse on love in the middle of his discourse on spiritual gifts to say, love is the central element, it is what binds and holds all things together, without love the gifts are empty and futile and serve no end.
Paul was not saying anything fundamentally new. Jesus in John 13:34 had told the disciples what would count as a genuine marker indicating that one was an authentic disciple of his:
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:34
Our capacity to love one another is what serves as a genuine marker of discipleship, it is the spiritual barometer of our lives.
Love is supreme says Paul and lays this out in three points. Firstly, the gifts that God gives whether natural or spiritual are given as means to serve one another in love. They are always means to an end – and the end is love. We are here to serve one another. All the various gifts and abilities we have are for that purpose.
Secondly love is supremely spiritual because of its permanence, “Love never ends” but the spiritual gifts will cease and are only given because of the fallen age we are in. When heaven and earth are recreated there will be no need for spiritual gifts but love will still reign supreme because of our eternal friendship of love with God and one another.
Thirdly the nature of biblical love is that it is always embodied in our character and displayed in our concrete habits, in other words it is a virtue. It is rooted in the inward condition of the heart and will but that does not mean it is hidden and invisible. The substance of who we are is displayed and conveyed through our actions and habits; which can be virtues if they are good habits or vices if they are bad habits. Our engrained and habitual capacity to love will always shine forth in our ordinary everyday lives. The Corinthians suffered from spiritual immaturity which Paul defined as a lack of love, hence their divisions and fighting.
The question posed to us then is whether we have not fallen into the same trap as the Corinthians. Are we using the right measure to define spiritual maturity? Are we using false markers such as church attendance, reading our bibles, or watching sermons as ways to measure our spiritual maturity in Christ. Paul says it is love, our increased capacity to love, is what makes us truly spiritual because then we will become like God, because God is love.