1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 
First Corinthians chapter 13 is one of the most greatly loved passages of the New Testament. It is the apostle Paul at his most artistic. One commentator warns, “let the interpreter beware lest too much analysis detract from its sheer beauty and power.”  Sadly, the language is so beautiful and the ideas so lofty that this passage is often read outside of its context. That doesn’t make it less true but causes us to miss a great deal of its impact. Even worse, it is often assigned a context in which it is understood as being set opposite of the grace gifts about which Paul is writing in chapters 12 through 14. Paul would wince.
There are portions of this letter which leave us scratching our head. Topics like head coverings for women, meat sacrificed to idols, people eating and drinking too much at church are difficult for us to understand apart from the context of the Corinthian church’s letter to Paul which is not available to us. Because Christians believe that all scripture is breathed out to them by God, those difficult passages are no less important or relevant to us. But there are some parts of scripture we resonate with more than others. This chapter is one of them. This passage is read even at non-religious weddings. The idea that “love never ends,” that there is something which never fails, something noble that always endures, is one of the most beautiful ideals humans can hear. It’s an ideal that the bride and groom trust when the pastor says they may now kiss one another at the close of a wedding ceremony. Enduring love resonates. Even though it proves to be so often elusive, it sounds true and we long for it to be so.
Many of us who have been going to church for a while might be hearing this passage for the countless time. You could quote most of it in your sleep. That makes us more likely to tune out, rather than tune in. If that’s you right now, come back, tune in. Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians to get this message through to people who had heard it countless times from him before. The Corinthians were deeply religious. They went to church every week; they prayed, sang, listened to sermons, and shared a meal together. But in all their churchiness, in spite of the sermons they heard on the love of God and neighbor, they struggled and failed at keeping love at the center of their lives.
The Corinthians argued about who was the most eloquent, who was the smartest, who was the most spiritually sensitive, who was the wealthiest, who served more regularly and intensely, who had the better and more important grace gifts. They loved excellence. They were certain that their excellence set them apart from those around them. Paul responds that he knows they love excellence, but there is even a more excellent way than the pursuit of excellence (12:31) – the way of love. You can almost hear the Corinthians singing that Tina Turner classic, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” In these first 13 verses, Paul answers their question in four points. He writes that love gives life: necessary meaning, beautiful impossibility, lasting significance, and a new definition.
NECESSARY MEANING (13:1-3)
While there are always those who are jaded and jilted, for the most part humans seem to think that love is a good thing. We might be slightly suspicious when we hear John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing, “All you need is love,” but many of us sing along anyway because some part of our heart finds some truth in it. We want it to be true. In some ways we need it to be true. Given all the cruelty in the world, we love to hear love songs and watch romcoms on screens big and small to ease the burdens we bear and help fuel our sense of love.
Most of us would be willing to say that whatever love is, it is at least a part of what it means to be human and that it provides human lives with necessary meaning. There are plenty of things we can all live without, but love is not one of them. As Peter and Gordon sang in their 1964 hit song, “I don’t care what they say, I won’t live in a world without love.” Often love trump’s identity, pedigree, and history. Love is not an additive. It is the essence of being human, the connective tissue of reality, the oxygen of life without which a part of every human being dies.
Paul asks the Corinthians to sing along with him as he shows them the essential ingredient that makes the world go around. And he invites them to recognize that biblical love does not mean what they think it means. Look at verses 1-3, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
In these three verses, Paul sets out three elements to keep in mind. He mentions what the Christian says, what the Christian knows, and what the Christian does. He asks the Corinthians to consider each of these three elements in a world without love. Verse one examines what we say. The Corinthians were obsessed with impressive speech and intrigued by the notion that they might be able to speak supernatural languages because they considered themselves so spiritually advanced. What you think about speaking in tongues has nothing to do with Paul’s point. Even if the Corinthians had discovered some secret angelic language (which clearly, they had not!) Paul is unimpressed. An individual can have a facility for many languages and be an eloquent speaker. But if their grace gifts are not infused with love, it’s just white noise like a bashing symbol.
Love also matters to the element of knowledge, As Paul notes in verse two. The Corinthians were obsessed with excellence and that carried over into their pursuit of knowledge. They placed high premiums on intelligence, insight, and (in particular) secret knowledge. They were intrigued with the false idea that they could access some higher plane of spiritual knowledge – an idea they carried into the church from Greek philosophy. However, Paul is completely unimpressed and asks them to consider what knowledge looks like when stripped of love.
We can understand this in our time and culture. When we meet someone who is extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, and highly trained but lacks kindness, humility, and gentleness, we are not impressed with them. Knowledge without love is nothing. Intelligence minus love equals ignorance. Even when we are in the right, others would rather not likely want to hear what we have to say. Paul is saying that whenever a person “foregrounds” knowledge and “backgrounds” love, he is nothing.
Love gives what we say necessary meaning. It also gives meaning to what we do: “if I gave away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (13:3). You could sell all that you have and give it to the charity of your choice, but without love you have gained nothing. I could be a multi-billionaire and offer the entirety of my fortune to someone in desperate need. But if I tell him I’m only interested in giving to him because it will make me look good and I need to unload some money for tax purposes, I’ve withheld the necessary ingredient. I tell him that he is completely inconsequential, absolutely nothing to me, so go ahead and take my kind and generous offer. The pragmatist in all of us wants to say, “Sure! Show me the money.” But that part of us that longs for love is likely to say, “You know what? Keep your dang money or give it away to somebody else. If I mean nothing to you and my suffering doesn’t touch you then your charity is worthless to me.”
But we don’t live in a world completely empty of love. Instead loves fills life with necessary meaning. Our longing for it trump’s eloquence, intelligence, and even huge acts of charity. It is only meaningful to hear someone say, “I love you” if you know that they mean it all the way down to their core. Everyone wants to be more than noise. We all long to know and to be known, to really get someone and to feel totally gotten, to know we are someone to someone. Why do we desire those things? Because we are touched by, and constantly seeking, love to fill our lives.
BEAUTIFUL IMPOSSIBILITY (13:4-7)
Paul writes in verses 4-7, “4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We long to give this kind of love. And on our most difficult days, we long to receive this kind of love. Who does not want to be more patient and kinder with their loved ones? And isn’t it wonderful, on those rare occasions when we receive it, to have someone be unusually patient and kind to us? “These instances of love reinstate hope in the face of hopelessness. They breathe life into lifeless situations. They draw us out of ourselves. They make us more human, more alive.”
Yet isn’t there a reason to be suspicious of this kind of idealistic love? All we have to do is observe life going on around us to understand that this kind of love is probably unattainable. Take a look at any human relationship and you will observe quite a bit of unlovely stuff going on. There are times when love mysteriously and beautifully breaks through, but it has to breakthrough quite a bit of ugly and selfish actions and attitudes. Look at Paul’s list in verses 4 through 7 again. Just take the word “patience” for instance. Picture the busy person getting more and more agitated as they stand in line in the grocery store behind someone struggling to write a check or waiting on the checkout clerk to come up with the correct price of some item.
Think about the word “kindness.” Our would-be shopper, as he stands clenching his fists, grinding his teeth, and tapping his feet, is thinking anything but kind thoughts about the people who are in his way. In our brief interaction standing behind this man in line at the HEB, the word kindness would hardly come into our minds. We might not realize it, but there are words floating around to describe the person’s actions and attitudes. “Envy” has played a part in our fellow shopper’s life this week. He is angry that a coworker has received notice of her hard work while he did not. “Rude?” Yes, he is starting to get quite rude as he complains loudly enough for all to hear his displeasure at being kept waiting. “Insisting on [his] own way”? Yes. “Irritable”? Absolutely. “Resentful”? Yep. You get the picture. This kind of love of which Paul writes seems completely and impossibly out of reach darn near most of the time. The beautiful thing seems to be the most impossible thing.
But here’s the strange thing: the very impossibility of it draws us to it. It’s what makes love so tantalizing, so enticing. It’s almost like a game there is no way to win, but the fun of playing and the opportunity to hit just once somehow outweighs the real pain that we experience in the absence of this kind of ideal love. It’s kind of like baseball, where the best players only successfully connect with three out of every 10 pitches. Even one of the greatest hitters to ever play baseball, Ted Williams, connected bat and ball 34 times for every 100 times at bat. Still, he remained obsessed with the game for the chance to get a hit.
Love may be the primary game of our lives. But most of the time, we strike out because the curveballs are just too much for us to handle. Maybe the fastball pace of life in a big city gets to us. But every now and then the impossible seems possible, and we get a brief glimpse of ideal love, and so we keep at it. Love shapes what we say, it shapes how we think, it shapes what we do because, more than anything else in the world, this is what we’re seeking. Even when I am known in all of my unacceptability, I still want you to love me. And I want you to prove it and keep bringing it because love gives lasting significance to life.
LASTING SIGNIFICANCE (13:8-13)
Even though love fills a life with necessary meaning and gives glimpses of beautiful impossibility, there is a nagging sense that love is just like everything else, that it’s perishable, temporary, limited, fleeting, momentary. Paul is not naïve. He recognizes the limits of our humanity. “8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (13:8-10). Paul takes back the categories he set out in verses one through three. What we say that we know and that which we do will pass away. Our words and our efforts are partial and limited. Our gifts, our skills, our actions, and even our spiritual insights are all biodegradable. Death is hot on our trail, and nothing we say, nor do will help us escape it. None of the skills we’ve developed for the game of love ultimately gain us anything.
But there is one thing there is not perishable. There is one thing that is death-proof: love itself. Love is categorically different. It fills life with permanent significance. It injects eternal importance into the present. Again, that is exactly what we long for. There is a longing for love that extends beyond the border walls of even or earthly existence. This is why romance novelists and romantic comedy screenwriters can make a living. We are suckers for those stories where the characters fall in love and live happily ever after. Our desire for the permanent significance of love means that we want someone who will invest in us even when we have nothing to invest in them. We are looking for relationship that is not transactional.
Our deepest fear is that we really don’t have anything to bring to the table and, that once that is discovered, no one will ever stick with us. Even though we long for limitless, permanent love, we live with limits and impermanence built into us. Can a person ever really bear all things, believe all things, hope all things? That’s a prescription for a nervous breakdown. Humans do not have an endless reservoir of belief and hope. There are times when I can’t even endure a 10-minute conversation, let alone “all things.” Love sounds wonderful. We know we need it. But what Paul describes is utterly impossible. So, what are we to do?
There are limitations to human love. There’s only two logical ways to deal with that. We can redefine love so that our definition is in line with the way we see human love functioning: purely a felt emotion, a momentary state, something ephemeral that rarely lasts. Or we can keep playing the game swinging at the pitches and try to connect with something utterly amazing. That is, we can keep trying and hoping for the impossible, or we can rewrite the rules. You see, we need to recognize that we have made a fatal error. We have viewed love as something we do, a muscle we exercise, and emotion we feel, and experience we have. We have located love within ourselves. And because we foolishly think it is located in us, it has an expiration date. It always fails!
The love that Paul says never fails, believes all things, hopes all things, is patient and kind – in short, perfect love – cannot come from inside of us! It must come from outside of us. Paul is defining for us a love that is categorically different and permanently significant. Love happens outside of us. Love happens to us. This perfect love is not a feeling that we feel. It is not even the deeds we do. It is something far bigger than any of that! And only this kind of love can redefine our lives.
This outside love says, “You are not alone. I hear you and I understand you. Despite your great fears, you are highly valuable to me.” Love says, “You are worth giving away everything I have. I will die for you.” This is the good news reported to us about Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not speaking about the fleeting, fickle nature of human romantic love. He is telling us, in exceptionally beautiful language, who God is and how God loves. Jesus looks at all of our issues, at all of our loveless mess, our horrible batting average, and he doesn’t simply say, “I would die for you” but “I did die for you. It’s already done. I became nothing so you would know that you were not nothing.” This is how God fills our lives with all the necessary meaning we crave. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16).
So, what are we supposed to do with all the impatience, cruelty, envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, self-insistence, irritability, restfulness, and wrongdoing that we find within us? After all, the Corinthians problems are really our problems also. What are we supposed to do with these limitations? Think about how hard it is to love your spouse, your kids, your church! If we are honest with ourselves about our sin, it’s hard to love God at times! Most of the time, we are running on empty.
Rather than hearing what we need to do for God, or even for others, we need to hear what love has done for us. In all of our brokenness, this is how God loves us. God is patient with sinners. He is kind to us. He bears us up on his shoulders. He endures us in all of our unendurableness. We cannot shock him. We cannot wear him out. He never backs down and he never steps away. His love never ends. The beautiful impossibility of love is a fact in the hands of God. If love is the primary game humans play – the one upon which we expend most of our time, energy, words, thoughts, and actions –the gospel is a declaration that the game is over.
The game has already been won. It was one by a loss that included the death of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. By his loss he brought ultimate victory, signed, and sealed by his defeat of death in his resurrection. This is how we are assured that love never ends. Love has already beaten death. The game has already been won. We can relax and enjoy it without feeling as if the world is riding on our shoulders and we have to bear and endure all things. It has already been born; it has already been endured. Love faced death, and love won. All the time that we have been chasing after some sense of love, Jesus stands ready to break into our lives as Love Incarnate.
10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
…16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 12:31–13:13.
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 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 4:10–21.