I Corinthians 13. The Greatest of These Is Love.
What Is This Thing Called Love?

Key Notes: Genius is not usually motivated by love of people. Love matters to God. Love inverted in Corinth. Erotic, friendly and sacrificial love. The consummation of love.

It is said that Russian Orthodox monks who paint religious icons fast and pray for forty days before they begin to paint. One has a similar feeling about trying to interpret and apply this masterpiece for today’s reader. One author said “The commentator cannot finish writing on this chapter without a sense that clumsy hands have touched a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness. “

This sublime chapter is between blunt and down-to-earth chapters on church decorum. Chapter 11 speaks of  women’s hair-covering , then of disorder at the Lord’s Supper. Chapter 12 deals with spiritual gifts and how God orders them in the church. The fourteenth chapter talks about communication, rational or inarticulate, in the church service. It is as if Paul would put the umbrella of God’s love over sexual display, unwholesome parties, gifts without grace and unintelligible expressions. In the middle of this setting, we have a lyrical flight into the spiritual stratosphere, into the future, into the presence of God. This is what we  seek; this is the better way. It is also the motive which must underlie all that we do.

The Corinthians were “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:7). If one is gifted to be a prophet or administrator or helper, and works diligently in the church and is nice about it, what more could anyone ask? Who cares about motives? If we are successful, we will be appreciated by people, and therefore, presumably, by God. They may say of us “a person greatly used of God.” Agape would seem to be unnecessary. To speak in modern terms, Paul's challenge is, "I know about your skill-set; show me your attachment."

Chapter 13 is spoken in the first person (“If I”) , as if the problems of love were Paul’s. Paul also uses this indirect method in ICor.10:1–13 using Israel as his foil to point out the sins of the Corinthians. It disarms the reader, but in reality it would strike the Corinthians hard. The four spiritual works Paul lists are Tongues (oratorical brilliance), Prophecy (consummate knowledge) Miracle-working faith and Self-sacrifice.

 The chapter  is divided into three parts;
            1–3 No spiritual work counts without love (Gr. "agape", a-ga-pe).
            4–7 Eros, not agape, is what they are offering to God.
            8–13 In the presence of God, sacrificial love will finally be seen in its true light.

Agape (a-ga-peh) is a truly Christian word and a major Christian theme. The word was little used among the Greeks, who preferred Eros. Nietzsche was disgusted by the whole idea. He would see it as soft and weak. The pressing question is whether agape is the will to do right without emotion. Does God love us in a way we can understand? Or is He cool and detached in His decrees and covenants, in His direct dealings with people?

C.S.Lewis thought deeply on this question. His perspective sharpens the issue and creates tension in the chapter.

"Love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people."
"The love we are commanding (sic) to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever play their part, so much the better)."
"Christian love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will."


(The Quotable Lewis. Edit. W. Martindale, J. Root. Tyndale House, p.402; 1963.)

I rather believe love is an emotion we feel as well as something we do. Paul's four examples of genius all can be done without emotion.

13:1–3  The lyric soprano may be quite detached from her adoring public. The orator may have contempt for his audience, loving his subject rather than people. The Greek market-place was filled with the babble of fine-sounding orators and clever poets trying to attract the attention of a patron. Some Christians want parades and displays in their Christian service. The flagellentes of Spain parading the palanquin of the Virgin are an example. Is our loud and clanging worship about God or about us? The gong and cymbal bring to mind pagan festivals in which performance before the god was (and still is in India)  all-important. Witness the parade of the Juggernaut, a frightening spectacle of humans in danger of being overrun.

The genius of Einstein that explores the secrets of the universe with intellectual detachment is nothing to God. The leadership skills of Napoleon or Alexander the Great to move mountains, to conquer the world are nothing to God. Neither is the King of Babylon. (Isa.14). The philosophy of Plato without love falls dead. The leadership of Lord Cromwell or Gustavus Adolphus or Abraham Lincoln without love credits them with nothing before God.

But what of the more truly spiritual gifts—philanthropy or even martyrdom—giving everything for others? If I gave half a million dollars for African relief, do I love children or do I anticipate recognition and reward? Did Andrew Carnegie love the people he gave buildings to? If a Buddhist monk immolates himself in the streets of Saigon during the Vietnam war, was love his motive, or despair? Perhaps such a personal sacrifice is intended make a spectacular statement. Love is something we feel as well as something we do.

"Agape cannot be reduced to willed altruism." (D.A. Carson in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Crossways, 2000, p.28)

Paul separates the gifts of the Spirit (Eph.4:11) from the fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22--love, joy, peace, etc.), suggesting that one could exhibit the spiritual gifts without love. Would not the Holy Spirit give both at once? It is an important psychological problem. Anyone who works with the public knows that altruism and compassion are quickly worn away. The medical student who comes to the School full of desire to serve mankind becomes world-weary and disillusioned after three years, and turns to self-fulfillment—a good income reading x-rays or doing plastic surgery,  with regular hours, and protection from the public. The gift of healing requires frequent balm of Gilead for the healer. Love is something we feel as well as something we do.

George Whitefield’s preaching without love is nothing, but his preaching breathed love and concern. D.L. Moody's speech was blunt and simple, but his care and compassion for his audiences was repeatedly praised.

13:4–7 Paul goes on, and describes what love is not. Matched references from I Corinthians will show that the Corinthians were deficient in almost every aspect of Christian love.
“Love suffers long and is kind”. ( “Do not pronounce judgment before the time. “ 4:5.)
“Love is not jealous or boastful.” ( …there is jealousy and strife among you…” 3:3)
“Love is not arrogant or rude”. (" …and you are arrogant!" 5:2)
“Love does not insist on its own way.” ( “When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare to go to law before the unrighteous…?” 6:1)
“Love is not irritable or resentful” ( “dissensions,” “quarreling,” 1:10,11)
“Love does not delight in wrong but rejoices in truth.” ( “immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans.” 5:1)

Actually Paul in his statements about what love is not is describing a kind of love that is natural and universal--Eros. This was the kind of love the Corinthians had to offer to God in connection with their spiritual gifts. Eros is impatient, jealous, sometimes rude. It does insist on its own way and is irritable and resentful if thwarted. It may rejoice in wrong or be at least indifferent to it. Complaints about Eros are daily in the newspaper columns of personal advice.

Sadly, one of the most telling criticisms of Fundamentalism was its contentiousness and lack of love. It was a war to defend the faith. Communists and Liberals were in the same camp and “you can’t be soft on Communism”. Not only did they fight with Liberals, but they fought among themselves. Love was in short supply. The movement self-destructed but its lack of love is still thrown back at us by the critics.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Love bearing all things sounds like gullibility or codependency. But love of Truth neutralizes gullibility.
A codependent partner participates in wrong-doing: the alcoholic beats her when drunk and she still goes out to buy whiskey for him. Love does not participate in wrong.

There are three or four kinds of love.

*Eros is the universal, carnal love that drives men and women into each others’ arms. Without it, the human race would probably soon disappear.
*Philia is the love of friends. It is the glue that holds society together.
*Storge is family love, rarely spoken of in Scripture.
*Agape is gift-love, love that is about others and not about me. It is the love of God. (Gal.5:22). It is supernatural, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and is the bond of the Church.

All are gifts from God and are really bundled together. Eros and agape tinge each other, and none of these loves can be considered completely separate. Nevertheless---

Eros seeks satisfaction anywhere. Agape is faithful to the other person.
Eros demands fulfillment from the other. Agape is life-giving to the other.
Eros is for me, makes me happy, proud and fulfilled. Agape gratifies the other.
Eros says “I can’t live without him / her.” Agape wants him / her to be happy.
Eros cries to God in our poverty, reaching up to God. Agape is God reaching down to us in blessing.
Eros is impulse. Agape is divine motive and expression.

Eros is not necessarily wicked. It is merely carnal, unable to meet God’s requirement for righteousness.

C.S. Lewis thinks Eros can lead to Agape. When Eros is exhausted,  the non-Christian may be led to ask “Is that all there is?”

“All natural affections…can be rivals to spiritual  love; but they can also be preparatory imitations of it, training (so to speak) of the spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to higher service; as women nurse dolls in childhood and later nurse children.”
(The Quotable Lewis. W.Martindale, J. Root, edit.; Tyndale, 1989. p.40)

Is Agape a feeling? Certainly. Feeling---the word and the emotion---are not mentioned here, but what is oratory without affection? It is a sounding gong or a tinkling cymbal. Because Agape is described in verbs (13:4–7), we understand that this love is something we do, as well as something we feel. How shall we know if we have it?
It is a change from “me” focus, to “God” focus (Deut.6:5) , and then to “you”. The arrow of motive points away, not toward me.

How can we get it?
            We get love from God. “God is love”. (IJn.4:16).
            We know love because Christ laid down His life for us. ( Jn.3:16; 4:1). Jesus is love--in action.
            Agape is given to us. (IJn.3:1). If we don’t have it, we are not Christians. IJn.4:8

How  do we know if we are being loving?
            Because we are born of God and know God, we have agape. IJn.4:7
            We keep His commandments. IJn.5:2
            We love God and our brothers. IJn.4:21
            We cannot hate other Christians .IJn.2:9
            We cannot shut up our heart against a brother in need. IJn.3:17

But we do not love God with our whole heart, mind and strength, or our neighbor as ourselves. Then what?
Ask Him for a fuller measure of His Love. Only He can fulfill in us what His Law demands of us.

13:8–13 Love never ends. It will characterize Heaven. Eros ends with this Age.

The gifts (charismata) will also disappear.
Prophesies will all have been fulfilled, although even the already fulfilled ones are useful for this age.
Tongues will be unnecessary. We will all speak the language of Heaven.
Knowledge passes away. Half of our scientific knowledge is replaced every five years.

We are in process:
From carnal child to spiritual adult,
 from dim perception of God to direct vision,
from partial knowledge to full understanding of Him.

We are looking as if through a mirror now, darkly ("in an enigma"). Corinth made good metal mirrors, but they still gave vague and distorted  images.
“Face to face—what shall it be—when with rapture I behold Him, Jesus Christ, who died for me.”
Jacob saw God “face to face” wrestling at Peniel. Gen.32:30
The Lord spoke to Moses “face to face’ (Ex.33:11), “mouth to mouth”. (Num.12:8)

Faith, hope and love are the greatest of spiritual gifts. Faith will be sight. Hope will be realized. Love will go on and on into the Beatific Vision.

The final expression of love will fulfill the purposes of the Creation, of  Israel and the Nations. It will fulfill the Scriptures, the Atonement, and the Day of the Lord.

We will be transformed into His likeness. IJn.3:2
We will enter into the Joy of the Lord. Matt.25:21
We will sit in the banquet hall of the King, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev.19:9) with His Apostles and Elders and myriads of angels. Rev.5:11; Heb.12:22–24
We will cast our treasures at his feet. Rev.4:1
He will serve the supper. Lk.12:37
We shall see His face. Rev.22:4
He will lift up the light of His countenance on us. Psa.4:6; Num.6:24–26
We will sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. Rev.15:3
He will rejoice over us with singing. Zeph.3:17

That sounds like Christmas, New Year's, weddings and birthdays all thrown together. It is heaven. If He lifts up the light of His countenance on us, if He rejoices over us with singing, if He serves the supper in His banquet hall, we will be overwhelmed with love for Him and so will He, with love for us.

We will experience love as we cannot imagine it, because of what Jesus did for us.