In his book, The Letter to the Corinthians, Barclay (1956) observed that the assembly in Corinth was comprised of Jews and Greeks who were exposed to the influences of the external environment especially due to the fact the Christians mainly originated from heathen oriins and were continuously exposed to the evil in the society. Paul came to learn of the vices that were taking place amongst the congregation such as sexual immorality, eating meat that had been offered to idols, disputes, disorder in the meetings. The issues had reached to an extent where some members of the church denied the truth about resurrection as well as doubting the Paul’s apostolic authority (Barclays 1956). This prompted Apostle Paul to write his epistle addressing the Christians at Corinthians.
In his address to the Corinthians, Apostle Paul expounds on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul explains that the greatest and most important gift was love. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul explains more about love, its importance, how it adds value to other gifts and argues that in the absence of love other gifts are worthless. Paul further describes the nature of love in a manner that the pointed out the level the Corinthians measured up. Within the chapter, Paul further describes the temporary nature of different gifts by conducting a contrast with the stability of love. From the chapter, it is clear that Paul is enthusiastic about the necessity and importance of love. 1 Corinthians 13 extensively discusses that nature of love as a gift, its importance, and how it excels beyond the other gifts.
Preceding 1 Corinthian 13 is chapter 12 where Paul discussed the spiritual gifts in the life of a Christian. Paul expounds how within the church different individuals are blessed with different gifts. The chapter sought to expound the query as to why different individuals within the church posses’ different gifts. To expound on this, Paul uses the example of a human body, which is comprised of different body parts but all working in harmony. It is in the same manner that the Christians have different gifts, but all granted by the same Spirit and the same Lord. The examples of gifts outlined by Paul include gift of wisdom, faith, healing, working miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, and interpretation of tongues. All these gifts are given by the same spirit to use. Just like a human body, all members of the church represent different parts of the body (Fee 1987). The body, in this case, represents the union between Christ and the church. The Christians become members of the body through baptism. For the body to function in a seamless manner, every member should carry out their duty diligently (Fee 1987). All Christians are dependent on each other and are expected to assist each other to maintain the spirit of union. Paul explains how Christians despite being blessed separately form the body of Christ. In this chapter, Paul sets the tone leading to Chapter 13 where he tackles the issue of love. Chapter 13 provides details that all the gifts described in Chapter 12 are in vain in the absence of love. It is for this reason that love is considered the greatest of all other spiritual gifts; a position is elaborated in Chapter 13.
The context that follows Chapter 13 discusses the other gifts. Chapter 14 trickles down from Chapter 13 where Paul teaches Christians on how to use the gifts for the good of the Church. The chapter begins by borrowing from the main theme of the spiritual gift of love. He urges Christians to pursue love and at the same time desire spiritual gift. Here, Paul is seen insisting to the people on the need of seeking love, thereby, emphasizing the message from the previous chapter that love is the greatest gift and the reason why Christians need to pursue it. Paul urges Christians to desire to have spiritual gifts. This indicates that Christians should be in pursuit to attain love, which is part of the gifts. Paul teaches about the other gifts and makes a contrast between the gift of tongues and prophecy. The teaching presented in this chapter discusses how the church should utilize the gifts of prophecy and tongues to function effectively. From the message, it is evident that the Church in Corinthian put much attention on the use of tongues and under-emphasis on prophecy. The analysis of chapter 14 helps to place the previous chapter in the appropriate context, as it emphasizes the importance of love as a spiritual gift.
Chapter 13 is divided into 13 verses where Paul continues with his message on spiritual gifts. In this chapter, Paul picks on the gift of love and expounds it extensively. On the first three verses, Paul highlights the importance and necessity of level. On the other four verses that follow, Paul provides a description of the properties of the spiritual gift of love. The final verses of this chapter discuss how love helps to bring out the best in other gifts and graces. The central theme in this chapter is love, where the importance, nature, description, and the relationship to other products are provided. Barclay (1956) described the chapter as the most wonderful chapter of the New Testament.
At the beginning of this Chapter, Paul refers to his message in the previous chapter on spiritual gifts. In this case, Paul elaborates on the meaning of love. The love described here represents the true love to God and man. Having this love requires a total disposition of mind toward other Christians and developing sincere and total devotion to God. This is a living principle that matches the teachings of Jesus on the greatest commandments which are, “Love your God with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Based on this, Paul teaches the importance of the gift of love and points out why this gift is the highest of all other gifts. To emphasize the importance of love, Paul makes a direct comparison with other gifts (Ciampa, Roy, and Brian 2010). The first comparison is made between love and the gift of speaking in tongues. It is indicated that even if an individual had the ability to speak in tongues but lacked the gift of love, speaking in tongue would emerge as mere noise. The other comparison is made between the gift of love and prophecy. It is indicated that even if an individual had the ability to understand mysteries and possessed all knowledge, all this would be in vain, in the absence of love. Another comparison made is between love and the gift of faith. The extent of faith described here is one that allows one to perform miracles such as moving mountains depicting Jesus’ assertion. Still, it is indicated that without love, this gift is also useless. Having enough faith to move mountains was highly valued as depicted in Mt 7: 22 where it is indicated that during the judgment many people will lay claims that they prophesied, drove out demons in the name of Jesus and performed miracles. Despite these abilities, the people would be turned down. This confirms the message by Paul that the gift of love was the greatest among the spiritual gifts. Paul further demonstrates the importance of love by highlighting some acts of mercy such as sharing with the poor and living the life of a suffering disciple. Doing such generous acts but with the absence of love is noted to be in vain.
In this section, Apostle Paul described the properties and effects of love with an aim of describing it and commending it. This is geared towards ensuring that the Christians have this grace or are in a path of acquiring this love. Paul described the gift as being patient and kind. The spiritual gift of love is described as not being envious, boastful, proud, does not dishonor others, not self-seeking, not angered early, does not maintain records of wrong, and it does not take delight in evil. Love is described as rejoicing in the truth, protective, always trusting, hopes, and perseveres. This kind of love is described as long-suffering, which can endure different kinds of evil, injury, provocation, not characterized by resentment, indignation, or revenge. It is such characters that make this kind of love to be considered as patient. The kindness of the love described implies that an individual filled with it is ready to grant favors and do good to others. Such a person will always be on the lookout for opportunities that will allow them to do good. Paul indicated that love should be free from envy. The love should not be grieved at the good of others but should instead share in it and rejoice at it. This effect is considered to result from kindness and benevolence. It is expected that an individual with true love has an esteem and ability to overcome self-conceit and arrogance. It can be observed that love highlights proof of regeneration, which is a big foundation of the Christian faith. The descriptions on the nature and effects of love point out that the congregation at Corinthians was not acting in contrast. It would be an amazing experience if Christianity acted in the guidance of the nature of love described. It is important for individuals to restore this divine love in the hearts of the individual. This would be a great move where people abide by the greatest commandment given by Jesus where He indicated that, love one another, just as he loved us. Jesus pointed out that by doing this, people would know that Christians are followers of Christ. It can, therefore, be observed that the distinguishing characteristics of the disciples of Jesus are love.
Verse 8 – 13
This section highlights the power and strength of love. Barclay analyzes this section by pointing out to Paul’s three final comments about the Christian love (1956). These include absolute permanency, absolute supremacy, and absolute completeness. Unlike spiritual gifts, it is indicated that love is everlasting and never fails. This is unlike other gifts such as prophecies, which are indicated that they cease, tongues can be stilled, and knowledge is expected to pass. At this point, Paul sought to teach the Corinthians why love was a preferable spiritual gift as compared to the other gifts. The kind of love described by Paul is permanent and offers perpetual grace unlike other gifts, which Corinthians greatly valued but were only short-lived (Blomberg 1994). These other gifts are meant to serve the church on earth but would be superseded in the continuance level of this world in heaven. In providing this information, Paul is focused on highlighting the strengths of love. Love is more valuable due to its nature of being more durable and with no limitation. Paul explained that currently, we are a part of a prophecy that would come to pass. There is a comparison of the growth path of a person from a child to an adult. An individual’s actions and thoughts are described influenced at the stage where one is. This can be seen to represent the journey of the church, at the childhood stage, the church could be considered as being in an imperfect condition that was characterized by gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues, as well as, love. However, as the church is set to attain the state of perfection there will be no need of tongues, prophecy and inspired knowledge because, at this point, the church will be complete in reference to knowledge and holiness. At this point only, the gift of love will ensue. The analogy of childhood and adulthood depicted by Paul here can be seen as a representation of earth and heaven. Children are known for their skewed thought process characterized by narrow perspectives as compared to adults who have more matured reasoning and goes beyond an infant’s thoughts. Likewise, the things that we greatly value and hold high while on earth will come to pass when in heaven. Paul revealed the coming of a time when what just seemed as a reflection will come to be true, and what is partly known will be understood in full 1 Corinthians 12. It can be understood here that presently, the much we can do is to discern these things just from a distance, which obviously makes them unclear and blurred. However, a time is coming when these things will be a reality before our eyes when we will come face to face with God. This asserts the scriptures in 1 John 3:2 where it is indicated that as Christians, we are children of God and that what we will become as not yet been revealed but when Christ appears, we will be transformed to be like and experience him as he is. This will present a scenario where Christians will experience glorious change and come to pass from darkness to light. Paul sums up the chapter by highlighting three gifts faith, hope, and love and highlights that love is the greatest of these gifts.
The scriptures from the 1 Corinthians 13 have earned their recognition due to the explicit description of love. Paul describes the characteristics in verse 4 about love being patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, and not proud. This famous verse is applied in contemporary weddings to describe to the couple what is expected of them in their marriage life. The words described by Paul can be applied by a couple as an assurance of the commitment that they had pledged to each other during their wedding (Skinner 2018). It guides newlywed on how to love their partner than oneself and is an ideal message that can help build a lasting marriage.
A review of this Chapter describes how church communities should behave. From the message presented, it is clear that the church in Corinth was characterized by controversy and interpersonal conflicts. The message in this chapter can be applied by the current church to guide their relations and expected behavior. The passage warns the church against the abuse of spiritual gifts. The context preceding the chapter indicated that he would show them a more excellent way. It is for this point that he provided an elaborate explanation on love. Christians can apply in their lives and learn to practice love, which has been described as being more superior than the ability to prophecy, fathom spiritual mysteries, and speaking in tongues, which most church communities give preference.
The teaching from the chapter addresses core qualities of what it means to be a Christian. While the message was addressed to people in Corinth, the message is an application to Christians from any generation. Being a follower of Christ requires one to possess values of faith, hope, and love. The message described here indicates that love is the greatest of all these values. Christians are expected to be driven and motivated by love in their actions. Any other good deeds that Christians may engage in are termed as meaningless in the absence of love. Christians get to understand that love, as explained by Paul, comes in different shapes. Christians are able to understand that with the presence of Christ in their lives, their behaviors will take a natural course of being positive, which is a reflection of the presence of Christ in their lives.
The characteristics of love described by Paul in this chapter is not just an emotional feeling but also focuses on actions that Christians exhibit to other people. Loving other people is the foundation of what Christ was teaching about and the description of the purpose of his life. The message can thereby be applied in the lives of the Christians with regard to the intentions and motives of the action that people decide to make. A Christian dedicated to serving in the church should examine their intention to serve since if the intention is not to glorify God, then it does not arise out of love and therefore such an act is deemed meaningless. Followers of Christ are expected to showcase genuine care in all their actions. The description of love from the passage can thus be viewed to highlight the actions and deeds that emerge from a sincere health that bears the urge to assist brothers and sisters in Christ.
The discussion above presents an analysis of the 1 Corinthians 13 that bears the theme of love. In this Chapter, Paul highlights that love is the greatest of all spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, making prophecies and faith that could even move mountains. It is indicated that bearing all these spiritual gifts but lacking faith makes them meaningless. Paul highlights the characteristics of love where it is indicated that love is patient, kind, endure suffering, not proud, nor envious. This teaches Christians on what is expected on their description of love. Paul explained that love is everlasting unlike other gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, which are noted to have a time limit. The gift of love as described by Paul entails the action of an individual towards other people. Christians can apply this in their lives to guide their relationships with others. The chapter is applied in most modern weddings where a couple gets to understand what is expected of them. Christians are guided that despite other greatness that they may exhibit, it is in vain if they do not possess love.
Barclays, William. The letters to the Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press, 1956.
Blomberg, Craig. 1 Corinthians. Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1994.
Ciampa, Roy E., and Brian S. Rosner. The first letter to the Corinthians. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.
Fee, Gordon D. “The first epistle to the Corinthians: The new international commentary on the New Testament.” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1987).
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.
Skinner, Christopher. “1 Corinthians 13 and Weddings.” 2018. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/1-corinthians-13-and-weddings
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