First Corinthians 13 is largely regarded as a cozy part of the Bible. It’s prone to be read at weddings; it shows up on stationery, keychains, and home decor; and its detractors are few, even in secular society. This is hardly a surprise, since it is poetic, it is beautiful, and it meditates on a word that nearly anyone can get behind: love.
Yet when one stops to consider it, looking into the mirror God’s Word, 1 Corinthians 13 reveals itself to be a deeply challenging passage of Scripture. These “feel-good” verses actually confront us, humble us, and begin to show us that the things we think matter most are not what matter most to God.
The apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written to a local church to address a specific situation: they faced a potential church split because of varying allegiances and differing expressions of spiritual gifts. Their congregation was marked by confusion, resulting in jealousy, pride, and selfishness. And these divisions within the church left the believers stuck in spiritual immaturity, as Paul makes clear when he writes, “I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (3:1).
The core problem in Corinth was an absence of love. So Paul showed the church “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), reemphasizing the “new commandment” that Jesus had given to his disciples: “Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). If the Corinthians wanted to grow in their faith and restore the unity of their church, then they needed to learn the meaning of Christlike love.
The Missing Piece for Maturity
Many Christians equate knowledge of God and His Word, the practice of spiritual gifts, and great acts of self-sacrifice with growth in the Christian life. This is certainly how the Corinthian church thought. Yet the biggest problem facing a local church in terms of its effective witness is rarely the absence of great gifts; it is frequently the absence of love. In the eyes of God, it is love, and not gifts, that matters most. Without love, we will have forsaken our witness to the watching world.
We might be able to proclaim the Gospel in unique ways—perhaps across the boundaries of language and culture. Without love, though, we would be like an incessant gong, clanging at all times of the day and making people plug their ears (1 Cor. 13:1).
The biggest problem facing a local church in terms of its effective witness is rarely the absence of great gifts; it is frequently the absence of love.
We might have insight, knowledge, and the ability to grasp and explain the great truth and mysteries of God’s Word (v. 2a). But no matter how well received, admired, and applauded these insights are, there is nothing of real and lasting value in them apart from love.
We may have gifts of special faith, by which God has enabled us to look at problems and bring faith to bear upon them with a vision for the future. Perhaps we have even seen dramatic things happen as a result. Without love, though, such things are not just marginal; they are “nothing” (v. 2b)!
We may live the servant’s life of self-sacrifice. We may even, in dramatic fashion, endure a martyr’s death for our faith. But without love as the motive, even these actions would be nothing more than pomposity, bravado, or foolishness—perhaps even the misguided penance of a guilty conscience. They gain us nothing (v. 3).
Only one thing is needed, and nothing can make up for its lack: love is essential to Christian maturity.
A Different Kind of Love
While love has become one of the most watered-down words of the English language, it was subject to no less confusion in the Greek-speaking world. The word agapē, used in 1 Corinthians 13, is rare in Greek literature, yet it’s common in the Scriptures. In fact, the New Testament writers seem to have used it because none of the other Greek words for love adequately conveyed the nature of God’s love for His people and their consequent love for one another. “The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell”1—and so the Spirit-inspired authors of the New Testament employed a rare term to describe it and differentiate it from more worldly notions.
Love is essential to Christian maturity.
In human terms, we tend to be attracted to and love in response to lovely people. So long as they are lovely, we may continue to love them; as soon as they cease to be lovely, we no longer love them. But God’s agapē is, as Leon Morris describes it, “a love for the utterly unworthy, a love which proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished upon others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather from the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved.”2
This is the kind of love without which we are nothing. Christian love is not a good feeling, a strong attraction, or a lovely sentiment that settles somewhere in our chest. No, it is without merit or condition, and it springs up from the well of God’s presence in our hearts through His Holy Spirit. We may show it only to the degree that we draw on God’s grace. And if we forsake this love, we have actually forsaken our witness to the Gospel, because it is by this sort of love that the Father sent the Son to save sinners (Rom. 5:8).
Maturity through Discipline
Unlike worldly ideas of love, Christian love is a servant of the will, not a victim of emotions.3 That is why Jesus could say, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). This is only possible by an act of the will. Sometimes the only way we can love even our friends or spouses is by an act of the will. If we wait for the feeling, it may never come. In other words, Christian love is not a cozy idea; it is a spiritual discipline.
As Paul explored the qualities and the activities which are to be our top priorities, he did so not as a technician or theoretician but as a practitioner. He realized that what was necessary in Corinth was not simply instruction but transformation. It must be truth applied—not simply learned in the head but channeled to the hands and feet.
Christian love is not a cozy idea; it is a spiritual discipline.
A local church today that seriously considers the description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 will find that Paul’s words there shine a painfully bright light on us. As we hold ourselves up to it, it will often reveal a wide gap between Christian love and our own practices. These verses are a particular challenge to a local church that has seen any form of outward success through the exercise of gifted ministry and has begun to take itself a little too seriously. It calls us to wake up and walk in love. It calls us to true Christian maturity.
Frederick Martin Lehman, “The Love of God” (1917).↩︎
Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1958), 181.↩︎
John R. W. Stott, “The Threefold Duty of the Christian (John 15),” in John R. W. Stott et al., Christ the Liberator (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1971), 59.↩︎