1. Corinthians 13. - The Praise of Love

Erkki Koskenniemi

Many think that the finest passage Paul ever wrote is the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. We have every reason to appreciate this great praise of love.

This praise of love ranks very highly in world literature. Its magnitude is also recognized in a number of other religions. It is a gem, of which we Christians have reason to be proud. At the same time, however, this chapter puts all Christians to shame, because we fail to live according to its noble standards.

Is Chapter 13 in the right place?

In chapters 12 and 14, Paul talks about the bounty of spiritual and grace gifts. Finding the teaching on love in the middle of this is somewhat surprising, and so many people have claimed that this was added after Paul’s death. Other researchers argue that Paul might have placed this chapter in the middle of others that he (or someone else) might have written earlier. On the other hand, many are of the opinion that the 13th chapter is in its right place in our Bibles and it was written here by Paul specifically for the Church in Corinth. The key to understanding this argument, is found in the last words in chapter 12 ‘I will show you the most excellent way’ (12:31). This shows that the section we are now exploring in chapter 13 is not separate from what precedes it. Paul does not write about love here simply to discuss something different to the disputes between the Corinthians. The reason for talking about love is, in fact, that love is not flowing in Corinth.

When everyone was pursuing their grace gift and kept that pursuit in high profile, it began to be thought that the Christian life was all about using the great gifts. This is not the case. The starting point for everything is love. This had been forgotten in the Church in Corinth. This is why the gifts of the Spirit were misused. That is why the Corinthian Christians also often quarreled with each other.

Chapter 13 constantly talks about the problems and sins of the Corinthians. Therefore, there is every reason to assume that this section was penned by Paul, and directed to the Corinthians. It is closely linked to the previous and the next chapters.

“Love”: Our love, or in Christ?

Another key question is, what or who is Paul referring to, when talking about love. People often say that he is talking about Christ and his love. On the other hand, he does not mention Jesus once. Is it possible then that he is talking about the love of the Corinthians and about Christian love?

The Greek language has several words that can be used to explain the word ‘love’. They have clearly different meanings. The word for love used here, “agape”, means unconditional love. It is not love for one who is valuable or useful to one who loves. The word “agape” is common in the New Testament, but relatively rare elsewhere.

The question of whether Paul is talking about Christ, or our love, cannot be unequivocally answered by conceptual analysis. This problem cannot be solved emotionally either, any more than it can be worked out with the pure knowledge. It requires going deeper, into our own Christian lives. There, deep within, resides the ‘agape’ love which this chapter is talking about.

Christian love is precisely that Christ lives in our hearts and serves those around us. The love that was on the cross at Golgotha takes shape in our lives.

Love is superior 13:1-3

There are many ancient writings in which things are ranked. The most supreme thing is praised and the others are similarly downplayed. 1 Corinthians 13 follows this structure. In this chapter love is placed above all the others. As a result of the problems in the Corinth, Paul compares love mostly to the spiritual gifts.

In this passage humans and angels speaking in languages refers to the speaking in tongues; a gift that was highly appreciated in the Church in Corinth. Its connection to the angelic language can be seen for example in 2 Corinthians 12:4. Speaking in tongues by itself is worth nothing. According to Paul, a person speaking so without love is like a lifeless instrument. This same line of thought is found concerning the gift of prophecy. Without love even prophecy revealing all secrets, or all knowledge, or awesome faith, is simply useless. Similarly, anyone can give up all their possessions and buy bread for the poor, but without love even this means nothing. Some of the martyrs were doomed to be burnt alive (e.g. Daniel 3), but without love there is no benefit in this either. Without love all these staggering achievements are empty and void. They have no intrinsic value. It is only when Christians have the same love as that which made Christ go to the Cross for our sins, only then will the gifts begin to be beneficial.

What is Love? 13:4-7

Paul stops for a few moments to compare the true love with other things, and begins to describe the true love.

The love, of which Paul speaks, is not theoretical. It is a true, practical love which brings Christ to one’s neighbour. This love had been lacking in Corinth. Although the Church had seemingly been strong and full of the Spirit, in actual fact, many of God’s gifts had lost their value there, because there was no love. The Church had become weak and uninspired.

Love will last forever 13:8-13

Paul returns to his comparison of love and the spiritual gifts. What makes love superior to all, is that it will never end. The spiritual gifts are not perfect.

There will come a time, once in the Heaven, when the mysteries of God are obvious to all those who are there. The gift of speaking in tongues will then lose its meaning, because no one needs such a gift any more. There it turns out that, in all spiritual knowledge there were something that belongs to this imperfect world, and it will fade away. There where all prophesying and speaking in tongues has ceased and knowledge has lost its meaning, love has become complete, and it will never die – it is eternal.

Paul compares this process of perfection of love to that of a human growing up. Children think in accordance to their own limited understanding and speak what they can. When a child grows up to be an adult, his speech is no longer the unclear babble of a baby. As you grow up, you understand things more. This will happen to the spiritual gifts too.

God’s spiritual gifts are a taste of the future, but, ultimately they are only a first taste and actually some distance from the full reality of God. Love, however, is perfect and a huge gift from God. The way forward for every charismatic (12:31) is to use the best gifts in the best way they can. Every Christian must follow this road, and seek the love of the Christ to in the benefit of their own context.