1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 8
Corinth was a major prosperous cosmopolitan seaport and commercial hub in Achaia, and the church was probably made up of mainly successful Gentile traders; people who were talented leaders in their individual field of trade, and who commanded wealth, respect, and influence. Furthermore, they were gifted spiritually. Yet, their worldly wisdom and brilliance were found wanting in the midst of their excesses in factionalism and immorality to which Paul addressed in this critical letter. Within this Biblical setting, we have one of the most well known passages on love, but contrary to what most would imagine, it was meant as a rebuke to the leadership. What Paul was pointing out was their dearth of spiritual character despite their abilities, affluence, and giftedness.
Paul was blunt in his rhetoric, and understandably so with his disappointments, as he planted this church: “I am nothing spiritually if I can speak all the languages of men and even angels, have a prophetic insight to know all mysteries and knowledge, and even possess the faith that would remove mountains” (vv.1-2). He is attempting to put into perspective the mistaken Corinthian overemphasis in prioritizing spiritual gifting over a stable Christian character: a changed heart with deep roots in God’s love. This critical distinction is often sidestepped when apparently gifted available individuals are thrusts into service too soon, only to discover later as they succumb to grievous sin under ministry pressures, that unforeseen inherent character flaws had set them up to fail. This is especially detrimental when they are in leadership positions (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13).
“And even if I gave away all my possessions and be martyred, but do not love, I do not count” (v.3). Paul was also adamant that even possessing motives highly valued at the time, like pro-social justice and martyrdom, do not necessarily please God as long as these virtuous deeds of sacrifice and faith are about the individual and devoid of the love he defined. The implication for us is motivationally challenging, as one can be sacrificially and behaviourally loving for self-centred objectives. Who then can discern our hearts except the Spirit of God. Then he defined a love that deeply and consistently characterizes a person, both in private life and in public (vv.4-8). Although Paul appears to describe the aspects of love, it is nevertheless ONE fruit of the Spirit, indivisible and whole.
In most translations, adjectives are used to describe the facets of love, but in the original Greek, they are emphatically verbs. Here is the literal meaning of the passage (verse numbers included): (4) Love (a strong, non-sexual affection that has regard for a person and their good, characterized by a willing forfeiture of rights or privileges in that other person’s behalf) is even-tempered under enduring, trying circumstances, warmhearted, gentle and sympathetic, not painfully envious of another’s advantages, nor exhibiting self-importance, not conceited or proud, and does not seek its own or take into account a wrong suffered. (5) It does not behave dishonorably or shamefully in social circles, or look out with envy for something one desires, nor become carried away emotionally, or keep count of something that is morally objectionable. (6) Love does not feel happiness with injustice or unrighteousness, but rejoice with others when truth surfaces in matters under consideration. (7) It endures something unpleasant or difficult whether on one’s own behalf or on behalf of someone else, or has strong confidence in someone or something, hopes confidently and expectantly of a future event, and faces and withstands with courage in everything. (8a) Love never suffers defeat or ruin.
As Paul personified love, he qualified the perception of love as being totally selfless and powerfully active, a high view that stands outside of human capability; being a love that flows from God’s very presence, and which resulted in His work on the cross and the giving of His Holy Spirit. This embodiment of love in the believer comes from abiding in Christ (1Jn 4:15-17), and allowing the Spirit to express His love through us. It challenges our human inconstancy. This is after all a long-term relationship between a man and his Saviour, and like all relational activities, a relentless requirement in instinctive companionship, involving space and time is critically necessary, if Paul’s desire for Christ-like character formation in the Corinthian believers is to be our experience (Matt 6:33).