1 Corinthians 13: The Greatest Is Love
April 20, 2019
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
This is one of my very favorite chapters in the whole Bible – and it seems I am not alone in that judgment for the frequent use of this chapter in weddings and blazoned on posters, T-shirts, and Instagram postings.
But what does it mean? To really dive into this chapter would go beyond one blog. Perhaps the most profound treatment of 1 Corinthians 13 comes in a series of sermons by Jonathan Edwards on this chapter that is published as “Charity and Its Fruits.” I commend it to you. It repays careful (and joyful) study.
In this place, I will make the following observations:
First, Paul is underlining that gifting itself is not the point. No, this (love) is the most excellent way. We in the West – and it seems, as this was written first to Corinth, all over the world – can all too easily become obsessed by gifts and gifted people. Do not do it, says Paul! Certainly, there are “higher gifts,” but what really matters is this more excellent way. Indeed, if I preach, serve, or sacrifice my life or give to the poor – if I do all these things, but have not love, it’s just a waste of time. Careful, then, brothers and sisters. Make sure you pursue love. As you have been loved, so love.
Second, which brings me to the corollary thought: none of this is possible without the gospel! How can we possibly love like this? Well, we cannot. This chapter convicts us and undoes us – just as it also elevates us and thrills us. Who can live like this? There was only one, and his name is Jesus. The Corinthians certainly did not live like this. We do not either. But Christ did! And in him, and by his power, we can aim to grow more in this excellent way. It is a way – not a destination in this world at least – a pilgrimage, a path, that we can walk down and journey down as by the power of the gospel we become more like this love that we read about here.
Third, contrary to what is so often said – in evangelical circles as much as in pagan settings – love is not the way of being a simpleton or a child. No, when we grow up (spiritually), we will realize that what matters more and more is love. Paul is calling us to put the childish ways behind us of jealousy, arrogance, rudeness, irritability, insisting on our own way. All these are the things that you can observe everyday in the playground of any elementary school – and to our chagrin in boardrooms of businesses and (may it not be) in church organizations too. But we should not be like that childishness; we should grow up. And learn to love. Love is the goal of maturity. It is love to realize that what really matters is Christ, and to love him for who he is, not for what he does for us. Just to fall at his feet in love and worship – and therefore look to the others around us with those Christlike eyes of love too. Not seeking to get things from people, but seeking their gospel best and true biblical thriving for Christ’s sake and for their good. Such love does not mean that we are a “pushover” or a “wallflower.” (Paul has already described a false kind of self-sacrificial love that does it for display or to get a spiritual advantage over someone else, but not for love.) No, what it means is that the inner principle is love. What is love? Look at Christ. He could stand up and speak strongly when needed. But it was always guided by love. What is love? Read this chapter and meditate upon its words over and over again. It is life’s work to follow this more excellent way.
Finally, fourth, Paul holds out the vision for what the world to come will be like. When we no longer see in a mirror dimly (mirrors in those days were not very accurate), but see clearly, face to face, then we will know fully as we are fully known. All this is not the language of intellectual titillation – what does it really mean to know God fully? A worthy question, but not the point of what Paul is saying here. We will be known and know: this is the language of love. And in that world to come, where now we have faith, hope, and love as the great triad of Christian virtues, there all will be love – lost in wonder, love, and praise – for the greatest is love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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