So we left off at the last verse of 1 Corinthians 12 – which takes us directly to the next chapter, 1 Cor. 13, arguably one of if not the most famous part of this letter:
Now eagerly desire the greater gifts … And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
I don’t understand why these verses are separated as if they’re not connected from the previous lines of thought. They’re like nebulously floating out there … but we know that can’t be because the original there are no punctuation marks – as if they are run-on sentences that just keep going. That’s what the whole letter would look like – one extremely lengthy verse made up of one massive chapter as the sum of the entire letter. Imagine writing your next e-mail and including chapter and verse separations – it would be an odd way to communicate, wouldn’t it? The same thing also happened with the first verse of Chapter 11, it wasn’t part of the letter before it nor part of the chapter it was in.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Agape means love. It is said to be the highest form of love. It’s used for brotherly love, for charity, and the love of God for man and of man for God. Without love, all other gifts are meaningless.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The commentary I’m looking at says this section is a picture of Jesus and this as rebuke for the Corinthians for looking nothing like him at all. But that just feels out of sync with Paul’s core message: Christ and him crucified. It seems more to me to be a reminder of what love is. It reminds me of the time we took a ride up the mountain and into a dense stretch of fog. The headlights were no good. The only way we knew that we were still on the road was that the car was traveling smoothly. If the Corinthians are in a similar situation – only they’ve lost the road, then rebuking them isn’t going to help them find the thing they can’t see. Rather, I think Paul is leading them one by one, showing them where the road is and how to recognize it. Some people have this definition of love – to love is to rebuke, discipline, and correct. They would see any other approach as unloving. As unloving as never telling a child that a pan on the stove is hot, or telling a child not to stick objects in the electric socket, or not to wander off in public. I worry about that kind of love because it puts the lover in the position of the eternal parent and the beloved of the eternal child. I see the same metaphors used constantly when one adult explains why he or she (the parent) just can’t let another adult, who is a total stranger, live as he or she pleases (the child) – it is because of their love that hey worry about their eternal soul, but give no regard to them as a person. If love causes you to be impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, prideful, one who dishonors others, self-seeking, easily angered, one who keeps record of wrongs, and one who delight when others get punished – then one must wonder what kind of love guides your beliefs and shapes your actions.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
This passage is a comparison between temporary and permanent things. Prophecies will all come to pass, or all of them that can be made will have been made. Languages disappear every year. What we think we know is subject to change, what we did know might very well be overridden by new knowledge or maybe we’ll have learned everything there is to know – after all, there are no more undiscovered continents. As it is, we know and prophesy our small part – but it becomes a whole, that part is no more. Some say that this is an acceptance of the cessation of gifts – others point to the closing of the cannon and the end of revelation. There are no more new books to add to the Bible – it is closed and complete for us in a way that makes it whole when for Paul he only had a part of it.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Having discussed the fate of temporary things – he moves onto the permanent ones. Love may very well be the main message of Scripture. Jesus taught his followers to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. He challenged them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. Just after he washed the feet of his disciples, he taught: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jesus instructs them to love, Paul describes what love is.