Love Endures All
In 1 Corinthians 13 the very first gift that Paul sets love over and against is tongues. In Paul’s day as in ours tongues was a special concern. Two kinds of tongues are mentioned here: tongues of men and tongues of angels. This is the only time that the phrase “tongues of angels” occurs in Scripture. The obvious references can only be to human and angelic languages. No doubt Paul had encountered glossolalia among some of the Corinthian members. Given what we have seen about the desire of some of the Corinthians to mix Greek ideas into their Christian theology, it should come as no surprise that the highly valued spiritual practices of the Greeks at the highly valued Oracle of Delphi, and no doubt elsewhere, had found their way into Corinthian worship. People seem to have a natural propensity for religious syncretism.
Indeed, the idea of mystical communication and its interpretation by specialized priests has a very long history in the religions of humanity. Even the Roman Catholic Church has held on to vestiges of this practice into the Twenty-First Century. Until Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church recommended that church members not read the Bible because of its interpretative difficulties. Rather, Catholics were to rely upon the clergy in this regard. The clergy would read and explain the Scriptures for the people. The point is that such a practice was simply the continuation of what I have called God’s mystical communication and its interpretation by specialized priests.
Paul’s mention of tongues of angels is, I believe, an allusion to the practice of mystery glossolalia that had become part of the Corinthian church experience. If so — and I believe it was, Paul was placing the gift of love above it. He said that Christian love is more important than mysterious communication with God, even more important than translating the gospel into foreign languages. Why? Because apart from the primacy of Christian love, any translation of the gospel into a foreign tongue would be inadequate and inaccurate because the person doing the translating would lack the main ingredient of faithfulness — love.
In addition, Christian love is more important than communication with angels. Why? Because Jesus Christ has been given all authority and anything divine that needs to be communicated has been or will be communicated through Him and/or through the structures of authority that have been given in Scripture. Angels take a back seat in the light of Christ.
In essence, Paul was saying that Christian love is more important than anything anyone can say, more important than words. As the old adage goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Apart from the actual manifestation of Christian love, words are just noise. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Paul said that love is more important, more valuable than the ability to perform miracles. This is a big one. To be able to miraculously move mountains from one place to another is nothing compared to Christian love. Even perfect and complete understanding of all religious mysteries and all knowledge of the world are nothing compared to Christian love. Paul is saying that not only are words without love nothing more than meaningless noise, but that thinking itself, thought and understanding are nothing without love. Any thought or ideas that anyone may bring to the table in defense of some position — any position about anything — is nothing but noise apart from Christian love. Paul has essentially and effectively undermined all opposition to the love of Jesus Christ, which manifests as Christian love among God’s people.
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Here Paul suggests that people can do sacrificial things, good things, noble things, and still lack the essential ingredient of Christian love. But to do so amounts to nothing. Even martyrdom can be nothing but an effort of works-righteousness apart from the actual manifestation of Christian love provided through regeneration by the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. This is a very significant statement because it identifies Christianity as an expression of Christian love, not theology, not mystery, not personal sacrifice or commitment to some ideal. Agape is love in action. Having said this Paul moves on to define
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is a call to Christian faithfulness. Here is the very heart of Christianity. Here are the characteristics that necessarily mark all Christians. And conversely, anyone who claims to be a Christian but does not manifest these characteristics is deluded about his or her membership in the body of Christ.
What is patience other than the good-natured tolerance of delay and incompetence? Patience means not flying off the handle when things don’t go they way that you think they ought to go. Patience means endurance and perseverance in the face of difficulty, complexity and confusion. Patience means not chomping at the bit. Patience and worry are opposites.
Kindness and patience go hand-in-hand. Kindness means being warmhearted, considerate, humane and sympathetic toward others. Patience and kindness are related to manners, social deportment. Manners are the commonly understood and practiced behaviors that communicate kindness and patience. Manners provide various ways to demonstrate kindness and patience. Manners give legs (or wings) to kindness and patience.
Paul then shifts gears and sets out some limitations to his definition of love by expressing what it is not. The definition of a thing in the negative, saying what something is not, is a way to provide for maximum freedom of definition. The Ten Commandments employ this method. By saying what a thing isn’t, you allow the widest possible interpretation of what a thing is by setting the limit at what it is not. Love is many things to many people, and we are free to understand love in many different ways. There are as many ways to understand love as there are people, and yet the various understandings of love have much in common. So, rather than trying to provide a detailed list of everything that love is — an impossible task, Paul simply says what it is not. And by implication, then, as long as these negative characteristics are avoided, all other definitions of love are viable.
Love is not envious or boastful, said Paul. Both envy and boasting are functions of pride. So, Paul is saying that love and pride are opposites, and that they don’t and cannot mix. Nor is love arrogant or rude. Arrogance issues from feelings of unwarranted importance or overbearing pride. To be rude is to lack civility or good manners. And again, we see that arrogance and rudeness are functions of pride.
In addition, love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Of all of the characteristics Paul enumerates, this may be the most important. It means that love understands itself to be a servant, not a master. To love another is to live in service to him or her. And to keep this service from simply feeding the ego of the person loved, Christian love is first given to Jesus Christ. Christians love Christ first and foremost, and then love their brothers and sisters in Christ as an expression of their love for Christ. This means that our service to those we love is not a matter of simply doing whatever they want us to do for them. But rather it means that our service to those we love in Christ is a matter of doing what Christ wants us to do for them. Christ is the governor of our love and service. By loving Christ first and foremost our love for others in Christ does not serve or feed the selfish desires that abide in the breast of every person. Rather, our love for and service to others is directed, not by them, not by their felt needs, but by Christ.