“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.
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.
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.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13)
1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. In the secondary school that I attended in Hong Kong, we even had verse 13 as our “school motto”.
Many people use this passage to describe marriage love. Some say because the original text of the word love in Greek is agape, the passage refers to God’s love for men in general.
None of this is incorrect as in the end, God is love and as we express Him, we ought to manifest the same love to others. Still, I think there is much more we can get out of it if we consider what comes before the chapter and what comes after.
What comes before and after 1 Corinthians 13 are, obviously, chapter 12 and 14 (and remember, Paul didn’t really put his letters into chapters)! Interestingly, both chapters focus on spiritual gifts. Why then did Paul suddenly write so much about love in the middle?
Knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Like knowledge, spiritual gifts often become an idol. We use them to feed our ego, even though the original purpose of such gifts is to build up the body of Christ.
Knowledge and spiritual gifts without love are useless. Hence, I believe this is why Paul wrote immediately in chapter 14, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Love comes before knowledge and spiritual gifts.
Why agape, then? Well, we love one another out of God’s love, just as we live by God’s strength. God is love, and we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We see similar usage of agape in many other places in the Scripture regarding how we ought to love one another (eg. 1 John 4:7-8). If Jesus is our brother (Hebrew 2:11), and He loves us with agape, should we not do the same? Love never fails (1 Cor 13:8), because “God is love” (John 3:16) and “God’s love never fails” (Psalm 136). Our brotherly love one another flows out of God’s love that never fails. And if it fails, it is not of and from God. How we need to abide in Him!
“that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ,” (Colossians 2:2)