Scripture in Context: 1 Corinthians 13
Words by Mallory Manning // Image by Dianne Jago
Whether you heard it first in Sunday school or a wedding ceremony, you’re likely familiar with the Hymn of Love: 1 Corinthians 13.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (v. 1–7)
Undoubtedly, the apostle Paul pens a poetic, elegant, and downright applicable description of Jesus’ own sacrificial love. But our familiarity with this passage (read specifically in certain contexts) can veil its exquisite nature, not to mention our appreciation of Paul’s reason for writing this scripture in the first place.
The Corinthian church was a bit of a mess—riddled with divisive, competitive quarrels and led by a reliance on human wisdom. Pastor and commentary writer John MacArthur explains that the Corinthians did not have many doctrinal issues; rather, they just struggled to love one another.
Originally written to believers in Corinth, 1 Corinthians 13 sits squarely in the center of a conversation about spiritual gifts. Chapter 12 tells us various spiritual gifts are distributed to each member of the Body, in order that everyone may work together. Chapter 14 instructs how the Church is to practice those gifts. But chapter 13 articulates the necessary context for those spiritual gifts to actually edify believers: love. Paul calls it “the more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).
This love Paul refers to is the Greek word agape. Tim Mackie of The Bible Project clarifies that the type of love Jesus modeled is “not a feeling that happens to you … it’s a choice you make to seek the well-being of people other than yourself.” In other words, it’s demonstrated through action; Jesus’ choice to embrace the cross in order to pay for humanity’s sin demonstrated his love for the world.
The Corinthians practiced spiritual gifts, but not in a manner that unified or edified the whole Body. Their demonstration of the gifts was less about embodying the love of Christ and more about their own spiritual clout. Scripture is clear: love is more significant in the life of a believer than giftedness will ever be. Still, the two are not mutually exclusive. David Guzik writes, “It isn’t an issue of love versus the gifts. A church should never be forced to choose between love and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul is emphasizing the focus and goal of the gifts: love, not the gifts for their own sake.”
Our whole lives—our gifts and passions, our list-making and dish-washing, our coffee dates and weekend plans—are to fall in alignment with Jesus’ commission in the gospel of John. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).
Sisters, let us follow Jesus in “the more excellent way”—embracing the gifts he’s given us and edifying one another with the pure, reverent, and selfless love of Christ.