And now I will show you the most excellent way.
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If 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 have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The world is enamored, so to speak, with the topic of love. It’s everywhere we turn. It’s in movies, on TV, and especially in songs. Through love songs we have heard thoughts like “love makes the world go ‘round,” “love is a many splendored thing,” and “all you need is love.” The problem is that, although the world talks constantly about love, it really seems to know very little about it. It reminds me of a James Brown song that has lyrics that declare, “talkin’ loud, ain’t sayin’ nothin’.” What the world does seem to grasp, however, is some inkling of the fact that love is an extremely important thing, even if they do not truly understand what it is about.
The church in Corinth was struggling seriously with their unity and their ability to see the church as the new family, the new community, the new reality which they have all entered through baptism (1 Cor. 12:12) together to become one entity. Paul understands that the Corinthian Church has an equal misunderstanding of the nature of love and the need for it. In fact, this misunderstanding of genuine love is likely at the root of their misunderstanding of true Christian unity. What they do not yet grasp, he is about to lay out for them clearly.
Although this chapter fits well into the flow and argument of the letter, the language and format are so strikingly different from chapters 12 and 14 (and the rest of the letter) that it has led some commentators to speculate that Paul has taken a separate writing, perhaps slightly modified for his purposes here, and inserted into his letter at this point. The format of the chapter can be divided into three parts: Verses 1-3 lay out the necessity of love, verses 4-6 have to do with the character of love, and verses 8-13 deal with the permanence of love. Above all, it is important to see throughout this passage that Paul is not calling love a supreme spiritual gift that is better than all others. He is saying that love is meant to be a way of life for all Christians. It is the pool in which all of the other spiritual gifts and acts of the Christian life swim.
Paul actually begins this section in the last few words of chapter 12: And now I will show you the most excellent way. In those words, Paul is claiming to present the highest and most desirable form of the Christian faith and practice. “The Way” was a term often used by the early Church to describe Christianity (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23: 22:4; 24:14, 22). It is possible, then, that Paul is using a bit of play on words, telling them that he is gong to describe the very heart of the Christian life. This section comes in the midst of Paul’s argument concerning the worship of the Church and the use of different gifts by different members. They have not realized that they all belong to the Messiah but that won’t do any good if they don’t realize that they can’t just put their shoulder to the grindstone and begrudgingly follow Paul’s teaching. If they are going to have the life of Christ, they must realize that the most Jesus-like characteristic they can ever embody is love. But he will describe the type of love that he is talking about, the agape love that comes from God which stands in stark opposition to the type of love that the world, especially in our own day, has manufactured and created.
Paul begins to lay out the necessity of love with a bit of hyperbole. The Corinthians have been thinking rather highly of themselves, so Paul presents an exaggerated picture of the most extremely gifted Christian possible; one who speaks in not only the tongues of men, but even a theoretical tongues of angels (Despite the fanciful explanations of many today, there is no indication that Paul is speaking of the gift of tongues, the miraculous ability to speak in other known language. In fact, there is nothing other than speculation to indicate that he is speaking of tongues here. Nowhere else is tongues referred to as the tongues of angels). He talks of the person who has the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge (a gift that Paul greatly values but that he describes someone who knows all mysteries and knowledge indicates the degree to which he is using hyperbole and describing things that were not really attainable in the present age), one who gave everything they had to the poor, and finally one who dies a death of martyrdom. But then, he says something amazing. If these things are done without love, they are absolutely worthless. The true love of Christ must be present. It is the only motivator that matters. We can be motivated by many things to engage in activities related to the life of Christ: greed, selfishness, discipline, desire for approval, begrudging obligation, people pleasing, desire for success in our ministry, etc. Yet Paul says that the only true motivator is that of the genuine love of God. Manifesting, even gifts that Paul values, without love is of no avail. The triple verdict for such a life is that it is an annoying noise, it is nothing, and it gains nothing.
In verse 4, Paul begins a beautiful description of the character of love. Love, he says, is patient and kind, but not envious, boastful, proud, or rude. Then he switches from the nature of love to the activities of love. It is not self-seeking or easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs, and does not enjoy evil but rejoices with the truth. Love, he says, always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.
It should become apparent that, not only is Paul describing the way of the Christian life as embodied in love, he is also referencing the behavior that the Corinthians have been exhibiting and to which he has been referring throughout the letter. Rather than embracing and embodying love, they have been acting precisely opposite from the way of love. This was the core problem in Corinth. One that all the gifts and all the knowledge in the world couldn’t fix. They have gifts and believe they have knowledge, yet it has gotten them nowhere. Living the life of Christ in harmony with other believers is impossible if we think that knowledge, spiritual gifts, or all the great programs and strategies in the world will get us there. Paul is clear that the only thing that will make the body of Christ into the body of Christ is genuine love. From the beginning, the Church has struggled with jealousy, envy, selfishness, and biter in-fighting. In this short chapter, Paul offers the solution to all of that. It is not through a feeling, which is the world’s definition of love, it is through the behavior of love. Love is a behavior, but it is others-focused behavior not self-directed action. It is, in fact, the behavior that was and continues to be the language of God’s Kingdom.
Paul’s description of love is certainly challenging for us to live up to. Part of Paul’s whole line of thinking, though, is that a human can not live like this on their own power. It is only through living the life of Christ that one may begin to live like this. Part of the reason for this description, then, is to demonstrate that the one who is truly living in Christ will begin to display these characteristics. Have you seen growth in your life in these areas that Paul describes? Which facets of love are the most difficult for you?