Many times we turn to this chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, and view it as a stand-alone text that describes the glory of love. While this chapter certainly describes love and is glorious, it will be better understood if one sees it in the flow of Paul’s argumentation.
Just after Paul speaks of this more excellent way at the end of Ch. 12, he writes, “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.” (13:1-2)
If we recall Ch. 12, Paul specifically addressed the gifts of tongues and prophecy within the Corinthian Church, and he will resume addressing these gifts in Ch. 14. As a matter of fact, toward the end of Ch. 12 Paul asked rhetorical questions about the gifts of the Spirit. He asks if all are apostles, or if all are prophets, or if all are teachers. He also asks if all work miracles, possess gifts of healing, speak with tongues, or interpret (v. 28-30). The answer to all of the questions is, “No.”
Earlier in the chapter he had said that God placed the members in different places within the body for the edification of the body. The unifying factor in the body is not that each member has the same gifts, but that each member has the same Spirit. It is the Spirit of God. The Spirit gifts believers differently, but He indwells every believer (v. 4-13).
At the end of this chapter is when Paul essentially tells these Christians to stop squabbling over gifts of the Spirit. Paul will show them what is far better than the gifts themselves. It is love. That is when he pens the words listed above (in Ch. 13:1-2). At the very outset of chapter 13, the gifts of tongues and prophecy are addressed. These seemed to be the gifts most desired by the different factions in this church.
Paul said the most eloquent speech, whether of men or angels, that is done in the wrong spirit, with the wrong motives, for the wrong reason is like someone making an awful amount of noise that is not harmonious or melodious. It is horrendous. Notice that Paul isn’t stating that someone cannot employ a gift that looks good or sounds good on the surface. It may be judged as glorious by man, but if it is done without love at the center, God sees it as merely annoying noise (v.1).
Paul then expounds the list in verse 2 concerning prophetic powers. If someone has knowledge of mysteries and a clear, deep grasp of ideas, and has such strong faith that obstacles can seemingly be removed easily, but the person has not love, he/she is nothing. Can you imagine someone with such a commanding intellect, a deep knowledge on various topics, or faith that is able to believe in spite of any and all difficulties being as good as nothing? Those are gifts that many of us would like to experience. We value the visible but fail to see the vanity of the visible when it is not accompanied by true, biblical love.
Are you beginning to feel the force of Paul’s argument? The greatest of spiritual gifts is worthless if it is not accompanied by a desire for the good of others. Spiritual gifts are never meant to be a means to show how spiritual or good we are in and of ourselves. God gives us spiritual gifts for the edification of His body. We are to employ gifts for the good of others because we love Christ and His Church.
Paul sums up the matter in v. 3 concerning the greatest of sacrifices that could be made (on a human plane). Paul stated that if he could give all of his earthly possessions or even deliver up his body to be burned, (are there any more painful types of death) without love, nothing is gained.
How many of us, because we love someone so much, has been on the verge of giving away area single possession we own? How many of us have been willing to give up reputations, our time, or any other intangible item that we count as “our own?” To even deliver up your own body for burning is a worthless sacrifice if it is not done in a spirit of love. The greatest of sacrifices without love is an empty act.
This is the “tell all” for the Apostle. These Corinthians put all of their stock in having the gifts and employing the gifts. It was a church eaten up with divisions and factions. They tolerated open sin and false doctrine. Is it any wonder they were also having problems in this area as well?
To correct this, Paul wanted to reinforce the supremacy of love, and not the employment of spiritual gifts. Do we view the possession and expression of love as more valuable than visible possessions and expressions that seem more glamorous?
While we are not all gifted in the same way within the body of Christ, we are all called to pursue the same type of love that Paul is describing.