1 Corinthians 13. One of the most beautiful expressions about the importance of love. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul is trying to lead the people to a better way than they were presently living in their worship. They were using their Spiritual gifts given to them, but it was done with a concern to lift up some people over others, with no concern for order and building each other up. Instead, the community in Corinth was quite divisive. Love was not characterizing the community. Nowhere in 1 Corinthians does Paul suggest these people weren’t genuinely believers or that they didn’t have a relationship with God. Rather, throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul tries to get them to move onto maturity which is defined by those who go beyond simply trusting in God’s powers but come to love God and as an outflow of that, loving others.
So, when we come to 1 Corinthians 13, we are seeing Paul describe the telos/purpose towards which Paul is endeavoring the Corinthians to come to. The Corinthians were gifted, but they needed to add love on top of that giftedness or all their usage of their gifts was done without purpose.
We come to this passage nestled in 1 Corinthians 13.4-7 which defines what it looks like for a person to love. It is often assumes that this passage describes what it looks like when an individual comes to love. However, there is important note to make about Paul’s discourse in 13.1-3. Paul does not speak of people “loving,” but rather “having love” (ἀγάπην ἔχω) three different times. In 1 Corinthians 13, love is something to possess, similar to how people might be said to be possess wisdom. In that sense, love in understood in 1 Corinthians 13 not as an action, but it is personified. It sounds much like the personification of wisdom that the Corinthians might have been familiar with, just as God’s wisdom is personified in Proverbs and elsewhere in Jewish literature. Like wisdom, love was something that believers come to possess in 1 Corinthians 13, it isn’t simply something that one *does.* Comparable to the maturation in wisdom, love is the mark of growing in maturity, much like we see in Ephesians 3.14-19, 4.15-16, or even Philippians 2.1-11.
Love is something we learn. It isn’t something that just comes naturally to us. Christian, agape love is planted, fertilized, nurtured, and grown within our lives over the course of time. It is part of the fruit of the Spirit, which we must sow in order to reap. It is something that we may begin to possess, but it is never fully materialized in our lives until we know fully (1 Cor. 13.13).
So, when we get to the list of characteristics in verses 4-7, we aren’t getting the checklist of what it means to be a believer in Jesus. We are getting the picture of what it means to be matured in Christ, to be the people God has called us to be. This vision of love is presented as a vision for community that is antithetical to the hyper-competitiveness of Greco-Roman society that characterized the pursuit of wisdom and thus characterized the Corinthian community.
Unfortunately, we can use 1 Corinthians in a way that treats love as sort of the foundation and bedrock of being a Christian. Yet, for Paul, it is the telos that Christ matures us towards. However, to realize this maturity, it isn’t about one person just mustering up love within themselves; we don’t pull ourselves to love simply by our own bootstraps. It is something that we must learn to do and that we learn to do by a combination of endeavoring to love and being the recipients of love. We know from studies in attachment that the nature of our relationships have a tremendous impact on the way we have relationships with others; the type of love we receive often has a tremendous impact on the type of love we give. For love to flourish and grow, the sharing of love must be mutual.
However, how often in our relationships do we get into some sort of one-up-manship about who isn’t loving in the relationships, blaming the bad nature of the relationship on the other person. Marriages often fall into a dark hole because of this way of thinking. However, Paul doesn’t come to take sides in Corinth, saying who is the winner and loser in the contest of showing love, but rather he invites the community as a whole into a new perspective and way of life, because fundamentally growing love is a mutual responsibility. Even for Jesus, there is the mutual love of the Father and the Son. While Paul does talk about the individual in verses 1-3, it is done more so to show the feebleness of the gifts apart from love, not to treat love as the effort of the lone individual to simply muster up.
We as Christians learn to love, deeply and well, through God and through each other. It isn’t some automatic capacity of the Christian to love. Even though Jesus taught that the two most important commandments were to love God and love neighbor, Jesus didn’t say that with the impression that we just readily do love God and neighbor. In fact, at the very heart of the vision of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31.31-34 is that people don’t just naturally love/know God as people were saying to one another “know God,” but it is something that must be written onto the heart. We don’t come out of the spiritual womb knowing how to love the way God loves, but it is something that is cultivated in us by God in Christ and through the Spirit and the community of those called and matured in Christ through the loving use of the gifts of the Spirit. Without love, we may still have God as our father, but it is only through love that we begin to know God and comprehend His wisdom (1 Corinthians 2.6-9; 1 John 4.7-8)