In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 12:10b-31, which completed our study of chapter 12. The first part of the passage completed a list of nine gifts of the Spirit. And the rest of the chapter indicated that Paul gloried in the unity of Christ’s body, in spite of the diversity seen in the earlier verses. In the last verse of chapter 12 (v. 31) Paul promised to show the Corinthians a “more excellent way.” That did not mean that he was against supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Clearly he was in favor of them. He even encouraged them to seek “the greater gifts” (12:31). But there was something more important to seek. The better way is the way of love.
First, verses 12:1-3 reveal love’s necessity. Love is a more excellent way, because it is absolutely necessary that it underlay our character. If love is not at the heart of what and who we are, then our lives and ministries, even if supernaturally gifted, will be of little or no value. Notice that Paul does not say that our ministries always will be of no value to others. Supernaturally gifted persons, even if they have motives other than love, help some people in spite of themselves.
But notice the effect on the persons themselves. Verse one tells the Corinthians that if they speak in tongues without having love, they are just making noise. We must remember that speaking in tongues is speaking to God (14:2). The implication is that God isn’t interested in what they have to say, if they have no love.
Verse two informs them that if they prophesy, understand all mysteries and knowledge, and “have all faith, so as to move mountains,” but do so without love, they are nothing in God’s sight.
Verse three declares that even if they go so far as to give away their property, or deliver their bodies to be burned; and they do so without love, they gain nothing. Scholars are uncertain about Paul’s meaning when he talks about delivering one’s body to be burned. Among the suggestions are: seeking martyrdom, and being burned in the sense of branded as a slave. The idea of the latter suggestion is to sell oneself into slavery, ostensibly for the benefit of others. Still another idea that has been advanced is that Paul meant self-immolation, that is, suicide by self-burning. There is nothing in Paul’s language that indicates his approval of any of these. However they do represent extreme levels of dedication. And martyrdom was a reality for some early Christians.
The point of all this is that it is not the presence of the gifts of the Spirit that signify the working of God’s Spirit in a Christian, but rather the presence of God’s love. Thus we see love’s necessity.
Second, in verses 4-7 Paul explains love’s character.
As Paul begins to describe love, he begins with two things that love is, and then he gives a series of things it is not. The two things that Paul declares love to be are patient and kind. You will recognize patience and kindness as two of the fruit of the Spirit as set forth by Paul in Gal. 5:22-23. The fruit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. Notice that love heads the list. Based on the larger context, I believe we can confidently say that love contains the other fruit of the Spirit. That is, love is not simply one of nine fruit of the Spirit. It is by far the most important characteristic of the Holy Spirit, and the other eight fruit derive from it and describe it.
Turning to the things that Paul says love is not, we see that it is not envious or boastful. It is not proud, literally “puffed up.” Nor is it rude or self-seeking. Love is not “irritable” as the NRSV translates it, “not easily angered,” according to the NIV.
Next according to the NRSV, Paul declares that love is not “resentful.” “The NIV translates it, “keeps no record of wrongs.” The Greek literally reads, “does not reckon the evil.” In other words, those who love with God’s love do not let hurts or slights done to them fester. Instead they forgive, even as Jesus on the cross forgave those who crucified him.
Paul continues by saying that love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing (literally evil), but rejoices in the truth” (v. 6). In other words God’s love takes no pleasure in the evils around us such as war, greed, mistreatment of the poor, and so forth. Nor does it rejoice in the fall of another person. Love always wants God’s best for everyone.
Then in verse seven Paul concludes this little section with a series of verbs all with the same direct object “all things.” Love “bears (literally “covers”) all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” When he says that love “believes all things,” he does not mean that it believes anything and everything uncritically. Paul has established elsewhere that a Christian has to “test the spirits.” And Paul’s statement that love hopes and endures all things shows us that a Christian must never give up hope or fail to persevere.
Alright, we have seen love’s necessity and love’s character. Third, in verses 8-13 we see love’s permanence.
The first sentence of verse eight raises a couple of questions. One, some question whether the sentence “love never ends (NRSV) or fails” (NIV) is the end of the list in the previous paragraph, or if it is the beginning of this new paragraph. As you can see by the modern translations, most scholars agree that it begins the new paragraph, because its content goes with the content of the following verses.
Two, a question also rises over the meaning of the assertion that “love never ends.” The term translated “ends” or “fails” literally means “falls.” Therefore the sentence literally reads, “Love never falls.” The NRSV translators’ “love never ends” interprets “falls” to mean that love persists to the end, even if rebuffed. Thus it is closely related to the already-stated fact that love “endures.” The NIV translation, “love never fails” understands “falls” to mean that love never is brought down. It successfully withstands all attacks by the evil one. Personally, I believe the term is ambiguous enough that Paul easily may have had both of these ideas in mind. But “ends” is the best translation, because of what we see in the rest of verse eight, in which Paul speaks of three gifts of the Spirit that do come to an end, namely, prophecies, tongues and knowledge.
In verse nine Paul describes these three representative gifts as limited and temporary. They are limited, because they function only “in part.” They are not perfect or mature. Therefore at best they are only partial and thus limited. They also are temporary, because when the “complete” or “perfect” comes, they “will come to an end.”
In verses 11-12 Paul uses two analogies to nail down his point. First, he uses the analogy of giving up childish ways when one becomes an adult. He seems to be suggesting that the Corinthians, in their immaturity, still were acting like children. And second, he sets forth the analogy of looking into a mirror, which in those days provided a distorted image. Fee suggests that a modern equivalent would be a photograph. No matter how good the picture is, it is not the real thing. In other words, we have a distorted view of God now, and our knowledge of him also is distorted. But when the perfect comes, we will see and know God clearly.
Finally, in verse 13 Paul brings the chapter, to a conclusion by speaking of a triad that likely was familiar in early Christian preaching, namely, faith, hope and love. Faith refers to faith in Christ; hope refers to hope for the future; and love is love for God and others. These three remain Paul says; but of the three, the greatest is love.