The Supremacy of Love

The church at Corinth had a problem: they were divisive, and petty. They fought over issues like: who is the best preacher, what are we free to do as Christians, or how to perform one’s spiritual gift. That last issue, Paul spends three chapters (12-14) detailing the use and function of the gifts within the church. In the middle of that section, falls 1 Corinthians 13, the so-called Love Chapter. The purpose of this chapter is to show that love is supreme over the exercise of the spiritual gifts.

Spiritual Gifts Without Love Are Useless: Verses 1-3

Paul begins the chapter with several statements of hyperbole. He begins each statement with an “if” clause, which he uses to set up his argument which is a form of modus tollens.[1] He inserts into the equation the most extreme forms of gifts and results. He repeats the word πας four times. He notes the extreme of faith,[2] which is moving mountains, and the extreme end of sacrifice which is death by fire. Thus, it is necessary to note this context of hyperbole when interpreting the phrase “tongues of men and of angels.” Paul is not stating a fact that the Corinthian church was speaking in tongues of angels.[3] Rather, he is using the extreme to prove his point, assuming the impossibility of the statement, just as it is impossible to have all knowledge and understand all mysteries.

Paul argues for the supremacy of love because use of the gifts becomes worthless noise without love. First, as noted above, even the in extremities of human eloquence, without love the gift becomes mere noise. Second, the gifts of prophecy and faith do not make a person anything. In regard to prophecy, Meyers points out that “Paul adduces only two charismata (προφητεια and πιστις) in the protasis and consequently uses και ειδω . . . γνωσιν to mark out the degree of προφητεια.” This idea “is shown plainly by himself in his repeating the και εαν.”[4] Thus, the focus of prophecy here is on the proclamation of theology and Scriptures and not on the foretelling of future events. Third, even the sacrifice of one’s possessions and life do not gain any accomplishment if done is a selfish manner without love.

The Attributes of Love: Verses 4-7

In this section, Paul takes an aside from his argument about the supremacy of love to define the attributes of love. First, Paul does not discuss the gifts in the section at all. Second, he focuses on several attributes of love that could be true in the use of the gifts. So, for example, one can give away all his possessions (v. 3) with love and not brag about its work (v. 4).

Paul notes that love does not have self-centered attributes. These attributes include jealousy, bragging, arrogance, unbecoming actions, self-seeking, anger, keeping a list of wrongs, and rejoicing in wrongs. The last, rejoicing in wrong, is particularly necessary to understand. Wrong here does not necessarily mean sin or wickedness, but it carries with it the idea of someone being disadvantaged. Thus, the person who loves does not rejoice when another person is disadvantaged in any way.

On the other hand, Paul notes that love has other-focused attributes. These include patience, kindness, rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things. Here the idea behind all things is not everything in the world, but is limited to the context of one’s relationship with another person. Thus, one bears all things that another person might inflict; one believes all things that another person might say, unless it is proven otherwise; one hopes that even if the other person is wrong, he will change to the better; and even if he does not change, love will endure all the wrongs inflicted by the other.

Love Is Unending, Unlike Gifts: Verses 8-13

Paul returns to his argument, contrasting the endurance of love and the temporary nature of the gifts. His first statement, “love never fails; but . . . [the gifts] will be done away,” but control the discussion of the following paragraph. Too quickly, commentators get side tracked with the idea of cessationism and the close of the canon. Although that proposition may be true, it does not appear to be what Paul is talking about. Paul is focusing on the permanent nature of love and the impending end of the gifts.

Paul describes the cessation of the gifts. No one opposes the idea that the gifts will end sometime. However, the debate rages over when that “sometime” is. There are at least three possible views on this subject: (1) “It may refer to the completion of the canon of Scripture,”[5] (2) “it may refer to the maturation of the Body of Christ (in the sense of Ephesians 4:11-16 [i.e. on this earth]),”[6] or (3) it may refer to “the advent of the Parousia.”[7]

The first two interpretations do not adequately explain the referent of the perfect. In support of the first, the gifts in this section are the revelatory gifts given by the Spirit.[8] Howes assert that prophecy was “imparted before the Bible was finished, for which no need would remain after it was finished.”[9] However, this view does not adequately explain the statement in verse twelve “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” To take the mirror as the impartial canon and the face to face as the completed canon seems to stretch the metaphor, because even to this day scholars debate and argue over the meaning of the Bible (this own section being a prime example).[10] The second view of “the perfect” fits better with the metaphors of maturation and in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit for the maturing of the body. However, this view does not take into account that the Spirit gives the gifts to local churches. And thus, if the second statement were true, the charisma should appear in every new church plant until the church becomes established.

The third view—that the perfect is the Parousia—fits the evidence the best. First, the three gifts mentioned here are examples of the gifts. In the first section Paul brings up these three gifts because of their desirable and flamboyant nature and no one argues that the gifts in that section are the only ones that are ineffective without love. So too here, Paul mentions several gifts that are examples of the rest. Second, prophecy is not just biblical revelation, but it refers to the proclamation of God’s word. Later, in chapter 14:1-3, Paul commands the Corinthians to purse prophecy because it is “for edification and exhortation and consolation.” Third, the reference to “face to face” and “I will fully know” will only be fulfilled when Jesus returns and brings his people to him. Thus, when believers are perfected, then the full knowledge of the mysteries of God be revealed.

In contrast to the gifts, love remains. The νυνι δε does not refer to a specific time, but Paul uses it in conclusive sense. And the verb μενει speaks of the eternal permanence of these three virtues. [11] Thus, while the gifts cease, the virtues will be a part of eternity.

Conclusion

In the end, love and its use daily in the Christian life stands above any gift and talent which the Lord may allow a believer to have. The hardest part of love is that love must be produced by constant fellowship with the Spirit. Gifts can be trained. Preachers can perfect their oratory skills. Scholars can study and gain immense knowledge. However, there is no academic training ground that can teach a man to love his brother. Love only comes through a humble walk with God.

[1] If A, then B. If not B, then not A. A = profitability of the gift. B = use of love with the gift.

[2] John Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 267.

[3] Contra: Jerry Falwell, Edward Hindson, and Woodrow Kroll, eds., “1 Corinthians,” in Liberty Commentary on the New Testament (Lynchburg: Liberty Press, 1978), 417.

[4] Heinrich Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Epistles to the Corinthians (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1884), 302.

[5] Falwell, Hindson, and Kroll, “1 Corinthians,” 418.

[6] Ibid.

[7]  Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Epistles to the Corinthians, 306.

[8]  Falwell, Hindson, and Kroll, “1 Corinthians,” 218.

[9]  Garner Howes, First Corinthians (Lakeland: The Blessed Hope Foundation, 1976), 210.

[10] Dwight Hunt, “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert Wilkin (Denton: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 752.

[11]  Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, vol. 1 (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 659.

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