For as long as I can remember, I’ve referred to 1 Corinthians 13 as the “Love Chapter.” The Greek has several words which could be translated “love,” and none of them is able to express the fullness of the meaning of the word “love” as used here and elsewhere in the New Testament. I suspect that human languages have no such word, though agape or its verb form, agapao has been conscripted in the NT to fill the gap.
Some descriptions of love in the Old Testament help explain what is meant by the word agape in the NT. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18) gives us one aspect of God’s idea of love. In Deuteronomy 6:5, He tells us how He wishes to be loved by us: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
In the case of God’s love toward us, the word agape signifies a love “just because.” We don’t deserve it, and the only thing God can hope to gain from us is our love in return which, though He desires, He does not need and usually does not receive. Yet God does love us. It is this kind of love, this love called in the NT, agape for lack of a better word, which Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13.
We who live in the Kingdom of the Heavens are becoming the sorts of people–the people of God–who manifest agape toward God, toward our family of believers, and toward those who are in the world. We can only live this kind of love because of His Spirit living within us; because we have died to this world; because the life we now live, we live by the Son of God, and no longer is it we who live, but Christ Who lives in and through us. Humanly, it’s not possible, which may explain the lack of a suitable human word to symbolize this kind of love. Paul, playing off some things he’s said earlier to the Corinthians, describes some aspects of what he terms agape–what it is, and what it is not. This is not a shopping list for his readers to fill or a to do list to accomplish. It is a description. Do we have this agape love living within? Here’s how we can tell. If we don’t, the only thing to be done is to draw closer to Christ, for He is the source of agape, and there is no other supplier from whom we can obtain it. We haven’t the power to build it on our own–it can only grow within us as a response to hanging out with Jesus.
To start, Paul emphasizes that agape is the preeminent manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Many have used this portion of Paul’s letter to justify passing over the gifts of the Spirit (here mentioned: tongues, prophecy, knowledge, wisdom, special faith) as having any significance, however that is misreading Paul. He is here correcting the Corinthians’ imbalances, and they have, like many Pentecostal and Charismatic churches of today, placed far more emphasis on the gifts than on agape. This does not, in any sense, suggest that the gifts of the Spirit are bad or worthless or unimportant–it simply explains that, without agape, they are worthless.
The outward manifestations of agape: giving alms, and even submitting to martyrdom, mean nothing if they are not motivated by true agape within the person–which can only be the work of grace. We cannot, in ourselves, live agape. It is the gift of God alone.
Love is patient: Patience is possibly better translated in the KJV as longsuffering. Love may suffer because of the beloved’s unlovely behavior, but it does not give up.
Love is kind: Kindness means to show oneself useful, or to act with benevolence. Kindness, like love, is not just a feeling. It manifests itself in action.
Love does not envy: Envy (dzayloo) means to have warmth of feeling, either for or against, so it encompasses possessiveness toward the beloved as well as desire for his/her possessions or talents or attributes. Agape is not the sort of love that must possess the beloved.
Love is not boastful: Love is not a braggart–it doesn’t need to be seen as superior or to invoke the admiration of the beloved for him or herself.
Love is not conceited: This funny word means “to inflate,” and is, in the Greek, phusioo, like the sound one might make in puffing oneself up. The KJV translates it: puffed up. In nature, animals sometimes puff themselves up, either to ward off attackers or to attract mates. Love doesn’t do that–it’s vulnerable and genuine.
Love does not act improperly, behave itself unseemly, is not arrogant or rude. These are just three translations of this phrase, from the Holman Christian Standard, King James, and Revised Standard. There are more. The Greek word is aschemoneo, which Strong’s has as behave self uncomely or unseemly. I think probably all of the translations give us some aspect of this. An example of improper and unloving behavior might be the refusal of the Corinthian wives to show agape toward their husbands in the wearing of head coverings and in interrupting the church assembly with rude challenges to their men.
Love is not selfish. The King James translates this literally as “seeks not its own.” <i>Agape</i> isn’t out to please and benefit itself, but rather to benefit and bless the beloved. As an example, Paul has earlier explained to the Corinthians why flaunting their freedom to eat meats sacrificed to idols is unloving toward those weaker brethren it might cause to stumble.
Love isn’t easy to provoke: Agape isn’t overly sensitive, touchy, doesn’t make the beloved “walk on eggshells.” It doesn’t imagine offenses where none were intended, and is even capable of overlooking offenses which were, in fact, intended.
Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. How many of us do this? An argument surfaces and presto–all the hurts our beloved (or not so beloved) has ever committed against us bubble right up to the surface. We may not verbalize them, as most of us know this is a bad thing to do, but do we silently ennumerate them and allow them to build the hostility of the situation?
Love finds no joy in unrightesness. The word used here, adikia, means “moral wrongfulness.” Love doesn’t rejoice in immoral acts–specifically immoral sex acts. Paul has discussed this matter with the Corinthians already in this letter at some length. “If you love me, you’ll do it” doesn’t work, for “if you really love,” you will refuse to engage in immoral behavior or to even imagine doing so with your beloved. Lust is not love. Love rejoices in righteousness–not in immorality.
Love bears (or endures) all things. This word, stego, means literally to place a roof over, and figuratively, to cover with silence. That is, to endure patiently and without complaining or gossiping. Love shelters the beloved, hides his flaws, protects him. The lover suffers, but quietly and without complaining either in words or in manner . . . Believing all things–or having faith in Jesus Christ for the beloved . . . Hoping for the perfecting of our beloved with confident expectation . . . Enduring all things–refusing to give up on the beloved.
Unlike the spiritual gifts under discussion in chapter 12, love never ends. There will always be a place and a job for love, though it will not always require the rigors described in verse 7.
Prophecy will one day not be needed, for we will be with God. What need will we have for some brother or sister to tell us what God is saying to the church when we can speak with Him face to face? Speaking in unknown languages will no longer be needed as a sign (there will be no unbelievers) or to help in our prayer lives . . . and possibly there will be no more unknown languages, as we will know them and understand them all. The special gift of knowledge will likewise no longer be needed, for all knowledge will be available to us. The gifts of knowledge and prophecy could be compared to looking through a telescope. You can see only a very limited part of the sky or land through a telescope at any one moment, but when the perfect is available to us–when we’re actually there, we no longer need the telescope. We can see the whole picture.
During a sea voyage, we might find the help of a telescope, a GPS, a computer navigational program, etc., essential to our voyage. Once we arrive, we have no more need of these things we found so useful in our journey. How silly we would look, trying to see the land we were standing on by looking at it through a telescope! Or looking at our handheld GPS receiver to find directions to a location we could see down the beach a few hundred yards! (Incidentally, I can see my dad roaming around Heaven, entering check-points on his GPS though he knows perfectly well where they are and can be there in a moment. I expect there are way cooler things in Heaven than GPS receivers, though, so maybe not.) 😉
Paul compares our present perceptual abilities to those of a child in an adult world. Kids see what’s going on, but often don’t understand it. It’s as if they go about in a haze, walled in by their own little concerns and understanding very little of the wide world around them. As they grow, this limited perception broadens–and for most of us, this process doesn’t (and shouldn’t) come to an abrupt halt when we reach adulthood.
The mirrors in Corinth (which was famous for its high quality mirrors) weren’t like our mirrors of today. They were made of bronze, and no matter how you polish even a fine metal such as bronze, it will give you a dark and imperfect reflection. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same as seeing a person face to face. Our perception of God and one another in this world is like the reflection we might see in a bronze mirror. In the next world, we will know fully. Therefore, the helps God has given us to assist us through this age–the spiritual gifts–will no longer be needed.
Why do we still need faith and hope when we have reached the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God? The Bible Knowledge Commentary suggests that faith and hope are characteristics of love. That makes sense to me. Another point of view that I like very much, from the People’s New Testament commentary, asserts that: “As long as the redeemed saint shall have future ages before him, so long will trust in God and hope give them brightness, while love itself is the very atmosphere of the divine life.” Doubtless, these both have the element of truth.
How do we walk in this divine love? We can’t. As I said earlier, this is a description. If it doesn’t accurately portray where and how we find ourselves being, then we’re not walking in God’s love. The solution is not to try to do the things and to have the motivations Paul has described here. It is simply to seek God. He’s promised that when we search for Him with all our hearts, He’ll be found of us. He’s here, after all, all around every one of us. In Him we live and move and have our being. Our strong and genuine desire for Him makes Him perceptible to us, and when we see Him, we’ll be like Him. The more of Him we see, the more of His character will live in us.