Chapter 13 in First Corinthians is perhaps Paul’s most famous writing. The John MacArthur study Bible says it “is considered by many the finest literary passage ever penned by Paul,” and it is much quoted, notably at weddings. So let’s take a close look at it.
It’s all about love, of course, but the first thing to say is that it is not about romantic love. It’s all agape and no eros.
Here’s the text, which the NASB has rightly divided into three paragraphs:
13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
This is not meat-and-potatoes writing. It’s all about love, but each paragraph makes an different point, and each is a self-contained little prose poem. There is cadence and rhythm and repetition.
The three sentences in the first paragraph are each structured the same way: If I do X [where X=something great], “but do not have love,” then all I have is Y [where Y=nothing]. Paul is making the point that no ability, no act is worth anything if it lacks love.
The second paragraph is one long sentence, chiasmusly structured (1) love is [list of good things]; (2) love is not [list of bad things]; and (3) love is [list of more good things]. The third paragraph is more complicated, but has the same general structure: (1) what love is and, here, it’s about its permanence, (2) how things that aren’t love lack that permanence, and (3) back to love and, along with faith and hope, its permanence.
The substance is even more riveting than the style.
Consider the first paragraph: Apparently there was conflict in the church at Corinth about the spiritual gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues, and Paul’s insistence that these gifts were nothing without love may seem unremarkable to us now, since we’re not much impressed with prophets and glossolaliacs these days (although note that having “all knowledge” is included as part of prophecy). But consider the rest of the paragraph, in which Paul says, unless you act with love, it’s meaningless to sell all your belongings to feed the poor or to be burned at the stake as a martyr. What’s more, without love you’re nothing even if you “have all faith, so as to remove mountains.” Wow.
In the second paragraph, here’s Paul’s list of what love is: patient, kind, and truth-loving, and it bears, believes, hopes, and endures “all things.” And love is not: boastful, arrogant, rude, selfish, provocative, grudge-carrying, or sin-loving. One senses that some of this is prompted by the particular sorts of unlovingness of the Corinthians, but what Paul said is true for the ages as well. In a word, love is gentle but strong, always putting others first.
In the third paragraph, as in the first paragraph, Paul is concerned with putting into proper perspective the spiritual gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues — and, again more surprisingly, even knowledge. Nothing wrong with any of those, of course, but Paul says that for now — that is, until we are with God — all of them are limited. Love, on the other hand Paul continues, need not have that present limitation. And surely it is indeed true that, while humans fall short of God’s powers in all respects, we can more easily aspire to be God-like in our loving than in our intelligence.
A couple of points regarding the last sentence of the chapter, “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
First, it’s easy to see why “faith” is of abiding importance to Paul, and why “love” is, too. The former is all that is necessary and sufficient for salvation, and the latter — loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves — is the sum of what God wants from us in our behavior.
But why is “hope” on this very short list? Perhaps because it is a necessary element of both faith and love — which would also account for it being placed between the other two. Hope describes what one would like to happen in the future, generally when there is some uncertainty. So hope can strengthen faith (“I believe; help my unbelief!,” Mark 9:24), and it can make it easier to love those who may not so unloveable at present (but can, with God’s help, change). And then, famously, there is Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Second, as he did in the first paragraph, here Paul ranks love even above faith. That is quite remarkable, is it not? The Bible says that God insists that we have both, of course, and as noted faith is necessary and sufficient for our salvation — but that makes it all the more breathtaking that, when it comes down to it, Paul calls on us to focus most strongly on love.