Putting this phrase into its original context (1 Cor. 13:13) we realize this is not about a romantic chapter read at a wedding. It is a rebuke to a church that thought it had everything but lacked one thing and in reality had nothing! It is Paul’s celebration of love, not as something sensual (eros) or even natural (phileo) but deeply sacrificial (agape). It’s that more excellent a way than exhibitions of the divine Spirit’s power or notable human philanthropy! Love is… divine virtue flowing through humans agents embracing, empowering people around in need of God! But what does that look like, how is it humanly possible?
1. The Value of love (13:1-3) Mysterious tongues, Mountain-moving faith and benevolence to the point of Martyrdom are worthy gifts! Yet love is rated higher because without this grace these gifts are no good and fall short of God’s glory! If not undergirded by love they become meaningless, valueless and useless with no real power (v.1) purpose (v.2) or profit (v.3). Why does Paul choose these gifts?
In Corinth, the spectacular gift of speaking in another ‘heavenly’ worship language (glossolalia) was overestimated to create a second class of others who didn’t! Still others had ‘prophetic’ gifts to forth-tell God’s mysteries and Word, which they flaunted. Even today, some place high value on esoteric experiences that border the irrational in postmodernity. Others see pure scientific rationality and eloquence to articulate it as what really matters. For Paul any experience amounts to ‘nothing’ if it does not manifest God’s heart and caring presence. A loveless person produces nothing, profits nothing and is nothing!
2. The Virtues of love (13: 4-7) I’m guilty of treating this section as a catalogue of traits for believers to check if they possess or need more of. This description is nothing less than God’s awesome nature, embodied in his perfect Son and those qualities [character/fruit] only his Holy Spirit can produces!
Christlike love is patient and kind, not envious, proud or rude. It isn’t self-seeking, easily angered and doesn’t keep record of wrong. There is no encounter that is too difficult for love (v.4-5); it puts up with the worst and is never puffed up being the best! Further, there is no environment too dark for love (v.6); it never gets a kick out hurting people. It does the exact opposite, rather than finding pleasure in evil it desires yea delights in the truth. Thus it both preserves and proclaims the Truth/Jesus who has triumphed over all evil! Furthermore, there is no experience too demanding for love (v.7). It positively and consistently (always) protects, trusts, hopes and preserves. It is relentless and unstoppable in believing and bringing out the good in others, for the glory of God (Rom.8:28).
3. The Victories of love (13:8-13) When all else is failing… love never fails (v.8); when all else is fading… it never fades (v.9-11) when all else is fainting… it never faints (v.12). Love handles ‘all things’ – life’s mean, messy even meaningless things – it somehow takes hold of, trusts God for and triumphs through! Love is indeed the greatest because it lasts forever! Love isn’t just a language; it is the very life of heaven! Love is marked by divine perfection hence has permanence!
God’s Love entered our loveless world incarnated in Jesus. Paul expected him to come again in his lifetime! Spiritual gifts are given to build God’s kingdom, but when we see King Jesus face-to-face we will be like him (1Jn. 3:1-3). Everything made perfect and complete, there will be no need for additional knowledge, worship language or gifts for evangelism or Church growth. Till then our understanding remains incomplete – we think, reason, and speak out ‘like a child’! We still look through a dim mirror with poor reflection so can’t fully understand all things. Only a perfect God sees and perfectly knows everything. So instead of boasting, we must humbly trust and grow up – in Him, in love!
Examining love we realize it is nothing less than ‘the Love of God’ and recognize we lack this perfect love that casts out all fear! Yet we can experientially know love since God has revealed and commends his love toward us – selfish, sinful humans – in the person and work of his Son! All who trust the Lord Jesus can know and make known such love because God demonstrated and ‘by his Spirit’ deposits this love in our hearts (Rom.5:5). Love gives birth to love, constraining us to fervently follow after… (14:1) not esoteric experiences, erotic flings or get-away to exotic locations, but the true Pursuit of Happiness – the Best, Jesus!