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Understanding Love from 1 Corinthians 13

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

If we aren’t serving in love, we’re missing the point.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 13

God wants us to serve Him in our churches using the gifts He has given us. BUT it is when we are motivated by love that our effectiveness will be its greatest. Only love lasts forever (we won’t need our gifts in heaven). We need to make love our priority and goal in every action we take as Christians.

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Famous Scrooges.

I just have to say the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” and a very specific kind of person comes to mind—miser, stingy, misanthrope, unloving, mean. So here’s a topic that might get conversation going: “Name some famous, real-life Scrooges.” I googled “Famous misers” and was absolutely shocked at what I found (there are all very wealthy people). Thomas Cooke would eat for free by visiting people at dinner time. John Elwes (apparently the inspiration for Scrooge) would steal hay from his guests’ horses. Daniel Dancer would make his sister cook carrion because it was free. Morgan Jones stole clothes off of scarecrows. Daniel Ludwig fired someone for wasting a paper clip. J. Paul Getty installed a payphone at his mansion for guests to use. Hetty Green went to free clinics under a false name. Wellington Burt put a “spite clause” in his will against his children and grandchildren. John Davidson was a devout Presbyterian but never tithed. H. L. Hunt (who inspired J. R. Ewing) parked down the street from his office so he wouldn’t have to pay his own parking fee. Ingvar Kamprad recycles tea bags. Tiger Woods hates tipping. Then go look up Leona Helmsley and Andrew Carnegie. There are lots of stories of family members dying because one of these people wouldn’t foot a medical bill.

What is the problem with being a Scrooge? Well, consider the “moral” of A Christmas Carol to find out. It’s one part of Paul’s lesson in our passage today—if what you do is not in love, then it’s not actually worth anything.

Friction Experiments!

One resource mentioned “friction” in a comment, and that makes for a super-fun illustration if you want to prepare for it! Put some dry rice in a container, put a pencil in it, and when you try to lift it out, the whole container lifts! Take two small books/magazines and interlace the pages, then try to pull them straight apart. Don’t hurt yourself! Friction is a part of life. Here’s where you’re going with this: friction is unavoidable, and sometimes it can be destructive.

Bring up the internal combustion engine. For those to work as efficiently as possible, the seals on the pistons have to be extremely tight. But that creates a lot of friction which creates a lot of heat. What do we use to minimize the impact? Oil! Now make this mind-blowing pivot: in a church, we “rub shoulders” with a lot of people, sometimes with very different ideas and goals. That creates emotional friction which can “raise the emotional temperature” of people. How do we keep that from “exploding”? Love. Love is the spiritual “oil” that enables us to work with one another even when we have big differences. Talk about that—have you seen “love” to make tense or difficult situations better in a church setting? How about when love hasn’t been evident? Did that make things worse?

This Week's Big Idea: Luvv.

1 Corinthians 13 is the definitive statement on love. Anywhere. You can go to lots of sources for other definitions of love (here’s a page: “famous definitions of love from 400 years of literature” ). I decided instead to give you what the valentine’s machine churns out:

Basically, our culture just makes fun of love. Most of what you find out there about love is too inappropriate even to find funny, so maybe drop by CVS, pick up some cheap and cheesy “I love you” cards, and show them as a way of letting them see what we get bombarded with as a definition of love. Biblical love is nothing at all like that. Biblical love “has God as its object, true motivator, and source. Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and is not directed toward the world or the things of the world (the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life). The ultimate example of God’s love is the Lord Jesus Christ, who said, ‘I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.’ (John 13:34).” (Holman Bible Dictionary)

Our Context in 1 Corinthians

I have heard 1 Corinthians 13 read at a bunch of weddings (and for good reason!). But the truth is that Paul expects this kind of loving relationship between every Christian everywhere. There are no sexual connotations in Paul’s definition of love (which is what confuses young people who only hear that word used in that way); and in fact, Paul associates love with the proper exercise of the spiritual gifts we talked about last week. We like to say that love is an action, a decision (and it is)—Paul here lets us know that love is a motivation, a perspective, and a purpose. Isn’t that an amazing viewpoint to take? Does that make your heart smile? “Love” is the way we should look at the world around us and choose to act with one another in our church.


Part 1: Necessity of Love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Start at the previous verse (12:31)—Paul does not intend this to be a random aside on the definition of “love”. He is saying this because “love” is what makes spiritual gifts meaningful. Warning: excessive food analogies ahead! If we think of the church (the people and their gifts) as a recipe that God has put together, then love is the secret sauce that makes it all work. A church trying to work together without love is like eating a cheesesteak without tabasco, or eggs without tabasco, or French fries without tabasco. You can do it, but it sucks the joy right out of it all. Paul didn’t have the blessing of tabasco, so he used illustrations that his people would have understood. He starts with the clanging cymbal. That led me down a rabbit hole of “what are really annoying sounds”, and I actually found a list—it’s below. Play a really annoying sound while trying to say something spiritually uplifting—the effect will be exactly what Paul was trying to say. (By the way, I explain “angelic tongues” below as well.) The word for cymbal literally just means “noisy brass” and refers to any brass sheet that would be hit loudly when it was time for some pagan worship event. Very annoying. And then he turns the tables on the Corinthian Christians who were very proud of their “spiritual gifts” of tongues and wisdom: gifts without are worthless.

You can have every spiritual gift “in the book”. You can be wise, knowledgeable, self-sacrificing, speak in tongues, you name it. But if you don’t have love (think of the misers on the front page), you may as well have nothing. It’s worthless. (Note, Paul is being hyperbolic here—no one on earth can actually understand all mysteries; but if that person existed, and did not have love, then even that great gift would be utterly worthless.) On the one hand, we remember that no action can earn us salvation, but on the other, we remember that it is possible for a Christian to forget why God saved us and blessed us. We must never forget!


Aside: What Is the Most Annoying Sound in the World?

Because scientists watch movies too, one group who watched “Dumb and Dumber” actually wanted to investigate what the most annoying sound in the world would be. So, through extensive testing, they complied the ten most upsetting sounds (neurologically) to the human brain:

  1. A knife on a bottle

  2. A fork on a glass

  3. Chalk on a blackboard

  4. A ruler on a bottle

  5. Nails on a blackboard

  6. A female scream

  7. An anglegrinder (a power tool)

  8. Squealing brakes on a bicycle

  9. A baby crying

  10. An electric drill

Surprisingly, those researchers did not associate our responses to the noises with some evolutionary vestige—they concluded that the shape of our ears simply amplifies certain sounds that produce an actual pain response in our brains (specifically the amygdala). So if you want to get a response out of your class, bring in one of these sounds and then try to say something important (like read John 3:16) while playing that sound. Do they get anything out of what you said? I bet they didn’t! That’s Paul’s point . . .

[Because I'm obsessive, here are the least irritating sounds in the world:

1. Applause 2. A baby laughing 3. Thunder 4. Water flowing]


Aside: Tongues of Angels??

Today, we use phrases like “she sings like an angel” or “he looks like an angel” or whatever, and frankly they don’t mean anything other than “we like that”. But in Paul’s day, people spoke of angels only in literal senses, not metaphorical. When Paul talks about “tongues of angels”, he refers to something specific and concrete.

Early Christians, taking their cue from Jesus, believed that angels were active in the world (see Heb 1:14); we get the idea of a “guardian angel” from Jesus (Matt 18:10) even if what we imagine today isn’t what Jesus meant. Angels must communicate with God (just as they communicate with people—they are God’s messengers, after all), but in what language would they do so?

In 1 Cor 14:2, Paul says, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God.” He doubles down on this in verse 14, “For when I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind in unfruitful.” This implies at least some scenarios in which speaking in tongues is completely unintelligible to anyone. Well, Paul believes that tongues are actual languages (see Pentecost), so if someone speaks in a tongue that cannot be understood, it must be a heavenly language. In this passage, “tongues of men and angels) literally refers to every language spoken on earth and in heaven. This does not necessarily mean that there are multiple languages spoken in heaven—we really don’t know how that works (I’m guessing Hebrew), but there will be some sort of verbal communication (see Revelation).


Part 2: Nature of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

My guess is that you will want to save most of your time for this section because this is the section that most of us will be inspired by (and for good reason). Here are excerpts from my favorite Bible dictionary.

  • Love is patient—can be translated longsuffering (a fruit of the Spirit), a quality that does not seek revenge but endures wrong in order to express grace.

  • Love is kind—can be translated gracious, virtuous, useful, mild, or pleasant; the opposite of harsh, sharp, or bitter. This is actually a verb in the Greek.

  • Love is not envious—can be translated covetous; in other words, love does not jealously desire what it does not have. (This would be a good place to remind everyone of David’s last sermon.)

  • Love is not boastful or arrogant—these are related ideas of self-promoting, puffed up; in context, this has to do with considering others as more important than self. Whereas “boastful” is about action and is obvious, “arrogant” is about attitude and can be hidden (but God knows).

  • Love is not rude—refers to immoral, indecent, or unbecoming behavior; Paul uses this term to refer to homosexuality. In other words, actions rooted in love will never have the appearance of evil.

  • Love is not self-seeking—conceited, which literally means acting in own self-interest; love cares about the spiritual impact of our action on another person.

  • Love is not irritable—easily provoked, exasperated, made angry; a person acting in love will never respond to anger with anger (we all know how destructive anger is in a relationship).

  • Love does not keep a record of wrongs—the word literally refers to bookkeeping/mathematics (some people say this means “love always sees the best in people”; no, it’s more “love doesn’t remember the worst in people”); this means that love always forgives wrongdoing (see the sidebar).

  • Love finds no joy in unrighteousness—referring to either sinful acts (Rom 1:18) or unjust behavior (1 Cor 13:6); if the former, Paul means that Christians can never laugh about sin or its consequences; if the latter, Paul means that Christians can never find joy in condemning someone else for a sin. Sin can always be forgiven, and broken relationships can be reconciled, but Christians acting in love would always rather that sin not happen in the first place.

  • Love rejoices in the truth—basically the opposite of the previous definition (“truth” is a more comprehensive term than “righteousness”); sin is always built on lies, but love is always rooted in truth. Even when the truth hurts, a Christian knows that white lies and half truths are not a recipe for love (because what happens when the other finds out you were lying?).

  • Love bears all things—this relates back to “patient” at the beginning of the list; there is no offense that love cannot handle.

  • Love believes all things—in context, Paul is talking about “with respect to God and His promises”. “Love” does not mean that you believe a person “just because”; that’s destructive and irresponsible. Rather, we believe that God will always come through for our good, and that God’s Spirit can always change a person for their good.

  • Love hopes all things—closely related to the last, this is just completing the important triad of faith, hope, and love.

  • Love endures all things—closely related to the first, this is about the duration of patience (it never ends).

Clearly, love is not a feeling/emotion. Love is an action and an attitude that should characterize every relationship between Christians. This is a great passage to memorize—for marriages, for parents, for church members, for every relationship. If we could embody this in the realistic and responsible way Paul intends, our lives and families and churches would be revolutionized.


Aside On Forgiveness

I recently led a small group on forgiveness (closely related to love), and we said this (among other things): Forgiveness is not some form of amnesia; true forgiveness does not pretend that something didn’t happen but addresses it head-on. True forgiveness does not deny the hurt and ignore the anger. True forgiveness does not minimalize the offense. It doesn’t say, “Don’t worry about it; it’s no big deal”. Forgiveness doesn’t bypass the arduous journey by saying, “Oh, I know you didn’t mean any harm.” No, that person may have meant to harm you, and that’s not all right. Forgiveness does not always restore a relationship to what it once was. That may not be possible or wise. Rather, true forgiveness is the process of thoroughly understanding an offense and truly/completely releasing the offender. That’s how we should understand love.


Part 3: Permanence of Love (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known. Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love.

Here’s Paul primary argument about the foolishness of the misguided Corinthian Christians: they were taking pride in things that are completely temporary (think “you can’t take it with you”). Will there be prophecy in heaven? Of course not! (Why not?) Will there be tongues in heaven? Will there be faith or hope in heaven? No! There will be no need for any of that! Use this illustration: what should we treat with greater honor: costume jewelry, or an heirloom diamond? The diamond, of course, because it is of greater value and greater permanence. That’s exactly what Paul is saying about the spiritual gifts and love. Which of those things will actually last forever? Love. That’s the value. Now, we only see some of “the big picture”, but when we are with God we will finally be complete and know everything that we could ever know. (Note: some writers claim that this verse “proves” that the miraculous gifts like tongues have already ceased. This verse has nothing to do with that; and wouldn’t that mean that knowledge has already ceased?)

Basically, Paul is saying that the Corinthian Christians were behaving like children. They had no perspective, they were being immature, and they had no sense of true value and importance. Corinth was famous for their production of polished bronze mirrors.

In fact, “Corinthian bronze” was more highly valued than gold in the ancient Greek world; it was a special alloy of copper and gold and silver. After Rome destroyed Corinth, the technique more making their bronze was lost, so the Corinthians would re-polish old artifacts and try to recover the lost technique. The newer, lesser bronze mirrors were still good, but tarnished easily. Paul accused the Corinthians of pridefully preferring their tarnished reflections to seeing someone face-to-face (think “I would rather speak in tongues and feel important than speak to God in heaven”). Ridiculous! One day, we will open our eyes in heaven and see God—we will know Him without the tarnish of our sin; our thoughts and attitudes will not be distorted by our human frailty; we will no longer be ashamed by our failure; we will be with Jesus, and we will not be afraid any more. That is love. That is why we do what we do here so that our church can reach more people who can then spend eternity with us enjoying that love.

So here’s our challenge: ask “When we serve, is showing love our priority? Is love our first motivating factor? If we realize it is not, let’s commit to act out of love (not duty, pride, power) the next time we serve in our church.”


Closing Thoughts: What Is Love?

There is no end to the “fun” you can have with this word and the way it is used in American culture. In the Bible, three different Greek words are translated “love”.

(1) Eros is where we get our word “erotic” and refers to passionate love. This could be physical, but it could also refer to any kind of “thrill”.

(2) Philos is where we get Philadelphia and refers to our affection for other people; brotherly love, as they say. It was used to describe one person’s compassion for another.

(3) Agape is the word used in our passage (just like in 1 John 4, if you remember what we studied there), and it has a quite different field of meaning that the first two words.

In early Greek (pre-New Testament), this word described the relationship between a superior and an inferior (if you remember the publicans/patrons and the plebians from your Greek history, that’s this). The person of superior social status would “adopt” a lower-class individual and assist and encourage that person. Sometimes, the lower-class individual could even be lifted into an upper class. The word agape was used to describe that caring action which often could not be “repaid”.

The New Testament authors chose this word to describe God’s sacrificial, condescending (in a positive way) love for humanity. God reached down and lifted us through an incredible act of love / agape. Importantly, it was not used solely of God. John makes it clear that we are to show this same kind of non-reciprocating, uplifting love for one another. We must not expect to receive anything in return for this love; that is what makes it agape.


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