1 Corinthians 13 is such a beautiful chapter. When we teach it, memorize it, or discuss it, however, we have a great tendency to pull it out of the entire book of 1 Corinthians and view it independently. The reality is that is cannot stand alone. Chapter 13 is a center point for Paul’s discussion on spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14, and is also an integral part of the book as a whole. As such, its full and rich meaning cannot truly be understood without the bigger picture.
Without the bigger picture, chapter 13 takes on the appearance of a chapter on people pleasing. It becomes about making sure that people feel loved. When taken in context of the chapters before and after, however, this popular love chapter takes on a completely different image.
First of all, the context shows that this lesson on love is actually restricted to the church. The spiritual gifts are about the edification of the church, not about our interaction with the world at large. Therefore, the love chapter deals with how to implement our spiritual gifts in a way that communicates God’s love for and edification of the body of believers, equipping them to go out and live that love before the world.
Secondly, studying chapter 13 in context reminds us that Paul is not stating that the generally accepted concept of being loving (aka never hurting anyone’s feelings/pleasing people) is more important than spiritual gifts. On the contrary, it distinguishes God’s love from the people-pleasing love of the world. It is instead an eternal love – the kind that fits with the concept that our love for one another will show that we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:35); the kind that goes hand in hand with Jesus’ statement that our love for Him is shown in our obedience (John 14). It is a disciplinary love. Kind, selfless, and not arrogant, yes, but not always painless. That will be pursued a bit more in the next point…
1 Cor 14:1 says, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Scripturally, prophecy is sometimes of the predictive sort. Maybe a foretelling of some future event. Possibly a glimpse into the mysteries of heaven. But the majority of the message of the prophets does not necessarily fit into those two categories. Instead, it is a gifting of the prophet to take what God has said in His Word and apply it specifically to a current situation. In this context, the gift of prophecy is the ability to see the potential consequences of the current actions of a fellow believer. There is a burning passion to look at a brother or sister and say, “If you continue on this path and refuse to grow, this is what you will face.” One can imagine how often a prophet would appear to be rather harsh and unloving. In reality, however, a passionately deep love for their brothers and sisters is the very motivation for their prophecies. When true Biblical love is combined with prophecy, the result is frequently discipline – sometimes painful discipline. But, when viewed from the perspective of 1 Cor 12-14 – the perspective that true kindness is acting to save one from destruction – the love of prophets is obvious. Without this love, a prophet is just a doomsday foreteller with no consideration for the well-being of the individual.
Finally, 1 Cor 13 gives us a little more insight into the idea of why we need gifts in the first place. When we are face to face with God for eternity, His love, truth, and character will be revealed directly. We will have no need for tools with which to understand these things. That is not the case during our earthly journey. Here we need help to both grasp and communicate the truth of God’s love, and that help comes through the spiritual gifts. When we pursue a growing relationship with Christ, we are pursuing love. When we earnestly desire the spiritual gifts – especially prophecy – we earnestly desire to learn to use the tools needed to communicate true love to both a world that has warped the true concept of love and a church that struggles to grow.
There is such beauty in taking Paul’s letters verse by verse, digging into them and truly discovering the depths of their meaning. But, we must remember to also pull back and put each individual thought together in context of Paul’s message as a whole. Context is critical – even with something as beautiful as the famous love chapter.