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1 Corinthians chapter 13

New American Standard Bible

New Living Translation

What does 1 Corinthians chapter 13 mean?

Much of 1 Corinthians 12 corrected misunderstandings about spiritual gifts among the Christians in Corinth. Apparently, some believed that those able to speak in tongues or prophesy were more spiritual than the others. This may have created yet another reason for division in the church, along with jealousy or a sense of inferiority. Paul insisted that every spiritual gift was given by God for a reason and was essential to the church, the body of Christ. He did urge them, though, to desire that the "higher" gifts of apostle, prophet, and teacher be given to the church. But he concluded by promising to show them "a still more excellent way" to serve each other (1 Corinthians 12:31).

The words of this chapter have a different tone and rhythm than Paul's other writing in this letter. Chapter 14 seems to start where chapter 12 left off, leading some to think Paul inserted these words into his letter. They might have been something he had composed at another time, or added before the message was sent.

Paul begins this chapter by describing just how useless, even destructive, spiritual gifts are when not applied from the standpoint of love. Displays of tongues, prophetic powers, and supernatural spiritual knowledge may be impressive, but they are worthless if not used as intended by God, out of a heart of love for Him and other believers. Even the most spiritual of activities, selling everything to give to the poor and sacrificing one's life to be burned for the sake of others, gains a person nothing if not given in love (1 Corinthians 13:1–3).

Paul describes the love he's talking about. It's not a love of swollen feelings that may come and go. It's not the love of flowery or eloquent words. This is God's love—from the Greek agape—often described as "unconditional love" by Christians. It is unconditional in the sense that it does not depend on the one being loved, but on the commitment of the one acting.

Paul uses 14 verbs, actions, to describe this love. Seven are positive statements about what love does, and the other seven are negative statements about what love does not do. In all cases, true Christian love is about setting one's self aside for the good of other believers. Lack of love was at the heart of nearly all the problems Paul had confronted in this letter.

Love is patient and kind. It actively waits and actively moves for the good of others. On the other hand, love doesn't envy or boast, not even regarding the spiritual gifts of one's self or others. Love is not arrogant, convinced of one's superiority over others. Love is not rude, meaning that it does not act indecently, sinning and breaking cultural norms to bring attention to one's self.

Those who love like this have given up on seeking their own status and satisfaction first and foremost. Instead, they genuinely commit themselves to seeking good for other believers. Because of that, they don't get irritable or provoked when other people get in their way. The other people are the point, not the obstacle. Love also means truly letting go of past hurts instead of storing them up and keeping a record or wrongs.

Love refuses to take any joy or pleasure from wrongdoing. Instead, it declares that which is true, and is worth celebrating above all. Love loves the truth. Love doesn't set limits on love. Love does not declare, "This far and no further." Love bears, or puts up with, all things for the good of other believers. That is true even if that means loving from a greater distance to avoid the active abuse of others.

Similarly, love believes all things, pushing the burden of truthfulness onto others instead of carrying the burden of uncovering falsehood. Love doesn't stop hoping for other believers to do good, no matter the evidence of the past. Love doesn't quit when the trials of life pile up. Love keeps going.

Paul sums it up: Love never fails. Christians may fail to love, as the Corinthians have clearly demonstrated, but God's kind of love will always be effective. And unlike spiritual gifts, which will no longer be needed when Christ comes, love will last forever (1 Corinthians 13:4–8).

On that day, Christians will know even as God knows us now. Until then, spiritual gifts provide a partial knowledge of what is to come. Both now and then, love will remain the greatest of all the virtues (1 Corinthians 13:9–13).
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