Studies in First Corinthians
Lesson 35: “The Pre-eminence of Love
I Corinthians 13:1-3
The Passage before us is a masterpiece of literature in general and scripture in particular. To interpret it is very much like the physics student who faced the exam question which said, “define the universe and give two examples.” But to make a beginning in that direction, notice that the chapter can be divided into three parts:
- The preeminence of Love – verses 1-3
- The Perfections of Love – verses 4-7
III. The Permanence of Love – verses 8-13
In verses 1 through 3 we find the details of the preeminence of love. As we look at this masterpiece, which has been quoted by atheist and Christian alike, we need to remember the importance of understanding love. In the older translations, and thus traditionally, the term for “love” in this famous passage, was “charity.” But that is very misleading, because that word is only one aspect of love. The Greek term used here is “agape.” It was not in wide use before the writing of the New Testament, although it did exist. But it appears that the the New Testament writers were the first to use it widely at all. Probably they appreciated its meaning, and vested it with new significance. The best illustration of the true meaning of the word is in I John 4:10:
In this is love, not that we love God, but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Notice particularly the wording here: “not that we loved God . . .” In other words, the best example of a man’s love for God (martyrdom, sacrifice, or any such thing) is not a true example of love. And why? Because that is love of the lovely. Now that might be legitimate in human love situations – but God’s love for us is love of that which does not deserve to be loved. This is further amplified in Romans 5:10:
For if, when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
The reconciliation through the death of Christ came while we were the enemies of Christ – verse 8 specifies that it was “while we were yet sinners.” So “agape” is love of the unlovely or undeserving – Christ’s kind of love. Technically, “a love that proceeds from the nature of the lover rather than the worth of the person loved. Or, love that gives regardless of the expectation of return.
Besides understanding the significance of the word “love” we also need to recognize the importance of the context of love. It is important to recognize that this chapter is not a digression from our study of the spiritual gifts. It is extremely important in the matter of spiritual gifts. Paul has been showing that the existence and exercise of the spiritual gifts is vital to the understanding of the nature of the body of Christ. They explain the diversities among Christians. They make possible the interdependency which otherwise seems so theoretical. So the location of the chapter indicates that that this is a vital part of the understanding and exercise of spiritual gifts. From this point on in the chapter Paul presents the importance of exercising spiritual gifts with love by presenting hypothetical situations. So in verse 1 he presents the hypothetical situation of the emptiness of eloquence without love.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I have become as a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.”
This is probably a reference to speaking in tongues (chapter 14 will show that it was a prominent gift in Corinth) But it could also refer to teaching or any of the other gifts involving speaking. The reference to speaking “with the tongues of angels” is not a reference to the fact that there are two kinds of tongues, “of angels” and “of men.” The context is hypothetical and somewhat sarcastic. In every Biblical instance where the gift of tongues is recorded in any detail, they spoke in known languages. Likewise, in every instance where angels are recorded as having spoken, they spoke in human languages (Isaiah 6; Daniel 18 and 19; Revelation 5, 7, 8, 10, etc. Matthew 28:5 and following. But the point is that if a man were perfect in eloquence, and yet exercise it without love and concern for his hearers, it would be pointless – even though people hear the sound, it produces nothing for God.
Another illustration is that of the inadequacy of insight without love – look at verse 2
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
As we saw in our last lesson, these are all gifts that involve supernatural insight. Prophecy is the revelation of new information from God. Understanding of mysteries is along the same line. Knowledge is understanding of the prophecies and revelations of God to other people. Faith is the ability to visualize what God is going to do and believe God for it – to the extent of the impossible, such as moving mountains. But all of these impressive abilities amount t nothing in god’s sight if they are not motivated by agape. In fact, the phrase “I am nothing” is the numeral of the Greek for “zero.”
Verse 3 points out the uselessness of unselfishness without love. This title may seem to be a contradiction of terms, but that is exactly what Paul is describing here:
And though I bestow all my good to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Contradictory as it may seem, it is possible to be “unselfish” for the wrong reasons – for human praise, to try to merit salvation, to atone for some past sin, but gifts of material things without love merit nothing. Even the gift of one’s life merits nothing without love. People have done this very thing – kamikaze pilots, Muslim terrorists, etc. and it is often done on a smaller scale – giving time to various projects, social or religious.
But I Corinthians 13 is not the only place in scripture where this concept is mentioned. The understanding of the importance of love is brought out in I Samuel 16:7 (The anointing of David)
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.
Why would all these things be true about love, even though so contrary to human thought? This verse expresses the key thought. Think about some other expressions of it. First, Psalm 51:16,17,
For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offerings (17) the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart. – these, O God you will not despise.
The setting of these verses is David’s repentance over his sin of adultery with Bath-Sheba. And the point is that he realizes that what God desires in repentance is not costly offerings, but a broken and humble heart.
Another expression of the same idea is I Samuel 15:22 The setting: Saul had been told to totally destroy all of the Amalekites, but he spared the king and the best of the cattle and sheep. – verse nine. But the prophet Samuel found him out. – verses 13,14. Saul greeted him saying “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord” in verse 13. But Samuel said, “what then, is the meaning of the bleating of the sheep in my ears?” And Saul tried to rationalize it away – verse 15: The people spared the best of the animals . . .” to sacrifice them to the Lord.”
So, in verse 22 we have Samuel’s answer:
And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice and to hearken than the fat of rams.”
You see, the point is that God is more interested in complete obedience than in lofty rationalizations of motive.
Finally, the insight to the ability to love is given in Romans 5:5
And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
All of these lofty goals will be impossible unless this is understood – this is not human love. But this “love of God” is one of the things that is available to us because we have the Holy Spirit.
As we wrap up this lesson, let me ask you, “what is your motive for the things that you do? So that people will be impressed? So that you will be promoted to a bigger position? Or simply to please the Lord by serving His people? Jesus spoke to this very issue in Matthew 6:1-18:
There He lists several seemingly good activities – giving, praying, fasting – and in each case, He also says that if you are doing it “to be seen of men” you have your reward, so you’d better do it up right, because that’s all the reward you are going to get! But he also says that if you are doing it “to be seen of God,” then He will reward you in His own personal way. Which would you rather have?
The purpose of these studies is to draw you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know him, it is my prayer that they will help you understand that Romans 3:23 says that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. If I can be of help to you in understanding any of this information I can be reached at