Monday, March 06, 2006

Christian Spirituality: 1 Corinthians 13

Previous Posts:

V1-3 Love is essential
  • Recapping what we saw in chapter 12,
    what is good about tongues and prophecy and other gifts?
  • How can they be totally devalued, according to v1-3?
  • How does this challenge the Corinthian lust for gifts?
  • How must our priorities about gifts / love change?
We come to one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Its the classic passage read at Weddings,... and yet it is in the middle of three chapters on what it means to be spiritual, in a letter to a church in charismatic chaos. Rather strange text to pick for a wedding! And yet we see the appeal, words about love.

Paul begins by speaking about tongues, prophecy and self-sacrifice. All of them he says are nothing without love. We've just heard of the great good of gifts and of serving one another, but now we find that these can all be nullified if one essential thing is missing. Love is essential. This also means that self-sacrifice is not the definition of love, a notion that would be popular today.

These are challenging words – forcing me to examine my motivation. If I am a Christian Union Staff Worker but have not love... If I blog but have not love... These are uncomfortable words. Yet Paul is showing Corinth, and us, the most excellent way. He's not saying pack up shop, give up, quit. Corinth is in chaos but Paul teaches them a better way.

v4-8 Love is edifying
  • Who does love benefit?
  • What does love do?
  • How does this challenge the Corinthians? (see 5v2, 10v24)
  • What difference would it make if people exercised gifts in love?
What then is love? And what's so good about it? Love is not proud – but the Corinthians are. Love is not self-seeking, but they are. Love protects rather than promoting self. In essence love is edifying, love benefits others. It is possible to speak in tongues, prophesy or exercise self-sacrifice for our own sake – that would be meaningless. Only when combined with edification of the body is it of any good. Is all the Corinthian's impressive ministry totally meaningless? What of mine?

Only when gifts are exercised for the common good are they of any benefit. And Paul intends for ministry to happen – he intends for us to get stuck in and to love. This standard of love is not beyond reach. Rather, as 14v1 says it is something to pursue. Go for love. Go for love.

v9-13 Love is eternal
  • What is the difference between gifts
    (prophecy/tongues/knowledge etc) and love here?
  • Why do we need gifts now? (9)
    When do all gifts cease? (9)
  • Why will they cease? (12)
  • Why is love better than gifts?
Finally Paul says, love never fails. Prophecy, tongues and knowledge will pass but love is eternal. Love remains. Now we have partial knowledge of God, mediated by faith – and so we need the ministry of these gifts, and others. But a time will come when all gifts will cease because they will not be needed. When Jesus returns – in heaven we will not need gifts, only love in the presence of God.

When the perfect comes then imperfection passes. This is about knowledge of God. When we grow up we put things away, when we are fully grown into Christ then we'll be in heaven. Now we see a poor reflection, but one day we'll see face to face. This doesn't say we'll know everything. It says we'll have unmediated intimacy with God. Knowing fully rather than partially. Knowing face to face.

It's as if now we have a fuzzy black and white TV... and when we gain the High Definition Plasma Screen TV why would we want the old TV? Now we see the true picture partially. One day we'll see more. We'll have relational perfect relationship with God.

Some want to say that the perfect has already come (i.e. In Scripture). But that requires this to be as good as it gets. And the Bible promises us more than the good relationship we experience now. In the meantime let's pursue the gifts on offer to us to know God. And let us do it in love. There is faith, hope and love. But love is the greatest – it remains forever... all else passes away. Without love all else is nothing.

This chapter is a strong rebuke to the proud and self-seeking. And yet again there is no hint of "stop using gifts". Paul has the care of a pastor, the skill of a teacher and says, go for it but do it right. Paul is a reformer, constantly drawing even crazy Christians back to the gospel and gospel living... demonstrating the nature of love.

I'm forced to examine my motives, and then not rest in gloom at spiritual blahness™... but rather to get on my knees and pursue love from God. To pray for help to exercise gifts to confess Jesus as Lord, to grow the body... to benefit others rather than advance my cause. And then to get off my knees and get into relationship with the body of Christ... to take responsibility to love rather than react, to trust rather than suspect, to persevere rather than give up. To suffer together. To rejoice together. When an opportunity to serve comes, particularly one that is in view then I must humbly be examined by God - and my heart needs to be transformed.

Meanwhile, no weddings in view... except perhaps the wedding of heaven. And that is definitely something look forward to.

Section headings borrowed from Mike Kendall, St Neots Evangelical Church.


  1. When Paul says, ‘eagerly desire the greater gifts’ does he mean that I, as a Xn,
    should desire to be a prophet? Or, does he mean that I should pray/ desire that
    the gift of prophecy be exercised in the church (by another person)?

    What is an apostle as Paul describes it here? It sounds like he’s addressing the
    generality of the church so he can’t mean apostle in the sense of the 12 who had
    special authority (to write scripture, etc..). Do we still have apostles today?
    By apostle, do we just mean church leader? Many of the new church streams refer
    to their leaders as apostles. E.g. so and so has an apostolic ministry. What do
    we mean by this?

    (pod and becci)

  2. My thought is...

    Q1 - about eagerly desiring its both me and the church...

    Q2 - um, apostles did more than just write scripture... can't have spent all that much time doing that. so perhaps it covers some of the other stuff, that is beneficial to the church... my answer is, in the absence of a biblical definition... I don't really know.

    Anyone else got any ideas?

  3. Simon Manchester has some clear teaching that I've been enjoying over the last couple of weeks.

    From what I've gleaned Paul, writing to the spiritually proud people in Corinth is saying that they should desire the gifts that build up the other person rather than the gift that only builds up themself (ch14).

    Therefore, to desire the greater gifts is to desire to be building each other up, encouraging each other etc.

    Paul's point here is about there being many gifts so perhaps by including apostleship he is illustrating this point? Perhaps he leaves the Corinthians to work out what the greater gifts are in light of chapters 13 and 14; and since not all have the same gift, these do not neccessarily include apostleship.