The Priority of Love: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13:1 -13
Rev. David A. Fisher
"Do you realize how much you are worth in the eyes of God? Do you know that you are loved and welcomed by him unconditionally?" - Pope Francis
The First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, chapter thirteen, versus one through thirteen, is often called Paul’s Hymn of Love. Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, who as the Acts of the Apostles tells us had very little success in “philosophical Athens”. Comes to Corinth, a raucous port city, which was in a sense the Las Vegas of ancient Greece, and is able to establish a vibrant but often capricious and somewhat difficult Christian community.
In this Hymn of Love, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the truth of the Gospel which he had preached to them and that it is grounded in “love”.1 In giving this corrective to the Corinthians, he has given all Christians throughout the ages a reminder of what is at the heart of the Christian message and life.
Love is greater than any spiritual gift (13:1-3)
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
To appreciate the force of St. Paul’s preaching, we must remind ourselves of the proclamation of 1John 4:8 which states that, “God is love”.2 In being baptized into Christ and anointed in the Holy Spirit, our human nature is transformed and is no longer constituted by the limitations of a created being, rather we are reconstituted by adoption through eternal communion with God. In other words we become “god-like”, that is to say beings constituted by “love”. Given this greatest gift in becoming sons and daughters of the Eternal God, there is no other gift that comes even close. If we as Paul points out, are prophets, or speak in tongues, or sacrifice our bodies for martyrdom and do not mirror in our lives the love that has reconstituted our being in Jesus Christ, then “we gain nothing”.
Love is expressed by supernatural responses (13:4-7)
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
St. Paul instructs what the character of a Christian should be like. Remember he was always in battle against those who wanted the Gentile converts to also embrace The Law of Judaism. He sees no need for them to embrace the character of those who embraced The Law, before it was possible to embrace the new life in Christ. To live in Christ is not to live by laws but to live by love. While laws are mean’t to restrict, love is an extension of the freedom of salvation. While laws are for behavior in this world, love is of the Kingdom of God. St. Paul proclaims that the person who has embraced God’s adoption is patient, kind, not arrogant or rude. The person of love rejoices in the truth and bears and endures all things because of it.
Love is an eternal gift (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 only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete 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 an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
In the fullness of God’s Kingdom there will be no need for prophecies, tongues, and super intelligence. The things we need in our spiritual infancy here in space and time, will not be needed when we are born fully unto eternal life and communion with the Holy Trinity. For now we live by three principles of Christian life: faith, hope and love. In the Kingdom of God we will not have faith for we will have the fullness of knowledge of God, as Paul said, what we see now in a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face. We will not need hope in God’s Kingdom for the hope we held in this life will be complete. Love will remain, love which constitutes our being in Jesus Christ, we will stand within the Holy of Holies in communion with Eternal Love, the Holy Trinity. Our faith in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not faith in three individuals, but the One Eternal God, as Love the three are One and through adoption we too become beings of love.
1. In some translations of the Holy Bible into English, the Greek word agape is translated as charity, instead of love. This is because the translation is taken from the Latin Vulgate, which translated agape as caritas in Latin.
2. Christos Yannaras, in Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, translated by Norman Russell, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2013. Writes: “From the first moments of its historical existence, the Christian Church has proposed a single and unique definition of true existence and life,…it has defined God in terms of love: “God is love” (1John 4:8)