These notes are based on the NASB text.
Who has defined the word “love” for you? There is a lot being said about love these days and you have to be careful who you listen to or you might get the wrong idea about the meaning of love. While musicians and poets attempt to describe and define love in its many splendored forms, no writer deals with the matter of love as musically and poetically as the Apostle Paul.
Nowhere else in all of literature, either sacred or secular, will you find the meaning of love more beautifully expressed than in 1 Corinthians 13. The 13th Chapter of 1 Corinthians is like a prism. When a beam of light is passed through a prism, it comes out on the opposite side broken up into its component colors…red, yellow, violet, orange, and all the colors of the rainbow. So it is with love as it passes through the inspired heart of the Apostle Paul. We see it broken up into its component elements in 1 Corinthians 13.
We must keep in mind two very important things as we look at this chapter:
First, remember that Scripture was not written in a vacuum. We find this great chapter on love included in a serious letter by Paul to the church in Corinth…a church with very serious problems. In this letter, Paul painted for the Corinthians a picture of themselves…in their factions, their jealousies, their vanity, their carnality, their misuse of Christian liberty, and their bragging about their spiritual gifts. In the thirteenth chapter of this letter, Paul momentarily turned aside from his direct counsels and rebukes to show the Corinthians an ideal Christian life, which was pretty much everything theirs was not.
Second, we must remember that, unlike our language, the Greeks had several words for love. The word “eros” was used to refer to love of deep desire, passionate and sensuous longing. It had a physical and sexual connotation and is nowhere used in the New Testament. The word “storge” referred to the kind of affection found in a family. The word “philia” was used to refer to brotherly love. Finally, the word “agape” was used to express the unconditional kind of love that God expressed toward us through Christ. It implies loving when there is nothing worthy to evoke love. This is the word Paul used in this chapter.
Love is Indispensable or All-Important
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
13:1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.
13:2 And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
13:3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
First, notice that ministry without love is meaningless.
Paul said, “If I speak with the tongues on men and of angels [that is a rhetorical way of referring to all possible speech], but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” Since the time of Plato, superficial orators were referred to as gongs. Paul probably started with this reference to “tongues” because of the undue emphasis placed on it by the Corinthian believers.
Paul said, “If I have the gift of prophesy [denotes powerful preaching], and know all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.” A man may be straight doctrinally, as straight as an icicle, and just as cold…so very doctrinal, yet ineffective in ministry and service because of a lack of love.
Paul said, “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” It is possible to give without loving, but it is not possible to love without giving. It is possible to have compassion and express kindness without love, but it is not possible to have love without compassion and kindness.
Second, notice that miracles without love are meaningless.
Paul said, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Even mountain-moving, miracle-working faith without love is nothing. A great saint of old said, “Our Lord does not care so much for the importance of our works as for the love with which they are done.” (Teresa of Avila)
Third, notice that martyrdom without love is meaningless.
Paul said, “If I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” It is possible to give without loving. It is possible to give our possessions, our freedom, even our very lives, but if these heroic acts are done by one who does not love, it profits him nothing.
Stephen demonstrated love in martyrdom (Acts 7:20) when just before he died at the hands of those who showered him with stones, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And Stephen’s words of love and forgiveness pierced the heart of a young man who stood by…a young man whose own hands were stained with blood as he endeavored to hinder the cause of Christ…a young man who one day was transformed by the One who loved us and gave Himself for us…a young man who would one day pen the inspiring words of 1 Corinthians 13.
Love is Invincible or All-Enduring
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
13:4 Love is patient,
The Greek word is better translated longsuffering. The idea is that it takes a long time before fuming and breaking into flames. It has a long fuse. It does not have a quick temper. It is not subject to outbursts of anger. Love will not return evil for evil. The word is in the present tense in the Greek text thus emphasizing that this should be a continual and habitual state or action.
love is kind,
The word “kind” here means to be useful and gracious. It refers to one who renders gracious service to others. It is a word that tells us that love is gentle in its behavior. It looks for a way of being constructive. It is able to recognize needs. It looks for ways to contribute to the lives of others. It will even return good for evil.
Augustine wrote: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
and is not jealous;
This is the first of several references to love in terms of what it is not. Paul had to employ negative terms such as this for two reasons.
First, because love is so difficult to portray.
Second, because he was reminding the Corinthians that love did not manifest the kind of outlook on life that they demonstrated.
The word “jealous” means to boil with envy. It refers to a possessive and exclusive control that will not allow another to fulfill him/herself. It also means to be envious of the good that happens to others.
love does not brag
Love does not play the braggart. It is not anxious to impress. It doesn’t seek to make an impression or to create an image for personal gain. Ostentation, showiness, pretension is the chief idea here.
and is not arrogant,
The word “arrogant” means to puff up…to puff one’s self out like a pair of bellows. Paul tells us that love is not like that. It doesn’t cherish inflated ideas about its own importance. It is not self-centered. It does not allow or expect life to revolve around itself.
13:5 does not act unbecomingly;
This means that love is not indecent. It doesn’t behave indecently or in a shameful manner. It is tactful and does nothing that would raise a blush. It has good manners. It has respect for others, exercises discretion, and knows what is proper and when.
it does not seek its own,
This means that love does not pursue selfish advantage. It has as its primary concern the needs of others. This is the kind of love Jesus referred to in John 15:13. Paul wrote about this aspect of love in Philippians 2:3-4 and Romans 12:10.
is not provoked,
The word “provoked” refers to irritation or sharpness of spirit. It means to irritate or promote to anger. Love is not provoked. It is not touchy. It does not have a bad temper. It is not hypersensitive or easily hurt. It doesn’t take things too personally. It remains cool, calm, and collected.
does not take into account a wrong suffered,
To “take into account” means to count up. It means to take into account of as in a ledger or note-book. It means to credit to someone’s account. It means to register evil or wrongdoing (with a view of evening up the score). Paul tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs. It stores up no resentment and bears no malice. It doesn’t review wrongs which have been forgiven. It doesn’t dwell on past evil or wrong. It destroys evidence of past mistakes when possible. See Ephesians 4:31-32.
13:6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness,
This means that love does not gloat over the wickedness of other people. (See 1 Corinthians 5:2). It doesn’t compare itself with others for self-justification…that is to say, it doesn’t use other people’s sins and shortcomings to excuse or justify personal weaknesses. It doesn’t say, “Everybody’s doing it!” Nor does it point to the sins of others in an effort to accentuate its own holiness.
but rejoices with the truth;
Rather, love “rejoices with the truth.” That means that love stands by the side of truth and has fellowship with the truth. It is in active fellowship with active Christians and is occupied with spiritual objectives.
13:7 bears all things,
This means that love has the ability to live with the inconsistencies of others. Someone has stated that “Faults run thick where love runs thin.” Love “bears all things” means that love has the ability to outlive sorrow, disappointment, cruelty, distortion of the truth, and indifference. The word “bears” comes from a word meaning roof. Thus some interpret it to mean that love covers and protects and guards others. It is not interested in exposing the faults and shortcomings of others. Love also keeps going in the face of everything that threatens to undo it. It never gives up.
believes all things,
This is not to say that love is gullible, but rather that it has a trustful attitude toward others. It is willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. One translation says, “it is always eager to believe the best.” It believes in others and their worth.
hopes all things,
Love is hopeful because it is grounded in God and because Jesus, who is the manifestation of God’s love, gives meaning to hope. Love sees the bright side of things. When it is disappointed, it does not despair, but keeps on hoping and waiting…much like the father of the prodigal son.
endures all things.
This means that love perseveres. It is able to survive under hard and unfavorable circumstances. It possesses sturdy patience. It can endure the night because it confident of the morning. It is able to outlast anything. It is able to endure all obstacles and even love in the face of unreturned love.
Love is Immortal or All-Outlasting
1 Corinthians 13:8-13
13:8 Love never [not at any time] fails;
“Love never fails” which is to say, love never ends. It is eternal. It will never come to an end because it is grounded in God, and God is love. Love will last as long as God lasts — forever.
but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away [God will render them inoperative because they will not be necessary in heaven]; if there are tongues, they will cease [altogether once they have fulfilled their function]; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
Paul adds that prophecy, tongues, and knowledge [all of which were very important to the Corinthians and all of which had caused their share of dissension] will be done away with. These are things that will not be necessary in the presence of God.
13:9 For we know in part, and we prophecy in part;
13:10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
13:11 When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. [Hobbs notes, “Quit acting like squabbling children, and use the gifts of the Spirit as God intends.”]
13:12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part [here a little, there a little], but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.
13:13 But now abide faith [which will one day become sight], hope [which will one day be fulfilled], love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Paul concludes by sharing that in the present age we only “know in part,” we only see dimly. But there is coming a day when our knowledge will be complete and we will see clearly. As meaningful as Christian love is now, it cannot be compared with what will be known in the future. We read in I John 3:2, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.”
Paul was reminding these Corinthian Christians, whose greatest need was to possess love and to be possessed by love, that they needed to make love their aim…that they needed to know and demonstrate the love of God in their service to others…that this love would outlast the faith that brought them to Christ and even the hope that had sustained them in the world.
We should evaluate our understanding of love in the light of Scripture.
In view of the many things that we hear about love in our world today, we should evaluate our understanding of love in the light of Scripture. Love is certainly not what many of the songs and movies of our day make it to be.
Ministry, miracles, and martyrdom are meaningless without love.
We must be certain that our actions are motivated by love. We must guard against doing things for selfish and self-glorifying ends.
There is a difference between love and lust.
It would be profitable to read 1 Corinthians 13 in the following light:
Lust is impatient, lust is unkind, and is jealous; lust brags and is arrogant, it acts unbecomingly; it seeks its own, is provoked, takes into account a wrong suffered, rejoices in unrighteousness, but does not rejoice with the truth; exposes all things, doubts all things, gives up on all things, does not endure all things. Lust always fails.
Love is characterized by forgiveness.
Love does not keep ledgers or accounts of wrongdoings. Love will not allow the sun to go down on its anger (Ephesians 4:26), but works to extend and receive forgiveness.