The situation at Corinth wasn’t so different than what we find today—at least in general terms. Those who were gifted in regard to knowledge, the ability to prophesy, speaking in tongues or something else had become puffed up and arrogant in regard to their status in the community of disciples. They believed their gifts meant they were accomplished in life—more so than the rest of the believers. Paul wrote the thirteenth chapter to show them that if you aren’t accomplished in love, you aren’t accomplished in life—period. Without love he tells them, you gain nothing (v. 3) and are nothing (v. 2).
It was a misunderstanding of the nature of their gifts to glory and exalt in them. The special gifts would “cease,” “be stilled” and “pass away” (v. 8). They were temporary. In contrast, love would never fail (v. 8). Based on this alone, they should have understood the superiority of love and sought it more than the gifts they possessed.
When employed correctly, the benefits from their gifts to the community were real and “for the common good” (12:7). Still, what they offered was partial in comparison to love. When mature love became the dominant element of their individual and community life, it would eclipse all of the benefits from their other gifts in the way that the sun eclipses the moon, the way maturity surpasses immaturity (v. 11). What they knew of God through their gifts was like what they saw in a first century mirror (not like our HD mirrors today with bright lights)—a vague reflection. When they reached maturity in love, they would possess an intimate, “face to face” knowledge of Him (v. 12 and 1 John 4:7-8).
Paul’s concluding flourish points us to faith, hope and love as things that remain. When all is said and done, it is these three virtues that sustain community. If we step away from the thirteenth chapter and look at the entire letter in light of these, it seems possible that Paul is summing up the vast sweep of his words to them.
In the early part of 1 Corinthians he spoke about the power of the cross in contrast to human wisdom and their need to embrace that through faith (1:18-2:4). He will conclude with an equally stirring section on the resurrection in 15:1-58. Together, these two sections bracket the letter, calling them to faith and hope.
As great and fundamentally important as these two attributes are, there is something even more glorious—the love that shaped the cross and brought about the resurrection. When we think of the Father, Son and Spirit (see the obvious allusion in 12:4-6), love is the last word (1 John 4:8). Such love is not the sloppy sentimentality we hear celebrated so often is song and in movies, but the enduring, conquering tough-minded attitude and action of unceasing good will toward others. Jesus said His disciples’ practice of this is how the world would know He was sent from God (John 13:34-35; 17:20-21).
May our theology become our biography!