In the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s most extensive discussion of spiritual gifts. After giving several lists of spiritual gifts and their purpose he tells the Corinthians to eagerly desire the greater gifts. And then he tells them he will show them the most excellent way. As good as the gifts are. And as eager as they should be to obtain them. There is something that is even better. Something that they should strive for even more.
And yet I will show you the most excellent way.1 Corinthians 12:31b NIV
What is that most excellent way? It is the way of love.
The Supremacy of Love
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV
Paul began his discussion of the way of love by contrasting it with other noble activities. His first contrast is with the gift of tongues. This seems to have been a very important spiritual gift to the Corinthian church based on how much time Paul devoted to it. It is indeed a good gift, although not the best one. But, if not accompanied by love, it is just noise.
Paul then goes on to contrast love with the greater gifts: prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, and faith. But, as with tongues, if not accompanied by love, you are nothing. Only with love do the spiritual gifts have value.
And, finally, Paul contrasts sacrificial acts with love. I can give everything I have to the poor. Or I can labor and sacrifice in the cause of Christ. But if I do not have love, it gains me nothing. It was all in vain.
I can have the best doctrine. I can be quite active in the church. And I can volunteer for every outreach or mission project. But without love, it is all in vain.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV
After Paul finishes with the importance of love, he begins to describe it. In Greek, there are several words that translate into English as love. Agape is the word used here. It is an active form of love that was seldom used in secular writing in the New Testament era. But in the Bible, it is often used for the love that God has for us. And a love that we are to have for each other.
We often think of love as a feeling that we have for another person or thing. But Agape is not about feelings. It is about action. Paul here tries to describe love by personifying it and listing some characteristics. These are characteristics of a person who is following the way of love. If you are on that road, these should be true of you, in increasing measure as you progress along that road.
Love is patient and kind. Not envious, boastful, or proud. It does not seek to glorify itself, but rather looks to honor others. Love does not get angry easily and does not keep track of wrongs done to it. It does not find pleasure when others are harmed and always seeks the truth. Love always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. It never fails.
The Permanence of Love
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NIV
Love never fails. This could be a characteristic of love. But it also seems to be a transition in this discussion of love. Prophecies will cease. Tongues will be stilled. And knowledge will pass away. The spiritual gifts we are given are temporary. There will come a time when they are no more. But that is not true of love.
When is this time? While some would see that at least the time for tongues has passed, I believe that is missing the point of what Paul is talking about here. These gifts are important now while we are here in the flesh. But a time is coming when we will stand in God’s presence. And these gifts that are so needful for us now will vanish. But what will remain is love. Love will remain when all else that we know is gone. It never fails.
Follow the Way of Love
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.1 Corinthians 14:1 NIV
Paul started by saying he would show us the most excellent way. And he concludes by telling us to follow the way of love.
In the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 14:1, the word ‘way’ is not there. What Paul actually says is to follow love. Follow it wherever it leads. Desire spiritual gifts. Seek wisdom and understanding in spiritual truths. Be zealous in service to God. But more than any of those, follow love. Without love, all the rest is in vain.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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