Is Love the Greatest?
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 cymbal. 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. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)
Christians do not need a special day commemorating love to underscore its importance. Scripture does that. The greatest commandment—indeed, the summary of God’s Law—is love. It is the choicest fruit of the believer.
When thinking about love, we are immediately drawn to the ‘love chapter’ of the Bible. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 give perhaps the best practical definition of love we find in Scripture. There are many examples of love, sure, but no definition as succinct as this. We do well in our relationships and communication with others to apply Paul’s definition to our hearts.
However, we miss out on many practical benefits because of the way Paul’s letter is divided by chapters. Chapter 13 does not begin with the first sentence of a new paragraph, it begins with the second sentence. The first sentence is the second half of 12:31, “And I show you a still more excellent way.” This means the message of chapter 13 is about a better way.
A Better Way of What?
The overarching message of 1 Corinthians concerns practical church. The Corinthians struggled on multiple fronts and needed correction. Paul begins in chapter 1 by realigning their foundation with Christ, followed by an exhortation to be servants of each other. After this introduction, he reprimands their sinfulness at length. Then, he turns his attention to church order, wherein the ‘love chapter’ resides. Within this section on church order, in chapter 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts given to the church for the benefit of the body, not the individual. This is the reason for his emphasis on “a better way.”
“But earnestly desire the greater gifts.
And I show you a still more excellent way. 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 cymbal. 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. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3)
The context of chapter 12 makes sense of the opening verses of chapter 13. Why does Paul compare love to these gifts? Because love must be the guiding principle. Paul is not telling us to forsake the gifts. Otherwise, chapter 12 would be considered in vain. According to Paul, we must build up one another through the study and teaching of Scripture and through sacrificial care, but we must do it with love. If we don’t, we work for nothing.
Next, Paul takes us through a thorough practical definition of love. Essential, love is humility; it is the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). If we do not look at Paul’s definition of love through the lens of humility, we easily mistake it for a list of rules. Love is an attitude as much as it is an action, because, as Christ taught in His sermon on the mount, if we do not obey God from the heart, we do not obey Him at all. Furthermore, actions such as patience, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness, and joy deal more with the attitude of the heart than the actions of a person.
“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Substitute humility for love and each characteristic rings true. Humility is patient and kind towards others. It doesn’t become provoked to anger or jealousy. Humility obviously isn’t proud. It doesn’t hold a grudge but forgives freely from the heart. Humility rejoices in the good and true. Humility is love in action. It comes from a heart changed by Christ who is the ultimate example of humility.
Paul goes on to give us the reason love is greater than faith and hope. “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8a). Love is eternal; faith, hope, and every other gift are reserved for this present world because we will not have need of them in heaven.
These gifts given to Christians for the purpose of building up the body of Christ are compared to the way a child speaks (verse 11). By doing so, Paul does not diminish their importance in the body but rightly views their importance in light of eternity. We use these gifts as an extension of Christ to His body. They are the heavenly tools to build the earthly kingdom. When we see Christ, these gifts will fade. Christ is “the perfect” who receives a perfected bride on the final day. The only remaining thing then will be love.
Only after progressing through this chapter thus can we rightly apply Paul’s exhortation to love one another. First, we do not separate love from spiritual gifts. We pursue love and earnestly desire gifts to benefit the body of believers (1 Corinthians 14:1). The apostle John helps us understand the importance of love in the body of Christ. In his gospel, he writes, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And in his first letter, he clarifies this further, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Our love must be first directed to the body of Christ before the world. If we pursue missions and social care without first caring for those in our church, we undermine our efforts. The world will see our love, not because it is directed towards them primarily, but because it is directed to the body of Christ.
Second, faith and hope continue as integral and foundational parts of the Christian life. In salvation, our love does not help us one iota, but rather, faith in Christ and hope in His word and work help us. Faith and hope are primary in salvation. In communion and fellowship with the saints, however, love is primary.
If we take the ‘love chapter’ out of the context of the letter’s overarching point, we create an ethical tint to the Christian experience. Just think, if we believe love is the greatest in every aspect of Christian living, the gifts the church is given to build up the body won't be worth much to us, nor will faith and hope for that matter. Then, we will pick and choose what constitutes love, basing our understanding on perceived needs instead of truth.
Today, ethical Christianity (or Christianity focused on ethics) concerns itself most with societal good, foregoing foundational doctrine and the nurture of theological teaching. Its ear is tuned to the culture’s voice and its heart beats with the culture’s heart. It may keep some biblical semblance, but it becomes so accustomed to the culture’s climate it soon looks nothing like biblical Christianity. Societal good is a good and necessary cause for each Christian to pursue, but when it is pursued according to societal standards, it loses eternal value. It becomes as faith and hope. It truly becomes inferior to the love it sought to promote.
When we simply ask why Paul prioritizes love above fundamental aspects of salvation and above necessary gifts, we find that he tells us. We just have to look at the context. When we read 1 Corinthians 13 in light of the surrounding chapters, a new world comes into view. We might have had a proper understanding of love before, but now we see it in the context of the local church.
Does this mean we cannot apply the ‘love chapter’ to our marriages and social interaction? No. It means we don’t live disproportionately. It means we don’t aggrandize the importance of love above the truth of Scripture. After all, to do so would be unloving since love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.”
The point Paul makes is to call Christians to live according to Scripture in conduct, and with humility and love in heart. His point is for each one of us to lose sight of ourselves so we can build up each other. In a sense, 1 Corinthians 13 is an important footnote to chapter 12 to confront those who served the church in gift, but not in heart. Our hearts must desire to love if we are to serve others in such a way that is helpful, truthful, and pleasing to God.
To serve with love from the heart takes the supernatural work of the gospel. Love is a fruit from the tree of faith and hope. Faith and hope in Christ unite us to Him, and when we are united to Him, the Holy Spirit pours His love into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Without Christ, we cannot love from the heart. William Cowper’s hymn, “Love Constraining to Obedience” describes the change of heart the gospel brings,
To see the Law by Christ fulfill’d,
To hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child
And duty into choice
Likewise, John Newton describes Paul’s point in a hymn,
Our pleasure and our duty,
Though opposite before,
Since we have seen his beauty,
Are join’d to part no more
In the gospel, we learn to love from our hearts. We learn to love as Christ loved. We learn to love according to 1 Corinthians 13.