February 3, 2013 - 1 Corinthians 13.1-13

“Defining Love”

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

February 3, 2013


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.2And 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.3If 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.

4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8Love 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.9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.11When 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.12For 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.13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.



Love.  I love my wife.  I love my children.  I love God.  I love pizza. I love the Atlanta Falcons. I love the look on someone’s face when they sit down on something they didn’t know was there.  I love the feel of a solidly struck 7 iron.  I love sunsets.  I love my Dad.  I love dogs.  I love music.  I love the novels of John Grisham.  I love Star Trek.  Jesus loves me.

How strange a word it is.  Love.  Try to scan the radio for 30 seconds without hearing a song about it.  It is the sole driving motivation for both the grandest human endeavors and the pettiest personal problems.  It produces both the most sublime poetry and the corniest of all limericks. 

For we English speakers, it is a difficult task to appreciate the deepest meaning of this idea when we use the same word to describe our feelings toward our favorite dessert that we use to describe what drove Jesus to the cross.

Paul goes to great effort here to define love.  In this chapter of this letter, written to a congregation that was experiencing the kind of hard times as a church that no one here has ever known, we are given what may be the most eloquent of expressions in all of literature.  Paul gives us a rhetorical litany praising love and all that love is and all love is not.

Verses 1-3

Paul led a great Spiritual life full of miraculous works.  He has done all the things that people take pride in as miraculous or worthwhile.  His knowledge astounds people.  Mysteries have been revealed to him.  It is no mistake that Paul mentions the subject of much of 1 Corinthians – speaking in tongues.  He makes it clear – if he lacked love, he would only be an annoying, irritating musical instrument, whereas with love, he would be helpful and even enriching.  Philanthropy; martyrdom; etc. – they are all meaningless without love. 

Even if he understood ALL mysteries and had ALL knowledge – think about the unimaginable nature of that statement – it would be worth nothing if he did not have love.  Mysteries, knowledge, miracles, and whatever else you want to mention are all worth NOTHING if they are devoid of love.  No matter how big a church is, or how many good things a person does, it all matters for nothing if there is not God’s love at the heart of it.

Verses 4-7

The thing that strikes me most about these next three verses is all the action that is taking place.  I don’t mean to puzzle you.  I am not talking about story kind of action, but rather grammar.  In these three verses, there are twelve verbs.  Twelve.  Paul is being very deliberate here.  Do not miss it.  What does this tell us?

Love is not a noun.  Nor is it an adjective or an adverb.  It is a verb.  Love is something that is done, not a quality that one possesses, nor something that can be descriptive of another.  Love is a verb because it is something we do or it is something we do not do.  It cannot sit on a shelf and wait to be used.  It is only real while in action.  Using it as a noun amounts to a cultural cliché, as to say, “Show me some love,” but it becomes dangerously powerful when used as a verb, in its true form, powerful enough to make the bravest man cower in fear, to say, “I love you.” Love is really personified in these verses, because they are an exact description of Jesus Christ. 

So often we think of love as a feeling.  We talk about “falling in love.”  Those are real emotions, but you really can’t “fall into love” – not real love.  Real love is when you jump. You jump into a relationship – take the plunge.  A feeling is a reaction – love is an action.  Love is what makes you take a bullet for someone else, or dive in front of a moving train to save your child, etc.  Love is not how God feels about you, love is Jesus going onto the cross and dying for you.

How do you know you are loved?  Someone telling you they love you is nice, but ultimately it proves nothing.  But if they show you by their actions – again, and again, and again – that they love you, then you know.

Verses 8-12

Love never fails.  Everything else will pass away, but love will endure.  All that you can see, hear, feel, experience, that will all pass away, but the love of God will endure in eternity.  Love is eternal.  Think for a minute about all the hard work that you do.  Look at everything that humanity has accomplished.  You create stuff, make money, build a company, build a building, sculpture, write a novel, etc.  All those thing pass away.  Only what you love in the name of Christ is eternal.  My mother is dead but her love lives on.  When I am dead and gone and nothing but a jar of ashes, the only thing that will really remain will be whatever love I loved in the name of Jesus – that will live on.  What have you loved that will be eternal?  What love will stay behind when you are gone?

The love of God will not only endure in eternity, it will transform us.  From Children, to Adults.  From imperfect to perfect.  From a hazy perception of reality to a clearer picture of how things ought to be.

Paul defines love.  But 1 John also tells us that love will define us. So then, what will we look like if we love enough?  What will love look like when it is manifested among us?  William Barclay writes:

      Love is silence – when your words would hurt

      Love is patience when your neighbor’s curt

      Love is deafness – when a scandal flows

      Love is thoughtfulness – for other’s woes

      Love is promptness – when stern duty calls

      Love is courage - when misfortune falls[1]

Here’s the hard part.  There is an ambiguity about love that resists common sense.  In seeking the good of the other, one finds one’s own good.  Our intuition tells us to take care of ourselves first and then look to the needs of others, but love tells us that our good cannot be achieved except through the meeting the needs of the other first, and it is in meeting their needs that our needs can only be met.  In other words, our good cannot be achieved apart from the good of others.

Love is also a concept that is only visible in a mutual context.  It is a two way street.  Love is never held within one’s self; it is reciprocal in nature.

Case in point.  Middle East.  This thing will never end until the Israelis become concerned with the welfare of the Palestinians and the Palestinians become concerned with the Israelis.  The blood will continue to flow as long as they are only concerned with themselves.


Verse 13

Look carefully at this verse.  What is our faith?  Our faith is our belief in God.  What is our hope?  Our hope is the future that God has for us – heaven.  These three remain after all else passes away – faith, hope and love.  But God tells us that Love is the greatest of the three.  Greater than our hope in heaven, even greater than or faith in God!  Love is eternal.  One day, all our hopes will be fulfilled, and all our faith will become reality.  And on that day, with faith and hope have become moot, God will be there showering us with love and we will love God back!  The love of God that we share is greater than our own belief in God! 


Emmet Fox wrote these words:

There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer,

No disease that enough love will not heal,

No door that enough love will not open,

No gulf that enough love will not bridge,

No wall that enough love will not throw down,

No sin that enough love will not redeem;

It makes no difference how deeply seated may be the trouble,

How hopeless the outlook,

How muddled the tangle,

How great the mistake; a sufficient realization of love will dissolve it all…

If only you could love enough, you would be the happiest and most powerful being in the world.


There is only one way to properly celebrate love in its deepest and most real form.  Say yes to Jesus, follow him, and let his love flow through you and change the world. 

[1] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, section on this text.


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