1 Corinthians, chapter 13 , may be the most famous Biblical passage. If someone has the Bible read at their wedding, they will include this chapter. It’s even famous enough that we hear it read during some weddings on TV and in the movies. In Wedding Crashers , the two lead characters take bets on what passage will be read. The one we get is 1 Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 13 closes with what might seem like a strange passage, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” St. Paul mentions three great qualities, faith, hope, and love, but he says that the greatest of them is love. What does he mean?
What Does Faith Mean?
To understand this mysterious passage, we need to know what each word means when Paul uses it. Let’s start with faith. Paul uses the word, “faith” seven times in 1 Corinthians:
In each of these passages, faith is the trust that a Christian haves that God saves them. It’s a gift, given by the Holy Spirit, so that we will look to Jesus to be our savior. In 2:5, Paul cautions the Corinthians not to trust wisdom to save them, but to trust the power of God. In chapter 15, he writes that their trust would be in vain if Jesus had not been raised from the dead. They would trust in something that could not save.
Hebrews 11 offers the most well-known definition of faith, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is trust that what we are told is true. Faith, then, is the belief that our Savior has saved us and has given us eternal life.
What Does Hope Mean?
Through most of St. Paul’s writings, he assumes that everyone knows what he is talking about when he uses the word, “hope.” In Ephesians, he presents hope as one of a long lists of benefits we have in Christ. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5).
In 1 Thessalonians 4 , however, Paul wants to clear up exactly what hope God gives to Christians who have died. He says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” The hope he lays out is the promise of eternal life in Christ. He reminds the Thessalonians that Jesus died and rose again. He will come with a cry and raise the dead first to be forever with Christ.
The hope we have, in other words, is the resurrection from the dead. This hope keeps us going when we might rather not remain faithful. The hope is the goal at the end, that God will make everything right again when Jesus returns. So, hope is something to which we look, knowing that the day is coming. This hope is not a questionable thing, either. It’s not like we are saying, “We hope that it won’t rain tomorrow.” Our hope is certain, because we have faith in the one who promises it. Jesus never fails, so our hope will not be in vain.
What Does Love Mean?
1 Corinthians 13 is Paul’s greatest definition of love. Every word he uses is about relationship rather than being about a particular quality. Patient is only a word that can describe someone who is patient toward others. You cannot be patient on your own. Kind only works when you are kind to others. Love bears others’ burdens. Love forgives others’ sins. Love believes in others. It’s all about the our relationships with each other in the church.
We see that love best in Jesus. He forgave his disciples every time they didn’t get it. He was patient with them when they were afraid or lacked faith. He dealt kindly with them when they wanted to be raised up to be at his right hand and his left in his kingdom. When they all abandoned him, he died for them. That’s the kind of love that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13. Love that is active toward someone-- not an emotion but an action.
Why is Love The Greatest?
Love is the greatest, because it is the only one that will continue in the resurrection of the dead. If faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” then we will not need faith on the day Jesus returns. Faith is the trust that God will do what he says he will do. We have faith in God, because he has not yet fully delivered salvation to us. When he does, we will not need faith anymore, because the promised gift will be delivered.
Hope, too, is only temporary. Hope is not for something you have in your hand. Hope is for the future. When we rest our hope in eternal life, we use that hope to drive us through hard times. We hold onto the hope so we can be true, faithful, and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus no matter what. But we won’t need to do that when Jesus returns. In his perfect, new world, we won’t hope. We will have what we hoped for in this world.
Love is the only thing that remains after Christ returns, because we will live perfectly in God’s love. We will live as God had created Adam and Eve. We will live in a perfect relationship with our creator and with each other. Love never goes away.
That is what makes love so special now. Our love, today, also never goes away. I don’t mean that we love perfectly. We certainly fail at love every day. When we do love, however, the care we give to other people endures. When we feed someone, that love lives on in their bodies. When we serve someone, that love lives in our contribution to that person’s life. Every time we show love through service, it endures. When Jesus comes again, our love, given to us by Christ’s death and resurrection, will continue to live with everyone we have served. Love never fails.
There’s a reason why love is the greatest of the three. Faith and hope are temporary. They are necessary only in a fallen, sinful world. When everything is perfect again, they will disappear. Love, however, lasts forever.
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