1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most recognizable passages from the Bible. Most people hear it at weddings when the bride and groom choose a passage that says something about love.
There’s a good reason why it is famous. Paul writes beautifully about the power of love over everything else. Love is greater than prophecy, than speaking in tongues, than great wisdom, than anything else in the world.
What is wedded love? We talk about falling in love. It’s a feeling you have. You’re head-over-heels in love. You’re passionately attracted to each other. Sparks are flying.
When wedded love grows older, the flames may burn less brightly, but they’re still there. The fire of love is a glowing coal.
Does that sound like the kind of love Paul describes? No, and here’s why.
Paul writes his letter to all the Christians in the city of Corinth in response to division within the congregation. And there’s a ton of fighting going on.
In the first chapter, Paul describes ideological factions within the church. He writes:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
So, some people followed what they believed was Paul’s teaching, others focused on Cephas, while others tried to take the high road by claiming Christ. Yet, all it meant was fighting.
The Corinthians also divided themselves by wealth. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul chastises them for how the practice the Lord’s Supper. He writes:
When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
The divisions become clear when you understand what a Greek or Roman dinner party was like. When a rich man hosted a celebratory meal, he would feed a ton of people. But they wouldn’t all get the same treatment.
The host would gather the most important people in the best room of the house, and he would feed them the best food. The next most important guests would get slightly worse food and slightly worse accommodations. The host continued to arrange the party according to rank until you reached the outer edges, the lowest ranks, where they would get the least appealing food.
The Romans might think that was a fine way to hold a dinner party, but it’s not the way the church should do it. They imported the dinner party scheme into the Lord’s Supper, creating division between the rich and the poor.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul takes a whole chapter to describe the equality we have in Christ regarding spiritual gifts. “All [spiritual gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
Some people thought they were super-spiritual by the spiritual gifts they thought they had. The more spectacular the gift, the more spiritual they regarded themselves. But that’s not how Jesus works.
The manifestation of the Spirit doesn’t make one more or less spiritual, because we are all one in Christ.
Passionate love between a man and a woman is not the answer to these problems. The way we act when we’re in love, that kind of love might make the problems worse!
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul describes love that brings people together in peace and unity, Christ’s love.
Paul writes about love in absolute terms. Everything love does, it does to the max. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
He doesn’t qualify what love does. There is no “love is patient unless you get on my last nerve.” No, “love is kind to the people who love you.” He doesn’t write, “it is not irritable or resentful unless that guy’s a jerk.”
There is only one man who has ever practiced that kind of love, Jesus Christ.
Jesus shows his love for us throughout his life. He descended from heaven to take the form of a human being, to live under the curse of the law just like us. He suffered through weakness, hunger, sickness, and pain. He faced betrayal, hurt feelings, disappointment, and rejection.
He didn’t have to do it. He could have stayed up in heaven as the eternal Son of God and watched us walk the road to Hell. He came down, because he loves us.
We see his love best through his suffering on the cross. Jesus loved us so much that he put us before his own body and health. He was falsely accused, judged a criminal, beaten, mocked, and whipped.
When they nailed him to a cross, the people who put him there shouted insults at him from below him. It wasn’t enough that they had him executed. They also needed to humiliate him while he was slowly dying.
Yet, Jesus responded with love. ““Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We, on the other hand, do not live love the way Jesus did. When we get hurt, we get bitter and critical.
If you’ve spent much time in a congregation, you’ve seen the ways that Christians can fight. Most congregations are no better than the Corinthians.
There are divisions between groups of Christians who have different views about what the church should do. There are people who plain dislike each other. Congregations develop cliques that act like little tribes fighting against the others.
Most of the time, these groups live in an uneasy peace. But when there’s major conflict, watch out. I have seen people work behind the scenes to get others riled up. They gossip. They stir up trouble. The whole congregation goes into an uproar.
It’s not just congregations that fight among each other. We can get bitter and critical in the rest of our life as well.
Sometimes we’re just so broken by our circumstances that we don’t have the energy to love and forgive. Problems with finances, relationships, or even just general malaise can drive us to be critical of others.
Sometimes we get critical to cover up our own sin. The fastest way for a person to feel righteous is to condemn sin in someone else. When we point and shout, “Sinner,” we start to feel like the holy, righteous judge. And it leads us to do terrible things.
Jesus Christ’s love is the answer, first, when we receive forgiveness and second, when his love flows through us.
When we’re bitter and critical, we need forgiveness from Jesus. It’s terribly difficult to love when we’re overcome with guilt at our own behavior. It can even lead to more bitterness!
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross pays the penalty for our sin, and it wins forgiveness for us. Because of him, our Heavenly Father forgives us.
The best way to receive that is through confessing your sin to someone, especially if your church practices confession and absolution. Go to your pastor, confess your specific sins, and hear him proclaim forgiveness to you. There is nothing like the freedom of face-to-face forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t the only gift that Christ gives you by his grace. He also gives you his own love to flow through you to others.
Paul describes it as the mind of Christ in Philippians 2:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
“Which is yours in Christ Jesus” is the key phrase. The love that Jesus shows for us on the cross is yours by Jesus’ grace. When he unites with us, he changes us.
Take look at Romans 6, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
In baptism, we are united with Christ in death and united with him in his resurrection. The new life that Jesus lives in perfection is ours. We died to our sin and we rose to Christ’s love.
But it’s difficult to live that way. Very often, we don’t feel love toward others.
But that shouldn’t get in the way. Feeling love is way overrated. Instead, we should act with love.
Friends fight all the time. Our human nature wants us to hold a grudge, to act out our anger. Christ’s love wants us to forgive, even when we’re angry.
Congregations are divided all the time. Our human nature wants us to use power and treachery to conquer and destroy other people. Christ’s love wants us to speak well of each other and forgive each other even when we’re angry.
Feelings are overrated, what matters is love in our actions.
That’s what 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us to do. It reminds us how amazing Jesus’ love is to us. He loved us so much that he suffered and died for us.
Jesus is patient and kind. He does not envy or boast. He isn’t rude, angry, irritable, or resentful. Instead, Jesus bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things.
This passage reminds us to love like this in our actions toward others. In our friendships, Christ’s love brings us together. In our homes, Christ’s love binds the family as one. In our congregation, Christ’s love expresses the unity we have in his body. Christ’s love is the answer to when we are bitter and critical.
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