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1 Corinthians 13

Love Language: Love Heals Disunity

1 Corinthians 13

Teaching Moments

1. It is important to recognize the placement of this text. In a way it interrupts the continuity of chapter 12 and 14 where the focus of discussion is "spiritual gifts." However, the placement of the text here indicates that "love" is central to Paul's point. In all the discussion, pride, jealousy and envy that surrounded the use of gifts in the Corinthian church, love was the very thing that was missing. This chapter, then, addresses the very real problem of how brothers and sisters love one another in the middle of a situation filled with envy, status-seeking and pride.

2. Verses 1-3 refer to five prominent ministries: tongues, prophecy, faith, benevolence (gifts to the poor) and martyrdom. Each of these are outstanding ministries in their own right, but without love, they are nothing. Love must be the motive of all our actions and it must guide the use of all our gifts. The Corinthians excercised their gifts without love, and this is their fundamental problem. One the proper motive is restored (love), then Paul can address the actual use of these gifts (1 Corinthians 14).

  a. Tongues is a gift of God, though it is actually on the lower end of God's gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28-30). [Note how prophecy is ranked higher than tongues.] Nevertheless, is part of the body. But the Corinthians, as we learn from chapter 14, had exalted above its real value. Whether "tongues of angels" is hyperbole, or whether some actually spoke in angelic tongues, is immaterial to Paul's point. Don't get hung up on such a minor item. My opinon is that "tongues of angels" is hyperbole in the same way that some prophet could understand "all mysteires and all knowledge". The point, then, is: even if you could speak in angelic languages, it would be nothing if you did not have love.

  b. Prophecy is ranked second among the gifts of God (1 Cor. 12:28), right behind apostles. Prophecy brought a depth of understanding, but even if it brought "all knowledge" (which it did not as verse 9 tells us), it would be nothing without love.

  c. Faith may refer to the "spiritual gift" listed in 12:9, or it may be "faith" in general (as in everyone has faith, but not everyone has the gift of 12:9). I think it probably refers to the general meaning of faith (as in 13:13), just as the fourth item (benevolence) is general as well. But in either case, Paul's point is the same. Even if you have a faith that can move mountains--even if we are impressed with your commitment, trust and expectations of God--it is nothing if there is no love.

  d. Benevolence to the poor is certainly laudable and expected among Christians, but without love, it is nothing.

  e. Martyrdom is the highest form of following Jesus, being a true disciple that follows him all the way to the cross (death); but if it is without love, it is nothing.

3. Verses 4-7 are some of the most famous verses in all of Scripture. They certainly deserve carfeul attention. Think about how each of these might reflect the current needs of the church in Corinthian. This is not a definition of love. It is a kind of description, but it is a description tailored to the needs of the Corinthian church. In other words, whatever Paul says love is, they were not doing; and whatever he says love is not, they were doing. This must have been one big mess at the Corinthian church. What could have been going on that Paul would need to say something like this? Here is one possible breakdown of the points:

  a. What Love is:
    (1) patient
    (2) kind

  b. What Love is not:
    (1) envious
    (2) arrogant (no boasting)
    (3) prideful
    (4) rude
    (5) self-seeking
    (6) easily angered
    (7) gruding (keepings no record of wrongs)

  c. What Love does:
    (1) rejoices in truth
    (2) protects
    (3) trusts
    (4) hopes
    (5) perseveres

4. Verses 8-12 have often been used in a polemical way in order to sustain some argument about when tongues and prophecy will cease. However, this is not the point of the text. Paul's concern is not about when they will cease, but that they are partial, temporary and impermanent. He does not tell us when they will cease. He only says that when the perfect comes, the imperfect (partial) will no longer exist. [Discussion leaders, there is no need to get into a discussion of "when" tongues will cease. Not only is it beside the point that Paul has in mind, but it will obscure the essence of this text which is a call to value love above all else. Be careful that in discussing this text we violate the very point Paul is making: love is more important and more enduring that what anyone might believe about tongues!]

  a. Tongues, prophecy and knowledge are only partial. They are incomplete. They are not the perfection of heaven or the absolute in history. They are temporary….they will cease.

  b. The contrast is not between "tongues now, but not then," but the contrast is between "tongues are temporary, but love is eternal." Love participates in the perfection; love is the fullness of that perfection.

  c. Paul is trying to redirect the attention of the "spiritual gift seekers"--they should seek what is permanent rather than what is temporary. They should value love above all else, and this will be the sign of their maturity.

5. Verse 13 is the essence of the chapter. Connect it with verse 8. "Love never fails…the greatest…is love." Faith, Hope and Love, the Christian Triad, and the greatest is love. Faith, Hope and Love stand above "tongues, prophecy and knowledge", and love stands above them all. Thus, Paul's theme in chapter 8 re-emerges again: "love is more important than knowledge." In this case, "love is more important than gifts."


1. What are the five ministries (gifts) that Paul mentions in verses 1-3? His point is the same with each. What is the significance of that point for the Corinthians? What does it say to us?

2. Given the description of love in verses 4-7 and remembering the context of "spiritual gifts," what do you think is going on in the Corinthian church? Imagine yourself as part of that church community. What is being said? What are some Christians doing? What does Paul's description of love tell about some of the attitudes within the Corinthian church?

3. What do each of these descriptions mean? What does it say about a "big picture" of a loving person? Do you know anyone who embodies this "big picture" so that you can say they are models for you? Describe this person for the group.

4. Take each of those descriptions, or a cluster of them, and offer a specific example of how that looks in a Christian community. Unlike the Corinthians, what do Christians do/say in order to demonstrate kindness, patience, humility, etc.

5. Why is love the greatest? How can he say love is greater than tongues, prophecy and knowledge? How can Paul say love is greater than faith and hope? What does he mean?

6. How should we reflect this chapter in our community? What are some practical things we need to do and emphasize to maintain a loving community?


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