4 March 2015

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (v. 13)

Psalm: Psalm 119:49-64


Our passage today is one of the widely known and best loved to be found anywhere in the Bible, with its powerful tribute to a love which "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (v. 7). It's often used at wedding services, which itself is something of an irony as Paul himself appears not to have married. But in noting how it follows on from what Paul has been saying earlier about the variety of spiritual gifts in the life of the Church, we begin to see what he means by introducing it in terms of "a still more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31).

For Paul begins by contrasting love with some of the spiritual gifts which he has outlined in the previous chapter: "if I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels … if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries … if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains…". All these are among the gifts God bestows on the Church - but without love, they are "nothing", a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (vv. 1-3).

Paul goes on to extol love's virtues, but in a way which emphasises its almost self-effacing character: "love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It doesn't insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful" (vv. 4-5). It's almost as if love resembles one of those seemingly 'weaker members' of which he spoke in the previous chapter (1 Corinthians 12:22), but which yet proves to be indispensible to the life and health of the body as a whole.

For, as Paul reminds us, while all these other gifts have their time and place, they will not last: "As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end" - but as for love, "Love never ends" (v. 8). It is this apparently passive, patient and long-suffering virtue of love that proves to be the "more excellent way" and the way that leads into the presence of God.

The chapter closes with Paul almost in mystical mode, reflecting on his own growth in knowledge and understanding in the light of love. He does this by using images that reveal some of the influences of the Greek philosophy of his time, in the contrasts between child and adult, mirror reflection and reality, the partial and the whole. But he may also be pointing to the limitations of that knowledge and spiritual gifting which some of those at Corinth may claim, when he speaks of putting "an end to childish ways" (v. 11). For it leads him to conclude in those famous words that "now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (v. 13).

To Ponder

  • Do you consider that love is always the "more excellent way"? In what way?
  • Is it always true that "love never ends" - and what happens if it does?
  • What does it mean for you to know now "only in part" - and trust that in time you will come to "know fully, even as I have been fully known" (v. 12)? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley

Stephen Wigley is a Methodist minister currently serving as chair of the Wales Synod. He is married to Jenny, a priest in the Church in Wales, and they have two teenage sons, David and Andrew.