1 April 2017

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

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

Psalm: Psalm 131


Paul's lyrical reflection on love is one of the best-known passages in the whole of the Bible. Yet its precise focus can be blurred by the wide-ranging meaning of the English word 'love'. The 20th-century author C S Lewis, of Narnia fame, wrote a book entitled The Four Loves, distinguishing between the four Greek words for love: 'philia' means the love between friends, 'eros' means erotic love, 'storge' means empathy and 'agape' means the love of God which binds Christians to one another and to God. Paul is talking about agape-love here, and his teaching focuses on encouraging the Corinthians to appreciate the wonder of this, the greatest of God's gifts to us.

Paul contrasts agape-love with charismatic gifts such as tongues, prophecy and special knowledge (verses 1-2). Even the most generous charity, even the strongest faith, have no value if love is lacking (verses 2-3). The writer to the Colossians makes a similar point: love binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14). It is the foundation and nothing can survive without it. Moreover, love is the only really permanent aspect of creation, because it alone truly reflects God's eternal perfection (verses 8, 10). It characterises the mature Christian.

Alongside his comparison of love with other spiritual gifts, Paul also finds ways to describe this love in itself. He answers the question 'what is love?' through describing what love does (and doesn't) do, and identifies a range of behaviours which are unthinkable for those who genuinely share God's agape-love. Though he does not make direct links with the life of Jesus, this list would have resonated with his hearers, who knew the stories of Jesus' life and (especially) his death.

When we read this passage in the context of the whole letter, it's clear that Paul is addressing the problems of the church at Corinth: their poor behaviour towards each other, their excessive concern for flamboyant charismatic gifts. But there is so much more to this chapter than a local issue. Paul finds words to describe God's greatest gift which have rung true for Christians of every generation. Love surpasses even faith, the grateful, trusting acceptance of God as God is, and hope, the future aspect of faith, as C K Barrett puts it. It doesn't make sense to speak of God as having faith or hope - but it doesn't make sense to speak of God without love. Love is the greatest because, through love, we share the life of God.

To Ponder

  • C S Lewis distinguishes agape-love from other forms of love. How far can you identify this distinctive kind of love within your own experience of loving and being loved?
  • How can agape-love shape the life of a whole church as well as the individuals within it? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.