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Carts before horses: Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13

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God’s love surpasses any love any of us have ever experienced at any time (Ephesians 3:19a). Yet, there are similarities between His love and ours and God calls us to love one another (like He loves us) as a supreme priority.

This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus (the Messiah), and love one another, just as He commanded us. (1 John 3:23)

It is amazing that we don’t prioritize loving one another according to the intensity of Jesus’ desire. Even those who are godly tend to take loving one another for granted. This commandment is given lip service and other godly things are more purposefully pursued. Here are some of the serious goals of many spiritual people:

Speaking to God out of one’s spirit.

Speaking God’s heart and mind to others.

Knowing God’s will and releasing God’s actions.

Adorning the testimony with a sincere otherworldly lifestyle.

Dedicated to the point of selfless action.

What more could a person ask for?

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 speaks to these ambitions. Take a look:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

What more could a person want?

Perhaps one should desire to love in such a way as to be found blameless in the Day of Judgment.

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of (the Messiah); having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus (the Messiah), to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)

and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)

What does the answer to Paul’s prayers look like? What is godly love? How can love be described within the context of relationships? Paul reached a pinnacle of inspired instruction when he presented this catechism of love to the divided Corinthian believers.

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

1 Corinthians 13 is not a prescription (do this and it is love); it is a description (love is like this). This is love described, not love prescribed.

This passage holistically details godly love’s attributes. It is not a manual on how-to-love others. It is often used as a means to take spiritual inventory, and it is a good checklist, but we find in the very beginning of the chapter that the goal is not to fulfill the characteristics of love. You can exhibit every trait and not have the essential heart. In fact, Scripture teaches that if you “give all (your) possessions to feed the poor, and if (you) surrender (your) body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits (you) nothing”.

If the goal is not to fulfill the characteristics of love, then what is the goal? The goal is to have a heart like our Messiah Jesus, a heart that actually loves others. Again, 1 Corinthians 13 is not a refined version of extrinsic demands. It is not a series of implicit commands (“Be patient, be kind, etc.”). It is a plea to examine one’s attitude, behavior and motivation within the context of “body ministry” (1 Corinthians12-14) which was going on within the framework of a highly dysfunctional divided church (Corinth).

Loving the believing community and the individual members of the Church has to do with “discerning the Body, rightly” (1 Corinthians 11:29b). When this is happening you perceive the holy value and lovable nature of the person or group with whom you are in relationship. When love is present the characteristics of love follow according to the strength and maturity of that love. If you love the brethren it will influence your attitude and behavior toward others.

Sometimes I lead responsive readings in Restoration Fellowship’s gatherings. Here is an example of an antiphonal reading that is implicit in most teachings on 1 Corinthians 13. I’m pretty sure you have never done this, but over the years you’ve probably heard the similar teaching so often as to “take these truths to be self evident”. The responsive reading will probably seem familiar. Take a look:

Leader: If you are patient,

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Leader: If you are kind,

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Leader: If you are self-effacing and humble,

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Leader: If you are appropriate to the situation, flexible,

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Leader: If you keep your cool, overlook offenses,

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Leader: If you are glad when justice prevails and love the truth,

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Leader: If you put up with suffering, believe the best about others, hope all things, endure all things, and not betray or give up on them

Congregation: Then you’ll be loving.

Having just read that, open up, take a moment, and compare that responsive reading to this one:

Leader: To the degree you love,

Congregation: You will be patient.

Leader: To the degree you love,

Congregation: You will be kind.

Leader: To the degree you love,

Congregation: You will be self-effacing and humble.

Leader: To the degree you love,

Congregation: You will be appropriate to the situation, flexible.

Leader: To the degree you love,

Congregation: You will keep your cool and overlook offenses.

Leader: To the degree that you really love,

Congregation: You will be glad when justice prevails and love the truth.

Leader: To the degree you love,

Congregation: You will put up with suffering, believe the best about others, hope all things, endure all things and not betray or give up on them.

One of these responsive readings is right, one is wrong. What does the Scripture teach? It says, “Love is…” In 1 Corinthians 13 we discover the results of godly love. The degree that you love determines how the quality and quantity of your love’s attributes are expressed to the beloved.

Horses do not push carts. Horses pull carts. “Pursue love” (1 Corinthians 14:1a).

May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God… (2 Thessalonians 3:5a)

agape,

David Harwood

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