Epiphany 4 • 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:13 • February 3, 2013

By Jeffrey Kloha

Some texts don’t need sermons. What more needs to be said about love than the
praise that the apostle lavishes on it in 1 Corinthians 13? Perhaps nothing more needs
to be said, but showing love within the body of Christ as it lives in the present day is
far easier said than done. The context makes it quite clear what the love encouraged
by the apostle looks like. 1 Corinthians 13 (introduced by 12:31) is strategically placed
in the center of Paul’s teaching on “body” and “gifts” in Corinth. Some of the baptized
in Corinth acted as if they had “no need” for others (12:21), thereby destroying
the unity of the body. In chapter 14, some were acting as if their personal “manifestation
of the Spirit” was for their own benefit and not for the “building up the church.”
The fundamental problem among the gathered baptized in Corinth was self-serving
behavior caused by self-important attitudes and self-referential thinking. The apostolic
solution is “love.” All else is temporary, whether prophesying (14:1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 22, 24 31,
39), knowledge (8:1, 7, 10, 11), or tongues (12:10, 28; 14:2, 4 etc.), but in contrast to all
three of these self-focused activities, “love never ends” (13:8). So the love encouraged
in the body of Christ is not some kind of internal, emotional “good feeling” when we
think of someone or something. Above all, it abhors living for self. Rather, “love” in 1
Corinthians 13 is active, righteous living for the good of the sister and brother in Christ.

We, however, are perhaps a bit confused by “love.” “How do I love thee? Let me
count the ways.” I say “I love you” to my wife, to my daughters, and to my mother, but
“love” means different things in each case. I also “love” pepperoni pizza, and I “love it”
when the Chicago Cubs win. We “fall into” and then “fall out of” love. We have many
definitions for the word “love.” You’ve no doubt also heard the urban-legend definition
of “agape love,” usually defined as a perfect, Godly love distinguished from “philial
love” and “erotic love,” allegedly on the very precise definitions of the different Greek
vocables. However, no language is that precise, and in the NT there is considerable
overlap between ἀγαπη and φιλια/φιλεω (cf. Jn 13:23 and 20:2, where the “disciple whom
Jesus loved” is loved with both words). Rather than basing a definition of love on a bare
vocable, context determines what the word means. Paul defines love in 1 Corinthians 13
first by what it does not look like (13:1–3) and then by what it does (13:4–7).

The crescendo of the “hymn” is 13:7, which in most English translations unfortunately
sounds hopelessly blind and foolish: “Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.” Paul’s use of παντα, however, does not focus on
the content of what is borne, believed, hoped, and endured, but on the limitless action
of the verbs. A better understanding is “Love supports without limits, trusts/is faithful
without limits (see Gal 5:22 for a parallel use of πιστις), hopes without limits, never
gives up (cf. Jn 13:1, “Jesus loved them to the end.”). The point is not, as is implied in
most translations, that love is “blind.” Rather, love is without bounds and is permanent,
the point made in the next section (13:8–11).

Perhaps skipped over in our zeal to encourage the right kind of love is the eschatological
focus of the chapter, laid out in this conclusion. The reason that “knowledge”
and “prophecy” and “tongues” do not strengthen the body as much as love is that they
are partial, temporary, and incomplete in the present age. We (the church) “know in
part” and “prophecy in part” because we are not yet “perfect.” And when the perfect
comes, the restoration of all creation on the last day, then the limits and ephemerality
of knowledge and prophesying—of any human speaking—become obvious. Then, and
only then, will we know as we have been known. On that day knowledge will no longer
be necessary; all that will remain is love. God’s love for us, and our love for his body,
the baptized.

The problems of self-seeking and puffing-up pride in Corinth are blown away
like the chaff when held up to the light of love. What the apostle calls for in the body
of Christ is no less than to live as if the last day has already come. On the last day, what one
has done for oneself will not matter, so why would it matter now? The knowledge that
one possesses, no matter how impressive, is still only a thimbleful compared with what
will be made known on the last day. But love is love. It will be shown fully on the last
day, and unlike knowledge and prophesying, it can be shown fully in the church today
by those who live in Christ.

You, as a preacher, cannot create this kind of love in your people. You cannot
force them to show it. It happens only when the Spirit kills the old man and the new
man, daily, rises to love God and love neighbor. And, by the Spirit of Christ, this does,
indeed, happen. The main preaching challenge is to do as the apostle did. Paul exposed
that which was “not love” in Corinth (knowledge, prophecy, self-serving; 13:1–3). What
is “not love” among the baptized that you serve? Where is self-seeking happening even
in the body of Christ? Second, what does love look like, in contrast to our notions of
feels like (13:4–7)? Here, specifics might help the congregation put flesh on love. Finally,
remind your hearers that they are already the body of Christ; they have been “fully
known,” and that the love they do brings a small piece of the future kingdom into the
present, in Christ, who embodies love (13:8–11).

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