1 Corinthians 13
Valentine’s Day is not an official holiday in any nation, yet it is celebrated worldwide. Valentine’s Day is recognized for its celebration of love and affection. Mass-produced cards saying “Be My Valentine” are passed around in our schools, and we see hearts and cupids during this time as symbols of romantic love.
Courtship and marriage are where we experience romantic love. The Bible book “Song of Solomon” is dedicated to the passions of romance. Interpreted in the context of the relationship between a man and a woman, Song of Solomon can be rather explicit. Romance of this kind is exciting and causes our hearts to race.
Some of the tamer expressions of the Song of Solomon are as follows:
Song of Solomon 2:2–3 (NKJV) [man speaking] 2Like a lily among thorns,
So is my love among the daughters.
[woman speaking] 3Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods,
So is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down in his shade with great delight,
And his fruit was sweet to my taste.
Song of Solomon 4:1–2 (NKJV) [man speaking] 1Behold, you are fair, my love!
Behold, you are fair!
You have dove’s eyes behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
Going down from Mount Gilead.
2Your teeth are like a flock of shorn sheep
Which have come up from the washing,
Song of Solomon 5:14–15 (NKJV): [woman speaking] 14His hands are rods of gold
Set with beryl.
His body is carved ivory
Inlaid with sapphires.
15His legs are pillars of marble
Set on bases of fine gold.
These passages are some of the milder parts of the romance, and they have some expressions that we no longer use, but I am sure they were very romantic at the time. Truthfully though, I have never told my wife that her teeth are like a flock of shorn sheep.
This Biblical romance is included in the Scriptures, and following this example, we must continue to woo and pursue our spouses throughout our relationship. However, I want to speak today about another type of love. The love that Song of Solomon shows us is erotic love, from the Greek word “eros.” “Eros” is what brings couples together, and it is more exciting than alcohol or drugs. Because of this excitement factor, the world focuses on “eros.” Much of our entertainment centers around “eros.” Pornography flourishes and is a multibillion-dollar industry because we are hard-wired to respond to the physical stimulants of “eros.”
However, “eros” is not enough. Don’t misunderstand me! “Eros” is one of several Greek words for “love,” and is vital to the marriage relationship. In the context of marriage, it is not sinful in the least. In fact, in marriage, it is a duty.
The problem is that over time the excitement wears off. The legs that were pillars become more like bald toothpicks, and the teeth that were like shorn sheep have to be removed by the dentist.
We all know this, but we are so inundated with the Hollywood version of love that we fall into the trap of mistaking feelings for true love.
We know better!
We know that another kind of love is required to maintain our relationships. The Greek word for this other kind of love is “agape.” We all long for “agape,” and many mistakenly try to find it in “eros.” But it does not work. “Eros” and “Agape” are not the same.
The Bible defines “agape” for us in 1 Corinthians 13, and Jesus demonstrated “agape” for us through His life and sacrifice on our behalf. Let’s take a brief look at how love is defined for us in 1 Corinthians 13.
First, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 tells us the importance of love. Essentially, it tells us that nothing is more important than love. As we read this passage of Scripture together, think about the essential nature of love.
1 Corinthians 13:1–3 (NKJV) 1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Just before this chapter, Corinthians teaches about the use and place of spiritual gifts in the Church. Spiritual gifts are the power of God at work through human instruments to build the Body of Christ. Tongues, or languages, are necessary to reach the lost, encourage each other, and teach the truth. Our tongues set us apart from the beasts of the field. We communicate by means of our tongues. Speach is a powerful tool especially when empowered by the Holy Spirit. But according to verse 1, without love, tongues are useless.
The end of chapter 12 proclaims prophecy to be a greater gift than tongues. Prophecy is the proclamation of the word of God and has the power to transform the world. However, according to verse 2, without love, even prophecy means nothing.
Without faith is is impossible to please God, but Jesus taught that if we have even faith as small as a mustard seed, we can move mountains. Faith is powerful because of its object. Faith in an infinite God is infinitely powerful. And, even such faith is said to be worthless without love.
Finally, giving one’s life for others is the ultimate expression of love, but self-sacrifice for selfish motives is possible. The terrorist that flew planes into the world trade center towers sacrificed themselves, but they are not examples of love. Without love, no amount of sacrifice or service is of any use. According to 1 Corinthians 13 sacrifice is said to profit nothing if it is without love.
Love is just as important for couples. In our marriages, nothing can take the place of love. Providing a lovely house, expensive cars, and fabulous vacations are all meaningless without love. Loveless marriages are common, but these are not happy marriages. An often-quoted statistic is that over half of all marriages end in divorce. These divorces happen for myriads of reasons, but the root cause is the absence of love. We can assume that most of these marriages started out with hot, passionate romantic love. However, without “Agape,” they could not be sustained.
So, what makes “Agape” love so special?
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 answers this question when it tells us how love behaves. These verses tell us what love does. The actions and attitudes of love make it critical to life and marriage, more necessary than “eros.”
1 Corinthians 13:4–7 (NKJV) 4Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Most of us will admit that we are not perfect. In our imperfection, we hurt the ones closest to us. Living near another, we must often ask forgiveness and acknowledge that we have failed. Somethings we need to be forgiven over and over as we repeatedly stumble and fall. Consider the selfless nature of love described here in these verses from 1 Corinthians. I, personally, am most moved by the thought that love does not seek its own because I see how much I hurt my family and my spouse when I am selfish.
Jesus is our example. He was despised and rejected by men, and yet He gave His life for them. Putting up with another human being is discouraging at times, so we are encouraged to think about Jesus’ example.
Hebrews 12:3 (NKJV) For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
This verse from Hebrews speaks of the hostility Jesus endured. Some marriages break down to the point where open hostility is expressed, but this should not be the case. Love does not seek its own, is not provoked, and does not behave rudely. When we act rudely, selfishly, and angrily, saying “I love you” is meaningless. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us how love behaves, and we should use it as a measuring stick to see how we are doing, but not as a club to beat our spouses in submission. Love suffers long and is kind. It is not provoked.
Marriage requires love. Looking at the standard of love here in 1 Corinthians, it is evident that we all fail. So, we are confronted with the choice of forgiving or not. Ephesians 4:32 says:
Ephesians 4:32 (NKJV) And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Love is kind, compassionate, and forgiving. While this does not sound romantic, romance cannot continue without this kind of love. But the question may arise, “How can we maintain such an attitude?”
After telling us of the importance of love and how love behaves, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us something more about love — it lasts forever.
1 Corinthians 13:8 (NKJV) Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
“Love never fails!” How is it that so many marriages end because they just don’t love each other anymore? It seems that our world accepts the premise that love does not last forever and that happily ever after is for fairy tales. In contrast to this, 1 Corinthians proclaims that love never fails.
The answer we see in our culture is “true love!” However, consistent with the world’s focus on “eros,” true love is portrayed as some version of fiery romance. But, is love a feeling? Feelings do not last forever.
We can understand this more when we recall that God requires love. He demands that we love Him with all our mind, soul, and strength. He also commands that we love our neighbor as ourselves. If love were a feeling, these commands would be impossible to obey. We cannot turn our emotions on and off, as feelings come and go. In contrast to this, the behaviors of love described in 1 Corinthians are things that we can choose to do.
We can choose whether or not we are rude, provoked, envious, or proud. We can choose to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.
We always have a choice. We will not be perfect until heaven, but a time is coming when we will be conformed to the image of Jesus. 1 John 3 tells us:
1 John 3:2 (NKJV) Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
As God’s children, we are being conformed to the image of Christ. The Body of Christ, other people, and our spouses are God’s gift to us in the transformation process. We hear, “Iron sharpens iron,” and we realize that this sharpening happens through friction and grinding. Sometimes the friction is enough to produce sparks. True love grows in such circumstances. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us about the goal of the process that God is taking us through.
1 Corinthians 13:9–12 (NKJV) 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
11When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.