The Greatest Virtue

I Corinthians 13

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2011

Our Scripture reading tonight is I Corinthians 13. Let’s read it together. This is one of the most famous chapters in the entire Bible (the love chapter). Even non-Christians call this one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible. Adolf von Harnack, an old liberal German scholar called this chapter “The greatest, the strongest, the deepest thing Paul ever wrote” .

This is very interesting to me. Who do we think of as “the apostle of love”? John is known as the great apostle of love. He wrote the words, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God” (4:16). John was the one who said. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” (4:7).

John was the one who wrote the words, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10) and yet the greatest description of love in the NT did not come from the pen of John. It came from Paul.

With the possible exception of Psalm 23, 1 Corinthians 13 is probably one of the most often quoted portions of Scripture. It is often found on Hallmark greeting cards. It is often read at weddings but has little to do with the kind of love normally associated with newlyweds. This type of love has nothing to do with sex or romance. That is a different word than Paul uses here (ερως). That word is not used in the NT.

There is nothing wrong with that kind of love. God created it but that is not what Paul is talking about here. The word Paul uses in I Corinthians 13 is αγαπη.

It has absolutely nothing to do with how you feel toward someone. It has nothing to do with feelings or emotions. It has everything to do with actions. Incidentally, if that is the only kind of love you have, your marriage will not last.

From a purely literary standpoint, this is an amazing chapter. I teach language arts in middle school and this chapter contains all kinds of figurative language. It contains hyperbole. Does anyone know what that is? Paul uses incredible exaggeration in 13:1-3. This chapter contains personification. Does anyone know what that is?

Paul personifies love and describes it as a person (13:4-7). He uses similes (13:11-12). He uses strong imagery (a banging gong and a clanging cymbal). He uses other literary devices as well (chiasm). Part of it is poetic, although most of the chapter is prose.

This is a great chapter on a number of levels. Few passages of the Bible are read as often, and read as often out of context, as 1 Corinthians 13. What most people do with this chapter is to take it out of its context.

Whenever you read the Bible, you need to always read it in its context. What is the context of this chapter? It is right in the middle of a section (I Corinthians 12-14) dealing with spiritual gifts. Paul makes three points about love in this chapter.

The Necessity of Love (13:1-3)

First, Paul tells why love is necessary or why we need love, especially in connection with spiritual gifts (because that is what Paul is talking about in the context). Paul mentions three spiritual gifts (the gift of knowledge, the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues). He mentions them at the beginning and at the end of I Corinthians 13.

Those three gifts represent ALL spiritual gifts God gave. If you go back to chapter 12:8-10, Paul mentioned tongues at the end of the list, prophecy in the middle and knowledge at the beginning of his list and these three represent the entire list.

They stand for all spiritual gifts. What is Paul’s point? Paul’s point is that without love, all of the gifts do you no good. What he is saying is that ALL gifts without love, not just some of them, do you absolutely no good.

Even the GREATEST gifts without love profit you NOTHING. They may profit others. If you give all of your money to the poor, it will benefit the poor but, if you do it for the wrong reason, you get nothing from it.

The Corinthians had all of the gifts. Paul said at the beginning of the book that the Corinthians were not lacking in any gift (1:6). The Corinthians were big on spiritual gifts but they were not too big on love. Love was the missing ingredient in the church at Corinth.

They had all the gifts but apparently they didn’t have love and that was why there was so much division in the church and why Christians were taking other Christians in the church to court over minor things.

They were causing other believers to sin when they ate food offered to idols because they were not acting in love. There were poor people at their pot lucks but they didn’t feed them. They just stuffed themselves, ate too much and got drunk. That wasn’t very loving. Other churches had love but not the Church of Corinth (cf. Colossians 1:4; I Thessalonians 1:2-3; II Thessalonians 1:3).

Some churches are loving and some are not. The Church of Ephesus used to be a loving church it but lost its first love (Revelation 2:5). The Christian church should be characterized by love. Jesus said, some important things about love in John 13:34-35. That tells me three things.

1) Love is a Command

It is not optional. Husbands are commanded to love their wives. Christians are commanded to love fellow Christians. We are also commanded to love our enemies.

2) Love is a Mark of Christians

Christians should be known for their love of other Christians regardless of race, color, socio-economic background, education level, denomination or personality. Some Christians are a little easier to love than others. If you are genuinely saved, you should have a love for all Christians, not just the ones in your church or theological background

3) Love is a Sign to the World

The world should be able to recognize a Christian not just by his doctrine but by his love.What Paul is really saying is that love is the way that the gifts are to function. Love is the most excellent way to use the gifts. That is very convicting.

Last week, we raised the question, are you using the spiritual gifts God Gave you. This week the question is, Why are you using your gifts? What are your motives? You can do ministry for the wrong reasons (Philippians 1:15-17).

Wrong Reasons to Serve in the Church

1. To earn salvation (Matthew 7:21-23)

2. Pressure from others

Many do not want to serve but only do so because someone twisted their arm.  Some are pressured into serving in the nursery or leading small groups.  These are the kind of church volunteers who usually end up quitting.

3. To please people

That should never be our motive for serving in the church.  We should be more concerned about pleasing God than pleasing people (Galatians 1:10).

4. Pride

Some work in the church to promote themselves. That is a sin that is very easy  for preachers, for singers, musicians or anyone who is constantly in the spotlight.

The Nature of Love (13:4-7)

After telling us why we need love, Paul tells us what love is. Paul personifies love. He describes it as a person. It is a description of the character of Christ. Jesus is patient and kind. He is not jealous or boastful.

Paul describes love as a person and gives it fifteen different qualities of love. Some of those qualities are negative and some are positive. He says what love is and is not. Actually, most of the qualities are negative.

1. Love is patient
2. Love is kind
3. Love is not jealous
4. Love does not brag
5. Love is not arrogant
6. Love does not act unbecomingly
7. Love does not seek its own.
8. Love is not provoked.
9. Love does not take into account a wrong suffered.
10. Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness
11. Love rejoices with the truth
12. Love bears all things
13. Love believes all things
14. Love hopes all things
15. Love endures all things


1. Patient
2. Kind
3. Loves the truth
4. Accepting
5. Believing
6. Hoping
7. Enduring


1. jealous
2. boastful
3. arrogant
4. rude
5. selfish
6. irritable
7. resentful

Are you a loving or an unloving person? Which list describes you? Where do you see yourself? Ask yourself the following questions. Some of these are convicting.

• Are we patient with people or are we very impatient?

Impatient people cannot stand to wait for anything, even to wait in line at the grocery store. Love is patient.

• Are we kind in the way we talk to people or are we rude, insulting or obnoxious?

Do we say things to put people down or build them up? Love is kind.

• Are we jealous of the attention that other people get?

Are you upset when the spotlight is on someone else and not you? Love is not self-seeking. Love is not jealous.

• Do we boast and brag about our accomplishments? Love does not boast.

• Are we very self-centered and selfish?

Do you focus on yourself and your own needs or the needs of others? The Corinthians were not thinking of the needs of others at the Lord’s Supper. Love is not self-seeking.

• Are we stubborn, rigid and inflexible?

Love does not demand its own way (NLT)

• Are we demanding?

Do we always insist on our own way? Are we bossy and pushy? A control freak? Always trying to control others? Love does not demand its own way (NLT).

• Do we think we are better than other people? Do we look down on others? Love is not arrogant.

• Do we forgive others who sin against us or do we hold grudges against people who have wronged us?

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

• Do we love it when bad things happen to people?

Do we thrive on gossip, rumors and love to get all the dirt on people? Love does not delight in evil.

• Do we like to see people get hurt or injured or Christians fall into sin (because it makes us feel better about ourselves)?

Love does not delight in evil.

• Are we very irritable?

Does everything someone says or does bother you? Do you get angry very easily? The Corinthians did and were taking people to court. Love is not easily angered.

• Are we really critical?

Do we love to find the flaws in other people, instead of their strengths? Love does not delight in evil.

The Supremacy of Love (13:8-13)

Here Paul says that love does not just complete and perfect the gifts, it is superior to all of the gifts. Love is not a spiritual gift. Love is one of the fruits of the Spirit, not one of the gifts of the spirit. Paul mentions nine gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12:8-10.

He mentions nine fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. It is the first and the greatest of the fruits of the Spirit. Paul says that love is greater than the gifts, all of the gifts. It is greater than the gift of healing.

It is GREATER than the gift of tongues. It is GREATER than the gift of evangelism. It is GREATER than the gifts of healing.  It is GREATER than the gift of prophecy. It is GREATER than all of the gifts. Paul calls it “the more excellent way” (12:31).

But we have to be very careful here. Just because love is more important does not mean that gifts are unimportant. Just because Paul praises love does not mean that despises gifts. It is not that love is good and the gifts are bad. Paul is not saying that love is a substitute for the gifts. He does NOT saying “Don’t follow after spiritual gifts. Follow after love instead.”

He does NOT say, “Don’t seek spiritual gifts.. Seek love instead” or “Make love your aim and earnestly reject spiritual gifts.” Notice that we are COMMANDED to seek spiritual gifts (12:31; 14:1) but we are also COMMANDED to follow after love (14:1). Both are commanded. Both come from God and both are good but love is better. Why?

Love is eternal and the gifts are temporary (13:8-12). Love goes on into eternity. The gifts will not. We will be perfect then. We will have glorified bodies and will not need them. We will not need spiritual gifts in heaven. In the beginning of the chapter, Paul said that gifts without love are worthless. At the end of the chapter, he says that love without gifts will be heaven.

Paul mentions three gifts (knowledge, tongues and prophecy) and three graces (faith, hope and love). That is the gift of knowledge, not knowledge. Knowledge will never pass away (13:12).

There are two different ways to read this but most believe that Paul is contrasting three temporary gifts (knowledge, tongues and prophecy) with three permanent graces (faith, hope and love) . There are three things that fail (13:8) and three things that remain (13:13) and Paul says love is greater than all of them.

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