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Love September 23, 2011

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that he will show them an excellent way to obtain the relatively useful spiritual gifts. Now if he were to speak using foreign languages and the languages of angels – while lacking love – his speech would be equivalent to the sounds produced by a gong or a large pair of cymbals. Also, if 1) God were to reveal His purposes to Paul regarding salvation and His kingdom and He enabled him to communicate these truths to others, 2) he were able to understand these truths and teach them to others, and 3) he were able to work miracles, yet he lacked love in all these cases, he would be worthless. In addition, if 1) he were to sell his property and use the proceeds to buy food for the poor, and 2) he were to die for others, yet he lacked love in both of these cases, he would not profit. Paul then lists several characteristics of love:

  • it is not easily roused to resentment
  • it is inclined to do good
  • it does not entertain evil feelings in light of the fact that others are receiving good
  • it does not seek the applause of others
  • it is not conceited
  • it does not act in ways that will produce shame
  • it is not quick-tempered
  • it does not charge any wrongs that it has suffered to the account of the wrongdoer
  • it does not conform to unrighteousness but shares in the joy of righteousness
  • it quietly endures all difficulties
  • it is not suspicious of others
  • it hopes for the good of others
  • it patiently endures persecution
  • it lasts forever.

On the other hand, the following gifts will be irrelevant in the next life:

  • prophecy
  • tongues
  • teaching.

Indeed, teaching and prophecy are inherent to an imperfect state of existence; perfection will come in the next life – rendering teaching and prophecy irrelevant. To illustrate this point, Paul first refers to his childhood, when his speech, feelings and thoughts were all immature; when he became an adult, his speech, feelings and thoughts matured. He then notes that our present state of knowledge is analogous to the effects of peering through an imperfectly polished mirror; in the next life our state of knowledge will be analogous to the effects of seeing the Lord face to face. Paul concludes by noting that faith, hope and love will continue in the next life – yet love is greater than faith and hope, as it can benefit others.

Thoughts: As love is the main topic of this passage, the precise meaning of “love” is critical for properly understanding Paul’s overall argument; Hodge weighs in as follows:

With regard to the word love, the Greek word agape occurs about 116 times in the New Testament. This word did not have a heathen origin. The heathen had no conception of the grace that in the Scriptures is expressed by this word; neither the Greek eros nor philia, nor the Latin amor or caritas has the scriptural sense of agape.

This passage, then, is effectively God’s definition of the comprehensive term of agape love. Moreover, it is clear that God desires believers to demonstrate agape love towards each other. As noted by Hodge, agape love cannot be understood by non-believers, and so it must surpass even those altruistic – at least on the surface – actions of, say, a Buddhist monk or a “genuinely nice person.” Of course, this distinction is even difficult for believers to grasp; while we want to honor God with our deeds, outward acts of charity and kindness fall short in terms of demonstrating agape love.

One of Paul’s main points is that spiritual gifts, when they are exercised apart from the guiding principle of agape love, are effectively useless. This is a sobering fact that I need to constantly remember – since I serve as a Sunday School teacher at my church. Now if my ultimate aim in teaching is to improve my standing in the eyes of others and bring glory to myself, this passage teaches that I will fail to build up the body of Christ. Of course, this is difficult for me to grasp, especially if I receive compliments and praise for my teaching. One thought is that if I exercised the gift of teaching in a self-seeking manner, God would bring about a sequence of events that would clearly illustrate the long-term inefficacy of my gift. I, for one, am not eager to see how God would act in that regard.

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