Love – The More Excellent Way (I Cor. 13.1-7)

After the argument in I Cor. 12.4-30 about the gifts of the spirit and various ministries, I Cor. 12.31 starts with an imperative: “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Notice I Cor. 14.1 also starts with an imperative: “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts….”

Here Paul is not presenting love as the greater gift that all should pursue. Paul never calls love as a gift. He is not contrasting love with the gifts mentioned in I Cor. 12.4-30.

What Paul intends to explain is what he calls “an excellent way” (I Cor. 12.31), a way that is beyond comparison. Why is Paul intending to explain this “excellent way”? In order to know this, we need to understand the context.

A. The Context
Corinthians have given the gift of speaking in tongues an exalted position. Since they were speaking in tongues they considered themselves possessing the spirit and highly spiritual. Paul says, this way they are going is basically destructive to the church as a community. Because speaking in tongues without interpretation edifies only the speaker, but not the community.

Paul sets out to put their zeal for tongues within a broader ethical context that will ultimately disallow uninterpreted tongues in the assembly. That context is love, as defined by the cross of Christ as existing or living for others (this is what we learned yesterday). In I Cor. chapter 14 such love is specified in terms of “building up” the church.

Paul calls this the “more excellent way”. It is the way of seeking the common good (I Cor. 12.7), of edifying the church (I Cor. 14.1-5). That means one should seek or desire for spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community. Since love is acted out by Jesus Christ on the cross as living for others (II Cor. 5.14-15), love is the only context for exercising spiritual gifts. Without love, spiritual gifts are useless, or lose their purpose.

B. Description of the “Excellent Way”
Paul begins his description of “the way that is beyond comparison” with a series of three conditional sentences. He begins with tongues because that is a cause for the problem in the church. He then includes a variety of spiritual gifts from the list in I Cor. chapter 12: Prophecy, understanding, knowledge and faith. Finally he includes examples of self-sacrificial deeds.

In each case the conditional clause presupposes that the activity like speaking in tongues, prophecy etc., has value. These are good things. What is not good is the exercise of gifts by a person who is not acting as described in I Cor. 13.4-7. The problem is the person whose life is not governed by love.

What is underlying here is two opposing views on what it means to be “spiritual”. For the Corinthians it meant speaking in tongues, wisdom and knowledge, without corresponding or equal concern for truly Christian behaviour. Their spirituality showed evidence of all kinds of behavioural flaws. Their “knowledge” led to pride (8.1). Their wisdom led to quarrels and rivalry (1.10; 3.4). That means, theirs was a spirituality that lacked the primary evidence of spirit, that is, behaviour that could be described as “having love”. For Paul, to be “spiritual” means to be filled by the spirit, whose fundamental expression is “to walk in love”.
When Paul says “do not have love”, he does not mean to suggest that love is a possession of some kind. To “have love” means to “act lovingly”. To “act lovingly” means actively to seek the benefit of others as expressed by the cross of Christ.

The Character of Love (I Cor 13.4-7)

With a series of fifteen verbs Paul describes the love that should be the context for exercising spiritual gifts. In other words, Paul describes the Christian behaviour. Exercising spiritual gifts is good. But it is imperative that the one who exercises spiritual gifts should have the Christian behaviour as described in 13.4-7.

“Patient” “kind” “envious” “boastful” “arrogant” “rude” “irritable” and “resentful” are verbs. Verbs denote action. For Paul love is not a sentiment. It is an act.

The description of love in 13.4-7 is basically in three parts: it begins with two positive expressions of love (patient and kind); these are followed by seven verbs expressing what love is not (envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insists on its own way, irritable, resentful); these are followed by what love does not do (“love does not rejoice in wrong doing”), which is balanced by its positive counterpart (“love rejoices in the truth” v.6); finally there are four verbs (bear, believe, hope and endure) with the object “all things”. The last verb “endure” is a synonym of the first one “patient”.

1. In I Cor. 13.4 Paul uses two verbs positively: “patient” and “kind” (I Cor. 13.4)

Patience means “long forbearance”. Kindness means active goodness toward others. In Rom. 2.4 these are mentioned as the attributes of God. “Patience” and “kindness” appear together also as fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5.22. They appear also in the description of Paul’s apostolic ministry in II Cor. 6.6.

In I Tim. 1.12-16 Paul succinctly describes how he experienced God patience and kindness in his life.

This is what we all have experienced. And this is what we are asked to show towards others.

2. In I Cor. 13.4-5 Paul uses seven verbs negatively: “envious”, “boastful”, “arrogant”, “rude”, “insists on its own way”, “irritable” and “resentful”. These verbs describe how love does not behave.

The first five verbs: “envious”, “boastful”, “arrogant”, “rude” and “insists on its own way” are the qualities of the Corinthians at present. It is as though Paul were saying, “You must have love; without it you are simply not behaving as Christians. And what is love? It is to behave in ways opposite to the way you are behaving now.”

a. “Love does not envy”
The adjective “envy” appears along with “quarrelling” in I Cor. 3.3 to denote rivalry found in the Corinthian church. Paul says, love does not allow fellow believers to be in rivalry or competition, either for positions or to gain favour of people or leaders.

b. Love does not boast
“Boasting” suggests self-centered actions in which there is an excessive desire to call attention to oneself. That means, it is not possible to love and boast at the same time. Boasting wants others to think highly of oneself, whereas love cares for the good of others.

c. Love is not arrogant
The verb literally means “puffed up”. This word is used more in this letter (I Cor. 4.6, 18-19; 5.2; 8.1).

d. Love is not rude
The verb means “to behave shamefully or disgracefully”.

e. Love does not insist on its own way (love is not self-seeking)
Love seeks the good of others.

f. Love is not irritable (love is not easily angered)
The one who loves is not easily provoked to anger. This is a further expression of patience or forbearance.

g. Love is not resentful (Love keeps no records of wrongs)
Literally it says that love “does not reckon/consider the evil”. Although it might mean “love does not devise evil against someone else”, most likely, the meaning here is “love does not consider the evil done against him/her, in the sense, no records are kept to settle the score.”

3. “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (I Cor. 13.6)

The Greek word adikia means “injustice”, “wrong”, “falsehood”, “deceitfulness”. It literally means “love does not rejoice in injustice.” Love does not rejoice either in doing injustice to others, or in seeing injustice done to others.

Rather, love rejoices in the truth. The Greek word aletheia means “truth”, “sincerity”, “practice in accordance to the gospel truth”. Love rejoices in the behaviour that reflects the gospel truth – every act of kindness, every forgiveness offered. It refuses to rejoice in evil, either in its more global forms – war, exploitation, oppression of the poor, human rights violations-, or in failure of others, in gossiping about the misdeeds of others. Love stands on the side of justice, but not on the side of injustice.

4. The final stack of verbs (bear, believe, hope, endure) brings the description of love to a conclusion. In each case the verb is followed by the object “all things”.

“It bears all things” Paul uses the same verb in I Cor. 9.12 “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Here Paul is talking about “putting up with” all kinds of hardships for the sake of proclaiming the gospel to others. The sense here is, enduring hardship for the benefit of others. This is what the final verb “endure” also means.

In a way, it means, “you suffer for the benefit of others.” This is what we noticed in the two paradoxes: power in weakness and life in death.

When Paul says “love believes all things, hopes all things”, he meant “love never ceases to believe, it never loses hope.” That is why love can endure.

The best way to capture or understand Paul’s point in I Cor. 13.4-7 is to substitute our name for the noun “love”. As we substitute our name for the noun “love”, if we find any area of failure, let us take time to repent and ask God for forgiveness and for his grace and strength to live a life of love.


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