This is being written from China during the COVID-19 pandemic. While China is in the beginning stages of recovering from the virus, there have been many opportunities to see where love has been stretched during the past three months. My thoughts will be affected by my experiences.
Big Idea: Love is essential, and spiritual gifts are optional.
1 Corintians 13:1-3
In many cultures the ability to speak well in public is highly esteemed. It certainly was in the Roman empire. Paul says that without love the sounds that come out of our mouth are only noise. Due to the virus quarantine we have spent most of our time in the apartment with all English speakers. Yesterday I ventured out to get some vegetables for dinner. Everyone in the produce shop spoke Chinese. The multiple conversations going on were just noise to me and when I spoke, I’m certain the same thing was true for them. Love enables effective communication.
Remember that Paul is talking to a church that has become divisive and competitive. The ability to speak for God as His prophet and to perform miracles would be highly valued. All these things Paul could do, and he says that they provide no status without love. We would think that sacrificial generosity and physical suffering would merit esteem. However, unless the motive is love there is nothing to be gained from either our sacrifice or suffering. If my goal is to build myself up or draw attention to myself, then regardless of the good that appears to be done I will not achieve my goal. (See Matthew 6:1-18 for Jesus’ take on this in the Sermon on the Mount.)
Which of the spiritual gifts from chapter 12 does Paul refer to in this introduction?
Think of people who are esteemed in your church body. Why are they esteemed?
How would you describe love based on what Paul has said so far?
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
To really understand these verses, we need an example of what this kind of love looks like. Fortunately, God sent Jesus to help us understand. Jesus’ love is often summarized by suggesting that we look to His sacrifice on the cross. I agree that this is the best and most clear example of this kind of love we’ll ever see, but what about the application of love to the daily interactions of life. For these I would suggest that we read the gospels over and over.
Paul is talking here about agape love. The best short definition outside of the Bible that I’ve heard goes like this; agape love is doing what is best for you regardless of what it costs me. Love is other focused and not self-focused.
There is a new book out that explores this concept in depth. J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life by Paul E. Miller is a bit repetitive. A few months after reading it I’m realizing that the repetitive nature of the book was necessary, because dying to self and learning to love is very difficult for me.
While here in China one of my tasks has been keeping the kitchen clean. I didn’t have to do this but decided that it was a way I could contribute. The struggle has been to make doing the dishes an act of love rather than a duty. The indications that my motives are often self-seeking come out in a variety of ways. The first is the irritation that sometimes overcomes me when no one seems to notice or say thank you. The second is when I want to discourage my wife from another cooking project that will make a mess of the kitchen. I know my motives aren’t perfect and I have much growing to do in this practice of loving, but should I stop doing the dishes until I get it all figured out? No, I need to continue because every time one of those thoughts or feelings pops up, I am reminded that I’m still growing and have a long way to go.
When you read through Paul’s list of things that characterize love, which do you find most difficult in your life?
Besides Jesus, who is the best example of this kind of love in your life?
Identify a story from Jesus’ life that illustrates each of the attributes of love that Paul identifies. This could be a separate study all its own.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10
What is the “perfect” or “completeness” mentioned in verse 10? There are many who think they know for sure and how you define that word will shape how you interpret these three chapters. There are many opinions about what verse 10 refers to and I will only deal with two of them. In the faith tradition I was raised in verse 10 referred to the Bible.
A very loose paraphrase of verses 9 and 10 taking this view might read something like this:
Our knowledge of God is currently incomplete, and this means our message is also incomplete. When the Bible has been completed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit then we will no longer need the gifts of prophecy and tongues.
The unfortunate result of this view is that the Holy Spirit is replaced by the Bible in people’s lives. I am convinced that this view has handicapped the church for generations. I am grateful that there is a revived interest in the work of the Holy Spirit within non-charismatic churches today.
The view taken by those who believe that these supernatural gifts are still active today is that verse 10 refers to heaven or the second coming of Jesus. Looking at the context, including the following verses, I think this is more likely what Paul is referring to. The church he is writing to would have no idea what the Bible would be. They would have been looking forward to the second coming. Also, their issue was not a debate over whether tongues, prophecy, or healing were still active gifts of the Holy Spirit. Their issue was the contention and divisiveness surrounding their use of those gifts.
Name the things in your life that never fail.
Why do we spend so much energy pursuing things that are temporary?
What do you think Paul is referring to when he says, “when the perfect or completeness comes?”
1 Corinthians 13:11-13
Grow up! I think that is what Paul is saying as he closes this chapter. He is challenging the Corinthians, and us, to mature. I loved being with my grandchildren in China. We got to spend much time with them due to them not being able to go to school. I hadn’t been around children for such extended periods of time in a long time. I was reminded of several things as I spent time with them and one of the most disturbing was their commitment to arguing. Sometimes it was over a serious issue, but much of the time they would expend much emotional energy over something that could not be resolved and to me wasn’t that important. At the core of their reasoning was the need to win.
Followers of Jesus are called to love and that means that our desire should be to see others win. This means we are actively looking for ways to serve others. This doesn’t mean that we can’t compete when playing a game, because losing on purpose doesn’t help anyone to grow. However, if there is an honest difference of opinion, we place our relationship with the other person before our desire to win.
Mirrors in Paul’s day provided a very poor reflection. They were still helpful but wouldn’t have come close to providing the image that we are used to today. A better illustration for us might be that now we see as if everyone is in a teleconference. We can see them and hear them, but everything is a little fuzzy. Also, we can’t touch and there is a constant awareness of distance. I’m very grateful for Skype, but when we called our kids a few evenings ago it felt weird. It was a very poor substitute for the face to face time we spent with them over the past three months.
When Jesus returns and we see Him face to face I’m certain that there will be many things that will immediately become clear. Things we thought we understood will look completely different. All the disagreements and theological debates will be rendered irrelevant in the blink of an eye. I can’t wait. In the meantime, we must continue learning to love. Whatever gift the Holy Spirit has blessed us with is useless without it.
What is something you did as a child that you no longer do as a grownup?
How did the “shelter in place” policy impact your relationships?
What are some ways you can love someone at a distance?