I Corinthians 13
It was on his second missionary journey that Paul established the Christian Church in Corinth. He spent eighteen months there. This Church had a special place in the mind and heart of Paul. Corinth was a beautiful city and the wealthiest city in Greece at that time. It also had the reputation of being the most immoral city. The beautiful Temple to the goddess Aphrodite was located there. She was the goddess of physical strength and beauty. The people boasted about the 1,000 sacred prostitutes that served in the Temple. The Isthmian games were held in her honor. This would be comparable to our present day Olympic games. One would have to be in the best of physical condition. A strong body, a beautiful, unblemished body, was admired and practically glorified. In Chapters 3 and 6 of I Corinthians Paul tells the people that the body is the Temple of God. God dwells within you, he says, and he advocates that they should “glorify God in your body.” Do not desecrate the body temple through immoral living, sensuous indulgence just for pleasure. Glorify God, not Aphrodite. Paul says, “The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” (I Cor. 6:13)
In this sensuous city Paul was able to reach enough of the people to get a Church started. After nourishing it with his love and energy for some eighteen months, he returned to Ephesus. It was from this city that Paul wrote his Corinthian letters sometime in the year 55 or 56 A.D. This Corinthian Church that he loved was having its problems. For one thing there were factions in the church. Some claimed to be followers of the bright young teacher from Alexandria, Apollo. Some claimed to be followers of Cephas; some followers of Paul; and some claimed to be followers of Christ. There were also problems related to women and married life. Paul thought the celibate life would be best. After all, he thought Jesus would soon return and there would be no families in the new kingdom. Women should follow and be obedient to their husbands. They should keep quiet in church and keep their heads covered as a sign of dedication to their husbands. If they wanted to know anything about God they should not ask it in church but they should ask their husbands. Paul has been severely criticized for his attitude toward women, but we should keep in mind that this was the general custom that all adhered to and believed in, not just Paul. He was only expressing society’s attitudes. The same applies to his adherence to slavery. After all it would not be long before all these injustices would be eliminated, for Jesus would return soon and set up the heavenly kingdom.
There were those who were having difficulty understanding and accepting the resurrection of Jesus. The Greeks had a very difficult time believing that it was possible for a dead body to come back to life. Paul assures them that he has seen Jesus and therefore knows it to be a true fact. He states that many others also saw Jesus.
Then there was the problem relating to spiritual gifts. There were individuals who were speaking in tongues and they were boasting about their ability to let the spirit speak through them in this way. There were the prophets, the Jean Dixons of Paul’s day, who thought it was something special to be able to foretell future events. There were also some who claimed to have the “secret, esoteric” knowledge that would lead to salvation. After almost 2,000 years we still have many who boast about these same gifts.
Another serious problem that was going on in the Church was the celebration of the Eucharist, the communion meal. The people would gather together and have one great, big time of eating, drinking, and making merry. Paul told them that they should eat at home. The communion meal was something special and it was for everyone.
With this background knowledge we find that reading the 13th Chapter, the great poem on love, has a deeper meaning for us today. Paul tells them very plainly that knowledge, prophecy, and tongues are not the most important gifts. One should not become puffed up and boastful for there is something much more important than all these things. He expresses it in this way. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” He is telling them in so many words that whatever they have to say is as meaningless as the pagan noise if there is no love. Not just a personal, human love, but a very special love, a new and higher expression of love that has been revealed through Jesus Christ. It is a love that takes possession of the individual when he or she is open, receptive, and responsive to it. It is a love that flows freely and unconditionally. It is not like the human expressions of love that are conditional.
To further emphasize his point about love, Paul goes on to say, “And if 1 have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Those last three words are quite powerful. Keep in mind that these words were written before the Gospels. They knew about the power of faith and they thought it was marvelous and wonderful the many things that could be accomplished through faith. But Paul is reminding them that there is something even greater than faith and that something is love. Without love, the individual is “nothing” no matter how great his feats of faith. When we boast about our spiritual gifts, when we are babbling in unknown tongues, we are not expressing love.
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” There were those who rejoiced in the thought of being a martyr, being burned at the stake for the faith. They thought that death through martyrdom would gain them special advantages in the next life. Even Peter believed this according to legend, and he requested that he be crucified upside down. Love impels one to give but not with the thought of reward, gain, or advantages. One gives because one wants to share and help others in the greatest of life’s pursuits, the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and understanding of his or her relationship with God. There is no real spiritual growth as long as one has ulterior motives or expectations. There is no growth if one expects rewards and acknowledgements. Using spiritual laws or principles for personal gain is self-defeating. Tithing to become prosperous is tithing for the wrong reason. When one lets God’s love express through his or her consciousness then there will be true dedication.
The Greeks had five different words to express what we call love. Four of these are related to conditional human love. “Storge” refers to love expressed in family or group relationships. It is a highly conditioned love. As a general rule one does not love outsiders as he or she loves the members of the family or group. “Philia” is the love that is expressed amongst friends. “Epithymia” is strong desire, passionate love. It can be expressed either positively or negatively. Positively expressed would be the love or strong desire that Jesus had to share the last meal with his disciples. Negatively, it would be the strong desire to have a fly-by-night sexual orgy. “Eros” is what we would call romantic love. It is a very possessive type of love. This Greek word for love was not used by any of the New Testament writers.
Then we have the great, unconditional “agape” love. To grasp the basic difference between this love and the other four we might look at it in this way. The first four would have conditions such as, “I will love you if. . .” Agape love would be stated in this way: “I will love you whether . . .” Human expressions of love are conditional. They would say, “I will love you if you love me,” or “I will love you if you do what I want you to do,” or “I will love you if you look like me, think like me, believe like me.” Paul is helping us to realize that there is an even greater expression of love, agape love. It is God’s love for us and it is an unconditional love. God loves you and me whether we love Him or not. We do not have to be perfect and sinless before God will love us. We are loved by God whether we are saints or sinners.
This type of love cannot be expressed through conscious desire. It is a love that is given freely. To receive it one must be willing to let go of all the things that Paul mentions in his poem that are negative, such as jealousy, arrogance, rudeness, boastfulness. Unconditional agape love makes one patient and kind to all, no conditions. Even when someone hurts your feelings, you are not rude; you do not strike back or seek to get even. You do not rejoice when others seem to be reaping negative consequences for things that they have done wrong.
This new love does not insist on having its own way. Under its influence, one does not have to be right all the time. And he is not irritable or resentful if he does not get his way. Love enables one to keep his emotions under control. Love enables one to forget about losses and hurts in the past. In the consciousness of love, one finds no satisfaction in seeing someone being hurt or harmed in any way, for love causes one to feel compassion. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Not just some things, but all things; even horrible things.
Spiritual love, agape, never ends. Paul tells them that their prophecies and knowledge will pass away and that the unknown tongues will cease. But love never ends and it never fails. It will endure forever and it will sustain us forever. It is the only thing that is perfect. Human love is imperfect and it will end.
Paul then tells that at one time he was childish in his response to life. He spoke like a child, “You don’t love me if you do not give me what I want.” He also thought and reasoned like a child. He is telling us that it is childish to live in the personal human consciousness that makes so many demands on others, that gets upset and filled with resentment; that pouts like a child when it does not get its way.
Paul grew up. He had to in order to be able to write the beautiful ideas expressed in this poem. Love is the greatest. One day, if we are humanly willing to let go, we will feel the powerful, peaceful expression of true agape love. Then we will know and see ourselves in the pure light as a true expression of God’s love. We will realize the greatness of living as an open and receptive and expressive channel for His love.
© 1985, Jim Lewis
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.