Meaning of Love

This entry is part 476 of 484 in the series Inquiring Minds
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What does 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 mean to you?

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8, ESV)

First Corinthians 13 is often quoted during wedding ceremonies because it is the chapter about love. But it is a chapter about unconditional love, the first fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). This chapter is couched between 1 Corinthians 12 introducing the spiritual gifts of the Spirit and 1 Corinthians 14 discussing in more detail the gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation.

Remembering its context in the midst of the gifts of the Spirit helps us to understand how Paul starts the chapter. When he says things like speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, and all faith, and giving away all he has (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) he’s referring to some of the gifts he introduced in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 12 after discussion of the gifts Paul explains, “and I will show you the most excellent way” meaning the most excellent way to practice the gifts of the Spirit. The first fruit of the Spirit, love, is the engine for practicing the gifts.

Paul further explains what it means for a person to have unconditional love. Without love, the gifts don’t matter (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Some Christians think the gifts are the most important thing, including the Corinthians in Paul’s day. But Paul explains that if they don’t operate in the fruit of love with one another, the gifts will be misused and ineffective.

Having and demonstrating the gifts of the Spirit are secondary. A person must first demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit will give us gifts if we do not practice the fruit of the Spirit with one another.

So the fruit of the Spirit is foundational in the Christian life. On top of that fruit, the Holy Spirit gives gifts as he wishes (1 Corinthians 12:11; Ephesians 4:7-10). Paul goes on to describe unconditional love in such a way that we cannot misconstrue or miss use it as Christians.

There’s nothing wrong with using this chapter in wedding ceremonies. The love between husband and wife should be unconditional. So it does describe the love they will share together as Christians in holy matrimony.

But when we use it only in this context, we lose the truth that it is designed for every Christian in every relationship. Whether you are married or not, if you are a Christian, you are required to show this love to others. So we must all read this chapter and practice unconditional love as described by Paul.

Paul first describes unconditional love as patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). The one showing love weights on others, is cordial. This love is accommodating. The next describes unconditional love as not prideful. The person showing it isn’t boastful or arrogant.

Next, unconditional love isn’t pushy (1 Corinthians 13:5). The one showing this love isn’t rude and doesn’t insist on his or her own way. This one seeks the good of others and puts them first. Unconditional love has a long fuse and doesn’t become angry. It doesn’t get irritable or resentful. The person showing love isn’t upset when others succeed. He or she endures the worst of suffering with Christ’s grace and peace.

Next Paul describes unconditional love as always seeking the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). This person doesn’t rejoice in seeing evil and wrongdoing toward others. It doesn’t enjoy it when others suffer because of sin and wrongdoing. He or she is not glad when others do wrong. Seeking the truth above all else is first in the mind of this Christian.

When Paul mentions that unconditional love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), the word “all” must be put in context. Bearing and enduring all things speak of suffering. This love can handle anything you throw at it.

Believing and hoping all things refers to the Christian walk. For instance, we do not lovingly believe in other religions or tenants from other religions. We believe all things Scripture tells us about God. We hope for all the things promised in the Bible.

So unconditional love bears and endures all suffering, believing and hoping for the promises of God’s Word to be revealed and fulfilled. Unconditional love operates in the present condition while hoping for God to complete all that he has promised. It looks forward to the better times in the midst of suffering now.

You have asked for 1 Corinthians 13:8 also, which begins a new paragraph and new thought, returning to the gifts in the context of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. I will finish out the chapter with my interpretation.

First Corinthians 13:8-12 returns to the discussion of the gifts within the context of demonstrating unconditional love while using the gifts. Paul reminds us that love must undergird the gifts of the Spirit.

So he presents unconditional love as enduring beyond the gifts. This is often used as a proof text for secessionists who do not believe the spiritual gifts are given to the church for today. They believe they were only used in the time before the apostles finished writing Scripture in 95 AD when John finished the book of Revelation.

But that’s not what Paul was saying. He is highlighting the fact that unconditional love is demonstrated by the Christian even after gifts are not in use. But when is this time? Let’s look at the passage closely.

Paul says that love endures, but the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and words of knowledge will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8). The gifts of the Spirit will not be here forever. There will be a time when the church will no longer be on the earth and there will be no need for these gifts because Christ will be revealed.

Let me show you why this is my interpretation. Continuing on in the passage, 1 Corinthians 13:9 explains that we use the gifts of the Spirit in a time where we do not fully know everything that God is going to do. The gifts are for now when we need them to be guided by the will of God.

Arguments for and against cessationism hinge on 1 Corinthians 13:10 come from interpretations of “the Perfect.” Paul says when the “Perfect” comes, the partial will pass away. What is “the Perfect”? And what is “the partial”? He has just referred to knowing in part, referring to words of knowledge and prophecies to guide the church given by the Holy Spirit through Christians.

So the partial is the gifts. The Holy Spirit uses the gifts in us to guide us and help us to know God’s will until we have a fuller picture in the end. Cessationists interpret this to refer to the Scriptures. Others say the Perfect refers to the coming of Jesus Christ in the end times.

If you believe that “the Perfect” refers to the Scriptures, then you would be a cessationist, believing that gifts ended when the Bible was finished. The argument goes that we don’t need the gifts because we have the completed Word of God. Its text leads Christians and the church today. God speaks through his Word.

It is true that we have God’s completed Word today and it does guide the church and Christians. But those who interpret “the Perfect” to refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ in the end times, the rapture, understand that Jesus is perfect.

In this interpretation Paul is saying the church, as long as it is here, will need the gifts to be guided by the Holy Spirit each day. So the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God guide the church. The gifts are used within the authority of the Bible. A person cannot prophesy something that is not biblical.

These are the two main interpretations of Paul’s discussion of the gifts ceasing when the Perfect comes. My interpretation is that the Perfect refers to the coming of Jesus, not the finishing of Scripture. Apostles like Paul and Peter were aware that they were writing Scripture. It is part of the authorities of first century apostles to write Scripture.

But if the Perfect refers to the Bible being completed, why would it include teachings on using the gifts of the Spirit if they were only to be used by the apostles until the Bible was finished? In other words, why would the Bible teach us to seek and use the gifts of the Spirit if they were not to be used beyond its completion?

Wouldn’t the Bible simply say, “These are the gifts of the Spirit used by the apostles until this Word is completed”? Every time that it talks about the Spirit giving the gifts by his will, it’s in the present tense. I understand the present tense to mean that the Holy Spirit is still giving the gifts and using us in them as his church until the church no longer is on the earth, when Christ comes in the clouds and catches up or raptures his saints.

Paul goes on to use the image of growing up from being a child to becoming a man to explain that as a child needs extra instruction, that teaching prepares him to become a man. In the same way, the gifts of the Spirit are given to the church to be used for now until the fullness of time is complete (1 Corinthians 13:11).

Until Jesus comes, the gifts help us to fulfill God’s will. Paul uses another image, this time of looking in the mirror dimly until we can see most clearly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Mirrors in the first century were not as clear as the mirrors of today. They used different materials to make mirrors back then and you didn’t have as clear of an image as you do today.

Knowing God’s will in part now requires that the gifts of the Spirit operate in the church so we can fulfill God’s will by the Spirit’s guidance and power. He makes clear the things we don’t understand. Paul finishes by once again holding love higher than gifts, faith, and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13). So love is paramount in the Christian walk.

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