Study Notes for I Corinthians 13
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Paul interrupts his teaching about spiritual gifts to talk about living in and with love. He goes from discussing how all the gifts make up the body of Christ to saying, "And now I will show you the most excellent way."
No one can function as part of Christ's body and represent him fully if they try to operate without submitting to love. The most powerful gifts have limited effect if Christ-followers exercise them without love.
Acting with love requires us to submit to the love of Jesus. As much as we might want to hide behind an impersonal understanding of love such as the one most of us grew up hearing-"Love is a principle"-love really is not a principle. Love is a Person.
The idea "love is a principle" allows us to be invulnerable to those for whom we must care. "Love is a principle" allows us to do selfless and generous acts without personally engaging with those for whom we do them. "Love is a principle" allows us to appear unselfish and generous and giving, but it doesn't require us to be sensitive to our recipients' gratitude and love. "Love is a principle" allows us to be emotionally controlling, distant and even cold while confusing those in our lives with acts that appear loving and kind.
"God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him." (I John 4:16, NIV)
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It is far more powerful than hate, greed, or lust. Only love can change people. Hate, greed, and lust will incite wars, alter national borders, wreak financial destruction, and destroy lives. But love can heal the malevolence of hate, greed, and lust. Love can change people. It can short-circuit anger, revenge, conspiracies, and manipulations.
No "principle" has the power to do what love does. "Love is a principle" is a deception.
We can act in love only when we are willing to submit to God. Only when we submit our good deeds and impulses to him can we act in love. Only when we submit our emotions to him and become willing to let him make us vulnerable can we live in love.
"The most excellent way" of I Corinthians 13:1 is possible only when we submit our hearts and spirits and emotions, not just our minds, to Jesus.
What love is and isn't
"Love is patient, love is kind," Paul continues.
When we act in love, everything we do is tempered with sensitivity to the people we're serving and with awareness of God's will for our interaction. When we act in love we will mediate calmness and understanding rather that quarrels and disagreements. We will encourage and help those who need it. We will be patient and longsuffering with those who struggle, and we will not hurt or insult those who hurt us.
Nothing about living in love is natural for a human. Truly loving responses only come from God. No mere principle can evoke real love from a person.
Love "does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."
Pride is subtle and pervasive. We may not feel definable feelings of pride, but we can be sure we are falling out of love and into self-congratulation if we find ourselves comparing our performance with others and feeling superior. Pride can mimic any good work. We may feel deep shame or self-loathing but consider our competence or knowledge to qualify us for respect. Even self-denying activities such as extreme generosity to those in need or hours of menial service for good causes can deceive us into feeling worthy of respect or praise.
Any time we begin to feel that our knowledge, competence, accomplishments or good deeds qualify us for certain privileges or respect, we should consider those feelings to be red flags warning us that we are not acting in love. Real love serves others with no expectation of reward, control, or position. Real love is the love of God flowing from our hearts and hands, and it accomplishes God's will, not ours.
Real love "keeps no records of wrongs". Real love does not pass judgment on people based on past sins. It is discerning, but people who love allow others to grow in grace. When we allow God to love through us, we will offer to others the same kind of forgiving and cleansing love that Jesus gives us. Just as we know that Jesus does not keep records of our sins after we accept his grace, so Jesus enables us to love others in the same forgiving way.
This kind of forgiving love does not mean people are not accountable to each other. Quite the contrary; true love is minutely accountable. When we truly act in the love of God and are loved by God, we do not sneak or hide from each other. We do not assume false piety, and we don't turn a blind eye when a brother or sister in Christ falls into temptation and sin. Rather we bear each other's burdens, keeping them and ourselves in prayer, asking God to restore the struggling brother or sister and to protect us from deception and sin.
"Love Never Fails"
"Love never fails," Paul continues. "But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away."
Paul is saying in this passage that spiritual gifts are temporary. They will ultimately disappear. But Love, which is not a gift of the Spirit but a fruit of the Spirit, is eternal.
"For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears."
As members of the body of Christ we are commissioned to proclaim truth. We are to speak boldly about Jesus and his gift of salvation. Jesus, the living Word who was with God and was God in the beginning (I John 1:1-3), now lives in us, and we proclaim His words for him. But even though we are filled with His Spirit and have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16), we only "know in part".
We are bound by time, and we inhabit sinful bodies. The miracle of an eternal God indwelling our mortal selves makes us completely new creations. We are no longer damned by our inheritance of sin. But we are not eternal nor omniscient. Each of us receives only a portion of God's limitless truth. He grants each of us different insights and perceptions and understandings, and as His body we collectively have a more complete picture than any of us could have alone.
Until we are physically reunited with our Lord, however, we will only see, know, and prophesy "in part".
When we are finally restored to Jesus in person, there will be no more need for the spiritual gifts. We will no longer need to prophesy, heal, teach, or preach. Jesus will make all things new, and we will be in his presence. We will no longer need to imperfectly represent him; he will be present in person for all. "Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away."
The spiritual gifts are for the purpose of living and mediating Christ's living presence in a sinful world. When Christ is present himself, the world will have a complete knowledge of him. We will know him as he knows us.
Love, however, as well as the rest of the fruits of the Spirit, is eternal. Love is greater than all the spiritual gifts because it is the eternal reality of God. Love encompasses all spiritual gifts and much more besides.
The miracle is that God puts himself, his love, in our hearts, and now, in our still-sinful flesh, we can live in and through and for love.
Knowing and Being Known
"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
In I Cor. 8:3 Paul said, "But the man who loves God is known by God."
When we accept Jesus, we open our spirits to him. His love melts our fear and slowly erodes need for control, and we gradually let him pry open the sealed edges of our deepest hurts, angers, and fears. It's frightening to look inside those sealed places that hold our shame and guilt. But when we say "Yes" to Jesus, those places become his to manage instead of ours. With Jesus giving us a new identity and bestowing on us personal freedom in him, we can let him guide us on a slow journey into the past that will heal and forgive our most shameful memories. With Jesus' love deeply inside us, we can finally admit the truths about our lives, our families, and our choices that we wanted to forget. And as we admit those truths, Jesus heals them in us.
When we say "Yes" to Jesus, we give him permission to begin to know us personally. Of course, because he is God, Jesus always knows all about us. But his knowing is not intimate until we invite him in personally. His knowing us cannot change and heal us until we say "Yes" to his love. When we accept Jesus, we become his, and he knows us.
As Jesus indwells us with his Spirit we begin to know him, too. But in our mortal flesh we will only know him partially. We will know his voice; we will know his love; we will know his healing touch; we will continually know him better and more deeply.
But we will not know him completely in our earthly life. We cannot experience the physical reality of his dwelling beyond space and time. We will not see the past and the future as a complete whole. We cannot comprehend the mind of God.
Paul is saying that we, as people who love Christ, will experience and grow in his love. We will declare the truth about him to this wounded world through his gifts in us. Christ's knowledge of us is complete. His love perfectly equips us to be his ministers in the world.
But when Jesus comes again and we see him face to face, we will know him in a new way. We will know him fully, as he knows us. (v. 12) We will not be limited by our sin-marked physical reality. And when we finally see Jesus face to face and live physically with him, our experience with him will reach maturity. Our miraculous but incomplete spiritual gifts such as prophecy, knowledge, healing, and tongues will cease because the perfect reality of Jesus will be present. In his presence we will grow eternally in love.
Faith, Hope, and Love
As Christ-followers we are asked to walk by faith and to live in hope. Faith and hope will be with us until Jesus, perfection, comes.
But even greater than faith and hope is love. Love will outlast faith and hope. When we finally experience the reality of our faith and the fulfillment of our hope, we will find that we are living in the physical presence of Love-our Lord Jesus.
The greatest of all the Spirit's miracles to us is Love. He lives in us, through us, around us. Every event of our lives comes to us through the filter of his love.
His love makes the impossible manageable, the unlovely lovable, the excruciating meaningful.
God's love redeems every part of our lives. And as the beneficiaries of the most powerful and redeeming force in the universe, we are called to love each other for God.
"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest
of these is love." (I Cor. 13:13)
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised August 8, 2000.