Those chapter and verse divisions can be a problem. Especially when we read the printed word, too often we take verses or chapters to stand alone. We forget that they are part of a larger context. We forget that the chapter and verse divisions are arbitrary, and often faulty, choices of men and are not part of the original text of the Bible. It is sometimes a mystery why the divisions are made where they are, dividing thoughts, paragraphs, or even sentences. For instance, smack dab in the middle of another discussion, it is there. It seems to be a totally different subject, perhaps because of the way somebody once divided the Bible into chapters. We take it as an independent section, sometimes memorizing just the one chapter; sometimes we quote just the section of the chapter. Few people look at it in the larger context, and so miss Paul’s point. It is “the love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13.
To understand the meaning of even the “definition of love” in that chapter, we really must see why it is placed where it is. What seems to be a digression is really the whole point of a three chapter (in our way of dividing things) arc. The section is a discussion of the uses, and abuses, of the miraculous gifts available to the church at the time of the writing. In particular, it is an indictment ofWe are not called upon to be peacekeepers but peace makers. the abuses of the miraculous gift of speaking in human languages not learned in the normal way, commonly called “speaking in tongues.” In chapter 12, Paul chides the Corinthian church for letting the different miraculous gifts divide the congregation. Some were taking pride in their particular gift, and claiming to be better than those with other gifts or those with none. (In chapter 14, he particularly describes what he seems to consider the least important of the gifts, speaking in languages.) At the end of the 12th chapter he says it was good to desire the better gifts (such as prophecy). Then he says he will teach them something even better than the miraculous gifts.
Sine qua non
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3)
Much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is against division. They were divided by “preacheritis.” They were divided by legal arguments. They were divided by issues of food. They were divided by their approach to the Lord’s Supper. And they were divided by the miraculous gifts some of them possessed through the laying on of Paul’s hands. It is in this latter context that Paul says that the greatest miracles are worthless without the right attitude—considering the needs of others above those of oneself, commonly called love.
Of what value is the gift of languages not learned in the normal way (whether of men or, if there is such a thing, of angels) if one uses it selfishly? The speaker might as well be a musical instrument that cannot teach or admonish. There are even greater gifts, such a prophecy, interpretation, and even a faith that can perform miracles. But even these greater gifts are meaningless when used for self-aggrandizement. Even the non-miraculous, and seemingly good, attributes of generosity or martyrdom are worthless when used to cause division.
All of these things Paul lists are good things. The spiritual things (the King James Version supplies the word “gifts” unnecessarily) were of great value. The church of the first century could not have existed without them until the completion of the New Testament. Almsgiving and dying for Christ were admirable, and sometimes necessary. Paul says, however, that those good things are worthless when used for self. Love/charity (the Greek word agape) is not an emotion, it is a choice. It is the decision to do good for others, even those who harm you, even when it might lead to your own hurt. It is a decision to let others get the glory or the credit for something you did. It is a decision to bite your tongue in order to preserve unity, when you would rather cause division. A divisive person (or church) is not showing this kind of love. Without love, there is no value; there is nothing.
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7, ASV)
Some have called this the “definition of love.” It is really less a definition and more a partial list of characteristics of love. It is a catalogue of particular characteristics that Paul wanted to emphasize because of the factions in the Corinthian church. As such, it would probably do the modern church good to look closely at these characteristics, considering the great number of divisions in the churches today.
It is probably no coincidence that Paul begins with the attribute of patience. At times the most divisive thing in a church is somebody’s impatience. There may be more direct ways to divide the church, and Paul will list those; but a lack of patience makes all other situations worse. It may be impatience with a novice Christian. Sometimes those who are firmly convinced of the correctness of their doctrine tend to be impatient with those who have not been taught. Even earlier in the letter, Paul told the Corinthians that they were not yet skilled in the word of God. (1 Cor 3:2) If they were still babies, why should they be impatient with those who were even less fully grown? Impatience may take another form. Churches have been divided because one person or group wanted something to happen sooner than others were willing. It may even be something valuable, such as a program of evangelism. Because others are unwilling (“we tried that before”) or not ready the impatient choose to create division or discord. When, on the other hand, one is thinking of the other, he is able to understand (if not agree with) the other person’s position, and take time.
How many disagreements could be staved off with a little kindness? The whole point of kindness is consideration of the needs of others. Without that, most people would not be kind. There is a brand of kindness that is purely selfish, but most people eventually see through that. Being considerate of others goes a long way toward uniting people.
Many of the remaining qualities deal with the selfish attitudes some of the Corinthians (and worldly people in general) possessed. Envy, self-seeking, taking offense, bearing grudges. These lead naturally to division. We want for ourselves, and feel that nobody else should have what we have. We don’t like to feel less smart, less rich, less important than other people. That is even where taking account of wrongs comes in. If we are as important as we think we are, then when somebody wrongs us it cannot be forgiven. When everybody thinks more highly of themselves than others, division must necessarily happen because everybody feels wronged. Love is characterized, rather, by “in honor preferring one another.” (Rom 12:10)
Boasting, self-inflation, unseemly behavior. A literal translation of that last term would be deformity. When we boast about our accomplishments and inflate our own self-worth, we are actually deforming ourselves. It is like a balloon made in the likeness of a face. It needs to be properly inflated to recognize the face; but if it is overinflated the features become distorted and unrecognizable. When we puff ourselves up, others are driven away. Few people like to be around when a balloon is about to pop. And if we inflate our own egos to the point of distortion, we will eventually pop.
Have you ever been glad at another’s misfortune? Why does that happen? Often people are happy at the suffering of others because it makes them look good. How do you feel when others laugh when you fall down or drop something? You feel like you have, or want to have, nothing in common with those others. Apparently the Galatians were prone to the same failing, because Paul had to warn them against it.
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also beAt times the most divisive thing in a church is impatience. tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2)
When our goal is to bear another’s burdens, we cannot be divisive. We are looking outside ourselves with empathy. We create unity, not division. Our rejoicing is in God, and the effect of his love for us. God forgives us in order to restore unity with him. Can we do any less with our fellow man?
Love covers all, is trusting, is hopeful, and bears up under all things. After looking at the negatives, Paul tells the people how to prevent division: covering faults, believing in the good in others, expecting the best outcome, and quietly bearing wrong. Division in a church, a family, or a workplace is almost always due to selfishness. When we stop looking to ourselves and start looking out for others, we do not contribute to the division.
This was Paul’s solution to abuses of the miraculous things of the spirit. Stop using them for your own purposes and start using them for God’s purposes. It is a recipe for unity within a congregation even today when we no longer have the miraculous gifts. When one stops worrying that another wants to paint the walls pea green, to carpet the auditorium, or to have the chairs Bronco blue and orange, then one can concentrate on the more important things. After all—and this is the real point of 1 Corinthians 13—“love never fails.” These other things will end. The miraculous gifts were soon to disappear. A building will eventually crumble. The other things we elevate to importance will become unimportant when we die. But love is greater than the miraculous, or the mundane, because it continues. It goes on, because God is love, and God will never fail.