You, whether a Christian or non-believer, have probably heard 1 Corinthians 13 before; “Faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.”
It is quoted often, in all kinds of circumstances, especially at weddings. Love is universal. Love is important. Love is critical to the human race.
However, there are different types of love. Agape, philia, and eros are the three types we most often talk about. Eros is erotic or sexual desire, philia is brotherly love, and agape is the highest and purest form of love which is unselfish love.
Agape is the love of God for man and the love of man for God. This article will refer to agape love and clarify what Paul means when he describes its importance.
When Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13 to the believers, he did not write in chapters!
Rather, he wrote letters (not books). In most cases it would be unusual to write a letter and divide it up into chapters and verses.
Understanding that it was written as a letter is important so we can keep track of his important words and thoughts. When the Corinthians received the letters they made copies, they read them aloud.
They passed the letters around. They treasured them. This happened around 52-56 AD.
1 Corinthians 13 – Background
The city of Corinth in Greece had a population of around 250,000 citizens and each of them had on average 2 slaves. At one time there were at least 12 heathen temples.
The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had worship ceremonies that involved nearly a thousand temple prostitutes.
Sexual immorality was rampant. Greeks were known for their interest in philosophy and discipline, sport competition and fine foods.
This was a culture of hedonism. Because of the Corinthians’ love of oration, Paul was heard and he stayed there for a year and a half preaching about Jesus and establishing the new church.
But later the young church in Corinth was experiencing problems (also read Paul’s other popular verse Romans 8:18).
There was division because of new leaders, sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and chaotic worship times. Corinth was a large cosmopolitan city of trade and business.
It was full of various temples and religions. After that he continued his missionary journeys to other cities but then he heard about problems in the Corinthian church.
He decided to write this letter to them.
Author Paul and 1 Corinthians 13
Paul was once named Saul. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus he was a Pharisee zealot tracking down Christians and killing them. He was highly educated and likely had the Hebrew Bible memorized.
He was a Roman citizen and Jew of the highest rank. Jesus appeared to him (read the book of Acts for details) and his life was changed forever.
Because he was such a scholar of the Hebrew prophets, he knew that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of all those old scripture promises.
He studied for many years after his conversion and then he began his preaching and teaching. He became a tentmaker, gave up his wealth, sacrificing his high position to preach Christ crucified and risen again to transform lives through the Holy Spirit.
Two key passages are in 1 Corinthians. The first addresses the church group as a human body and the second passage is about gifts of the Holy Spirit.
By describing the church as a human body where all the parts are important to function correctly people, were able to see themselves as part of the larger whole. The head is important but so is the thumb.
When one part hurts the entire body suffers. When one part is glorified so all rejoice with it.
We are all in Christ. We all must work together, be humble and encourage and support each other. Also remember, judge lest not ye be judged, written by Matthew.
Understand What Comes before 1 Corinthians Chapter 13
1 Corinthians 12:12-14
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
The second key passage is the “love” chapter. After describing the many parts of the Christian body and giving examples of different gifts of the Holy Spirit, Paul says but one thing is most desirable – and that is love. So, no matter your God given gift, it won’t be any good unless you have love.
He goes on to describe love’s true qualities.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. – New International Version
Verses from Chapter 13 is usually isolated and taken completely out of the context Paul sets up for it in chapter 12.
Chapter 13 gets into the true definition of love and its qualities, then in chapter 14 he describes how real love can help overcome the problems the church is experiencing. Even out of context the love chapter still offers great advice and encouragement to anyone who reads and wishes to apply the principles.
My favorite verse (12) happens to come towards the end where Paul states, “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I have been fully known.”
1 Corinthians 13 Meaning (What Type of Love)
Agape love is the highest form of love. That is, it’s unselfish and wanting only the best for others.
Eros is basically a selfish, let me satisfy myself, type of “love”, while philia is brotherly love as in Philadelphia! The city of brotherly love!
Paul wrote to address problems in the young church that existed because they were not loving and thinking of others. Read the whole letter to see why he wrote what he did (check out my article for beginners as they read the Bible).
And read Acts 18 which further describes the situation in which Paul found himself.
1 Corinthians 13 – Examples and Commentary For Real Life Application
While weddings continue to be the most popular event where chapter 13 is used, it should and can be applied to every relationship in our lives.
In verse 3 Paul addresses our motivation:
“If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing”.
Love gives to others without hoping for attention or reward.
In Chapter 13 verse 4, love does not hold a grudge:
“does not take into account a wrong suffered”.
In verse 6:
“does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth”
Love would not celebrate lies or evil behavior.
At least that is the function of agape love and the way in which Paul meant it to be applied. But he always referred to the fact that the new Christians need to draw on the spiritual help of the Holy Spirit which is the only source of the gifts and of true agape love.
Trying to love others without having the love of God in us first is nearly impossible. This is why so much of the “love” we see expressed seems superficial. Only agape love can be deep and true.
After all “God is love and the one who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him” 1 John 4:16.
The people of Corinth were very sinful and extremely confused. After hearing the gospel message from Paul they sought to be followers of Jesus but brought a lot of their cultural practices with them into the worship services.
Paul stayed with them a long time but when he went to Ephesus he heard disappointing news about them. Thus we have the benefit of the same instruction he gave them including how to use spiritual gifts and the importance of demonstrable love in each of them.
Apparently, there were still more problems which required another letter -2 Corinthians- and according to some historians there were more that we don’t have.
We are just fortunate today to have the wisdom Paul gave to them as a standard for our own behavior and Christian growth.