Without question, 1 Corinthians 13 is the great love chapter of the Bible. But before we get into the details of the text, the context must be noted. This chapter is couched within the overall context of spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12 deals with the reception and appreciation of gifts, while chapter 14 corrects the abuses of those same gifts. In both chapters we find divine correction regarding one’s attitude toward himself and his attitude toward his brethren. Thus, chapter 13 must be understood within its overall context of the function of the body.
In my opinion, the most critical verse to understanding 1 Corinthians 13 is found in the final verse of chapter 12 – “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.” It is at this point Paul begins to extol the greatest of all ethics, love. From the opening stanzas of chapter 13, we realize that love is greater than any miraculous spiritual gift found in chapter 12. At the close of this marvelous chapter, Paul declares the ethos of love as exceeding those of faith and hope.
What do we learn of love in this text?
We learn the VALUE of love (vv 1-3). Though one has the gift of tongues, (wrongly considered by the Corinthians as the greatest gift when in fact it was the least – 12:28; 14:5), a lack of love made the gift as worthless as a clanging cymbal. Even the greater gifts prophecy and knowledge came to nothing without love.
We learn the VIRTUES of love (vv 4-7). What a wonderful world it would be if only we could practice in part these encouraging and empowering characteristics! I love the margin note in my NKJV regarding “thinks no evil.” I believe the margin more accurately represents the text and intent of the author. Consider it in light of Jesus’ many statements about forgiveness (cf Matt 6:14, 18:22).
Finally, we learn the VICTORY of love (vv 8-13). “Love never fails.” Appearing nearly 100 times in the NT, the idea of “fails” is to fall as into ruin as a house divided against itself (Luke 11:17). Though spiritual gifts, including prophecy, tongues and knowledge, will fail (i.e., cease), love will never fail.
Love is the heart of the first and greatest commandment as well as the second like unto it (Matt 22:36-40). O Lord, help us learn how to love!