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Why Love is Called the Greatest in 1 Corinthians 13:13
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:13
Why does the Apostle Paul call love the “greatest” when compared with faith and hope? We take a look at why Paul makes this astonishing statement in the context of the great problems within the church at Corinth.
Is Love Better Than Faith and Hope?
One might be hard pressed to find a Christian who would deny the importance of love to their faith. However, in practice love is often found wanting in the church. The Corinthian believers to whom the Apostle Paul wrote seem to be guilty of near total neglect of this central virtue. In an effort to reorient their focus, Paul extols love in numerous ways in 1 Corinthians 13 and ends the chapter by calling it the greatest of the virtues.
Below I will explain why I believe Paul upholds love to such a high status in 1 Corinthians 13:13 by looking at the Corinthian problem, examining evidence from 1 Corinthians 13 in particular, looking to the Old Testament’s concept of love, and finally examining Paul’s other letters.
The study will conclude that Paul, at the very least, extols love in an effort to turn the Corinthian focus back on building the church instead of tearing it apart by their current selfishness.
An Astonishing Lack of Love in Corinth
In order to better understand Paul’s stress on love at this point in the letter, it is crucial to understand the situation in Corinth. In the opening thanksgiving of the letter (1:4-8), Paul mentions thankfulness primarily for the work of God in their lives. God has shown them grace, enriched them in speech and knowledge, provided them with an abundance of gifts, and will remain faithful to them until the end.
However, Paul does not mention any thankfulness for their love. In his other letters to the churches, this thankfulness is often mentioned. Paul writes of his thankfulness of the Ephesian saints’ love toward one another (Eph. 1:15). The Philippians’ love is implied by Paul praying that their love would abound more and more (Php. 1:9). The Colossian believers are commended for their love for all the saints (Col. 1:4) and the church at Thessalonica for their labor of love (1 Thess. 1:3). The Corinthian love is noticeably absent.
How a Lack of Love Ruins a Church
Divisions and Factions
This absence is tearing at the spiritual and social fabric of their church. Paul urges them all to set aside the divisions in the church and agree (1 Cor. 1:10). Instead of unifying under the leadership of Christ, the Corinthians have taken up loyalties toward various Christian leaders, probably as a way to show superiority over one another (1:12).
The apostle later identifies the cause of these divisions as attitudes of jealousy and strife (3:3) instead of the harmony that comes from love. Rather than building the church, the Corinthians are tearing down the very foundations built by Christ and Paul (3:5-11). The divisions are so serious Paul levels a threat that those who destroy God’s temple will be destroyed by God (3:16-17).
Further evidence of this missing love comes repeatedly throughout the rest of the letter. The Corinthians do not understand the proper place of sexual love in marriage and tolerate immorality that unbelievers do not even tolerate (5:1-2). Not only do they tolerate the sin, somehow their twisted understanding of freedom in Christ has led them to boast about their tolerance (5:2). The immoral behavior most likely went beyond this one extreme case as Paul later must urge the Corinthians to flee sexual immorality, use their bodies to glorify the Lord, and stop soliciting prostitutes (6:12-20).
Failure to Consider Another’s Edification
The Corinthian insistence on extreme freedom also included some kind of unholy association with meals offered to idols. Though Paul emphasizes that idols do not represent any real deity (8:4), he connects the issue with a failure to love. To eat at an idol’s temple may cause a weaker brother to have a crisis of faith. Thus, freedom is a secondary issue compared with loving the weak brother (8:13).
Furthermore, Paul begins the section addressing idol food by contrast knowledge with love (8:1-3). Knowing that an idol does not exist is not the point as knowledge without love only leads to pride. The real issue is love. Thus the basis for sorting out the Christian ethic concerning the matter incorporates love for other believers. This same ethic is then applied later to the Corinthian chaos during the Lord’s Supper where some were abusing alcohol and others had no food at all (11:21). The very communion of saints had been tarnished by Corinthian selfishness and lack of regard for one another.
Lawsuits and Inability to Resolve Conflict
Furthermore, this lack of regard had broken out into outright hostility as the Corinthians had no problem suing one another in the courts of unbelievers (6:1-4). Rather than love and sacrifice for one another, Paul charges them with wronging and defrauding each other (6:8). The Christ-like attitude of absorbing a wrong rather than wringing out justice was absent (6:7). Paul himself models the correct loving attitude later as he discusses how he surrenders his rights as an apostle in order to advance the gospel (1 Cor. 9).
Abuse of Spiritual Gifts
Given the above manifestations of missing love and its disastrous results, it is no surprise that the Corinthian conception of spiritual gifts likewise needed correction. Here the grievances don’t seem as overt as lawsuits, sexual immorality, or neglect at the Lord’s Supper. Instead, Paul wants to inform them (12:1). The Corinthian propensity toward individualism threatened the very heart of the concept of gifts given to all believers for the benefit of all (12:7). Thus Paul must explain that all gifts are important and have value since they come from the same Spirit for the same purpose (12:11).
Not only that, the gifts depend on one another like the parts of a human body (12:12-31). Therefore, the Corinthians, as the body of Christ, are all dependent on one another’s gifts and are to value one another’s gifts. The only way the Corinthians can do this is by pursuing love. Thus Paul transitions into the great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, by telling his readers he will show them a more excellent way (12:31).
The Greatness of Love in 1 Corinthians 13
Love and Spiritual Gifts
Perhaps the most fruitful approach in trying to determine Paul’s meaning of love’s superiority in 1 Cor. 13:13 is to closely examine what he has said about the virtue in the chapter already. Paul begins 1 Corinthians 13 with comparing one of the Corinthians’ favorite gifts, tongues, and comparing it with love. The gift of tongues, absent love, produces an obnoxious sound. One can imagine the disappointment, possibly even the offense, of a Corinthian reader, so overjoyed at his giftedness in tongue speaking, when reading this statement. But once again Paul deflates the Corinthian pride. What the Corinthians esteem so highly is in fact worthless without the desire to lovingly build up fellow Christians in the faith.
Next, Paul compares the gift of prophecy, a gift he considers superior to tongues (14:1-5), to love. Once again the results are disappointing. Those who can prophesy and can “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” (14:2) do not really have anything at all without love.
But how can such spiritual treasures be considered worthless without love? Doesn’t spiritual knowledge, and the communication of it, count for something? Here we need only to look back to 8:1-3 where Paul has already compared knowledge and love. Knowledge that does not include love produces a negative effect in that it puffs up the individual with pride. So not only is prophetic knowledge without love worthless, it damages.
Paul comes to a similar conclusion when comparing miracle-working faith with love. A faith that can move mountains, yet devoid of love, is nothing. Likewise, those who show incredible self-sacrifice with the giving away of goods, and even life itself, gain nothing if love is not present. Interestingly, Paul does not go into any great detail about what he means. He does not parse in any great detail, as scholars and theologians are prone to do, how one good thing can be rendered valueless by the absence of another good thing. He simply makes the comparison, declares his verdict, and moves on.
The reason may be that Paul is using an established rhetorical technique known to the Corinthians. This technique, called genus demonstravium, is a persuasive strategy through comparison. It is uncertain whether or not Paul is using this exact form. However, it is clear through observation that comparison forms the center of his persuasive argument. His verdicts in 13:1-3 are shocking, especially to those like the Corinthians who are most likely enamored with spiritual gifts and miracles. But Paul’s point is clear: the absence of love renders great things worthless.
After the initial comparison, Paul moves on to providing a description of love in 13:4-7. These verses are not a definition of love per se, but, as Gordon Fee says, show its character. Interestingly, many of these descriptors pertain to the manifestations of the Corinthian failure to love. Patience and kindness are absent in their lawsuits toward one another. Envy and boasting are exhibited in their factionalism (3:3, 21). Rejoicing at wrongdoing is present in their affirmation of gross sexual immorality (5:2). If the Corinthians haven’t understood Paul yet this section once again reinforces that one of the primary causes of their problems is a failure to love.
Love’s Relationship to Faith and Hope
One interesting aspect of love that Paul puts forward in 13:7 is its relationship to faith and hope. The apostle says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” There is debate as to what Paul actually means.
Gordon Fee sees the statement as a fact that love will never be without faith or hope. He does not believe that love here refers to love for people but rather has as its object God Himself. Jonathan Edwards agrees and believes that the testimony of Scripture also shows that the overwhelming object of faith, hope, and love is God. Edwards goes on to say that Paul’s point here is that although there is an interdependence and mutual support involved in faith, hope, and love, love itself is greater and more foundational in that it produces the other two virtues. Calvin, fighting against the Catholic Church which prioritized love over faith, argues that faith is the greater of the virtues since it was first in salvation and the cause of love. Calvin’s point is well taken but Paul’s meaning here is not necessarily to show greatness by preeminence in causality. Instead, he seems to be showing it as preeminent as a virtue that underpins the Christian life.
Love is Intended to Last Forever
Finally, in the lead up to 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul compares love with the temporary nature of the gifts themselves. Love never ends, but prophecies, knowledge, and tongues will (13:8). Paul then lists a series of metaphors that all contain a temporal aspect. He compares the present partial knowledge with future completed knowledge (13:9, 12). He then compares the development of a child into manhood (13:11) and then the present partial sight with completed sight in the future (13:12). Paul’s point here is that love has an enduring nature that lasts pasts the present age whereas gifts are for the present only. The Corinthians, so ready to exalt each individual’s spiritual gifts, are missing the foundational importance of love that lasts into eternity.
In summary, Paul’s argument for the greatness of love in 1 Corinthians 13 revolves around its necessity (v.1-3), its foundational nature (v.4-7), and its longevity (v.8-12). However, is that all Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 13:13?
The Great Comparison – 1 Corinthians 13:13
Now that we have seen Paul’s argument about love’s greatness in 1 Corinthians 13, we are in a better position to begin wading through the difficulties in the 13th verse.
The main question that interpreters ask is what comparison is Paul making here? The issue revolves around the nature of faith and hope. Is Paul saying that faith and hope are temporary like the gifts and thus love is superior because it alone endures into the age to come? Or is Paul saying that faith, hope, and love together are all greater than the gifts, will all transition into eternity, yet out of those three, love is still the greatest?
Commentators have tried to resolve the question by looking at the grammar and language of the verse, specifically the νυνὶ δὲ (“and now” or “so now”). The issue is whether Paul means the phrase in a temporal sense as in “and now, in this present age” or in a logical sense “and now this is my conclusion to the matter.” Those who support the temporal interpretation draw upon contextual and theological evidence.
Contextually, as seen above, Paul has been making a series of temporal arguments about that which exists in the present age and that which will continue into eternity. In English, Paul uses “now/then” comparative language to show the temporal transitions. However, in these previous instances, Paul uses a word in Greek (ἄρτι) that has a much stronger temporal sense than νυνὶ. Therefore, though the immediate context carries a temporal sense, the change in word is peculiar.
At any rate, the theological argument for the temporal position perhaps has the most weight in light of the unclear grammar. Adherents to this view point to other places in Paul’s writings where the apostle seems to suggest faith and hope have a transitory nature. D.A. Carson points to two verses in particular that are used by this view: 2 Cor. 5:7 and Rom.8:24-25.
In 2 Corinthians 5:7, after a long discussion on the sufferings he has endured as an apostle, Paul speaks of the desire to be with the Lord and away from the groanings of the body (5:2-4). He then contrasts being in the body and being away from the Lord with being with the Lord in heaven and away from the body. He then characterizes the earthly life in the body as walking by faith rather than sight (5:7).
The implication is that faith and sight are in contrast to one another. Once the believer is home with the Lord after death, so the argument goes, faith will turn into sight and no longer be needed. A similar argument is found concerning hope in Rom. 8:24-25. Here the apostle contrasts hope and sight with the implication that after death, hope will then transition to sight and will no longer be needed since the hope’s object will be realized. Together, these arguments are used as evidence that in 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul intends to show that love is the only quality that will endure into eternity since faith and hope will find their fulfillment and termination.
Sorting Out the Temporal vs. Logical Sense in Paul’s Comparison
At first glance, the temporal argument seems very strong since evidence for support is taken from the same writer, the apostle Paul, as insight into his views on the nature of faith and hope in eternity. However, D.A. Carson remains unconvinced. He believes that proponents of this view are using only certain senses of hope and faith and not considering other aspects of these virtues that will remain forever. Carson sees hope as being rooted in the person of Christ Himself as the believer looks forward to all that God will provide in eternity. In the same way faith, which Carson believes can be also defined as trust in God, will also endure as part of the eternal relationship between the Creator and the redeemed creature.
Scholar Anthony Thiselton agrees with Carson and believes that faith, hope, and love together endure into eternity. However, Thiselton believes that the kind of temporary faith Paul may have in mind may be miracle-working faith, the kind that Paul alludes to in 1 Cor. 13:2. He shows that Paul uses faith in different ways by pointing to the miracle-working faith just mentioned and the kind of faith that, if not present, is actually sin (Rom. 14:23). Thus, if the absence of that kind of faith is sinful, one could expect it to be always present in eternity as an abiding and confident trust in God.
Grosheide thinks along the same lines but points out that faith will be necessary in eternity since there will still be aspects of God’s knowledge of which the believer is not aware. This will require trust. Additionally, he seems to imply there will still be temporal aspects in eternity since time will flow forward. Hope is thus necessary for the believer to look in confident expectation as to what the Creator has in store as eternity progresses.
Perhaps the finest explanation of the nature of faith and hope in relation to love in eternity is that of Karl Barth. Barth believes that faith and hope will continue in eternity with love but they will undergo a change in form in a way that love will not. Barth describes faith becoming “assimilated into sight, and hope absorbed into the perfect.” Thus faith is a “seeing faith” and hope is a “perfect hope” yet both are still active and being exercised by the believer. Love, on the other hand, does not need to change form. It may be perfected in eternity and grow in its quality, but it does not transition in the same way faith and hope do. Ridderbos agrees and describes faith and hope undergoing a “modification” in eternity but certainly not passing away since faith and hope will forever bind the believer to Christ.
Those, like Barth and Ridderbos, who maintain that faith and hope remain in eternity see Paul’s intent of the phrase νυνὶ δὲ as presenting a logical conclusion rather than temporal. Paul is comparing the triad of faith, hope, and love with the gifts and says these cardinal virtues will remain now, and in eternity, in a way that the provisional spiritual gifts will not. Yet out of those three, love is still the greatest.
The logical option of νυνὶ δὲ is perhaps the most attractive due to the theological arguments presented by those holding the eternal nature of faith, hope, and love. However, it still remains to be seen how exactly Paul understands the superiority of love now that the temporal comparison has been eliminated. An examination of the Old Testament may yield the answers needed.
The Greatness of Love in the Old Testament
An exhaustive survey of the semantic range of love and its related concepts in the Old Testament is outside the scope of this paper. However, a few representative samples show its greatness. When God proclaims his love for Israel in the opening verses of Malachi, Israel is projected as answering back, “How have you loved us?” (Mal. 1:2). God’s answer is his love for Jacob. Over against Esau, Jacob is the loved one and selected to carry the great promises given to his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac.
The Apostle Paul provides further commentary on this electing love in Romans 9:6-13 by emphasizing that there was nothing lovable about Jacob while he was still in the womb. God simply chose to love him and extend his covenantal promises through him and his offspring. In return, Israel’s great covenantal responsibility is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Dt. 6:5). Of such paramount importance was this command that Block claims that by saying it, the Israelites “were declaring their complete, undivided, and unqualified devotion to Yahweh.” Thus loving God was at the heart of covenant faithfulness for Israel while God’s love for them was the motivation behind their existence as his people.
Israel’s covenantal love for God was also combined with love for neighbor (Lev. 19:18). In a sense, there could be no true love for God that did not work itself out in just actions toward God’s people. Yet interestingly, Israel’s law went far beyond external action. Like their devotion to God, Israel’s entire law was to be rooted in a heart of love. Both Jesus and Paul summarized the entire law as love for God and neighbor (Mt. 22:39-40, Rom. 13:9) which by definition, had to flow from a loving heart. Unlike modern law, Israel had a law that, as Roy Gane says, “controls an internal attitude that is ‘in your heart.’” Thus love was so all encompassing that it was intended to govern all of Israel’s actions and attitudes in every one of their relationships.
Paul’s Conception of Love’s Greatness in His Other Epistles
As noted above, Paul emphasized the great motive of love in God’s election of Israel as well as the centrality of love as the fulfillment of the law. A brief survey of his other epistles provides even greater insight into his conception of love’s greatness. Paul speaks of the love of Christ controlling him (2 Cor. 5:14), genuine love as a defining aspect of his ministry (6:6), the love of God as unbreakable (Rom. 8:39), and that which binds other Christian virtues in perfect harmony (Col. 3:14).
It is difficult to summarize these conceptions of love categorically but on the human side, love is both foundational and motivational. Its scope, especially in relation to the other virtues, is all-encompassing. Jonathan Edwards calls love the “fulfilling of all Christian graces.” Ladd says love is “the most important motivation for Christ living.” Ridderbos describes love as the “mode of existence of the new life” and the most fundamental expression of a Christian’s obedience. To Paul, love is so foundational for Christianity for Paul, that it is hard to adequately categorize because of its pervasive nature.
So what does Paul have in mind when he calls love “the greatest of these” in 1 Corinthians 13? At the very least, Paul sees love as that indispensable motivation and action that builds the church. As the Corinthians are destroying God’s temple with their selfish spirituality, Paul’s primarily goal is to transition them from wreckers to builders. This is evidenced in the following passage of 1 Corinthians 14:1-5 where he tells the Corinthians to both pursue love and desire to prophesy. The reason is that both build the church (14:5, 8:1). The Corinthians must regain the essence of Christianity: to love God and neighbor and to turn from their self-focus. In the context of 1 Corinthians, this is perhaps the greatest theme.
Paul understands well the central priority, and all-encompassing nature, of love as seen in our survey above. But instead of leaving them with a simple command to love one another, he applies the concept of love to each situation in which the Corinthians are struggling. He shows them that whereas the spiritual gifts are temporary, the principle of love, along with faith and hope, are what will last into eternity. Thus, the Corinthians must not try to build the church of God without the proper foundation and motivation. All that they must do must be done in love.
Though Paul could have given the Corinthians an all-encompassing theology of love, instead he wishes to show them that love is what builds the church and what will remain into eternity. Love is so foundational that its absence results in destruction even when numerous other good things are present. The Corinthians need a radical reorientation back to what really matters.
In the end, the spiritual gifts will all fade away but love will not. That is why love is the greatest. It remains when the gifts will fade, is the very foundation of the gifts themselves, and is the prime motivation and action that builds Christ’s church.
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Thiselton, Anothony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
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Witherington III, Ben. Conflict & Community in Corinth: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.
 J. Smit, “The Genre of 1 Corinthians 13 in the Light of Classical Rhetoric,” Novum Testamentum 13, no. 3 (Jul 1991), 193-216.
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 628.
 ibid., 640.
 Jonathan, Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 269.
 ibid., 270.
 John Calvin, I & II Corinthians. Calvin’s Commentaries vol. XX (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 432.
 Myron J. Houghton, “A Reexamination of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (July – September 1996), 355-6.
 D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 72. Carson summarizes the view which is held by Calvin, Barnett, and Fee in my reading.
 Ben Witherington, Conflict & Community in Corinth: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 271-2. Witherington’s argument is typical of the position.
 ibid., 74-5.
 Anothony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 1073.
 F.W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), 313.
 Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1073-4. Thiselton quotes Barth extensively and provides the following reference: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4/2 (sect.68), 840.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1975), 250.
 Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy. The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 182.
 Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers. The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 337.
 Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits, 278.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 567.
 Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 293.
 ibid., 293.
R.C. Sproul explains how the mind is corrupted by sin and the priority of loving God with the mind must first start with a new spirit. Then he explains the connection between loving God with knowing and worshiping Him.
How does the New Testament relate to the Old Testament? Do any Old Testament laws apply to the Christian today? If so, how much? Romans 13:8-10 connects love and the law in some very interesting ways.
What is a Christian’s greatest duty? What are we to pursue first and foremost as highest priority?
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