The Bible has much to say about love and rightly so, because God is love (1 John 4:8). One of the most prominent passages we find on love comes from 1 Corinthians 13. But to understand love fully, we need to reach back to the last verse of chapter 12 which says, "and yet I will show you the most excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31b)
According to Paul, the way of love is the “Most Excellent Way!”
Let’s begin with the first three verses.
If I speak in the tongues n of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, u but do not have love, I gain nothing.
It is important to understand chapter 13 in its literary context. Paul was still dealing with the Corinthians’ problems when he wrote these words: the abuse of gifts, division in the church, envy, selfishness, impatience with one another in public meetings, and behavior that was disgracing the Lord.
When the Corinthians first heard these words, they would not have thought, “Aww, how sweet. What beautiful, inspiring words!” They would have received Paul’s words as a verbal rebuke! And so, because he loves the church, Paul calls them out. The proper response to this text is to pray, “God, forgive us for being so unloving.”
In chapters 12-14 Paul is specifically addressing how the Corinthians were abusing spiritual gifts by wrongly elevating some as more important than others. They were not using it for the good of others.
A few months ago, my mother-in-law was in town and she was watching the kids for us. At that time my kids were really into the movie, Encanto which is about a family that has magical ‘gifts’, that’s the language they use. It’s a fun movie about the family discovering that their gifts don’t define who they are, but rather their shared family identity. Anyways. My middle daughter was talking to her grandmother about the movie, explaining the gifts and my mother-in-law thought she would use the opportunity to turn the conversation spiritual.
She did this by saying, “Do you know that God gives his children gifts?”
My daughters face lit up, “Really? I wonder what kind of gift I will get.”
“Well baby, it’s not gifts like the movie, its spiritual gifts, that we use to honor God and sever others.”
“So not flying?”
“No, not flying, it’s things like encouraging, hospitality, teaching, you know things like that.”
“Oh, … I hope my gift is flying!”
Unfortunately flying is not one of the gifts that Paul writes about but if you’ll read through chapter 12 you’ll see Paul explaining that the unity of the body is of the utmost importance and that it is foolish to elevate certain gifts, over other gifts.
Paul argues in chapter 14 that the greatest gifts are those that edify the whole church. In chapter 13, Paul argues that no matter what gift the Spirit enables someone to use, the gift does not profit that person unless he uses it in love. Love is indispensable, love is essential.
Paul illustrates that love is essential for Christ-followers by stating three equations that begin with superlatives:
All of this makes me think of a wonderful truth. If you’re here today and you’re hoping to one day be married, I’d suggest you learn this earlier rather than later. You can be right, and still, be wrong. If the way you make your point, or advance your argument is in a way that dishonors your spouse, you lose!
I believe God’s good gift of marriage surely helps us learn this truth.
Remember this, without love, a believer is nothing, and without love, a believer gains nothing!
That’s the necessity of Love. Remember, it’s essential!
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.
It’s both useful and important for us to recognize that in Greek all of these characteristics we’re about to look at are in verbal form.
Why is that important? Well, it’s important because Paul’s emphasis here is not so much upon what love is as it is upon what love does—that love behaves itself in a certain way, and that the fact all this is written as ‘doing words’ is a reminder to us that if we merely read the Word, hear the Word, and do not put it into practice, then it is of no use to us, and we’re actually like the foolish man who built his house on the sand.
And so we’re looking at action words and words that all describe the ministry of Jesus as He dealt with imperfect people.
Let’s look now at each characteristic briefly…
This verb has the connotation of patience with people who act unjustly toward us, without retaliation. This is a fruit of the Spirit. It is a characteristic of God and should characterize New Testament believers, indwelt by God's Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
This verb is a people-focused term. It implies "be gentle to all." As a pastor, there are certain milestones that people go through that you get invited to be a part of in a big way. The two biggest are weddings and funerals. Can I just tell you, at your funeral, if you are a kind person, there will be no shortage of people to celebrate your life. Why? Because kindness is long remembered. People will forget what you say, and what you do, but they rarely forget how you made them feel. And if you are kind to people, it will leave a mark.
We could also call this jealousy. Love does not desire for itself the possessions of or control over people. The real test here is to check our reaction at the news of another’s success. How did I feel when the promotions came out and my name was not on the list, but my best friend’s was? How did I feel when the papers were given back, and I got a B, but my buddy got an A?
This means not exalting ourselves over others. Proverbs 27:2 catches what Paul has in mind: "Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips."
This term refers to those who overestimate and flaunt themselves. Other translations say “not arrogant.” To walk around full of pride is to forget or ignore that we’re all made in His image, we’ve all fallen short, and we all need a savior. Therefore, there is no room for pride at the cross!
CSB – Not rude
NASB – Does not act unbecomingly.
William Barclay says, “There is a graciousness in Christian love which never forgets that courtesy and tact and politeness are lovely things.”
ESV – Does not insist on its own way
Jesus’ humiliation was the greatest expression of putting others’ benefit above one’s own.
"...not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!Philippian 2:4-8
(My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19)
It refers to someone who harbors a vengeful spirit. It is an accounting term for the ledger of unpaid bills.
Paul says, where love has invaded a life, where love has invaded a church—for remember, he is writing to a church—it will not be filled with people who love to store in their memory bank the record of wrongs received.
This means that love finds no joy in unrighteousness. Here Paul contrasts evil and truth. Those who truly love do not enjoy seeing their loved ones stumble into evil. They rejoice when their loved ones live according to the truth of the gospel. Sin destroys people’s lives, so to rejoice in their sin is to rejoice in their destruction. Contrary to common perception, love is not marked by tolerance for error. Rather Love rejoices in truth!
The letter of 2 John, verses 4-6 say,
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
The Greek word actually means “to cover as a roof,” or “to bear a load as a roof would do.” Therefore, it is translated “to bear patiently” or “to protect.” In relationship to others, Love protects. The best way you can protect your spouse, protect your kids, protect this church, protect your witness is to love.
A way we could say this today would be to say, “Love gives the benefit of the doubt.” Suspicion and doubt toward others do not indicate affection or love. I know trust can be tricky. It takes years to develop and can be lost in an instant.
But what would it look like if in the family of God we made the choice to think the best of others and to give people the benefit of the doubt?
You know what they say about assuming, right? ...They say you could be wrong! So let’s be a trusting people!
Hope is a defining characteristic of a Christian, and ought to have major implications for how we live. This does not mean, that because of love we’re naively optimistic, but it does mean that a measured level of optimism ought to rule our hearts.
How can you say that? People let you down. People fail all the time. People will continually fall short. And you say that we should remain hopeful and optimistic in all situations? Really!?!
Yes. Because our hope is not in other Christians, it’s in Christ!
When I say that optimism should rule our hearts, I’m not talking about wishful thinking. I’m talking about confidence that is anchored in JESUS!
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Remember, failure is never final where love exists.
This actually launches us into the next section…
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a 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. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
How do you tell is something is genuine? One way: does it last? Does it endure? Well when it comes to love, love never fails.
Would you like to be a part of something that comes with the assurance to never fail? The love described here doesn’t fail.
Well, how do I reconcile that assurance with the mess I see around me? The world I see around me seems to be failing relationally, failing morally, failing missionally. What do we do with that?
We remember that the Love of God is bigger than we can fathom. We so often want to define success on our terms, but the truth is that the agape love of God never fails. It never runs out. It never is proved false. And when you and I seek to live in that then we get to taste in part the perfection that awaits us in full when we are united to Christ in Glory.
One of the things Paul is calling for as it relates to this most excellent way, is the need for Christians to mature. That’s what he’s illustrating when he says, when I was a child I acted like it, but then I became a man. The same great need exists today. What the church desperately needs is Christians who are maturing in their faith!
In verse 12 he mentions a "mirror." Corinth was famous for its polished metal mirrors. They were the best available in that day, but they still reflected a distorted image. Humans, even redeemed humans, are hindered by our sin nature and our limited perspective, but a day is coming when that which is unclear will be made clear. Aren’t you looking forward to that day?
Paul closed his discussion of “the most excellent way” by emphasizing the importance of faith, hope, and love. Have you ever read this and wondered why love gets singled out as the greatest? It is greatest because the others will cease at the consummation of the new age. Faith will turn to sight and hope will have its fulfillment, but love remains because it is the basic character of God.
If we’re honest, most of us cling to actions and attitudes that are unloving.
Paul desired for the Corinthians to genuinely care for one another, and he wanted their actions to flow from a true feeling of love. Hypocrisy was not an option. And it’s not an option for us as well. Love for one another is the mark of Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35).
Christians must grow to love others just as God unselfishly and sacrificially loves others. When we love one another, we’re participating in the divine act of representing God to the world! And as his image bearer, as it says back in Genesis, we are called to bear his image to a watching world. This means, we must walk the most excellent way, we must walk in love.
This post is adapted from a sermon by Adam Brock entitled The Most Excellent Way.
When you study this chapter, it becomes abundantly clear that our relationship with God and with people is connected. It is impossible to love God and hate those made in His image.
The cross is the centerpiece of our faith for a reason. Because upon it, the crucified savior accomplished the promised redemption. At the cross, it was finished!