1 Corinthians 13

1 Corinthians 13 is perhaps the most widely recognized passage from the writings of the Apostle Paul. Most often, we hear these poetic words at weddings. Chances are, if we’ve ever been to a wedding, we’ve heard 1 Corinthians 13 read as part of the service. And while golden rings, white dresses, and floral bouquets may come to mind when we hear this beautiful passage, it’s not what Paul had in mind when he wrote it, the truth is far less romantic and cheery. But let me add some background before we get in too deep.

First, what we now know as the book of 1 Corinthians was originally a hand written letter by Paul (or a secretary) to the church in the ancient city of Corinth. The letter would likely have been written on papyrus, an ancient form of paper made from reeds from the Nile River.  Individual sheets would have been glued together to make a roll.[1] Paul’s letter most likely would have been one long, continuous sheet of paper, rolled up for transportation and storage. Once delivered, the letter would have been read aloud for all the people of the church to hear.

Second, Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, to a community of people, let’s call it Corinth Community Church for example. “The letter was not addressed to individuals, but to a group. Every ‘you’ in this passage is second person plural. Paul is speaking to the church as a distinct community.”[2] Sometimes we read the word “you” and think Paul is writing to a person, when most often Paul is writing to a group of people. Unfortunately, our English language does not delineate between a singular “you” and a plural “you.” Perhaps when we see “you” in the book, we should instead read it as “you all.”

The third thing we should understand is that this letter to the Corinth Community Church was prompted by conflict in the church, warring factions that had divided up among the congregation. After the initial words of greeting Paul began addressing the problems, and the church had a lot. They were doing real and potentially destructive battle with each other over a number contentious issues.[3] The church struggled with divisions over personalities and doctrine, immaturity, accountability, church discipline, lawsuits, immorality, relationships, insensitivity, worship styles, theology, outreach, and finances among other things![4] There was no shortage of problems at Corinth Community Church.

So while the love Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians 13 is certainly wise teaching for anyone entering into marriage, that wasn’t what Paul had in mind when he first wrote these words. As one commentator writes, “When Paul writes about love he is not talking about romance, nor does he speak of love in a sentimental way. He is talking about behaviors, how we act toward others in a congregation, (1 Corinthians 13) is not a stand-alone hymn or oration on love. It is part of Paul’s overall argument about life in a Christian congregation.”[5] And in many ways, these words come to life when we remember that they arose out of a crisis in the Corinth Community Church, where Christians were abusing their freedom, refusing to share, scorning their neighbors, boasting in their own abilities, seeking personal recognition, and jockeying for power in the church.[6] These words were spurred by feelings of hurt and anger rather than love and bliss.

Love Colour from Flickr via Wylio

© 2007 THOR, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When self-sacrificial love isn’t practiced in a church, things can go bad quickly. As one commentator says, church is full of diverse viewpoints, programs, groups, organizations, and ministries. For much of the time, there is room in the church for this diversity to coexist peacefully. But when resources of space, time, money and most importantly self-sacrificial love are scarce, tensions arise, and unspoken assumptions are sometimes verbalized in hurtful and divisive ways. Social and cultural concerns press upon the church and lead some within the church to insist on their own way;”[7] a way lacking in love.

And a lack of love seems to have been the biggest problem at the church. Not that they didn’t like, or appreciate, or care for one another—they didn’t love one another—at least not in the love that Paul describes. Again, our English language hinders our understanding. In the Bible’s original language, there were three words for love, eros, philia, and agape; eros referred to a romantic love, philia to a brotherly love, and agape to a selfless love. While they might have been practicing some kind of love, the people at Corinth Community Church were not practicing a self-sacrificing love. Everything Paul said love was, they weren’t. Everything Paul said love wasn’t, they were.[8]

The folks at Corinth Community Church were not modeling the love of Christ, in which as Paul wrote elsewhere, Christ loved us and gave himself for us.[9] The love Jesus displayed was a self-sacrificial love so it only makes sense that the love that the church, the body of Christ must display is that same self-sacrificial love; not romantic love, not friendly love, not even brotherly love—rather self-sacrificing love. Paul said it didn’t matter what kind of Christian act a person did, if these things weren’t done in self-sacrificial love they were selfish and worthless. Those at the church insisting on their own way were only wreaking havoc. Paul’s solution was simple—practice self-sacrificial love.

Can we imagine what it must have been like sitting in church and hearing those words being read out loud? I imagine many people would have been squirming in their seats; angry, embarrassed, and upset. I can imagine they might have been thinking, “How dare he air our dirty laundry in public?” “He has no right telling us what to do!” “Everything seems fine to me! —At least everything was fine until he opened his big mouth!” I can’t imagine the letter was well-received by everyone at Corinth Community Church. Yet Paul anticipated such reactions saying in 1 Corinthians 9 that it was his duty as an Apostle of Christ to speak the truth.  Though it might not have felt very good at the time, the most loving thing Paul could do was to tell the truth. And that’s what I would most emphasize about this chapter, about this letter; the love with which Paul wrote it.

This wasn’t a letter written out of anger or spite. Paul wasn’t mad because things weren’t going his way. Paul grieved because he had poured so much of himself into these people. Paul had moved to the city of Corinth on a leap of faith, going without the promise of housing or work, feeling God’s call to share Christ’s love. After some people responded to the good news, he helped start the church and stayed with them a year and a half. No doubt, Paul had developed deep and lasting friendships, friendships which he risked when he wrote this letter. As the founding Pastor of the church, Paul knew he faced rejection and abandonment if the letter was not well received, but he was willing to take the risk because he loved these people. Paul knew that no matter what he did, no matter what he said, his actions had to be rooted in selfless love. Paul was a man who could write about self-sacrificial love because he practiced self-sacrificial love—and it was out of that deep love which this letter was written.


[1] E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 47-51.

[2] Anthony B. Robinson and Patricia de Jong, 1 Corinthians: A Listen Up Bible Study (Cleveland: Open Waters Press, 2014), 11.

[3] Jeffrey D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 1:303.

[4] The Word in Life Study Bible: The Books of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1993), 576.

[5] Anthony B. Robinson and Patricia de Jong, 1 Corinthians, 23.

[6] Lewis F. Galloway, “Pastoral Perspective: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 1:302.

[7] Lewis F. Galloway, “Pastoral Perspective,” 1:304

[8] Jeffrey D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 1:303.

[9] Galatians 2:20

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