Some contextual listening required (Part 1): If you don't have the Love, you're no different than a pagan gathering (1 Corinthians 12-13)
Sometimes chapter divisions can detour from hearing what the author of a biblical text has said. This is so true of 1 Corinthians 13. Most, at least from all the sermons I have heard and the weddings I have attended attest. Nonetheless, chapter 12 and chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians are in need of being heard together as if there is no chapter division between them. In fact, there is a bookend link between 12:13 and 13:13:
ζηλοῦτε δὲ τὰ χαρίσματα τὰ μείζονα (12:31a)
μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη (13:13b)
Even those who don’t know New Testament Greek can see it––you can see the word “greater” (μείζονα, 12:31a / μείζων, 13:13b) at the close of chapter 12 and the close of chapter 13. Different endings (like Spanish), of course, but the same word: μέγας (great/greater) in 12:31a and 13:13b. The NASB, as do other translations, offers what I think is a much better read than the ESV: “But earnestly desire the greater gifts” (12:31a, NASB)
Don’t know why the ESV translates the word μέγας as “higher.” I suppose it could, but this doesn’t help the English reader. The mistranslation masks the bookends here, which, in turn, masks the dynamic relationship between 1 Corinthians 12 and 13–these two chapters need to be read as one.
So you can see (and hear) what Paul has crafted (with my more word for word translation):
So what does this do for us as we read chapters 12 and 13 together? First, we take and read the two as one thread and not separate chapter 13 as if it is a stand-alone-text about the vague notion of “love.” Witnessed by the mistaken use of the “Love Chapter” during weddings. Chapter 12 is most certainly about church, so for Paul, chapter 13 is about church as well.
Second, we just had a chapter (12) on the one body of Christ—and please understand Paul is specifically referring to local churches, meeting in someone’s home, thus, “To the church of God that is in Corinth,” 1:2a): one body, many members (cf. 12:12, 27).
Paul begins with the spiritual gifts (12:1), to which he will return in chapter 14, but makes a turn toward people-related gifting at the end of our chapter 12: apostles, prophets, teachers, those that do miraculous gifts of healing, helping, administering, and of course tongues.
Yep. Everyone wants these powerful, status-granting, attention-centered spiritual gifts (let’s be honest). Thus, the need for chapter 13. So, Paul asks,
Yet, he says there is a better way, a more excellent way. Paul then concludes our chapter 12:
Then, Paul instructs his readers/listeners on this more excellent way:
Let’s read 12:27–13:3 as one thread, of course with my interpretative spin (but I think it’s there in Paul’s meaning, a fair reading):
Well, this is a radical thing we have going on here. A new community built on the Love, not status, education, bloodlines, abilities, usefulness, or even spiritual office or gifting. And, then the reader/listener has Paul’s final charge: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (13:13).
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Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.