Jesus told us that the first and greatest commandment was to love God with all of our essence. The second commandment was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This is a summation of the law. All of Leviticus and Deuteronomy can be funneled down to one of the Ten Commandments, and the Decalogue can be found in these two statements of Jesus. The first four laws dealing with our relationship with God, and the last six with our relationship to our fellow man. Love then is the summation of the law.
This concept was not lost on the Apostle Paul. Love was at the center of his ministry and his theology. Whether it was his great love for Israel as seen in Romans chapter nine, or his selfless love for Gentiles, Paul epitomized Christian love. So strong was this feeling, that it was love Paul listed first as a Fruit of the Spirit. The love that Paul had, the love that Paul showed in his ministry, flowed from the source of all love, from the Father. This love that had manifested itself so fully in his life, he could not help but bestow on the helpless, lost sheep that he encountered. As Paul wrote that he was the chief of sinners, he must surely have felt that he owed a greater debt of gratitude than those to whom he witnessed. This dogmatic, unyielding, Pharisee, had become a preacher of a more excellent way.
Certainly, as Paul was writing his corrective letter to the church at Corinth, this must have entered into his mind—divinely inspired, naturally. The letter as a whole is corrective, and chapters twelve and fourteen focus especially on spiritual gifts and their proper use for edification. Yet in the middle of chiding the church for selfishly desiring gifts meant to edify the whole body, Paul, almost parenthetically, attempts to show them the way of selfless love and affection. He ends chapter twelve by saying, “I show you a more excellent way,” and starting chapter fourteen by saying, “Pursue love.” Paul admonishes the reader, “I show you a more excellent way. Pursue love.”
It is in the middle of that statement that Paul stops his teaching, and presents one of the greatest treatises on the subject of agape love. Specifically, in these short thirteen verses Paul lays out a detailed explanation of how agape love responds to difficulties. This is so important to the church at Corinth because of their deeply troubled situation. Also, this should speak loudly to the church of today as well. Without a proper understanding of agape love, wisdom, knowledge, success, growth, and even charity can push aside the true characteristic of the Church and the Gospel. Jesus said we would be known by the fact that we love one another, not that we manifest certain gifts or have the largest building in town.
That is the flavor of this most wonderful passage. It is more than simply a “hymn of love.” It is a doctrine of how Christians are to behave properly. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift wrote, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Warren Wiersbe wrote that this concept is found explicitly in First Corinthians Thirteen. No matter how excellent our gifts, no matter how plentiful our fruits, if these are not administered in the spirit of agape love, they cause destruction instead of edification. Paul then admonishes the Corinthian believers to see the excellent way of love.
In the first three verses, Paul personalizes the correction by using the pronoun “I” to communicate these principles in a way that should encourage them. D.A. Carson spoke of this as “five minus one equals zero.” Paul gives five activities that were very important in the everyday life of the Corinthian church. The gifts were tongues, prophecy and understanding, faith, charity, and self-sacrifice. Paul here begins a list of the things that the Corinthians were placing over and above agape love. He begins with the gift of tongues. In his previous listing of the spiritual gifts in chapter twelve, verses four through twelve, Paul had placed the gifts of tongues last. As John Chrysostom points out, it would seem Paul here reverses the order of the list so that he begins with the lesser gift. He does this, Chrysostom emphasizes, so that he is ascending to the greatest gift by comparison. The gift of tongues is the lowest; as he would go on to explain in chapter fourteen, because it edifies self, over and against the whole body. Paul comments that without agape love, this gift makes one like an unpleasant sound. A clanging symbol or crashing gong is more of a cacophony than a symphony. It is similar to listening to the drum-line of a marching band practice without the brass. The constant beat without melody and harmony can become quickly irritating to the ear.
Then, without missing a beat, Paul pushes ahead to the gift of prophecy and knowledge. The role of prophecy is brought out, again, in chapter fourteen. The prophetic word signifies the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. If the minister or teacher teachers from any motivation other than love, they do it from the wrong motivation. Jerry Vines is fond of saying that preachers should never preach a sermon on Hell without a tear in their eye. Without love, prophecy is but vanity.
Likewise, without love, faith becomes futile. Invoking remembrance to Jesus’ analogy of the mustard seed-sized faith moving mountains; Paul says even such faith, when not tempered with love results in nothing. As John MacArthur pointed out, Paul is not speaking of saving faith, but of the spiritual gift of faith. This type of faith allows those who trust in God to see great things, even miracles, to take place. Yet even a believer with that level of faith has nothing to brag about when the faith is not exercised in agape love.
This point cannot be over emphasized. For many in the church believe that faith alone is sufficient. Henry Drummond, in beginning his classic work, The Greatest Thing In The World, stated:
We have been accustomed to be told that the greatest thing in the religious world is faith. That great word has been the keynote for centuries of the popular religion; and we have easily leaned upon it as the greatest thing in the world. Well, we are wrong. If we have been told that, we may miss the mark. In the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, Paul takes us to Christianity at its source; and there we see, “The greatest of these is love.”
Drummond goes on to say that the summum borum— the supreme good—is not faith able to move mountains, but agape love, pointing out Peter and John’s comments on the supremacy of love to this effect as well.
Paul adds to the lists personal sacrifice. In modern times, the word charity has lost some of its zeal. Not so in A.D. 1611 when the King James Bible was published. So connected to the thought of agape love and Christian virtue was the word charity, it was used in the Authorized Version for love in this text. The word means grace and therefore permeates the thought of agape love. Dan Mitchell pointed out that charitable giving in the Greco-Roman worldview was more of an eros love than an agape love. It was often times for the betterment of the community or out of a sense of quid-pro-quo. In Paul’s estimation, whether the gifts were supernatural in nature, or just natural gifts of the charitable heart, either without love left one incomplete. The void of agape love in the life of a believer leaves them as nothing.
Moving along, Paul now enters into a great prosaical work of listing the attributes of agape love. First on his list is the attribute of loving patience—an understated gift in this modern culture. Today’s society must have everything quickly. Hence, microwave popcorn, fast food, instant lottery tickets, and even pregnancy tests that are advertised to take less than three minutes sum up a culture annoyed with anything slow. Nevertheless, Paul urges believers to be patient with one another. Even to the point of self-sacrifice.
Agape love is patient, it is slow to anger, and it is longsuffering. Another of the fruits of the Spirit, longsuffering is like the grapefruit of the Spirit. Grapefruit is a wonderful thing. It is a healthy, long lasting fruit that has awesome dietary compliments. However, it is a hard fruit to eat. It is hard to peel, it is messy, and often stinging juice squirts in your eye. Those attributes are similar to longsuffering. It is not easy to be patient, but the results are worthwhile. Longsuffering is, simply stated, patients and endurance working together. The Bible book of James says that,
For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. James 1:3-4 (NLT)
The Greek word for complete in that passage is holokleros and it means mature. God's goal for believers is that they develop maturity. Complete patience makes for a mature Christian. So longsuffering is necessary because troubles and troublemakers are in the believer’s life to develop patience, perseverance, and persistence. It is by patience they see God's work in them, and it is by perseverance they learn of God's love.
Next in his list of love’s attributes is kindness. As Anthony Thiselton points out, “In Greek the word has none of the faint praise often associated with the word in modern English. In its positive sense, kindness is pure and unselfish concern for the well being of the other.” It is the absence of any type of retaliation. Quite the opposite, kindness is the outpouring of love for no merited reason. This stood in stark contrast to the Greek thought of the day, which was one-upmanship. MacArthur suggests that this is a particularly Christian virtue. He wrote,
In the Greek world, self-sacrificing love and non-avenging patience were considered weaknesses, unworthy of the noble man or woman. Aristotle, for example, taught that the great Greek virtue was refusal to tolerate insult or injury and to strike back in retaliation for the slightest offence. Vengeance was a virtue.
For Paul, kindness and longsuffering patience are the very nature of God. James Renihan, in his book True Love, points out that Paul showed this same concept in Romans 2:4.
Paul next switches gears and moves to the negative attributes, or better stated, he tells the Corinthians what love is not. First on the ledger is envy. Agape love shows no envy. Envy is the main ingredient in strife, backbiting, and warfare. It has been the source of conflicts since Cain and Able, and is seen in the modern society in abundance. Most political strife and bickering come from envy. It is also a direct violation of the Tenth Commandment. Envy is incapable of love.
Bragging, arrogance, and rudeness follow suit. R.C. Sproul makes a wonderful connection. He says that the modern culture believes in flaunting and bragging. He then points to the fact that Jesus spoke of the Pharisees in a similar light in Matthew 23. In essence, Jesus said, do what the Pharisees tell you to do, just do not do what the Pharisees do. In other words, the Pharisees said, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  What a marvelous description of the current Western society. This, once again, stands in antithesis to true agape love. Love cannot brag, be arrogant, or puffed up. True agape love is selfless. Rudeness is not loving either. Peter also admonishes Christians to be courteous to one another in First Peter3:8, “Love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil.
Rick Warren said in the opening of his runaway best seller The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.” I am sure Paul would “amen” that. Agape love does not seek its own. Selfish desires were at the heart of the Corinthian church. The believers there sought the best of everything for themselves. They wanted the best spiritual gifts; they want the best food and they were unwilling to share, even at the Lord’s Table. They took each other to pagan courts to resolve conflicts. They epitomized what love should not look like. So here we see the crux of Paul’s argument. Agape love cannot be selfish by its very definition, yet the Corinthians were arrogant about their selfishness. The report from Chloe’s people obviously settled that conclusion in Paul’s mind.
The apostle now moves on to the thought of provocation. If love is not provoked, how is it then that the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works?” Hebrews 10:24 (KJV) The Greek word paroxysm means to spur on. So provoking something can be good or bad. Good as in Paul’s being provoked to preach at Mars Hill, and bad as in Paul and Barnabas being provoked to go separate ways, while heated. In this Paul might speak from personal experience, ala his afore mentioned run-in with Barnabas. As Thiselton put it, love seeks no recrimination.
This would be why Paul neatly segues into the fact that love keeps no record of evil. Despite some controversy on the translation of the Greek word Lozgizmai, both Thiselton and MacArthur agree that this is best translated as an accounting term. Basically then, this is a record keeping device. So then, Paul is saying that love keeps no record of the debt it is owed. This would be just like God. He also keeps no record of wrongdoing for those who have placed their trust in His plan of salvation. The Psalmist wrote that, “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:11-12 (NKJV)
How high are the heavens? It is incalculable. How far is the East from the West?—Beyond infinite. It is possible to travel so far North, that one begins to move South again. However, it is impossible to go so far East that one begins to move West again. This is agape love. Like God, it forgets transgressions and keeps no record of wrongdoing.
The apostle now moves into the area of rapid-fire communication. Jerome Murphy O’Conner says that the communicative style of the apostle is like “the lyrical expression of what love does and does not do. It is intimately related to the situation at Corinth while at the same time transcending it. It has both universal appeal and specific relevance.” Paul quickly lays out the last in the negative descriptors of love. Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness. While this may seem unnecessarily spoken, many do rejoice in the downfall of others. Jealousy leads to gossip and gossip to rejoicing in the misfortunes of others, whether caused by sinful action or chance. As one lady reported, “My pastor says not to repeat anything unless it is good…and boy is this good!” No doubt, the Corinthian believers and other First Century Christians would have gloated in the dismal afflictions of their supposed enemies or adversaries. This is not how agape love reacts.
Paul then shifts gears again, with a look at five things love accomplishes. He tells the reader that agape love, “rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, (and) endures all things.” (NKJV) The fact that love rejoices in the truth can be clearly seen in Scripture. Truth is the philosophical arm of Christianity. It is to Truth to which the believer must cling, especially in this day of pluralism. More to the point love can rejoice in the truth because of the freedom found in truth, for as Jesus said in John 8, the truth sets us free. The next four statements about love, that it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things are laid out as a set of beliefs. The repeating of the phrase “all things” shows that. To bear all things is in a sense a toleration of all situations. This is not a tolerance for sinful behavior, but tolerance for making the best out of whatever comes along. That love believes all things is a reference to faith, not to gullibility. It is a trust that God will ultimately control every situation, no matter what the obvious outcome seems to be. Love hopes all things does not refer to a pie-in-the-sky wish fulfillment. Instead, Biblical hope refers to a settled conclusion. Therefore, agape love hopes all things is a reference to the certainty of Christ’s superiority in the times of life’s anxieties. Lastly, there is the fact that love endures all things. Love persists, even in the face of a fallen world, because it knows the final outcome will be victory in Jesus Christ.
The last point is found in verse eight: love never fails. As Thiselton points out, a better rendering of the Greek pipto, would be fallen. MacArthur suggests that this is like a leaf that has fallen to the ground, withered and subsequently decayed. The fact is that love will never fall—never wither or decay. That love would never fail seems to indicate that love is a magic bullet that answers all of life’s dilemmas. This is not the case, but simply that there will never be a time when love will cease being. All of this seems to emanate from the Corinthians lack of eschatological doctrine. Paul begins to show them that while gifts are temporary, love is eternal. While certain gifts may be more valuable, more showy, or more useful, eventually they will all end in their necessity. There will be no need for tongues when all believers speak the same language. There will be no need for knowledge when all believers stand before God. Prophecy will be abolished because all will know and understand.
It would be wise to point out the delineation between prophecy and knowledge passing away, and tongues ceasing. MacArthur spends a great amount of time pointing out the differences, and Thiselton mentions it, almost in passing. Nevertheless, both men give the same interpretation that tongues will stop, while prophecy and knowledge will become obsolete. This would seem to indicate that Paul is of the opinion that tongues would end shortly after the close of the New Testament cannon, while prophecy and knowledge would continue until the perfect comes. This does beg the question then, “what is the perfect?” One might read as many commentaries as are written on First Corinthians and find as many ideas of this touchy subject. MacArthur feels the perfect is the Eternal State. Thiselton suggests it will be the end of time. Wiersbe associates it with the return of Christ. Sproul is ambivalent at best stating, “The answer doesn’t matter very much.” Regardless of the floating target of theologians, the matter that Paul addresses is that the gifts will ultimately be of no consequence. However, love will be an eternal matter that will outlast the Corinthians obsession with out “gifting” one another.
This fact comes at the end of the chapter, as the apostle summarizes the whole of the matter by saying that three things remain, Faith, Hope, and Love. How vastly important are these characteristics. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. Hope is the certainty that we place in God, not only for our present, but for our future as well. Yet the apostle tells us that love is this greatest.
R.C. Sproul summarized this concept nicely.
Paul does not denigrate faith and hope in stressing the supreme importance of love. He assures us that all three, the full triad of Christian virtues, will abide. They will not perish or shrink into insignificance. But the one virtue that is elevated to the superlative level is love. The greatest of the great (is) the gift and virtue of love.
Paul admonishes the Corinthian Christians to see the spiritual gifts in their proper light. They were tools to be used for the edification of the body, to aide in the conversion of the lost, and to instruct the church on correct doctrine and theology. Even so, these things were like so many worldly attributes. They were dangerous when misused and abused. By not placing the greatest Christian virtue out in front of them, the Corinthian believers were guilty of not recognizing their own folly. Paul instructs them by imploring them to see a more excellent way—Pursuing love.
 Wiersbe. Be Wise. 143
 Carson. Showing The Spirit. 60
 Chrysostom. The Love Chapter. 5
 MacArthur, 1 Corinthians. 334
 Drummond. The Greatest Thing. 13-14
 Ibid. 15
 Mitchell. The Book Of First Corinthians. 188
 Thiselton. 1 Corinthians. 221
 MacArthur. 333
 Renihan. True Love. 62
 Sproul. Loved By God. 182
 Warren. The Purpose Driven Life. 17
 Thiselton. 223
 Ibid. 224
 MacArthur. 347
 Murphy-O’Conner. 1 Corinthians. 150
 Thiselton. 229
 MacArthur. 358
 Thiselton. 230
 MacArthur. 362
 Ibid. 365
 Thiselton. 230
 Wiersbe. 145
 Sproul. 205
 Sproul. 207