1 Corinthians 13:1-7

Sun, 12/02/2006 - 11:15 -- James Oakley

Welcome to one of the most well-known and most loved passages in the New Testament. Well known, much loved, well used. Let me give you a couple of ways this passage often gets used.

It quite often gets used as a kind of Christian version of “love is”. It is certainly a very popular choice of reading for wedding services. You remember the “love is” cartoons? Here are a few I found on the internet. Love is… a feeling to treasure! Or, love is… taking one day at a time. How about this one? Love is… listening to romantic music together? Or perhaps this is more to your taste? Love is… wanting to give her the moon and the stars. Or maybe this one? Love is… when he nibbles your ear.

They’re fun aren’t they. And for many people, this chapter is a Christian version of that. A passage that tells us what love really is – not in sentimental terms but in practical, down to earth terms. Or maybe it describes and defines what God’s love is like. And as such, as I say, a popular choice for a wedding. As we’ll see in a while, I can’t think of a more unsuitable passage to speak on at a wedding.

That’s one way it gets used. The other way it gets used is as an underhand way of settling an argument. What do I mean?

Here’s a picture of an event on 16th October 1555. The event is the martyrdom of two English bishops at the hands of the catholic queen Mary: Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. They were burned at the stake together in the middle of Oxford. You’ll notice that there’s a makeshift pulpit near the scene with a man named Smith preaching a sermon. His text? The two brave bishops were compelled to listen to a sermon on this verse: “If I surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” You can’t get more cruel than that, can you?

But the same approach is used today. As Bible-believing church leaders stand up for the truth on areas such as sexual ethics, this same chapter is used to silence us. We are told that such a stand is all well and good, but if we are not loving, it achieves nothing. It’s an underhand way of settling an argument: Tell your opponent that they are not being loving to make a fuss, and 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is more important than fuss.

A Christian version of “love is”? An underhand way of settling an argument? What is it about then? Well the passage divides into two paragraphs and each makes one main point.

1-3: Love is more important than any spiritual gift

Verses 1 to 3 talk about the importance of love. They say that love is more important than any spiritual gift. Love is more important than any spiritual gift.

Did you notice that he’s still talking about spiritual gifts. It may be obvious, but it bears saying: Chapter 13 comes between chapter 12 and chapter 14. He may be talking about love, but he’s still interested in the subject of spiritual gifts. But not only is this chapter sandwiched between two chapters about spiritual gifts. Look at the verses in front of us. Verse 1, tongues of men and angels. Verse 2: the gift of prophecy. Verse 2 again: faith. All gifts that got a mention in chapter 12. Yes, he’s still talking about spiritual gifts.

So what he’s saying is: You can have such and such a gift, but that is useless if you don’t have love.

Which gifts are useless without love? All of them. He exaggerates, describing the most spectacular gifts he can think of. If you can move a mountain from one place to the next. If you can fathom all mysteries, all knowledge. Wow – I’d love that kind of gift. Yet even with gifts that great, it’s nothing without love. Which means that you can be sure that any gift that any of us has is equally useless without love.

And what does he mean by useless. Well, he puts it in different ways. In verse 1, he is no more than a gong. In other words, his gift of tongues is of no use to anyone else. In verse 2, he says simply “I am nothing”. The gift may be impressive. But it says nothing about me. Then in verse 3, I gain nothing.

Put it together, what do you get? You can have the best, most useful, most spectacular, most dramatic, most spiritual, most whatever you want gift in the world. But if you also don’t have love, it does no-one else any good and it does you no good. It counts for nothing.

These days, we are inundated with TV programmes about property. How to buy one, how to do one up, how to do up your neighbours, how to find one abroad. Which means most of us know that the three most important things about a house are its location, its location and its location. Oh, and then you might want to consider how many bedrooms, whether there’s a garage, do you like the feel of the living room and so on. Of course, you can have the best location in the world. You can have all the features you desire. But if the house has no roof it’s not a lot of use. It’s no use arguing about whether you’d rather be in Red Street with 2 reception rooms, or in Audley with both kitchen and utility. If there’s no roof you’re wasting your breath.

That is what Paul is saying here about love and spiritual gifts. We can study 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14 until we are blue in the face. We can get our priorities regarding the various gifts, the ways in which they are used, the ends for which they are given all absolutely in line with the Bible. But if we don’t have love we are wasting our time. We may as well end this series now if we are not a loving church. That is how important love is. Love is more important than any spiritual gift.

Another way of putting this to help us see the force of what Paul is saying is this: The fruit of the Spirit is more important than the gifts of the Spirit. You may or may not be familiar with the list of 9 fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The qualities of character that God’s Spirit causes to grow in the Christian as the months and years go by, as we co-operate to see those qualities grow. Just like fruit grows on a tree, so these qualities should be growing in our lives.

And what Paul is saying in these verses in 1 Corinthians 13 is that the Spirit’s fruit is more important than the Spirit’s gifts. That needs to be our priority. We need to care more, put more attention and effort into becoming the right kind of people than we do into exercising the right gifts. We should be discussing not how gifted we’d like to be, but how godly we’d like to be. When we pray for each other, we shouldn’t pray for each other to acquire new gifts as much as we pray for each other to become more like Christ.

I’m a big fan of the Scottish minister from the 19th Century, Robert Murray McCheyne. One thing he is quite often quoted as saying is this: My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. And that is true for us too. We don’t need each other’s gifts as much as we need each other’s holiness. You need me to be like Christ more than you need me to be a good preacher.

So I’d just like to challenge us as to whether this is our perspective or not. Is this what we value? Our prayers reflect our priorities. Let’s think about what we pray for, privately and in church. Do our prayers betray that most important for us is the formation of a Christ-like character? What do we talk about over coffee? Is our personal holiness the biggest concern we have for one another? Given that love is more important than any spiritual gift, we have to ask, don’t we?

2. Love sacrificially seeks the good of others.

That’s the first paragraph. The second paragraph makes a different point. It talks about the character of love, and I’ve given it the heading Love sacrificially seeks the good of others. Love sacrificially seeks the good of others.

Now, I appreciate that that heading is hopelessly inadequate. But what I’m trying to do is to sum up the qualities Paul describes here. You see he is describing what the loving person is like and what the loving person does. And the loving person is always interested in what is good for other people. And at times, that genuine concern for other people will be costly for the person who loves. That is the kind of love Paul talks about here. It is not sentimental. It is not based on feelings. It is a commitment to seek the good of other people, at great cost to ourselves if need be.

At which point, we’re starting to wonder if perhaps it’s not such a bad passage for a wedding after all. It should help to lift the eyes of the newly wedded couple from the sentimental to the costly but precious reality that is biblical love.

But there’s something else we need to consider. Why is Paul saying this to the Corinthians? Why does he write it here? How would the Corinthians have heard this paragraph?

Well, the answer is that they certainly would not have heard it as a nice poem, an enjoyable Christian version of “love is”. Neither would they have enjoyed it as a heart-warming exposition of God’s character and of God’s love for us. No, the Corinthians would have heard this as a stinging rebuke. As each sentence and each clause of this paragraph was read out on Sunday they would have winced. By the time the Bible reading was finished, they would have felt about three inches tall, like they’d just left the headmaster’s study and had the biggest telling-off of their lives.

Which is why it is a really bad choice of text for a wedding sermon. You don’t generally aim to rebuke and chastise the newly married couple in a wedding sermon. But if I was to preach this passage faithfully, at a wedding or elsewhere, what would be required of me would be a rebuke for the ways in which we are loveless. And that wouldn’t be popular at a wedding. It is fair to say that these are some of the harshest words in the whole New Testament.

When the planes struck the twin towers on September 11th 2001, quite a few children saw the news coverage unfold on television. A good number of those children were quite excited at what they were watching. Why? They thought they were watching a computer game or a film, and would happily enjoy watching the footage over and over again. They didn’t realise that this was an international tragedy, unfolding for real before their very eyes.

It’s similar to the way a lot of people read this chapter. They could happily read it over and over again, enjoying the warm, encouraging truths that are here. They don’t realise that what is unfolding here is a harsh ticking off that should leave them decidedly uncomfortable.

Let’s look at some of the details here, and picture the Corinthians reading them as we do.

Love is patient, love is kind. But the Corinthians were so impatient that when they came together for a church family meal, those who got there first tucked in and got drunk in the process. Those who arrived late were left to go hungry. Ouch. But of course, we are never so concerned to advance ourselves that we won’t wait for those who are slow, are we?

It does not envy, it does not boast. But the Corinthians were obsessed with their various human teachers and leaders and were boasting about who were their favourites. And they boasted in how gifted they were as individuals. And most relevant in this context: It seems from chapter 12 that the gift of tongues was been elevated to be a benchmark of being really spiritual. Those who could speak in tongues would boast. Those who could not were left to envy. Ouch. But that’s alright, because we don’t boast about how good we are, or how good those we admire are. Do we?

It is not proud, it is not rude. Then he goes on to say that it is not self-seeking, or better does not insist on its own way. This to the church where husbands and wives were depriving each other of sex without mutual consent. This to the church where one issue was whether you can eat meat previously offered to an idol. Those who thought they could did so openly with no sensitivity to those who felt they could not. Ouch. But no-one here would insist on their own way, would they? Surely insist is too strong a word?

It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. To the Christians who were resolving their disputes by taking each other to court. To the church that refused to welcome back someone who had been under church discipline long after the individual had repented. Ouch. But of course, our tempers never flare up, do they? And when we feel someone has let us down, I’m sure we’d never bring up a previous time when something similar had happened. That would be beneath us, wouldn’t it?

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. This to the church that had a man sleeping with his step mother on a regular basis. This to the church that was proud that it could tolerate such things. Ouch. Not that we would be as unloving as to turn a blind eye to sexual immorality amongst us, of course.

And then he sums up: It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. No matter how many times we are let down, what love does is keep trusting, keep hoping, never gives up with people.

What a good thing the Christian message is about the God of love, who shows love and forgiveness to us who are loveless.


So, 1 Corinthians 13 – one of the best known, most used, most loved chapters in the Bible. It was read at Diana’s funeral by Tony Blair. It is used at weddings across the country. But what does it have to say to us today?

Is it a Christian version of “love is…”? No – it is more of a slap in the face.

Is it an underhand way of settling an argument? No. For a start, this passage does not rebuke my opponent, whoever that might be. It is there to rebuke me. But more importantly than that, if someone is standing up for the truth, that is not unloving. Love rejoices with the truth.

No, the chapter is not there for either of those reasons. Instead the first two paragraphs (at least) make two points. First, love is more important than any spiritual gift. Second, love sacrificially seeks the good of others. Put those together – the importance of love, and what love looks like, and I think you reach the conclusion that we’ll never run out of things to work on.

Website Section: 
Sermon Series: 
Additional Terms