One of the most frequently read passages of scriptures is 1 Corinthians 13, also known as “the love chapter.” This is what one hears recited at innumerable weddings and pasted all over social media and exhorted in various sermons. It was the first passage of scripture I remember memorizing to earn a scholarship to summer camp as a child. Ironically, 1 Corinthians 13 is usually read completely out of context; fortunately, however, the truth in it remains poignant nonetheless.
“If I speak in the tongues 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” it begins (1 Cor. 13:1-2 [NIV]).
In the verses prior to this, Paul devotes an entire chapter to explaining the nine gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12) and challenging believers to “earnestly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31) Immediately following 1 Corinthians 13, Paul again tells Christians to “follow the way of love, but earnestly desire the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy” (1 Cor. 14:1). Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13 is to be understood primarily in the context of using spiritual gifts – prophecy, speaking and interpreting tongues, healing, faith, words of wisdom, words of knowledge, miracles, and discerning spirits.
When one meditates on this, “the love chapter” takes on a whole new meaning.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels…” Have you ever heard someone speak out in tongues at a church service? Did you ever hear the interpretation of the speech follow moments later? This has happened three times in my church experience: once twenty years ago in a little church in Shanksville, PA following the singing of a gospel song; once at the Brooklyn Tabernacle at the end of the pastor’s sermon; and once a few weeks ago during a Wednesday night prayer service. Each time was beautiful and wondrous – that we humans are given heavenly tongues to pray and sing in, and when it’s done in public, someone is supernaturally given the interpretation. And yet, scripture says, if there is no love in the heart of the believer who speaks in or interprets a heavenly language, he is nothing more than a miserable cacophony in the ears of God and man!
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…” Even more amazing is the thought that the most prophetic voices – those who are really spiritually attuned and are hearing from Heaven daily – are nothing in God’s economy if they’re not prophesying in love.
“If I have a faith that can move mountains…” What strikes me most of all in 1 Corinthians 13 is what Paul says about faith. For we know that it is faith that is essential to pleasing God (Hebrews 11:6) and it is faith that made Jesus marvel (Matthew 8:10) and it is faith that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). Yet to have tremendous, unsurpassed faith in God, and yet have no love, is to be nothing in His economy. What a thought!
As we minister in the gifts of the Spirit and encourage and edify and liberate people through His manifestations, and as we pray and proclaim in faith God’s will on earth, may we not lose sight of how vital love is! “The goal of our instruction is love,” Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:5). No matter how powerfully God might use you, and no matter the miracles and signs He works through you, may love – for Him and for those He created – always motivate the ministry!