Love is a wonderful thing—on that point almost everyone agrees. Yet this wonderful word called “love” has been assigned a bewildering variety of meanings. The Beatles famously asserted that, “all you need is love.” Countless young couples have allowed their passionate “love” for each other to override what was once an unshakeable commitment to purity. Unmeasurable sums of money, for an enormous assortment of causes, have been raised by appealing to “love.” In the name of “love,” untold numbers of people have made enormous sacrifices in service of others for thousands of years.
The Apostle Paul also wrote in praise of love. In 1 Corinthians 13, he penned a hymn on love that is easily one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, and certainly one of the most beautiful. It has been put on t-shirts and on coffee mugs, on decorations and on screen savers—even on bumper stickers. It has been read at weddings and at funerals, quoted by Presidents and entertainers, and placed on the walls of countless homes. In fact, so universal is the use of this chapter in our culture that it almost seems as though Paul’s praise of love is as ambiguous as the word itself. Such is not the case.
Paul, you see, never wrote a “chapter 13” in his first epistle to the Corinthians. He wrote a unified letter—a letter that neither begins nor ends with what we know today as “chapter 13.” Chapter 13, in fact, does not even mark a major division in the letter. Paul’s “hymn to love” does not stand on its own—it is part of a larger picture, and that larger picture is anything but ambiguous. When he wrote these words, Paul was not trying to get the Corinthians to have warm fuzzies about the Greek word agape, but rather to change their behavior toward one another in observable ways.
In the larger section (what we know today as chapters 12–15) of which chapter 13 forms a part, Paul’s primary topic was the selfish and self-serving way in which the believers in Corinth were using the “spiritual gifts” that God had given them. He wanted them to stop focusing on the gifts and start living out the purpose of those gifts—which was the edification of the body of Christ. The reason why Paul had so many wonderful things to say about love is because love, if he could only bring the Corinthians to see it, is what would enable them to pursue their “spiritual gifts” in a way that would edify others instead of exalt themselves.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating love. There is certainly nothing wrong with putting Paul’s beautiful celebration of love on the walls of your home. Yet the next time you happen to see Paul’s praise of love standing all by itself, take a moment to remind yourself of the context in which it was originally written—and then celebrate the beauty of love in the way that Paul intended—by building up the body of Christ of which you are a member.