1 Corinthians 13:1-13 | What is Love?




1 Corinthians is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a contentious people. He spends much of the letter correcting their negative and destructive behavior. Yet, here in 1 Corinthians 13, nestled in the middle of the constant correctives to chaotic Corinthians comes a beautiful gem that radiates the deep truth of God’s Kingdom. Paul tells us about love: the most excellent way.


This short section has poetic form that can be divided into three sections.

Without Love You Are Nothing

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Here is a truth that we often forget. Just because you have a spiritual gift it doesn’t mean you are spiritual. You could write tons of books about God, heal thousands of people, feed and house millions of homeless people, and do great and wonderful things, but if love is not the central driving force behind it, then Jesus will look at you and say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Don’t be easily impressed by “super-spiritual” people. God isn’t. Love is all that matters.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The previous section begs the question, “Yes, but what is love?” We throw that word around all the time. “I love ice cream” “I loved that movie” “I love this new lipstick color” “I love you.” What are we really saying when we use the word love? More importantly, what is Paul saying when he uses the word love?

First of all, in Greek there are four words that we translate “love.”

  1. storge. It means the kind of love you can have for an inanimate object or a pet.
  2. eros. It deals with the sexual passions exchanged between a man and a woman.
  3. phileo. It means brotherly love; the kind of love exchanged between friends.
  4. agape. It is the kind of love that God has for creation. God’s love is agape love and it is agape that Paul is talking about in this chapter.

So, what is agape? Let’s do a quick word study and explore the list of adjectives that Paul uses to define agape. The following list looks at the Greek words Paul uses to describe love. Taking the time to hear these words through the cultural lens of the original language may help us to paint a broader portrait of God’s love for the world.


Makrothymeô – longsuffering, patient

God has a really long fuse and a really high boiling point. It takes a lot to stir God up to anger. That doesn’t mean God lets sin slide, it just means God gives us lots of chances to make mistakes, get  up, make things right, and do it again before judgment finally comes.

Chresteuomai – Good, excellent, kind.

In Rom. 2:4 Paul has tó chrçstón as a noun to describe the divine kindness which allows space for repentance, but which the impenitent disdain and hence store up wrath for themselves. What is meant is God’s gracious restraint in face of the people’s sins prior to Christ. chrçstótçs is used interchangeably in Rom. 2:4, and it occurs again in 11:22 with reference to God’s gracious act in Christ. As Paul sees it, kindness constantly characterizes God, but this kindness finds particular expression and completion in His saving work in and through Christ. The continuity of God’s kindness may also be seen in 1 Pet. 2:3, which applies Ps. 34:8 to Christ: “You have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”


Zeleuô – to be zealous

The usual translation of this term is “zeal”: a. as the capacity or state of passionate commitment; comprehensively for the forces that motivate personality (e.g., interest, taste, imitative zeal, rivalry, fame, enthusiasm); c. in the bad sense jealousy, envy, competition, contention.

Love does not get overly emotional or worked up when the other gets out of line.

Perpereuomai – boast or brag.

Of contested origin, perpereuìomai relates to arrogance in speech, being associated with such concepts as loquacity, bluster, bragging, etc. It suggests a literary or rhetorical form of boasting. In 1 Cor. 13:4 it carries such varied nuances as arrogance, pretension, and impotent chatter. Antiquity in general  opposes  such  boasting,  but Paul bases its renunciation on the love that makes possible the eschatological life disclosed in faith and hope. Since God  has  opened  up  this possibility in Christ, the action of love is presented in personal terms. We do not set aside perpereuìesthai by practice etc., as in Stoicism; love itself sets it aside in us when we take this more excellent way.

Physioô –puff up

“to puff up, blow up, inflate” (from phusa, “bellows”), is used metaphorically in the NT, in the sense of being “puffed” up with pride

aschemoneô – a schemer, act unseemly toward another

“to be unseemly” (a, negative, and schema, “a form”), is used in 1 Cor. 7:36, “behave (himself) unseemly,” i.e., so as to run the risk of bringing the virgin daughter into danger or disgrace, and in 13:5, “does (not) behave itself unseemly.”

Love doesn’t take advantage of others or force itself upon another.

Zeteo ou heauto – seek after herself

Religiously this term denotes first the seeking of what is lost by the Son of Man with a view to saving it (Lk. 19:10; Mt. 18:12; Lk. 15:8). But it can also refer to God’s requiring much from those to whom much is given (Lk. 12:48), or fruit from the tree (Lk. 13:6-7), or faithfulness from the steward (1 Cor. 4:2), or true worship from the righteous (Jn. 4:23). From this twofold use we see that the divine seeking involves at the same time a divine claiming. In John 8:50 the point seems to be that the Father looks after the glory of the Son and will judge those who refuse him recognition.

In many instances human seeking is the point. The basis here is the Greek use of zeteìo for philosophical inquiry (cf. 1 Cor. 1:22; Acts 17:27) and the LXX use for seeking God (cf. Rom. 10:20). The seeking of God in prayer in Mt. 7:7ff. follows LXX usage. Seeking covers the broader orientation of will: the seeking of God’s kingdom and righteousness (Mt. 6:32- 33), the seeking of things above (Col. 3:1), the seeking of the great goal of life (Mt. 13:45), the seeking of justification (Gal. 2:17). Such seeking  can be perverted  into the request for  a sign whereby the demand of the gospel may be evaded (Mk. 8:11-12).

Love makes its hearts desire to be for the other, not for herself.

(note: LXX is the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Old Testament)

paroxynô – be provoked

The verb means “to spur,” “to stir to anger,” passive “to be provoked, incensed.” … In the NT the verb occurs in Acts 17:16, where the meaning is not that Paul is stimulated to preach but that he is honestly angered by the idolatry. Similarly in 1 Cor. 13:5 love does not let itself be provoked- there were many provoking things at Corinth.

Ou logizomai to kakon – does not think about the bad, or keep a log book of the bad

Love does not keep a record of wrongs. It doesn’t keep score of all the bad things you’ve done and then bring them up against you in a fight. Love forgets the bad.

Ou chaire epi te adikia – does not rejoice in what is not right

As the opposite of dikaiosyìne, it denotes “violation of the divine law,” heading the list of vices in Rom. 1:29. It also means “legal injustice” (Rom. 9:14). It can have, too, the nuance of “unfaithfulness” (Rom. 3:5). In Rom. 6:13 it is a controlling force.


Synchairô aletheia – rejoices in truth

Chairo is the word for joy and is one of the fruit of the Spirit. With syn in front of it the meaning is “has joy together with” What does love rejoice with? Truth.


Stegô – covers … all things

This verb comes from a stem meaning “to cover,” “to conceal.” It is a rare term but persists in both prose and common speech. Its basic meaning is “to keep covered,” but this gives it such senses   as “to protect,” “to ward off,” “to hold back,” “to resist,” “to support.” It can also mean “to keep secret,” “to keep silent,” “to keep a confidence.”

Pisteuô – believes…all things

pisteuìo means “to trust” (also “to obey”), “to believe” (words), and in the passive “to enjoy confidence” (cf. the later sense “to confide in”).

elpizô – hopes…all things

The OT element of trust is strong when the relation is to persons, as in 2 Cor. 1:3; 5:11; 13:6. Trust in persons is the point in 1 Cor. 13:7, though it rests on trust in God (v. 13).

Hypomenô – hyperwaits; waits for you until the bitter end

hypomeìno has the senses a. “to stay behind,” “to stay alive,” b. “to expect,” c. “to stand firm,” and “to endure,” “to bear,” “to suffer.” hypomoneì means a. “standing fast” and b. ‘“expectation,” “waiting.” While hypomeìno is at first ethically neutral, hypomoneì becomes a prominent virtue in the sense of courageous endurance. As distinct from patience, it has the active significance of energetic if not necessarily successful resistance, e.g., the bearing of pain by the wounded, the calm acceptance of strokes of destiny, heroism in face of bodily chastisement, or the firm refusal of bribes. True hypomoneì is not motivated outwardly by public opinion or hope of reward but inwardly by love of honor.

Oudepote Ekpiptô – never fails

This word means “to fall out of or down from,” “to make a sortie,” “to go forth,” “to deviate or digress,” “to be cast ashore,”  “to  be  expelled,” “to be omitted,‘“ “to stretch,” and “to let slip.” It is mostly literal in the LXX for various Hebrew terms; thus it denotes an ax flying from the shaft, a chopper slipping from the hand, a star falling from heaven, trees or horns that fall, flowers  that fade

Love never falls or ends.

Putting it all together… (my paraphrase)

Love puts up with us even when we blow it, it is the most excellent way of goodness and kindness that gives us a chance, because it has a low boiling point.

It doesn’t toot its own horn or puff itself up. It doesn’t force itself on others, it doesn’t seek after its own desires. It is other-oriented.

It doesn’t get all riled up over silly things or keep a list of offenses to use against you. It doesn’t get excited about the wrongs we’ve done, instead gets very excited when we dwell in the truth.

In all things love protects us, believes in us, has hope that we will make it to the end, and always waits up for us, no matter how long it takes us to get there.

In the end, love will never let us down or give up on us.

Love is All You Need

Paul concludes this love poem by reminding us that we are in the middle of the story. Right now we are on a journey in which we are being formed into the people that God made us to be. We are there, but not completely. In this in-between state we need the spiritual gifts to guide us and keep us on track. When we arrive fully in God’s presence then the gifts will be useless for us.

When you boil it all down, the purpose for the gifts is to produce faith, hope, and love in us. Think about it. We continue on the journey because we believe that the journey is real. That is faith. We press on because we believe that the destination will be better than our current state and will be worth the effort. That is hope. As we travel we are called to do it all in love. When we arrive in the presence of God we will no longer need faith or hope because we will be there. The only thing we will need in that place is love. God is love. When we finish the journey we will be fully engulfed in the richness and infinite depth of God’s unfailing love. Only love remains, now and forever. Live in its way.

That is the love of God for His people. That is the promise in which you can rest as a child of God. That is the example that Jesus set for us and the way of the gospel that He sends His Spirit to empower us to practice. That is why there are spiritual gifts.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13

I have discovered a poetic beauty in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 that I have never seen before. Allow me to step through each section of the text visually. I have written the English words in the order of the Greek language, so that you may see the structural beauty of this text. It sounds like Yoda speak, which is another reason it is so cool.

First, let’s look at an abbreviated 1 Corinthians 12 to provide context.

The context is Paul’s argument from 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. The church in Corinth is being ripped apart by warring factions. Everyone is arguing over who has the better spiritual gifts. The real issue, in my opinion, was a power struggle. Who is the authoritative voice now that the Law of Moses has been contextualized and the Holy Spirit is running wild amongst Jews and Gentiles alike?!?

Our English translations usually render verse 31 “I will show you a still more excellent way.” The literal translation, however, reads “and still by hyperbolic way to you I show.” The alternative path that Paul is about to show the Corinthians is one that goes above and beyond imagination. It is excessive. It overflows. It is the most excellent way.

The way is love. We are very familiar with 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, especially if you have been to a wedding recently. We love the list of adjectives that describe agape love. But, we often stop at the first half of verse 8.

Let the magic begin…

Notice the first word: The Love. It never falls apart, fails, ends, collapses, ceases…

However, the stuff that we get so worked up about–our gifts of prophesy, tongues, and knowledge–they will end. They will be abolished, crushed, fade away, disintegrate. Nill.

Notice the structure. “from part” we know. “from part” we prophesy. Our knowledge, our ability to speak the truth, is small and limited by our own perspective. We only have part of the picture.

Here is a key place where our English language has really led us down the wrong path for interpreting this text. Look closely at the structure. “When might come to teleion.” The Greek word telos is highly debated amongst Bible and Theology nerds. It means more than the end, as if it the final stop of a railroad track. It means the fulfillment of purpose.

The New Living Translation says, “But when the time of perfection comes.” The word perfect is so dangerous. Our Greek, Western heritage brings so much Platonic baggage with that word that it makes it seem like it is a hard stop. You can’t go beyond perfect, can you?

The New Revised Standard version says, “but when the complete comes.” That is a little better, but still has a finality to it.

I think the word maturity communicates it more closely to the meaning Paul may have intended. My reason for that will become clear in a moment. first…

Look what maturity does to our “from part” way of being. It abolishes it. It opens it up and allows us to see more fully. Keep going…

Paul uses a metaphor to explain it. Infants grow to maturity. When I was an infant, I acted like one. When I become a mature adult, my infant ways are abolished. Or, at least they should be. Can you hear the finger wagging here?

For now, as infants, life is an enigma. That is literally what it says. The Greek word is einigmata, from which we get the English word enigma. It represents something that simply does not make sense. The grown-up world doesn’t make sense to the infant.

Here is where it blossoms into something incredibly beautiful. Notice how the infant looks at the world. She looks into a mirror. Who is she looking at? herself.

Where does the gaze fall when maturity arrives? We look face to face. In maturity, I will perceive (not know) just as also I was perceived.

I have always been taught that this passage was all about how glorious Heaven will be after we die. Right now we are stupid humans, but someday, after this life is over, we’ll get to understand all the mysteries of the universe.

I don’t think that is what Paul is saying at all. Paul is telling the Corinthians to grow up. He’s telling them to stop gazing in the mirror and wondering how important they are in their own eyes. The bickering and one-upsmanship is childishness and not part of the body of Christ that God is trying to mature in this world.

God’s love causes us to look at each other AND ACTUALLY SEE EACH OTHER!

We are called to love each other in the same way that God loves us. Each of us is a beloved child of God and we are called to look out for everybody.

Notice the last word of this majestic poem: The Love. Mic drop.

Here is is all put together.


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