The Love Passage (1 Cor 13)
This well-recognized and much-loved passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is probably among the most often misunderstood and misused Christian Scriptures. Found in greeting cards or read at weddings, this passage has become associated with a noble and sincere love between a man and a woman. This description of the way of love is intended to capture a couple’s heart and thus lead them toward lifelong commitment. But did you know that Paul probably never considered a marriage ceremony or vow when he penned these words? Understanding the use of the Greek word agape (ah-GAH-pey), which is the word Paul uses for love in this passage, and appreciating the context in which one was to love are essential to understanding Paul’s intent. It is critical to understand how the apostle Paul understood the word love in order to appreciate the true essence of this passage.
Did you know…?
- The word for love throughout the passage is the Greek word agape.
- The ancient Greek language has two other words that we also translate into love (philos, or brotherly love, and eros, which is romantic love).
- The King James Version of the Bible translated agape as charity.
- The British evangelist Alan Redpath is quoted as saying of
1Cor 13, “one could get a spiritual suntan from the warmth of this chapter!”
- In 1997, England’s prime minister Tony Blair read
1Cor 13at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
How does Paul define love?
One critical reason for the misuse of this passage lies with the English word for love, which can function as a verb (“I love you so much”) and as an abstract noun (“love is so confusing”). As a noun it is an abstract concept that encompasses a range of feelings between the warm thoughts of endearment to the passions of sexual desire. As an English verb, there is no distinction between loving pizza, loving a household pet, and loving God. For Paul, love (agape) has a single meaning, which is defined as “putting the needs of others ahead on one’s own.” It was at the heart of the Christian experience; it shaped the Christian’s understanding of God’s own character and it was the chief expression one Christian would use toward a fellow believer and the world.
In Paul’s description of love, he leaves no room for it to be anything less than attending to the needs of others. The gifts of the Spirit, as useful as they were for the gathered community, were meaningless when performed for personal glory or selfish ambition. Paul’s description of the character of love begins by his mentioning two positive attributes: patience and kindness. Paul follows that by contrasting love to negative attributes; he argues that it is not “envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (
Paul establishes the necessity of love in his opening paragraph (
What is a practical application of love for Paul?
Marriage is a good context to practice pursuing the needs of others before considering one’s own; however, this was not at the fore front of Paul’s thinking. For Paul, the application of this kind of love happened in the daily interactions between the Corinthians in the church gathering and in relationship to those on the outside (which he addresses earlier in the epistle). It defines the character of God himself and therefore needs to define our character. This love then informs every relationship a believer has in the church, at home, at work, at play. Paul echoes this sentiment in