In response to a letter from the church at Corinth, Paul provides instructions regarding the gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:1-14:40). Based upon context clues, it seems the Corinthian church is overrating the gift of tongues (I Corinthians 13:1, 8, 14:1-25). Amid this discussion, the apostle provides his most comprehensive description of love (I Corinthians 13:1-13). This unit is commonly referred to as the “Love Chapter”.
The reading is one of the Bible’s most beautiful passages. The King James Version of the chapter has become transfixed in the Christian experience and a staple at wedding ceremonies.
Eric L. Titus (1909-1989) informs:
In popular thought, the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians is normative Pauline teaching; for the average Christian, this is Paul. I Corinthians 13 stands out in his [or her] mind the same way as does the 23rd Psalm [Psalm 23:1-6] or the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer [Matthew 6:9-13]. The reasons for this are not obscure. For one thing, the passage thrusts itself out from the Corinthian letter as if to invite special attention. Secondly, the chapter forms a neat, self-contained literary unit, dealing concisely with the theme of love. Thirdly, the theme meets people on a level which they can understand (or think they can understand) while the more complicated theological constructs of Paul do not. And finally, the theme of love is expressed in noble literary form, making its retention in the memory easy. (Titus, “Did Paul Write I Corinthians 13?”, Journal of Bible and Religion 27 (1959), 299)Alan F. Johnson (b. 1933) extols:
This chapter has been called the “greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote” (Adolf von Harnack [1851-1930] 1908:148). Ralph P. Martin [1925-2013] suggests that it is “in a class by itself in Pauline literature. Chapter 13 is poetic in its style and carries all of the marks of a lyrical composition...a ‘hymn of love,’ or better an aretology (i.e., poetic rhapsody composed in praise of a deity or some attribute regarded as divine) dedicated to agape” (1982:42-43). It has been perceptively noted that here the apostle is “hardly writing as an apostle. He is scarcely teaching or preaching at this point. He sings” (A.A. van Ruler [1908-1970] 1958:7). The language of I Corinthians 13 has found a way into the church’s marriage liturgy, sermons, hymns and every Christian’s heart as the most profound description of the kind of love expressed through Jesus Christ toward us as well in the life of his servant, Paul. (Johnson, 1 Corinthians (IVP New Testament Commentary), 239-40)In many of its common uses the passages is robbed of its rich meaning by familiarity. Paul begins an argument in the letter’s eleventh chapter that does not conclude until its fifteenth. Despite being situated directly amid this section, the Love Chapter has often been dislodged from its context in Paul’s letter and become closely associated with weddings and married love.
Scholars have been guilty of dissociating the text as well, arguing that it did not originally occupy its present place. Some have viewed the unit as an interpolation, a passage later redacted into the text (e.g. Jean Héring [1890-1966], The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians , 134; Jack T. Sanders [b. 1935], “First Corinthians 13: Its Interpretation Since the First World War”, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Volume 20, Number 2 [April 1966], 181).
Michael D. McCullar (b. 1954) laments:
It is a sad but true reality that people see I Corinthians 13 as nothing more than a stand-alone chapter of poetic writing focused on love. These words have been read at countless weddings, funerals, and ceremonies in attempts to promote the supremacy of love. Was this Paul’s overriding intent as he wrote this now infamous text? It is probably safe to say no; Paul did indeed have other issues in mind as he made the transition from chapter 12 to chapter 13...It is apparent from a complete study of the First Letter that Chapter 12 and 13 are inseparable. To fully comprehend the more famous chapter 13 and honor its contextual integrity, it is necessary to include the negatives of the previous chapter into the beautiful lyrics of love in chapter 13...When this is accomplished, the true beauty of chapter 13 shines forth. (McCullar, Sessions with Corinthians: Lessons for the Imperfect, 43)The text is best viewed in its original setting, following a discussion of spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12:1-31). When its context is recovered, the Love Chapter regains its stature as the culmination of the argument from the preceding passage: Paul’s is a vision of love that characterizes the church and serves as the foundation for every other gift and service.
Love becomes the standard by which all behavior is evaluated. It is like love is the perfect older sibling to whom a parent is constantly making comparisons. In lauding love, Paul is accusing the Corinthians of not measuring up.
This accusative tone is especially clear when Paul describes love’s actions (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Richard A. Horsley (b. 1939) connects:
Paul’s recitation of the acts of love in I Corinthians 13:4-7 shows how truly remarkable love is, but as he praises love, he blames the Corinthians—two sides of the same rhetorical coin. The positive acts of love are the opposite of the Corinthians’ behavior. In being “patient” and “kind” (I Corinthians 13:4a), love displays the consideration and generosity towards others that Paul has suggested some of the Corinthians lack (cf. I Corinthians 6:1-8, 8-10). What love avoids absolutely are the negative demeanor and behavior Paul sees in (some of) the Corinthians. All of the eight verbs indicating what love does not do (I Corinthians 13:4b-6) refer directly or indirectly to Paul’s criticism of them earlier in the letter. (Horsley, 1 Corinthians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 177)Margaret M. Mitchell (b. 1956) expounds:
This list [I Corinthians 13:4-7] bears a one-to-one correspondence with Paul’s description of Corinthians factional behavior – they are jealous (I Corinthians 3:3) and provoked to a factional tumult, they offensively put themselves forward by boasting and “being puffed up,” they do account evil, they are childish. So too, conversely, love’s positive characteristics in this list replicate the content of Paul’s advice for unity: be patient and kind; do not seek your own advantage (I Corinthians 10:23-11:1, 12:7); rejoice and grieve together like members of a body (I Corinthians 12:26; cf. Romans 12:15, also after the body metaphor). Love, which builds a strong structure, never fails (I Corinthians 8:6). It is the mortar between the bricks of the Christian building, the ἐκκλησία. (Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language an Composition of 1 Corinthians, 170-71)The Love Chapter should be viewed as an interlude, not an interpolation. Paul consistently accentuates the contrast between the finite nature of the gifts and the enduring essence of love.
Carl R. Holladay (b. 1943) determines:
What actually turns out to be a recurrent theme of the epistle as whole reaches its fullest and richest expression here.” (David L. Balch [b. 1942], Everett Ferguson [b. 1933] and Wayne A. Meeks [b. 1932], “1 Corinthians 13: Paul as Apostolic Paradigm”, Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Essays in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe [1930-2012], 94-95)There has been consensus as to the literary structure of the Love Chapter since Nils W. Lund (1885-1954) identified its arrangement in 1931 (Lund, “The Literary Structure of Paul’s Hymn to Love,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 50 (1931), 266-297).
Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) outlines:
I Corinthians 13:1-3 makes the point that without love the gifts are worthless. I Corinthians 13:4-7 describe[s] the nature of love, in language designed to point out how little the Corinthians are measuring up. I Corinthians 13:8-13 highlight[s] the temporary nature of all of the gifts, contrasting with love’s permanence. The entire passage is quasi-poetic in nature, with an elaborate structure of symmetry and parallelism. (Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (The NIV Application Commentary), 258)The passage’s genre has been more elusive. James G. Sigountos (b. 1956) acknowledges:
The genre of I Corinthians13 remains a problem, despite nearly universal agreement on the structure of the chapter. Eleven different genres have been proposed. Yet, as D. A. Carson [b. 1946] has noted, only two of those options, hymn and paraenesis, have attracted much scholarly backing. (Sigountos, “The Genre of 1 Corinthians 13”, New Testament Studies 03/1994; 40(02), 246)Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) classifies:
Some earlier interpreters viewed I Corinthians 13:1-13 as poetry (though it lacks the meter of Greek poetry) or even a source that Paul reused. Repetition characterized Greco-Roman rhetoric, however, and Paul’s exalted prose was appropriate for a lofty subject; such prose was sometimes even rhythmic. One of the three major types of rhetoric was epideictic (involving praise or blame), and one of the three types of epideictic rhetoric was the encomium, a praise of a person or subject. One common rhetorical exercise was an encomium of a particular virtue, as here (or Hebrews 11:3-31, also using anaphora). Sometimes the virtue was personified or deified (unlike here); wedding orations often included encomia on marriage or (erotic) love (Menander Rhetor [342-291 BCE] 2.6, 399.11-405.13). Self-giving love was important in ancient ethics (especially Greek thought on friendship) but not consistently central; Paul reflects its consistently central place in early Christian ethics, likely dependent on the Jesus tradition (Mark 12:30-31; John 13:34-35, 17:21-23). (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 107-08)Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) compares:
First Corinthians 13:1-13 is an aretalogy of love (cf. Plato [427-347 BCE], Symposium 197 A-E; cf. also a similar aretalogy of truth in I Esdras 4:34-4- that falls into an aba’ pattern: (a) the superiority of love (I Corinthians 13:1-3)...(b) the characterization of love (I Corinthians 13:4-7)...(a’) the superiority of love (I Corinthians 13:8-13). (Talbert, Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 109)Within the Love Chapter, I Corinthians 13:4-7 comprises a subunit which examines the characteristics of love (I Corinthians 13:4-7). David Prior (b. 1940) introduces:
If love is so fundamental, irreplaceable and determinative for our life together as Christians, we need to know more clearly what it is. The next four verses give a crisp cameo [I Corinthians 13:4-7]...The verbs Paul uses are all in the present continuous tense, denoting actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually by constant repetition. They sound ordinary, obvious, almost banal; but they are probably the most difficult habits to cultivate. (Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians (Bible Speaks Today), 229-30)Pheme Perkins (b. 1945) considers:
Paul shifts to a catalogue listing the virtues of love (agapē), which may have been a set piece familiar to his audience since it lacks the direct links to the larger context evident in I Corinthians 13:1-3 and I Corinthians 13:8-13 (Stephen J. Patterson [b. 1957] 2009, 89-90). The linguistic shape of its phrases gives these verses a poetic or raplike sound. (Perkins, First Corinthians (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 153-54)Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) delineates:
I Corinthians 13:4-7 characterizes love in three ways: first, what love does in two positive descriptions (“Love is patient and kind” [I Corinthians 13:4]); second, what love does not do in eight negatives (“love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong” [I Corinthians 13:4-5]); and third, what love does in five positives (“rejoice in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” [I Corinthians 13:6-7]). (Talbert, Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 109)Raymond F. Collins (b. 1935) probes:
Throughout the pericope Paul’s language is crisp. The eight negations follow rapidly one after another so as to give a staccato effect. The final four statements also come in rapid succession. Each consists of but two words, the first of which in Greek is “all things” (panta). Paul’s four-fold use of panta introduces a universal dimension into the praise of love and furnishes the encomium with a clear theological perspective. The literary device of paronomasia, a specific form of repetitio, provides the finale of the passage with the emphasis it deserves. (Collins, First Corinthians (Sacra Pagina), 478-79)The passage’s distinctive meter echoes the rhythm of love’s heartbeat.
In this unit, Paul joins the many who have undertaken the unenviable task of manufacturing a definition of love. Lionel Corbett (b. 1943) chronicles:
There have been many attempts to define love, but none are satisfactory, partly because the word seems to have so many meanings. We use the same word for experiences that are both personal and transpersonal. Explanations for the existence of love range from the neurological to the behavioral and psychoanalytic (e.g. Robert J. Sternberg [b. 1949] and Michael L. Barnes 1988; Robert J. Sternberg [b. 1949] and Karin Weis [b. 1976] 2006; Thomas Lewis [b. 1964], Fari Amini [1930-2004] and Richard Lannon [b. 1943] 2000). Erich Fromm [1900-1980], for example, defines the essence of human love as a type of correct giving that does not create indebtedness (1956, p. 36)...The nature of love is a mystery, so that Jiddu Krishnamurti [1895-1986] is surely correct when he says that we can only say what love is not...When one can describe love in specific terms, one is not talking about the mysterious form of transpersonal love that eludes all definition—the love that Dante [1265-1321] said “moves the sun and other stars.” That is why Carl G. Jung [1875-1961] wrote that love is primitive, primeval, and “more spiritual than anything we can describe...It is an eternal secret” (1973-1975, p. 298). (Corbett, The Sacred Cauldron: Psychotherapy as a Spiritual Practice, 89-90)The topic of I Corinthians 13:4-7 is unilateral as Paul never deviates from his topic: love (Greek: agápē). José Enrique Aguilar Chiu (b. 1960) identifies:
A catalogue of 15 verbs in I Corinthians 13:4-7, always with the same subject: ἡ ἀγαάπη [agápē]. The catalog concludes with a quadruple πάντα in I Corinthians 13:7). (Chiu, 1 Cor 12-14: Literary Structure and Theology, 197)Most translations speak of “love” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though the King James Version famously renders the word “charity”. Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) contemplates:
The highest gift of all is agape, he [Paul] says. Without it even faith, almsgiving, martyrdom are mere busyness and even great wisdom doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The translators of the King James Version render the Greek word as “charity,” which in seventeenth-century usage was a happy choice - charity as the beneficence of the rich to the poor, the lucky to the unlucky, the powerful to the weak, the lovely to the unlovely. But since to our age the word all too often suggests a cheerless and demeaning handout, modern translators have usually rendered it as “love.” But agape love is not to be confused with eros love. That is what Paul is at such pains to make clear here. (Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, 203)Despite the consistent subject matter, there is a shift in Paul’s thought at I Corinthians 13:4. Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) observes:
Here Paul personifies love, so that he has switched from love as a person’s possession (I Corinthians 13:1-3) to love as a person’s possessor, acting out through the person. The personification takes the form of describing personal characteristics evident in behavior. The descriptive verbs are all active. They start with behaviors that do characterize love, move quickly to those that don’t, and end with further behaviors that do. (Gundry, Commentary on First Corinthians)Though it is a preferred term of New Testament writers, the word Paul uses for love (agápē) is rare in pre-Biblical classical Greek. Ethelbert Stauffer (1902-1979) researches:
Agapán...has neither the magic of erán nor the warmth of phileín. It has the first weak sense “to be satisfied,” “to receive,” “to greet,” “to honor,” or, more inwardly, “to seek after.” It can carry an element of sympathy, but also denotes “to prefer,” especially with reference to the gods. Here is a love that makes distinctions, choosing its objects freely. Hence it is especially the love of a higher for a lower. It is active, not self-seeking love. Yet in the Greek writers the word is colorless. It is often used as a variation of erán or phileín and commands no special discussion. The noun agápē occurs very seldom. (Gerhard Kittel [1888-1948] and Gerhard Friedrich [1908-1986], Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 35-55)Though scarcely used in classical Greek, agápē becomes more common in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. Pamela J. Scalise (b. 1950) attributes:
In the Septuagint...words from the root ’hb are translated by forms of agapaō/agapē “love.” The usage of agapaō in the Septuagint helped to shape the distinctive New Testament meaning of the term. (Watson E. Mills [b. 1939], Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 528)Wendell Willis (b. 1943) updates:
Of the several Greek words that mean “love,” by far the most common in the New Testament is the agápē family. While Christians did not create the word...they did make it a defining word for Christian life and teaching. Within the New Testament the verb form is more frequent. The use of agápē is most prominent in the writings of John (ca. one third of the total uses). (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 27)Contrary to popular belief, the term’s innate meaning does not entail a uniquely Christian love. D.A. Carson (b. 1946) explicates:
The meaning of love described in this chapter is not intrinsic to the noun ἀγάπη (agapē) or its cognate verb ἀγαπάω (agapaō). Of course, this verdict is contrary to popular opinion, which often suggests that this word is chosen in the Scriptures over other words for “love” because only this word group captures the determined love of God that seeks the other’s good. Linguistically that is not true: the development of the various terms for love has been well and amusingly chronicled by Robert Joly [b. 1922]...In the Septuagint, if Amnon incestuously loves his half-sister Tamar, the verb can be ἀγαπάω (agapaō; II Samuel 13:1). In John’s gospel, we are twice told that the Father loves the Son: one passage using ἀγαπάω (agapaō) [John 3:35] and the other ψιλέω (phileō) [John 5:20]...When he details that Demas has forsaken him because he loved this world, Paul does not think it inappropriate to use the verb ἀγαπάω (agapaō; II Timothy 4:10). These examples could be multiplied...There is nothing intrinsic to a particular word group that makes its version of love particularly divine...This is far from saying that there is nothing distinctive about God’s love or about Christian love. There is; but if we want to discover what that difference is, we shall find it less in a distinctive semantic range of a particular word group than in the descriptions and characteristics of love given in the Scriptures. (Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, 64)The love that Paul describes is counter-cultural. Pheme Perkins (b. 1945) contrasts:
Some scholars compare this brief speech in praise of agapē to a somewhat longer one celebrating the beneficent effects of Eros in Plato [427-347 BCE]’s Symposium (Raymond F. Collins [b. 1935] 1999, 479). Though there is some overlap between the beneficent effects of Eros and the virtues that flow from agapē, agapē lacks those notes of sexual passion, attraction to what is fine or beautiful, elegance, and luxury. One can imagine the city’s wealthy elite charmed by poetic celebrations of Eros. It has no place for the ugly, unsophisticated, lowborn, or impoverished—in short, for those members of Christ’s body whom Paul has endowed with greater honor (I Corinthians 12:24). By adopting a little-used noun, agapē, Christians could reorchestrate the cultural discourse about love as a divine gift. This small passage of ornamental prose, whether composed by the apostle or taken from familiar tradition, replaces the praises of love familiar to his audience from their childhood. (Perkins, First Corinthians (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 154)Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) resolves:
Taken together, I Corinthians 13:4-7 clearly portray[s] love as selfless, seeking the good of the other first and foremost. “Love is what God in Christ has shown and done for ‘others’ in their helpless plight and hapless estate as sinners. In love we take God’s side, share his outlook and implement his designs; and we treat our neighbors as we know God has treated us (see Romans 15:1-7).” (Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (The NIV Application Commentary), 259)This variety of love is not coercive. Gerd Theissen (b. 1943) comments:
From I Corinthians 13 we...come to know the new “reinforcement system” of Paul, which is only imperfectly operative even among Christians. One characteristic is striking here. As a rule, Paul motivates love and solitary behavior extrinsically. He appeals to authorities like the law (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:8-10) — to moral stimuli, in other words. He threatens negative consequences in case of unloving behavior (cf. Galatians 5:21). He invokes the model of Christ (Romans 15:7). But in I Corinthians 13, he leaves behind all these extrinsic forms of motivation. Every allusion to the Old Testament is lacking, as is every appeal to a word of the Lord, or argumentation on the basis of authoritative tribunal. If there is a demand of love — if, in the language of learning theory, there is anything that “stimulates” love — then this occurs through presentation of loving behavior and through nothing else. (Wayne G. Rollins [b. 1929] and D. Andrew Kille [b. 1950], “Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology”, Psychological Insight Into the Bible: Texts and Readings, 67)N.T. Wright (b. 1948) pronounces:
The description Paul gives in I Corinthians 13:4-7 is not an account of what Hollywood means by ‘love’...Nor is what Paul is talking about the same thing as we mean when we say ‘I love tennis,’ or ‘I love the colour orange’...No: what Paul has in mind is something which, though like our other loves in some ways, goes as far beyond them as sunlight goes beyond candles or electric light. (Wright, Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, 172)Though Paul has a lofty view of love it is worth noting that, contrary to its appearance in countless wedding liturgies, Paul does not reference feelings when describing love. There is little romantic sentimentalism, no pretense of feel good, affectionate warm fuzzies. Instead the apostle describes actions, a way of life.
Oda Wischmeyer [b. 1944] considers I Corinthians as the canticle of love, a term encompassing both emotion and ethics. Previous studies of this text have focused on the apostle’s ethical teaching while neglecting the emotional component. Although the passions can be a negative term for the apostle (Romans 1:26; I Thessalonians 4:5), letters such as Second Corinthians show that he can employ emotions for a rhetorical purpose. For Paul, rhetoric links the ethical and the emotional understanding of love. While we cannot prove how far Paul shared Aristotle [384-322 BCE]’s understanding of emotions, it is useful to compare I Corinthians 13:4-7 on agapē (“love”) with a passage in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (2.2-11) on philia (“friendship”), since in both cases the ethical teaching includes an emotional element as part of the persuasive rhetoric. (Egger-Wenzel and Corley, (Emotions from Ben Sira to Paul, ix)Even with an emotional aspect, Paul’s depiction of love does not include preference or factor in who is one’s friend. Instead, love is the glue that impartially keeps Christians unified despite a myriad of land mines lying in wait to blow the community apart.
Jesus is the embodiment of this love. Kenneth L. Chafin (1926-2001) recognizes:
Just as God’s love was not an abstract concept but one that was acted out in His revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, so the love of which Paul writes is spelled out in concrete, do-able definitions. (Chafin, 1, 2 Corinthians (Mastering the New Testament), 158)Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) submits:
It is often pointed out that in this paragraph Paul seems best to capture the life and ministry of Jesus. So much so that one could substitute his name for the noun “love” and thereby describe love in a more personal way. After doing so, however, one does not want to miss Paul’s point, which ultimately is description for the purpose of exhortation. Perhaps that point could best be captured by putting one’s own name in place of the noun, “love,” and not neglecting thereafter to find a proper place for repentance and forgiveness. (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 640)I Corinthians 13:4-7 comes to a logical climax in its final verse (I Corinthians 13:7).
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:4-7 NASB)Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) relays:
After telling us what love is not, Paul ends this unit with four strong verbs that characterize positively the action of agapē...“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7). Paul has already used the first of these verbs to characterize his own conduct as an apostle: he will “bear anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (I Corinthians 9:12, author’s translation). This observation strengthens the impression that grows on the reader throughout this section: if the Corinthians embody the antithesis of agapē, Paul himself models authentic agapē in his long-suffering apostolic role. Paul shows them “a more excellent way” not only through his word-picture of love but also through his example, which he wants them to imitate (I Corinthians 11:1). (Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 228)D.A. Carson (b. 1946) charts:
I Corinthians 13:7 sums up, and is characterized by the word always. Oda Wischmeyer [b. 1944] convincingly demonstrates that the repetition of the word (eight times in I Corinthians 13:1-7, and rendered “all” or “always”) is polemical. Paul is responding to the Corinthians deep commitment to...overly realized eschatology...They take the view that “all things are permitted” (see I Corinthians 4:8, 6:12) since the eschatological reign has begun. But, responds Paul in I Corinthians 13:7, Christian love still always endures...always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres: that is part of the voluntary curtailment of personal freedom love demands, already discussed by Paul earlier in this epistle (especially I Corinthians 8:1-9:27). Christian love always endures. (Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, 63)Richard A. Horsley (b. 1939) hears:
In the last set of the acts section, I Corinthians 13:7, as in the beginning and end of the comparison section, I Corinthians 13:8a and I Corinthians 13:3, Paul does become more purely rhapsodic. Here his tone is no longer ironic, and he seems to be glorifying the qualities that he himself most values. The repeated “all things” creates the effect. The form verbs form a chiasmus, the middle two (“believes” and “hopes”) focused on the future in an intense trust and hope that enables endurance and perseverance (“bears” and “endures”) in the present. (Horsley, 1 Corinthians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 177)Paul uses interconnected, powerful verbs to characterize love. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) posits:
The verbs are elpizō “hope (for),” and hypomenō, “remain (behind), hold out, endure,” i.e., Christian love knows no hopeless causes and no fading of its hopes, because it does not despair of the future. Moreover, it holds fast as it tolerates all things in its trust of the neighbor and is not crushed by coldness. See Romans 8:24b, 12:12). (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (The Anchor Bible), 497)Paul concludes that love “endures all things” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), “endureth all things” (ASV, KJV), “endures through every circumstance” (NLT), “always perseveres” (NIV) or “keep[s] going to the end” (MSG) (I Corinthians 13:7d). It goes to the end and there is no end (I Corinthians 13:13).
The Greek word behind “endures” is hypoménō. Robert E. Picirilli (b. 1932) defines:
Endures all things. This verb (Greek hupomeno) literally means to stay or bear up under. It can be compared with the first quality in this list, longsuffering [I Corinthians 13:4]. Only where longsuffering looks primarily to patience with people, this word looks especially to perseverance under trial. Love is constant, steadfast, persevering. “No hardship or rebuff ever makes love cease to be love” (C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] 305). (Picirilli, 1,2 Corinthians (Randall House Bible Commentary), 190)The word has disparate nuances. Friederich Hauck (1868-1955) ranks:
Hypoménō has the senses a. “to stay behind,” “to stay alive,” b. “to expect,” c. “to stand firm,” and d. “to endure,” “to bear,” “to suffer.” (Gerhard Kittel [1888-1948] and Gerhard Friedrich [1908-1986], Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 4, 582)The clause speaks to the “for worse” of traditional wedding vows. David E. Garland (b. 1947) pinpoints:
“Endures all things” (πάντα ὑπομένει, panta hypomeni) refers to love’s ability to hold out during trouble and affliction (cf. II Corinthians 6:4, 12:12; II Timothy 2:10). (Garland, 1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 620)Kenneth E. Bailey (b. 1930) dissects:
Again Paul uses a compound word. In this case the term he chooses is hupo-meno. Hupo has to do with “under” and meno means “to remain.” As a compound, this word describes “The affliction under which one remains steadfast.” If makrothumia is the patience of the powerful, hypomene is the patience of the weak who unflinchingly endure suffering. The example of Mary standing silently at the foot of the cross is a matchless demonstration for every Christian of this crucial form of patient love [John 19:25-27]. Mary can do nothing to change the horrible events taking place around her. Her only choice is to exercise hupomene and at great cost remain rather than depart that scene of suffering. Jesus himself is the supreme example of the same virtue. (Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 368)William D. Mounce (b. 1953) catalogs:
Hympomenē refers to perseverance in the face of hostile forces. Job, for example, manifested great endurance in the midst of his afflictions from Satan (Job 5:11). This characteristic is pleasing to God: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). Here hympomenē can be understood either in an active (steady persistence in doing good) or a passive (patient endurance under difficulties) sense. Hympomenē in a passive sense is used in Romans 12:12, where it is connected with persecution: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (see also I Thessalonians 1:3: “endurance inspired by hope”). The connection with hope sets hympomenē in the context of end-time expectation where believers endure to the end because of their hope in the Lord’s coming. Hympomenē is not a characteristic of hope, but of love (I Corinthians 13:7) and the service of Christian workers (I Timothy 6:11; II Timothy 3:10). Furthermore, hympomenē produces character (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:3-4; II Peter 1:6) and is associated with the virtue of patience (Colossians 1:11; James 5:7-11). (Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 214)Love has staying power. It is built to last. Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) concludes:
Finally, ὑπομένει refers to an endurance of setbacks and rebuffs which never gives up on people, whatever they do. This again bears the stamp of Paul’s enduring concern for the people of Corinth. (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary), 1060)The term has military roots. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) relays:
The Greek word is really a military word and means to sustain the assault of an enemy. Hence it is used in the New Testament to express the idea of sustaining assaults of suffering or persecution, in the sense of bearing up under them and enduring them patiently (II Timothy 2:10; Hebrews 10:32, 12:2). (Hodge, 1 Corinthians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), 240)The word connotes holding one’s position at all costs, even if the battle is lost, even unto death. The word pictures an overwhelmed army surrounded by superior forces instructed with the final command, “Stand your ground! And if necessary, die well!”
Jill Briscoe (b. 1934) illustrates:
The word translated “endure” is hupomeno and is a military term. The idea is to endure hardship like a good soldier of Jesus Christ...During the Second World War, the HMS Eskimo was torpedoed and literally sliced in half. Half of it sank immediately. The boat had been built in two halves for this very reason, so half a ship came home...It seemed that all of England was waiting on the dockside to welcome what was left of the HMS Eskimo! The surviving half of the ship limped into port with the sailors standing erect and saluting as the national anthem was played...So shall some of us come home to God. (Briscoe, Love that Lasts, 142)
Another historical example of such endurance comes from the exploits of Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914) at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War (July 1-3, 1863). On the second day of the battle, sensing vulnerability in a depleted Union army, Confederates assaulted the Union left flank. Chamberlain, commanding the 20th Maine, was deployed to the southern slope of Little Round Top by Colonel Strong Vincent (1837-1863), at the far left end of the Union line. Understanding the strategic significance of the small hill, Chamberlain knew he must hold his position at all costs. The men from Maine waited until troops from the 15th Alabama Infantry regiment, under Colonel William C. Oates (1835-1910), charged up the hill, attempting to flank the Union position. The Confederates repeatedly struck until the 20th Maine was almost doubled back upon itself. With heavy casualties and little ammunition, Colonel Chamberlain refused to retreat. He instead ordered his left wing to initiate a bayonet charge. Chamberlain sustained two slight wounds in the battle and for his “daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top”, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor. The position was simply too important to not endure all things to the end.
Some have seen God as the only entity capable of this level of enduring love. William A. Beardslee (1916-2001) evaluates:
It is possible that the second series [I Corinthians 13:4-7] is intended to move in the direction of less and less possible mutual interchange, down to the point where there is nothing left that one can do but endure. Some interpreters (especially Karl Barth [1886-1968]) have made the point that this section sets love, in which God is in action, over against the human; the human is represented by the anger, boasting, reckoning up of grievances, etc., that are expressed in the negatives. This interpretation fits well with what Paul says about human behavior elsewhere, for instance in Romans 1 and 2 [Romans 1:1-2:29]. But here Paul does not make the distinction between the human way and God’s way. He remains within the Wisdom language that speaks of human ways of acting, good and bad. (Beardslee, First Corinthians: A Commentary for Today, 126-27)Its perseverance is confirmation that love carries eternal intentions. Thomas Dubay (1921-2010) declares:
Anyone who has been in love knows quite well that the intent of genuine love is an eternal intent. If a normal man and woman agree to “marry for awhile” or “as long as things work out”, of one thing we can be confident: they are not in love, at least not in the full human and divine sense of the term. C.S. Lewis [1898-1963] put it well when he remarked, “Love makes vows unasked.” Scripture reflects this truth in its insistence on unending fidelity to the beloved. “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire. Deep water cannot quench love...” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7). In his famous chapter on love Saint Paul writes that love “endures whatever comes”, for it “does not come to an end” (I Corinthians 13:7-8). (Dubay, “And You Are Christ’s”: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life, 64)
Paul asserts that there are no limits to love’s perseverance: it endures is all things (Greek: panta). I Corinthians 13:7 uses a fourfold repetition of panta to highlight this point.
J. William Johnston (b. 1968) scrutinizes:
The four instances of πάντα in I Corinthians 13:7 can be taken as direct objects of the verbs: “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (NET)...The G1-type construction in the neuter plural can act as a generalized substantival direct object. Since all the verbs in I Corinthians 13:7 can be used transitively, this is the first impression. Perhaps πάντα is used in the generalized sense, “everything,” the contours of which are left unexpressed (José María Bover [1877-1954]’s “Sentido de colectividad indeterminada”), but whose referent is implied within the scope of Christian duty or the expectations God has for believers...The G1-type construction in the neuter plural can often have the adverbial sense when it occurs within intransitive verbs. Such a sense is possible here, as commentators point out. W. Kendrick Grobel [1908-1965] suggests that all four occurrences of πάντα should be rendered adverbially. (Johnston, The Use of Πας in the New Testament, 157)D.A. Carson (b. 1946) footnotes:
Some have taken πάντα to mean “always”: love always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres, perhaps with overtones of eschatological promise. Syntactically such an interpretation cannot be ruled out. But I Corinthians 13:7 reads more coherently with what precedes it than with what succeeds it; and if I Corinthians 13:4-7 are read as a block, what is in focus in that paragraph is how Christian love acts now, not how long into the eschaton it will hold up. (Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, 63)Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) determines:
This fourfold πάντα serves to convey “the absence of all limits” (Jean Héring [1890-1966]). It thus excludes the limits of ἀγάπη rather than defining an all-inclusive content. The Revised English Bible is the only major VS to appreciate that this is best rendered in modern English by negating a series of negations: there is no limit to its faith, its hopes, its endurance. (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary), 1056)This love carries no expiration date. It is a “love is a love without end, amen.”
Many have connected the reason for love’s endurance to the rest of the verse (I Corinthians 13:7). Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) clarifies:
The middle verbs reflect the other two members of the triad found in I Corinthians 13:13. In saying “love always believes” and “hopes,” Paul does not mean that love always believes the best about everyone, but that love never ceases to have faith; it never loses hope. This is why it can endure. (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 640)Augustine (354-430) deduces:
The reason it endures all things in the present life is that if believes all things about the life to come. And it endures all things sent against it here because it hopes all things that are promised here. It is only right that it never ends (I Corinthians 13:8). Therefore, pursue love, and by meditating on it in holiness bring forth the fruits of righteousness. (Judith L. Kovacs [b. 1945], 1 Corinthians: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, 220)David Prior (b. 1940) professes:
Whatever happens, we hang on because it all has purpose. God is chiselling out in us the image of his Son, Jesus. Oswald Chambers [1874-1917] has written: ‘God’s batterings always come in commonplace ways and through commonplace people.’ Only love for God, released by his love for us, can keep such faith and hope alive and in control of our daily lives. When we realize afresh that Jesus loves us in this way – he bears everything we throw at him, he still believes in us and is quietly confident for us, he has endured even the cross for us – then we take heart again and know that only his love can sustain us and make us the people, the local churches, he wants us to become. (Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians (Bible Speaks Today), 232-33)This eternal quality considerably raises the degree of difficulty. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. (b. 1953) appraises:
Loving someone is easy when the other person does not challenge one’s affections by offending or failing. Love’s quality becomes evident when it must endure trials. The New Testament encourages to persevere in their Christian walks (I John 5:2-5). Here Paul had in mind particularly the need to persevere in love for others. Christians should look to the length and perseverance of Christ’s love as the standard for their own. (Pratt, I & II Corinthians (Holman New Testament Commentary), 233)Augustine (354-430) infers:
The greater the love of God that the saints possess, the more they endure all things for him. (Gerald Bray [b. 1948], 1-2 Corinthians (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), 133)Though challenging, this degree of perseverance is always worthwhile. Roy E. Ciampa (b. 1958) and Brian S. Rosner (b. 1959) implore:
Love never gives up. It never quits. It never dies or comes to extinction. It perseveres or endures through all the challenges of this life and finds itself alive and well in all the ages to come. As Gaston Deluz [b. 1912] puts it, “Like Christ on the cross, love endures scorn, failure, ingratitude...At the end shines out the light of Easter. For love never ends.” It is never a mistake to replicate the love of Jesus Christ in our relationships with those around us since it is that love and those loving actions which have eternal significance (cf. I Corinthians 13:1-3) and whose influence and benefits will reach into eternity after all else has melted away and failed to endure the final transition to the ultimate manifestation of the kingdom of God. (Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 651)Performing persevering love allows Christians to maintain the community that is so vital to the faith. In doing so, they also follow the will and example of Christ to love even to the point of death.
Who do you know who embodies the type of love described by Paul in the Love Chapter? Should there be a difference in the way that God loves the church and the way that Christians do? Would couples be so quick to choose this ode to love at their weddings if they considered its ramifications? Why can love endure? Does I Corinthians 13:7 imply that love can thrive even under adverse circumstances? If love endures all things why do so many marriages fail (I Corinthians 13:7)? How does a relationship with Jesus affect this endurance? How would you describe love? Is the Love Chapter a realistic portrait of love?
Paul’s view of love has faced a great deal of criticism. Marion L. Soards (b. 1952) explains:
In short, love defines and directs Christian life, although Paul’s meditative mood is too poetic to allow him to make such a conventional declaration. The problem with Paul’s own elegant description of love is that later misreadings and misuses of this contemplation reinterpret love as if it were being gullible or welcoming abuse. In fact, the description Paul gives in I Corinthians 13:4-7 is of God’s love, which transcends the boundaries of selfishness or self-centeredness in the righteous pursuit of reconciliation and redemption (I Corinthians 1:1-31, 4:1-21). The call to Christians is to live by the grace and power of God in such a way that God’s own love forms and directs life so that God’s love becomes the Christians’ love. (Soards, 1 Corinthians (New International Biblical Commentary), 274)Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) defends:
The traditional translations invite the kind of misunderstandings of Paul and indeed of Christianity which fuel the critiques of Ludwig Feuerbach [1804-1872], Karl Marx [1818-1883], Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900], and Sigmund Freud [1856-1939]. The well-known AV/KJV and RV rendering beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things endureth all things appears to support Marx’s notion of Christianity as the opium of the people, or Nietzsche’s concept of Christianity as “servile mediocrity.” Paul’s notion of cross and of love, Nietzsche asserts, “has sided with everything weak, low and botched; it has made ideal out of antagonism towards...strong life...the will to nothingness sanctified.” For Nietzsche, Paul was “full of superstition and cunning”. For, by reinterpreting language about the law, he became “the destroyer of the Law” and thereby of criteria other than self-construed outlooks: “Morality itself was blown away, annihilated...‘I am above the Law’, thinks Paul.” If Paul enjoins his readers to bear, believe, hope and endure everything, Nietzsche can say “truth has been turned topsy-turvy...transvaluation of all values!” while Michel Foucault [1926-1984] can perceive it as the promotion of conformist “docility”, Marx construes it as “opium”, and Freud as a projection derived from inner conflict resolved by wishful thinking which “believes all things,” in order to “endure all things”...None of this, however, accords with Paul. It is Corinth who coins the slogan, “All thing are lawful” [I Corinthians 10:23]; “We reign as kings [I Corinthians 4:8].” It is Paul who insists on discrimination and differentiation, especially in prophecy and worship. Moreover ἀγάπη is precisely not “docile” or conformist; it does not seek a quiet life by “servile mediocrity”. Anders Nygren [1890-1978]’s exposition of Paul’s theology reveals the reverse: it is creative, innovative, transforming and indifferent to “returns” in the sense of lacking the very “interests” on which the analyses of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud depend. (Thiselton, Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays, 331-32)Kenneth L. Chafin (1926-2001) corrects:
The picture of “endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7) is much more than passive endurance. Love allows us to remain true in the most adverse circumstances and even to transform the situation by enduring. (Chafin, 1, 2 Corinthians (Mastering the New Testament), 165)William Barclay (1907-1978) adds:
The word used here (hupomenein) is one of the great Greek words. It is generally translated as to bear or to endure; but what it really describes is not the spirit which can passively bear things, but the spirit which, in bearing them, can conquer and change their very nature. The Scottish minister and hymn-writer George Matheson [1842-1906], who lost his sight and who was disappointed in love, wrote in one of his prayers that he might accept God’s will ‘Not with dumb resignation but with holy joy; not only with the absence of murmur but with a song of praise.’ Love can bear things not merely with passive resignation, but with triumphant fortitude, because it knows that ‘a father’s hand will never cause his child a needless tear’. (Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (New Daily Bible Study), 146)As love endures all things it does not simply take abuse. It has the potential to transform both the lover and the lover’s life.
How can persevering love transform the circumstances? What are the situational benefits to endurance? When has enduring love transformed a situation; did this kind of love motivate the Civil Rights movement? Does endurance characterize your love?
“Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds.”
– William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Sonnet 116