Message # 45 | 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 | May 14, 2017

Tertullian, who was considered to be the father of Latin Christianity declared that the one thing that converted him to Christianity was not the arguments they gave him, because he could find a counterpoint for every argument they would present. “But they demonstrated something I didn’t have. The thing that converted me to Christianity was the way they loved each other.”[1]

Love, a Definition

For us to fully appreciate this unique and beautiful chapter on love, I would like to offer a definition for love. You may initially question the need and think that the chapter possesses its own definition. In a way it does, but the many characteristics that are offered for love are more manifestations of love than they are a definition of love. With that said, the definition I offer is probably as well a number of characteristics of love compiled into a sentence and termed a definition. So then, what I desire to offer that will be distinct from the external characteristics and manifestations of love in verses 4-7 will be the internal qualities of love.

Let’s start with a lexical definition for love. Friberg defines agape love as “an attitude of appreciation resulting from a conscious evaluation and choice.”[2]  This agape love is slightly distinguished from phileo love which is defined as a “devotion based in the emotions, often distinguished from ἀγαπάω (love), which is devotion based in the will.”[3] I don’t want to attempt to make to stark a distinction between the two words. They do seem to be used interchangeably at times, but whether or not they can be used interchangeably, there appear to be levels or dimensions of love that are slightly distinct from one another. One dimension of love is based on emotion whereas the other is based on the will or one’s choice. One dimension of love appears to be focused on the feelings of love and the other on the decision or actions of love.

Regardless, we find that it is love that is to be characteristic of the believer.  Jesus tells his disciples in John’s Gospel, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35 ESV).[4] Paul reiterates this in Corinthians. “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor 16:14 ESV). So then, let’s take a moment to better understand the internal qualities of this kind of love, mostly drawn from the example set for us in Christ.

Love is sacrificial. The love that God desires of us and is reflective of His character is sacrificial. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16 ESV).  “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16 ESV). “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).

Love places the welfare of others above your own. Love does not sacrifice for sacrifice alone. There is always a recipient that benefits from the sacrifice. God did not sacrifice His Son so that he would be viewed as sacrificial, but because his sacrifice resulted in salvation to the world. Christ did not lay down his life to simply offer a model of sacrifice. He laid it down for our benefit and we are to lay down our lives for the benefit of others.

Love is not based on feelings. It’s not that this type of love doesn’t possess feeling; it’s just not based on or rooted in emotions or feelings. At the root of the modern idiom, “we fell out of love,” is a type of love that only exists as long as the feeling or emotions of love are present. The love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is not threatened or shaken when the feeling of love fades because its foundation is not in feelings.

It is a choice. Therefore, in contrast to love being rooted in one’s feelings, Friberg’s lexicon tells us that this love is “devotion based in the will.” It must be a choice, for who would ever love their enemy based on their feelings, yet that is what Jesus calls us to. “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).

It’s an action, not just a statement. This love that is a choice to sacrifice one’s self for the welfare of another must be worked out in one’s actions, not simply declared or verbally acknowledged. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18 ESV). [As a side note, this type of love needs to be acted out and not just said, but it doesn’t hurt to verbalize it as well.]

Not based on the treatment of the one being loved. Jesus displays this as he washes his disciples feet. He displays love towards them as they argue about who’s going to be the best in the kingdom and Judas sits there thinking about how to betray him. He sacrificially loves them full well aware of Peter’s impending rejection of him. As Jesus humbles himself and washes Judas’ feet, he exemplifies what it looks like to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). In similar fashion, God’s love towards us was extended to us while we were hostile to him. Paul tells us that “we were enemies [when] we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10 ESV). “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” (Col 1:21 ESV). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4–5 ESV). God’s love towards us was extended to us while we were actively hostile to Him. His love was not dependent upon the treatment by the one being loved. Our love as well must be so robust as to be expressed to others, even when they are unlovely, unkind, and even hostile.

In all practicality, whenever someone declares, “I love you” they find something lovely within the recipient of the declaration. A young man finds a young woman beautiful or charming. One friend finds within the other companionship and enjoyment. One spouse finds within the other years of a life together, enjoyment of a personality, memories, etc. The recipient of one’s love always brings something lovely to the table. But God loves what is unlovely. God did not love the world because the world is so lovely that he just couldn’t help himself. God only loves the world because of what he is. And that is how a Christian is to learn to love. Their love is to be rooted in themselves and not dependent upon the recipients loveliness. Of course, this can only occur as God transforms the life of a believer through his love and grace.[5]

 Therefore a completed definition for love. Love is a willful choice, not based in one’s emotions, the treatment of the one being loved, or the circumstances in which one finds themselves, to sacrifice themselves for the betterment or well-being of the other.

Love, the Essential Ingredient

Paul is going to unfold for us, by use of three overly dramatic statements, that love is an indispensable ingredient in the service of a believer. In each verse, Paul starts off with a reasonable statement – a spiritual gift – but then dramatically takes it a step further. He wants the reader to imagine the greatest possible extension of that gift, to only acknowledge that it’s nothing without love.

Eloquence without love is annoying and empty (13:1).His point is not to offer any realistic scenario, necessarily, for no one can have all knowledge. No one can understand all mysteries, no one can have all faith. Paul is using hyperbole and not establishing real potential scenarios. He also is not offering up a new speech – angelic speech – in which we are to pursue speaking. No one can speak with the tongues of angels.

Tongues of men and of angels. This verse has played a remarkable role in the modern discussion on tongues. The implication has been drawn from this verse that some gifts of tongues manifest themselves in the tongues of angels. Yet, this is not the point Paul has in mind at all.

It is true that Paul has the gift of tongues in mind as he addresses this point, but he uses angelic speech to heighten the dramatic hyperbole of the verse. “Paul recognizes the ability to speak . . .  human languages as a spiritual gift and that the ability to speak angelic languages would be “a deluxe version” of that same gift.”[6]

CARSON. It is not clear whether either Paul or his readers thought their gifts of tongues were the dialects of angels. . . . but Paul may be writing hyperbolically to draw as sharp a contrast as possible with love. . . .I shall leave the question as to what language or languages we shall speak in the new heaven and on the new earth to those more gifted in speculation than I. Paul’s point is relatively simple. No matter how exalted my gift of tongues, without love I am nothing more than a resounding gong or clanging symbol.[7]

If someone had the spiritual gift of tongues to such an extent that they could even speak with the tongues of angels, that would be really quite amazing. But if they exercised that gift without love, there would be no value to that gift. If that gift were exercised with arrogance and self-promotion, with spiritual elitism and impatience towards others, a gift that was meant to promote unity and health within the body of Christ would instead be a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.

Gong and Cymbal. While there are some who link “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” to expressions of cultic worship, the simple understanding of this verse is most likely. Verbal eloquence without love is annoying.

Elite Spirituality without love is nothing (13:2).

Prophecy. Paul moves on from a spiritual gift that had apparently been abused in the Corinthians church to a gift that he wishes all of the Corinthian believers possessed. The conclusion he is going to draw at the end of this sentence is not belittling prophecy but showing its inadequacy without love.  He then dramatizes this gift by adding to it “all mysteries . . . all knowledge . . . all faith.” In fact so much faith as to move mountains.

These prophetic powers are further intensified through the possession of all mysteries or an awareness of all that has been hidden. “It is probable that Paul is here piling up words without too nice a regard for the distinctions between them. ‘I may know everything there is to know, but if I have no love I am nothing.”[8]

All knowledge. He writes to the Philippians, “it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:9 ESV). Paul wants all believers to grow in their understanding and knowledge. He tells the Colossian believers, “we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9 ESV). But already in this same letter to the Corinthians, he warned them about the potential danger of knowledge, “This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1 ESV).

And as to faith, this is not referencing saving faith, but instead the faith of a believer in God to do great things. It is referring to the gift of faith. Of course Paul desires the Corinthian believers to be people of robust faith and trust in the Lord. He would want each of them to possess such a faith as to “move mountains.” But this faith without love is nothing.

Jonah had immense faith in the power of God. He knew that God could and potentially would save Nineveh. That was the problem. He didn’t want Nineveh saved. He had great faith without love.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1–3 ESV).

I am nothing. Paul takes another dramatic step in his second conclusion at this point. My lofty and eloquent speech without love left me as an annoying gong and clanging cymbal. But my superiority of prophetic powers accompanied by all mysteries, knowledge, and robust faith – without love – leaves me having no value at all. It’s not that I offer nothing but that I am nothing. Carson says it well. “In this divine mathematics, five minus one equals zero.”[9] Or, as Garland concludes, “I love, therefore I am.”[10] Without love, I am nothing.

Extreme Sacrifice without love gains nothing (13:3).

And yet Paul doesn’t stop there. What if we were to give away all we had to others and offered our very lives in the most extreme martyrdom? Wouldn’t we be valuable then? Wouldn’t we be accepted then? Of course the answer is going to be “no.”

Sacrifice of my stuff and my life. This word sacrifice means to “dole out” by giving “away bit by bit.”[11] We may be tempted to conclude that this must be well accepted by God. Jesus told the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21 ESV).  What if I did that? What if my sacrifice was so extreme that I offered up my life in the most extreme way possible – by martyrdom through being burned? This must have value.

But once again, Paul concludes that such extravagant sacrifice, if it is not accompanied with love, “gains nothing.”


To what do we aspire more? Love or eloquence? Love or spirituality? Love or self-sacrifice? Often we aspire more to that which has less significance. Most of us will never be eloquent. Most of us will never aspire to the “spiritually elite.” None of us will possess all wisdom and knowledge. Most of us will never give all we have and sacrifice our own lives. Yet, all of us can love. Not only can we love, but we are commanded to love. We must love.

Definition of love.  Love is a willful choice, not based in one’s emotions, the treatment of the one being loved, or the circumstances in which one finds themselves, to sacrifice themselves for the betterment or well-being of the other.

The exhortation to all believers is consistent throughout the New Testament. Love. Pursue love (1 Cor 14:1). “Put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14 ESV). “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess 3:12 ESV, Cf. Phil 1:9). “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 ESV). “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24 ESV).



[1] G. Curtis Jones, 1000 Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1986), 220.

[2] Friberg, Friberg, and Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 30.

[3] Ibid., 399.

[4] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (John 15:9 ESV).

[5] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 65.  I reworded the following paragraph . . . When a young man reveals his heart with a passionate declaration, “I love you!” at least in part he means that he finds the woman he loves lovely. At least some of his love is elicited by the object of that love. But God loves what is unlovely. If, as John 3:16 tells us, God loves the world, it is not because the world is so lovely God cannot help himself: judging by John’s use of the term world, God loves the world only because of what he is. And derivatively, that is how Christians learn to love: they learn to love with love that is, like God’s, self-originating. Of course, unlike God’s love, ours is not absolutely self-originating: but it is self-originating in the sense that God’s grace so transforms the believer that his or her responses of love emerge out of the matrix of Christian character, and are correspondingly less dependent on the loveliness of the object.

[6] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 626.

[7] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 58–59.

[8] Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians., 301.

[9] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 60.

[10] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 614.

[11] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 414.

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