1If I speak in languages both human and angelic, but do not have love, I have become like a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know every mystery and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so that I can remove mountains, but have no love, I am nothing. 3And if I give up all my possessions and hand over my body so I can boast, but have no love, it doesn’t profit me anything. — 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
The key to 1 Corinthians 13 is priority. It’s often so hard to balance love and doctrine or love and exercising the gifts of the Spirit, and even love and our own acts of service and of giving. Some people read passages like 2 Timothy 4:3, about people who don’t want to hear â€œsound doctrine,â€ and we make having correct doctrine a priority. Others read passages like 1 Corinthians 13 and decide that doctrine, or good teaching isn’t all that important. Love is all that counts.
You can probably divide up your coworkers in a similar manner. Some are focused on rules of etiquette in the workplace, while others do what comes naturally and believe they are doing well as long as they truly appreciate their coworkers and try to get along. And large numbers of both groups tend to do pretty well. Good motivations can sneak up on us when we practice good behavior, and good behavior tends to result from good motivations. Not 100% of the time, but often!
We often quote 1 Corinthians 13 on its own, and so we look at it in isolation, but this chapter comes in the middle of a great deal of discussion of behavior. Chapter 12 deals with God’s gifts and how they are given to all of us to use for the common good and to carry out the ministry God has called us to. The foundation of the ministry God has called us to, of course, is his call to â€œlove one another as I [Jesus] have loved youâ€ (John 15:12).
Chapter 14 talks about how to behave in worship. What does Paul want us to do there? Do everything to build the body up. Why? Because that is the loving thing.
In these first few verses, Paul lets us know that Love is greater than our knowledge and teaching (mysteries and knowledge), our gifts (prophecy and tongues), our faith, and our extraordinary righteous actions (giving even our own bodies). None of these things are more important than love, even those â€œsound doctrines.â€
But does that mean that these other things are unimportant? Not at all. The problem is that without love at the foundation, everything else goes astray. Without love guiding me, I may use my spiritual gifts in such a way as to drive people away rather than draw them toward God. Unless I’m motivated by love, I may have very sound teachings, but never put them into practice, or even contradict what I teach by the way I behave. Without love, I might figuratively be moving mountains and dropping them on other people’s heads. Without love, I may be making a show of heroism and of extreme giving, but doing so in such a way as to belittle and injure rather than to help.
Without love I am nothing. Without love I may even be a destructive force. It’s not that none of those other things are important. â€œLet’s forget about spiritual gifts and just love,â€ says someone. No! That will weaken the expression of love. Express your love through your use of spiritual gifts. â€œLet’s just love and forget about doctrines.â€ No! Let love guide the way you understand doctrines, the way you apply them, and the way you teach them.
Love has the priority not because other things are unimportant, but because love is what guides the way we use everything else.
There’s one more important connection. I quoted John 15:12. Notice the last phrase: â€œ. . . as I have loved you.â€ Love itself has a guiding standard, the love of Jesus shown to us when he came and became like one of us, â€œtempted in all points as we areâ€ (Hebrews 4:15) and â€œnot ashamed to have us called his brothers and sistersâ€ (Hebrews 2:11). Paul is going to point out some of the characteristics of that type of love in the next few verses. But the key to understanding this type of love is to look to Jesus.