This passage is often quoted during wedding ceremonies for its beautiful definition of love. However, just by looking at the context, the passage is situated right in between two chapters on spiritual gifts and how Corinthians misused them. So rather than a cute passage on what love is, the best way to see the passage is as a stern indictment to Corinthians for what they are lacking.
1. What is the main teaching of the passage?
From vv.1-3, Paul’s is criticizing the Corinthians for the lack of love in exercising their gifts. According to Paul, gifts without love mean (or profit) nothing, so exercise your gifts with love, then they would mean (or profit) something.
Note that Paul says exercising the gifts without love is completely useless to the giver. Hence, it might still be useful to the recipient of the action.
2. What does it mean to exercise your gifts with love?
It is easier to say what it does not mean. Verses 4-7 are best viewed as a series of tests that, if failed, signify to us that our exercise of gifts is lacking love. For example, if you are inpatient or easily angered while teaching (assuming this is your gift), there is a chance you are teaching without love. If you give up easily while encouraging others, there is a chance you are doing it without love (or with not enough love).
Most of the terms mentioned in these verses are quite clear to us. Note that “love always trusts” does not necessarily mean gullibility. Jesus, a perfectly loving person, did not trust people because he knew what was in their hearts (John 2:24-25). Rather it means deliberately making yourself vulnerable at the risk of being let down, in the hope of changing the person.
3. What is another reason why we should exercise our gifts with love from vv. 8-12?
Knowledge, tongues, prophecies will all pass away but love will remain. Concentrating on temporal gifts while neglecting the (more important) eternal one makes the former worthless.
1. What is the root of the problem? Why are we inpatient when helping others? Why do we tend to boast? Why do we easily give up?
One potential root of the problem is that you can exercise your gifts for wrong reasons. You see, love is not self-seeking, it’s always about other people. Yet there is a way to exercise your gifts, serve other people, which is really about you. There are several examples of this in the Bible, Martha who were serving Jesus by exercising her gift of hospitality, but by getting upset with Mary really revealed she was doing it for her own sake (to be approved by Jesus maybe?), see Luke 10:38-42. Another example is the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who stayed with the father for his own sake, rather than for his father, as their last conversation revealed (Luke 15:11-31).
We maybe be serving others to make us feel important, useful, out of boredom, expecting to get something in return, get approval, etc.
2. What are is the root beneath the problem of serving God or other people which is really about us?
We don’t understand the gospel.
a. Incomplete understanding of the salvation by grace. This can have a very direct form of serving God to make him bless or reward us. But there is a much subtler way when we doing it because we think we can please God purely by what we do. Instead, what pleases God is our inner transformation that can be evidenced (but never proved) by our external behavior. This leads to point b)
b. We often mistake person’s spiritual gifts for character. We think that if a person is talented speaker, teacher, administrator, he must be walking with God. No, says Paul! You can have all of these and be spiritually nothing, if you doing these things without love, e.g. with a wrong motivation.
This is a recurring problem in the Gospels. One of the accusations that Jesus brought up against Pharisees and teachers of the law was that they cleaned the outside of the cup (external behavior), but left the inside (character, motivation, mercy) dirty. So, the concluding section of chapter 13 can be read as Paul’s reminder of futility of looking at the outside rather than inside. Outside is temporal – all you gifts will cease. But what’s inside will live forever.
c. The real reason why we may exercise our gifts to gain people’s approval is because we lack the approval of God. We simply don’t understand how much he loves that he went as far as to die for us. Only when we can fully understand this love, we would stop being dependent on love from other people. Of course, we would desire love and relationship, but nothing compared to how much we would be willing to share this love with others.