1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13.
 The True Valentine

Copyright © 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from the NIV*

What is Valentine's Day?   Once each year many people recognize the February 14th holiday by giving one another gifts of cards, candy, flowers or other items as an expression of friendship and love.  The holiday was initiated in the Roman Catholic church to commemorate the martyrdom of second and third-century Roman priests and bishops, several of whom were named Valentine (Valentine of Rome, Valentine of Terni, Valentine Bishop of Genoa, et.  al.)  The first connection of Valentine's day with romance came in a poem written in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer (Parliament of Fools), honoring the engagement of teenaged King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.  The modern expression of Valentine's Day can be attributed to the mid-19th century mass production of embossed and paper-laced valentines and the marketing strategy that made their sale successful.  The extension of gifting to include flowers and candy took place in the mid 20th century.  Consequently, we can probably place the responsibility for our current Valentine's Day traditions squarely on those who profit from the sale of the traditional holiday products.  Yet, Valentine's Day can serve a very positive purpose as it reminds us to appreciate one another and to share that appreciation openly.

For the Christian, the holiday can take on a special meaning as it serves as a reminder of the wonderful gift from God that is found in the many expressions of love.  The expression of love itself is a complex combination of culture and personal desire.  The self-centeredness of human nature tends to confuse the meaning of love, making it a dynamic mixture of friendship love (phileo), romance (pomanikos), and physical lust (eros).  Christians further define love by adding the unconditional love of God (agapeo) to the mix.  The Holy Scriptures provide the foundation for the true expression of love whether it be from Solomon's overture to romantic love in the Song of Songs, or from Paul's treatment of God's love in is writings to the church in Corinth.  As we think about love during the Valentine's Day holiday, it may be instructive for us to review Paul's description of love from the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, as he presents one of the foundational teachings on the subject. 

The church in Corinth had many gifted and talented people.  However, they came to the church fellowship from a godless and sinful culture that shaped their world view, a set of ideas and preferences that also shaped their interpretation of spiritual matters.  Some church members were from Jewish backgrounds, others from various pagan Hellenistic backgrounds.  Consequently, the church was fragmented into several cliques, each in disagreement with others over almost every basic doctrine and polity in the church.  God has given spiritual gifts to all believers, and many of their members were misapplying them.  For example, some who were given the gifts of tongues looked down upon those who were not, despising them as less spiritual or less faithful.  Some who had gifts of leadership or administration were trying to seize power, or get people to follow their singular directions.  People were utilizing their gifts and talents for their own selfish purposes, fragmenting the church and diminishing its usefulness to the gospel.  God has a purpose for the gifts He has given us, and to express those gifts according to His will we need to understand more about what love really is.  It is only when love is expressed within the context of God's purpose is the true measure of its blessing fully realized.

1.  The Principle of Love

1 Corinthians 12:31

But eagerly desire the greater gifts.  And now I will show you the most excellent way.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul discussed the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to individuals and the part that each individual has in utilizing those gifts to edify the Body of Christ.  He discussed how different gifts are given to different individuals so that they can work together to completely meet the full set of needs of the church.  He advises us to desire the greater gifts, that is, those select gifts that each individual can exercise with strength, vigor and holy confidence.  The word translated as greater does not imply that the value of gifts is ranked, but rather that each individual should place their focus and interest on those gifts where they have been given the most strength.  Areas of giftedness are evident in those skills and abilities that the individual has confidence and interest in. 

In the last half of this verse, Paul introduces the discussion to follow in Chapter 13.  Like chapter 12, the subject of chapter 13 still centers around the application of each individual's gifts of the Holy Spirit.  From the context of Paul's teaching, it is apparent that some of the Corinthians were exercising their gifts for their own selfish purposes, and they were attempting to overexert themselves in areas where they were less gifted.  Though the members of the Corinthian church may think that they are applying their gifts properly, Paul firmly announces that there is a correct, or more excellent way to exercise those gifts.  There is a great difference in the way that this lost and pagan world exercises gifts, and the way those who profess faith in God exercise them.  The difference is found when we come to understand what love really is.

2.  The Priority of Love

1 Corinthians 13:1

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

One of the first gifts that we recognize in one another is our ability to communicate.  What we say, and the manner in which we say it has a tremendous impact on the relationships we have with one another.  When Paul speaks of tongues in this passage, he is speaking of a very highly-regarded gift: the ability to speak well, whether among one another, or in prayers to God.  He speaks both of tongues of men, and tongues of angels.  The latter of these may include "speaking in tongues," the giving of one's speech over to the Holy Spirit during times of prayer.  Because of its showy nature, the Corinthians were using the gift of tongues as a badge of faith, considering it to be the most important of gifts.  This problem was so subtle that Paul spent a good portion of his writing addressing this problem alone.  Speaking in tongues, or glossalalia, is a personal gift that is intended to edify the one who experiences it.  When demonstrated in public it tends to confuse, to intimidate or insult those who do not understand, and to instill a selfish pride in the speaker.  For this reason, Paul condemns its use in public worship and advises care in its use in anything other than personal prayer. 

In this verse he also includes the tongues of men, so not only is he referring to speaking in glossalalia, but also to simply being a skilled speaker, which he holds in much higher regard than glossalalia.  Some people are gifted speakers and have the ability to present clear and inspiring speech.  Some may be gifted in counsel, some in speaking words of encouragement.  Some may be able to speak confidently in public, sharing the truth of God's word, and leading in prayer. 

Paul states that words spoken either in tongues or spoken eloquently are simply noise when spoken without true, unconditional agape love.  Words have power.  God spoke the creation into existence.  God's word has authority, and when we speak God's word it has power only when led of the Holy Spirit in love.  It is only then that our speech has authority.  Without love, words have no use to God's kingdom, they have none of God's authority or power.  Consequently, words spoken without love have no more value than the noise of a gong or cymbal that intrinsically conveys no message.

1 Corinthians 13:2 

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

There are several important gifts of the Holy Spirit described here, gifts that we tend to greatly respect when we see it in one another.  What are these gifts?

(1) Prophecy.  What is prophecy?  Prophecy is the ability to hear God's voice and His will, and the ability to communicate it to others.  Examples include translation of tongues, interpretation of visions, discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit and the word of God.

(2) Wisdom.  "Can fathom all mysteries" is a reference to great wisdom.  What is wisdom?  Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge in a manner that is profitable for God's kingdom, both in one's personal life and in the lives of those to whom one is called to minister.  Here Paul refers to having all wisdom.  Solomon is considered to have had great wisdom, yet he did not have all wisdom.

(3) Knowledge.   "... and all knowledge."  We may not think of knowledge as a gift when we contribute our own time an resources to learning.  Yet the ability to learn and obtain greater knowledge is a gift, and some people seem to be particularly gifted in their ability to gain knowledge.  Paul speaks of having ALL knowledge, not just great knowledge.  Can we even conceive of one who contains all knowledge except God, Himself?

(4) Faith that can move mountains. How many of us have enough faith that we can say to that mountain to move, fully expecting it to do so?  We saw that faith in biblical history when Moses lifted his rod at the Red Sea, when Joshua instructed the priests to enter the Jordan river, when people were healed.  By referring to the moving of a mountain by faith, Paul is making a reference to a quote of Jesus Christ recorded in Matt. 17:20 that had become, and still is a common phrase to describe the power of even the simplest faith.  Yet, how many of us have the faith to move a mountain, a huge obstacle that is far beyond ourselves?

Taken together, one who is gifted to the extent that we see here would be one we would admire and respect, and one to whom we would probably give great deference.  We would think of the individual with the highest regard.  However, even though we have all of these things, they are of absolutely no value to God if they are not expressed through God's agape love.  Consider each of these gifts in the absence of love.

Clearly, love has priority over all of the gifts.  Love is the foundation upon which all of the gifts stand.  It is one gift that is given to all Christians which is to be the context of the application of all of the other gifts.  Without the use of God's love in our actions, those actions are of no value to God, or His kingdom.

1 Corinthians 13:3

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Some people think that they demonstrate love through philanthropic acts.  For example, how many people are willing to sell everything that they have and give it to the poor? Few ever get the opportunity to experience this.  Thomas A'Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (high priest of the Church of England)  under the reign of England's King Henry II was a rich and powerful man before being called to the position of Archbishop by the King.  The oath of poverty required that he give all that he had away.  He resisted at first, but found God's love in the process of giving, and ended up giving all away gladly, becoming disappointed when his property was depleted.  We would probably consider one's giving of all they have to the poor to be the highest form of generosity.  Gifts given in love bring blessing to the believer, a reward that is a promise of God recorded in Malachi, Chapter 4.  However, giving without love brings no reward, no gain at all. 

A second act of philanthropy identified here is that of martyrdom.  Giving one's life for a belief or principle is considered the ultimate act of selflessness.  At the time that Paul writes, as is also true today, Christians were routinely martyred for their faith.  But again, what is the value of these acts when they are not done in love?

Clearly, for our words and actions to have any value to God's kingdom, they must be spoken and acted in agape love.  The next four verses describe agape love by illustrating some of its attributes.  Note in these previous verses, the emphasis on self, as I is mentioned in each argument.  The attributes of love are always selfless rather than selfish.  They are applied for the benefit of others rather than self.  Paul describes fifteen attributes, seven of these are what love is, and eight is what love is not.

3.  The Practice of Love

1 Corinthians 13:4

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Paul starts by stating that love is patient, or long suffering.  This refers to patience with people, not patience with circumstances.  How do we demonstrate patience towards others?  Patience is demonstrated in sensitivity to the needs of others, the trials and difficulties others face and their impact on themselves, others, and us.  Love is patient because that same love that God demonstrates for us is patient.  Consider the patience that God demonstrates toward us that, yet while we still sin, God loves us and cares for us.

Kindness and patience are closely related.  Patience restrains us from negative actions, and kindness motivates us to positive actions.  Kindness is a fruit of love, a spontaneous expression of one's unconditional care for another.  One who demonstrates God's love in their life is characterized by kindness towards others.

Envy is the desire to have possession of something belonging to another.  Since agape love truly cares for others, one who loves is pleased that others are blessed and will celebrate with them without thought of envy. 

The word translated vaunted, or boasting, or puffed up refers to having an inflated sense of self-worth.  Love leads us to see ourselves as God sees us, and to see others as God sees them.  When we take an honest look at ourselves we recognize that we have all fallen short of God's demand for righteousness and stand in need of His love and forgiveness.  There is no room for boasting. but there is room for love.  Despite our shortcomings, God loves us and likewise despite our shortcomings we can love one another.  Because of God's righteousness and our inherent unrighteousness, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.  We are all brothers and sisters struggling together for a single purpose: to love and honor the God whom we serve.

1 Corinthians 13:5

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Pride and arrogance leads to rudeness and broken or unestablishable relationships.  Such self-love is self-seeking and is not concerned with others.  Rudeness toward another is a clear indication of one who does not love another.  Do note that we also have to be careful not to judge others.  For example, sometimes the symptoms of a shy and diminutive spirit can come across to others as arrogance or rudeness.

True love always seeks the benefit of others before self.  Rather than "looking out for number-one" as the self-centered cliché states, one who truly loves considers others to be "number one."

Love is not easily angered, or provoked.  One who truly loves others does not tend to be one who loses their temper or gets angry easily.  If we truly love someone, we can even tolerate abuse because of the patience that true love motivates.  As we love another, we become more concerned with their needs, seeking to meet the needs of their heart rather than focus our attention on their actions.

Also, love does not bear a grudge.  True love is demonstrated in instant and unconditional forgiveness.  We always must forgive, and forgiveness cannot bear a grudge, otherwise there is no forgiveness.  If we ever battle with forgiveness, it might help to remember how God has forgiven us for all of our sins; not only those we have committed, but also those we still have yet to commit.  The up-side of this is that even now, if any of us holds any kind of grudge against another for any wrong done, love dictates that we drop the grudge here and now, and ask God to forgive us for our selfishness.

1 Corinthians 13:6

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

Have you ever celebrated when the bad guy gets his "just reward"? We are exposed to this paradigm so much in the movies and TV that it is hard to separate this from the true expression of love.  I have been in the movie theater where the people in the audience cheered when the bad guy was violently and brutally killed.  "He got what he deserved" is the public mantra.  The truth is that we should never forget that we are not getting from God what we truly deserve.  We can mirror God's love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  Love seeks redemption and reconciliation for those who are lost, those who are caught up in the consequences of their sin.  Love cannot delight in the destruction of those who God created for the purpose of loving Him.

Nor, does love celebrate lies, but rather rejoices in truth. 

1 Corinthians 13:7

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love embraces the best potential in others, and in so doing, can bear many faults and frailties in others with the goal that the other will overcome and be blessed.  This form of patience also involves trust.  It motivates us to trust the untrustworthy, placing ourselves at risk when we trust knowing that we will probably be disappointed, but by trying to believe the best.  Every opportunity for trustworthiness is granted to another.  That takes a courageous love.  This implies that there is always a hope that the other person will prove that the trust we placed in them was not in vain.  Finally, when trust is expressed in this way, it outlasts temporal circumstances.  It outlives the disappointment and sorrow that broken trust causes; it never gives up.  No enemy can overcome love, and when we live in love, no enemy can ever overcome us. We are defeated by disappointment only when we are not living in love. 

Living in love is more than lip-service, it is life-service.  We can gain an understanding of that life-service when we look at this list of fifteen characteristics of agape love and in examining our own lives, assess and give an account of ourselves.  This is not a list of unachievable ideals.  This is a list of characteristics of a love that all Christians can demonstrate by simply choosing to do so.

4.  The Permanence of Love

1 Corinthians 13:8-10

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

Again, remember that the Corinthians were placing great priority on tongues, prophecies, and knowledge.  What does this verse say about the relationship between love and these spiritual gifts? Love will outlast them.  Since God is eternal, love is eternal, and the gifts He has given us are as temporary as we are.  When we are in God's presence we will no longer need prophecies, because we will hear God directly.  We will not need knowledge, because we will see God.  We will not need tongues, because we will be able to speak to God directly.  However, love will continue because love is the basis and foundation of God's nature.

Paul points out that both our knowledge and prophesy, as great as it might appear to be, is still imperfect.  However, when perfection comes, those imperfect vehicles through which we endeavor to know the truth will be obsolete.  Only love endures.

1 Corinthians 13:11-12

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.  12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Paul uses two analogies to show gift's temporary, inferior, and incomplete nature when compared to love.  In the first he is comparing an adult with a child.  This is not to mean that the use of gifts is childish, but they are so in comparison with love.  Our application of gifts certainly are childish when compared with God's wisdom and knowledge.  We are His children, not His equal as some would seem to think.  When one comes to faith in Chris, God's agape love motivates the believer to put away the self-centered nature of the past and take on the others-nature of love.

A second analogy has to do with the use of a mirror.  Ancient mirrors were made of polished metal and did not have the clarity of those we use today.  Our knowledge and wisdom are obscured by our lack of complete understanding of God.  The less we know about Him, the more obscure is our understanding of Him.  It is a tragedy today that so many millions of people profess to be Christians but make no real effort to try to get to know God better, or to make God more a part of their lives, or to even mature in the faith.  Instead most are satisfied with salvation as a received gift and then do little to further the kingdom's work on earth.  It is these who most greatly lack wisdom and knowledge and have the darkest mirror through which to see and understand God.  Paul insists that all of us are seeing God though distorted lenses, and only when we see Him face to face will we be fully cognizant of our immaturity.

5.  The Preeminence of Love

1 Corinthians 13:13

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

Paul finishes this discussion by listing the fruit of the spirit that is eternal: faith, hope, and love.  Faith will remain because it is the basis of our trust in God, hope will continue because it is the fruit of the Spirit given to people to sustain us until we see God.  However, even faith and hope will not be necessary when we see God; love will still remain.

The world teaches us to love others conditionally.  We are taught to select whom we wish to love, preferring those who love us back, preferring those who fit our own definition of those deserving of our love.  The world teaches us to hold back love from those who might be different from us or not agree with us.  The world teaches us to love with hypocrisy, by defining others as somehow of lesser value and undeserving of our love.  By maintaining such a self-centered and hypocritical love, God's kingdom purpose is not served.  This is not the love that God requires.

When we study 1 Corinthians 13 we come away with a clear and powerful message.  There is no part of the Christian life that is more important than agape love.  This love is the same love that God holds for all of those whom He has created.  It is a love for others that supersedes our love for ourselves.  It is a love for others that is absolutely unconditional.

As we consider Valentine's Day, and the images of love that it brings to mind, we can be reminded of what it is to be a True Valentine, one who loves the LORD, and loves others with that same unconditional love that God has towards us.  God demonstrates that love towards us first in His grace and provision of salvation for us, and second through His continual relationship with us.  Likewise the True Valentine is one who demonstrates the full set of characteristics of agape love, with grace, towards all others.

*Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.