Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Greatest Is Love

This post is related to my post about how to read the Bible. In that post, I recommended NT Wright's suggestion that we read entire books and entire letters at once instead of in small chunks. Taking this advice, I sat down and read all of First Corinthians. What caused me to read 1 Corinthians is that I stumbled upon a quote from chapter 15 that intrigued me and I wanted to see it fit. (In my opinion, chapter 15 is one of the most important chapters in all of the New Testament letters. Maybe more on that at another time.) During this reading, though, chapter 13 jumped out at me.

Reading 1 Corinthians as a whole and using it as a window through which to view the entire New Covenant changed my perspective on this chapter. Previously, I had used 1 Corinthians 13, especially verses 8-13, to condemn those who claim that the Holy Spirit works and lives in God's people today in a supernatural way. Why would such a beautiful description of love be used to condemn? I had totally missed the point.

When Paul wrote this beautiful chapter, the church at Corinth was a mess. He had already dealt very forthrightly with many of their problems in the chapters prior to this one. They were proud of their own wisdom and knowledge. They were divided personally, claiming allegiance to different preachers. They were divided spiritually by taking pride in their various spiritual gifts and holding other spiritual gifts in contempt. They were divided socially with the rich mistreating and shaming the poor, especially during the Lord's Supper. They were going to court over some of their differences. Apparently, some were not even convinced that there is only one God. They were tolerating, even taking pride in sexual immorality in their congregation. Their assemblies were chaos. Numerous men and women were interrupting one another and speaking over one another in the assembly. Some were even denying the resurrection. What a mess of jealousy, envy, bitterness, injustice, immorality, carnality, heresy, and rudeness!

What caused these problems? They lacked love. Chapter 13 is a beautiful description of love. It's filled with figures that magnify love. And love is the remedy to their problems. Let's read it together...
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
(1Co 13:1-7 ASV)

Even the greatest of spiritual gifts and good deeds, if they are not from love, are meaningless. Love is filled with virtue and absent of any bad thing. Love never fails. Then, Paul finishes this chapter in a surprising way. What follows almost seems not to fit. Paul, in the midst of that beautiful description of love, says that we are at present incomplete, but we will be completed. Notice the present incompleteness below.
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
(1Co 13:8-13 ASV)
This chapter is far more than a simple exhortation to love. Sure, patience, humility, truth, and forgiveness, love in other words, is our duty. But if viewed as a duty, it can at best bring temporary change. This chapter is telling us more than that. Love is ultimately what will characterize us when God completes His redemptive work in us. What NT Wright says about this chapter in Surprised by Hope on page 287 is beautiful.
The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God's new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now.
This chapter is pointing to a glorious future with love. And Paul goes on to describe this resurrection future for us in chapter 15. Love is the greatest virtue of all, even greater than faith and hope. We will be resurrected and perfected in love! That's the point of this chapter.

I don't really understand how I once used this chapter to condemn others. I don't now understand how I could have drawn such a hard line that the "perfect" in verse 10 was the completed New Testament canon. Paul, as best as I can tell, never gives any indication of a completed canon and it is doubtful that his readers would have understood such a reference. I once thought that those who did not agree that the "perfect" was the canon were simply looking to justify their own disorder and good feelings. That was a harsh and presumptive position to take.

I don't believe that this chapter is at all about the canon of the New Testament. This chapter certainly isn't about condemnation. This chapter no more condemns supernatural spiritual gifts than it condemns anything else, except a lack of love, which it indirectly condemns quite a fair amount. Let this chapter remind us that a surprising, no an astonishing, destiny of love awaits us in the resurrection and we need to be busy preparing ourselves for that destiny right now. 

To be sure, I'm not saying that verses 8-13 can't be interpreted to support cessation of supernatural gifts though I disagree with that interpretation. Sure, now with a knowledge of history and a knowledge of the canon, one can read cessation back into this text. However, I can't imagine that the readers at Corinth would have understood the "perfect" to refer to the canon. I don't think that is an unreasonable or dishonest interpretation. I understand the arguments for it, and those arguments make some sense but they also have some flaws. I don't believe this passage teaches a cessationist position, but that's not the point. When its primary use is to prove a cessationist position, and then that position is held to very strongly and used to condemn others, then this passage has been abused. The theme of this passage is love, not condemnation and not cessationism.

I pray that I will be resurrected to a destiny of perfect love. But until then, I pray that I can grow in love to be more like Him.

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