A Study of 1 Corinthians 13
Earlier this month I visited the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York. FDR’s house is there and also his Presidential Library. It was built while he was still alive, and he used his presidential office there to make some of his famous fireside chats. Two things stuck me with great interest. One of the original copies of the prayer he prayed during his broadcast on D-Day. Roosevelt may not have been the most moral man in the world, but he knew that on D-Day, the nation needed to cry to God on behalf of her sons storming the beaches of Normandy, and he led the nation in prayer. His speech was an actual prayer, and on the original version there are handwritten notes that he had made. The other item of special interest was the large family Bible. It was a Dutch Bible, and it was covered with a beautiful binding held together with a clasp. The caption said that Roosevelt has been sworn into office at his first inauguration with his hand resting on this Bible, opened to one very special chapter—1 Corinthians 13—the Love Chapter of the Bible. Somehow FDR instinctively knew that in the middle of the Great Depression, with panic and perplexity gripping our nation like a noose, America needed the kind of bracing and riveting love described in this chapter. Yet during his presidency he would see the world erupt into the most terrible war in human history, with fifty million deaths, including the deaths of six million Jews in the holocaust.
Love is an easy word to say but a hard word to find. But tonight I want to give you the number of love. It’s 13-13-13. That sequence of numbers can change your life. Try spending thirteen weeks—that’s one quarter—in which you read the thirteen verses of 1 Corinthians 13 every day. Try it from now to the end of the year. The thirteen verses of 1 Corinthians 13 every day for 13 weeks. We can get a head start on it right now. Let’s read through this and I’ll make a few comments along the way. This paragraph presents three aspects of love.
1. Love is Paramount (Verses 1-3)
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels…
If you were here last week, you know this passage falls right in the middle of Paul’s comments about speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians, the apostle has been going through one problem after another facing the Corinthian church. Yesterday I was reading a book that profiled two churches that became engulfed in problems. One church took several years to recover and the other never did. The devil is always trying to split up a church, and to split up a home. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul turned his attention to the issue of speaking in tongues. There were some people in Corinth who evidently claimed to be more spiritual because they were speaking in tongues, and the apostle Paul said, in effect: Your spirituality isn’t demonstrated by speaking in tongues or by eloquent preacher or by spiritual giftedness or by even by faith and humanitarianism, but by love.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 do not have love, I am noting. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
In other words, every ministry in the church has to be fueled by love. Professor Fred Craddock tells of a time he was in a distant city staying in a little motel in a questionable part of town. He was speaking there on Saturday, but had to stay over until Sunday before returning home. He went to the front desk to ask if there was a church nearby he could attend for Sunday morning services, and after a little huddle behind the counter someone told him there was one a few blocks away, and they pointed Fred in the right direction. Arriving there, Fred found a small building and he entered and took his seat. About a 120 people eventually showed up, and at the appointed hour a choir entered, and then came the minister. Fred was shocked at his appearance. He very tall and large, and he lumbered in very awkwardly and oddly. His head was misshapen, his hair was askew, he stumbled when he tried to walk onto the platform, and his eyes seemed defective beneath very thick glasses. The man seemed to have trouble reading and speaking; but that morning he preached from 1 Corinthians 13—the Love Chapter. Fred said that had you read his sermon, you would not have been impressed; but sitting there and listening to it in person it had a powerful effect. Every word seemed to go out with love, and that love seemed to come back from the people who sat there quietly, leaning forward. Fred was captured. “What is this?” he asked himself. “How could this grotesque creature be so full of love? I didn’t understand.” After the service, Fred wanted to talk to this preacher, and so he stood at the door waiting while the man greeted the parishioners. One woman who appeared to be seventy shook his hand and said to him, “I wish I could know your mother.” Evidently she wanted to know how someone so contorted and malformed could have such a powerful attitude and personality.” The preacher simply said, “My mother’s name is Grace.” Well, when everyone had left, Fred sat down with the man on the back pew of the church and asked him about that. The man said, “When I was born, I was put up for adoption at the Department of Family Services. But as you can see, nobody wanted to adopt me. So I went from foster home to foster home, and when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I saw some young people going into a church. I wanted to be with young people, so I went in, and there I met grace—the grace of God.”[i]
If our mother is Grace, our natures will be loving. At least, they will increasingly reflect the honest, riveting, unexpected love of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Love is Practical (Verses 4-7)
What does that love look like? The next series of verses is the best biblical definition of love we have anywhere in Scripture.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking; it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
In my Mother’s Day sermon, I pointed out that you can take out the word love and put in the word Jesus, it fits perfectly. Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. We should be able to put our name there too—Robert is patient, Robert is kind. The problem is, I’m very frequently not that way. But I’ve found that something has helped me a lot. 13-13-13. Living in this chapter. Memorizing and quoting it, especially these middle verses. Nearly a hundred years ago, Florence Allshorn was born in Sheffield, England, into a doctor’s family. She was orphaned at age three, raised by a governess, and converted to Christ as a young woman. She felt God was calling her to missions; and in 1920 she went as a missionary to Uganda. She was thirty-two. This was very dangerous and deadly assignment; and once in Uganda Florence battled loneliness, hard work, linguist barriers, rats in her bedroom (lots of them), hyenas, leopards, and jackals in the garden that kept her awake half the night, snakes by her bedroom door, ants by the millions, and bites by the hundreds. More often than not, she found seven-foot snakes outside her bedroom door, ants, and bites by the hundreds. But none of those things were her greatest challenge. It wasn’t the climate or diseases or tribesmen or her primitive conditions. It was her fellow missionaries, especially her primary coworker, who was a very rude and unpleasant older woman with a sharp and angry tongue. Florence had a terrible time getting along with her, and the woman constantly provoked Florence until all love was gone. One day Florence broke down and cried about it, and that’s when an elderly African woman encouraged her to begin really practicing the kind of love she had been preaching and teaching about to others. Florence made a deliberate decision to change her attitude. She determined that for a solid year – 365 days – she would read the Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13) every day, and that she would intentionally seek to put these thirteen verses into practice. Her biographer said, “Life became an adventure in learning to love instead of the agony it had been before.” This experience, said her biographer, was the “critical turning point of her life” and “the fount of all that she taught in later years to successive generations of missionaries. When she talked to them about ‘love’ she knew what it mean and what it costs.”[ii] Florence wrote to a friend, saying from her missions post in Uganda, “What everything needs here is to be deluged in love; everything wants loving… Before we can hope to move things out here, I believe we have just got to be living 1 Corinthians 13. I am certain of it, I feel nothing else matters in comparison at all, organizations, gifts of speech—nothing.”[iii] On another occasion, she said that she didn’t mean the romantic love of the poets but the kind of love one shows a very unpoetical neighbor. It’s not the kind of human emotion we might have for one person but not for another. It was the kind of love God exhibits. Since God is love, she said, and since we are made in His image, “we are made to love as the stars are made to shine.”[iv]
“It’s not how other people affect you,” she said, “it’s how you affect other people that matters all the time.”[v] We can try this experiment for ourselves. You may want to follow Florence’s plan and try living for a year in 1 Corinth 13, or my plan and spend 13 weeks there. But these words have a way of transforming us for the better.
3. Love is Permanent (Verses 8-13)
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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 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 the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a refection 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. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Love is an attribute of God Himself. It isn’t just an emotion or attitude; it’s not just a passing practice. It is rooted in the depths of the Godhead, and so it’s eternal. It’s the atmosphere of heaven. Very often I wonder what will be the greatest thing about heaven. Of course, it’s seeing Jesus. But it’s also seeing our loved ones who have gone on before or who will follow us. It’s the thought of being liberated once and for all from our own sinful natures. It’s the thought of a city that will never crumble and a new universe that will never wear out. It’s the idea of resurrection bodies that will never age or wear down. It’s the joy of all those things. But think about this. Heaven will be a place where people will truly love each other. We will know fully how to live in abiding love. All the reactions in heaven will be loving. All the conversations will be loving. All the trade and commerce and service and activities will be loving. Faith and hope will fade away; but love will remain.
If we’re going to love each other throughout eternity, it’s a good idea to get into the practice now. Charles Allen was the pastor of a large Methodist church in Atlanta, and later in Houston. His church was the largest Methodist church in the world at that time. He was a tall, lanky man and very funny. I heard him several times at functions related to the Billy Graham Crusades. Once, when he wanted his church to become closer, he decided to preach a series of sermons from 1 Corinthians 13. He found 31 different Bible translations and pulled out this chapter from each one and made a little booklet for his church. He asked everyone in the church to read a version of 1 Corinthians 13 every day for a month while he preached from this chapter every Sunday. He later said that miracles occurred during that month. Relationships were healed. Homes were helped. He called it: “The Miracle of Love.”
So whether you spend a week, a month, a quarter, or a year in this chapter—let it get inside of you and begin living out the preeminence, the practicality and the permanence of love.
[i] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 49-50.
[ii] J. H. Oldham, Florence Allshorn (New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.), 117, 25-26, 29.
[iii] J. H. Oldham, Florence Allshorn (New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.), 33-34.
[iv] J. H. Oldham, Florence Allshorn (New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.), 116-117.
[v] J. H. Oldham, Florence Allshorn (New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.), 144.