1 Corinthians 13 the way it should be interpreted
I am sure you know this chapter. I guess you heard it during a wedding service when two people looked one another dreamily in the eyes when the minister tried his best to explain to them how love operates in a marriage. You know – the one about partners in a marriage that are not short tempered; do not walk around unhappy; do not seek their own well-being before the other, and so on. Well, this is not quite what 1 Corinthians 13 is about. It could be but is not really. Read the chapter first and then come back to continue.
Let us continue. First, we must understand the term “charity”. It certainly did not originally mean what we use it for today – handing out clothes, food, and providing shelter. Instead, it was often used to translate the word agape. It is defined as meaning benevolence or affection. Many of our Bibles use the word “love” instead or “charity” and this can cause a problem. In our time, “love” is used mostly to refer to eros or sensual and emotional expressions. The word love is used so loosely that it can mean just about anything, except what it meant in the original text. Instead of being a passage about two lovers getting married, Paul had another audience in mind – the very same people of the church of Corinth which he has been addressing for the past 12 chapters. There is therefore no reason why he would suddenly switch focus and include a wedding ceremony script to a church that was plagued by problems.
Let us look at the problems Paul identified in the church in Corinth in the first 12 chapters and see how he addresses and refers to each problem in 1 Corinthians 13.
- Contentions and divisions in 1 Corinthians 1:11 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. Charity makes no provision for rivalry and division, but rather peace and harmony.
- Envy, strife, and divisions in 1 Corinthians 3:3 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. Paul mentions these problems again, probably because they were present in more than one issue he had to address.
- Judging others in 1 Corinthians 3:5 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. If the members of the church were divided about the spiritual leaders, it could only lead to problems. In my own time as a pastor in a church I saw how ugly and real verse 5 could be, where members of a church were divided in their preference of one pastor over another. It seems we have not learnt form the mistakes of the Corinthian church at all!
- Puffed up (being unhappy) in 1 Corinthians 3:18 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. We know people like these in our own churches as well, those who act as if they are superior to anyone else. Religious arrogance is ugly.
- Differences (not wanting to budge or accept someone else’s opinion) in 1 Corinthians 6:1 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. Here Paul addresses the fact that where there were differences between members, rather than settling them in a Christ-like manner inside the church, they tried to settle them outside in secular courts.
- Arrogance in 1 Corinthians 9:1 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. It appears as if the members of the church were not prepared to see that their spiritual leaders, the ones who did all the work, benefit from it in any way. It is the same in many of our churches today, discounting the mega-churches. Many members will expect the pastor and his family to live by faith instead of being paid a liveable salary when the members themselves do not want to operate under the same rule.
- Idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10:7 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:6. Most of the Corinthian church members were heathens before their conversion and for them to just leave behind their way of life was difficult. Greek culture was heavily influenced by idolatry.
- Tempters in 1 Corinthians 10:9 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:5.
- Murmuring (moaning) in 1 Corinthians 10:10 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4. Murmuring is another word for complaining or moaning. Paul makes it clear that we cannot always have things only our way.
- Seeking own interests above those of others in 1 Corinthians 10:24 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:5. We are often so focused on ourselves that we forget the needs of others. Thinking of helping someone else even if it costs you something is a Christian value taught by Jesus Himself (Acts 20:35). While we do not have a reference for His exact words, as they were not recorded by the gospel writers, Paul could have been told this by the disciples, whom he had contact with.
- Divisions in 1 Corinthians 11:18 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:5. The whole idea of the church is that there should be unity in Christ Jesus.
- Arrogance because of the presence (and probably abuse) of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1 – addressed in 1 Corinthians 13:1. The Corinthians thought, much as we see in our time, that some people were more important because they, for example, had gifts that were deemed more important than others. Paul corrects this attitude as he realises that even with his own ministry, were it not for his many followers who assisted him, he would not have been able to do his work.
Agape love is the love of Christ and resembles the mind of Christ. See John 13:34-35. Someone has suggested that we can test if agape love fits here by replacing the word charity with Jesus, and then read it again (Way of Life). Jesus embodies love, and His actions are what the members of every church should display every day. This is the sort of love we should aspire to, not eros love, which is simply carnal. Of course, this does not mean that there will not be an element of eros love in marriage, but then that is where it belongs, nowhere else!
Note that Paul never addresses the problems the Corinthians had with fornication, in 1 Corinthians 13. This is because he has already addressed these in other chapters. Therefore, you will not find the following problems referred to in 1 Corinthians 13: fornication in 1 Corinthians 5; sexual relationships in 1 Corinthians 7; and lust and fornication in 1 Corinthians 10. They have nothing to do with his focus: charity or agape love.
As you can see, 1 Corinthians 13 addresses problems the Corinthians had in their church and society and has nothing to do with a message to two people who are getting married. While we may think that we can talk about all these aspects, when two people are about to get married, these are the last things they will be thinking of!
When we take the time to analyse Paul’s writings, we see a masterful arrangement of problems as he became aware of them, and the answers or suggestions he gives in return. Led by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s messages are perfectly organised. It is for us to remain faithful to what is said, and in what context, and not to rely on our own wild interpretations. As Paul was led by the Holy Spirit, so should we.
The central theme of the Bible is love, and love is displayed by the work of Jesus Christ whom God gave so that we could live. Look at the verse on which this website is based:
16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – John 3:16
In His ultimate display of love there was not contention, envy, strife, division, unhappiness, arrogance, murmuring, own interests, or arrogance. Thus, God the Father displayed the perfect form of love by giving His only Son, and Jesus as the Son gave His life. This is what Paul is trying to teach the members of the Corinthian church. If this is what the Holy Spirit led Paul to write, then we should follow the same pattern in our own lives and lay down all the things he exposes in the lives of the Corinthians. Instead, we should follow the example he sets in Galatians – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. There is no law that can govern these characteristics (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the more excellent way. In fact, when we follow these, then the concepts of fornication, idolatry, and lust will never enter our thoughts. Therefore, Paul does not address them in 1 Corinthians 13 but sorts them out earlier in the letter.
Learn to read the Bible in context. While you read, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Read wider than just the text you are dealing with and use Bible commentaries to aid you in your quest to grow spiritually.