"The Greatest of These is Love"

An Exposition of the Thirteenth Chapter of First Corinthians.

By L. J. Fowler

Taken from Grace and Truth Magazine 1923


The expositions which men have given of that wonderful thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians are almost without number, yet none have been able to sound the depths of its meaning. It seems to resist all attempts which would search out the riches of its truths, and the more earnestly one endeavors to grasp the scope of its teaching the more unfathomable does it become.

This passage appears as the central section of three great chapters devoted by Paul to the question of spiritual gifts. Its relationship to the two other chapters is revealed in the closing words of the twelfth. After dealing with the diversities of gifts and the exercise of them by the members of the body of Christ, Paul exhorts the believers to "covet earnestly the best gifts," and then adds, "And yet show I unto you a more excellent way." The more excellent way is the way of love. And the whole of the thirteenth chapter is taken up with the comparison and description of the gift of love. In the fourteenth chapter Paul resumes, in a more restricted way, the teaching concerning the gifts of the Spirit.

As we approach the study of the thirteenth chapter itself we find that it falls into three main divisions with the thirteenth verse as the epitome of the whole. Three things the Holy Spirit has presented — faith, love and hope. The first three verses are taken up with a comparison between love and the gifts of the Spirit which, as we learn from Romans the twelfth chapter, are always exercised "according to the proportion of faith." The gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith, and self-sacrifice are all presented as being exercised in the fullest degree, hence according to the utmost faith, and yet love is shown to be superior to all, yea, the crowning gift of all gifts. In verses four to seven we find the inspired definition of love, both from the affirmative and negative sides. And in verses eight to twelve love is shown to be more enduring than hope, for as the Apostle writes to the Romans, "Hope that is seen is not hope, for what a man sees why doth he yet hope for?" That which we hope for is the glorious return of our blessed Lord, but in that day we shall cease to hope for Him, for we will be in His presence. Then hope will be merged into love.

The design of this study is to seek a more complete knowledge of the true meaning of love according to the Holy Spirit's own definition which is found in the central section of this chapter. For our purpose we will employ that accurate and beautiful translation given to us by Richard Francis Weymouth and which appears in display on the opposite page.

It is well for us to look a little more closely into the meaning of the word which is the subject of this chapter and which is translated "charity" in the King James version and "love" in practically all other versions. It is the noun agape, and occurs 310 times in the New Testament either as a noun, a verb, or an adjective. With but few exceptions, it is translated "love" or "beloved." Thayer points out that it is used frequently in I John of the love of Christians toward one another; of the benevolence which God, in providing salvation for men, has exhibited by sending His Son to them and giving Him up to death. It is used to mean divine love, whereas phileo, the other Greek word translated love, is used to mean human affection. A remarkable illustration of this distinction is to be found in the story of the death of Lazarus and his restoration to life as recorded in the eleventh chapter of John. The sisters of Lazarus sent unto Jesus, saying, "Lord, behold he whom Thou lovest (phileo) is sick." And as Jesus stood by the tomb and wept, the Jews said, "Behold how He loved (phileo) him." But the Holy Spirit directed the Apostle to write: "Now Jesus loved (agapao) Martha, her sister, and Lazarus." It was the same love with which the Father loved the world (John 3:16). The first thing, therefore, that we need to note in approaching this study is that God is not calling us to mere human affection, but to the love which He Himself has shown toward us, His unworthy creatures.

Patience, that grace which is so rare among God's people today, is presented as the first characteristic of love. And for fear that we might overlook the fact that love is patient, two other words are used in this passage having the same general thought but with slightly different shades of meaning. The first one means long-suffering or patience, especially with respect to the wrongs of others committed against us. It means to withhold judgment; not to seek for revenge. The second word is given to us by Weymouth as "She knows how to be silent." True love does not gossip; she exhibits that phase of patience which just keeps still about the failures of others. The third word having in it the thought of patience is the last in this inspired definition of love. Love is "full of patient endurance." It is the endurance of the trials and testings of this life which is the outstanding thought. She knows how, in the midst of the vicissitudes of life just to patiently endure.

Then love is kind. It is because Christians generally have exhibited so little of real kindness that the world's philosophers have taken up the cry as though they were urging some new and unheard of moral quality. But the world knows little about the kindness of love. Instead of a kindness actuated by love it is a kindness born of the desire for human recognition, temporal rewards and the plaudits of men. Nevertheless the gift of true kindness is to be earnestly sought. Its presence will make small men great, but its absence will shrivel great men into insignificance. It stamps the character of both old and young with a divine imprint. Love is unmeasured kindness.

"Love knows neither envy nor jealousy." With this sentence the Holy Spirit begins that work of definition which excludes all that is not contained in the meaning of the term defined. Envy and jealousy have no place in love. Love is contented with such things as she has. She knows how to be thankful. Though as children of God we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ, we are so prone to look around us and to view the possessions of others. The old nature whispers to the soul that we are not getting our just dues; we are being slighted either in material prosperity or in human recognition. And then bitterness enters the soul and all joy in the Lord flees us. It all comes about by a failure to look up instead of around.

Another sin which is incompatible with love is given to us in the words, "Love is not forward and self-assertive, nor boastful and conceited." Stated from the affirmative angle, it is simply the truth that love is meek and humble. If this be true love, then surely the modern church has lost even the semblance of it. Instead of meekness and retirement, we have wire-pulling; and instead of humility, we have haughty airs and proud looks, and this in pulpit as well as in pew. If John's statement be true that "God is love,'' then we must conclude that He has little to do with many efforts that are being made today in the name of Christianity. Brethren, let us put away forwardness and self-assertiveness, boasting and conceit, and let God's love manifest itself in meekness and humility. Then and then only can we expect God's fullest and richest blessing on the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We next find some specific acts which are the direct antitheses of love. Loves does not act unbecomingly or unseemly. She knows that she is a child of God through faith in Christ Jesus and she acts in harmony with that glorious standing. Do we not, contrary to Paul's exhortation to the Ephesian believers, often give way to jesting and foolish talking instead of giving of thanks? Then love does not even go after that which belongs to her. Love "seeketh not her own," or does not "seek to aggrandize herself." She rather suffers wrongs. And love never blazes out in passionate anger. We think of hate, that sin of the mind which feeds the flame of anger, as the antonym of love, and so it is, but have we not heard some child of God again and again make excuses for an unbridled temper which manifested itself in the life? With James we may say, "These things ought not so to be."

A marvelous thing is love. If we permit it to come into our lives a host of things must vanish. All those petty suggestions of the old nature which we have permitted our souls to feed upon must go. And one of the things which has been so carefully harbored in our souls is that sin of thinking upon wrongs. It is expressed by the Holy Spirit in the words, "Does not * * * brood over wrongs." If we have really learned to love, if we are permitting God's own divine love to flow through our lives, we will find no time to "brood over wrongs," and "no pleasure in injustice done to others." What an expressive phrase the translator has given us! Love does not meditate upon the injustice which has been inflicted upon her; she does not permit the mind to go over and over again some petty wrong which the soul imagines it has suffered. Love just forgets all about the wrongs. She has a better occupation.

The soul who is willing to face the unapproachable light of perfect love as revealed in these few verses is compelled to confess his unworthiness and inability to meet the standard which God has made. But God has not left us in the dark, even in this definition of perfect love, concerning the method whereby we may reach the goal of love's full realization. He has not left us without a formula. The formula is in direct contrast with the truth that we should not think upon evil things. Instead of giving way to brooding over injustices done either to ourselves or to others, we joyfully side with the truth, or, as the King James version renders the phrase, "Love * * * rejoiceth in the truth." Since this is the method prescribed, we know immediately what the Holy Spirit is endeavoring to convey to our minds; we are to rejoice in Jesus, Who is, in the most complete sense, the Truth. This is further suggested in the words. Love "is full of trust, full of hope." As the soul learns to rejoice in Jesus, in who He is and what He has accomplished through His atoning death; to fully trust Him in every problem of life; and to yearn for His coming again, true love will manifest itself in the life. If we simply turn from our meditation upon the wrongs which we imagine have been done to us or to others to an unceasing occupation in the One Who bore our sins on the accursed tree, we will find that His matchless love, yes His divine love, will flood the soul and by a miracle there will appear in our daily lives patience, kindness, contentment, meekness, humbleness, graciousness, unselfishness and calmness.

When we have seen in this section of God's Word these remarkable truths concerning our individual Christian lives, we have not yet drawn from it all the meaning which it holds. Because the world is "without God" it is of necessity without love. Being without love, the world can only reap the fruits of that which is directly opposed to love — hate. A careful study of conditions in the world today will reveal that every sin which is threatening modern civilization can be traced to the absence of love. The sins here set forth, which ha\e no part in love, contain the dynamite which is causing the upheavals among the nations today. If men had been given over in complete devotion to the One Who gave Himself for them instead of to self-aggrandizement, we would have no industrial troubles. If the human race was not inherently proud and conceited we would have no social castes. If the rulers of Russia had learned the love of kindness, and the proletariat had known how to fasten their minds on Jesus, their eternal Saviour, instead of brooding over wrongs, real or imaginary, Bolshevism would not be commanding the position which it does today. And so we might go on in our investigation, showing that every evil today had its beginning with these things which we have so often considered insignificant.

In talking with one of the stock of Israel, he insisted that although he was not a Christian, he loved everybody, whether they were Jews or Americans or Italians or Greeks; he loved everybody. And most of us Christians, no doubt, have come to moments when, in our self-righteousness, we have felt that we really did love everybody. But oh, what paltry ideas of love must be ours in order to countenance such a thought! If God has led us to love, in a measure, those who are His, and to yearn for the salvation of those who are lost, let us learn to abound more and more. Let us learn to love with a full understanding of the inspired definition of Holy Writ.