1 Corinthians 13

First Corinthians 13 is Paul’s magnificent poem about love. It’s very frequently read at weddings, and is frequently used as a focus for personal meditation, because in it Paul raises the bar as to what constitutes practical love.

Every language has peculiarities which reflect the geographic and social conditions within which the language emerges. We all know about the many words the Inuit have for snow, which reflects survival needs that depend on using the right type of snow for the right purpose. The Greeks were very much into ideas, and had three distinct words for different types of love, whereas English simply uses a single term for all three.

In Greek, the language that this letter was originally written in, the word for love which Paul selected was Agape. A loose translation would be “to work for another person’s welfare, regardless of how you felt about the person”. This is the word that is usually used throughout the New Testament whenever love is talked about, which is quite a bit. When Jesus said, “Love other people as you love yourself, he mentored in this sense – work for the welfare of another person as you work for your own welfare. Of course, the meaning of the term in Greek is much richer, but it is based in this concept of working for another person’s welfare.

The other two words which the Greek language uses for love are, eros, from which we get our word erotic, and Philios, from which we get the name of the city, Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love.

To put this passage in context, the chapter 12 material which precedes it, deals with our interdependence as human beings in community, and it is one of the passages in which Paul talks about our “gifts”. In it he talks about the interdependence of body parts like eyes and ears, just like we as community members have unique specialties which work best when viewed as being part of a larger entity.

At the end of that section of his letter, Paul makes an interesting statement. He said, “And now I will show you something even better than any of the gifts – and that is the role which love plays in human community – the role which working for another person’s welfare plays in making human community and wonderful context within which to live.

In Paul’s estimate, working for another person’s welfare is far more responsible for quality life in a community than even the interdependence of our many gifts, working together in a harmonious whole. I find that to be a very interesting observation about which factors are most responsible for the quality of our life together.

In the first seven verses, Paul articulates some of the very practical aspects of working for other people’s welfare. When this passage is used as a basis for personal reflection, sometimes people are encouraged to swap in their own name for the pronoun I, as that shifts the focus from the author of the letter to the reader – and puts a challenge to the quality of our life within community front and center.

Once Paul has finished reflecting on those various aspects of life together in Chapter 13, he returns to his line of thought in chapter 12 and refers to some of the gifts again, attempting to put them into perspective in relation to this new emphasis on working for other people’s welfare. Essentially what he says is that everything else fades away over time, but the requirement that life presents us with – working for other people’s welfare – doesn’t fade with time.

The final statement in verse 13 – “and now these three remain – faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love”, is a fascinating observation of the dynamics frequently seen when we work for other people’s welfare. This sequence of terms describes both the degeneration of a situation and its restoration to quality living. It works like this:


I find it interesting that this passage is placed under the category of “when you grow bitter”. On the surface, the first part of the chapter might have been experienced as presenting a challenge to our bad attitudes, which often deteriorates into bitterness. On the other hand, the dynamics which Paul describes in the 13th verse may also have some bearing on the problem of bitterness.

Sometimes when our lives deteriorate we become bitter, and stand in the need of people to help us out. When they do, a change in our attitude often can make the difference, allowing others to come close to us and carry some of our personal burden while we move back into personal health community life.

It is also true that many people have found that their own bitterness and bad attitudes have been turned around by the very act of working for another person’s welfare themselves – because we get pulled out of our own difficulties as we get involved in other people’s lives.

The language structures of Greek and Hebrew are almost reverse to each other. Two insights which are embedded in the two languages, and both are true. Once we realize what they are, they can help us address the challenges which are presented in this chapter of Paul’s letter:


Both of these insights into life are true – and I regard them as being like a railway train with a locomotive at each end – if you can’t pull your life out of a bad situation one way, you can always pull it out the other. If you’re feeling blue, try doing something. If you can’t get operating, change your attitude. Either one can work – but not in every situation.

I heard a joke once about a husband who realized that he wasn’t being very nice to his wife. Somebody told him that he should change his actions not just his feelings. Usually, when he came home from a hard day’s work, he was hot and smelly, grabbed a beer out of the fridge, and plunked himself down in front of the television until supper. He decided that he would change his ways. He took an extra set of clean clothes to work, showered and changed before coming home, stopped in at the flower shop and picked up a dozen roses, and went to the front door instead of the back door and rang the doorbell.

When the wife answered the door, she took one look at him and burst into tears. Confused, the man asked, “Whatever is the matter?”
The wife replied, “The washing machine broke down, the kids are home with the measles, the transmission fell out of the car today...and now you come home drunk!”