Sad to say, most Christians read a great passage like “The Love Chapter” as if it stands alone, oblivious to the fact that Paul wrote a letter not chapters. First Corinthians, like the rest of the New Testament, stood without chapter divisions for over a millennium….
To divorce the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians from the rest of
the letter is to do violence to God’s word. This clouds our
understanding because it betrays the context. Regarding rules for
study, Haddon Robinson on Radio Bible Class is fond of quoting one of
his seminary colleagues: “Context is king.”
So, let us look at the context of love in First Corinthians.
Paul describes some of the qualities of love in verse four of
chapter thirteen: long-suffering, kind, absence of envy and
of parading itself, not puffed up. Being puffed up described
the Corinthians themselves (5:4). This attitude allowed them
to overlook sexual immorality in their midst. Paul tells them
that not only are they proud, but they have not “mourned”
(5:2) over this sin. And in chapter 8, he rebuked them:
“knowledge puffs up; but love edifies” (v. 1).
When we hear those ringing words, “love . . . does not
rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (13:6, italics
added), we should recall the Corinthians’ sinful condition in
chapter 5—their disobedience, displayed by their toleration of
blatant sin in their fellowship. Here, Paul calls for stern measures
of Christian discipline so that they can celebrate Christ’s
sacrifice for sins “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and
truth” (5:8, italics added). The concern expressed in the first
citation (13:6), taken in the context of the letter, should draw
our minds back to the problem confronted in the second citation
(5:8). Note the concern for truth in both passages.
Today, it would be a safe assumption to say that the
majority of Christians, including leaders, turn this Scripture
on its head (instead of turning the world up side down—there
goes Murphy’s law again). Many Christians seize upon words
like “love is patient and kind “ and use them to undermine the
Scriptural commands regarding rebuke and discipline which
are to be implemented in the face of disobedience. Again, this
false premise results when we resist holding together those
things which the holy conjunction gives us, things like love
We forget that there is only one God who has given us
his word, which both declares “love is patient and kind” and
commands “remove the evil man from among you,” all in
the same letter. When Paul gave the Corinthians that command,
he was quoting Scripture itself (Deut. 17:7, LXX).
Such discipline served God’s gracious, loving purposes so
that “all the people shall hear and fear, and not act presumptuously
again” (Deut. 17:13, KJV). God does not desire “that any should
perish” (2 Pet. 3:9); he calls all to turn from their sin; but when there
are those who continue in their willful defiance of his commands, for
the sake of the health of his bride, his people, he will not tolerate it.
Earlier, Paul had asked the Corinthians, “Do you (plural)
not know that you (the congregation) are the temple of God
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you (pl.)? If anyone
defiles the temple (the congregation) of God, God will
destroy him. For the temple (congregation) of God is holy,
which temple you (pl.) are” (1 Cor. 3:16, 17).
God’s concern here is for the health of his Body, his
church (assembly) in Corinth. Love and obedience are the
keys to this congregation’s well being.
Today, this concern is lost among many evangelical
Christians. We so emphasize personal salvation that we
diminish Christ’s concern for his Body, his assembly of
believers wherever it may meet. To use a phrase of Elton
Trueblood’s, we make small what Christ made large. Why?
Again, we dispense with the holy conjunction, “and”—this
to our detriment. If we are to be whole and holy, we must
remedy our neglect. Otherwise, we will never get out of one
of the traps set for us by the spirit of our day—the trap of
Too often, as American Christians, we have fallen for this
potential heresy. But as one Christian radio commentary put
it, “The spirit of individualism is one of the false gods of our
modern age . . . it presumes the individual person is the final
authority in his or her own life.”
…This individualistic spirit is not new. Paul exhorted the
Corinthians, “Love . . . does not seek its own (lit., the things
of herself).” He also wrote this as a direct command: “Let no
one seek his own” (1Cor. 10:24). This command addressed
the wrong attitude which stemmed directly from the
Corinthians’ misshapen view of Christian freedom. They
displayed this attitude with their slogan, “All things are lawful
for me” (6:12; 10:23).
The Apostle exhorted the Corinthians to replace their
self-centered focus with a God-centered one. “Flee sexual
immorality . . . you were bought at a price; therefore glorify
God in your body” (6:18, 20). He turned the focus from self to
love of neighbor: “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s
well-being” (10:24). “I say this to your shame . . . brother goes
to law against brother, and that before unbelievers”(6:5,6).
Just as Paul could not, Christians who love cannot
remain silent when face to face with fellow believers who
are departing from the narrow way. Though Scripture mandates
that we speak up, this imperative sounds off-key to
generations that have allowed the faceless Zeitgeist to
explain away God’s word through today’s fads.
It is not that Earthly Wisdom sings about love in, let’s
say, the key of E, while the Word of God sings about love in,
say, the key of G. This analogy will not work. Rather, we
hear two very different songs; while some of the words do
overlap, the dissimilar tunes ring out with a horrible clash
(that is, if God’s people are singing their song, because the
those of the world are certainly singing theirs).
The key question for us, as Christians, is, “Why are we
deaf to this dissonance?” Well, there is a breeze blowing in
our ears. The prevailing winds lull us to sleep as context is
Copyright 2004 by Michael C. Snow