It's amazing to me that I can have known a passage almost entirely by memory for most of my life, and yet when I actually sit down and think about it, I really don't know what a lot of it means. For example, why does the Apostle Paul choose to open a beautiful chapter praising the merits of love by talking about speaking in tongues and prophecy? And what on earth is he talking about when he says "when I was a child, I thought like a child ... but when I became a man, I put childish things behind me?" He doesn't even mention love there! And, why do "faith, hope and love" remain, but why is love the greatest?
If you know all these answers, skip this post; but if you're like me and you've never really given it a second thought when this passage is read at a wedding, read on!
First of all, 1 Corinthians 13 is a passage in context; it comes right between 1 Cor 12 and 1 Cor 14. Duh, right? But, what is Paul talking about in these passages? Spiritual gifts and, specifically, the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy. (Oh! "If I speak in the tongues of men and angels ... if I have the gift of prophecy..." See also, "But where there are tongues, they will cease.") In 1 Cor12, Paul has been correcting the Corinthians about the way they've been using these gifts, which are meant for the benefit of the entire church body, for their own glory. 1 Cor 12 gives guidelines for the proper way to use these gifts for the community, and Paul ends that discussion with this promise, which also serves as an introduction to the "love chapter:" "And now I will show you a better way."
"The better way" actually turns out to be a devastating critique of the puffed-up Corinthian church when you read it in light of the controversy at Corinth. Peppered throughout this love passage are comments that amount to telling the Corinthians that all their gifts (and hence, their self-worth) are nothing if they are using them out of pride and self-seeking. Using your gifts in love is not just a better way, it is the only way.
And Paul isn't just telling them this to bring them down a notch (by the way "tongues of angels" likely refers to Paul himself and his heavenly vision, so if anybody has reason to boast in tongues, it's Paul; but he includes himself in the critique of doing it all without love: "then I am nothing."); he gives them the theological/eschatological rationale for the superiority of love.
Tongues and prophecy are gifts meant for the church in this "in between time," before Christ's return and the consummation of his kingdom. We won't need people to be mediating a message between us and God when we are worshiping him face-to-face. When Christ returns, tongues and prophecy will cease. This is where Paul uses the "when I was a child" bit: childhood is while we are waiting for Christ; when he returns, we'll be all grown up and will have no use for childish things (no matter how good they were for us as children).
As it turns out, faith and hope are also "here and now" gifts, even though they rank far above the specific gifts like prophecy and tongues that have been so divisive in the Corinthian church, because they are essential to each person's daily survival in the Lord. Faith, as the book of Hebrews tells us, is confidence in things that we have not seen. Paul tells us in the love chapter that we see dimly now, but then we will see face to face. There's no need for faith when you're looking your Savior in the eye and can touch his nail-scarred hands. Likewise hope: "who hopes for what he sees?" (Rom 8:24). We wait for God's promises to come true, and we trust that they will, and that is hope. No need to hope anymore when the promises have been realized.
And so what remains and is, therefore, the greatest? Love. God is love, and this love will be surging joyfully through our worshipful throng for eternity.
After making these discoveries (again, amazing how I can have most of a passage memorized and have heard it for all of my life but really not have any idea what it meant), I started wondering if it is, after all, appropriate to personalize and individualize this chapter back into my own life (as is so often done at weddings). But then I realized that Paul is addressing pride and the tendency to use things that I have been given or that I do in order to glorify myself, to find my sense of identity or well-being with regard to God and my community (i.e. my justification), at the expense of my primary community, my family, not to mention my broader communities like church family and other circles. So, this passage isn’t just pointed at the heart of people who speak in tongues; it’s also pointed right at my own heart. And, I hope, at the hearts of others of you who, like me, find yourselves constantly stumbling and having our own desires get in the way of true, Christlike, cross-shaped love.