In chapters 12-14, Paul deals with the issue of speaking in tongues. In the Corinthian congregation this spiritual gift was out of control and so Paul sets about to restore order. He does this by pointing out that there are many ministry gifts and some of these are more important, more to be sought after, than speaking in tongues. Yet, above the gifts of ministry Paul sets an even greater divine gift, and this the gift of love.
12:31. Paul wants believers to strive for the more edifying gifts of teaching, prophecy, .... Yet, apart from the gifts of ministry, he shows a "better way". This better way is distinct from the gifts of ministry and can actually test the worth of a gift. This way is first among the fruits of the Spirit; it is the way of "love".
v1-3. Paul begins by comparing love with other religious qualities, primarily gifts of ministry. The first is most likely tongues, ecstatic utterance. The next is prophecy, which for Paul, is the greatest of the gifts of ministry. Yet, without love even prophecy is nothing. Then comes faith, obviously of the miracle-working type, not the type which all believers exercise when they reach out to Jesus. Then finally self-sacrifice. There is the alms-giving type of self sacrifice and there is the religious suicide type. Both can be done in love, but also without love. Apart from love, self-sacrifice is nothing.
v4-7. In the second section of the chapter, Paul describes the nature of love. Rather than describing love in philosophical terms, he tells us what it does and does not do. A person who has love does not easily lose patience with another, is kind, not envious, does not brag, not puffed up, does not treat others unfairly, is not selfish, easily provoked to anger, or plots evil against another. love (particularly the loving one) does not ride up on (celebrate at) another's misfortune, but rather celebrates when things are right, when things work out well, are "true". Love supports the world, it never loses faith, never ceases to hope, and endures through hardship and opposition.
v8-12. In the third section Paul returns to the contrast between love and the gifts of ministry, and points out that whereas spiritual gifts have a ministry purpose for the present, love endures into eternity. "God is love" and through the Spirit we can possess this divine quality which continues, not just through the rough-and-tumble of life, but beyond life. "It is the pre-eternal thing which man can possess here and now in its true essence", Schweitzer. Unlike love, prophecy (revelation of the mind of God) will vanish in the presence of God. Tongues (ecstatic prophecy) will cease. Knowledge (secret truths) about God will similarly be no more in the presence of God. It is like the limited development of a child as compared with the maturity of an adult, or it is like seeing something in a reflection as compared with seeing the real thing. Our limited understanding of God will be complete in the totality of God, which totality is love.
v13. So, the spiritual gifts are, in many ways, limited. What "remains" in this present age is "faith, hope and love." The "faith" that Paul refers to is not the miracle-working kind, but reliance on the faithfulness of Christ, while "hope" is patient endurance in the fulfillment of the promises of God; "what God has given, God will maintain", Bultmann. Finally there is "love", that "manifestation of God himself, proceeding from God himself", Barrett. Love is greater than the other two qualities because love, unlike faith and hope, is eternal.
In the mainline Christian denominations these days there exists an unhealthy fear. We have lost confidence in ourselves; we fear our very survival. And what is the answer?
i] There are those who believe the survival of the church lies in relevance. In an attempt to fit with society they set about dismantling the inherited shape of their church.
ii] Then there are those who believe the survival of the church lies in purity. They impose holy rigor and narrow theology.
Of course, such responses promote divisions: a right way of doing church and a wrong way of doing church. For the Corinthian believers, the conflict was over ministry gifts that would supposedly enrich their church.
So, how are God's people to be built up under the Lord and so survive in the face of rampant secularism? Paul's answer was that we seek the gift of love, the very essence of God's character. Paul is not saying "be nice to each other", rather he is letting us into a secret. Christ's character of love, a love which indwells us and renews us, has the power to compel us to be as Christ is. So, pray for this gift, seek it, practice it, such that we abide in the gift of love.
Consider your own church. Is it divided in any way? In what ares of church life can love restore and renew? How can love be among us?