Love that destroys (in a good sense)

1 Corinthians 13

What does 1 Corinthians 13 mean for us today?

Are you working on a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13? Here is help for you.

13 1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Week 30 (July), Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13

In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul points out that, for the believer, love is more important than anything else. He has a good reason for saying so. Agape love is the highest gift of the Holy Spirit. And part of the rich meaning of true Christian love is its destructive/creative power.

That sounds strange, so let me explain: Agape love has an eradicating power that destroys what is not Christlike in us. It also nurtures in us all of those virtues that we identify as Christian.

Carnal vices cannot coexist very well with heavenly virtues. Therefore, if we allow God to release agape love in our lives, it will destroy the pride, lust, and other self-centered attitudes lurking in the dark recesses of our hearts. As it purges, it fills. We can love as God loves — giving ourselves for the benefit of others.

The church of Jesus Christ has been slow to learn all that the Holy Spirit is trying to teach in 1 Corinthians 13.

For instance, just 15 minutes from where we lived in Florence, Italy there is a bronze plaque in the middle of a public piazza (or "square" as we usually say in the U.S.). That plaque marks the spot where Savonarola and two other reform-minded monks were tortured, hanged, and then their bodies burned by church officials in the 1400s.

Thankfully, the Church of Jesus Christ has come a long way since then. Church leaders no longer burn people at the stake. But far too often, in reality, the "greatest of these" is not agape love. Sadly, we frequently tend to base our love on what we perceive to be the worth of the person.

In the early 1960s the appearance of a black minister as guest preacher caused a stir in a church my dad, Nolan Culbertson, pastored. The agape love powered by the Holy Spirit had not been allowed to consume sinful prejudices. Unfortunately, some in that congregation found themselves more in line with carnal philosophies than with the Word of God.

At the height of the Cold War, I remember hearing people voice the slogan "Kill a Commie for Christ." In the light of 1 Corinthians 13, this extreme example borders on breaking the third commandment, not to mention the sixth.

lapel button with kill a commie
slogan on it
1960s-era lapel pin. Image source:

On a lesser scale, most of us have been victims of non-loving actions of one kind or another in the church. Fellow Christians have hurt us, and maybe we have been guilty at times of replying in kind.

True agape love makes a carnal, self-seeking person into a caring human being. Agape love destroys in order to create. Only as we open ourselves to this destructive/creative force of God's grace can we become the loving persons in the Christian fellowship that He envisions.

The full spectrum of agape love in 1 Corinthians 13 is not an unrealizable utopia. It is the model for the Spirit-filled life.

Have you let God's love do its destructive/creative work in you? Have you let its "eradicating" power transform your life? [ How entire is entire? ]

Discussion questions

  1. What is the highest gift of the Holy Spirit, and how should it be manifested in the life of a Christian?
  2. How is it possible for love to be both destructive and creative in a Christian's life?
  3. Why do you think the Church has sometimes struggled to fully embrace and practice the love described in 1 Corinthians 13?
  4. Can you think of examples from history or your own experiences where love was based on perceived worth rather than it being an agape kind of love? How can Christians exhibit agape love in a world that often values worth based on external factors?
  5. What does it mean to allow God's agape love to do its destructive/creative work in us? How can we open ourselves to this transforming power of love in our lives and relationships?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

I wrote this devotional article while Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Italy. It originally appeared in Standard, a weekly Faith Connections take-home curriculum piece for adult Sunday school classes published by The Foundry.

Note on agape

Agape is a Greek word that means the highest kind of love. Agape love is sacrificial, selfless, and unconditional. It gives one the capacity for empathy and a desire for the good of everyone. Agape appeaers frequently throughout the New Testament but it rarely appears in non-Christian ancient Greek literature.

Paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 for cross-cultural missionaries

What does effective cross-cultural missionary work look like? The thirteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is a good place to start. Those words were written to a very diverse congregation where there was division and whose members were struggling with getting along with each other.

Missionary version of the Bible's "love chapter," 1 Corinthians 13

I may be able to speak fluently the language of my chosen field
     and even understand its culture,
          but if I have no love, the impact of my speech is no more for Christ
          than that of a businessman who comes to exploit the people.
I may have the gift of contextualizing God's word when I deliver it to my hearers,
     I may have all knowledge about their customs,
          I may have the faith needed to combat witchcraft,
                but if I have no love, I am nothing.
I may give everything that I have to the poor, to the hungry in the favelas;
     I may even give my life for them,
          but if I have no love, this does no good.
Love is . . .
     thinking in their thought patterns,
          caring enough to understand their worldview,
                listening to their questions,
                     feeling their burdens,
                     respecting them,
                           identifying with them in their need,
                                belonging to them.
Love is eternal.
     Cultures pass away.
          Dynamic equivalents will change because cultures change.
                Patterns of worship and church administration will need revision.
                     Languages will be altered over time.
                           Institutions will be replaced.
                                . . . Because these are not reality.
Since I am finite, I can only study how to express the Message cross-culturally,
     trying to free it from my cultural bias.
I am able to do this only in a limited way,
     but I pray that the Spirit will use my life to show Christ to those with whom I work.
Meanwhile, these remain . . .
                          But the greatest of these is Love.

-- Jean McCracken (Sao Paulo, Brazil)

Evangelical Missions Quarterly, © June, 1979, p. 151. Used by permission and in accordance with the educational use provisions of U.S. copyright law.

Afterword: Pertinent Lessons

1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the "love chapter" because it provides a profound reflection on the nature and importance of love. Pertinent lessons that can be drawn from this "love chapter" include:

Overall, 1 Corinthians 13 powerfully declares the transformative power of love and its indispensable role in the lives of Christ-followers. This chapter challenges us to embody love in all aspects of our lives so that we will reflect to others the love that God has shown us.

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