Few passages of Scripture are as well known as 1 Corinthians 13, and few are as abused and misunderstood. The language of love resonates with a mindset which interprets it either romantically (as when it is used at many weddings) or as the height of a tolerance which reduces everything to indifference. 1 Corinthians 13 is not a call to a warm feeling, but for Christians to bear with one another in Christ.
The Corinthians, seemingly always divided, fought over the question of spiritual gifts. Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord gives gifts to men for the purpose of building up the Church. All of these gifts are different, and no one has the same gift. This should not be confused with salvation, for then there is no difference. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). But in terms of spiritual gifts, the Lord gives as He wills, for His own glory. The grain which falls on good soil differs in its abundance, though the seed is the same (Matthew 13:8).
However, does this difference in gifts mean that there are higher and lower gifts? Paul answers yes. There is such a thing as “higher gifts,” and he states rather clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that God gave the gifts apostles first, prophets second, and so forth. Prophesy, better understood in terms of preaching, is greater than speaking in tongues (when the latter is not interpreted), because then the Church is built up in the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:5). Nor is it a sin to seek after the higher gifts of God when it is done for the edification of the Church. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29-30). The question is not whether there are higher and lower gifts. In our desire to be egalitarian, we try to put them all on the same level, which is not what the Word says. The real question is what does that mean for the unity of the Church?
The great temptation with the gifts of God is to use them as an opportunity for pride. Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body. To use a different example, because I do not preach, therefore I am not a part of the body. Because I do not exercise leadership, I am not a part of the Church. The Lord’s gifts are twisted into an occasion for sin, and division results. This is not what the Lord intends in giving His gifts to His Church. He intends the body to be built up together into Christ, to grow as one into her Head (Ephesians 4:15).
Love, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 13 is Christian love, the love which builds up rather than tears down. Paul’s ultimate point is that all of the spiritual gifts are meant for building up for a time, but love endures even into the new heavens and the new earth. If I spoke even the language of the angels, but despise my brother in Christ, I am no better than noise. If I could move mountains by faith, but can’t be bothered with all of these other Christians, it makes for a nice show, but is nothing else. Christian love is not self-serving, but other-serving, and the gifts of God serve the Church and not the one who possesses them. All of these gifts will come to an end, when the Church no longer needs to be built up. The partial building will eventually be complete, and then what need is there anymore for architects and masons? This does not mean that their work was useless or pointless. When Christ returns, their work will be tested by fire, revealing what sort of work they have done (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Nor does it mean that all distinctions are abolished, as noted above. What it means is that “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).