Context Matters: The Love Chapter

Paul describes this more excellent way, the way of love. And what he says about love directly and explicitly corresponds to what these people are not.

1 Corinthians 13 may be one of Paul’s most eloquent chapters. Perhaps only Romans 8 or Philippians 2 can rival it. But the mood is absolutely not a warm and fuzzy one. Its character is one of sustained rebuke, not one of pleasant encouragement. To miss this mood may be to miss the point.

 

Perhaps you’ve heard that love is patient and kind (1 Cor 13:4). That it does not envy or boast. I’m willing to wager you’ve either seen these words on a plaque or heard them at a wedding, or both. And what mood do these words create when you hear them read? Comfort? Security? Compassion? Warmth? Mood really matters as something we ought to observe in a text. And if we take a passage like 1 Cor 13 out of context, we’re in danger of missing the mood. Which may cause us to miss the point.

Context matters. If we learn to read the Bible for what it is—and not as a collection of independently assembled proverbial sayings—we’ll discover that some of our most familiar passages don’t actually mean what we’ve always assumed.

Paul’s Mood

While 1 Corinthians is not Paul’s harshest letter—that honor would fall to Galatians—it comes pretty close. He has nice things to say about the Corinthians at the start (1 Cor 1:4-9), but he quickly moves into one criticism after another.

  • They have a reputation for quarreling and divisions (1 Cor 1:10-11).
  • They boast about themselves and their teachers (1 Cor 1:12).
  • They forget where they came from, that they were nothing special (1 Cor 1:26-29).
  • They have acted like unspiritual, fleshly people (1 Cor 3:1).
  • They are but infants in Christ (1 Cor 3:1).
  • They have deceived themselves (1 Cor 3:18).
  • They boast about their gifts (1 Cor 4:7).
  • They need to be admonished like children (1 Cor 4:14).
  • They don’t have much spiritual guidance (1 Cor 4:15).
  • They tolerate extreme immorality that even pagans wouldn’t tolerate (1 Cor 5:1).
  • They boast about their perceived maturity (1 Cor 5:6).
  • They are suing one another over trivial matters (1 Cor 6:7).
  • Their knowledge puffs them up, causing them to sin against others’ consciences (1 Cor 8:11-12).
  • They engage in idolatry (1 Cor 10:7).
  • They engage in sexual immorality (1 Cor 10:8).
  • They put Christ to the test (1 Cor 10:9).
  • They grumble (1 Cor 10:10).
  • They think they stand secure, but they really don’t (1 Cor 10:12).
  • They are contentious (1 Cor 11:16).
  • Their worship gatherings are not for the better but for the worse (1 Cor 11:17).
  • Selfish, factious people are being struck dead under the judgment of God (1 Cor 11:30).
  • They are impatient and don’t wait for one another (1 Cor 11:33).
  • They claim to be self-sufficient, not needing one another (1 Cor 12:21).

When we read the letter as a letter, and not as one independent chapter after another, we see that Paul is building a case, scaling a mountain. And chapter 13 is the peak. We rightly laud this chapter, but often in the wrong way.

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