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By love serve one another

Ernst-August Bremicker

A brief outline of 1 Corinthians 13


The 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is one of the best-known chapters of the Bible. The great lesson we learn is how to become imitators of God. God is not only light, but He is also love, and in giving His only begotten Son He has acted in unfathomable love. Now we are called to walk ‘in love’ (Eph. 5:2). 1 Corinthians 13 will help us to put that into practice. It is a very high standard that lies before us in this chapter, and the only one who has ever accomplished that standard is our blessed Lord Jesus. He entirely fulfilled that which is written about love in this chapter.

Believers apply this chapter to different occasions and circumstances, such as our marriages and family lives. This is appropriate and useful. Nevertheless, we should first consider the context in which these instructions are given.

Paul wrote to the Galatians that they had been called to liberty, but that they should not abuse this Christian liberty and turn it into an opportunity for the flesh (the old nature). On the contrary, they should serve one another through love (5:13). This is also the main lesson of our chapter: love should be the motivation of every Christian service. It should propel us to serve one another.

The context

There is a close relationship between chapters 12 to 14 of 1 Corinthians. They all have something to do with the gifts God has given us and how to use them. A gift is a spiritual ability. When we use a gift, it will result in service or ministry.

1 Corinthians 12 shows us the spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit in order to glorify Christ. It is He who works in each believer in order to bring forth the activities necessary to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ in the church. This chapter provides an overview of the various functions in the church (seen as a body). Each member of the church (each believer) has received a gift. They are different from one member to another, but work together in harmony.

1 Corinthians 14 shows us how some of these gifts are used when the assembly comes together. The great object of exercising a gift is underlined. It is for edification — our building up, and spiritual growth. 

In between lies chapter 13, which is the important link between chapter 12 and chapter 14 and sets what ought to be the real and true motive in exercising a spiritual gift: love. Love should propel us to use our gifts and to have the benefit of others as our focus.

2 Timothy 1:7 has been used as a headline over these three chapters: ‘For God has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but of power, and of love, and of wise discretion’. Although this verse does not speak about the Holy Spirit, we can apply the words of the second part of the verse as follows: in 1 Corinthians 12, we get the Spirit of power; in chapter 13 the Spirit of love; and in chapter 14 the Spirit of wise discretion (or soberness). 

Keeping this connection in mind, we clearly see that the primary object of 1 Corinthians 13 is not Christian love in our marriages and families or within the Christian company. Rather, it teaches us about how to use our spiritual gifts. Love has to be the great motivation of all we do in serving our Lord. Without love, all that we are, do and say is nothing. Every Christian activity should be motivated by love. This chapter concerns all of us because we all should be ‘abounding in the work of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 15:58). 

It is ever so important that our motivation is clear. Is it really love that makes me do something for the Lord, or are there other motivations, like my own glory and my own reputation?

The necessity of love (vs. 1–3)

These verses show that even the greatest possible gift has no value for the one who is exercising it if it is performed without love. Even though God is the giver of every gift, there will only be a benefit to the Lord’s people if those gifts are exercised in love. A fleshly and egoistic use will even dishonour the one who has given the gift.

Paul presents three examples. They may be abstract, but illustrate the principle that not only the gift, but also the way we use it and why we use it are important. The first example speaks of the ‘tongues of men and of angels’ and has to do with what we might speak. The second example is about prophecy and ‘all mysteries and all knowledge’, and brings in what we might possess. The third one presents somebody who would give everything he has, even his own life. It concerns what we might do. In all three examples we clearly see that there is no use in even the greatest manifestation if there is no love behind it. There might be some benefit for the recipients of a service, but there will be no reward when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

The qualities of love (vs. 4-7)

In the second part of the chapter, Paul presents a wonderful enumeration of some of the qualities with which true love is manifested. It is not so much a definition of love, but more how love is seen. The qualities can be — and should be — evident in our daily lives. 

The first two qualities are positive and reflect God Himself: 

1.          Love has long patience 

2.          Love is kind

Then we get eight negative qualities. They show what love will not do. Here we learn from contrasts because love will act in the opposite way:

3.          Love is not emulous of others (love does not envy)

4.          Love is not insolent and rash (love is not arrogant)

5.          Love is not puffed up (love is not self-inflated)

6.          Love does not behave in an unseemly manner (love is not indecent)

7.          Love does not seek what is its own (love is not egoistic)

8.          Love is not quickly provoked (love is not bitter)

9.          Love does not impute evil (love does not take revenge)

10.        Love does not rejoice at iniquity (love does not have inappropriate feelings).

The last five qualities are again positive:

11.       Love rejoices with the truth

12.       Love bears all things 

13.       Love believes all things

14.       Love hopes all things

15.       Love endures all things

The negative qualities have to do with the passive endurance of love (note the word ‘not’); the positive ones have to do with the activity of love — which is comprehensive indeed (note the word ‘all’).

Love is presented in these verses as a person. In a certain sense, this is true. The whole beauty of love is seen in the life of the perfect man on earth. Each of the qualities was perfectly and gloriously displayed in and by the Lord Jesus. It is worthwhile contemplating each manifestation of love by our perfect example in His life on earth. At all times, He acted in love and He reacted in love.

The constancy and superiority of love (verses 8–13)

Although they have been given by God, even the greatest gifts of grace will end. The same is true for faith and hope. We need both while we are on earth. When we reach our home in heaven, both will be replaced by reality. We will see the one in whom we have believed. Our hope will be fulfilled. However, love will never end. Love never fails. That is the reason why Paul ends this great chapter with the words: ‘And now abide faith, hope, love; these three things; and the greater of these is love.’

At the present time, we need gifts and we need Christian service. We live in a time where things are ‘in part’ and not yet ‘perfect’ (v. 10). When fullness and perfection will have come, we will no longer need ‘edification, and encouragement, and consolation’ (1 Cor. 14:3). However, we will enjoy divine love for all eternity.


‘Follow after love’ is the first statement in the following chapter (14:1). This exhortation is also a divine summary of chapter 13. God desires that love should be the motivation of everything we do in the work of our Lord and in exercising our spiritual gifts. To follow and to serve in love is therefore ‘a way of more surpassing excellence’ (12:31).

From: Truth & Testimony, 2020