It might seem paradoxical that one of the most beautiful descriptions of love the world has ever known is associated with a city like Corinth. Decadent and heartless, its inhabitants were known for their self-centered relationships. Lives were routinely used and destroyed. On closer look, however, the setting is highly appropriate. If ever a people needed the principles of real love to change their lives, it was the church in Corinth.
Even by today’s standards, the Corinthian Christians had much to overcome. The city’s primary religion was the worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love whose temple employed 1,000 prostitute priestesses.
Wealth posed another challenge. The city’s prime location on the Isthmus of Corinth connecting northern and southern Greece provided a commercial prosperity that fed its moral decline. This lethal combination of materialism mixed with a sexually oriented religion produced a culture based on personal pleasure.
As often happens, the church in Corinth began to reflect the condition of its environment. Paul dealt with a variety of problems in this first letter to this promising yet troubled church:
• division in the family of God (chs. 1–3)
• pride and spiritual arrogance (ch. 4)
• sexual promiscuity (ch. 5)
• lawsuits between believers (ch. 6)
• troubled marriages (ch. 7)
• abuse of spiritual liberty (chs. 8–10)
• abuse of the Lord’s Table (ch. 11)
• misuse of spiritual gifts (chs. 12,14)
• neglect of doctrinal basics (ch. 15)
Paul’s readers needed to understand that there was more to following Christ than the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and power. All of their eloquent arguments, right doctrine, expressions of faith, and sacrificial giving would actually drive others away if they didn’t rediscover the real meaning of love. With a series of contrasts in 13:1-3, Paul showed what really happens when our actions, even good actions, are not done with love.
The insight the Corinthians needed is vital for all of us. It’s possible that we too have amassed mountains of information from God and about God without understanding His heart. It’s possible that despite the Spirit living in us, we don’t truly care for the people in our lives. It’s possible that we see how and when others are wrong without seeing when we ourselves are wrong.
Such insight is not to condemn us. First Corinthians 13 is not meant to knock us down. It is intended to shine a light when we lose our way. It helps us realize that we can’t let failures in our relationships and attitudes ruin us. We can’t let arguments over our own interests reflect poorly on the credibility of our Lord.
People won’t care much about what we know until they see how much we care. Others are not likely to find our beliefs credible unless they see that we are as concerned about them as we are about ourselves. Without the love of Christ compelling us, evangelism becomes judgmental. Doctrinal purity becomes pharisaical. Personal commitment becomes self-righteous. Worship grows routine and mindless.
God does not merely call us to higher ground. He offers to change us from the inside out. He does not simply present a higher standard of living. He wants to lift us above our own natural way and do something in us that we could never do for ourselves.