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1 Corinthians 13: Why Is Love So Important?

Today’s post is adapted from 1 Corinthiansin the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, as well as Paul D. Gardner’s lecture on 1 Corinthians 13 in 1 Corinthians, A Video Study: 36 Lessons on History, Meaning, and Application.

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Love as described in 1 Corinthians 13 is best understood as a way of life, lived in imitation of Jesus Christ, that is focused not on oneself but on the “other” and his or her good.

Love is about action, how a person lives for the Lord and obeys him and how a person lives for others and serves them.

Yet it is also about being. This is because its foundation is in God who is love, and in Christ who shows that love. The sense that this is about more than simply how people behave is seen in passages like Paul’s prayer of Ephesians 3:14–19, particularly as he prays that Christians will be “rooted and grounded in love.” To “know the love of Christ” is to experience his presence “through faith” in their “hearts.” God’s people are to look and become more and more like Christ, and it is this for which Paul prays here.

It is because being and actions are so closely tied together in God and in Christ, first, but then also in his people, that Paul calls love a “more excellent way” (12:31b). It is the way of the new age that has been ushered in with the appearance of the Messiah, who has shown it in his life, passion, and death, but who has also exhibited it in his being. Love is the way of existence in the heavenlies. As this breaks into the present in Christ, his people, filled with the Spirit of Christ, are to take on this way of existence and develop a life where love guides their approach to all things. Of course, this will immediately be seen in how they live and speak and think. Even so, when all that is mentioned here is done, the meaning of love for the believer is by no means exhausted!

Love is countercultural

Paul’s description of the action and behavior produced by love is distinctly countercultural. It speaks against the envy, pride, and self-centeredness of the Corinthian Christians, and in doing so speaks clearly to our own generation as well.

In a society where so much is presented in terms of “self”—self-awareness, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-image, self-realization—to present a way of existence in which a person lives for the other in a life of loving self-sacrifice will be highly provocative. Following the one who gave his life as a sacrifice for us will be humbling and undoubtedly costly in terms of human recognition and progress in life as secular society defines it.

Christ has to remain the example. The envy, boasting, rudeness, arrogance, and anger of normal life will be turned upside down. Instead, patience and love and a rejoicing in truth are to mark out God’s people. In line with the way Christ forgave our sin and no longer holds it against us, so our love is to hold no record of evil.

This is surely one of the easiest ways in which Christians fail properly to handle the times when they are sinned against. They forgive, but the hurt or pain remains at the back of their mind. Then, the next time they encounter that person who has wronged them, they remember and keep score. If something goes wrong again in the relationship, they may once again say “I forgive you,” but they will then add the word “but.” The “but” usually will hark back to the past and to the record that has been kept of previous hurts committed. We are reminded of Peter’s question about how often to forgive his brother when he sins against him (Matt 18:21). The answer Jesus gives is that life must be lived as a forgiving life. Disciples of Christ will go on and on forgiving because it is part of who they are. Love is a most excellent way

Love is not soft

Many see love as little more than an attitude of “niceness” to everyone. This means that any dispute, any strong speaking over important matters, and any firm spiritual discipling or disciplining of another is to be regarded as unloving. In some churches this has even led to a watered-down Christian faith being preached with little emphasis on holiness lest some should feel condemned or unloved.

The apostle Paul wrote of the dangers of letting the world’s understanding of matters like this influence the church in 2 Timothy 4:3–4:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (ESV).

One of the modern myths so prevalent in our society is that love will tolerate all things, promote all things, and deny nothing. In Scripture love is beautiful and well defined for us in that God is love, and Jesus demonstrated this perfectly to us all. The New Testament writers, like Paul in this chapter, put further, down-to-earth flesh on the subject. Certainly, love is not soft. It will always seek to build up the other, but that does not mean turning a blind eye to sin or not calling out evil in another person. “It does not rejoice at evil” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

In fact, true love, since it is supremely seen in the gospel of Jesus Christ, will often divide people, for that is what happens as the gospel is preached and lived out. While Paul can urge patience and insist on kindness—“Love is patient, love is kind”— he sees no contradiction between this and possibly bringing a “rod” to the Corinthian church: in 1 Corinthians 4:21, he writes: “Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?” Neither does he see a conflict between God’s love and God’s severe discipline of his people; Hebrews 12:6, for example, tells us that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

It is critical when presenting the love inherent in the gospel of Jesus Christ that it not be reduced to meaningless platitudes and the “smiley face” of yesteryear. Love is not soft.

Love is Christ-like

Love is a way of being as a person, a way of thinking, acting, and living. It is, in fact, being Christ-like. Paul, the author of this letter to the Corinthians, has shown us what this looks like in his own life in chapter 9. For example, he tells them:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

He also tells the Corinthians to “be imitators of me.” Love is the way of being that is so all invasive that it affects the whole of the way life is conducted.

But what is love?

The idea of “love,” in contrast with “knowledge” and grace-gifts, is introduced earlier in the letter, in 1 Corinthians 8: “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” The argument in 8:1 that “love builds up” reminds the reader that when Paul speaks of “building up” the church or the body he thinks of love in action in the community. The focus of love here is thus predominantly the believer or the church—the understood object of “to build up.”

The love of God poured out by the Holy Spirit

In 1 Corinthians 8:3, Paul tells us that God is the object of love. Since Paul rarely talks of love for God, this first deserves comment. As Barrett writes, “It is more characteristic of Paul to describe man’s response to God as faith rather than love.” Love for God was seen to rest in God’s prior work through his Spirit. Paul’s understanding of the process involved here is most clearly expressed in Romans 5:5: “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (NJB). This is why Paul regards love for God rather than wisdom or knowledge as evidence of having “not received the spirit of the world; rather we have received the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). This close relationship between love and the work of the Spirit no doubt provides a partial explanation for why in Paul, and in the early church more generally, love is seen as the authenticator or marker of a Christian. It is possession by the Spirit of God (who pours out God’s love into believers’ hearts) that indicates a person belongs to Christ (Rom 8:9–11).

This idea also lies behind much of the discussion for the next several chapters. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:1 begins with the imperative “pursue love”, before returning to the subject of grace-gifts, which must operate in a context of love. He writes, “Follow the way of love [literally: “pursue love”] and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.”

Imitating Christ’s love

A further explanation of why love comes to function as the marker par excellence of the true believer lies in the imitation of Christ. Christ stands as the supreme example of love through the whole of his life, but specially in his death. In 1 Corinthians 1 the death of Christ was at the center of Paul’s understanding of God’s wisdom (his plan) to save his people. It was the “word of the cross” that was the power of God to those “being saved” (1:18). Supremely in Christ’s death the love of God and of Christ was shown. The link is explicit in Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (ESV). It is also clear in Ephesians 5:2: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (ESV).

Love and the Law

A third explanation of why love comes to authenticate people of true Christian faith is surely to be found in the way the law is now understood to be written on the hearts of all Christians. Love, focused in two directions, was to be a defining marker of all God’s people since the days of the Mosaic law. The first direction, repeatedly stressed, is summed up in Deuteronomy 6:5 with the command to love “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (NRSV). The second direction is toward the neighbor (Levitucs 19:18). Jesus repeated this law and even expanded its horizons for the disciples in Matthew 5:43–44 with the command to love enemies. Indeed, Paul talked in Galatians 5:13–14 of the law being “fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (ESV).

None of these explanations need stand alone. Much of the whole of biblical theology is based on God and his love for his people and the response of love from his people. As the new-covenant people now saw themselves as endued with the Holy Spirit, as having the law on their hearts, and as called to obey Christ, it is not surprising that love develops even more clearly than it had been in the Old Testament into the defining marker of those who truly belong to Christ and follow him. No wonder Paul later speaks of love as the “greatest” when speaking of those Christian markers that will go forward in to all eternity (13:13c). For Paul, then, love for God is inevitably the sure sign that the person is “known [by God]” (8:3).

Finally, perhaps the great surprise of chapter 13 is the depth of intimacy of the love relationship Paul described. It is surely more than could have been imagined, especially as Paul looks forward to seeing “face to face” and writes, “Then I shall know fully even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

We shall know God, not in the sense of having the same omniscience as God has, but “even as” he has known us personally with such extraordinary depths of love.

Learn more in 1 Corinthians, A Video Study: 36 Lessons on History, Meaning, and Application.

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