Summary: Year C. Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. 1Corinthians 12:31-13:1-13 January 28, 2001

Year C. Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.

1Corinthians 12:31-13:1-13

January 28, 2001

Lord of the Lake Lutheran Church

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By The Rev. Jerry Morrissey, Esq., Pastor


Heavenly Father thank you for Jesus unconditional love. Amen.

Title: “Conditional versus Unconditional Love.”

In chapter 12 Paul has discussed the spiritual “gifts” and shown that they are given for the building up and operation of the Church whose work is salvation. They are temporary graces to accomplish something. Their purpose will come to an end when that is done. Love, the vital center of God and of the Church will not end. It will last permanently.

Everyone must have love, no matter how expressed in whatever “gift.”

This is high prose, but not quite poetry. It is rhythmic, but not regular. The balance of the sentences and the power of the vocabulary are seldom equaled in Paul. Verses 1-3 contrast love with the “gifts;” verses 4-7 describes love, mostly in terms of what it is not; and verses 8-13 return to the contrast and stress that love is eternal.

In verse 31: strive eagerly: The imperative and indicative forms are identical in the Greek. It is impossible to tell which it is here. If it is imperative, it means to strive for the first three “gifts” in verse 28, that is, apostles, prophets and teachers. This would seem to be somewhat inconsistent with what Paul has said about “gifts” being gifts and not to be sought. However, he might be saying, “If you want to or must “strive” for a gift, strive not for the lowest one, namely, tongues, but the higher or greater ones.” If the verb is in the indicative, and it probably is, it would mean, “You are, indeed, striving for gifts, especially what you consider the “greatest,” tongues, but I am going to show you a better way.”

I shall show you a still more excellent way: Paul recognized that all did not have all gifts. Some thought they had none. Paul says it does not matter what “gifts” one has if love is not also present.

In verses 1-3: Three statements are all constructed on the same model: “If…but have not love…” In each case there is an allusion to a “gift” mentioned in chapter 12 tongues in verse 1=12:28; prophecy in verse 2= 12: 10, 28; knowledge in verse 2=12:8; faith in verse 2=12:9; helping in verse 3= 12:28.

If the exact nature of the “gift” is not clear, the point certainly is. The exercise of any gift or activity or any attitude that is minus love is nothing at all. There is nothing authentically Christian unless it is founded on, motivated by, and expressed with, love.

In verse 1: Paul treats of the gifts of tongues and interpretation first because he considers it “least” important and most open among all the gifts to the charge of being loveless.

Love: Paul uses the special Christian word for love, agape. It is not “good feeling” love, but “good will” love, sacrificial love.

In human and angelic tongues: Speaking in tongues was thought to be the same speech the angels use. Here and there in Jewish literature, outside of scripture, there is mention of this. Job’s daughters were said to have used it in praising God and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, because of his piety and learning, was said to understand it. Here, “angelic” speech refers to the unintelligible speech of “tongues,” while “human” speech refers to its intelligible interpretation

Resounding gong or a clanging cymbal: In pagan worship the clang of the cymbal was used either to get the god’s attention or to drive the demons away, producing much sound but little sense. This was also a metaphor for empty philosophizing. It may pass for music, but it has no meaning. So also with “tongues” without love.

In verse 2: The three gifts mentioned in all lists are subjected to the same test of love. The gift of teaching is expressed here in its quintessential form of “comprehending all mysteries and knowledge.” The gift of “apostle” is described as in 12:9 as “faith to move mountains.,” to perform miracles, not the faith which every Christian has and must have. That faith is treated in 13:13. Prophecy, the divine interpretation to the human situation, is not effective unless the prophet does it in love. The same is true of apostles and teachers and, by extension, all who serve in the church no matter what title is held.

In verse 3: Paul runs the gamut of Christian activity in this brief sentence. Almsgiving, a private and daily feature of being a Christian, even to the point of personal poverty, on one end, and martyrdom, a public and once-in-a lifetime act of generous sacrifice, at the other end, are not exceptions to Paul’s principle of love as the necessary condition to make a person and his or her attitudes and actions Christian. Without that ingredient they are something else, nothing really, as far as Christ is concerned.

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