Love is a way of being as a person, a way of thinking, acting, and living. It is, in fact, being Christ-like or (given the first-person singular in 11:1) even being like Paul, who has shown us what this looks like in his own life in chapter 9 and so summoned the Corinthians to “be imitators of me” (4:16; 11:1). Love is the way of being that is so all invasive that it affects the whole of the way life is conducted.
The idea of “love,” in contrast with “knowledge” and grace-gifts, is introduced in 1 Corinthians 8:1 and lies behind much of the discussion through to the end of chapter 14.
Paul in 14:1 begins with the imperative “pursue love,” before returning to the subject of grace-gifts, which must operate in a context of love. The magnificent poetry of chapter 13 contains the greatest exposition of love. However, the concept of love is present in these other chapters even when the word is not. 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.”
First Corinthians 8:3, however, provides a rare exception to this, where God is the object of the love. However, we may recall that Paul has already talked of love for God in 2:9, and 8:3 appears deliberately to build on the teaching of chapters 1–3. There the emphasis was on the electing call of God (1:26–29), who had saved his people (1:18) by his power (2:5). Thus, 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” (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).
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.
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 (Lev 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).
Perhaps the great surprise of 1 Corinthians 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). Gone, as it were, will be the love letters and the photographs and the messages, for “then,” to use John’s language, the bride and husband are together (Rev 18:3; 19:7). 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.
— Paul Gardner, 1 Corinthians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament).
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