Why Is Love Called the Greatest of These? (1 Corinthians 13)

Why Is Love Called the Greatest of These? (1 Corinthians 13)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
—1 Corinthians 13

The Way of Love

What Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 on spiritual gifts prepares the Corinthians for what follows. Paul directly addresses the specific problem in chapter 14: some Corinthians desire the gift of tongues more than the gift of prophecy. Prophecy is what Paul has in mind when he commands, “Earnestly desire the higher gifts,” that is, “the greater gifts” (NASB, NIV, CSB, NET), the gifts that most build up the church when the church meets together. To paraphrase: “You are earnestly desiring the gift of tongues, but you should earnestly desire more edifying gifts instead—like prophecy.” But before Paul directly addresses that problem, he shows the Corinthians “a still more excellent way”—namely, the way of love (ch. 13).

“Love” translates the Greek word agapē, “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love.”1 Paul begins with three illustrations of how superlatives without love equal nothing (1 Cor.13:1–3). Then he describes this essential love (1 Cor. 13:4–8a) and compares it to other gifts (1 Cor. 13:8b–13). Love is not a spiritual gift. It is essential for using spiritual gifts, and it is more important than spiritual gifts.

It is important to understand chapter 13 in its literary context. This passage is one of Paul’s most well known, especially verses 4–7 (“Love is patient and kind . . .”). If one looked at only some of Paul’s words in chapter 13, one might think this passage applies primarily to a marriage, an intimate relationship that requires love in order for it to function well. Because so many people have chosen to have this passage read during wedding ceremonies, a lot of people think this passage is referring to love between a husband and wife. While it applies indirectly to a marriage relationship, it applies most directly to the issue in chapters 1 Cor. 12–14. When the Corinthians first heard these words, they would not have thought, “Aww, how sweet. What beautiful, inspiring words!” They would have received Paul’s words as a verbal spanking: “Ouch!” The repentant might pray, “God, forgive us for being so unloving. The way we are acting is ugly, but the way of love is beautiful.”

The Corinthians were abusing the gift of tongues by wrongly elevating it as more important than other gifts. They were not using it to edify others. So Paul argues in chapter 12 that all of the diverse members of the unified body of Christ are important and that it is foolish to elevate certain gifts, such as speaking in tongues, over other gifts in importance. Paul argues in chapter 14 that prophesying is greater than speaking in tongues because it edifies the whole church; the higher gifts edify the whole church because they are intelligible. In between these passages, Paul argues in chapter 13 that no matter what gift the Spirit enables someone to use, the gift does not profit that person unless he uses it in love. Love is indispensable for using spiritual gifts, whether the Spirit empowers one to speak in tongues or prophesy or teach or whatever.

Paul illustrates that love is essential for Christ-followers by stating three equations that begin with superlatives:

  • 1 Cor. 13:1: the most impressive speech – love = nothing
  • 1 Cor. 13:2: the most impressive gifts – love = nothing
  • 1 Cor. 13:3: the most impressive personal sacrifices – love = nothing

“Tongues of men and of angels” is probably a poetic way of referring to impressive, aesthetically pleasing speech in every kind of language—including speaking in tongues.2 For the comical opposite of an aesthetically pleasing sound, imagine someone repeatedly, chaotically, and loudly clanging a cymbal.3 That is what the most impressive speaker is like without love.

“Prophetic powers” refers to the gift of prophecy. To understand “all mysteries and all knowledge” is to be omniscient like God. Having “all faith” refers to the most remarkable degree possible.4 But even if we have all of these most impressive gifts, we are nothing without love.

Paul writes “but have not love” three times in verses 1–3. Love is not an object we can buy. To “have” love is to behave in a loving way, which Paul describes here by personifying love with sixteen action verbs, seven positive (descriptions 1–2, 11–15) and nine negative (3–10, 16).5

Descriptions 1–2 (v. 4a) passively and actively explain how love responds to sinful people.

1. Love is “patient,” that is, forbearing, long-suffering. It does not retaliate (cf. Rom. 12:14, 17–19).

2. Love is “kind,” that is, merciful, compassionate. It overcomes evil with good (cf. Rom. 12:20–21).

Descriptions 3–9 (1 Cor. 13:4b–5) explain how love does not behave. A person cannot simultaneously do these actions and yet claim to love.

3. Love “does not envy.” “Covetousness wants what the other guy has; envy is angry that the other guy has it.”6 “There is jealousy and strife among” the Corinthians (3:3), but love rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep (cf. Rom. 12:15).

4. Love does not “boast,” which translates a word that means “to heap praise on oneself, behave as a . . . ‘braggart, windbag.’”7

5. Love is not “arrogant,” which translates a word that means “to cause to have an exaggerated self-conception, puff up, make proud.”8 This describes some of the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2). Love associates with the lowly and is not wise in its own sight (cf. Rom. 12:16).

6. Love is not “rude,” or indecent. It outdoes others in showing honor (cf. Rom. 12:10).

7. Love “does not insist on its own way.” It looks to the interests of others (cf. 1 Cor. 10:33; Rom. 15:3; Phil. 2:4, 20–21). It lives in harmony with others (cf. Rom. 12:16). As much as possible, it lives peaceably with all (cf. Rom. 12:18).

8. Love is not “irritable.” A minor (perceived) offense does not trigger an explosive temper.

9. Love is not “resentful.” In the Greek it “does not count the evil.” Love does not strive to get even with others. This is the negative way of stating the first description on the list: “Love is patient.”

Descriptions 10–11 (1 Cor. 13:6) explain love’s posture toward evil and truth. It hates what God hates and loves what God loves.

10. Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing.” It “abhor[s] what is evil” (Rom. 12:9).9

11. Love “rejoices with the truth.” It “hold[s] fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).

Descriptions 12–15 (1 Cor. 13:7) are a chiasm that explains how love relates to others in all circumstances.10 It never stops (A + A’) but has the best interest of others in mind (B + B’).

(A) Love bears all things.
      (B) Love believes all things.
      (B’) Love hopes all things.
(A’) Love endures all things.

12. Love “bears all things.” Love endures anything for the sake of the gospel (9:12).

13. Love “believes all things.” Paul does not mean that love is naively gullible. Rather, love generously believes the best about others rather than being sinfully cynical.

14. Love “hopes all things.” It wants others to flourish (cf. 2 Cor. 1:7; 10:15).

15. Love “endures all things.” It never gives up. The final description (1 Cor. 13:8a) transitions to verses 8b–13.

The final description (1 Cor. 13:8a) transitions to the rest of chapter 13.

16. Love “never ends.” It is everlasting.

Love is not a spiritual gift. It is essential for using spiritual gifts, and it is more important than spiritual gifts.

The ultimate example of love is the triune God. For example, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. . . . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:5, 8).

It is impossible for a sinful human to embody love perfectly—particularly when Christians use their spiritual gifts when the church meets together. But the gospel requires God’s holy people to mature in purity and unity; that is, Christians must mature in love. Love for one another is the mark of Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35). So Christians must grow to love others just as God unselfishly and sacrificially loves others (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 4:8–10, 19).

The Greatest of These Is Love

Paul frequently refers to the faith-hope-love triad in his letters (e.g., Col. 1:4–5; 1 Thess. 1:3; 5:8). He mentions it in the final verse of the chapter to demonstrate that love is superior. The qualities of faith (trusting God for what we cannot see) and hope (confidently expecting God to do what he has promised) are temporary: (1) Now we walk by faith, but then we will walk by sight (2 Cor. 5:7; cf. 4:18). (2) Now we hope for what we cannot see, but then we will no longer need to hope for what we see (Rom. 8:24–25). Faith and hope—in these senses—will be unnecessary “when the perfect comes” (1 Cor. 13:10) but “love never ends” (v. 8).11 And this should not be surprising, since, among faith, hope, and love, “love is the all-embracing virtue,” and only love is an attribute of God.12

We must not repeat the Corinthians’ error. Some of them valued speaking in tongues more than prophecy, but when the church meets together, intelligible words are more valuable for building up the church. When we think about spiritual gifts we would like to have, we ought earnestly to desire what is most edifying. This is the way of love.


  1. BDAG, s.v. ἀγάπη, italics original.
  2. Jay E. Smith, “1 Corinthians,” in The Bible Knowledge Word Study: Acts–Ephesians, ed. Darrell L. Bock, BKnS (Colorado Springs: Victor, 2006), 294: “Given the references to tongues in 12:28, 30; 13:8 and the fifteen occurrences in chapter 14, this expression is probably a reference to the supernatural gift of tongues. Yet, it is not entirely clear whether Paul or the Corinthians (or both) thought that the gift of tongues was the dialects of angels. . . . Several Jewish parallels, which mention the languages of angels, make this a definite possibility (Ascension of Isaiah 7:13–37; b Bava Batra 134a; b Sukkah 28a; esp. Testament of Job, 48–50, where one of Job’s daughters ‘spoke ecstatically in the angelic dialect’ . . . ).” For an exhaustive study of references to angelic languages from the second century BC to the Italian Renaissance, see John C. Poirier, The Tongues of Angels: The Concept of Angelic Languages in Classical Jewish and Christian Texts, WUNT 2.287 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).
  3. “A noisy gong” may refer not to a musical instrument but instead to a large bronze vase that Greek theaters used to project actors’ speech (cf. Schnabel, Erster Korintherbrief, 760–761). If so, then Paul is arguing, “Speaking in tongues apart from love is a sound all right; but it is a mere echo, a reverberation, an empty sound coming out of a hollow lifeless vessel” (William W. Klein, “Noisy Gong or Acoustic Vase? A Note on 1 Corinthians 13.1,” NTS 32 [1986]: 288). But the parallelism—“a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”—makes it likely that the first item is also a musical instrument; thus every major English translation renders the first item as either “gong” or “brass.”
  4. Paul is probably not alluding to the mountain-moving faith that Jesus describes in Matthew 17:20 (cf. Matt. 21:21; Mark 11:23), because the mountain-moving faith to which Paul hyperbolically refers is massive while the mountain-moving faith to which Jesus refers is “like a grain of mustard seed.”
  5. English translations understandably render some of the sixteen verbs as adjectives; e.g., “love is patient ” instead of “love forbears.”
  6. Joe Rigney, “Envy,” in Killjoys: The Seven Deadly Sins, ed. Marshall Segal (Minneapolis: Desiring God, 2015), 23.
  7. BDAG, s.v. περπερεύομαι, italics original.
  8. BDAG, s.v. φυσιόω, italics original.
  9. Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 265: “Modern people ‘delight in evil’ in all kinds of ways . . . [including] in the sexual arena, as the media portrays as desirable virtually every conceivable form of homosexual and heterosexual sin, while regularly refusing to portray or even acknowledge the existence of positive married life and family relationships, particularly those based on Christian convictions.”
  10. “All things” translates panta, which likely functions here as an adverb, that is, always, “in all respects, in every way, altogether” (BDAG, s.v. πᾶς 1dβ, italics original). See J. William Johnston, The Use of Πᾶς in the New Testament, SBG 11 (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 157–158. Some interpret “bears all things” and “believes all things” as being in reference to God rather than to humans, but Paul likely intends humans for at least two reasons: (1) The other fourteen items in the list specify how love behaves with reference to fellow humans. (2) Paul’s point in the literary context is that Christians must use spiritual gifts with love in church meetings in a way that benefits fellow humans (i.e., edifies Christians and evangelizes non-Christians).
  11. I say “in these senses” because there is a sense in which faith and hope are eternal. God’s people will eternally trust him and confidently expect him to do what he promises. This is why some interpret the opening words “So now” logically rather than temporally and thus conclude that faith, hope, and love all remain eternally (e.g., see Carson, Showing the Spirit, 72–75). But a temporal reading makes better sense in the literary context, esp. 12:31 and 13:8–12 (cf. table 2.12); cf. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 720–721.
  12. Carson, Showing the Spirit, 75.

This article is by Andrew David Naselli and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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