Many Christians apply 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter of love, at weddings, engagements and other types of events, making the application to love in the family and household, and how love overcomes all the negative items mentioned in the chapter. This is good and acceptable to use in this setting as an application. However, we need to know why this chapter is there in the actual context of the letter of Paul to the church at Corinth. We also need to know what the apostle Paul was writing before and after chapter 13, and when read in its proper context, we will see that the writer had not intended this to mean love between couples, or in a family or household, but this is still a characteristic of every true Christian person.
When we read the first epistle to the Corinthians, the background is that these new Christians were in a place called Corinth, which is in modern day Greece, and at that time it was marked by absolute idolatry and all things to do with devil worship. These new believers had come a long way and were especially gifted in all things in order to edify their local place of gathering, or local church, or some may refer to this as local assembly. When we study the first epistle, Paul commends the people in the first eight verses, and notice that the start of the letter is not only for them, but for all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord (ch 1:2). This includes us too, who are living in this day and age. These believers are called saints earlier in verse 2, and it is a great blessing that we are called saints in the sight of God Himself! However, the rest of the epistle deals with matters of correction in the local church and putting a person out of fellowship, which is not an easy task at all, but is a matter for the whole congregation to decide once all the facts are laid correctly.
These words of correction are up to the end of chapter 6. Chapter 7 commences the second division in which Paul begins to address the believers about questions that they had for him, and it is another blessing that his response is part of the divine word of God. Chapter 7 deals with issues regarding marriage, chapter 8 with issues regarding food offered to idols, In relation to chapter 8, we need to be reminded that these people came from an idolatry background, just like Abraham did. Paul tells them that they should feel free to eat of any food displayed in the markets and for them to not ask where it came from. All food is cleansed and blessed by God for us. Peter had to learn this, that what God has cleansed, no man shall call common or unclean (Acts 10:15). Back in 1 Corinthians, chapter 9 deals with freedom of service, chapter 10 deals with the Lord’s table and corrects the believers that no one can partake of the Lord’s table and also partake of the table of demons. In our day today, if we are committed to partake at the Lord’s table, we should not partake in fellowship with those who do not know the Lord as Saviour, especially on the day when we are called to remember Him in breaking of bread. Chapter 11 deals with the Lord’s supper and how the Corinthians misused this as a feast. We are warned to not misuse the Lord’s supper and eat of the bread and drink of the cup in an unworthy manner. I will not give examples, but you can figure out from how the Corinthian believers were behaving, some were being disciplined by God unto death (1 Cor 11:30). However, those that died as a result of discipline are with the Lord, but their testimony on earth was non-existent that God had to call them home to Him.
Now we come to chapter 12, which presents before us spiritual gifts. The chapter speaks of the manifestation of spiritual gifts and how each person has a gift given by the Spirit of God, and is to be used in accordance with the Word of God. The picture in chapter 12 is of a body, and that no one can say because they are insignificant, they are not important in their local church and therefore do not have gifts. The example is that if everyone had the same gift and used the same gift, what would happen? (v 14-21). It is also true that when one member suffers, the rest of the body suffers. Think about this – if you had a headache, or a sore foot, doesn’t your whole body suffer, or is it just your head or foot? The apostle Paul concludes chapter 12 by wanting to show them a more excellent way.
What is the way in which a believer, you and me, can use the gift that God gave us in the local church? This is where chapter 13 comes in, the chapter of love, but it is in the context of using our spiritual gifts in the local church, in love, the divine love that God gave us, we use this in our relationships as brothers and sisters in our local church. We use these gifts in love, not in puffing up ourselves and showing off saying that I am better than the other person who doesn’t seem to have the same type of gifts that I have. At the same time, love is not envious. As a Christian in a local church, if a person has a gift and uses it more than I do, do I get envious or jealous, or do I act in love and pray for that person? This is the idea of chapter 13, that for the gifts to be effective, they need to be used in love one to another in the local church.
Then chapter 14 comes along, and it speaks about more gifts, but while chapter 12 speaks about the manifestation of the Spiritual gifts, chapter 14 is about the use of these gifts. How do we effectively use these gifts? It is for the edification, or building up of our local church; the building up of each member from young to old. There are many things in chapter 14, but this is not the subject here. I only attempt to point out that chapter 13 is in between chapters 12 and 14 for a reason, and the reason is how we are supposed to use the gifts that God gave us – in a manner of love one to another. We can read all about the great qualities of love in chapter 13 and enjoy this, but we need to remember that the actual and original context of this is within the local church and love seen in our relationships with one another. However, as mentioned before, this could apply to any Christian marriage, home or setting, but we need to grasp the actual teaching or context of things and not attempt to take things completely out of its context. Chapter 14 speaks about preaching for building up one another and the conclusion of the chapter is that all things should be done decently and in order, as this is the Church of God, and not our own church.
May the Lord help us to understand Scripture in its proper context, and may we not be tempted to form our own opinions, as this is God’s Word and He reveals explanations to us when we are sincere and truly seek the truth. Once we understand passages of Scripture in the proper context, we can then make applications as individuals, families, and so on, but only when this is permitted.