Love Like Christ: A Look at 1 Corinthians 13

Kenneth Bailey is gifted New Testament scholar, one whose experience living in the Middle East provides him a unique perspective on Jesus parables and other New Testament issues. In preparation for Sunday’s message on 1 Corinthians 13, I picked up his work, Paul Through Middle Eastern EyesIn it he suggests that 1 Corinthians 11-14 is a series of six homilies, organized by a series of chiasmuses.

His outline gives a fresh way of approaching this often-confused section of Scripture. It doesn’t answer all of the questions, but it does give a pathway to understanding Paul’s argument.

I have reproduced his chiasmuses below, emending one of them and adding another. By looking at these chiasmuses, it lets us understand the central point Paul is trying to make:

Love is the essence of the Christian life. It must be pursued first. Spiritual gifts are instrumental means by which we love others. The central aspect of love is putting others ahead of ourselves, just the way Christ did (Phil 2:1-11).

Let me know what you think.

In the Church, Love is Central

1. Men and Women Leading in Worship: Prophets and How They Dress (11:2-16)

2. Order in Worship: Sacrament—The Lord’s Supper (12:1-30)

3. Gifts and the Nature of the Body (12:1-30)

4. The Hymn of Love (12:31-14:1)

5. Spiritual Gifts and the Upbuilding of the Body (14:1-25)

6. Order in Worship: Word—Prophets and Speakers in Tongues (14:26-33a)

7. Women and Men Worshiping: No Chatting in Church (14:33b-36)

What Love Is: Love is Greater Than Spiritual Gifts

1. The Spiritual Gifts (12:-21)

2. Love and the Spiritual Gifts (13:1-3)

3. Love defined (13:4-7)

4. Love and the Spiritual Gifts (13:8-13)

5. The Spiritual Gifts (14:1-25)

What Love Isn’t: Christian Love Does Not Boast in Its Gifts But in Its Giver

1. Continue in zeal for the higher gifts and I will show the way (12:31)

2. Love and the spiritual gifts (13:1-3)

3. Love defined positively (13:4a)

4. Loved defined negatively (13:4b-6)

5. Love defined positively (13:7)

6. Love and the spiritual gifts (13:8-13)

7. Purse love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts (14:1)
[Original: “Continue in zeal for the gifts and run after love.”
KB overlooks the reversed ordering of love and spiritual gifts; the reversal mirrors the earlier combination (12:31) and stitches the two (love and spiritual gifts) together]

Targeting Christ-like Love: The Center of the Center of the Center of the Circle

I want to suggest that we can take Kenneth Bailey’s outline one step further. In other words, within the center of the Hymn of Love, there is one final chiasmus that lifts explains the question: Why does Paul put at the center of his lovely hymn a series of negative prohibitions?

When I first read Bailey’s outline of 1 Corinthians 11-14, I couldn’t figure out why Paul would center his attention on 5 negative injunctions. After all, in other passages which speak of the believer’s call to love, he stresses the positive action (walking in the Spirit), so that the negative action (gratification of the flesh) would be avoided (see Gal 5:16). In other words, while the OT law stressed things you don’t do (cf. Exod 20), there seems to be in the new covenant a stress on what believers should do: Love one another!

Yet, the outline suggested by Bailey reverses that or opposes that hypothesis. So why does Paul put five negative injunctions at the center of his definition of love?  In wrestling with that question, I wondered if by chance another chiasmus might be lurking in the text. Here is what I came up with, what I believe represents the text Paul gives us.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7: Love Like Christ

1. Love does not [1] envy or [2] boast

2. It is not [1] arrogant or [2] rude

3. It does not insist on its own way

4. It is not [1] irritable or [2] resentful

5. It does not [1] rejoice at wrongdoing but [2] rejoices with the truth.

Like the rest of Paul’s lovely hymn, these verses show intentional sculping. First, Each of the five injunctions is paired except the middle one. Yes, the final injunction does not follow exactly the same ” [1] or [2]” format, but its binary relationship shows a clear distinction from the form of number 3. Second, the pattern of does not/is not/does not creates a staccato repetition that puts stress on the beginning, the middle, and the end. In other words, Paul is intentionally weaving his statements from what love does, to what love is. He may even be emphasizing the dynamic (as opposed to static or ontological) nature of love. Third, the outer [1 and 5] and middles [2 and 4] rings are united by theme (sort of). The outer ring focuses on the inner desires of the heart expressed in envious boasting or joy in the truth. Likewise the middle ring speaks of an inner, agitated disposition that is unbecoming of love.

Together, these three structures give good reason for reading these five negative injunctions as a central chiasmus (the bullseye, if you will) in an already well-sculpted passage.  Still, we might ask: What does the bullseye mean? Why does Paul put “does not insist on its own way” in the center of the hymn of love

The answer is not hard to imagine.

Refusal to insist on your own way, all the while holding fast to the truth, is the way of Christ and his cross. Jesus Christ alone has embodied this love. No one besides him has even come close, but now for those in Christ, the Spirit empowers Christians to love like him.

By centering this hymn on the kind of love Christ had, we see how the centerpiece of the Christian faith is not works (of the Spirit) but conformity to Christ by means of the Spirit. In Christ’s life,  love is seen in his selfless sacrifice. The same is true for you and I.

When Paul calls us to live a life of love, we are to follow in the footsteps of Christ, elevating every man, woman, boy and girl above ourselves. This is the pinnacle of love and it explains why Paul sets the negative injunctions in the center of his hymn: The essence of love is denying ourselves for the good of others, in accordance with truth and for the sake of God’s glory, not our own boasting.

This reading of 1 Corinthians 13 helps us discern what Paul is saying in his hymn of love. It calls us to not only elevate love about Spiritual gifts, but it centers our love in the love of God to us in Christ, and to love like Christ by means of his Holy Spirit. In this way, we can say with Paul: “Pursue love (like Christ) and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” by which we might love others.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

5 thoughts on “Love Like Christ: A Look at 1 Corinthians 13

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