Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
The reading for this Sunday continues to build upon the vision of community developed in the previous two Sundays. Once again it will thus be helpful to read my comments for the Second Sunday of Epiphany with their introduction to the Corinthian themes that underlie the argument here.
So you think this is really something? It might seem that the imaginative and creative image of a many-membered body of believers caught up in mutual care for one another would be enough to imagine that we were already in heaven, or at least close. But Paul isn’t finished. He says, if you think this is something, let me pull back the curtain a bit and let you in on an even more fantastic vision of the Christian life as prepared for us by the Spirit of God.
At the end of this beautiful poem Paul will remind us that this vision of community is ultimately not about knowing or doing things, but is about knowing a person “face to face” and that living in such a community is merely a reflection of our having first been known and caught up in the love of God (13:12).
To begin with it will be important to keep in mind that this is poetry, and well-attested by use as easily one of the most beautiful and loved pieces in the New Testament. The task will thus be in part to rescue or recover a reading that has gained so close an association with weddings and married love. Its placement here as a culmination of the argument of chapter 12 makes clear that it is rather a vision of the love that characterizes the one body of a caring community that is the gift of the Spirit in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is poetry. And part of its appeal is the effect of its overall conception coupled with the beauty of the structures of rhythm and repetition. These structures can perhaps best be sensed simply by reading the text aloud in any good translation, or perhaps several. However archaic the language, it is difficult to improve on the cadences of the familiar King James Version. As for the details of language and structure these may be pursued in the notes of a good critical commentary.
A Fantastic Journey
“And I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31b). Though located in our text as part of chapter 12, this sentence is clearly transitional, linking the first stage of Paul’s argument regarding our oneness in Christian community to this second stage that now comes in the form of a poetic vision. Omitted in the reading for the previous Sunday, it will need to be added to the reading for this Sunday. “I will show you…”
The word choice here is intentional and significant in its pastoral wisdom. This is the language of Epiphany. In the end, the vision of community that Paul holds out for his Corinthian brothers and sisters as an alternative to the divisions that threaten them will come neither for them nor for us as either counsel or command but through a revelation. In the end, it is not about a project to be completed, but about a vision of a new reality, a new possibility, that captivates and motivates simply by the power of its conception and the promise God’s Spirit in Christ Jesus.
“A still more excellent way.” Though admittedly tricky to translate, the traditional translation here has not been the best. The Greek word used here has come into English directly in our word “hyperbole.” One could do worse than picking up those associations. This is ultimately a poetic vision; it is exaggeration that befits a reality that Paul imagines cannot be captured sufficiently only through argumentative prose. It is the same wondrous vision with which Paul has sought to tease these Corinthians earlier.
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (2:9-10). It is revelation. Like the beauty of an opening flower, it comes as surprise and as a fantastic vision of the possibilities of life in the oneness of community that is the gift of the Spirit.
“An more excellent way.” The word used here — “way,” road,” or “path;” Greek hodos — has a rich history in the Scriptures and in early Christian reflection and practice. The invitation is to a journey, a venture of which the end is of course only known to God. And so it is ultimately to be cast back upon trust in the wisdom and promises of the God who is faithful and who has called us into this community (1:9).
An Unfolding Vision
The poetic vision of the chapter divides neatly into four “verses:” 1-3; 4-7; 8-12; with a climactic conclusion in verse 13.
- In the first “verse” (1-3) a triplet of symmetrical conditions balances a series of “what if” extravagant possibilities with a conclusion about their essential empty reality if love is not the active agent.
- The second “verse” (4-7) consists of an almost relentless rehearsal of the dynamic actions and qualities of love. The rhythm is carried by a three-fold repetition of “love,” followed by a series of actions in which love is not specifically named, and then concluded with a four-fold listing, each beginning with the phrase “all things…”
- The opening “love never fails” of the third “verse” (8-12) turns reflection on “love” to consideration of the contrast between that which is “perfect” or “complete” (teleios) and that which is only “partial” or “incomplete” (ek merous, used four times in these several verses). Again in an effective conditional triad, even prophesy, tongues, and knowledge, are dismissed as only partial compared to that which is full or complete (13:10).
In a fuller vision, infancy will be exchanged for full maturity (13:11); imperfect or shadowy vision will be exchanged for the full knowledge that resides in the recognition ultimately that it is not so much that I know things, but rather that I have been known by some One (13:12; the use of the past tense would seem to be an intentional allusion to the event of the cross and resurrection so important to Paul’s message to the Corinthians).
- “To know just as I have been known” (verse 12). Indeed, what a fantastic vision to imagine life lived as a journey in which the experience of Christian community should be a perfect reflection of the love which God has first shown us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At one other place in his letters Paul will approach that same enormity of conception inspired by so great a revelation. In his climactic conclusion of chapter 8 in his later letter to the Christians at Rome he will ask, “If God is for us, who could be against us? … There is nothing that will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Rom 8:31, 39).
An Abiding Trinity
The concluding “verse” of the poem (13:13) is both a climax and an important turn. In a certain sense it marks a re-turn to reality from this fantastic vision. The familiar “and now” or “but now” of the translations might better be translated as “But now as the case actually is…”, and the fuller expression, as the present tense of the verb “abide” suggests, should be “But now as the case is faith, hope, and love are a present ongoing reality.”
The phrase imitates the same assertion of the reality of God’s action in 12:18 of last Sunday’s reading, and, as 1 Thessalonians 1:3 shows, it picks up a theme that belongs to Paul’s earliest preaching of the gospel. The reality of God’s love offers assurance that this vision of community is not just of things that will be, but a down payment already taking shape in a community that Paul can boldly say is not lacking in any gift which the Spirit has to offer (see 1:7).
The assertion that love is “the greatest” is certainly in part for rhetorical effect and by way of transition to the continuing argument about building up community in chapter 14. More importantly, the triad of faith, hope, and love are an important unspoken reminder of the Trinity and that all of this grand conception belongs to the Spirit’s gifts to the one body in a caring community of mutual responsibility.