Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 3, 2010

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13


  1. Big in its value
  2. Big in its actions
  3. Big in its permanence

 Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13


“Love” is a big word.  “Love” is not big because it has lots of letters and syllables.  “Love” is not big because it gets used so often.  “Love,” as the Bible uses the word, is big and rich and filled with meaning.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus spoke to his disciples on Thursday of Holy Week, preparing them for the time in the not-too-distant future when he would be taken from them into heaven and in a sense they would be on their own, without his physical presence among them.  Among his thoughts was the “new command” Jesus gave his disciples, “Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:35).  It’s that statement that suggested 1 Corinthians 13, the great “love” chapter of the Bible, for today’s Second Lesson.

Anytime you deal with the word “love” in the New Testament, you have to ask what Greek word is being used.  There are four Greek words for love, and they all have a different and unique flavor.  One word suggests love of equals.  Another suggests love of opposites.  A third term suggests love someone has because they are the recipient of some benefit.  And the final term suggests love that originates in the giver, love that is not at all dependant on anything that is received.  That last term is the Greek word agapeAgape is the word Jesus used in John 13.  It’s the word Paul used in 1 Corinthians 13.  And it’s a big word because it is so rich in meaning.  Today’s sermon will consider that big word, agape, love, as the apostle Paul described it in today’s Second Lesson.  Love is a big word: big in value, big in actions, big in permanence.


This chapter of the Bible is pretty popular.  People love to hear the simple but beautiful description of agape love that Paul puts forth in these words.  But many people don’t realize that Paul’s words on agape love come in the midst of criticisms for the lovelessness among the Corinthians.  The Corinthians were bragging about the spiritual gifts they had as if it was some sort of contest.  Instead of using their gifts in love to serve one another, they had turned their individual talents and gifts into a comparison contest and ego boost.  Their problem was a lack of love.  In this chapter, Paul basically tells the Corinthians, “This is love, and you guys ain’t showin’ it!” 

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  I may be the greatest speaker and most eloquent communicator in the church; I might be able to speak in different languages through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But if that happens without love, it’s just noise.  “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  I may be the greatest preacher with an ability to explain every obscure verse and word in Scripture; I may have a faith that trusts in every letter of the Bible.  But if that exists without love, I’m just an empty suit.  “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”  I could parse out every last thing I own to every needy person in the Bay Area; I could go so far as to give my own life as an act of devotion to God.  But if that happens without love, there is no profit or benefit at all.  Without love, these acts are useless.  But love makes all the difference.  Love is big in its value.

We tend to judge people – and ourselves – by accomplishments.  The more academic letters behind your name, the more business experience and professional achievements with your name on it, the more respectable you are.  But tell me, did you go to school with the thought that you can use that education to serve other people in your life in love?  Did you seek advancements with the thought that you’ll be able to make connections with people who need to hear about Jesus because you love their souls?  Or did you go to school and get those academic letters to make an income—and the more, the better?  Let’s face reality: Even the best, most noble, most noteworthy actions are tainted with the same pride and self-centeredness that existed among the original recipients of Paul’s letter.  All too often, love has been in short supply in our lives, and sin has been all too prevalent.

But what a contrast when we look to Jesus Christ!  In love with a value that can’t be matched, Jesus came into this world to address the consequences of our sin and lovelessness.  He fulfilled his Father’s command to love everyone perfectly.  He loved his disciples, he loved the sick and hurting souls who encountered him, he loved the little children who were brought to him, he loved the lost souls he confronted, and he even loved his enemies.  Jesus’ love has tremendous value.  By faith in Christ, his love counts for us, covering up our sin and making us perfect and holy in God the Father’s sight.  We may fail to appreciate the value of love, but the value of Christ’s love for us is immeasurable.


This reading is often used in wedding ceremonies and for wedding sermons.  I preached on verses four through seven for a wedding sermon several years ago.  With all of the “love” lingo, it seems like it should be a perfect fit, right?  After one wedding sermon, my verdict is, “Never again!”  This is a hard section to preach, because the word “love” is really all about law; it’s all about what we are supposed to do.  Just listen to the next few verses; as we consider them, ask yourself if you feel all warm and fuzzy and romantic inside!

“Love is patient.”  Love is willing to wait and be patient with others despite difficulties.  “Love is kind.”  Love is always willing to provide what is beneficial for others.  “It does not envy.”  Love doesn’t allow feelings of resentment and jealousy to creep in.  “It does not boast.”  Love is not interested in self-praise.  “It is not proud.”  Love isn’t interested in inflating our own egos.  “It is not rude.”  Love doesn’t act in a way that results in shame or embarrassment.  “It is not self-seeking.”  Love desires the good of others, not just ourselves.  “It is not easily angered.”  Love doesn’t get irritated in trying times.  “It keeps no record of wrongs.”  Love doesn’t keep a mental record of all the wrongs someone else has done to us.  “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”  Love doesn’t find joy in injustice; it finds joy in things that are right and righteous.  “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  Love endures through difficulties; it believes with complete trust and reliance; it looks forward to God’s good and beneficial blessings; love puts up with a lot without giving up.  Paul couldn’t sum it up more accurately when he wrote, “Love never fails.”  In other words, love is big in its actions.

This is how God calls us to live—constantly, without fail.  Are you feeling good about yourself right now?  I didn’t think so!  We associate this reading with weddings and imagine sappy sentimentalism, when in reality it is a call and command to the highest and greatest form of love that seeks to put everyone else before ourselves.  And there’s not a day in your life that you have done that.

But what a contrast when we look to Jesus Christ!  In love with actions that can’t be matched, Jesus went to the cross to address the consequences of our sin and lovelessness.  His love was truly a self-sacrificing love that led him to the cross where he gave his life as the atoning sacrifice for your sins and guilt and loveless failures.  At the cross, Jesus loved and died for the world—even for those who would refuse to believe in him and reject his love to their eternal detriment.  Jesus’ love is big in its actions.  By faith in Christ, his love counts for us, covering up our sin and making us perfect and holy in God the Father’s sight.  We may fail to demonstrate love in our actions, but Christ’s love in action for us is immeasurable.


Lutherans love to talk about faith.  Sola fide, or “by faith alone,” is one of the major tenants of Lutheranism.  It is only by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by our acts of love, that we are made right with God and recipients of God’s eternal blessings.  That, of course, is entirely correct.  And because we are familiar with that truth, Paul’s final paragraph in our reading might sound odd to us, because by the time we reach the end, it sounds as if faith isn’t all that significant.

Keep that thought in the back of your mind as we work through Paul’s closing thoughts in this chapter.  “Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.”  The Corinthians had been boasting about their spiritual gifts, such as prophesying, speaking in tongues, and their knowledge.  But all these things were “partial” gifts.  They still couldn’t proclaim and understand everything in the mind of God, and when the end of the world came, all these gifts they sought would go away because they wouldn’t be needed anymore.

Their problem, as you might have surmised by now, was immaturity.  And so Paul addressed that immaturity directly.  “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.  Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  God’s good gifts in immature hands led to some of the problems the Corinthians had in their church.  The Corinthians needed to understand that their knowledge about God was incomplete, much like looking at your reflection in an ancient mirror that could hardly reflect your image back to you accurately.  The gifts they boasted about were ultimately “incomplete” gifts on this side of heaven and that wouldn’t be needed once they were in heaven.

That helps us understand the otherwise confusing final statement in verse 13.  “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  It’s hard to imagine a Lutheran saying that love is greater than faith and hope.  But we’re not talking about how to get right with God.  We’re talking about what lasts beyond this life.  Faith in the Word of God and hope in the promises of God are things we have in this life as we wait for eternity.  But we won’t be trusting and hoping once we’re in heaven; we’ll be experiencing the full glory of basking in God’s love forever.  And that’s why love was the greatest trait Paul mentions here.  Love is big in its permanence, its lasting status.

Why do we chase after so many things that are going to pass away some day?  The most glamorous family vacation we can afford, cutting edge technology at our fingertips, the newest car with all its gadgets, the latest fashions for our wardrobe—and it’s all going to pass away some day.  And if that’s where our values and priorities rest, if the temporary pleasures of this world are more important than the eternal promises of God, then we are putting stock in something that will be burned up in the last judgment, and we are putting ourselves in the same boat!

But what a contrast when we look to Jesus Christ!  In love with permanence that can’t be matched, Jesus rose from the dead to address the consequences of our sin and lovelessness.  His love would not let us rot in the grave, and so he destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light by his resurrection.  At his empty tomb, Jesus showed the power and permanence of his love—love that promises us our own resurrection and entrance into the permanent paradise of heaven.  Jesus’ love is big in its permanence.  By faith in Christ, his love counts for us, covering up our sin and making us perfect and holy in God the Father’s sight.  We may fail to love the lasting blessings of God, but the culmination of Christ’s love in heaven is permanent and sure.


Studying this chapter in depth for today’s sermon made me more than a little uncomfortable.  Perhaps thinking about this chapter during today’s sermon made you uncomfortable too.  In another New Testament book, the apostle Paul wrote, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”  That means 1 Corinthians 13, the great “love” chapter, is really all law.  And the law of God never makes us look good; the law of God always points out our sin, whether it’s said with a smile or a scowl.

But thank God for the greater love of his Son!  Christ’s self-giving and self-sacrificing love has made us right with God, equipped us to reflect Christ’s love to others, and prepared us to bask in the full experience of God’s love that awaits us in heaven.  Amen.



  1. Why do even so many WELS pastors get this emphasis of this passage wrong? We had a sermon on just this subject (“love”; although the sermon text was listed as 1 Samuel 20:12-17, the second lesson was 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and the sermon cited that too) at my home congregation (not St. Paul’s First) on the same Sunday.

    It was Law, Law, Law. Of 11 paragraphs, I only counted two Gospel, and at least six were completely unadulterated Law. Not that they were *incorrect*–yes, we ought to love and trust God, just like Jonathan and David; yes, we ought to put our neighbors first in all things; etc.–it’s just that I strongly feel that the Gospel ought to predominate.

    Worse, it was misleading. There was no explanation of the four Greek “love” words in the Bible, either (which really ought to be a standard feature of any sermon on this topic for the modern audience, as it is so misunderstood). I have encountered far too many Christians–far too many WELS Lutherans–who define and identify “love” primarily and solely with warm fuzzies. If anything gets in the way of the warm fuzzy feelings (e.g. being “too picky about doctrine” when “you know [insert name of false teacher or errorist] is a Christian and gets things mostly right–and his heart is really in the right place!”), it is “unloving” and must be wrong. (After all, “the greatest of these is love”, right? It even trumps faith, so it most certainly trump any petty arguments over the sacraments! Right? Right!)

    One formerly solid WELS family of six I know has over the course of several years been led slowly but surely into the arms of an Evangelical church with just such justification (the kids are now starting to declare that they’re not Lutheran anymore; mom isn’t there yet, but seems headed in that direction and is the one who put them in the Evangelical church in the first place). It absolutely breaks my heart, but all the Scripture in the world will not convince them that I am not being “unloving” by pointing out error, and I am being pushed out of their lives.

    I pray that every pastor would preach on love as you have here.


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