Having persuaded this church to recognize the facts that they have allowed distinctions and divisions to creep in and become established, with this critique extended to the entirety of the church, as all (whether perceived as being high or low within the church ) would have to tacitly agree to participate in such arrangements, Paul promptly dissuades them from any sense that this is appropriate by delivering the words “But you should be eager for the greater gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31a). By making reference to the “greater gifts,” Paul has diminished all of the things about which they are boasting and are using in their spiritual honor competition and associated hierarchical arrangements based on their spiritual gifts (some of which, such as speaking in tongues, were prevalent in society at large before the advent of the church, and thus already had certain types of honor attached to their performance as part of a group).
Before continuing on to what comes next, a reminder to maintain the proper mindset must be observed, if one wants to be able to properly discern Paul’s message and his intent. Yes, presuming and surmising is taking place in this study, and such things are being done in hope of being able to make educated guesses in the process. A failure to grasp details can result in missing out on major points. However, by attempting to become immersed in the culture, and attempting to become situated within a church community of first century hearers in the city of Corinth that is a part of and is shaped by the Greco-Roman world, rather than as private twenty-first century readers that occupy a world that is, for the most part, vastly different from the world occupied by Jesus, Paul, and the members of the Corinthian church, offers a greater chance of success in determining the problem, the message, and Paul’s intentions associated with the delivery of the message that his letter to this church communicates.
It is upon this declaration concerning the “greater gifts,” which followed his rhetorically purposeful diminishing of the “spiritual gifts” that were prized by the congregation and being used for inappropriate stratification and spiritual honor competition, that Paul enters into what is thought of as his great soliloquy upon love. While beautiful in and of itself, it cannot and should not be considered apart from what comes before and after, or apart from a consideration of Paul’s somewhat contentious communication to this church. When Paul insists that “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious” (13:4a), it is incumbent upon an observer to hear these words as would Paul’s original hearers.
If this is accomplished, it is done with a knowledge that most believers are missing the mark in the exercise of spiritual gifts, and that what is referred to as love is actually nothing more than individual and selfish pursuit of honor and its attendant of a better position at the table, that all may bask in the performer’s glorious spirituality and ultimately come into submission to a hard-earned spiritual authority. Re-calling attention to the possibility that this is being read at the symposium portion of the meal that would have been this church’s regular time and mode of gathering in that time and place, Paul goes on to write “Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful” (13:5). This statement would have come as a stark contrast to Paul’s words of chapters eleven and twelve, through which the congregation would have been forced to recognize their rude and self-serving behavior.
When one hears the words of the “chapter of love,” they are heard according to the tone of the letter as a whole. There is much instruction taking place throughout the letter, and much of the instruction is in the form of correction. The correction, of course, implies that there are problems that need to be corrected, indicating a need to alter an existing course of action or accepted situation. So as Paul writes about the nature of love, which must be tied to the correction that is on offer from him, he is not simply espousing a set of free-floating ideals to be met, or thinking of words that will eventually come to be read at weddings (though there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with this), but pointing out to his audience where it is that they are falling short of the ideal that is tied to their all-important and paramount confession of Jesus as Lord.