I am setting out to preach through 1 Corinthians 13. In the past I have does so as part of an exposition of the entire letter, which is ideal. But presently I am unable to give myself to that lengthy process. I am undertaking a fresh study of the text in preparation for these expositions. I project a series of three messages, dividing the text as follows: verses 1-3, verses 4-7, and verses 8-13.

One of the challenges of dipping into the midst of a letter is making sure one properly accounts for the context. 1 Corinthians 13 is especially vulnerable to bring plucked out and used in contemporary contexts (e.g., weddings, plaques, greeting cards) without accounting for the original context.

In 1 Corinthians 7-16 the Apostle Paul finds himself addressing a series of questions put to him by the congregation. These seem to be marked out by the repeated formula “Now concerning” (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). Answering their questions required not only Spirit-given insight and Apostolic authority, but pastoral savvy, for two realities intensified the challenge. On the one hand the congregation in Corinth appeared to be not entirely taken with Paul (e.g., 2:1-4). On the other hand, they are a divided congregation (e.g., 1:10-13; 3:1-4) and it seems likely these questions were at the heart of their divisions.

The thirteenth chapter, then, comes as part of his answer to their question about “spiritual gifts” (12:1). The form used here (τῶν πνευματικῶν) can be read either as a neuter form (thus “spiritual gifts”) or as a masculine form, pointing to “spiritual persons.” Throughout chapters 12 and 14 Paul deals with spiritual gifts, to be sure. The neuter plural form of the word in 14:1 (τὰ πνευματικά, “the spiritual gifts”) would lend credence to reading it here in 12:1 as also referring to the gifts of the Spirit. But the letter as a whole raises the larger question of how to identify who in the midst of this divided, carnal, selfish church is truly spiritual. They seem to think that the answer is found in who has facility in certain spiritual gifts. To them “spiritual gifts” = “spiritual persons.” But Paul says, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31b). So, yes, he takes up their question about “spiritual gifts” (12:1) but does so in such a way to reveal their relationship to the larger question of being truly Spirit-filled people.

Having begun his answer about “spiritual gifts” in chapter 12, Paul will return to the matter in chapter 14. But for the present (chapter 13) he will set before them that which is the true test of authentic spirituality.

My plan is to set out commentary on each verse, one at a time. Then to pause at the natural breaks in the text to give you the outline of the message preached from those verses. My prayer is that this will prove edifying for you.