"The Most Excellent Way": Ajith Fernando Exegetes Paul's Love Passage in 1 Cor. 13:1-14
In less than six weeks I will have the privilege of marrying my sister. Well, not marrying her, but marrying her off to her soon-to-be husband. I am overjoyed to take part in her special ceremony in this special way!
Like many Christian couples, they chose a meaningful Scripture passage to be read to frame their nuptuals. And like many Christian couples, they chose the famous “Love Passage” from Paul’s first letter to the Church of Corinth. This passage is celebrated for vaulting love to the highest ideal within the Christian walk and human life. And what better way to launch a marriage than to rally around this ideal?
While I am thankful my baby sister and future brother-in-law are rooting their marriage in this “most excellent way,” often this passage is left at the altar or left gracing cards and home decor without making its way into our everyday lives, particularly in the way Paul originally meant.
Ajith Fernando hopes to change our engagement with this passage in his new book Reclaiming Love: Radical Relationships in a Complex World. It is an exegetical tour de force in which Fernando exegetes 1 Cor. 13:1-13 verse by verse, detailing how love can shape our lives and our people's lives by calling us to radically reclaim it. At every turn it exudes application, which will make it perfect fodder for sermons or a sermon series on love.
One of the things that is most striking and beneficial about Fernando’s exposition is his beginning section on context. As pastors and students we know context is king. That’s no less true of this section of Paul’s letter, which is often sidestepped. And while this pericope can stand on its own two feet in a way that informs our life and our peoples’ lives, it is surrounded by context. Fernando reminds us that chapters 12 and 14 form that context.
"The Most Excellent Way" In Context
Chapter 13 is what Fernando calls an “interruption.” (19) Chapters 12 and 14, along with the rest of the letter, are addressing specific issues that had arisen in the church of Corinth, in this case about the use of gifts of the Spirit. And here in the middle of that discussion Paul inserts an abrupt change, an interruption, the famous love chapter. The context that sets up the abrupt change is important to understand:
The Corinthian Christians seem to have placed so much value in exercising gifts that displayed the power of God in their life that they did so selfishly and failed to display the character of God. Paul wants these Christians to get their priorities straight. First they needed to be godly people. Only then they could be agents of his power. (19)
In other words, we need to love before we can be used. There is no question the Corinthians wanted to be used.
The conflict arose over doctrinal and practical disagreements of being used by God through using the gifts of the Spirit in the church. It also arose over a hierarchy of gift usefulness, saying that they should “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor 12:31a), implying that some are more helpful to the body. But earlier in chapter 12 Paul made it clear that it was the Spirit “who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” Which means there is no certainty we will even receive a certain gift; it is God who decides who gets what.
And this is where our chapter on love comes in. Love is what the Corinthians should have been focusing their attention on in the first place because it is “the more excellent way.” Fernando makes clear that love “is not an optional desire; this is the 'way' Christians live...We cannot say, ‘God did not give me the ability to love,’” (20) in the same way we can say God did not give me the ability to prophesy.
Thus in context, spiritual gifts and Christian superpowers are not the priority; love is the priority. And it is an act of obedience in response to the love that God Himself has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. As Fernando reminds us, such love is not loving the lovable, but "instead includes loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, being patient with people who are difficult to tolerate, visiting prisoners, and the like." (21)
"The Most Excellent Way" Illustrated
To illustrate the kind of love of which Paul speaks in the context of the Corinthian church's conflict, Fernando recounts a story from Corrie ten Boom, the famous Dutch Christian who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and later helped many Jews escape the same fate. As the story goes, two years after the war ended Corrie spoke at a meeting in Munich. Afterwards she saw one of the guards from her concentration camp standing in line to meet her. He explained that he became a Christian and, while he knew God forgave him, he needed to know she forgave him, too.
As you could imagine, she stood there and could not forgive him. The memory of her own experience in addition to her sisters slow terrible death paralyzed her. But then she silently prayed "Jesus help me!" and something happened. As Fernando quotes her, "The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes." She then cried out, "I forgive you, brother! With all my heart!" (22)
Most of us can't imagine such an experience, being confronted by a torturer with outstretched arm asking for forgiveness for his treachery. Yet such active obedience is "the most excellent way." Whatever she taught in that Munich meeting by exercising her gift of teaching would have been negated had she refused to love. Which is the point Paul is making here with his interruption on love to his discourse on gifts.
"The Most Excellent Way" Is An End Itself
"Implied in Paul's description of love as the 'most excellent way' (12:31)" Fernando writes, "is the idea that love is more than a means to an end; it is an end in itself." (24) And it is an end that far surpasses any gift or superpower we could claim or ask from the Spirit. It is those acts of love in obedience to God's love, the kind exemplified by Corrie, in contrast to pietistic or religious acts, that God demands—and that Paul is addressing.
By the end we can’t help but agree with Fernando’s conclusions: “There is great value in a life devoted to love. It is costly. Sometimes it means that we will be inconvenienced. Often we must act against our natural instincts and make decisions to follow what we know to be the loving path. But it is worth is! As Paul says, love is the ‘most excellent way.’”
Jeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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