Most people recognize the words of First Corinthians 13 as one of the standard lectionary readings at many weddings. The description of love that Paul so eloquently presents to us is both poetically beautiful and theologically profound. Moreover, the theme of love is one that is consistently found throughout the New Testament. However, many readers of this passage fail to fully recognize both the content and context of Paul's words.
Paul is not describing romantic love or personal affection. In the Greek language of the first century, there were three words that are typically translated as "love" in our English versions of the bible. The first, eros, means romantic/sexual love. The second, phileo, usually means "friendship" or "brotherly love" (hence, Phila-delphia is the "city of brotherly love."). Finally, the third Greek word, agape, refers to sacrificial, self-giving love. Agape love is characterized by commitment and humility; it requires a person to put the needs and concerns of others before there own. It is this third type of love that Paul is referring to First Corinthians 13. It might be helpful to re-read this chapter with this definition of love in mind; simply replace the word love with agape.
In addition to the content described above, many people also fail to understand the context of Paul's words. The thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians naturally falls between chapters twelve and fourteen, both of which deal with the subject of spiritual gifts and how they are to be appropriately exercised within the church. Consequently, chapters 12-14 form what is referred to by scholars as an A-B-A pattern:
A - Spiritual Gifts (Chapter 12)
B - LOVE (Chapter 13)
A - Spiritual Gifts (Chapter 14)
The theme of the middle chapter is the interpretive lens through which the surrounding chapters are to be viewed. Thus, Paul's famous chapter on love is actually his commentary on how spiritual gifts (knowledge, wisdom, healing, prophecy, tongues, etc.) are to be used within the context of Christian worship. Love (agape) should characterize how we treat one another and fellow members of the Body of Christ. Our relationships within the context of the church should be reflective of agape love (self-giving, sacrificial love). Even if we have powerful gifts of healing, wisdom, and prophecy....they are nothing without the foundation of love.