When I was in college, my roommates and I would sometimes play a game that involved tough imaginary choices. One of us might ask something like: "If you were in an accident, which would you rather lose, an arm or a leg?" More positively, we might try to answer a question like this: "Which would you rather have, all the power in the world or all the money in the world?" Then we'd argue the merits of one answer or another, trying to get everyone to line up on our side.
First Corinthians 13:13 reminds me a little of our collegiate thought experiments. It's as if someone asked the Apostle Paul: "So what's better, faith, hope, or love?" At first glance, it seems impossible to answer this question. How could faith be better than hope? Or hope than love? Or . . . ? If I had been asked this question, I'd be inclined to say, "There's no way to answer. All three are essential and wonderful. None is better than the others."
But Paul did answer the question. He acknowledged that faith, hope, and love are all essential and eternal, but then he identified love as "the greatest" of all. How could this be possible? How could love be greater than faith and hope?
From a theological point of view, one might say that love is the greatest because it is essential to the very nature of God. As we read in 1 John 4:8, "God is love." Scripture never says that God is faith or hope, though he is the object of our faith and hope, to be sure. Love is as necessary to the triune God as blood is to a living being. The interrelationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is defined in terms of mutual love. So, in this sense, love is greater than faith and hope.
In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul has just written about the day when we will see the Lord face-to-face, love is the greatest because it will be enhanced on that day. We will still have trustful faith in God, but faith will be less important when we actually see God. And hope will be fulfilled when we are in his presence and when his kingdom has fully come. So, when we think in terms of our future with God, love is greater than faith or hope.
Finally, as we'll see in 1 Corinthians 14, love will enable the Corinthian Christians to sort out their problems with spiritual gifts, the main point of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Love, more than faith and hope, will guide the believers in Corinth—and us as well—into using spiritual gifts in a way that builds up the church.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: As you think about faith, hope, and love, what do you see in love that makes it the greatest? Do you live each day with the conviction that love matters most of all? Are you willing to make love the top priority in your life?
PRAYER: Thank you, dear Lord, for the excellence of love. Faith is indeed wonderful. How good it is to trust in you! And hope keeps me going when I struggle with discouragement. How much I long for the day when I will meet you face-to-face!
But love is indeed even greater than faith and hope. Love is essential to your nature. Love is your chief activity. Indeed, as John reveals, you are love!
Help me, loving Lord, to give love its proper place in my life. Help me to cherish love, not only when I'm at home or in church, but when I'm at work or in the market, when I'm meeting strangers or hanging out with my friends. May people know that I belong to you because of how I love.
All praise be to you, God of love. Amen!