February 24, 2022
The ancient city of Corinth is well known to readers of the Bible because of its importance in the missionary activity of the apostle Paul: he visited Corinth at least three times, founded Christian assemblies there, and wrote at least four letters to Christians in Corinth. The city lies at an important trading position about six miles to the southwest of the narrow isthmus that separates the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs. Ancient Corinth had two nearby ports: Lechaeum to the north and Cenchreae to the east. In ancient times, ships were pulled across the narrow stretch of land separating east and west on a paved road known as the diolkos.
Corinth was destroyed about 146 BC and was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in about 46 B.C. The cities culture was a mixture of Italians, Jews and eastern peoples. Latin was the official language but Koine Greek was spoken. It was a maritime city, and was famous for bronze and tile as well. About 600,000 people lived there, which is about the size of Milwaukee or Albuquerque. Being a crossroads of the known world there were clashes of culture and morality. It was very appropriate that Paul would want to address the Christian community in Corinth about the idea of love.
Most people see love from the framework of their personal experience. Paul takes the concept of love and puts it into words that can be a standard by which to judge truth and falsehood. You see the passage as beautiful and poetic, and indeed, as a piece of verse, it surely must be the most beautiful piece that St. Paul ever wrote.
And they ask for it too, I think, because, even though St. Paul is not talking about romantic love, and even though he is not addressing couples, I think we recognize in Paul’s description of love here some of the most fundamental elements that a long-term loving relationship needs if it is going to be successful.
If Paul is not talking about romantic love, what is he talking about? ’Commitment’ would be my usual response here: Christian love is not about feeling passionate towards lots of people. It is about commitment to their needs. “Faith is passion”, said Kierkegaard, and I suspect Paul would have agreed with him, and if faith is passion, surely love is passion too. You see, the problem we have here with getting inside Paul’s head to really grasp what he meant by ’love’ is not only that he wrote it a long time ago and in another language, but that he and the rest of the early Christian community more or less constructed their own language of love.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book about this. I suspect that a number of you have read it – ’The Four Loves’ it is called. In it, Lewis points out that there were three words in first century Greek regularly used for love – ’Eros’, ’storge’ and ’philia’. These three loves are, respectively, romantic love, family love, such as we have for our children, and the more formal sort of love. Strangely, when the New Testament writers chose a term for love, which is a word that turns up rather a lot in the New Testament, they deliberately avoided all these standard terms, and employed instead a reasonably colorless Greek word – ’agape’ – and then went about the task of defining it!
Evidently the early Christians felt that they were talking about something new and different when they talked about the love of Christ, and so they felt that none of the old words for love would do. So instead of using one of those words, and trying to put a bit of a twist on it, they decided to take a little known word and mold it more appropriately for their own use. As we look at Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 13 on God’s idea about true love. You are invited to join us over the next seven weeks as we learn and grow in love for one another. God bless you all!
In Jesus’ love,
Dr. Jerry Light