Exposition of 1 Corinthians 13:4-10, Love is a verb

1 Corinthians 13:4-10

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

The main issue with 1 Cor. 13:4-7 is that we tend to put it on a pedestal as exalted poetry or use it in a wedding ceremony rather than let its actual meaning pierce our hearts every day.

David Garland explains something important about Paul’s words: “Many observe that [Paul] does not use adjectives to describe love but verbs, fifteen of them in three verses. Love is dynamic and active, not something static.”[1] How does this make a difference in interpretation and application? Using adjectives in English versions tends to make us think that Paul is listing desired character traits for an individual believer: “Love is patient. love is kind. . . . [Love] is not proud” (1 Cor. 13:4, NIV). But that idea does not fit Paul’s argument to the Corinthians.

Using verbs, as Paul does, brings out more of the relational aspect of what he is saying: “Love waits patiently; love shows kindness. Love does not burn with envy; does not brag — is not inflated with its own importance” (Anthony Thiselton[2]). There is a wide gulf between thinking a person can be kind in their heart (is kind) and understanding that kindness — such as that shown by Christ on the cross —involves actions toward others (shows kindness).

At one critical point, NIV has the excellent “[love] keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 1:5) rather than the abstract idea “[love] is not . . . resentful” (ESV, NET and NRSV) or the impossible “[love] thinketh no evil” (KJV). Not many of us could figure out how to stop being resentful, and none of us could manage thinking no evil. But we all know what it means to keep a list of grievances against someone else. (HCSB and NLT join NIV in making this improvement.)

Many of us go numb at the mere mention of philosophy, and that makes us easy prey to the attacks on Christianity by postmodern philosophers. When Paul says that love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6), these philosophers claim that our Christian truth is designed to bring us power over others either for our selfish advantage or that of our peer group. They further claim that when Paul says, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7, ESV, NET, HCSB, NRSV), his teaching promotes conformist docility. They charge Paul, and by extension Christian faith, with teaching people to silently accept whatever the overlords dish out.

But, Jesus Christ could not be said to be a conformist; his death on the cross on behalf of others occurred precisely because he did not conform to the expectations of this world. Further, he did not die to gain power over others but to offer them an opportunity to escape judgment for their sins. Far from promoting unthinking acceptance of the status quo, the love Paul advocates cares deeply about pleasing God and caring for others. In service of that idea, Paul says that such love “never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up” (1 Cor. 13:7, Thiselton[3]). Bible translation must always be mindful of how Christian thought is being undermined and frontally attacked.

Verse 8 begins the final section, which extends through verse 13. Garland says, “In the concluding paragraph, Paul attests to the permanence of love in comparison with spiritual gifts so prominent in Corinth — prophecy, knowledge, and tongues.”[4]

NIV says, “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8), but Thiselton prefers “Love never falls apart.” He does so because he disdains using an abstraction (fails) when Paul “has consciously used images and metaphors of burning or boiling, inflating, bad manners, having a sharp point stuck into one, and reckoning up accounts.”[5] The verb means “to fall down, to fall to the ground, to collapse, or to fall apart.” Love will endure beyond the day when God judges this world!

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003)616.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000)1026.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1026 and 1057.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 620.

[5] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1060.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!