I’m speaking for the college ministry at my church this Thursday, and have the privilege to cover 1 Cor. 13 (a.k.a. the “love” chapter that’s often read at weddings).
In my preparation I learned something interesting: the word for love in this chapter is “agape” (which I knew). But what I didn’t know is how odd Paul’s word-choice was. During Paul’s time agape was an obscure word nearly no one knew. Most people think it was adopted from the Hebrew language, and thus was far from being a common colloquialism.
So why — in one of him most evocative chapters ever — does Paul use a word no one knows? I think for the same reason anyone uses an uncommon word … to sound smart.
… not really. I think it’s because new words demand new interpretation. Whenever I use the word “orange” my brain opens up a file containing everything I know about oranges. So if I want to communicate something OTHER than the information in that file, I need a new word.
I think Paul uses the word agape to clarify that he’s not talking about love the way his readers knew it. No, the love Paul talked about was something that — like the word — was different, rare, unusual. He then spends half the chapter defining this love: it’s patient, kind, free of jealousy and pride and rudeness. This love is hopeful and joyful and it’s always always always a proponent of the truth. It leads to faith and hope.
And I think the implication of this chapter is that whatever this agape is, it’s altogether other than the type of love we humans usually embody. It’s not phileo, friendly but only to a point. It’s not eros, romantic and desirous and lustful (not that either of these two loves are necessarily bad, by the way).
It’s a love that’s bigger … or maybe deeper would be a better adjective. It’s a love that humans aren’t particularly capable of on their own. It’s a love that will have to come from some place else.
Probably from a God who would repeatedly say that He is the inherent embodiment of agape. “For God so agape’d the world …” Or in 1 John, “For God is agape, and in Him there is no darkness.”
1 Corinthians 13, then, isn’t a call to try harder to love well. It’s a call to participate in a love that is altogether outside us … and never more needed.