Looking at the church today with all its divisions and disagreements, it can be easy for us to think that there was once a golden age for God’s people in which unity was more characteristic of the visible church and Christians did not fight nearly so much over their place in the church. However, although the church in past eras certainly had strengths that are often lacking today, the covenant community has never experienced a golden age of perfection. Even in the Apostolic era, there were problems. That has been evident from our study of 1 Corinthians. Believers in the church at Corinth split into factions based on the eloquence of different teachers (1 Cor. 1–4). They also experienced much division at the Lord’s Supper, preferring Christians of higher social classes over those who had a lower station in society (11:17–34). Moreover, spiritual gifts were a source of contention, with believers prizing the gift of tongues more highly than other gifts (ch. 14).
Paul confronts the problems associated with spiritual gifts in several ways. In 1 Corinthians 14, he provides guidelines for their use so that the gifts are not abused. In chapter 12, with his analogy comparing the church to the human body, he emphasizes the need for all the gifts in the church and not only the gift of tongues. In chapter 13, he puts the whole matter in proper perspective by stressing the chief importance of love, thereby making it the context in which all spiritual gifts should be exercised.
Today’s passage sets the stage for chapter 13. Paul says that he is about to show believers “a still more excellent way” regarding spiritual gifts (12:31). Note the use of the term “way” instead of “gift.” Unlike spiritual gifts, which are different from person to person, love is universal, a way that each Christian must follow in exercising his own unique gifts. Indeed, love is a fruit of the Spirit who is at work in all Christians (Gal. 5:22–23). Love is not optional, and as Paul will argue in 1 Corinthians 13, to exercise spiritual gifts apart from love is to fail in their use. Only when we grasp this essential point will we truly mature in Christ. Only when we embrace the supremacy of love—as God defines love—can we live the Christian life faithfully. Matthew Henry comments: “True charity is greatly to be preferred to the most glorious gifts. To have the heart glow with mutual love is vastly better than to glare with the most pompous titles, offices, or powers.”