In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Paul gives a characterization of the excellent way in which we are encouraged to walk. What he describes is at the same time what he prescribes. These traits of love are goals for us to aim at in our lives as Christians. They are spiritual graces and can only be cultivated truly in the lives of those who trust in Christ as their risen Lord.
These graces are not presented to us in an exhaustive list. There is obviously a list of nine items but it is hardly exhaustive. Instead, first, we have specifics cited, specific virtues and specific vices (vs. 4-5). Each implies its opposite. But the way these things are stated leaves a definite and distinctive impact whether positive or negative. Second, we have a shift to generalization regarding all virtues and all vices with an accent on the heart attitude of delight or joy (love does not rejoice in unrighteousness in itself or in others but love does rejoice in righteousness of the truth or in true holiness, v. 6). Finally, in verse 7, Paul goes even farther than generalization to universalization by putting love in relation to all things. He does this by connecting love with four verbs: bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring. Each verb is followed by the word “all.”
The accumulation of verbs and the repetition that exists within the verse inevitably direct our thoughts to the fullness of love. That is the title of the message for today, “The Fullness of Love.” What we have here can be put on the table in open display if we consider three things: 1) a description of love that is given in this text, 2) actions of love that are cited, and 3) the interdependence of love that is implied.
Some translation decisions have to be confronted immediately. One translation question that needs to be resolved right up front as we approach this text (1 Cor. 13:7) is whether the word “all” should be translated “all things” (ESV) or “always” (NIV). Interestingly, the term ‘“all” has a range of meanings. It can indicate the highest degree of something as in the ideas of fullness, greatness, and supremacy. It may refer to each member in a class with varying degrees of scope: all humans, all the elect, or all at Ephesus (cf. all the people living in Allen Park, Michigan, which is a limited scope of a universal term).
One lexicon gives a list of meanings that includes “always”: total, whole, every kind, regularly, and always (Louw-Nida Lexicon). However, examples of the temporal use are rare and they occur in combination with other words as in “all time” or “through all.” It is this combination that yields the sense of continually or always. But if “all” stands alone (without being combined with a noun like time that it modifies or without a preposition in front of it like through), then major lexicons do not assign it the meaning of always (cf. Liddel and Scott Lexicon).
Important for us in our study is the fact that in 1 Corinthians 13:7 the word all occurs four times without modifying a noun or following a preposition. It simply occurs with each verb: [love] “bears all, believes all, hopes all, [and] endures all.”
Therefore, most translators supply “things” after each all. As an inclusive and sweeping adjective, all can be quite vague. Surprisingly, something as obvious as all can be very opaque. You have to supply something, some noun that it modifies. If you are reading along and you come to this series of verbs with all, you naturally ask, “all what?”
The answer comes in two stages. It comes in translation, and then it comes in interpretation. The main point that should be made about translation here is that translation should enable the reader to do interpretation without giving him either too little or too much. So let’s consider each side of this coin.
1) On one hand, clearly, the translation that uses “always” and omits “all things” gives the reader (who does not know Greek, etc.) too little to work with. It is too little because “always” is a weak translation of the word “all” and the result is that emphasis is placed on the notion of time (all the time, always) with regard to each verb and the actual fullness of the passage is remarkably reduced. Perhaps, we can say that the idea of “all the time” is a slice of the pie representing all things. Surely, “all things” is so general and universal that it includes all time conditioned things or more precisely all categories of time. What we might call “all time things” are categories of time that are created things (cf. Rom. 8:38, “things present and things to come” associated with v. 39, “other creations” or “anything else in all creation”).
2) On the other hand, it would be too much if a translator tried to retain both always and all things by having the passage read: “love always bears all things and it always believes all things,” etc. And it would be too much for a translator to try to nuance some difference between each all. Right here at this point of finding nuances is where interpretation by the reader kicks into gear. This is where we engage the Scriptures. At this point prayerful meditation is the task at hand.
So that is what we want to do now. We want to engage the text seeking to unpack some of what is intended by the paradoxically obvious but opaque mention of all things. We have every reason to go looking in this way because the adjective all occurs four times in this verse. At the least, we can say that we are being presented with a profound fullness by this universal language. This is the fullness of love. So let’s try to unpack some of this fullness to go from what might be like an initial morning fog into the light of a sunny day.
What we should do now is consider the actions of love one at a time trying to keep each individual in mind as we work toward a sense of their fullness together. An initial way to understand the four parts of this whole pie is to explain how we should work with the word all. It “is to be understood of all things to which the associated words can in any degree properly apply” (Ellicot, 253).
So we can approach the verse like this: our task here is to unlock four access doors to the meaning of love. All four doors lead to the same room. We have to first go through them one by one. Then we can grasp some of the fullness of love. This key takes us through each door by directing us to each associated word (bears, believes, hopes, and endures) to find all the things that can in any degree properly apply. Thus, what things can properly apply in any degree to bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring (ask the question of each one by one)?
We should first rule out a common misunderstanding about this verse in order to precisely identify what it means to bear all things.
1) The misunderstanding that is common here is that these words refer to “meek bearing of injuries from our fellowmen” (Edwards, Charity, 251). But Edwards gives a number of reasons to take this as a reference to “suffering in the cause of Christ” (252). First, there is no need to repeat the reference to patience that was already discussed (v. 4, cf. also the implication of avoiding anger by being meek and patient, v. 13:5c). Second, verse 6 indicates that now Paul proceeds to “traits of another nature.” He moves from specificity to generalization and summary (cf. love’s delight in holiness). Third, it is unlikely that Paul would omit the critically important fruit of love that involves suffering for the gospel. Thus love means that “those who live” because of the death of Christ “no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15).
2) What then is meant by “bearing all things”?
A couple of parallel passages help us fix on the point here. Earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul spoke of “bearing all things” (1 Cor. 9:12). The ESV has “we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Because “endure” translates the word “bear” it would be better to use bear instead of endure, or an even better rendering is “we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (NIV). Bearing is applied to all sufferings, afflictions, and anything that must be put up with in order to further the gospel of Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 3:1, 5). The all things that love bears can be pinpointed to all that must be faced, worked at, and suffered for the sake of God and Christ. This is a mark of a truly (spiritually) loving person.
We now can see how the key mentioned earlier unlocks the four access doors to love. You simply begin to think about all the things that properly apply in any degree to each verb from first to last. The first one opens the way to the gospel from the angle of suffering or putting up with all things and anything that must be borne for the gospel.
Believing all things must therefore follow in train. It is not referring to believing the best of everyone or of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Rather, believing is related to all the teachings of the gospel no matter what they are or what they demand. All the things that are taught by Christ through His word in the sixty-six books of the Bible are embraced. This is conditioned by the flow of the text and the connection with bearing all things for the sake of the gospel. It is the gospel that is believed, namely, all things it teaches and to which it applies by good and necessary inference.
There are many difficult teachings that humble us and cause us to stop in our tracks, fall on our faces, and worship. One of these teachings is the awesome fact that God set His love on His elect before the foundation of the world. He will in fact save each one of them losing none and passing over the rest of mankind leaving them to the just deserts of their sin. Paul illustrates this point with reference to an elect remnant within Israel (Rom. 11:7). This is captured pointedly in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “God having, out of his mere good pleasure, form all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer” (A, 20). And we saw it in our Scripture reading earlier (1 Thess. 1:1-10).
Another difficult teaching is the fact that the penetrating holiness of the law that reflects the holiness of God is the standard by which the Christian guides his live in devotion to Christ for the glory of the Father (cf. Matt. 5:16-19). The person who truly loves is the person who believes all of Scripture and he believes it for dear life (cf. love rejoices in true righteousness, v. 6).
Hope in relation to all things means that love’s fullness reaches out from all things of the present to all things of the future as they unfold in stages toward the grand finale when all things will be delivered into the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). A loving Christian is hopeful (full of hope like being full of faith).
We return here to the notion of time or constancy (cf. Edwards, 286, on the difference between patience, forbearance, and endurance). Enduring gives us the distinct idea of steadfastness, faithfulness, or perseverance.
There is credibility to the translations that have “always” in them (though “always perseveres” may be redundant). This point comes not from the word “all” but from the verb “endures.” If we use our interpretation key to unlock this door, we turn it by asking, “What things properly pertain to enduring in any degree?” In a way the answer is simple. Here all things refer to doing anything good that takes determination, resolve, steadfastness, faithfulness, or perseverance. Love clings tenaciously to whatever is holy, righteous, or good. It forcefully pursues whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, or excellent. It relentlessly strives after all these things to learn, receive, hear, see, and practice them. Thus, it goes without saying that this is the way of a repentant life. To say any more is to spill over to our next point on the interdependence of love.
Thus, in all that love bears, in all the suffering, love embraces all the teachings of God and the gospel of Christ even though they may issue in suffering and affliction; no matter what must be faced, love trusts in Christ. Also, at every point along the way in facing all things that come when the entire gospel is embraced/believed (when all things of the gospel are believed), love has hope, gospel hope that relates to all things of the gospel and all the trials that must be borne on the way. In all things that occur from all and for all that is believed, love looks out to the future that pertains to all the things that transpire in history.
The loving person is hopeful in bearing affliction for the entire gospel. Hoping is applied to all the sufferings for all the teachings cited already in the passage. But it has the larger context of all future events working from all present things and events, looking with expectation to the culmination of it all in Christ (cf. Rom. 8, etc).
Particularly helpful in showing the interdependence of these “traits of different nature” is 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10. The theme of love is woven throughout the fabric of this passage (cf. chapter 2: brothers, v. 1, nursing mother, v. 7, and affectionately desirous, v. 8). Notice the interdependence of love, hope, steadfastness in afflictions that are for the gospel. The hope of these believers was fixed on the gospel that centers in Christ (vs. 3-4) who was raised from the dead and who is coming again to deliver us from the coming judgment (v. 10). It led to a labor of love that receives the gospel, holds on to it tightly, and exemplifies it on the pathway of life. We travel in the time between the comings of Christ looking and waiting, waiting and looking for the return of our risen Lord and final glory through the judgment.
Perseverance applies to bearing, believing, and hoping. Finally, Paul states that love endures all these things, that is, love perseveres in bearing all afflictions and efforts that come from faith in all the grand truths of Scripture, love perseveres in faith believing one truth after another, believing them all, holding them all fast whatever the afflictions may be that come in the course of life. And love perseveres in hope, in expectation with respect to all the suffering that comes from all the grand truths and in all the work, effort, and trails that come because of embracing all the things of Scripture.
1) These things call for Christian love in a powerful way. We at first want to say, “What does this have to do with me, for this is too high and lifted up?” But then we must say, “This is me; this all applies to me because I belong to Christ and not to myself.”
2) Thus, we are called to the repentant Christian life. All along this pathway we look to Christ and cling to His work on the cross for us.
3) Finally, we must acknowledge that this is a reasonable service given all the treasures new and old, which are ours in Christ. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. He is our elder brother and in Him we inherit all things. So, the fullness of love is such that whatever it takes, we say, “Lord I am willing to do bear all things for you, I will learn and live your gospel, I will fix my gaze on your coming, and I will do these things, all these things, with a relentless tenacity for the glory of the triune God.