2 Corinthians 13: Passing the Test

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?– unless indeed you fail to meet the test!  I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. (2 Corinthians 13:5-6 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I taught in the university, my final exam was never a surprise. The week before the final I would pass out ten questions as homework and announce that five of these questions would be on the final exam. Now these were not easy questions—my questions were designed to encourage my students to master the subject. My good students invariably typed up answers to all ten questions and simply turn all of them in on the day of the examination; my lazy students showed up empty handed and unprepared to answer the questions.

Which kind of Christian are you?  Are you prepared for your exam?

Paul’s does not hold himself up as the judge over the Corinthians.  Rather, he asks them to judge for themselves.  What is interesting about the question is that if the Corinthians believe that their faith is real, then the evangelist that brought them to faith must also be real!  And, the question of Paul’s apostolic authority would also be answered.  Clearly, Paul has this interpretation in mind when he writes:  I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test (v 6).  The use of the plural (we) implies the answer to the question reflects well or badly on Paul himself.

Paul’s use of the weak-strong motif is a reminder of what Paul sees the answer to be.  When we adopt a servant attitude with respect to others in the church, in other words are “weak”, then we are clearly strong in the faith.  A defensive or haughty attitude, in other words are “strong”, would be the opposite.  The example of Christ is crucial.  Paul writes:  For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God (v 4).  In giving his life for our sins on the cross, Christ led out of weakness and provided an example for us all.

Christ’s example also motivates Paul’s leadership style and purpose in writing.  He writes:  For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down (v 10).  According to Paul, the proper use of authority is to build up, not to tear down.

In closing, Paul admonishes the church:  rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you (v 11).  If the church is to be a foretaste of heaven, these admonitions must be practiced.

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1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, and Love

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV).

Attitudes matter.  When we exercise spiritual gifts, do we seek to glorify God or ourselves?

One of the hardest things to do is to give God the glory and not focus on ourselves.  Praying an ACTS prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—is helpful, for example, because our impulse is to cut straight to supplication—the give me (gimme) part of prayer.  Because God already knows our needs, we are better advised simply to praise God and trust that he will meet our needs.  Focusing on the gimme part of prayer hints that we do not fully trust God; the same is true when we express our love for other people.

Two false views of love are very popular today.  One is a grasping, selfish—stalker—kind of love.  Stalker love says:  if I cannot have you, then no one else can either.  For example, Beetle musician John Lennon was murdered in 1980 not by an enemy, but by a fan who earlier in the day had even sought an autograph from him[1].  The stalker’s love is rooted in desire to possess, not to share affection or relationship.

Another false view of love arises not from the desire to possess, but to project self on the object of our desire. The classic example is that of a parent living vicariously through the child. Unfulfilled ambitions are projected onto the child and the child is then manipulated to live out a hidden script.  Alternatively, a child may simply never be allowed to wander outside the shadow of the parent to develop fully as a person.  These same dynamics can also occur for highly dependent spouses.  This false view of love is motivated by a desire to control explicitly or implicitly.

The context for Paul’s comments about love is the expression of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, Paul makes the point that the Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual gifts (12 v 11) and the purpose of the gifts is to serve the body of Christ (12 v 7).  Here in chapter 13, Paul makes the point that spiritual gifts not motivated by love for one another are not so spiritual.  Speaking in tongues without love, for example, is like beating your own drum (gong or cymbal; v 1).  This same theme continues even in chapter 14 where Paul gives explicit advice about using gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy, properly in worship (14 v 4).

Clearly, like us the Corinthians do not have a proper attitude about gifts and they misunderstand the meaning of love.  Paul redefines love using the word, agape[2].  He does not use either phileo[3] often translated as brotherly love (think Philadelphia—the city of brotherly love).  He also does not use eros[4] usually translated as romantic love.  This humble, sacrificial definition of agape is unique to Paul (vv 4-7).

After defining agape, Paul goes on to suggest that he himself at one point held childish views which he gave up in adulthood—a polite way of suggesting they are childish in their view of love (v 11).  He then goes on to attribute this agape love to God himself, alluding to Moses’ encounter—face to face—with God on Mount Sinai (v 12; Numbers 12:8).  The argument is if God expresses a humble, sacrificial love, then we should too.

While Paul’s lesson here is about having a proper attitude about spiritual gifts, he also is careful to balance his view of agape love with faith and hope.  Love is not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling.   Paul balance faith, hope, and love in at least 4 other places in his letters[5].  Faith and hope balance love by anchoring it in our relationship with God.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_John_Lennon

[2] ἀγάπη (BDAG 39)—the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love–without limitation to very intimate relationships, and very seldom in general Greek of sexual attraction.

[3] φιλέω (BDAG 7742)—to have a special interest in someone or something frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend.

[4] ἔρως (BDAG 3145)—passionate interest…ardor fondness.

[5] See:  (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, 5:8; Colossians 1:3-5; and Ephesians 1:15-21).


  1. How was your week? Did something in particular?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 12?
  3. What is the context for chapter 13? What does this suggest about the topic of the chapter?
  4. What does false love look like? Alternatively, how might spiritual gifts be misused? (v 1)
  5. The three words for love in Greek are: agape, philo, and eros.  What do they mean?
  6. What validates prophecy, knowledge, faith, generosity and martyrdom? (vv 2-3)
  7. What are the attributes of agape love? What are the opposite of these attributes? (vv 4-8)
  8. What is the key attribute of agape love? (vv 8-10, 12) Who does this remind you of?
  9. What does it mean to be a man and not a child? (v 11)
  10. What does the mirror analogy remind you of? (v 12; Numbers 12:8)
  11. Why does Paul group faith, hope, and love (v 13). What is different about Paul’s use of faith, hope, and love here?  (See: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, 5:8; Colossians 1:3-5; and Ephesian 1:15-21)
  12. How is this chapter misused?

1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, and Love

First Corinthians 14

First Corinthians 12

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