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How can you enrich your understanding with word or phrase studies?

Our focus is agapē-love. What is agapē-love, and how can you recognize the real thing?

How will you behave if you are truly expressing this love?

Our series on agapē-love began with the post, “What is love?” This love finds its source and shape in the nature of the one true God who reveals Himself as Jesus Christ.

From there, we moved through a series of steps to “How to love like Jesus.” Followers of Jesus need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to love like their Lord.

Now we turn to 1 Corinthians 13 to explore in practical ways what this love is and how it behaves.

To understand the text accurately, we will introduce you to five helpful principles:

1.         Context;

2.         Structure; 

3.         Limits of translation; and        

4 & 5.  The ripple effect.

1.         Context

Before examining the qualities of agapē-love listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, we need to ask why Paul located them where he did.

Whatever the text we are reading or listening to, being aware of where that text is located is essential. Context (what surrounds the text) is vital to understanding the text and protecting it from our presumptions.

So, begin by respecting the larger context, in this case, the context of the whole book of 1 Corinthians. 

This letter to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth reveals a community that is dysfunctional in many ways. They were:

    • divided against each other and Paul (chapters 3-4);
    • engaged in immorality and litigation (5-6);
    • confused about marriage (7);
    • careless about their association with idols (8-10);
    • abusive at the Lord’s Supper and in the use of spiritual gifts (11-14);
    • even questioning the resurrection of believers in Christ (15).

Have you ever wondered why Paul came up with the 16 qualities of agapē-love that he did? Getting a glimpse of how these dysfunctional Christians acted toward each other will provide most of your answer.

Next, respect the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 13. Chapters 11-14 focus on abuses within the Christian community, including the proper activities of males and females, the behavior of the rich toward the poor among them, and the exercise of spiritual gifts.

2.         Structure

The structure of a text points us toward the purpose of that text. Put another way, form follows function.

Here is the basic structure of 1 Corinthians 13 and a suggested flow of the argument:

13:1-3             the necessity of love – Without love, even the most skilled oratory, the greatest knowledge, and the most sacrificial giving fall flat on their faces.

So, how can you recognize genuine love in action?

13:4-7             the qualities of love – These qualities are the evidence of love in action.

But, for how long can this love continue?

13:8-12           the permanence of love – Love outlasts the spiritual gifts, possessions, and positions for which we strive.

But, from time-to-time, aren’t there more important things than love?

13:13, the greatness of love – Nope, not even when compared with faith and hope.

This message is as necessary and effective in our day as it was in 1st Century Corinth.

Next, let’s take a look at three more principles. 

3.         Limits of translation

It is best to study a word or phrase in its original language (e.g., koine Greek), but most of us will be using a reliable translation.

Translating from one language to another is much like converting one nation’s money into another currency—seldom is it exactly equivalent (i.e., dollar for dollar). Similarly, in language translation, something is often lost or not quite exact.

For example, different Greek words can be rendered as “patience” in English, but those Greek words carry different meanings. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, we will meet three distinct words that convey the sense of “patience”: makrothumeō (in verse 4), stegō (v. 7), and hupomenō (also v. 7).

So, be sensitive to the limits of translations.

Don't worry. I will identify the various words and their significance. 

4 & 5.   The Ripple Effect

Our examination of love’s character will involve studying Greek words and phrases, which can sometimes be tricky. Too often, words and phrases are defined in isolation from their context resulting in the meaning being twisted to suit the reader’s agenda. So, this is where the ripple effect can help you.

"What's the ripple effect?" 

When pebbles or raindrops strike the surface of a calm pool of water, a series of ripples swell from each point of impact. The accompanying photo illustrates this phenomenon.

For now, I want you to notice two things:

    • Ripples are stronger the closer they are to the point of impact and grow weaker the farther they travel.
    • Ripples go out in different directions.

How does this imagery help with reading and understanding the Bible better? What can we learn from the ripples?

As you read or listen to a text of the Bible, think of that text as the dynamic point of impact or contact with God’s message. Here are two useful principles we can draw from the imagery of the ripple effect.

a.         Range of meaning

In the same way that ripples go out in different directions, words and phrases can also take us in different directions. Instead of one specific meaning, a word or phrase usually has a range of meaning. For example, consider the various meanings of the English word “patience,” which includes:

    • the endurance of bearing up under a trial (e.g., suffering a painful injury), or
    • self-restraint in the face of provocation (e.g., constantly nagged), or
    • waiting without agitation for an event to occur (e.g., standing in a long lineup). 

How do we discern the appropriate meaning? That is where the next principle helps.           

b.         Context is essential for meaning

The strongest ripples are closest to the impact point. Similarly, a word or phrase usually takes its meaning or significance from the context in which it is found.

When considering a particular word, start with your impact point and move out from there. For instance,

    • Does the word or phrase reoccur in your immediate context (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13)? Unless otherwise indicated, that word or phrase probably has the same meaning in both instances.
    • If the word or phrase is not found in chapter 13, does it appear elsewhere in 1 Corinthians? Again, unless otherwise indicated, that word or phrase probably carries the same meaning throughout the same book.
    • If the word or phrase does not reoccur in 1 Corinthians, is it found in other writings of the same author (i.e., Paul)? Unless otherwise indicated, the same author probably uses the word or phrase in the same way.
    • If the word or phrase is not used elsewhere by that author, examine how other New Testament authors use that term?
    • If not, then how is that term used in the Old Testament (i.e., the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint)?
    • Finally, how is it used by non-biblical authors of the same or a similar era and culture?

Do you see how this process moves you outwards until you find a comparable use of the word or phrase?

So what?

As we look more carefully at the words and phrases used to describe agapē-love, we will be employing all these principles and more. Hopefully, you will become familiar with these helpful tools as you move through the coming posts.

Our main goal will be to discover the meaning of each of the qualities of this agapē-love so we can recognize the real thing (as well as its counterfeits)—whether in the behavior of others or yourself.

Here are two actions you can take:

1.         Begin memorizing the 16 qualities of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a.

2.         Try to discover what the first two qualities mean and what they look like.

In the next post, we will explore the first two qualities: “Love is patient, love is kind.”

FORWARD TO Love is Patient, Love is Kind

Photo credit: sea turtle on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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