Leading by example

As we saw in the previous post, Paul opens his famous “love chapter” by insisting that the exercise of even the most valuable spiritual gifts is all for naught if it’s not done in love.  He began by mentioning tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, areas in which the Corinthians were tempted to pride.  No doubt this would already have had the Corinthians squirming.  But he continues.

Paul’s next words are directly reminiscent of the ministry of his Master.  Jesus occasionally chided the disciples for their lack of faith; twice, in the face of their doubts, he told them that they should be able to move mountains with their faith (Matt 17:20; 21:21).  Jesus also told a rich young man that if he wanted to enter God’s kingdom, he needed to sell off his possessions and give them to the poor (Matt 19:21).

Thus, when in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul says “if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains” (vs. 2, CEB) and “if I give away everything” (vs. 3), these may not be randomly chosen examples.  The implication seems to be that being a model disciple, even by the light of Jesus’ own teaching, is of no spiritual value without love.

To my mind, that way of reading the passage helps make sense of his last example.  The updated NIV says, “If I…give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (vs. 3).  The older NIV, however, says, “If I…surrender my body to the flames…”  The difficulty for interpreters is that the Greek for “to burn” is very similar to the word “to boast,” and some ancient manuscripts have one word and some have the other.

Most contemporary translations go with “boast” rather than “burn.”  As commentator Gordon Fee observes, martyrdom by fire (e.g. the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero) came after the letter was written, and there are other reasons why “boast” might be the better textual choice.  But I also believe that the choice affects how we read the underlying tone of Paul’s teaching.

If we translate Paul as saying “burn” (with the older NIV), then we might see these few verses as giving increasingly extreme examples to make a point: Your exercise of spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy don’t mean a thing without love.  As a matter of fact, even if you had the faith to move whole mountains, or gave away everything you own, or even gave your very life to be martyred by fire, it still wouldn’t mean anything without love.

That may be the correct reading.

But while Paul was dead set against boasting with pride in one’s spirituality or religious accomplishments, he also argued that it was possible to boast rightly in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31).  In particular, Paul boasted in his own sufferings, because they simultaneously demonstrated both his own weakness and God’s strength (e.g., 2 Cor 11:16-30).

Thus, if “boast” is the correct reading, Paul may be using himself as an example: You know what I’ve suffered for the sake of Jesus and the gospel; I willingly boast in the power of God that is demonstrated through my weakness.  But that too would all be for nothing without love.

It makes a difference.  It’s not as if Paul is writing an abstract (though beautiful) theological treatise.  He has a pastoral relationship with these people, and they know whether he practices what he preaches.  To use his own life and apostleship as an example is a way of saying, This isn’t just about you, but about all who follow Jesus, including myself.

After all, when it comes to receiving correction in matters of love, we’re more likely to listen to those who are both humble and loving themselves.