Why Does the Bible Say, ‘Love Does Not Boast’? (1 Corinthians 13:4)

In my opinion, one of the more powerful scenes in television history is “the hug” between Jim and Pam in season nine of NBC’s The Office. They were the couple on the show. The show’s fans loved Jim and Pam.

And frankly, were uncomfortable with the direction they were taking this couple in its final season. They had been fighting, and we weren’t sure if they were going to make it.

The couple had started marriage counseling, and things seemed to be going worse instead of better.

At the end of one particular episode, Jim is getting ready to leave Scranton for Philly again — to go to his job that he took without telling her. It is a deep wound for her. And this time, he is going to leave with things unsettled.

Then the scene happens. He awkwardly kisses her on the cheek — a far cry from the shocking second-season finale. She turns to walk away, but then Jim shocks her by running to her and embracing her.

She doesn’t really hug him back. But he keeps hugging. And then, the show cuts to their wedding, and the pastor is reading from 1 Corinthians 13.

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 (vv. 4-7, ESV).

Pam remembers. She returns the embrace. And from this moment on in the show, Jim and Pam are once again JAM (that was the kitschy title the show’s fans gave the couple). 1 Corinthians 13, so often read at weddings, saved the day.

But what if I told you, as beautiful as this is, that 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t first and foremost a text for weddings but for the exercise of spiritual gifts?

What Is the Context of This Statement?

Look at the heading for 1 Corinthians 12Spiritual Gifts. Now, look at the heading for 1 Corinthians 14Prophecy and Tongues.

Are we to believe that all of a sudden, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul decided to give a nice little wedding sermon or to even address the way husbands and wives or friends should relate to one another?

No, he is still talking about spiritual gifts. That’s why he begins by saying, “If I speak in the tongues of angels….” What is happening in Corinth is that the believers there are incredibly gifted, but they lack love. And without love, all their spiritual gifts end up being to their detriment.

The main point in verses 1-3 isn’t about the importance of marital, familial, or filial love over worldly accomplishments. It’s about the emptiness of spiritual gifts without the presence of love. Love is what marks one as being mature, not the exercise of spiritual gifts.

So, then, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is not intended to give us an expression of love in the context of a marriage, but rather it is contrasting with the way the Corinthians are living out the Christian life.

Everything in that list is not meant to be an exhaustive definition of love but a pointed comparison of how they are treating one another.

“Love does not boast” is connected with their boasting about spiritual gifts. So, what specifically does Paul mean by “not boasting”?

What Does it Mean to Not Boast?

The word that Paul uses here, translated as a boast, is only used here in the New Testament. It means to “heap praise on oneself” or to be a “windbag” (Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature).  There is also a specific type of boasting, boasting in speech, that is envisioned here.

TDNT refers to this as “the aesthetic, rhetorical form of boasting, which wounds others, causes unrest and discord, and represents unfounded presumption” (Braun, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

In other words, to “boast” in 1 Corinthians 13 is to “talk smack.” It’s to speak in such a way that you wound others as you exalt the self.

It’s not hard to imagine that those who might have been more gifted in speaking or who had a more outward-facing ministry used their spiritual gifts for self-exaltation instead of for the building up of others.

Though using a different Greek word, Paul does mention boasting and a boastful attitude in several earlier places within his letter. In 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, it is implied that they were boasting but not boasting in the Lord.

In 1 Corinthians 3, they are rebuked for their divisive following of men. Paul tells them in 3:21 to “not boast in men.”

In 1 Corinthians 4:7, they are rebuked for boasting about the knowledge they had — as if it was not a gift given to them. And in 1 Corinthians 5:6, Paul rebukes them for boasting about their acceptance of wickedness into their midst.

This boasting likely showed itself in the discussion of food sacrificed to idols. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, we read of those who were “puffed up” with their knowledge. They were using the knowledge that God had given them, not to build others up but to wound them.

They were boasting about how smart they were to see through the emptiness of idols, but as they did this, they were debasing those who had a different set of convictions.

What the Corinthians needed was real maturity, namely, to learn love.

What Is the Connection Between Love and Boasting?

The Corinthians were enamored with spiritual gifts. But usually their own spiritual gifts. Their focus on things was far from an accurate representation of Christ.

They were arguing about spiritual gifts and divided over leaders and all tangly questions about marriage and idolatry and such.

Part of the reason for this arguing is that they believed the wrong things were “the most excellent way.” But in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul outlines for them what they really need to be striving for —love.

The antidote for boasting is love. In fact, the two are polar opposites. While one is present, the other cannot be. Gordon Fee says it well:

“It is not possible to ‘boast’ and love at the same time. The one action wants others to think highly of oneself, whether deserving or not; the other cares for none of that, but only for the good of the community as a whole.”

If the Corinthians truly dug into and pursued loving one another, there would be no room for their boastful attitudes. They would not use their rhetorical skill to abuse opponents and win in arguments. Rather, they would use their rhetorical skill to build up others.

How Do We Apply This Today?

So, how do we apply this today? If Paul’s original point wasn’t to outline marital love but rather to rebuke the Corinthians for their lack of love, does this mean that we should stop quoting 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings? Can we only apply this when a local church is arguing?

Let’s go back to Jim and Pam. They weren’t arguing about spiritual gifts, but they were arguing. Other things were winning the day. 

Love was not the underlying narrative of their marriage. But when Pam remembered those wedding vows, what happened was that love was once again placed in the driver’s seat of their marriage.

And when love is driving, all those vices listed in 1 Corinthians 13 not only take a back seat — they get thrown out of the car.

The overarching point to this chapter, then, is that love is the more excellent way. The nearest point of application is that when we are talking about the exercise of spiritual gifts within a local body — we need to make certain that love is driving the car.

If it isn’t, then it doesn’t matter how “spiritual” we are. We are not following the way of Christ. We should pursue love first and foremost.

But we can also apply this principle to other situations. It does fit into the context of marriage. Not to be applied as an exhaustive list that says, “this is love,” but as a rebuke to our propensity to make other things the “most excellent” within our marriage.

When we do this, we will end up doing things like boasting, being irritable and resentful, and rejoicing in wrongdoing. But love cuts through all of this. Love shapes us differently.

And so, when we find ourselves exhibiting some of the things which are not love — things like a boastful attitude, where we are more concerned with winning an argument than nourishing our spouse — 1 Corinthians 13 serves as a rebuke.

But it also serves as an encouragement; an encouragement to grow up and mature in Christ and pursue the excellent way of love.

So, we can still apply this.

For further reading:

Why Is Love the Greatest in 1 Corinthians 13?

Why Does Love Not Keep Any Records of Wrong?

What Is Love?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Khosrork

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and his writing home is http://mikeleake.net

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