By Dr. Harold Sala
After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. Acts 18:1
I have sometimes wondered what went through the mind of Paul as he made his way from Athens to Corinth long ago. The old Roman road, parts of which can still be seen today, ran along the beautiful Aegean Sea where the Grecians defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis. Yes, Paul knew his history, and as he walked into Corinth, he also knew that it was a different culture from the sophistication he had encountered in Athens. To call something a Corinthian in those days was a stinging insult. It implied you were a Hugh Hefner-styled playboy, someone who didn’t take his marriage vows seriously, and who wouldn’t be above taking a bribe or a girl for the evening.
Paul began his confrontation with the culture in the Jewish synagogue but soon turned to the Gentiles and began to proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified by the Romans, placed in a tomb for three days, but rose again! He later wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
The church which Paul planted struggled with lots of problems—infidelity, incest, homosexuality, disputes, and misunderstandings–plenty of them. In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians Paul addressed some of those issues, and sandwiched between two chapters where he wrote about spiritual gifts, he injected some thoughts about love—the real kind, which is tough, and powerful, too, the kind that changes lives and society as well.
Paul actually makes no introduction; he simply jumps into the discussion. First, he speaks of the emptiness of what we do without love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love,” he wrote, “I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (13:1). All Greeks prided themselves on their great orators. Demosthenes, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were among the greatest. At the top of my list of greatest orators in the 20th century is Winston Churchill, the bulldog of a statesman, who had a way of saying such powerful things that short phrases turned the hearts of nations. At the height of World War 2, Churchill proclaimed, “A thousand years from now all the world will say this was Britain’s finest hour!” Or what of the time he spoke of his former school, Harrow, and said, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Yet says Paul without love, you are like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Then Paul spoke of the poverty of what you possess without love. “If I have the gift of prophecy,” he wrote, “and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” The Corinthians were enamored with the supernatural, yet, contended Paul, without love you are nothing, less than a cipher with the circle rubbed out.
Then Paul spoke of the futility of what you may sacrifice without love. “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love,” he said, “I gain nothing” (13:2).
A closing thought: Love—the agape kind which comes from God, the kind which makes a difference in our world—is more than a meaningless shibboleth or poetic nonsense, a romantic notion; rather it is a way of life which allows God to touch other people through our lives. It is the most powerful force in the entire world.
Resource reading: 1Corinthians 13.