We often quote 1 Corinthians 13 as if it is an all-purpose description of love, for weddings, marriage counseling, friendships, and so forth. The principles in this chapter are in fact universal enough to apply to those situations, but Paul originally wrote them to address a specific situation which many of us today miss. Paul was addressing the appropriate use of spiritual gifts.
The Corinthian church was divided over a variety of issues. One such issue, addressed in chapters 12-14, was the use of some spiritual gifts. Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that the purpose of all publicly used gifts is to build up the body of Christ. In chapter 14, he emphasizes that prophecy is more important in public worship than tongues, because it builds up the church better (unless the tongues is interpreted). Between these two chapters is chapter 13, revealing love as the key virtue that moves us to use all our gifts to build up Christ’s church.
Paul emphasizes that even if we have the greatest gifts, we are nothing without love (13:1-3). He points out that the gifts are temporary, due to pass away at Christ’s return when we see him face to face (13:8-10); love, however, is eternal (13:11-13). Between these two points he describes the characteristics of love–characteristics which, in the context of the entire book, directly address what the Corinthian Christians lack (13:4-8). Love is not jealous or arrogant or boastful (13:4), but the Corinthian Christians certainly were jealous (3:3) and arrogant (4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1) and boastful (cf. 1:29; 3:21; 4:7; 5:6). In short, everything Paul says love is, he has already told the Corinthians they are not! Paul’s praise of love is simultaneously a gentle rebuke!
But just as love is our first priority, love tells us which gifts to seek most for the building up of Christ’s body. The verses immediately surrounding 1 Corinthians 13 remind us that we should seek from God for public worship especially the “greater” gifts, those like prophecy which build up others (12:31; 14:1).