When was the last time you heard a sermon on 1 Corinthians chapter 13? Well, unless your church is going through a series on that book, I suspect the last time you heard a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 was during a wedding. I have used that text to preach at weddings myself. In truth however, the text is not referring to husband and wives. It is referring to how Christians ought to love one another. Of course Christian couples ought to love one another in this way as well but the chapter is referring first to the love between members of God’s community. We must also remember that the early church met in homes (1 Corinthians 16:19). To be baptised into Christ then was to become part of a group of believers, numbering around 30 people who met regularly and loved each other with agape love (1 Corinthians 12: 12-13). If the church was what it was meant to be, church members should not be lonely people.
I am teaching a course on Biblical Sexual Ethics, and in my readings, I am struck afresh by the fact that human beings are not meant to be solitary beings. The “NOT GOOD” in Genesis 2:18 is in your face and loud. Genesis 1 and 2 also teach that marriage, and the families that result, are the primary bases for human bonding. As the late Stanley J. Grenz reminds us:
The fellowship between man and woman formed in the marriage relationship is presented in the Genesis creation narrative as the primal human community. But arising naturally out of this union is the expansion of community into the family unit that occurs as Eve bears children . . . In this way sexually based bonding forms the basis for the Old Testament view concerning human community in general. (Sexual Ethics, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 33.)
The New Testament reaffirms the importance of marriage as a key basis for experiencing community. Jesus points us to God’s original intent for marriage (Matthew 19:3-9). Paul teaches how husbands and wives should treat one another out of reference for Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33). Indeed Paul reaffirms the importance of sexual relating in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). But as Grenz also notes, the New Testament introduces another way in which people can bond with each other. This is a way that is not based on sex or familial ties but on our common participation in the life of Christ.
In the New testament era, however, an important change occurs. Now the primary community is no longer presented as the physical family, entrance to which occurs though natural family heritage. Rather, the central community is the fellowship of Christ. More important than physical ancestry — who is one’s parents are — is one’s spiritual ancestry — who one’s heavenly Father is . . . (35)
Grenz would go on to say:
. . . the New Testament, in contrast to the Old, maintains that the greatest earthly expression of the divine will to community is now the community of Christ, not the family. For the Christian therefore, the fellowship of believers is intended to be the primary locus of the experience of community and the primary orientation point for personal identity. (59)
Indeed Jesus also lets on that in the new heavens and the new earth, even marriage will no longer be needed (Luke 20:27-40). John Nolland comments:
Marriage is an institution for this world, but for those whom God deems worthy of the resurrection life there is a glorious new mode of existence. Resurrection existence is in a deathless realm. So there can be no place for taking steps to provide sons to carry on the family name . . . (It is perhaps best to think of the relational functions of marriage, removed in the life to come from connection with procreation and eroticism, as no longer needing the exclusivity that is now proper to marriage.) (Luke 18:35-24:53, Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993, 968)
Those of us who enjoy our married life or who hope to do so, may be somewhat disappointed that there will be no marriage in our resurrected state. That is because we know about marriage. We do not know what will replace it. I still think we can’t beat C. S. Lewis for his comment on this issue.
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer “No,” he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. They boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. (Miracles, New York, NY: Collier Books, 1960, 159-160.)
In this matter too, I think 1 Corinthians 2:9 applies:
But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (NET)
But the new heavens and the new earth have not arrived yet. We still live in this age while anticipating the age to come, although with Jesus’ death and resurrection and with Pentecost, one can say that the age is to come has begun. In our present situation both marriage and singleness are valid expressions of our life in Christ (1 Corinthians 7: 25-31). But for Paul, being single does not mean being lonely. He expects Christians to be in deep intimate relationships with other believers, a foretaste of how we will relate in the age to come. Jesus models for us this new way of relating. He finds His primary intimacy and identity in His relationship with His heavenly Father. And He had close male and female companions, though they often failed Him as His three closest friends did in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46).
But are our churches structured for deep intimate relationships? Do we relegate 1 Corinthians 13 to marriage only? I think most of our churches don’t get this and many of us are starving relationally. It is not good for human beings to be alone. Married or single, our Lord has provided us with the relational resources we need in our common companionship in Christ. In fact, in an increasingly lonely world, the smell of agape may be what is most needed to draw people to Jesus.