Question: "What does it mean that the greatest of these is love?"
Answer: First Corinthians 13:13 says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” This comes just after Paul’s eloquent and famous description of what true love—agape love—is. There are several ways in which love can be said to be the greatest.
First Corinthians 13:13 lists love along with faith and hope as a gift that lasts forever. The lasting nature of faith, hope, and love make them greater than all other gifts of the Spirit, which are temporary; the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:8 as coming to an end. Of the three “forever gifts,” love is the greatest.
Love is greater than faith and hope in that both faith and hope depend on love for their existence. Without love, there can be no true faith; a loveless faith is nothing but an empty religious exercise. As Paul says, “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Without love, there can be no genuine hope; a loveless hope is an oxymoron, because we can’t truly hope for something that we do not love. Faith and hope are dead, sterile things if not accompanied by love.
One of the reasons that love is the greatest gift is that it is essential to God’s nature. First John 4:8 tells us that God is love. The book of John and John’s three letters are replete with the theme of love. God gives us His love, and we reflect that love back to Him: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:9–17). Here we see that love is something that has always existed among the persons of the Trinity. Love has no beginning and does not end. And this is the love into which we are invited. Jesus desired for future believers to be part of His love as well: “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26).
Jesus taught that the greatest two commandments both include love, the greatest gift: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).
John Calvin puts forward a very simple reason why love is the greatest gift: “Because faith and hope are our own: love is diffused among others.” In other words, faith and hope benefit the possessor, but love always benefits another. In John 13:34–35 Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love always requires an “other” as an object; love cannot remain within itself, and that is part of what makes love the greatest gift.
Love is core to God’s character and central to the Christian life. The law of Christ is to love God and love others. Love infuses all that God does and should infuse all that we do. “Love never fails ” (1 Corinthians 13:8), and it will never cease. Because of this, love is greater than even hope and faith.