It’s a scripture every Christian knows and one of the first ones we may memorize. But many do not realize how important these three qualities are in the writings of Paul. He is the only New Testament writer who groups faith, hope, and love together in quite this way, though the Book of Hebrews – which was clearly heavily influenced by Paul, even if he was not its author – is the only other New Testament book that does group the three qualities directly (Hebrews 10:22-24).
For Paul, faith, hope, and love were more than just the topics of an important section of his letter to the Corinthian church. The three qualities appear grouped together in almost every one of the apostle’s letters, though we may not always see it. Paul sometimes mentions only one or two of the three concepts in a given verse, so it may not be obvious that they are all present in the same chapter or letter, but the three qualities permeate almost everything Paul wrote and are frequently found bound together in the same way we find them grouped in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Consider these three verses:
“… the faith and love that spring from the hope …” (Colossians 1:5).
“… your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
“putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
Sometimes Paul includes faith, hope, and love in longer lists of spiritual qualities, and we may not connect them as we read the list, but the main reason we may not see how frequently Paul uses this great triad in his writing is that he often varies the expression faith, hope, and love by replacing one of the qualities with a related one which suggests the same thing from a specific angle. In these cases we can learn much regarding how Paul thought about faith, hope, and love by seeing what words he uses to substitute for these qualities.
Take, for example, the way Paul often substitutes “endurance” for hope (just as we saw them connected in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, above): “pursue … faith, love, endurance …” (1 Timothy 6:11); “… your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing… we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4); “Teach the older men to be … sound in faith, in love and in endurance” (Titus 2:2).
The concepts of hope and endurance are clearly related, and by writing endurance instead of hope, Paul stresses that particular aspect of hope in what he is saying. Sometimes, just as he uses “endurance,” the apostle uses “patience” as another synonym for hope (2 Timothy 3:10, etc.).
If we look at another example: “… faith, love and holiness …” (1 Timothy 2: 15), we find holiness taking the place of hope, and these two qualities are also connected, as Paul shows in speaking of the hope we have in the promises of God: “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves… perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
So too, when Paul writes of “… sound teaching, with faith and love” (2 Timothy 1:13), he uses sound teaching in place of hope – which might seem strange, but right teaching gives us hope, and if we look carefully at the context in which Paul writes this to Timothy, it is, in fact, one of hope (vs. 12).
As a final example, notice the way Paul uses “good conscience” as the basis for hope in his letter to Timothy: “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Paul’s point is clear in making this substitution – it is only when our consciences do not condemn us that we have true hope.
We have only considered variants of “hope” in these examples, but if you look for them you will find that Paul frequently varies the words he uses for each of the three great qualities. We can learn a great deal by being aware of this fact and letting it teach us. So next time you see faith, hope, and love – or something similar – in the writings of Paul, think about it. Ask yourself what you can learn about these vital qualities of Christian living through Paul’s choice of words and how they may illuminate the context of what is being said.
Often this small technique can open up unexpected insights into some key areas of Paul’s teaching. It’s a way we can come to better understand the three things that Paul tells us – repeatedly – matter the most.
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