Looking at the context in the sixteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, we can clearly see how verses 13 and 14 really belong together – the verses before vs. 13 are about Apollos, and the verses after vs. 14 are about a different subject, the family of Stephanus. The two verses 13-14 are a single thought that Paul has in mind, and when we read the two verses together – as they should be read – we get what Paul wanted to tell us: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.”
But when we read the two verses together, they still sound like two separate thoughts – not because they are, but because of our flawed sense of what strength looks like. What does strength have to do with love? According to Paul, everything. Paul’s thought is simply that strength and love have to operate together, because without the one, the other is incomplete.
That may not sound like a profound concept, but it is one, nonetheless. In our culture Christians – and especially male Christians – can often be divided into two groups: what we might call the muscular believers and the loving believers. It’s not that those who stress love can’t have muscle tone and those who stress strength can’t be loving – but that most of us simply tend to fit one of those stereotypical groups better than the other.
Society in general forms along the same fault lines, of course: the jocks and the nerds, the powerful and the poets, the assertive and the sensitive. But is one of these approaches to life somehow better (or more “manly”) than the other?
Consider the story of Jacob and his brother Esau (Genesis 25, 27). Esau was an outdoorsman with hair on his chest – a hunter who liked to spend time in the wilderness. Jacob, on the other hand, was a man of the great indoors – he preferred to stay at home, liked to cook, and was clearly closer to his mother, while Esau (as you probably guessed) was his father’s favorite. The contrast could hardly be stronger – the “rugged” man and the “milder” kind of man. But you know what? God loved Jacob (Malachi 1:2) and chose him as the one whose name would identify the nation God wanted to build (Psalm 135:4). Clearly, God knew that being an outdoor “manly” man was not the only way to do masculinity.
But the story doesn’t end there. We see Jacob having to apply strength as God worked with him. Perhaps in that sense Jacob had to “toughen up,” but he wasn’t changed to a kind of “man’s man” identity – Jacob just developed a side he may have been somewhat lacking in.
When we look at the biblical record, all the “mighty men” of God exhibited or came to exhibit both sides of the strength-divide. David is the classic example, of course. David was a gentle shepherd as well as a giant slayer, a poet and musician as well as a powerful and mighty man. The same can be said of Jesus himself. The Jesus who forcefully cleared the temple and the Jesus who wept for his friends were one and the same – the loving-tough Jesus who talked about sparrows and flowers in his parables yet was strong enough to endure great hardship (Luke 4:1-2) and to sacrifice himself for others (Hebrews 12:2).
The balance of strength and love is something that Jesus also taught his followers. There were times when he urged his disciples to “toughen up” (Matthew 26:40), but there were other times when he showed them they needed to roll back the tough stuff – like the occasion some of them wanted to call in an air-strike on a Samaritan village that had refused Jesus hospitality (Luke 9:54). Jesus made the point that mere insults do not call for munitions – heavenly or otherwise. He showed his followers that strength and love are both necessary: that strength must never prevent us from applying love and love need never prevent us from being strong.
Paul himself exhibited the same balance. The apostle who suffered hardships with great strength – ranging from being repeatedly beaten to being shipwrecked three times (2 Corinthians 11:25) – was the same apostle who penned the Bible’s greatest chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). He knew that strength and love are both needed.
And that is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14. We need to learn a right balance if we do not already have it – we are called to be strong and we are called to love. We are called to let our love be expressed without weakness and our strength to be used continually in love.