This verse serves to bridge the subjects of I Corinthians 12 and 13. Chapter 12 deals with various functions and positions within God's church. Paul calls them "gifts" and instructs the Corinthians—and, by extension, all of God's people—to desire and pursue the "best gifts" earnestly. The Modern Language version renders it, "the more valuable spiritual gifts," and the Revised Standard Version reads, "the higher gifts." Then he tells us that he will show us a more excellent way and launches right into chapter 13, the well-known "love chapter."
What is God teaching us here in this powerful little verse? He is showing us that, from His point of view, true quality and excellence do not depend upon one's rank, function, or position in His church. God does not consider us to be of lower quality or to have less ability to exhibit quality just because we are not all apostles, elders, or deacons. Rather, as Philippians 1:9 says, a Christian's true quality is directly proportional to his or her outgoing love.
God's Quality Way of Life
In I Corinthians 13, the Bible reveals love's supreme importance to life. Paul directly compares love's value to faith, hope, prophecy, sacrifice, knowledge, and the gift of tongues and indirectly with all other gifts of God mentioned in chapter 12. He in no way denigrates the others' usefulness to life and God's purpose, but none can compare in importance to love.
The Corinthians took great pleasure in their gifts, just as we would, but a gift's relative importance is shown in its temporal quality. That is, there are times when a gift is of no use. But love will never end; it will always be of use.
Indeed, the receiving of gifts from God - unless accompanied by and used with love - have the potential to corrupt the one receiving them. God's gifts are powers given to enhance a person's ability to serve God in the church. However, we have all heard the cliché, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." If gifts are not received and used with love, they will play a part in corrupting the recipient, just as they were corrupting the Corinthians. Love is the attribute of God that enables us to receive and use His gifts without corruption.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fruit of the Spirit: Love
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing 1 Corinthians 12:31:
1 John 5:11-13