St. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is leading up to his statement on self-sacrifice. To me the very idea of having one’s own body burned made me think of suicide rather than of a Christian activity or gift.
Yet people who have been preaching the gospel often had to face severe opposition. They were convinced that the message they were proclaiming was divine truth and beneficial to whosoever would receive it. Many Christian preachers ended up as martyrs. Jesus himself had been proclaiming the kingdom of God and he was going about doing good. Yet finally he was crucified.
So perhaps Paul refers to some severe reaction of a heathen environment persecuting Christians. In that case the very practice of Christian living could have lead to being put to the flames.
On the other hand, I am not aware of this kind of punishment being practiced in those days. In the middle ages certain people were burned at the stake. You may also think of John Hus and some of the early Protestants who were executed by putting them to the flames. But maybe the manner of death is not that important here.
Many who think about self-sacrifice would have recalled that Christ died at that cross. Early he could observe that there were those who disliked his influence. Yet he carried on proclaiming the good news and helping people. He stuck to his principles of loving activity to the very end. In that sense we could say that Christ died for his disciples and for his people. Even we benefitted from his life and death as the gospel also has been made known to us. Thus Christ also lived and died for us. (*)
Even before Jesus was apprehended he pointed out to his disciples that they too might be hated and persecuted: “The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:20/KJV).
If we were to take Paul’s statement on self-sacrifice as a reference to the Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross, this would truthfully be a culmination point in Paul’s argument in verses 1-3. Paul’s words then lead us away from spiritual gifts we might receive and away from things we might do. Our thoughts thus are directed to the giver of gifts and to the source of Christian love.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16/KJV). Jesus Christ is the gift of God to us.
In 1 Corinthians 12:31 Paul had encouraged the Corinthians to set their hearts on the best gifts. In chapter 13 he then listed a number of charismatic gifts. Finally he mentioned self-sacrifice.
Certainly Jesus Christ being God’s gift to humankind is much greater than all the gifts listed in verses 1-3. In a sense looking at what the Lord has done for us and worshipping him is more important than the practice of any spiritual gift.
Perhaps Paul is pointing to the great truths of Good Friday and Easter Sunday when referring to laying down one’s life. God’s gift to us is greater than anything we ever might be doing. He gave us his own son. And the son has laid down his life for our good.
(*) This is not a full discussion of Christ’s sacrificial death. As 1 Corinthians 13 is concerned with Christian living, here I emphasised the life (and death) of Christ. Thus for the purpose of my post I have neglected the fact that Christ died for our sins.