1 Corinthians 13

By way of context we need to recall the main points of the previous article. We learnt from chapter 12 that it is not the possession of any particular spiritual gift whether tongues or any other gift which determines (i) whether a person has the Spirit or (ii) whether a person is a member of the body of Christ, the church. We noted that it is the confession of Jesus as Lord which alone determines whether a person has the Spirit of God that is, the test is not whether people can speak in languages which they have never learnt but what they say about Jesus in the languages which they have, 12. 1-3. We noted also that it is baptism in the Spirit an experience common to all Christians which incorporates people into the body, 12. 13. No one needs to fear that they arent in the body because they lack some particular gift. The same Spirit who inspires our confession of Jesus as Lord and in whom we were baptized into the body, manifests His presence in the church by distributing gifts to all. And just as the differing members of the human body are necessary and mutually dependent, so these differing spiritual gifts are necessary and mutually dependent in the body of Christ. Yet, as Paul made clear at the end of the chapter, some gifts are greater than others greater that is, as we will see when considering chapter 14, in terms of the contribution which they make to the profit and building up of the church.

But before Paul moves on to the comparison between tongues and prophecy in chapter 14, he first stresses, 12. 31, that there is something which is yet more excellent something which is supremely important, without which the very greatest of spiritual gifts are of no value something which always edifies (builds up), 8. 1, and which, unlike any of the spiritual gifts, is open to all. This something is love!

The apostle knew that the Corinthians had gone badly astray, not only in over-valuing the gift of tongues in comparison with the other gifts, but in priding themselves on the whole range of their spiritual gifts. They envied those with supposedly more important gifts and despised those with supposedly lesser gifts. So at the outset of chapter 13, Paul makes it clear that unless spiritual gifts are exercised in love for one another they are altogether worthless.

But there was more to it. Paul was aware that, though there was no lack of spiritual gifts and knowledge at Corinth, 1. 7, there was a decided lack of love among the believers evidenced, for example, by some freely eating idol food in total disregard for the disastrous effects of this action on others, and in the way that the rich wouldnt even wait for the poor to arrive before partaking of the church fellowship meal; see 8. 7-13; 11. 20-21. Paul knew that it was lack of love for one another which lay at the root of many of their problems hence the insertion of chapter 13 between chapters 12 and 14.

1 Corinthians 13 lends itself to a brief and simple division:

Verses 1-3 are concerned with the absence of love. Note in particular the words but have not love in each verse.

Verses 4-7 are concerned with the evidence of love. Paul speaks of loves outworking in the life of church of some of loves notable characteristics and qualities.

Verses 8-12 are concerned with the permanence of love. Love is the priority because it is permanent, while spiritual gifts (specifically prophecy, tongues and knowledge) are to pass away.

Verse 13 is concerned with the pre-eminence of love. If the end of chapter 12 teaches that there are some gifts which are greater than other gifts, the end of chapter 13 teaches that there is one grace which is greater than other graces that love reigns supreme among the graces.

Verse 1. Before describing the still more excellent way mentioned at the end of chapter 12, Paul first emphasiszes its crucial importance. For the most impressive gifts and actions count for nothing if they are used for self-glory and without regard for others, vv. 1-3.

I doubt very much that the words the tongues of men and of angels refer directly to the spiritual gift of tongues. I note that, though Paul refers many times to that spiritual gift in the immediate context, on no occasion does he use, as here, the expression the tongues. I note also that Paul is content to use the word tongues to describe normal human languages, 14. 21.

I therefore take Paul to mean, Even if I could master and express every conceivable form of earthly and heavenly utterance. I have read of one man who claimed to be able to do just that; Apollonius Tyaneus pretended to understand, and speak with the tongues of all men, John Gills commentary on 1 Corinthians. I gather that Apollonius Tyaneus wasnt renowned for his modesty! But for Paul the case was entirely hypothetical.

The Rabbis of New Testament days conjectured that the language of communication between the angels was Hebrew. I wouldn’t know. I suspect that Paul introduces the tongues of angels as an extreme imaginary case, much as he introduces the preaching of angels when writing to the Galatians; compare if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed, Gal. 1. 8.

I suspect, however, that Paul is alluding indirectly to the gift of tongues because to speak in all the tongues (the languages, that is) of men would certainly require this gift. Although the gift of tongues, together with the allied gift of interpretation, is mentioned last in each of the three lists in chapter 12 (suggesting its low ranking among the gifts), Paul probably alludes to it here first before prophecy, knowledge and faith because of the exaggerated importance which the Corinthians attached to it.

I have become sounding brass (that is, as resounding bronze) or a clanging cymbal, he says. The Corinthians would have readily understood the reference, for Corinthian bronze was renowned for its quality and excellence. Paul may well be referring to idolatrous ceremonies and practices familiar to his readers. The booming noise of bronze gongs and the clanging of cymbals would have formed part of the regular pagan rites and processions at Corinth both gongs and cymbals being widely used by the cults of Dionysius and Cybele (the alleged mother of the gods). Paul is saying, If the finest of utterances are not communicated in love so as to contribute to the profit of the church they are, like these gongs and cymbals, mere empty noise without meaning or significance. Speaking in every tongue – even, were it possible, the tongues of angels – would be no better and accomplish no more.

Verse 2. The words all mysteries refer to the great truths of Gods purpose and counsels to secret things which cannot be discovered by human reason. It is likely that the gift of prophecy was the means and channel by which the mysteries were communicated. All knowledge probably refers to the spiritual gift of knowledge to knowledge given directly by God; cf. 12. 8. This interpretation is supported by the association of knowledge again with the gift of prophecy. To have all knowledge would be to know everything about everything a depth and range of knowledge exceeding that of even Solomon, 1 Kgs. 4. 33. Paul is saying that, even if he were to be the recipient of all the revelations and knowledge which God ever chose to give, without love he would be nothing. And to have all faith that is, the gift of wonder-working faith; cf. 12. 9. This is faith of the sort mentioned by the Lord Jesus on at least two occasions, Matt. 17. 20; 21. 21. So that I could remove the present tense serving to enhance the achievement so that I could go on removing mountains could go on removing mountain after mountain.

Verse 3. The word translated bestow is literally to feed with small mouthfuls. That is, if I break down all my possessions and dole them out in small portions so as to benefit as many as possible … it profits me nothing. Nobody can give more than all. The rich young ruler who came to Jesus refused to do it, Luke 18. 22-23. Even the converted Zaccheaus gave only half, Luke 19. 8. But, Paul warns, it is all too possible to have a lavish hand without having a loving heart. And, he imagines, that I not only give all my property to others but even give up my own body in self-sacrifice for others. That is, that I both dole out my bounty and deliver up my body. And then not merely to die but to willingly die a horrific death in the flames.

Possibly Paul had in mind the then famous incident of an Indian fanatic who, in the time of Caesar Augustus, had burned himself alive at Athens. The tomb of the Indian was one of the sights shown to visitors to Athens in Pauls day. It bore the inscription: Zarmo-chegas the Indian from Bargosa, according to the ancient customs of India, made himself immortal and lies here. Paul may well have seen the tomb before travelling from Athens to Corinth, Acts 18.1.

We can briefly summarize verses 1-3:
No matter what I say, v. 1;
no matter what I havewhether prophecy, knowledge or faith, v. 2;
no matter what I dowhether dole out or deliver up, v. 3, Paul says,
without love, what do I become?, v. 1 nothing, because that is what all my noise achieves;
without love, what am I?, v. 2, nothing; I am of no value at all;
without love, what do I gain?, v. 3, nothing, absolutely nothing. For love is indispensable.

I cannot ignore the fact – and the point is sobering to say the least – that I can have the most wonderful speech in my mouth; have a complete understanding of Gods mysteries and truth in my mind; have great resources of faith in my heart; and have to my credit the most sacrificial of actions in my conductand because I dont love I achievenothing, I amnothing and I benefitnothing!

Paul personifies love inverses 4-7. In all, he lists fifteen qualities and properties of love – seven are positive and eight are negative. In one sense, here is loves portrait; in another sense, here is loves lifestyle. I dont suppose for a moment that Paul aims to give a full exposition of all of loves features but he has certainly selected those which contrast starkly with the character of the Corinthians and the way in which they were exercising their gifts. Working back from Pauls portrait of love, we gather that the Corinthians were: quick to flare up, unkind, envious, boastful, proud, rude, selfish, irritable, unforgiving, finding pleasure in peoples failures rather than in that which is true, ready to broadcast the faults of others, suspicious and quick to write others off. Ouch!

We begin with a couplet, suffers long and is kind,v. 4a. These qualities, in particular, are God-like for, as Paul told the Romans, He is rich in both longsuffering and kindness, Rom. 2. 4, withholding His anger (so richly deserved) and exercising His kindness (altogether undeserved). Longsuffering indicates selfrestraint not rushing to punish or visit quick retribution on someone who has offended me. Love has a long fuse but how long is mine? In contrast to longsuffering, kindness isnt passive its active. Love is amiable and considerate, doing good to all.

From the second part of verse 4 to the first part of verse 6, Paul lists eight negative features of love:

Verse 4b. Love doesnt envy. Love is neither jealous nor envious. We tend to distinguish these vices; seeing envy as wishing to deprive others of that which they have, and jealousy as desiring to have the same for ourselves as others have. Paul probably includes both ideas in his word. Love doesnt resent the blessings, prosperity and success of others. Moses furnishes us with a good example from the Old Testament, Num. 11. 26-30, and John the Baptist from the New Testament, John 3. 27-31. Far from envying the honour given to another member of the body, love rejoices with him, 12. 26.

Love doesnt parade itself. Love doesnt blow its own trumpet; doesnt brag or draw attention to itself to win the admiration and the applause of others.

Love isnt puffed up the word is derived from that for a bellows. Love isnt inflated with a sense of its own importance. This was the Corinthians besetting sin we find six of the seven New Testament occurrences of the word here in 1 Corinthians; see 4. 6, 18, 19; 5. 2; 8. 1; 12. 4. Love isnt guilty of inward pride any more than it is of outward show.

Verse 5.Love doesnt behave rudely. Love doesnt act in an unbecoming, unseemly or improper manner. It does nothing of which it ever needs to be ashamed. In particular, it is never illmannered or rude it isnt self-assertive or arrogant. It never stoops to perform mean and despicable actions. Love is marked by courtesy and tact, by consideration and respect for others.

Love doesnt seek its own. Love isnt concerned with itself. Love doesnt put itself first. Not only doesnt love envy and covet that which belongs to others, v. 4 love is always ready to give up what is its own for others. Like Paul, love doesnt seek its own advantage but that of others, 10. 33. And like his Lord, love looks not only to its own interests but to the interests of others, Phil. 2. 4.

Love isnt provoked. Love doesnt allow itself to be provoked. Love doesnt get irritated when suffering injury at the hands of others. Love doesnt allow such things to make it sharp and bitter.

Love thinks no evil. Love doesnt keep a note of the wrongs done. Here Paul uses a well-known accounting term. When love suffers wrong, love doesnt enter it in a ledger, doesnt put it down against the account of the offender with a view to paying it back perhaps with a high rate of interest at the earliest opportunity. Love would never know when its brother has sinned against it seven times let alone seventy times seven!

Verse 6.Love doesnt rejoice in iniquity (unrighteousness). Love doesnt find pleasure in anything which doesnt conform to the standard of what is right. In particular, love doesnt get any smug sense of satisfaction over the errors and bad actions of others love doesnt triumph and gloat over their falls and failures. Love rejoices at the blessings of others, 12. 26, not at their sins.

On the contrary, as Paul progresses from loves negative features to some of loves positive features, love rejoices in the truth that is, in all that is true.

Verse 7.Love bears all things. The word translated bears is derived from the word meaning a roof and its significance here isnt certain. On the one hand, it could mean to bear as a roof would in the ancient world. The idea would then be of bearing without resentment any injuries inflicted by others and just possibly including the thought of bearing the infirmities of the weak, Rom. 15. 1, and bearing the burdens of fellow-Christians in general, Gal. 6. 2. On the other hand, and more likely, the picture may be that of the roof covering what is underneath. Pauls point would then be that love hides the faults of others love is more disposed to conceal some ugly action than it ever is to expose it by gossip. Perhaps Paul has the word of Solomon in his mind, love covers all sins, Prov. 10. 12 quoted by the apostle Peter, 1 Pet. 4. 8. Love acts like Shem and Japheth, the two sons of Noah, who, in contrast to their younger brother Ham, rushed to screen the nakedness and shame of their father, Gen. 9. 20-24. Love spreads its mantle over the wrongs of others.

Love believes all things. Not that love is in any way gullible or naïve. But love is always eager to believe good of others. Love always puts the best possible construction on ones neighbours words and actions. Love is always willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Love hopes all things. As love believes the best, so love hopes the best. Even when hard facts prove beyond doubt that others are at fault, and it is therefore no longer possible to believe the best of them, love will still hope the best of them that they will do better in the future that they will be victorious where they have been defeated that they will in future be good where they have in the past been bad. Love persists in hoping and expecting the best of others.

And love endures all things. Even when loves hopes of others have been dashed and love has met with many sad disappointments, love doesnt give up. Love doesnt quit or walk away. Love will hang on and wait not discouraged by the repeated failures of others. And why? Simply because love is love.

Here then in chapter 13 are the various manifestations of love in the life of the church to stand alongside the various manifestations of spiritual gifts in the life of the church with which Paul deals in the chapters on either side.

We are left to imagine the tremendous difference which the display of these features of love would have made in the first century church at Corinth and the tremendous difference which this would make in our local church setting today.

Inverses 8-12 Paul moves on from the evidence of love to the permanence of love.

Verse 8 adds one final characteristic of love but one which is very different to those listed in verses 4-7. The features in verses 4-7 are meant to be displayed in the lives of believers. But here is one characteristic of love which does not fall to the saints to demonstrate. Paul introduces this characteristic to provide a marked contrast to the spiritual gifts of which the Corinthians were so proud. Love never fails love never comes to an end, never ceases to exist. But if love never comes to an end, spiritual gifts do!

Spiritual gifts serve only a temporary purpose. Note the allimportant But at the beginning of the second sentence. The context suggests that knowledge should be understood as the gift of knowledge; see the note on verse 2. Both prophecies and knowledge will be done away (Greek); that is, they will be reduced to inactivity, will be put out of action. Tongues too will cease to function.

Paul insists not only that tongues, prophecy and knowledge have no value without love, vv. 1-2, but that, even though these gifts should be exercised in and with love, at some point they will in any case cease to operate altogether, v. 8.

Inverses 9-10 Paul provides the reason why knowledge and prophecy will come to an end. Although ranking among the more important of the gifts, they are at best partial and incomplete. And that which is fragmentary and partial will be done away when that which is perfect (that which is complete and whole, with nothing left out) comes. The apostle distinguishes between prophecy and knowledge on the one hand, and tongues on the other. As far as prophecy and knowledge are concerned, because they are only in-part revelations of God and His truth, they will, he says, one day be superseded and replaced by that which is complete. Paul doesnt say the same about tongues because, unlike with the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, the gift of tongues isnt concerned with the revelation of God and His truth and cannot therefore be replaced by some complete version. Tongues will cease however, because, in common with prophecy and knowledge, they have only a temporary purpose and value.

Verses 11-12 provide two simple illustrations of what happens when that which is complete takes over from that which is in part. Both of Pauls illustrations hinge on words of timing when … but when, v. 11; now … but then, v. 12.

Verse 11 refers to the transition and progress from childhood to manhood. I used to talk, used to think, used to reason like a child, Paul is saying, but no longer. When I became a man, I had no desire to become a child again, using child-like words and possessing a childs understanding. I had outgrown these. In like manner, Paul reasons, when that which is complete is come, we will have no desire to go back to what was only partial.

Verse 12a. Corinth was famous for the manufacture of metallic mirrors, both of polished silver and bronze. This provides Paul with his second illustration. (It is interesting to note that the only other time in his extant letters when Paul makes mention of a mirror is in his other letter to the Corinthians, 2 Cor. 3. 18.

Because the mirrors were made of polished metal, the image they reflected was imperfect inevitably blurred and obscure. The image was seen dimly in an enigma (lit). In the same way, the understanding of God and His things conveyed by means of the gifts of prophecy and knowledge was at best imperfect. Our present knowledge, Paul is saying, acquired through prophecy and the gift of knowledge, is akin to looking at a blurred reflection in a mirror in contrast to seeing directly face to face.

When Paul contrasted seeing clearly with seeing through a mirror obscurely, he may well have had in mind the teaching of the Rabbis. Mainly on the strength of Numbers 12. 6-8, the Rabbis claimed, All the prophets looked through a mirror, which did not give light. Moses our master looked through a mirror that gave light. Paul may well therefore be saying, Though there was admittedly a great difference between (i) Moses and (ii) the rest of the prophets (with the prophets receiving revelations indirectly through visions and dreams, but with God speaking directly to Moses – mouth to mouth and not in an enigma, Num. 12. 8 LXX – the very words used by Paul in verse 12), there will be an even greater difference between (i) the clearest views of God and His things given through the gifts of prophecy and knowledge in the church today and (ii) the perfect clarity to be enjoyed when that which is complete comes.

Picking up again the words we know in part, v. 9, Paul now inverse 12b contrasts the partial knowledge of his day with the thorough and complete knowledge to be experienced when that which is perfect and complete came. Then I shall know (fully/thoroughly know), even as I also am known (fully/thoroughly known) presumably in the same way (although not of course to the same extent) as God knows me now. Then I shall fully know – directly and intuitively – and not through some indirect channel of revelation.

As I understand it,verse 13 stands separate to verses 8-12. That is, in contrast with the future state spoken of in verses 10 and 12, the now of verse 13 refers to the present. Love is not only to be preferred to any and all spiritual gifts; it is greater than any and all other spiritual graces. If Paul stresses the permanency of love when contrasting love with the spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy and knowledge, he stresses the supremacy of love when comparing love with the other spiritual graces of faith and hope. The point is not that love outlasts faith and hope as it does tongues, prophecy and knowledge but that it outranks and outshines them. Nor is this surprising for, properly speaking, love alone is divine. God doesnt believe and He doesnt hope but He does love!

Chapter 14 verse 1. I have then pointed you, Paul is saying, in the direction of the more excellent way, 12. 31 the way of love. Pursue this way and then (but only then), fired by a concern for the well-being of others, eagerly desire those spiritual gifts which will best promote their spiritual interests.


But what are we to make of that which is perfect (complete) in verse 10? When did Paul envisage believers seeing face to face and of knowing fully even as they are fully known, v. 12? Or, to put it bluntly, do verses 8-12 speak of the completed canon of scripture or the future heavenly state?

I am not in a position to be dogmatic. But I will venture my opinion.

I suggest that we must begin by putting ourselves in Pauls situation. That is, we must look through his eyes and imagine that we are back with him at the time he was writing.

We know that Paul was familiar with the idea of a completed canon of scripture. After all, he possessed one we call it the Old Testament which he regarded as inspired by God in every detail, 2 Tim. 3. 16-17. We know also that, because he was an apostle, he regarded his writings as carrying divine authority that the things which he wrote to the churches were to be acknowledged as the very commandment of the Lord Himself, 14. 37. We know too that Peter classed Pauls writings along with the other scriptures, 2 Pet. 3.16 just as Paul may well have done the gospel of Luke, 1 Tim. 5. 18 with Luke 10. 7. I conclude therefore that there would have been no problem for Paul in recognizing such a thing as the completed canon of the New Testament writings if he had lived a hundred years later or if he had believed that the time would come when such a collection of books would exist.

But he didnt live a hundred years later! And it is highly questionable whether Paul would have imagined such a thing as a completed New Testament.

It is clear that the apostle believed that it was possible though by no means certain – that the Lord Jesus would return in his own lifetime; compare 1 Thess. 4. 15 (we which are alive) with 1 Cor. 6. 14 (raise us up) and 2 Cor. 4. 14 (raise us up). I see no reason to believe that Paul foresaw an earthly programme for the church beyond the apostolic era (see footnote 1) and still less that there would be many future generations of Christians who would come to own and treasure a completed canon of the New Testament which we know was to include, for example, the Gospel of John written well over forty years after Paul dictated 1 Corinthians. (See footnote 2.)

It seems to me therefore highly unlikely that Paul meant or could have expected the saints at Corinth to understand there would be a time in the history of the church when a completed canon of scripture would come and, with its coming, make redundant the special gifts of tongues, prophecy and knowledge.

I conclude therefore that both the apostle and his original readers understood the passage to refer to the perfection and completeness of the future heavenly state.

I dont suppose that we can altogether rule out the possibility that Pauls words contained a depth of meaning which goes beyond what the Corinthians and possibly even Paul himself understood by them … that the Holy Spirit was indicating for future generations of Christians that that the completed canon of scripture would displace the spectacular gifts, and that love would outlive them, even on earth, by at least 1900 years. That is, that Pauls words could, with the passing of time, be seen to bear both senses. But I very much doubt it. While rejoicing in the sufficiency and perfection of scripture, I would have no small problem in equating the expressions we see … then face to face and then I shall (fully) know just as I also am (fully) known with our present experience. The Jews taught that at the resurrection, the children of men shall attain to perfect knowledge. I guess that Paul was teaching much the same.

The one thing we can be sure about is that, when he wrote, Pauls immediate purpose was to make it crystal clear to the Corinthians that these impressive gifts of theirs were temporary and that love is permanent and that love was (and is) more important than any and all of the gifts. And this he certainly achieved.

But if 1 Corinthians 13 doesnt teach that the gifts of tongues and prophecy were to cease when the New Testament writings were completed, does this mean that these gifts still exist today? I have reasons for seriously doubting this.

We will note in our study of chapter 14 at least one critical difference between (i) the exercise of the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues in first-century Corinth, and (ii) what often passes for the exercise of these gifts today. It seems apparent also that the teaching of the New Testament prophets (along with the teaching of the apostles) comprised the foundation of the household of God viz, the church, Eph. 2. 19-21; 3. 5. It goes without saying that we live today in the under construction period rather than the foundation period of the church. Again, prophesying and speaking in tongues stood alongside the gifts of apos


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