The Way of Love, 1-13

13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 13:2 And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 13:3 If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit.

‘Paul establishes the necessity of love in his opening paragraph (1 Cor 13:1-3 Paul then follows this (1 Cor 13:4-7) with a description of the character of love. Finally, Paul ends with the permanence of love and establishes agape love as a mark of true Christianity by asserting, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). Immediately following (1 Cor 14:1), Paul literally challenges the Corinthians to “pursue love;” to put others’ needs before their own.’ (Fee)

Prior quotes a passage from Thomas Merton, which talks about the chaplain at his boarding-school. This man’s interpretation of this chapter was that ‘love’ is equivalent to ‘being a gentleman’. ‘One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word “gentleman” for “charity” wherever it occurs.’ Merton comments, ‘The Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen.’

Prior emphasis that this chapter must be read in the context of the rest of the letter. ‘When applied to the local church, it becomes dynamite. It uncovers all the weaknesses, gaps, failures and sins in any Christian community. It is a particular challenge to any church which has seen outward success in its ministry. These words cut us down to size; they humble us, because we begin to see what really matters to God. They re-direct us as the body of Christ to our true calling. It is probably good for any congregation to assess its life together from time to time in the mirror of this chapter.’

Paul has already stated, in 1 Cor 8:1, that ‘love builds up.’ When spiritual gifts are exercised in love, the body of Christ is edified. When they are exercised in a competitive spirit, the body is not edified.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels – Probably a rhetorical flourish, rather than indicating anything definite about angelic communication: Suppose I could speak in every language in earth and heaven?’ – even such a gift would be as meaningless din. ‘Some Christians with the gift of tongues insensitively impose it on others in the congregation; with considerable self-indulcgence rather than a deep desire to build up the church, such people override the feelings of those who are either unaccustomed or unsympathetic to this gift.’ (Prior)

Love – ‘It is well known that the Greek word for love in the New Testament, agape, was not previously in common use. It was taken into the Greek of the New Testament specifically because the love of God, seen in Jesus of Nazareth, required a new word. God’s love completely transcends all human ideas of expressions of love.’ (Prior) Morris says, ‘It is a love for the utterly unworthy, a love which proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather frmo the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved.’

A resounding gong – Corinth was famous for its “bronze” and bronze vases were often used to amplify sound in the outdoor theatres. Along with the clanging cymbal, it would be used in the Greek mystery-cults at Corinth, as a way of invoking the gods, driving away demons, or rousing the worshippers. Both instruments were incapable of a melodious sound.

Encomia.  ‘An encomium is a poem or essay written in praise of either an abstract quality or a generalized character type. Common motifs are an introduction to the subject of praise, the distinguished and ancient ancestry of that subject, a catalog or description of praiseworthy acts and qualities, the superior or indispensable nature of the subject, the rewards that accompany the things being praised, and a conclusion urging the reader to emulate the subject.

Biblical encomia that praise an abstract quality include poems in praise of wisdom in the book of Proverbs (3:13-20; 8), God’s law (Ps. 119), love, (1 Cor 13) and faith (Heb. 11). Encomia praising character types include Ps 1,15,112, and Psa 128 (the godly person) and Pr 31:10-31 (the virtuous wife). The Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 is a parody of the genre, praising the suffering servant for unconventional reasons.’ (Origin of the Bible)

If I have a faith that can move mountains – Then, as now, ‘moving mountains’ was a figure of speech for performing the impossible. Cf. Mt 17:20.

This ‘clearly points to supernatural and miraculous activity. (cf. 1 Cor 12:9-10) The wording of this concept can surely be traced to the words of Jesus in Mt 17:20; 21:21, and Mk 11:23. While this phrase obviously points to extraordinary miraculous power, there is a question whether it was understood literally by Jesus and the Apostles. This phrase clearly points to a nature miracle rather than a healing miracle (cf. 12:9-10). It is no coincidence, in my judgment, that Jesus himself never performs this particular miracle and that nature miracles of this sort are astonishingly rare in the lives of the Twelve, Paul, and the early Christian communities. These facts point to the hyperbolic character of this concept and phrase.’ (College Press)

I am nothing – ‘Salvation is promised to those who have the graces of the Spirit, but not to those who have merely the extraordinary gifts. Many may have these last, and yet go to hell. Judas Iscariot had them, and is gone to hell. And Christ tells us, that many who have had them, will, at the last day, be bid to depart, as workers of iniquity, Mt 7:22-23. And therefore, when he promised his disciples these extraordinary gifts, he bade them rejoice, not because the devils were subject to them, but because their names were written in heaven; intimating that the one might be, and yet not the other, Lk 10:17. And this shews that the one is an infinitely greater blessing than the other, as it carries eternal life in it.’ (Jonathan Edwards)

‘The Corinthians clearly thought that the possessors of certain gifts were extremely important persons…Not only are they unimportant, they are actually nothing.’ (Morris)

Paul here ‘exposes the vanity of every form of self-sacrifice which stops short of surrendering the self to God.’ (Wilson)

If I give all I possess to the poor – What a grand, generous gesture! But without love, it profits me not one bit.

If I…surrender my body to the flames – ‘Although a Roman reader could think of such stories as the suicide of the rejected lover Dido in a famous Roman epic, or self-burning by Indian philosophers, “giving one’s body to be burned” no doubt alludes instead to the standard Jewish tradition of martyrs, some of whom threw themselves into the fire to avoid being forcibly defiled.’ (NT Background Cmty)

13:4 Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. 13:5 It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. 13:6 It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. 13:7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

‘We have not in this chapter a methodical dissertation on Christian love, but an exhibition of that grace as contrasted with extraordinary gifts which the Corinthians inordinately valued. Those traits of love are therefore adduced which stood opposed to the temper which they exhibited in the use of their gifts. They were impatient, discontented, envious, inflated, selfish, indecorous, unmindful of the feelings or interests of others., suspicious, resentful, censorious. The apostle personifies love, and places her before them and enumerates her graces, not in logical order, but as they occurred to him in contrast to the deformities of character which they exhibited.’ (Hodge)

‘Itis important that Paul uses verbs in describing such love: a loving person will behave in a certain way; he will do, and not do, certain things because of the kind of person he is becoming, through the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit. These qualities, these actions are top priorities for every Christian in a local church. If these are absent, the church will languish and fail, if not disintegrate, however active, successful and large it may be.’ (Prior) All the verbs, by the way, are in the present continuous tense.

‘It is not coincidental that these four verses perfectly describe the character of Jesus himself, and of nobody else. This becomes clear when we substitute “Jesus” for “love” in this passage, and then by contrast insert our own name instead.’ (Prior)

Characteristics of love

The definitive statement on love in Paul occurs in 1 Cor. 13. Rhetorical ability, preaching, knowledge, mountain-moving faith, charity towards the poor, or even martyrdom are nothing without agape. First Corinthians 13:4–8a lists several characteristics of this love.

First, it is long-suffering [makrothumia] (v. 4). This is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It refers to a quality that does not seek revenge but suffers wrong in order to act redemptively.

Second, love is kind (translated gracious, virtuous, useful, manageable, mild, pleasant, benevolent—the opposite of harsh, hard, sharp, or bitter). Third, love is not envious (covetous), does not jealously desire what it does not possess.

Fourth, love does not promote itself; it is not puffed up (1 Cor. 8:1). Paul says in Phil. 2:3, “In humility consider others as more important than yourselves” (HCSB).

Fifth, love does not behave itself in an unbecoming fashion. Believers are to avoid even the appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22).

Sixth, love does not seek its own things. Paul once sent Timothy because “I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests; all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20–21 HCSB).

Seventh, love is not easily provoked (irritated, exasperated, or made angry). When Jesus was hit, He did not retaliate but said, “If I have spoken wrongly, … give evidence about the wrong; but if rightly, why do you hit Me?” (John 18:23 HCSB).

Eighth, love believes the best about people; it “thinketh no evil” (KJV), “does not keep a record of wrongs” (HCSB). In other words, love overlooks insult or wrong (Prov. 17:9; 19:11; cp. Eph. 5:11).

Next, love finds no joy in unrighteousness (wrongdoing, injustice) but rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). Paul concludes that love bears all, believes all, hopes all, and endures all things. Love never fails. Solomon said, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (Song 8:7 KJV).

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary

These virtues of love might be re-phrased as motivational statements:-

I am patient with you because I love you and want to forgive you.
I am kind to you because I love you and want to help you.
I do not envy your possessions or your gifts because I love you and want you to have the best.
I do not boast about my attainments because I love you and want to hear about yours.
I am not proud because I love you and want to esteem you before myself.
I am not rude because I love you and care about your feelings.
I am not self-seeking because I love you and want to meet your needs.
I am not easily angered by you because I love you and want to overlook your offenses.
I do not keep a record of your wrongs because I love you, and “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Expressed in this way, we can see how love binds together all the virtues of Christian character, Col 3:14. Love is not so much a character trait as an inner disposition that produces all the other traits.

(Source unknown)

In the five negatives that follow, Paul is no doubt alluding to character-traits that were prevalent among the Corinthian Christians.’Time and time again the same sins rear their heads: people resent others’ success, blessings or gifts; dissatisfied with their own place and opportunities, they compete for more rom, honour or recognition. Jesus, by contrast, quietly pursued the work to which he had been called; he rejoiced in the growth and success of others, encouraging them onward with sensitive wisdom, but never putting anyone down or ignoring anyone. He never needed to over play his ministry or to blow his own trumpet. Exaggerated, let alone sensationalised, descriptions of the way God is using us betray a lack of confidence in our acceptance by God.’ (Prior)

‘In a few deft strokes Paul paints a picture of the person who is moved and filled with the love of God. In doing so he also throws into relief the self-centredness of much Corinthian – and modern – church life. Only the love of God, keeping us in a deep experience of his complete acceptance of us as we are, can enable us to face up to our self-centredness, to renounce it and to look for light to shine in our inner darkness. In the love of God there is no place for asserting our rights, despising our gifts, envying our brothers and sisters, or treating them insensitively and boorishly. Such love,k in any case, turns us outwards to look to the needs and the interests of others: when we notice that our behaviour or attitudes are damaging or offending another person, love propels us to deal with such inner darkness through the grace of the Lord. There is no local church anywhere which does not need more love for this very basic purpose.’ (Prior)

Love…does not envy – ‘The word (’zeloo’) here used may express any wrong feeling excited in view of the good of others; not only envy, but hatred, emulation, and the like.’ (Hodge)

‘If we love our neighbour we shall be so far from envying his welfare, or being displeased with it, that we shall share in it and rejoice in it. His bliss and satisfaction will be an addition to ours, instead of impairing or lessening it…The prosperity of those to whom we wish well can never grieve us; and the mind which is bent on doing good to all can never wish ill to any.’ (M. Henry)

Love…is not proud – Pride was the Corinthian’s besetting sin, 1 Cor 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1. But ‘love is concerned rather to give itself than to assert itself.’ (Morris)

It is not rude – The underlying word, aschemoneo, (from a, negative, and schema, a form) is also found in 1 Cor 7:36. ‘Love’s behaviour is not contrary to the ‘form, fashion, or manner that is proper.’ (Lenski)

It is not self-seeking – ‘Love not merely does not seek that which does not belong to it; it is prepared to give up for the sake of others even what iti is entitled to.’ (Barrett)

The next three negatives concern our attitude towards the weaknesses, sins and failures of others which may force us into lovelessness. (Prior)

Not easily angered – Are there some people who have a habit of rubbing me up the wrong way, of getting under my skin, of irritating me? ‘It is tempting to blame such people for their impact upon us, instead of facing honestly the reality of our own touchiness.’ (Prior) Think of how the disciples stretched Jesus’ patience, and yet ‘he loved them to the end’, Jn 13:1. ‘If we truly love someone with the love of the Lord, we shall see their strengths and their potential rather than their quirks and their foibals. When they do or something which angers us, we shall be able to treat them in the context of what they are in Christ, instead of magnifying what has happened so that it consumes our vision.’ (Prior)

It keeps no record of wrongs – It stores up no resentment, bears no malice. Every Christian needs a good ‘forgetory’! A Christian woman was speaking very kindly about another person. Someone said, “How can you speak about her like that? Don’t you remember the time she was so nasty to you?” “Oh, no,” replied the woman, “I distinctly remember forgetting that!”

When someone says, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget,” what they really mean is, “I can’t forgive.”

Love does not delight in evil – For to do so is a sign of deep depravity, Rom 1:32. A good example of ‘delighting in evil’ is found in the sin of gossiping. But love does not take pleasure in exposing evil in others, but on the contrary, love ‘covers a multitude of sins’. (1 Pet 4:8)

‘Especially when there is little to encourage faith, love strengthens us to trust in the dark, to penetrate through to the other side despite the mountains of doubt, knowing that our Father God is in control and will ultimately demonstrate his victory. More than that, love enables us to exercise a strong assurance that, however black it seems, God has not lost his way and has for us “a hope and a future.”’ (Jer 29:11) (Prior)

Always hopes – There thought ‘is not that of unreasoning optimism, which fails to take account of reality. It is rather a refusal to take failure as final.’ (Morris)

Taking verses 6 and 6 together we can agree with Stott that there is a difference between a tolerant mind (which rejoices in the truth but will oppose evil; for ‘how can we be tolerant in mind of what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous?) and a tolerant spirit (which will always protect, trust, hope, and persevere).  (Christ the Controversialist, 17)

13:8 Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. 13:9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 13:10 but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. 13:11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. 13:12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. 13:13 And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

As Hays remarks, ‘this is the part of the chapter that most clearly shows that it was composed to deal with the specific problem of the evaluation of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian community. Love is mentioned only in the beginning and end of the unit (vv. 8a, 13); all the intervening material (vv. 8b–12) highlights the temporary status of spiritual gifts, especially tongues, prophecy, and knowledge (vv. 8b–9). Had Paul been writing a general “hymn to love,” he would hardly have emphasized this contrast so strongly.’

Love never ends – ‘never fails’ (NIV).

‘While the gifts of the Spirit are a means of grace, divine love is grace itself,’ (Wilson) and therefore remains when the means cease.

‘This love never folds under pressure of the most intense and sustained kind. This love continues through death into eternity. This is the love of God.’ (Prior)

Paul underlines the priority of love by mentioning the three gifts at the top of the Corinthians’ list of priorities – prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. ‘Each of these will either become irrelevant or else be swallowed up in the perfection of eternity v10. (Prior)

In The Lost Message of Paul (ch. 14), Steve Chalke appeals to this phrase to support his own version of universalism (although he eschews that name).  Paul’s words ‘are either true, or irresponsibly misleading. “Never” either means never, or it doesn’t.’  But this is to employ the sort of contextless proof-texting that Chalke himself affects to despise.  His point simply cannot be demonstrated from this text.  For one thing, Paul happens to be discussing human, rather than divine love.  For another thing, the apostle is contrasting the temporary nature of charismatic gifts with the permanence of love, not offering a comment on the eternal destiny of human beings.

Prophecies – ‘the setting forth of what God says to man through the prophet’ (Morris). But when we see God face to face there will be no need for this gift.

Cease – katargeo.

Stilled paeo – meaning simply that tongues will stop.

Knowledge – Probably not ordinary human learning, but the ‘message of knowledge’, 12:8.

Pass away – katargeo.

‘With the writing of the New Testament, and its availability to believers, God’s revelation was closed. Three of the original gifts of the Spirit, namely the revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy and charismatic knowledge, have now fulfilled their purpose. With the appearance of the New Testament they have, in accordance with 1 Cor 13:8, been removed from the list of early Christian charisms and have ceased to be.’ (Q in Grossmann, Stewards of God’s Grace, 14)

‘The important criterion in determining whether or not a particular spiritual gift will endure is its purpose. The purpose of a mercury vapor light is to illuminate the highway at night. When the sun rises, the highway becomes illuminated by a greater and more perfect light. The mercury vapor light then goes out because it has served its purpose. In a similar way, spiritual gifts-whether knowledge, prophecy, or tongues-will cease to function when a state of perfect spiritual maturity is attained. Their “light” will no longer be required then.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching)

We prophesy in part – God does not reveal everything, so even an inspired prophet only gives a part of the whole truth, cf Deut 29:29.

When perfection comes – This is a key text in the debate about the cessation of the charismata. Does is refer to (a) the completed Scriptures; or (b) spiritual maturity; or (c) the life to come? Or does it refer to none of these – is Paul simply appealing to a general principle, that the coming of the complete leads to the disappearance of the incomplete? The idea that it refers to the completed canon is Scripture appears forced and unnatural.  The suggestion that it refers to spiritual maturity is similarly unpersuasive: whose maturity is Paul referring to, and when?  The 21st-century church can scarcely claim to be more spiritually mature than its 1st-century counterpart.  The idea that it refers to the life to come is supported by v12, if that verse can be thought of as continuing and extending the thought of v10.  This latter view is supported by Fee, Schreiner, Soards, and others.

Schreiner knows that this verse is used by continuationists as evidence that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit will continue until the Parousia.  He agrees that such a reading is possible, but not necessary.

Calvin: Paul might have put it this way: “When we have reached the winning-post, then the things that helped us on the course will be finished with.”…But when will that perfection come?  It begins, indeed, at death, because then we put off many weaknesses along with the body; but it will not be completely established until the day of judgment, as we shall soon learn.’

Perfection = that which is complete, or mature. Its precise meaning should be determined by the context. According to Barrett, it refers here to ‘totality’, especially ‘the whole truth about God’. Budgen says that this word, which occurs 18 times in the NT, never refers to heaven, but Paul was not referring to a location, but rather to a condition.

‘Because the sun rises all lights are extinguished.’ (Barth)

Disappears – katargeo, already used twice in v8.

‘Our present knowledge is imperfect because it is partial. This is an imperfection of degree rather than quality. What we know of God by revelation is indeed truly known, for it is infallibly communicated. But when this fragmentary disclosure at last gives place to the beatific vision of God in Christ, “then that which is in part shall be done away.”’ (Wilson)

Paul now illustrates the general truth of v10 with two illustrations: the contrast between childhood and maturity, and the contrast between seeing a poor reflection in a mirror and seeing face to face.

Put…behind me – katargeo.

A poor reflection as in a mirror – ancient mirrors were made of metal, not glass, and would give obscure (lit. ‘enigmatic’) images. The bronze mirrors of Corinth were very famous.

We shall see face to face – ‘The sole point of the apostle’s illustration is to contrast indirect and direct knowledge. He is thinking of the well-known contrast in his Greek Bible between ordinary prophets, who knew the Lord merely through visions and dreams (’ainigmata’), and Moses who was promised direct intercourse and a vision of the Lord “face to face, not in any ‘ainigma’”’ (Moffatt) Cf. Num 12:6-8; 1 Jn 3:2.

I shall know fully, even as I am fully known – God’s knowledge of us is immediate and complete.

These three remain – ‘If the Corinthians majored on tongues, prophecy and knowledge, Paul focuses attention on faith, hope and love. These three qualities are the ones which “abide”.’ (Prior)

‘In one sense faith and hope shall be done away, faith being superseded by sight, and hope by actual fruition; (Rom 8:24 2 Cor 5:7) and charity, or love, alone never faileth. (1 Cor 13:8) But in another sense, “faith and hope,” as well as “charity,” ABIDE; namely, after the extraordinary gifts have ceased; for those three are necessary and sufficient for salvation at all times, whereas the extraordinary gifts are not at all so; compare the use of “abide,” 1 Cor 3:14.’ (JFB)

The greatest of these is love – Love is enjoined in the greatest commandment, Mk 12:30f; it is the fulfilling of the law, Rom 13:10; it is pre-eminent above tongues, 1 Cor 13:1; prophecy, knowledge and faith, 1 Cor 13:2, benevolence and martyrdom, 1 Cor 13:3; it is the greatest of all, 1 Cor 13:13.

Love is the greatest of these eternal virtues, because love is divine. ‘God does not believe nor hope, but he loves. Love belongs to his essence. Like God himself, it could not change its nature except for the worse. Love is the end in relation to which the two other virtues are only means, and this relation remains even in the state of perfection.’ (Godet)

Love is the heart of every virtue

‘If love is the soul of Christian existence, it must be at the heart of every other Christian virtue. Thus, for example,

  • justice without love is legalism;
  • faith without love is ideology;
  • hope without love is self-centeredness;
  • forgiveness without love is self-abasement;
  • fortitude without love is recklessness;
  • generosity without love is extravagance;
  • care without love is mere duty;
  • fidelity without love is servitude.

Every virtue is an expression of love. No virtue is really a virtue unless it is permeated, or informed, by love.’ (Richard P. McBrien, formatting added)

Preacher: less is more

‘Why is this passage so memorable? Its power comes from its metaphorical richness: sounding bronze and clanging cymbal, mountains moving, memories of childhood play and speech, dim reflections in the mirror. The images carry the message with a minimum of didactic commentary. We should learn from Paul the concision and power of metaphorical preaching. At the same time, the diction of the passage is dear and simple, with short phrases, repeated syntactical patterns, and forceful verbs. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Long before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Paul knew that less could say more.’ (Hays)