If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 1 Corinthians 13:1
This short chapter may well contain the greatest prose ever penned. The famous Lutheran theologian, Adolf Harnack, referred to this chapter as, “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote…” 1 The famed British evangelist, G. Campbell Morgan, said that if one examined this chapter, it would be like dissecting a flower to understand it. In the process, one would tear the flower apart and lose its beauty.2 In reflecting on this chapter the Scottish evangelist, Henry Drummond wrote his famous essay entitled The Greatest Thing In The World. His short essay sold over twelve million copies beginning back in the 1800s.
The subject of this chapter is love, real love, agape love, and Drummond saw this as the summum bonum, the highest good; the greatest value; the most worthy goal of life. As Drummond said, “To love abundantly is to live abundantly, and to love for ever is to live for ever.” He saw the various graces mentioned here as merely the light spectrum of love, as seen in patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, guilelessness and sincerity. He said, “Where Love is, God is. He that dwelleth in Love dwelleth in God. God is love.” 3 Clearly, Paul was not writing about a subject but a person. Meyer says of him: “His radiant spirit had caught a glimpse of the living Savior. Jesus sits for his portrait in these glowing sentences, and of him every clause is true.” 4
When we first look at this chapter, it seems to be a digression from Paul’s lengthy discussion of spiritual gifts. However, Bruce says that it is not a digression at all, but rather it is an essential and integral part of Paul’s argument.5 What good are gifts, even the most spectacular gifts, if we do not possess love with them? If we can speak in angelic languages and do not have love we are like a clanging gong. Barclay says, “A characteristic of heathen worship, especially the worship of Dionysus and Cybele, was the clanging of cymbals and the braying of trumpets.” 6 The Corinthians were no doubt familiar with these bronze instruments. It seems that Corinth was famous throughout the ancient world for its excellent bronze work.
Josiah Gregory once said, “People of little religion are always noisy; he who has not the love of God and man filling his heart is like an empty wagon coming violently down a hill: it makes a great noise, because there is nothing in it.” 7 What a contrast it is when we quietly live in love and constantly do the eternal work of love. Drummond said, “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” 8
The word for love is the Greek agape. It was not in common use before the New Testament era. However, the Christians took this obscure word and made it their primary word for love.9 It is the word that pictures God’s great and unending love for us and also the word that should describe our love for God and for other people. We have this special love because God first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). In fact, he has poured out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The greatest commands of Scripture are the commands to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39; Mk. 12:30-31; Lk. 10:27). Love is really the essence of Christianity.
Wiersbe says that love is, “The main evidence of maturity in the Christian life is a growing love for God and for God’s people, as well as a love for lost souls. It has well been said that love is the ‘circulatory system’ of the body of Christ.” 10
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). Coffman comments, “…While spiritual gifts are important to the functioning of the body (12:12-31), they lose their value if love is not behind them.” 11 Paul regarded the gift of prophecy as the greatest gift and the one that should be sought after. However, here he says that prophecy is nothing without love. It is good to be able to open up the prophetic mysteries of God, but again, without love these are meaningless. The prophet Balaam gave some of the clearest messianic prophesies in the Bible. Yet, he had no love for Israel, and that lack of love destroyed him in the end (Num. 24:1ff; 31:8).
Even faith, the mainspring of the Christian life, is no good without love. If we have faith strong enough to move mountains it would be useless if it is loveless (cf. Mk. 11:23; Matt. 17:20). Keener sees the matter of moving mountains as an ancient figure of speech for doing something impossible.12 For us to actually move a mountain would create an ecological disaster of an immense magnitude.
“If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (13:3). There is a textual problem in this verse and scholars have had a difficult time giving it the proper translation. Many translations (KJV, NKJ, NAS, ESV, NJB and earlier editions of the NIV) have it reading that one give his or her body to be burned. A few, including later NIV versions have it handing over my body that I may boast. Morris thinks it is more likely that the text should speak of boasting.13 Regarding the needy, it was often the practice of early Christians to share their possessions with the poor. In some cases believers even sold themselves into slavery just to provide for the poor. Drummond says, “The most obvious lesson in Christ’s teaching is that there is no happiness in having and getting anything, but only in giving.” 14
WHAT LOVE IS LIKE
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 1 Corinthians 13:4
The word for patient is the Greek makrothumei. It describes an attitude of patience with people.15 I like to call it loooooong suffering with people. Obviously, the Corinthian Christians did not display this virtue when they shared the communion meal together, as we saw earlier. Some ate all the food before the poor and hungry could get to it.
Then we see that love is kind. McGee says, “Love is impossible without kindness. Love without kindness is like springtime without flowers, like fire without heat.” 16 The word is chrēsteuetai. Barclay says of it, “There is a graciousness in Christian love which never forgets that courtesy and tact and politeness are lovely things…Whenever we start thinking about ‘our place,’ we are drifting away from Christian love.” 17
Love is not envious or jealous. In our society we are taught in many ways to be envious. Much of our advertisement is based on this, as we seek a house or car that is better than our neighbor. We may think that envy is a small thing, but Guzik reminds us that “Envy murdered Abel (Gen. 4:3-8). Envy enslaved Joseph (Gen. 37:11, 28). Envy put Jesus on the cross: For he knew that they had handed him over because of envy (Matt. 27:18).” 18
Next we see that love does not boast, “Literally, does not play the braggart…” 19 People boast about a lot of things today, about their money, their education, their status, but all this is for nothing. Barclay tells this story about William Carey the missionary:
Carey, who began life as a cobbler, was one of the greatest missionaries and certainly one of the greatest linguists the world has ever seen. He translated at least parts of the Bible into no fewer than thirty-four Indian languages. When he came to India, he was regarded with dislike and contempt. At a dinner party a snob, with the idea of humiliating him, said in a tone that everyone could hear, “I suppose, Mr. Carey, you once worked as a shoe-maker.” “No, your lordship,” answered Carey, “not a shoe-maker, only a cobbler.” 20
Love is not proud. I like the way the Message version translates this. It says, “Love doesn’t strut.” In Psalm 138:6 we read: “Though the LORD is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly; though lofty, he sees them from afar.” We also read in Proverbs 16:5, “The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.”
Paul continues his description of love saying, “It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (13:5). Perhaps we should look at some of the Greek words used in this verse. The Greek aschēmonei means to conduct oneself improperly, disgracefully, or in a way that deserves reproach. Such action brings dishonor to other people.21 Love does not seek its own. In other words, true love goes against the spirit of this evil age that stresses “I,” “Me,” and “My.” The US “Baby Boomer” generation has rightly been called the “Me Generation.” In advertising we often hear the expression, “Is this right for YOU?” It is sad today that the emphasis is upon our rights rather than our duties.
Love does not get angry easily. The word is paroxunetai, and it means to sharpen with something. It pictures sharpening a knife or sword. It conveys the meaning of rousing to anger or exciting wrath.22 Love is not provoked. In the Phillips translation it reads that love, “is not touchy.”
Next we read that love “keeps no record of wrongs.” The Greek here is logizesthai. This is an accountant’s word that speaks of keeping a ledger and entering sums into that ledger lest they be forgotten.23 I remember a meeting once held with our director where I aired a lot of grievances. Afterward, I became convicted that I was keeping a record of wrongs, and then tried my best to forget the offenses. I hardly remember any of them today.
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (13:6). We have such a poor understanding of truth today because our postmodern philosophers have almost totally corrupted it. They have denied that there is any universal standard of truth and have taught that all truth is relative. Each person thus can have his or her own standard of truth. This is all nonsense of course. It does make it quite impossible for many to rejoice in truth. It is equally clear that we must not rejoice in evil.
During the Confederate War [Civil War], one day a Federal officer came rushing into General Grant’s headquarters in a great glee, saying, “Oh! I have something wonderfully good to tell you,” and at the same time looking around and observing, “I believe there are no ladies present?” At this moment the old General interrupted: “But I will let you know there are gentlemen present.” The hint was taken and the joke was never told.24
“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (13:7). The Greek word for “protects” is stegō. The word has reference to a roof and has a metaphorical meaning of covering.25 Commentators see several meanings in this word. It means that love hides and conceals faults and imperfections of others. It protects others from embarrassment and shields them from gossip and harm. Love is always eager to believe the best in other people.
Love always trusts or believes. Bruce says that love is “always eager to believe the best and put the most favorable construction on ambiguous actions…” 26 This does not imply that those who love are simply gullible. Rather, they are faithful and hopeful. The righteous live in a sense of expectation, hoping always for the best.
Last in this verse, it tells us that those who love endure. The Greek word is hypomenein. Barclay says that “there is no English word which transmits all the fullness of its meaning.” 27 He speaks of it as “staying power” of “patience.” He says, “It is the quality which keeps a man on his feet with his face to the wind. It is the virtue which can transmute the hardest trial into glory because beyond the pain it sees the goal.” 28
MORE ABOUT LOVE
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 1 Corinthians 13:8
Kretzmann says, “Love never fails, it outwears all gifts, it never drops out of existence; like the eternal God, to whom it owes its being, it lasts forever.” 29 Love is greater than all the spiritual gifts. It is the greatest virtue, it is permanent. All other gifts will pass away in time. Many people think the gifts have already passed away and are no longer of concern for the church. However, we see later (v. 10) that the gifts pass away when the Perfect One comes. Prophecy is the greatest gift but we see that even that will pass away. Certainly tongues and other gifts will fade away at the Lord’s coming.
Concerning those who believe that gifts have passed away already, we must ask them a question. We must ask, “Why, O why, did Paul spend two precious and lengthy chapters talking about something that was already passing away?
Paul makes clear that tongues, so valued by the Corinthians, would pass away. Gifts of knowledge would also pass away. Actually, our knowledge is passing away and being replaced so rapidly today that we can barely keep up with its demise. Bruce does remark, “The highest knowledge, the knowledge of God in Christ, far from passing away, would attain transcendent perfection in the age to come (13:12).” 30
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (13:9-10). This verse answers a lot of question about spiritual gifts. People wonder why a person with a gift of healing, for instance, cannot heal a certain person or why someone with a prophetic gift fails to see some coming event. The answer is that all spiritual gifts are given in part. They are hit and miss, so to speak. They are not perfect.
When the perfect (teleios) comes, all things in part will pass away. This Greek word means “perfect, complete” or “full-grown, mature.” 31 Guzik remarks, “Virtually all commentators agree that which is perfect is fulfilled when we are in the eternal presence of the Perfect One.” 32 Comfort adds: “In eternity, we will be made perfect and complete and will be in the very presence of God. We will no longer need the spiritual gifts, so they will come to an end.” 33
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (13:11). By their overemphasis on tongues the Corinthians were showing that they were immature. Paul insists that they grow up. He had done so himself. Godbey says, “…we see a photograph of Paul the apostle, standing on the Areopagus, preaching to the Athenian philosophers, orators, poets and statesmen, the most learned audience addressed by a gospel herald in four thousand years.” 34
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (13:12). Barclay reminds us that Corinth was famed for its manufacture of mirrors. These were not to be compared with our mirrors of today that give us a near-perfect reflection. Such mirrors did not come on the scene until the thirteenth century.35 The mirrors of that day were made of highly polished bronze. Unfortunately, they did not give a very clear reflection. One could only make out their image dimly (ainigmati), or like a “riddle.” 36
Pett makes application here: “In the same way when we at present look at heavenly things what we see is also dim, imperfect and distorted. But then, after the resurrection or transformation (1 Cor. 15:52), when we have passed into God’s presence, we shall see all face to face…Our eyes will see the King, fully in his glory.” 37
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (13:13). Faith, hope and love appear together on several occasions in Scripture (Rom. 5:1-5; Gal. 5:5-6; Eph. 4:2-5; Col. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 5:8; Heb. 6:10-12; 10:22-24; 1 Pet. 1:3-8). The three are generally considered to be the pillars upon which Christianity stands. Of the three, love is the greatest. It is likely that love “is the greatest force in the universe.” 38 We must be careful not to confuse this biblical and heavenly love with its cheap imitations in our society today. Much of the so-called love we see around us is a selfish love that demeans and destroys people. True love always builds people up.
Obviously, when the Lord appears, even faith and hope will no longer be significant. We cannot have faith and hope for something that we will then fully possess. Love, being the very essence of God, will continue forever in its heavenly beauty and glory. With that, this wonderful chapter draws to a close. Morris remarks in closing, “The commentator cannot finish writing on this chapter without a sense that soiled and clumsy hands have touched a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness.” 39