1 Corinthians 13

1 Corinthians 13  •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Chapter 13 HAS become famous. Its extraordinary power is acknowledged not only by Christians but by a multitude of others. Foremost men acclaim it as marvelous, one of the literary wonders of the world, without perhaps at all appreciating the real drift of its teaching. What is it that it really says? The opening verse of chapter 8 has told us that it is love that edifies. This chapter expands that fact and shows us in the first place that the most shining gifts, if without love, are of no value; and in the second place that love is the force, even when gifts are present, that really accomplishes everything.
The first three verses contemplate gifts which may be possessed and exercised without love. If they are, the sum total of all that they effect and produce is, Nothing. Speaking with tongues is mentioned first, as that was the particular gift that was becoming rather a snare to the Corinthians. But that is followed by prophecy, which later is eulogized by the Apostle as first in importance; and that by knowledge and faith, and by the practical benevolence that nowadays goes by the name of “charity”; and that again by self-sacrifice of a very remarkable kind. What tremendous assertions are these which Paul makes!
A brother rises in the assembly and speaks words of peculiar sweetness and thrill, though quite unintelligible to us. We discover that he has actually made a Divine communication in a language of heaven, which angels use. How marvelous! How we should gaze at him! Yes. But if he has done this without love he might as well have brought an old brass pan into the meeting and hit it with a poker, for the good he has done, as regards the Lord’s interests in the assembly.
And here comes another who has astonishing knowledge and understanding. He not only penetrates to the heart of Divine things, but he can communicate to others what he knows by reason of his prophetic gift. Also he has faith of an almost miraculous power. Yet he has not love! We are not told that he is like a clanging piece of brass, for it is possible that we may gain some help and understanding from what he says, and some inspiration from his remarkable faith. What we are told is, that he himself is nothing. If unspiritual ourselves we might imagine him to be a giant. Really he is less than a pigmy. He is nothing.
And supposing a third appears, who resolves, “I shall dole out all my goods in food,” (ch. 13:3) (N. Trans.) and is prepared to give his body to be burned! Why, we should feel inclined to exclaim, What a reward he will have in the coming day! But alas, he has not love. Then it will profit him nothing. The absence of love has rendered valueless the whole thing. In the light of these facts, negative though they are in their bearing, of what surpassing value is love!
Now we are to contemplate more closely the features that characterize love. First comes a very positive feature. It suffers long (or, has long patience) and is kind. Could anything surpass the long patience and kindness of God’s dealings with rebellious man? No. Well, God is love. And in the measure in which we manifest the divine nature, we shall manifest long patience and kindness towards men generally, as well as towards our brethren.
This one positive feature is followed by negative features. Love is marked by the total absence of certain hideous deformities of character and behavior, which are perfectly natural to us as men in the flesh. Paul strings them together. Here they are: (1) Envy of others: (2) Vaunting oneself, or vainglory, or as it has been translated, being “insolent and rash:” (ch. 13:4) (3) Being puffed up or inflated with one’s own importance: (4) Unseemly behavior which follows hard on the heels of an inflated mind: (5) Self-seeking: (6) Touchiness, easily taking offense and provoked to anger: (7) Thinking evil, that is, quick to impute evil to others: (8) Rejoicing in iniquity, that is, glad to be able to point out inequity in others, and to denounce it. The string that runs right through these eight things is, love of self.
Alas! alas! how often are these features discernible in ourselves, and yet we are saints of God. It is all too easy for us to be like ships stranded on the dirty mud flats of self-love. What can lift us off? Nothing but a mighty inflow of the tide of Divine love. When saints forget themselves in the uplift of that tide most wonderful transformations are effected.
Verse 6, which mentions the eighth negative feature also introduces us to the second positive feature that is mentioned. Love rejoices, for it is indeed a joyous thing, but its joy is in or with the truth. Love and truth go hand in hand and truth is joyous and full of gladness for our hearts.
Further positive features follow. Four are mentioned in verse 7. Love bears, or covers, all things. It never condones unrighteousness of course, yet it never finds its pleasure in publishing other people’s misdeeds. It rather believes all that it can discover of the truth; it hopes that all that may be lacking will be supplied in due course; it endures meanwhile every deficiency that may exist. It is evident that the expression, “all things,” four times repeated, must be understood as limited by its context. For instance, he who believes “all things,” in an unlimited way, would simply be landed into a morass of uncertainties and deceptions.
The seventh positive characteristic of love is that it never fails. This is at once seen if we look at it as seen in all its fullness in God Himself. If Divine love had failed, every region, that ever had been touched by sin, would have been lying in the hopeless blackness of everlasting night. In the presence of sin’s great catastrophe Divine love did not waver or fail. It designed rather the way of righteousness whereby the situation should be much more than retrieved; men blessed and the Divine Name triumphantly vindicated. True, it may appear for a time to fail. But God has a long outlook and plans by millenniums rather than days. Love always wins in the end. And so it does when Divine love works in and through feeble saints such as ourselves. It may appear to be defeated a hundred times over, but it is not: in the end it wins, it does not fail.
Now this cannot be said of even the greatest of gifts. Prophecies may fail, in the sense of being done away with, having served their purpose (the word “fail” is not the same as “faileth” which occurs just before). Tongues shall cease; they will not be needed in a coming day. Knowledge even shall “vanish away,” (same word as translated “fail” in connection with prophecies). What this vanishing away means is shown in the next few verses. Our knowledge and prophesying-even that of a Paul-is in part. Presently in regard to both knowledge and prophecy, perfection will be reached and, when it is, all that is partial will fail and vanish away; just as the moon fails and vanishes away in the light of the sun.
The Apostle further illustrates this point by his own childhood. When a child he spoke, thought, reasoned, as a child. When manhood was reached he was done with what belonged to childhood’s days. The application of this illustration is in verse 21. The contrast lies between now and then; between our present condition, limited as we are by flesh and blood, though we are indwelt by the Holy Ghost, and the heavenly condition into which we shall enter when we are in the likeness of Christ, even as to our bodies. Now it is seeing as through a glass obscurely: then knowing according as we have been known.
Spiritual gifts are indeed wonderful things, but we are apt to overestimate them. Wonderful as they are, they are but partial, even the greatest of them. Take note of this ye gifted men! Your knowledge and your prophesyings, even when in the full energy of the Spirit, are but partial. They are not the full and complete thing. If you do not remember this you might become arrogant in your knowledge. If you do remember it you will be humble.
We are very thankful for the knowledge and the prophecies, yet we know that all of it will vanish away in the blaze of that perfect light into which we are going. There are things that abide, and the greatest of them is LOVE.
Sometimes we sing, “When faith and hope shall cease, And love abide alone.”
That may be true, but it is not what is stated here. On the contrary, it says, “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three” (ch. 13:13). The contrast is between the most shining gifts which pass and the abiding characteristics of Divine life in the saints. The more we approximate to what is carnal, the more likely we are to be dazzled by mere gifts. The more we approximate to the spiritual, the more we appreciate faith, hope, and love. And the more we shall see that love is the greatest of all.
It will be found ultimately that the greatest saint is not he of the most striking gift, but he or she that most truly dwells in love, for, “he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:1616And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)).
No gift counts for much except it is controlled and energized by love. LOVE is indeed the more excellent way.