David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
1 Corinthians 13
1 Corinthians 13 - Agape Love
G. Campbell Morgan wrote that examining this chapter is like dissecting a flower to understand it. If you tear it apart too much, you lose the beauty. Alan Redpath said one could get a spiritual suntan from the warmth of this chapter.
A. The supremacy of love.
1. (1-2) Love is superior to spiritual gifts in and of themselves.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
a. The Corinthians were enamored with spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues. Paul reminds them even the gift of tongues is meaningless without love. Without love, a person may speak with the gift of tongues, but it is as meaningless as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. It is nothing but empty noise.
i. "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." (Josiah Gregory, cited in Clarke)
b. Tongues of men and of angels: The ancient Greek word translated tongues has the simple idea of "languages" in some places (Acts 2:11 and Revelation 5:9). This has led some to say the gift of tongues is simply the ability to communicate the gospel in other languages, or it is the capability of learning languages quickly. But the way tongues is used here shows it can, and usually does, refer to a supernatural language by which a believer communicates to God. There is no other way to understand the reference to tongues of . . . angels.
i. In Paul's day, many Jews believed angels had their own language, and by the Spirit, one could speak it. The reference to tongues of . . . angels shows that though the genuine gift of tongues is a legitimate language, it may not be a "living" human language, or may not be a human language at all. Apparently, there are angelic languages men can speak by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
ii. Poole has a fascinating comment, suggesting that the tongues of . . . angels answer to how God may speak to us in a non-verbal way: "Angels have no tongues, nor make any articulate audible sounds, by which they understand one another; but yet there is certainly a society or intercourse among angels, which could not be upheld without some way amongst them to communicate their minds and wills to each other. How this is we cannot tell: some of the schoolmen say, it is by way of impression: that way God, indeed, communicates his mind sometimes to his people, making secret impressions of his will upon their minds and understandings."
c. Prophecy, knowledge, and faith to do miracles are likewise irrelevant apart from love. The Corinthian Christians missed the motive and the goal of the gifts, making them their own goal. Paul draws the attention back to love.
i. Paul, quoting the idea of Jesus, refers to faith which could remove mountains (Matthew 17:20). What an amazing thing it would be to have faith that could work the impossible! Yet, even with that kind of faith we are nothing without love.
ii. A man with that kind of faith can move great mountains, but he will set them down right in the path of somebody else - or right on somebody else - if he doesn't have love.
iii. It isn't an issue of love versus the gifts. A church should never be forced to choose between love and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul is emphasizing the focus and goal of the gifts: love, not the gifts for their own sake.
iv. "Possession of the charismata is not the sign of the Spirit; Christian love is." (Fee)
d. Have not love: Paul uses the ancient Greek word agape. The ancient Greeks had four different words we could translate love. It is important to understand the difference between the words, and why the apostle Paul chose the Greek word agape here.
i. Eros was one word for love. It described, as we might guess from the word itself, erotic love. It refers to sexual love.
ii. Storge was the second word for love. It refers to family love, the kind of love there is between a parent and child, or between family members in general.
iii. Philia is the third word for love. It speaks of a brotherly friendship and affection. It is the love of deep friendship and partnership. It might be described as the highest love of which man, without God's help, is capable of.
iv. Agape is the fourth word for love. It is a love that loves without changing. It is a self-giving love that gives without demanding or expecting repayment. It is love so great that it can be given to the unlovable or unappealing. It is love that loves even when it is rejected. Agape love gives and loves because it wants to; it does not demand or expect repayment from the love given. It gives because it loves; it does not love in order to receive. According to Alan Redpath, we get our English word agony from agape. "It means the actual absorption of our being in one great passion." (Redpath) Strictly speaking, agape can't be defined as "God's love," because men are said to agape sin and the world (John 3:19 and 1 John 2:15). But it can be defined as a sacrificial, giving, absorbing kind of love. The word has little to do with emotion; it has much to do with self-denial for the sake of another.
v. We can read this chapter and think that Paul is saying that if we are unfriendly, then our lives mean nothing. But agape isn't really friendliness; it is self-denial for the sake of another.
2. (3) The most dramatic renunciations of self are, in the same way, profitless without love.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
a. Bestow all my goods to feed the poor: This is what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do (Matthew 16:19-23), and he refused. But even if the rich young ruler had done what Jesus said, yet had not love, it would have been of no profit.
b. Though I give my body to be burned: Even if I lay my life down in dramatic martyrdom, apart from love, it is of no profit. Normally, no one would doubt the spiritual credentials of someone who gave away everything they had, and gave up their life in dramatic martyrdom. But those are not the best measures of someone's true spiritual credentials. Love is the best measure.
i. There were some early Christians so arrogant as to think that the blood of martyrdom would wash away any sin. They were so proud about their ability to endure suffering for Jesus, they thought it was the most important thing in the Christian life. It is important, but not the most important. Without love, it profits me nothing. Even if it is done willingly (Poole notes "and not be dragged to the stake, but freely give up myself to that cruel kind of death"), without love, it profits me nothing.
ii. Some believe the burning referred to here is not execution, but branding as a criminal or as a slave for the sake of the gospel. The more likely sense is execution, but it really matters little, because the essential meaning is the same - great personal sacrifice.
iii. As well, some ancient Greek manuscripts have if I give up my body that I may glory instead of though I give my body to be burned. Again, the meaning is the same, and the difference is really minor.
iv. Many Christians believe the Christian life is all about sacrifice - sacrificing your money, your life, for the cause of Jesus Christ. Sacrifice is important, but without love it is useless, it profits me nothing.
c. Each thing described in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is a good thing. Tongues are good, prophecy and knowledge and faith are good, sacrifice is good. But love is so valuable, so important, that apart from it, every other good thing is useless. Sometimes we make the great mistake of letting go of what is best for something else that is good, but not the best.
B. The description of love.
"Lest the Corinthians should say to the apostle, What is this love you discourse of? Or how shall we know if we have it? The apostle here gives thirteen notes of a charitable person." (Poole)
1. (4a) Two things love is: longsuffering and kind.
Love suffers long and is kind.
a. At the beginning, we see love is described by action words, not by lofty concepts. Paul is not writing about how love feels, he is writing about how it can be seen in action. True love is always demonstrated by action.
b. Love suffers long: Love will endure a long time. It is the heart shown in God when it is said of the Lord, The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). If God's love is in us, we will show longsuffering to those who annoy us and hurt us.
i. The ancient preacher John Chrysostom said this is the word used of the man who is wronged, and who easily has the power to avenge himself, but will not do it out of mercy and patience. Do you avenge yourself as soon as you have the opportunity?
c. Love is kind: When we have and show God's love, it will be seen in simple acts of kindness. A wonderful measure of kindness is to see how children receive us. Children won't receive from or respond to unkind people.
2. (4b-6) Eight things love is not: not envious, not proud, not arrogant, not rude, not cliquish, not touchy, not suspicious, not happy with evil.
Love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.
a. Love does not envy: Envy is one of the least productive and most damaging of all sins. It accomplishes nothing, except to hurt. Love keeps its distance from envy, and does not resent it when someone else is promoted or blessed. Clarke describes the heart which does not envy: "They are ever willing that others should be preferred before them."
i. Is envy a small sin? Envy murdered Abel (Genesis 4:3-8). Envy enslaved Joseph (Genesis 37:11, 28). Envy put Jesus on the cross: For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy (Matthew 27:18).
ii. "Many persons cover a spirit of envy and uncharitableness with the name of godly zeal and tender concern for the salvation of others; they find fault with all; their spirit is a spirit of universal censoriousness; none can please them; and every one suffers by them. These destroy more souls by tithing mint and cummin, than others do by neglecting the weightier matters of the law. Such persons have what is termed, and very properly too, sour godliness." (Clarke)
b. Love does not parade itself: Love in action can work anonymously. It does not have to have the limelight or the attention to do a good job, or to be satisfied with the result. Love gives because it loves to give, not out of the sense of praise it can have from showing itself off.
i. Sometimes the people who seem to work the hardest at love are the ones the furthest from it. They do things many would perceive as loving, yet they do them in a manner that would parade itself. This isn't love; it is pride looking for glory by the appearance of love.
c. Love . . . is not puffed up: To be puffed up is to be arrogant and self-focused. It speaks of someone who has a "big head." Love doesn't get its head swelled; it focuses on the needs of others.
i. Both to parade itself and to be puffed up are simply rooted in pride. Among Christians, the worst pride is spiritual pride. Pride of face is obnoxious, pride of race is vulgar, but the worst pride is pride of grace!
ii. William Carey is thought by many to be the founder of the modern missionary movement. Today, Christians all over the world know who he was and honor him. He came from a humble place; he was a shoe repairman when God called him to reach the world. Once when Carey was at a dinner party, a snobbish lord tried to insult him by saying very loudly, "Mr. Carey, I hear you once were a shoemaker!" Carey replied, "No, your lordship, not a shoemaker, only a cobbler!" Today, the name of William Carey is remembered, but nobody remembers who that snobbish lord was. His love showed itself in not having a big head about himself.
d. Love . . . does not behave rudely: Where there is love, there will be kindness and good manners. Perhaps not in the stuffy, "look at how cultured I am" way of showing manners, but in the simply way people do not behave rudely.
e. Love . . . does not seek its own: Paul communicates the same idea in Romans 12:10: in honor giving preference to one another. Also, Philippians 2:4 carries the same thought: Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. This is being like Jesus in a most basic way, being an others-centered person instead of a self-centered person.
i. "Love is never satisfied but in the welfare, comfort, and salvation of all. That man is no Christian who is solicitous for his own happiness alone; and cares not how the world goes, so that himself be comfortable." (Clarke)
f. Love . . . is not provoked: We all find it easy to be provoked or to become irritated with those who are just plain annoying. But it is a sin to be provoked, and it isn't love. Moses was kept from the Promised Land because he became provoked at the people of Israel (Numbers 20:2-11).
g. Love . . . thinks no evil: Literally this means "love does not store up the memory of any wrong it has received." Love will put away the hurts of the past instead of clinging to them.
i. One writer tells of a tribe in Polynesia where it was customary for each man to keep some reminders of his hatred for others. These reminders were suspended from the roofs of their huts to keep alive the memory of the wrongs, real or imagined. Most of us do the same.
ii. Real love "never supposes that a good action may have a bad motive . . . The original implies that he does not invent or devise any evil." (Clarke)
h. Love . . . does not rejoice in iniquity: It is willing to want the best for others, and refuses to color things against others. Instead, love rejoices in the truth. Love can always stand with and on truth, because love is pure and good like truth.
3. (7) Four more things love is: strong, believing, hopeful, and enduring. Spurgeon calls these four virtues love's four sweet companions.
Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
a. All things: We might have hoped Paul would have chosen any phrase but this! All things covers everything! We can all bear some things, we can all believe some things, we can all hope some things, and we can all endure some things. But God calls us farther and deeper into love for Him, for one another, and for a perishing world.
i. "You must have fervent charity towards the saints, but you will find very much about the best of them which will try your patience; for, like yourself, they are imperfect, and they will not always turn their best side towards you, but sometimes sadly exhibit their infirmities. Be prepared, therefore, to contend with "all things" in them." (Spurgeon)
ii. "Love does not ask to have an easy life of it: self-love makes that her aim. Love denies herself, sacrifices herself, that she may win victories for God, and hers shall be no tinsel crown." (Spurgeon)
b. Love . . . bears all things: The word for bears can also be translated covers. Either way, Paul brings an important truth along with 1 Peter 4:8: And above all things have fervent love for one another, for "love will cover a multitude of sins."
i. "Love covers; that is, it never proclaims the errors of good men. There are busybodies abroad who never spy out a fault in a brother but they must hurry off to their next neighbour with the savoury news, and then they run up and down the street as though they had been elected common criers. It is by no means honorable to men or women to set up to be common informers. Yet I know some who are not half so eager to publish the gospel as to publish slander. Love stands in the presence of a fault, with a finger on her lip." (Spurgeon)
ii. "I would, my brothers and sisters, that we could all imitate the pearl oyster. A hurtful particle intrudes itself into its shell, and this vexes and grieves it. It cannot eject the evil, and what does it do but cover it with a precious substance extracted out of its own life, by which it turns the intruder into a pearl. Oh, that we could do so with the provocations we receive from our fellow Christians, so that pearls of patience, gentleness, long-suffering, and forgiveness might be bred within us by that which has harmed us." (Spurgeon)
c. Love . . . believes all things: We never believe a lie, but we never believe evil unless the facts demand it. We choose to believe the best of others.
i. "Love, as far as she can, believes in her fellows. I know some persons who habitually believe everything that is bad, but they are not the children of love . . . I wish the chatterers would take a turn at exaggerating other people's virtues, and go from house to house trumping up pretty stories of their acquaintances." (Spurgeon)
d. Love . . . hopes all things: Love has confidence in the future, not pessimism. When hurt, it does not say, "It will be this way forever, and even get worse." It hopes for the best, and it hopes in God.
e. Love . . . endures all things: Most of us can bear all things, and believe all things, and hope all things, but only for a while! The greatness of agape love is it keeps on bearing, believing, and hoping. It doesn't give up. It destroys enemies by turning them into friends.
i. "If your brethren are angry without a cause, be sorry for them, but do not let them conquer you by driving you into a bad temper. Stand fast in love; endure not some things, but all things, for Christ's sake; so you shall prove yourself to be a Christian indeed." (Spurgeon)
4. The best way to understand each of these is to see them in the life of Jesus. We could replace the word love with the name Jesus and the description would make perfect sense. We can easily say, Jesus suffers long and is kind; Jesus does not envy . . . and make it through the whole chapter.
a. We can measure our spiritual maturity by seeing how it sounds when we put our name in place of the word love. Does it sound totally ridiculous or just a "little" far-fetched?
b. There is a reason why Paul put this chapter in the midst of his discussion of spiritual gifts. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to remember that giftedness is not the measure of maturity, the display of love is.
C. The permanence of love.
1. (8-10) Love will outlive all the gifts.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
a. Love never fails: Paul addresses the over-emphasis the Corinthian Christians had on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He shows they should emphasize love more than the gifts, because the gifts are temporary "containers" of God's work; love is the work itself.
b. Therefore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are appropriate for the present time, but they are not permanent. They are imperfect gifts for an imperfect time.
c. That which is perfect: Paul says when that which is perfect has come, then the gifts will be "discontinued." But what is that which is perfect? Though some that believe the miraculous gifts ceased with the apostles say it refers to the completion of the New Testament, they are wrong. Virtually all commentators agree that which is perfect is fulfilled when we are in the eternal presence of the Perfect One, when we are with the Lord forever, either through the return of Christ or graduation to the eternal.
i. The ancient Greek word for perfect is telos. Considering the way the New Testament uses telos in other passages, it certainly seems to speak about the coming of Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:8, 15:24, James 5:11, Revelation 20:5, 20:7, 21:6, and 22:13).
d. Many who believe the miraculous gifts ended with the apostles (such as John MacArthur) claim since the verb will cease is not in the passive, but in the middle voice, it could be translated, tongues will stop by themselves. Their analysis sounds scholarly, but is disregarded by virtually all scholars of ancient Greek.
i. Even if this translation is correct, it does nothing to suggest when tongues will cease. John MacArthur claims, "tongues ceased in the apostolic age and that when they stopped, they stopped for good." But this passage doesn't tell us "tongues will stop by themselves," and it tells us tongues will cease only when that which is perfect has come.
ii. John Calvin thought the will cease spoke of the eternal state. "But when will that perfection come? It begins, indeed, at death, because then we put off many weaknesses along with the body." (Calvin)
e. In his use of will fail and will cease and will vanish away, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is not trying to say that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge have different fates. He is simply writing well, saying the same thing in three different ways. They will end, but love never fails.
i. "There is virtually no distinction between the two Greek verbs that describe the termination of both prophecies and tongues. True, the verb with prophecies is in the passive voice (believers are the implied agents), while the verb with tongues is interpreted as the active voice. The difference is only a stylistic change and nothing more." (Kistemaker)
f. We prophesy in part is airtight evidence prophecy is not the exact same thing as preaching, or even "inspired" preaching. Who can listen to a preacher drone on and on, and say they only prophesy in part? It seems like a lot more than a part!
i. "Preaching is essentially a merging of the gifts of teaching and exhortation, prophecy has the primary elements of prediction and revelation." (Farnell, cited in Kistemaker)
2. (11-12) Illustrations of the temporary nature of the gifts and the permanence of love.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
a. When I was a child: Childish things are appropriate for children, and the gifts are appropriate for our present time. But the gifts of the Holy Spirit will not be appropriate forever.
i. Paul is not trying to say that if we are spiritually mature, we will not need spiritual gifts. But he does say that if we are spiritually mature, we will not over-emphasize spiritual gifts, especially at the expense of love.
b. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face: When we can fully see Jesus (not as in a poorly reflected image), the need for the gifts will have vanished, and so the gifts will pass away. The gifts of the Holy Spirit will be overshadowed by the immediate presence of Jesus. When the sun rises, we turn off the lesser lights.
c. Face to face: Paul uses this term to describe complete, unhindered fellowship with God. 1 John 3:2 tells us when we get to heaven, we shall see Him as He is. There will be no more barriers to our relationship with God.
i. In Exodus 33:11, it says the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. In Exodus 33, face to face is a figurative expression, meaning free and open fellowship. Moses had not - and could not - see the actual face of God the Father in His glory. This is the sense in which John says No one has seen God at any time (1 John 4:12). In the spiritual sense which Moses had a face to face relationship with God, we can have a free and open relationship with God. But in the ultimate sense, it will wait until then, when we are united with Jesus in glory.
ii. In a passage like Numbers 12:8, where the Lord says of Moses, I speak with him face to face, the phrase face to face is a figure of speech, telling of great and unhindered intimacy. Moses' face was not literally beholding the literal face of God, but he did enjoy direct, intimate, conversation with the Lord. But the face to face Paul speaks of here is the "real" face to face.
d. For now we see in a mirror: This speaks again to the perfect fellowship with God we will have one day. Today, when we look in a good mirror, the image is clear. But in the ancient world, mirrors were made out of polished metal, and the image was always unclear and somewhat distorted. We see Jesus now only in a dim, unclear way, but one day we will see Him with perfect clarity. We will know just as I also am known.
i. The city of Corinth was famous for producing some of the best bronze mirrors in antiquity, but at their best, they couldn't give a really clear vision. When we get to heaven, we will have a really clear vision of the Lord.
i. We couldn't handle this greater knowledge on this side of eternity. "If we knew more of our own sinfulness, we might be driven to despair; if we knew more of God's glory, we might die of terror; if we had more understanding, unless we had equivalent capacity to employ it, we might be filled with conceit and tormented with ambition. But up there we shall have our minds and our systems strengthened to receive more, without the damage that would come to us here from overleaping the boundaries of order, supremely appointed and divinely regulated." (Spurgeon)
e. God knows everything about me; this is how I also am known. But in heaven, I will know God as perfectly as I can; I will know just as I also am known. It doesn't mean I will be all knowing as God is, but it means I will know Him as perfectly as I can.
i. Heaven is precious to us for many reasons. We long to be with loved ones who have passed before us and whom we miss so dearly. We long to be with the great men and women of God who have passed before us in centuries past. We want to walk the streets of gold, see the pearly gates, see the angels around the throne of God worshipping Him day and night. However, none of those things, precious as they are, make heaven really "heaven." What makes heaven really heaven is the unhindered, unrestricted, presence of our Lord, and to know just as I also am known will be the greatest experience of our eternal existence.
ii. "The streets of gold will have small attraction to us, the harps of angels will but slightly enchant us, compared with the King in the midst of the throne. He it is who shall rivet our gaze, absorb our thoughts, enchain our affection, and move all our sacred passions to their highest pitch of celestial ardour. We shall see Jesus." (Spurgeon)
d. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are necessary and appropriate for this present age, when we are not yet fully mature, and we only know in part. There will come a day when the gifts are unnecessary, but that day has not come yet.
i. Clearly, the time of fulfillment Paul refers to with then face to face and then I shall know just as I also am known speaks of being in the glory of heaven with Jesus. Certainly, that is the that which is perfect spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:10 as well. According to the context, it can't be anything else.
3. (13) A summary of love's permanence: love abides forever.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
a. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three: The three great pursuits of the Christian life are not "miracles, power, and gifts"; they are faith, hope, and love. Though the gifts are precious, and given by the Holy Spirit today, they were never meant to be the focus or goal of our Christian lives. Instead, we pursue faith, hope, and love.
i. What is your Christian life focused on? What do you really want more of? It should all come back to faith, hope, and love. If it doesn't, we need to receive God's sense of priorities, and put our focus where it belongs.
b. Because faith, hope, and love are so important, we should expect to see them emphasized throughout the New Testament. And we do:
i. Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father. (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
ii. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thessalonians 5:8)
iii. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:5-6)
iv. Who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart. (1 Peter 1:21-22)
v. Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of your love for all the saints; because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel. (Colossians 1:4-5)
vi. For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 1:12-13)
c. But the greatest of these is love: Love is greatest because it will continue, even grow, in the eternal state. When we are in heaven, faith and hope will have fulfilled their purpose. We won't need faith when we see God face to face. We won't need to hope in the coming of Jesus once He comes. But we will always love the Lord and each other, and grow in that love through eternity.
c. Love is also the greatest because it is an attribute of God (1 John 4:8), and faith and hope are not part of God's character and personality. God does not have faith in the way we have faith, because He never has to "trust" outside of Himself. God does not have hope the way we have hope, because He knows all things and is in complete control. But God is love, and will always be love.
i. Fortunately, we don't need to choose between faith, hope, and love. Paul isn't trying to make us choose, but he wants to emphasize the point to the Corinthian Christians: without love as the motive and goal, the gifts are meaningless distractions. If you lose love, you lose everything.
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