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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
1 Corinthians 13

 

 

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Verse 2

THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY

‘And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.’

1 Corinthians 13:2

The spirit of love is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Is there any test by which as you search the Gospels you will find our Lord so constantly measuring what men are and do as by the test of love? That is the point to which He penetrates always. One man is perplexed about duty, about a possible conflict of duties perhaps, and he is reminded that on the love of God and our neighbour alone hang alike the obligations and the hopes of mankind. Another, putting a similar question, is shown to his dismay that he loves his income more than his ideals. And a woman who has wasted her life in wilful wrong is welcomed back to God, and her account clean written off, because there is something still in her which can feel and echo the generosity of the love of God.

I. St. Paul had learnt this lesson from our Master Himself.—Everything matters, no doubt; but what matters most, what gives most character and value to our moments as they pass and to ourselves as they grow, is what we really care for, and whether we are governed by impulse, instinct, preference, on the one hand, or by the sacred grace of love on the other. The Christian law and gospel may be packed into a small sentence. If we have once apprehended the love of God drawing out man’s power of love, Divine self-sacrifice making human unselfishness possible, we have found something which will make life at its hardest worth living. To give one’s best! Reverently, one may say that our Lord Himself could do no more. ‘For their sakes I consecrate Myself.’ But if we win faith, or knowledge, or energy, or personal power, or all these together, and yet have never found out the humbling secret that we must set the sign of the Cross upon the heart, we have but found our life to lose it in the finding.

II. The word ‘love’ is one that has suffered from usage.—It may connote anything, from sensual instinct to ideal devotion, from sentimentality to self-oblation. But find out what it really means to a man, and you have the key to his real self, you have the form of his true and inner creed. You will also know whether he possesses happiness in himself, and whether the contagion of his character is of the kind that creates happiness or not. Or scrutinise an unhappy or half-happy family, and you are sure to find that the secret of the trouble is that some one there, or everybody there, has a poor idea of love; they have never found out how much can be done by generosity, by making room for other people, by effacing oneself, by opportune reticence, by kindly imagination and forethought, all of which are just forms or fruits of the very same force which drew the incarnate Lord to our world and to His Cross.

III. Thou shalt love, with heart, soul, and mind—love God and thy neighbour, says the essence of the law. And to answer that love cannot be made to order does not divert the force of the commandment in the least. You cannot command instinct or involuntary preference, but you can school the heart and train the will towards the giving out of your best. ‘That which is perfect’ is not to be had cheaply; it does not belong to the lucky temperament. It is to be had by striving and won by obedience. God says to the selfishness which will not give way, ‘Thou shalt’; and something within us answers, however reluctantly, ‘Love may be, hath been, indeed, and is.’ There it was, in His condescension; there it is, in His glory; here it may be, in all who will follow Him along the ‘royal road of the Holy Cross.’

Rev. H. N. Bate.

Illustration

‘If we required conviction and the truth that something new and strong, incredibly new, supernaturally strong, came into being with the birth of the Church in the Jewish and the Gentile worlds, we need read the Pauline Epistles no further than this. Artlessly, with undesigned simplicity, by way of allusion merely, St. Paul bears his testimony to the powers whose instrument he was commissioned to be. Yet something stronger, more striking, remains behind. As it was with the miracles of the Gospel, so it is with those of the Church. We are not to rest in them. The seeing of signs and wonders is not the faith toward which it points. “I show you,” says St. Paul, “a more excellent way.” The gifts have their place and are to be desired earnestly. Yet here is the greatness of the Apostle, or rather of the creed which inspired him, that all his sense of the signs of his apostleship begets in him no disproportion. The greater thing remains behind.’


Verses 4-7

CHRISTIAN LOVE

‘Charity suffereth long … endureth all things.’

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

It is indeed the occasion of astonishment that in the face of this chapter theology should ever have imagined that there was antagonism between St. Paul and the other sacred writer who teaches that ‘faith is dead apart from works.’

In the early verses, 1–3, the Apostle contrasts love with various other attributes which combine to form character. And then in these he proceeds to analyse the quality itself somewhat minutely, and finally in those which follow (1 Corinthians 13:8-13) he extols it as the crowning glory of grace.

I. Love will show itself to be in its essence that which we speak of as ‘charitable.’—‘Love suffereth long and is kind.’ That is to say, it is patient, not in a hurry or easily put out, strongly calm, able to wait, because it understands and sympathises. Kind not only in spirit, but in fact. The original term thus rendered is derived from another word meaning ‘useful.’ Love is always devising plans for helping others. There are no drones in love’s hive.

II. The Apostle then mentions seven respects in which bad features, spoiling the characters of all of us, are absent from love.

(a) ‘Love envieth not.’ She has a large and generous soul, giving no place to those mean and unworthy moods which so often bring bitterness to the life and take away its peace. Whenever you attempt any good work, you will find others doing quite as well, and better, on exactly the same lines. Love finds herself able without affectation heartily to delight therein.

(b) ‘Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.’ This is the same thing regarded from two different standpoints: from the outside and from within. ‘Vaunteth not itself,’ makes no display, does not show off. ‘Is not puffed up,’ does not swell out with a sense of its own importance. We have here humility on its negative side. True love shrinks instinctively from all false glitter, from exaggeration and self-satisfaction. It prefers to retreat into the shade. It never ever thinks, How admirable and how good I am! It is not self-occupied.

(c) ‘Love doth not behave itself unseemly.’ See it as it goes out into society. There is not a trace of bad breeding. Vulgarity is so full of itself that it cannot love. So far from its being true that ‘manners make the man,’ it is man that makes the manners. Nature’s gentleman is the child of love. It was Carlyle who said there was no truer gentleman in Europe than the ploughman poet. There is no brusqueness in love.

(d) ‘Love seeketh not her own.’ That is, she acts and speaks from disinterestedness of motive. Self is in no respect her centre. She has learnt that it is ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’ It is not so hard every now and then to give up our rights, especially if we get some credit thereby; but it is hard habitually to ignore ourselves, and what gives us gratification. The reason is because we love so little. Love is never self-seeking.

(e) Nor is she ‘easily provoked.’ The Revised Version leaves out the ‘easily,’ and rightly so. Love never flies into a rage, never says bitter things, nor feels bitterly. It is not in her to do so; she always keeps the rising temper under control, and is always sorrowful to discern it in others. Let us never look upon ebullition of anger as a harmless weakness, as a mere infirmity of nature. Its presence betrays the absence of love, a disposition uncontrolled by the God of love. ‘Souls are made sweet not by taking the acids out, but by letting something else in.’ ‘Only let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,’ and His love will leave no room for bad temper and bitterness.

(f) ‘Love taketh no account of evil.’ That is the revised translation. Keeps no diary of wrong suffered, instinctively forgets as soon as possible, allows the unpleasantness to glance off unrecorded, putting a charitable interpretation on the actions of others, imputing no evil because it suspects none.

(g) ‘Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth,’ as the margin and the text of the Revised Version have it. The reason why love finds no pleasure in any sort of wrongdoing is because it sets itself to be a cherisher of all that is morally beautiful and true. Thus iniquity melts away under the genial warmth of heaven-born affection.

III. The third group of ideas in St. Paul’s analysis of love shows us how she manages to accommodate herself to her environment, especially when it is not altogether congenial.

(a) ‘Beareth all things.’ The margin of the Revised Version substitutes ‘covereth.’ The Greek word so rendered means properly either to ‘keep in,’ as a cup retains what is poured into it, or ‘keep out,’ as the roof keeps out rain. The foundation idea is power to resist all adverse forces, whether the pressure comes from within or from without. It might be rendered ‘is proof in all things,’ that is, especially against everything which is calculated to disturb the health of the soul. As faith is the shield in which the Christian catches the shafts of the evil one, so love is the mysterious coat of mail hidden out of sight which will make him absolutely invulnerable, an essential ingredient of that peace which passes all understanding.

(b) ‘Believeth all things’—not the credulity of inexperience, but the guilelessness of a single mind, that innocency which instinctively puts the best interpretation on the mistakes and sins of other people.

(c) ‘Hopeth all things.’ Though herself greater than hope, love delights in her friend’s cheerful companionship. Her very presence clears the sky; she bears a brightness in her face, like Moses of old, even when she pities most. Thus she finds her way to the despairing, and assures them that there is pity with God, and that effectual pity which is ever waiting to minister help. So despair flees before love into the world of darkness which is her proper home. Love, being always sanguine herself, seeks to infuse others with her own cheerfulness.

(d) ‘Endureth all things.’ Thus the Apostle, before we notice it, brings us back to the thought with which he started. Having taken us round the whole radius of the circle and shown us all the principal excellences of this chiefest of Christian graces, he assures us, in conclusion, that love is the source of true fortitude. The word ‘endureth’ is properly a military term, and suggests that love supplies the Christian soldier with that which will enable him to bear the brunt of the assaults of the enemy. Hence it is used in the New Testament to express the idea of withstanding attack. For example, 2 Timothy 2:10, ‘I endure all things for the elect’s sakes’; Hebrews 10:32, ‘Ye endured a great fight of afflictions,’ ‘a great conflict of sufferings’ (R. V.). Just so in Hebrews 12:2, ‘Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, endured the cross,’ bracing Himself, as it were, against all that was so intensely distressing and painful.

—Rev. J. A. Faithfull.

Illustration

‘O love that casts out fear,

O love that casts out sin,

Tarry no more without,

But come and dwell within.

True sunlight of the soul,

Surround me as I go;

So shall my way be safe,

My feet no straying know.

Great love of God, come in,

Well-spring of heavenly peace;

Thou Living Water, come,

Spring up and never cease.’


Verse 5

GOOD MANNERS

‘Doth not behave itself unseemly.’

1 Corinthians 13:5

William of Wykeham’s motto, ‘Manners makyth man,’ covered the sphere of man’s conduct in general, still manners, i.e. external behaviour, very important. It is wrong to suppose that while deeds can be controlled and words governed, manners are not within our power. Manners can be and should be controlled. Why? Because—

I. In manner consists a great part of conduct.—Manner is really a series of little acts in which sin can be yielded to or conquered (e.g. ill-temper, selfishness, personal conceit, irreverence, impurity, disrespect to parents, alienation of heart from God—these vent themselves in manner almost more frequently than in word or act).

II. Manner is also a means of expressing outwardly what is in the heart. It is constantly used to show sympathy with evil. It can also express the good choice. Those who have come to the Cross should be very humble, very decided, very firm, very brave. Not ‘putting on’ the pious or sanctimonious manner, but when anything is done in our presence that we feel God dislikes to show that we dislike it too.

III. The secret of good manners is love. He is a true gentleman who loveth God with all his heart and his neighbour as himself.

—Bishop Wynne.

Illustrations

(1)‘“The Apostle,” said the late Frederick Robertson, “here describes a Christian gentleman. The Spirit of Christ does really what high breeding only does outwardly. A high-bred man never forgets himself, controls his temper, does nothing in excess, is urbane, dignified, and that even to persons whom he is inwardly cursing in his heart, or wishing far away. But a Christian is what the world seems to be. Love gives him a delicate tact which never offends, because it is full of sympathy. It discerns far off what would hurt fastidious feelings, feels with others, and is ever on the watch to anticipate their thoughts. And hence the only true refinement, that which lies not on the surface, but goes deep down into the character, comes from Christian love.”’

(2) ‘Robertson of the nineteenth century is but repeating what was said by Chaucer of the fourteenth century:—

“To do the gentil deeds that he can

Take him for the greatest gentilman.

From Christ we claim our gentilesse,

Not of our ‘elders’ or their old richesse.

From our ancestors we nothing claim,

But temporal things that heal and maim;

But gentilness comes from God alone.

And he is gentil that doth gentil deeds.”

‘Again—

“’Tis villainy that makes a villain,

And by his deeds a churl is seen;

But I understand that I intend

To deem no man in any age,

Gentil for his lineage.

Though he be not highly born,

He is gentil if he doth

As longeth to a gentilman.”’


Verse 12

PRESENT AND FUTURE VISION

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’

1 Corinthians 13:12

This fragment of inspiration appears in the Revised Version thus: ‘For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I have been known.’ Some critics, however, prefer another and fuller rendering: ‘For now we see by means of a mirror, darkly, or in a riddle; but then face to face: now I know in part; then shall I fully know even as also I was fully known.’ But it is an open question whether the reference made is to a medium of silver or polished metal which can only reflect objects, or to that of thin horn or pellucid stone used by the ancients. No matter, each figure admirably illustrates the thought of the writer.

I. The imperfection of the present is the first thought brought out in this passage.—The medium of our vision is now defective. Nature is a mirror which reflects God; but the primal transgression has shattered it, so that it now gives but misty or distorted views of Him. The Bible, too, is as full a revelation of God as it can be; but its representations, albeit very sublime, are necessarily figurative, and therefore contain truth only in a relative form. So of nearly all the Divine facts. There is, however, one fact—‘the faithful saying, worthy of all acceptation’—which shines brilliantly on its holy pages as noontide sun on cloudless skies (1 Timothy 1:15). The capacity of our mind is also now limited. Were the medium never so perfect, we could take but slight advantage of it, because we are, in a mental and moral sense, like the man whose blindness was only half healed, and who, when asked by Jesus what he saw, replied, ‘I see men as trees walking.’ Sin has so weakened and darkened our mind that we often call good evil, and evil good. We now see by means of a piece of burnished metal, or through a plate of horn or translucent stone; consequently, we know only in part; and a child may ask a question which a philosopher could not answer.

II. But the perfection of the future is what we look forward to.—The vision will then be unobstructed. It will be as immediate as the ‘mouth to mouth’ with which the I AM spoke to the leader of Israel (Numbers 12:8). ‘Face to face.’ ‘This is,’ as an eloquent divine remarks, ‘the beatific vision’—absolutely clear and direct. A thick cloud necessarily intervened between Jehovah and Moses; but how the latter yearned to see the face of the former! (Exodus 33:18). To grant such a request would have proved fatal to the beholder. Not so in the great future. Oh, what transporting views will then be had of God! When the angels front His throne, they veil their faces with their wings; but the redeemed and glorified have no wings. With God and them it is ‘face to face’: no cloud on His face; no veil on theirs! And, if they see God thus in heaven, what can hinder them from seeing their friends ‘face to face’ there, and knowing them again? The mind will then be perfected. ‘Now,’ we are known of God rather than He is known of us; ‘then,’ God will be fully known by us; yet not so fully as He knows us, because His knowledge of us is absolutely complete from the beginning, whereas our knowledge of Him will ever be progressive. We shall spend the golden ages of the great future in the rapt contemplation of His infinite perfections as exhibited in the face of Jesus Christ. There will be no mysteries then: the full-orbed light of eternity will illumine all worlds, all beings, and all things.


Verse 13

THE SUPREMACY OF LOVE

‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’

1 Corinthians 13:13

The message to which we listen in this chapter is this: that, in religion, love is supreme. That lesson would, if it stood alone, have a commanding importance. But it does not stand alone, though it stands out in undisputed supremacy. The great transfiguration of the Christian character which passes before our eyes is the third in the series of scenes that have displayed to us the increasing purpose of the great scheme of God. Established in Faith, and cheered by Hope, we come under the spell of a yet greater grace, and a yet more exalted principle. We come, as on this day, to listen to the highest lesson the Bible teaches; we come to its crowning doctrine; we come to the moral glory, within whose light all other glories hide themselves. We are caught up into Paradise and strengthened to see, through the eyes of St. Paul, to what heights in the power of the Holy Spirit our nature may rise. Caught up out of ambition and strife, out of the region of wrangle and jar, out of the atmosphere of malice and envy, out of the reach of proud self-vaunting.

I. In such a revealing moment a man sees, in the light of Divine Love, that the highest gifts may be put to basest uses, and convicted of utter worthlessness in the moment of their most triumphant display. Large doles may be given, without the consecrating principle that lifts almsgiving to charity; self-worship may wear the garb of self-sacrifice; yea, the case is conceivable where life itself may be unprofitably surrendered without love. Thus doubly taught: taught by the failure of lovelessness, however highly endowed; taught by the blessedness of victories which Love wins in and for Him in Whom Love dwells, the Spirit of God leads us back into the world again. But we have seen things that we cannot forget. We have learned lessons we ought never to learn in vain.

II. The world is more than ever God’s world to us.—He made it, and He hates putting it away. That is our faith, and it is unmovable. It is, too, more and more a place of hopeful effort; a place in which good can be done, in which we can serve one another with certain hope of blessing. God loved the world, and gave His only begotten Son to redeem it; to the eye of God it was lovable, though to His eye alone was all its evil naked and open. In His Love and pity He redeemed it, and sent His Son to reveal the fulness of that Love. And when the Lord came, though He said little of His own love to men—for He came to reveal the Father’s—yet once at least He spoke of it in words which will never be forgotten: ‘This is My commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved you.’ As truly then as Christ is with us, love abides. It takes its place among the things which cannot be removed. It takes the most exalted place, for it has more of the Divine nature. ‘Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’

The loving temper is the believing temper, the temper of patient courage; faith and hope abide in it. It helped St. Paul, and it will help us, alike in the struggles and perplexities of life; so will love work in us, and we shall live and love and labour in faith, in hope, in charity, till our task is done.

Rev. Chancellor Edmonds.

(SECOND OUTLINE)

SPIRITUAL ASSETS

‘Faith, hope, charity.’ There is our investment, there is our capital; can we not spend it to greater advantage than we have been doing?

I. Faith.—There is that wonderful and splendid asset which we have in faith. I want you to think of your faith in God and what it means. Recall, as you look into your account, what faith has done in the past in your life. ‘Remember the days of thy youth.’ What a real part faith played in making you say your prayers, read your Bible, and go to church. Recall your confirmation, when you asserted yourself in your faith and took up your individual position. You also recall as you think of faith those days of sorrow which you have had, and you see what a wonderful thing faith was. Or you recall the time of your marriage, when in faith you took the woman you loved and dedicated yourself and her you loved to God. Or you recall some fervent Holy Communion at which you were present and realised what faith could do for you. You have called upon faith again and again in your life, and it has never failed you. Increase your faith, your works of faith, your life of faith; increase it, not by simple memories, but by using it, by putting it out, by getting better interest for it.

II. Hope.—Another asset which we have, and for which we have a splendid security, is hope. Hope is natural to all of us. It is ours by nature. The future is full of it. We cannot face the future without hope. ‘While there is life,’ we say, ‘there is hope.’ We live in hope and die in hope. It is indeed the gift of God. It is the saving grace in many people’s lives, it is the mother of thoroughness and perseverance, and it is essential if we are to have a high aim and a holy end before us as we enter the great spiritual season. There is abundant hope in your capital account. Aim at high things, hope great things, and the season will be to your advantage and the advantage of all others about you.

III. Charity.—Charity is the greatest asset that men can have or handle. Because it is the bond of perfectness, or as our Collect so beautifully puts it, ‘the very bond … of all virtues, without which whosever liveth is counted dead before Thee.’ Charity must be called upon if our spiritual concerns are to prosper, that charity which is spoken of and drawn out so magnificently in this Epistle, that charity which is the motive power of God’s actions towards us, that charity which should give a motive to us and be behind us in all our actions, that charity which binds us to God, that charity which spends itself and wants to spend itself on man. Therefore let charity and love regulate, direct, and influence all our acts of self-discipline, all our spiritual exercises, all our resolutions to benefit our neighbours. The more you call upon it the better your investment will prove.

—Rev. Prebendary de Salis.

Illustrations

(1) ‘It has been said that with the single exception of Shakespeare, Cowper is the English poet who has given the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Then he was, together with John Newton, the author of those wonderful Olney Hymns, which have been sung all over the world. Faber mentions that even Roman Catholics are said to be sometimes poring with a devout and unsuspecting delight over the verses of those hymns, while for himself he confesses that they came back from time to time unbidden into his mind. Why do I say all this? For these reasons. Cowper was a hopeless invalid, and it was a saintly lady named Mary Unwin who became a ministering angel to him; it was Mary Unwin who sweetened his life; it was Mary Unwin who suggested the first volume of his poems; it was Mary Unwin who nursed him for nearly twenty years; it is to Mary Unwin that the Church owes a debt of gratitude which never can be forgotten. If you want to read something, I will not say pathetic, but pathos itself—and outside the Bible I think there is no pathos so touching—read Cowper’s lines addressed “To Mary.” What constrained Mary Unwin to do all she did? She was not the most distant relative. Why did she sacrifice her own life to brighten Cowper’s? There is only this answer. It was love.’

(2) ‘“One of our most brilliant … of modern story-tellers writes the story of that Frenchwoman who gave up every hope in life, sacrificed her youth, her beauty, her prospects, and immured herself in a lonely cottage in Cornwall, that she might alleviate, by a lifelong ministry, the sorrows of her sister, who was a leper …” Why? “Her sacrifice was love’s necessity.”’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/1-corinthians-13.html. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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