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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Though I speak . . .—The more excellent way is “Love.” Without it all moral and intellectual gifts are valueless. If there be love—the love of God, and the love of our brethren—in our hearts, all will be well. This hymn of praise in honour of love is remarkable. (1) as coming from St. Paul, and not from St. John, from whose pen we might naturally have looked for it; and (2), occurring here in an atmosphere of controversy, preceded and succeeded as it is by close logical argument.

On the first point we may observe what a striking illustration it is of the completeness of St. Paul’s character. The clear, vigorous intellect and the masculine energy of the great Apostle are united to a heart full of tenderness. We can almost feel its pulsations, we can almost hear its mighty throbbings, in every line of this poem.
That this passage should be found in the middle of a protracted argument suggests the idea that we have here the result of a sudden and direct inspiration. The Apostle had always been conscious of a mighty power working in him, mastering him, bringing him into captivity to Christ. There suddenly flashes upon him the realisation of what that power is, and he cannot but at once give utterance, in language of surpassing loftiness and glowing with emotion, to the new and profound conviction which has set his whole soul aflame. This chapter is the Baptismal Service of Love. Here it receives its new Christian name. The word (agapè) which is used here for love is peculiar to the New Testament (and a few passages in the LXX.). It is not to be found in any heathen writer. The word “charity,” which signifies either tolerance or almsgiving, is an insufficient rendering of the original, and destroys the force of the passage, especially in 1 Corinthians 13:3, where “almsgiving” without love is pronounced worthless. The Latin caritas was used as the rendering of agape, probably because the ordinary Latin word amor (love) was considered too significant of a mere earthly or fleshly affection; and hence the word “charity” in the English version. Perhaps it was hoped that the word “charity,” when planted in such a soil. and with such surroundings, would have grown to have that larger significance to which the original gives expression. If so, the experiment has not succeeded, the word has not become acclimatised to this chapter. The word “love” had better be restored here. The rare purity of its surrounding atmosphere will completely deprive it of any earthly or sensual taint.

This chapter, occupied with the one main thought, divides itself into three parts—

1 Corinthians 13:1-3. The greatest gifts are valueless without LOVE.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The pre-eminent characteristics of LOVE.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13. Gifts are transient; virtues are eternal, and chief of them is LOVE.

Tongues of men and of angels.—The gift of tongues (see Notes on 1 Corinthians 14:0) is placed first as that most over-estimated at Corinth. It is useless without love. It would be impossible to define love, as it is impossible to define life; but the best conception of what St. Paul means by love can be found from the description which he subsequently gave of it. Stanley, contrasting the meaning of the word employed by St. Paul with the various words for love in other literature, remarks: “While the ‘love’ of the New Testament retains all the fervour of the Hebrew ‘aspiration’ and ‘desire,’ and of the ‘personal affection’ of the Greek, it ranges through as wide a sphere as the comprehensive ‘benevolence’ of Alexandria. Whilst it retains the religious element that raised the affections of the Hebrew Psalmist to the presence of God, it agrees with the classical and Alexandrian feelings in making its chief object the welfare of man. It is not religion evaporated into benevolence, but benevolence taken up into religion. It is the practical exemplification of the two great characteristics of Christianity, the union of God with man, the union of religion with morality; love to man for the sake of love to God, love to God showing itself in love to man.”

As sounding brass.—Not a brass trumpet, or instrument of any kind, but simply a piece of metal, which when struck will merely produce noise.

A tinkling cymbal.—Better, a clanging cymbal. This instrument can produce by itself no intelligible tune. (See Psalms 40:5.)

Verse 2

(2) Prophecy.—The Apostle valued the gift of prophecy—i.e., preaching—more highly than the gift of tongues, which stood first in Corinthian estimation. He therefore naturally selects it as coming into the same condemnation, if unaccompanied by love. All the secrets of God’s providence and complete knowledge (see 1 Corinthians 12:8), even such a transcendent faith as Christ had spoken of as capable of moving mountains (Matthew 17:20), may belong to a man, and without love he is nothing. We must not take these words as implying that the Apostle possessed this vast knowledge and faith personally. The whole argument is put hypothetically—it supposes a man possessed of these qualities.

Verse 3

(3) Bestow all my goods.—The Greek word literally means to feed others by giving them morsels of food, and so we have the thought of a charity extensive in its diffusion, as well as complete in its self-sacrifice. The whole of the bestower’s property given in charity, and so divided as to reach the largest number.

I give my body to be burned.—A still greater proof of devotion to some person or cause, is the sacrifice of life; yet even that may be without love. A strange reading has crept into some MSS.—“that I may boast”—which would make the passage mean that a man gave his body to some torture from a wrong motive, viz., vain-glory. But this would weaken the force of the passage. What renders the self-sacrifice valueless is not a wrong cause, but the absence of love as the motive power. Although burning was not a form of martyrdom at this time, yet such histories as that of the three children in Daniel 3:19 would make the expression intelligible and forcible.

These words are historically interesting to the English Church. They formed the text from which Dr. Smith preached at the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley!

Verse 4

(4) Charity suffereth long.—Better, Love is long-suffering. Here follows a description of love. Descriptions of positive characteristics and negations of evil qualities are now employed by the Apostle in what he would have us believe to be his impossible task of adequately describing true love.

Verse 5

(5) Thinketh no evil.—That is, does not dwell upon the evil done to her.

Verse 6

(6) Rejoiceth not in iniquity.—The attitude of our mind towards sin is a great test of the truth of our religious feeling.

Verse 7

(7) Beareth all things.—The full thought of the original here is that love silently endures whatever it has to suffer.

Verse 8

(8) Charity never faileth.—From the positive and negative qualities of love described and enumerated in the preceding passage, the Apostle now turns to contrast the imperishable character of love and other graces with the ephemeral nature of gifts. The Corinthians held an exaggerated estimate of the value of gifts such as tongues and prophecy, and under-valued the graces of faith and love. Now the Apostle shows that they were thereby preferring the things which are for a time to the graces which are for ever. One faction, indeed, exalted to the highest place a gift—that of tongues—which was the most ephemeral of all Christian gifts. On the “tongues,” see Note on 1 Corinthians 14:2. “Prophecies,” in the plural, intimates the varied gradations of power possessed by the preachers, in some cases including that deep spiritual insight into the realities of the present which enabled the preacher to foretell distant events.

Verse 9

(9) We know in part.—Knowledge and preaching are incomplete; therefore, when this dispensation ends, and the complete dispensation is brought in, these imperfect gifts shall cease. Gifts are but the implements of the divine husbandry; graces are the seeds themselves. When the great harvest-time comes, the instruments, however useful, will be cast aside altogether; the seeds will, by the very process of death, be transformed into blossoms and fruits, and in that perfected form remain for ever.

Verse 10

(10) That which is perfect.—This verse shows, by the emphatic “then,” that the time when the gifts shall cease is the end of this dispensation. The imperfect shall not cease until the perfect is brought in. (See Ephesians 4:11-13.)

Verse 11

(11) When I was a child.—The natural childhood and manhood of this life are analogous to the spiritual childhood of this life and the spiritual manhood of the life to come.

I understood as a child, I thought as a child.—The first word expresses mere simple apprehension, the second word implies active intellectual exertion. It has been suggested that the three words here used refer back respectively to the gifts previously mentioned. “I spoke” corresponds to the “tongues,” “understood” to the “prophecy,” and “I reasoned” to the “knowledge.” Without intending any such very definite correspondence of these three expressions, the Apostle probably naturally made the points of analogy correspond in number with what they were intended to illustrate.

But when I became a man.—Better, but now that I have become a man I have given up the ways of a child. The point brought out is his present state as a man, and not, as the English version might seem to imply, some fixed point of transition in his past history. The contrast he seeks to make clear is between two states of life.

Verse 12

(12) For nowi.e., in this earthly life, the “for” connecting the previous statement with that which it illustrates.

Through a glass, darkly.—Better, through a mirror in a dark saying. The illustration here is from a mirror when the image appears far behind the mirror itself. If we remember the imperfect metal surfaces which formed the mirrors of those days, we can imagine how imperfect and enigmatical (the Greek word is “in an enigma”) would the image appear; so that the Apostle says, “Like that image which you see when you look at an object in a mirror far off, with blurred and undefined outline, such is our knowledge here and now; but then (i.e., when this dispensation is at an end) we shall see as you see a man when you stand before him face to face. (See Numbers 12:7-8 for a similar thought, but a different illustration of it—“mouth to mouth.”) The word for “glass” here is the same as in James 1:23, and must mean a mirror, and not, as some commentators suggest, a pane of transparent stone or horn, such as was then used, for which a quite different word would have been employed.

Verse 13

(13) And now abideth . . .—Better, Thus there abide . . . The “now” is not here temporal, but logical. It is not “now” (i.e., this present life) contrasted with the future, but it is the conclusion of the whole argument. From all that has been urged in the previous verses it follows that these three graces—faith, hope, love—remain imperishable and immortal. Gifts such as the Corinthian Church rejoiced in shall pass away when the perfect succeeds the imperfect; the graces of faith, hope, love shall remain in the next life, exalted and purified. But even in this trinity of graces there is an order, and love stands first. The contrast is not between love which is imperishable and faith and hope which are perishable, but between ephemeral gifts and enduring graces. It is strange how completely in popular thinking this has been lost sight of, and hence we find such words as these—

“Faith will vanish into sight,
Hope be emptied in delight,
Love in heaven will shine more bright,

Therefore give us love;”

which express almost the opposite of what the Apostle really wrote.

There need be no difficulty in understanding that “faith,” in the sense of trust in Christ as our Saviour, may continue in the heavenly state; indeed, when we see Him face to face, and see actually how great a salvation He hath obtained for us, that faith may’ be expected to glow with a new and increasing fervour Hope, too, need never cease if that new life is to be progressive. If hope lives by feeding on the present as the promise of the future, surely it will have a more abundant sustenance in that life than in this. Yet love stands supreme; indeed, both faith and hope would perish without her. (See Matthew 26:35; Galatians 5:6.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-corinthians-13.html. 1905.
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