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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

Hodge's Commentary on Romans, Ephesians and First CorintiansHodge's Commentary

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Verse 1

Chapter XIII

Christian Love — 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love is superior to all extraordinary gifts. It is better than the gift of tongues, 1 Corinthians 13:1; than the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, 1 Corinthians 13:2; and than the gift of miracles, 1 Corinthians 13:2. All outward works of charity without it are worthless, 1 Corinthians 13:3. Love has this superiority, first, because of its inherent excellence, and secondly, because of its perpetuity. As to its superior excellence, it implies or secures all other excellence.

1. It includes all the forms of kindness.

2. It is humble and modest.

3. It is unselfish.

4. It sympathizes with all good, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

5. It is perpetual — all the extraordinary gifts mentioned in the preceding chapter were designed for the present state of existence, or were temporary. Love is never to cease, 1 Corinthians 13:8.

Knowledge, as a special gift, and perhaps also in the form in which it exists in this world, is to pass away. It is now the apprehension of truth as through a mirror — hereafter it will be lost in immediate vision, 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. The permanent graces are faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is Love, 1 Corinthians 13:13.

This chapter, although devoted to a single Christian grace, and therefore not to be compared with the eighth chapter of Romans, or with some chapters in the epistle to the Ephesians, as an unfolding of the mysteries of redemption, still has ever been considered as one of the jewels of Scripture. For moral elevation, for richness and comprehensiveness, for beauty and felicity of expression, it has been the admiration of the church in all ages. — With regard to the word charity, as the translation of the Greek ἀγάπη, it has already been remarked in the comment on 1 Corinthians 8:1, that it is peculiarly unhappy. Neither in its primary signification, nor in the sense which usage has attached to it, does it properly answer to the Greek term. The latter occurs about one hundred and sixteen times in the New Testament, and is translated love in all places except twenty-three; and in those the departure from the common usage is altogether arbitrary. The word charity is just as inappropriate in this chapter as it would be in such phrases as, “the Son of his charity,” or, “the charity of God is shed abroad in our hearts,” or, “the charity of Christ.” The Greek word ἀγάπη is not of heathen origin. The heathen had no conception of the grace which in the Scriptures is expressed by that term; neither ἔρως nor φιλία answers to the Scriptural sense of ἀγάπη; nor do the Latin words amor or caritas. It was the unsuitableness of the former that induced Jerome to adopt the latter as the more elevated of the two. The one properly expresses love founded on sympathy; the latter came to mean love founded on respect. Its English derivative (charity) retains more of the original force of the Latin word. Caritas (from carus, a carendo, dear, i.e. costly) is properly dearness or costliness; and then it came to express the feeling arising from the sight of want and suffering. And this is the common meaning still attached to the English word, which renders it unsuitable as the substitute of the comprehensive word love. Many have been led to think that almsgiving covers a multitude of sins, because charity is said to have that effect; and that kindness to the poor and the sick is the sum of all religion, because Paul exalts charity above faith and hope. It is not of charity, but of love, of which the Bible thus speaks.

1 Corinthians 13:1

Superiority of Love to all Other Gifts

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become (as) sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

The gift of tongues, on which the Corinthians so much valued themselves, is mentioned first, because it was the prominent subject in this whole discussion. The tongues of men are the languages which men speak. As this is the obvious meaning of the expression, it serves to prove that the gift of tongues was the gift of speaking foreign languages. The tongues of angels are the languages which angels use. A mode of expression equivalent to ‘all languages human or divine.’ Paul means to say, that the gift of tongues in its highest conceivable extent without love is nothing. Without love I am become, i.e. the there want of love has reduced me, notwithstanding the gift in question, to a level with sounding brass; not a musical instrument made of brass, which has some dignity about it, but to a piece of clattering brass which makes a senseless noise; or, at least, to a tinkling cymbal, the lowest and least expressive of all musical instruments. Tinkling (ἀλαλάζον) properly clanging, expressive of the loud shrill noise made by the cymbal. These instruments were of two kinds, one small, worn on the thumb and middle finger, answering, it is thought, to the modern castanets; the other large, broad plates, like our common cymbals. Joseph. Ant. 7. 12. 3. Both kinds are perhaps referred to in Psalms 150:5, where the Septuagint distinguishes them as the sweet-toned and the loud. The latter is the kind here specified. The illustration was probably adopted from the shrill, discordant noise made by the speakers with their tongues, each endeavoring to drown the voice of all the others, as seems from what follows to have been the case with the Corinthians. Paul says, 1 Corinthians 14:23, the meetings for worship in Corinth, if all spoke with tongues, would be so confused as to make strangers think they were mad.

Verse 2

1 Corinthians 13:2

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, and have not charity, I am nothing.

There are three gifts here referred to, prophecy, “the word of knowledge,” and miracles. ‘Though I have the gift of prophecy, so as to understand all mysteries, and (though I have) all knowledge, and all faith,’ etc. As the particle ἐάν, though, by which the distinction of gifts is indicated in the context, is here omitted, the first two clauses are commonly combined ‘Though I have the gift of prophecy, so as to understand all mysteries, and so as to possess all knowledge.’ There are two objections to this. The passage literally reads, ‘that I may know all mysteries and all knowledge;’ so that the words mysteries and knowledge grammatically depend on (εἰδῶ), I may know. But this would make Paul use an unexampled phrase, ‘to know knowledge.’ Something, therefore, must be supplied, and it is as natural to borrow from the context the words, though I have, as simply, that I may have. And secondly, Paul distinguishes between prophecy and knowledge as distinct gifts, 1 Corinthians 13:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. The understanding or apprehension of mysteries, and not the possession of knowledge, in its distinctive sense, was the result of the gift of prophecy. Mysteries are secrets, things undiscoverable by human reason, which divine revelation alone can make known. And the gift of prophecy was the gift of revelation by which such mysteries were communicated; see 1 Corinthians 14:30. All mysteries, therefore, here means, all the secret purposes of God relating to redemption. This limitation is required by the context. Paul intends to say, that though he was the recipient of all the revelations which God ever designed to make concerning the plan of salvation and the kingdom of Christ, without love he would be nothing.

And all knowledge, i.e. and though I have all knowledge. By knowledge is meant the intellectual apprehension or cognition of revealed truth. It was the prerogative of the prophet to reveal, of the teacher to know and to instruct. Compare 1 Corinthians 14:6, where Paul connects revelation with prophecy, and knowledge with doctrine or teaching. And all faith, i.e. all degrees of the faith of miracles, so that the greatest wonders, such as removing mountains, could be thereby accomplished. Compare our Lord’s language in Matthew 21:21. I am nothing, i.e. worthless. Neither intellectual gifts nor attainments, nor power, without love, are of any real value. They do not elevate the character or render it worthy of respect or confidence. Satan may have, and doubtless has, more of intelligence and power than any man ever possessed, and yet he is Satan still. Those, therefore, who seek to exalt men by the mere cultivation of the intellect, are striving to make satans of them.

Verse 3

1 Corinthians 13:3

And though l bestow all my goods to feed (the poor), and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth the nothing.

Paul here advances one step further. All outward acts of beneficence are of no avail without love. A man may give away his whole estate, or sacrifice himself, and be in no sense the gainer. He may do all this from vanity, or from the fear of perdition, or to purchase heaven, and only increase his condemnation. Religion is no such easy thing. Men would gladly compound by external acts of beneficence, or by penances, for a change of heart; but the thing is impossible. Thousands indeed are deluded on this point, and think that they can substitute what is outward for what is inward, but God requires the heart, and without holiness the most liberal giver or the most suffering ascetic cam never see God. The original word (ψωμίζω) here used, literally means, to feed by morsels. It is generally followed by two accusatives, to feed a person with something. Here the accusative of the person is omitted, so that the passage stands, ‘Though I feed out my property,’ i.e. distribute it in food. And though I give my body to be burned, i.e. though I make the most painful sacrifice of myself. A man may not only give his property but his life, and be nothing the better. It is not probable that the apostle refers to martyrdom, or that the idea is, that a man may, from wrong motives, submit to be a martyr. The context requires that the reference should be to a sacrifice made for the good of others. Some suppose that the reference is to the branding of slaves to indicate their ownership. The meaning would then be, ‘Though I not only give away all my goods, but should sell myself as a slave for the sake of the poor, it would profit the nothing.’ Had Paul intended to say this, he would probably have used the appropriate term for branding. We do not express the idea that an animal was branded, by saying it was burnt. There is no necessity for departing from the simple sense of the words. ‘Though I give my body to be burnt for others, i.e. though I should die for them, without love it profiteth me nothing.’

Verse 4

1 Corinthians 13:4

Charity suffereth long, (and) is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Almost all the instructions of the New Testament are suggested by some occasion, and are adapted to it. We have not in this chapter a methodical dissertation on Christian love, but an exhibition of that grace as contrasted with extraordinary gifts which the Corinthians inordinately valued. Those traits of love are therefore adduced which stood opposed to the temper which they exhibited in the use of their gifts. They were impatient, discontented, envious, inflated, selfish, indecorous, unmindful of the feelings or interests of others., suspicious, resentful, censorious. The apostle personifies love, and places her before them and enumerates her graces, not in logical order, but as they occurred to him in contrast to the deformities of character which they exhibited.

Love suffereth long, i.e. is long-minded, or slow to be roused to resentment. It patiently bears with provocation, and is not quick to assert its rights or resent an injury. It is kind, i.e. is inclined to perform good offices; is good-natured. The root of the verb (χρηστός, from χράομαι) means useful, and hence its primary sense is, disposed to be useful. The excellence here indicated is the positive side of that already mentioned. Love is not quick to resent evil, but is disposed to do good. It envieth not. The word (ζηλόω) here used may express any wrong feeling excited in view of the good of others; not only envy, but hatred, emulation, and the like. It vaunteth not itself (περπερεύεται), this includes all forms of the desire to gain the applause of others. Love does not seek to win admiration and applause. Is not puffed up, i.e. conceited. This is the root of the preceding. The man who has a high conceit of himself is apt to be boastful and desirous of praise. Love, on the other hand, is modest and humble; modest because humble.

Verse 5

1 Corinthians 13:5

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Doth not behave itself unseemly, i.e. does nothing of which one ought to be ashamed. Its whole deportment is decorous and becoming. Seeketh not her own; is disinterested, 1 Corinthians 10:33. Is not easily provoked, i.e. is not quick tempered; or, does not suffer itself to be roused to resentment. And, therefore, it thinketh no evil, or rather, it does not think evil. This may mean,

1. It does not plan or devise evil. But the expression is (τὸ κακόν) the evil, and not (κακά) evil. Comp. Matthew 9:4.

2. It does not impute evil, i.e. attribute evil motives to others, or is not suspicious. The sense is good in itself, but not so suitable to the connection as,

3. It does not lay the evil which it suffers to the charge of the wrong-doer. Instead of being resentful, it is forgiving.

Verse 6

1 Corinthians 13:6

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

The general sentiment of this verse is, that love does not sympathize with evil, but with good. It rejoiceth not in iniquity, i.e. in any thing which is not conformed to the standard of right. The word is usually translated unrighteousness; but this is not to be limited to injustice, but includes all forms of moral evil. Truth is often used antithetically in Scripture to unrighteousness, as it is here. Romans 1:8 comp. John 3:21; 1 John 1:6, and other passages, in which men are said to do the truth. Hence it is commonly interpreted in such cases as meaning righteousness. ‘Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but it rejoices together with (συγχαίρει) righteousness,’ i.e. sympathizes with it, and has a common joy with it. As, however, the word so commonly in Paul’s epistles stands for religious truth as revealed in the gospel, perhaps the majority of commentators so understand it here. ‘Love rejoices together with the truth.’ This, however, not only destroys the antithesis, but introduces a disturbing element into the description; for it is of love as a virtue of which Paul is speaking. Its sympathy with the gospel, therefore, does not seem to be appropriate in this connection.

Verse 7

1 Corinthians 13:7

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Beareth all things. This may either mean, bears in silence all annoyances and troubles, or covers up all things (as στέγω may have either meaning), in the sense of concealing or excusing the faults of others, instead of gladly disclosing them. The latter interpretation harmonizes better with what follows, but it is contrary to Paul’s usage as to this word. See 1 Corinthians 9:12; 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:5. With him the word always means to bear patiently. Further, love believes all things, is not suspicious, but readily credits what men say in their own defense. Hopeth all things, i.e. hopes for the best with regard to all men. It would be contrary to the context to understand the faith and hope here spoken of as referring to the truths and promises of the gospel. Endureth all things. The word (ὑπομένω) is properly a military word, and means to sustain the assault of an enemy. Hence it is used in the New Testament to express the idea of sustaining the assaults of suffering or persecution, in the sense of bearing up under them, and enduring them patiently. 2 Timothy 2:10. Hebrews 10:32; Hebrews 12:2. This clause, therefore, differs from that at the beginning of the verse; as that had reference to annoyances and troubles, this to suffering and persecutions.

Verse 8

1 Corinthians 13:8

Charity never faileth: but whether (there be) prophecies, they shall fail; whether (there be) tongues, they shall cease; whether (there be) knowledge, it shall vanish away.

Love never fails, i.e. it endures for ever. It is not designed and adapted, as are the gifts under consideration, merely to the present state of existence, but to our future and immortal state of being. Whether there be prophecies, or be it prophecies, they shall fail, i.e. be done away with. The gift shall cease to be necessary, and therefore shall not be continued. Be it tongues, etc., i.e. the gift of tongues shall cease. Be it knowledge, it shall vanish away, i.e. cease to exist. It is the same word as that used above in reference to prophecies. It is not knowledge in the comprehensive sense of the term that is to cease, but knowledge as a gift; as one of the list of extraordinary endowments mentioned above, 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. Knowledge, considered as the intellectual apprehension of truth, is, as the apostle immediately states, hereafter to be rendered perfect. But the λόγος γνώσεως, the word of knowledge, 1 Corinthians 12:8, i.e. knowledge in that form in which it was the foundation of the office of teacher, is to be done away with. Whether this means that hereafter there will be no need of the office of teacher, and therefore that the gift which qualified for that office shall cease; or whether Paul means to say that the immediate vision of truth is to be hereafter so different from our present discursive, obscure, and imperfect mode of cognition, that it deserves to be called by a different name, may be matter of doubt. Both are probably true. There will be no ignorance in heaven to be removed through the intervention of human instructors; and there will probably be as great a difference between the knowledge hereafter and what we call knowledge here, as there is between hearing of an object and seeing it. We may hear a description of a person or place and have thereby a certain form of knowledge of him or it; but that form passes away, or is merged in a higher, as soon as we see what we had before only heard about.

Verse 9

1 Corinthians 13:9, 1 Corinthians 13:10

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

This is the reason why knowledge and prophecy are to cease. They are partial or imperfect, and therefore suited only to an imperfect state of existence. The revelations granted to the prophets imparted there glimpses of the mysteries of God; when those mysteries stand disclosed in the full light of heaven, what need men of those glimpses? A skillful teacher may by idiagrams and models give us some knowledge of the mechanism of the universe; but if the eye be strengthened to take in the whole at a glance, what need men of a planetarium or of a teacher? The apostle employs two illustrations to teach us the difference between the present and the future. The one is derived from the difference between childhood and maturity; the other from the difference between seeing a thing by imperfect reflection, or through an obscure medium, and seeing it directly.

Verse 10

1 Corinthians 13:9, 1 Corinthians 13:10

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

This is the reason why knowledge and prophecy are to cease. They are partial or imperfect, and therefore suited only to an imperfect state of existence. The revelations granted to the prophets imparted there glimpses of the mysteries of God; when those mysteries stand disclosed in the full light of heaven, what need men of those glimpses? A skillful teacher may by idiagrams and models give us some knowledge of the mechanism of the universe; but if the eye be strengthened to take in the whole at a glance, what need men of a planetarium or of a teacher? The apostle employs two illustrations to teach us the difference between the present and the future. The one is derived from the difference between childhood and maturity; the other from the difference between seeing a thing by imperfect reflection, or through an obscure medium, and seeing it directly.

Verse 11

1 Corinthians 13:11

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

When I was a child; not an infant, but as opposed to one of mature age, a child. I spake as a child. This does not refer to the gift of tongues as something childish, but simply to the mode of speaking characteristic of children. I understood as a child, rather, I felt and acted as a child; otherwise too little distinction is made between this and the next clause. I thought as a child. My language, feelings and thoughts were all childish. The words (φρονέω and λογίζομαι) however, are so comprehensive that the two clauses may be rendered, ‘I had the opinions of a child and I reasoned as a child.’ The former word, however, is so often used to express feeling, Matthew 16:23. Romans 8:5. Philippians 3:19. Colossians 3:2, that the first mentioned interpretation is to be preferred. When I became a man, or having become a man, I have put away childish things, i.e. my former childish mode of speaking, feeling and thinking. The feelings and thoughts of a child are true and just, in so far as they are the natural impression of the objects to which they relate. They are neither irrational nor false, but inadequate. The impression which the sight of the heavens makes on the mind of the child, is for the child a just and true impression. The conception which it forms of what it sees is correct in one aspect of the great object contemplated. Yet that impression is very different from that which is made on the mind of the astronomer. In like manner our views of divine things will hereafter be very different from those which we now have. But it does not thence follow that our present views are false. They are just as, far as they go, they are only inadequate. It is no part of the apostle’s object to unsettle our confidence in what God now communicates by his word and Spirit to his children, but simply to prevent our being satisfied with the partial and imperfect.

Verse 12

1 Corinthians 13:12

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.

This is a confirmation of what precedes. Our present knowledge is imperfect, for we now see through a glass. These words admit of three interpretations.

1. The preposition (διά) may have its ordinary instrumental sense, we see by means of a glass; or,

2. It may have its local sense, through. Then, assuming glass (ἐσόπτρον) to mean a window, the meaning is, we see as through a window; and as the windows were commonly made of mica, and therefore imperfectly transparent, to see through a window was to see dimly. As the word, however, properly means a mirror, James 1:23, the best interpretation probably is,

3. We see as through a mirror; the optical impression is that the object is behind the mirror, and the spectator seems to look through it. The ancient mirrors were of imperfectly polished metal, and the reflection which they gave was very obscure. Darkly, literally, in an enigma. This may be taken adverbially, as by our translators, we see enigmatically, i.e. obscurely; or the idea may be that we see divine things as it were wrapped up in enigmas.

We do not see the things themselves, but those things as set form in symbols and words which imperfectly express them. The reference seems to be to Numbers 12:8. Of an ordinary prophet God said, “I will make myself known unto him in a vision, and speak to him in a dream;” but of Moses he says, “With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark sayings,” i.e. in enigmas. (The Septuagint version is δι ̓ αἰνιγμάτων). The clearest revelation of the things of God in words is as an enigma, when compared to sight. Every thing is comparative. The revelations made to Moses were clear in comparison to the communications made to others by visions and dreams. Paul says the writings of Moses were enigmas compared to the revelations contained in the gospel, 2 Corinthians 3:12, 2 Corinthians 3:13. And the gospel itself is obscure compared to the lucid medium through which we shall see hereafter. But then face to face, i.e. no longer through a mirror, but immediately. Comp. Genesis 32:31. Numbers 12:8. The word of God is a mirror wherein even now we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18), but what is that to seeing him face to face!

Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then shall I know even as I am known, i.e. perfectly. As we are required to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, Matthew 5:48, so we may be said to know even as we are known. We may be perfect in our narrow sphere, as God is perfect in his; and yet the distance between him and us remain infinite. What Paul wishes to impress upon the Corinthians is, that the gifts in which they so much prided themselves, were small matters compared to what is in reserve for the people of God.

Verse 13

1 Corinthians 13:13

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

The words and now may either indicate time, now, during the present state; or they may be inferential, now, i.e. since things are so, rebus sic stantibus. In the latter case, the sense is, ‘Since these extraordinary gifts are to pass away, faith, hope, and love abide.’ The former are temporary, the latter are permanent. The only objection to this interpretation arises from the apostle’s speaking of faith and hope abiding in a future state, whereas elsewhere, Romans 8:24; 2 Corinthians 5:7; and Hebrews 11:1, faith and hope seem to be represented as pertaining only to our present state of existence, and as being hereafter merged, the one in sight, and the other in fruition. This apparent inconsistency arises from the comprehensiveness of the terms. The state of mind indicated by faith and hope as now exercised, will not continue in the future life; but the state of mind, so to speak, of the saints in heaven, may be designated by these same terms, because confidence and expectation will continue for ever. Faith in one form, ceases when merged in sight; but in another form it continues; and the same is true of hope. Or perhaps the same idea may be more correctly expressed by saying that some exercises of faith and hope are peculiar to the present state, while others will never cease. Certain it is that there will always be room even in heaven for confidence in God, and for hope of the ever advancing and enlarging blessedness of the redeemed.

If, however, (νυνὶ δέ), but now, be taken, as is commonly done, as relating to time, the meaning is, ‘Now, i.e. so long as we continue in this world, there remain faith, hope and love.’ These are the three great permanent Christian graces, as opposed to the mere temporary gifts of prophecy, miracles, and tongues. But this does not seem to be consistent with what precedes. The contrast is not between the more or less permanent gifts pertaining to our present state; but between what belongs exclusively to the present, and what is to continue for ever. In 1 Corinthians 13:8 it is said of love, as a ground or reason of its pre-eminence, that it never fails; and here the same idea is expressed by saying, it abides. ‘To abide,’ therefore, must mean, that it continues for ever. The same permanence is attributed to faith, hope, and love. They are all contrasted with the temporary gifts, and they are all said to abide. The one is to continue as long as the others. The former interpretation is, therefore, to be preferred.

The greatest of these is love. In what sense is love greater than faith? Some say, because it includes, or is the root of faith and hope. It is said that we believe those whom we love, and hope for what we delight in. According to Scripture, however, the reverse is true. Faith is the root of love. It is the believing apprehension of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, that calls forth love to him. Others say, the ground of superiority is in their effects. But we are said to be sanctified, to be made the children of God, to overcome the world, to be saved, by faith. Christ dwells in our hearts by faith; he that believes hath eternal life, i.e. faith as including knowledge, is eternal life. There are no higher effects than these so far as we are concerned. Others say that love is superior to faith and hope, because the latter belong to the present state only, and love is to continue for ever. But, according to the true interpretation of the verse, all these graces are declared to abide. The true explanation is to be found in the use which Paul makes of this word greater, or the equivalent term better. In 1 Corinthians 12:31, he exhorts his readers to seek the better gifts, i.e. the more useful ones. And in 1 Corinthians 14:5, he says, ‘Greater is he that prophesies, than he that speaks with tongues;’ i.e. he is more useful. Throughout that chapter the ground of preference of one gift to others is made to consist in its superior usefulness. This is Paul’s standard; and judged by this rule, love is greater than either faith or hope. Faith saves ourselves, but love benefits others.

Bibliographical Information
Hodge, Charles. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". Hodge's Commentary on Romans, Ephesians and First Corintians. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hdg/1-corinthians-13.html.
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