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1 Corinthians 13 .
In chapter 13 the apostle maintains the sovereign rights of the Holy Spirit to distribute gifts in the body of Christ “to every man severally as He will”. In 1 Cor. 14 we are instructed as to the exercise of these gifts for edification. In the intervening chapter we are reminded that apart from love there can be no edification. In the Epistle to the Ephesians we read that the body edifies “itself in love”. Love is the true spirit of service. As one has said, “It is that which prompts, not simply to work, but to serve in working”. Love to one another is the principle that should regulate everything in the assembly.
The apostle, therefore, gives us this beautiful little treatise on love, in which he shows, not what we are, but what love is. Moreover, it is love in its nature that is set before us, not exactly love in its activities. Love is, and must be, active; but here it is passive love that is presented, that which love is, rather than what love does.
The apostle has spoken of gifts, and in the gifts there are degrees, for he speaks of “the best gifts”. We are to covet such; but, even so, there is a “way of more surpassing excellence”. We can serve one another by way of gift, but the more excellent way is the way of love.
First, the apostle insists upon the value of love (verses 1-3); secondly, he sets before us the nature of love displayed in all its beautiful qualities (verses 4-7); finally, he sets before us the abiding character of love as that which will not fail with the passing of time, nor vanish away in eternity (verses 8-13).
1. The pre-eminent value of love .
To prove the supreme value of love the apostle speaks of three things in which the Corinthian believers were boasting: their eloquent speech; their spiritual possessions; and their activities. He shows that, though they may seek to exalt themselves by these things, they are of no account in God's sight if they have not love as their motive.
(V. 1). The Corinthian believers were making much of the gift of tongues and natural eloquence. The apostle warns us that it is possible “to speak with the tongues of men and of angels” and have no love. Where this is so, in spite of eloquence and seraphic words, the speaker will become as “sounding brass or a clanging cymbal”.
(V. 2). Moreover, these believers were boasting in their spiritual possessions. They had gifts and insight into all mysteries and all knowledge. They possibly had faith that could accomplish great feats, but, says the apostle, we can have rich endowments, but if we have no love we are nothing. He does not say that these gifts, prophecy, knowledge and faith, are nothing, but that the one who exercises these gifts without love is nothing. The apostle is not speaking of faith in Christ, for this faith worketh by love; he speaks rather of faith which enables individuals to overcome great obstacles and do great exploits; and he says it is possible to have such faith without love.
(V. 3). We may readily admit that it is possible for a man to talk well without love, and boast in his spiritual knowledge without love, and we may counsel such to talk a little less and do a little more. But the apostle further warns us that it is also possible to do much without love. He says that a man's beneficent activities may rise to such a height that he may give all his goods to feed the poor and his body as a martyr to be burned, yet the motive may not be love, and thus all his activities profit him nothing.
Thus words without love, knowledge without love and activities without love, while they may be used of God to accomplish His ends, will add nothing to the one who thus speaks and acts. Without love he will be nothing and profit nothing, despite all his words, his possessions and his activities.
2. The nature of love.
(Vv. 4-7). Having insisted upon the unique value of love, the apostle now unfolds the true character of love. It has been pointed out that the first eight qualities of love show that the effect of love in its nature is to lead to the entire renunciation of self with its impatience, lack of consideration, jealousy, aggressiveness, self-importance, lack of courteousness, selfishness and quarrelsomeness.
(1) “Love has long patience.” The flesh is ever impatient, but love can suffer long and wait God's time. Fleshly endurance is soon exhausted; love does not wear out.
(2) Love “is kind”. The flesh, even if it waits, will often do so in a fretful and resentful spirit; but love, while waiting, can retain a kindly spirit of consideration for others.
(3) “Love is not emulous of others.” The flesh ever seeks a place above others, and is jealous of favour or position bestowed on others rather than self. Love can delight without a thought of envy in honours bestowed upon another.
(4) “Love is not insolent and rash.” The flesh is aggressive, rashly pushing itself into prominence. Love is not self-assertive, but rather retiring and reticent.
(5) Love “is not puffed up”. The flesh is often vain and filled with its self-importance. Love takes the lowly place in service to others.
(6) Love “does not behave in an unseemly manner”. The flesh, even when high in the social scale, can be rude and unmannerly. Love will lead the highest by birth, as well as the lowest, to be courteous.
(7) Love “does not seek what is its own”. The flesh is ever selfish and seeks its own interest. Love is unselfish and disinterested, seeking the good of others.
(8) Love “is not quickly provoked”. The flesh is ever touchy and quick to take offence and resent insults. Love is slow to anger and not easily provoked. Love, indeed, can be provoked, for in this very Epistle we are warned that it is possible to provoke the Lord ( 1Co_10:22 ); but the Lord is slow to anger; He is not quickly provoked.
In the three qualities that follow we learn that love not only leads to the renunciation of self, but that it takes positive delight in that which is holy and true.
(1) Love “does not impute evil”. The flesh is quick to imagine evil and impute wrong motives. Love does not reckon evil to exist when there is no positive evidence.
(2) Love “does not rejoice at iniquity”. Alas, the flesh delights in being occupied with evil. Love takes no pleasure in discovering evil or bringing it to light.
(3) Love “rejoices with the truth”. The flesh is unholy and can find pleasure in occupation with evil. Love is holy and finds its joy in being engaged with the truth. Love is not therefore blind, for it knows and appreciates the truth.
The last four qualities set forth the positive energy of love, whereby its possessor is sustained in the midst of a hostile world.
(1) Love “bears all things”. The flesh can bear very little without showing its resentment. Love can bear all things, and oftentimes in silence.
(2) Love “believes all things”. The flesh is ever suspicious. Love is unsuspecting and ready to believe good when there is no direct evidence to the contrary, even in the presence of much that may raise doubts.
(3) Love “hopes all things”. The flesh is ever ready to presume evil and believe the worst. Love looks upon the good rather than the evil and hopes for the best, in spite of much that may appear hopeless.
(4) Love “endures all things”. The flesh, assuming the worst, has no hope, and when hope is gone there is no power to endure. Love, hoping all things, strengthens its possessor to endure in the presence of opposition and discouragement.
3. The abiding character of love.
(Vv. 8-13). Having depicted the nature of love, the apostle declares its permanence. Love never fails. Prophecies will be done away; their fulfilment will bring them to an end. Tongues will cease with the present divided condition of the nations. Knowledge, or the partial knowledge that we have at the present time, will be done away. Such knowledge as we now possess is not full knowledge, but rather something that we are ever acquiring, and therefore only a proof of our ignorance. It is only knowledge “in part”. In the perfect condition of heaven this knowledge in part will for ever have passed away. There may be blessed unfoldings of truth in that heavenly scene, but whatever is presented there will be fully known, in contrast to our present condition in which, though truth is fully revealed, it is yet only partially apprehended. However much we may enter into the truth down here, it ever remains knowledge “in part”. To set forth our present partial knowledge, the apostle uses the figure of a child, who can only think, speak and reason as a child. When the child becomes a man, the childish condition is left behind. So we, while in these bodies, are compelled very largely to think of spiritual things in natural terms in accord with our present condition. Thus, as to the truth, we only see through a glass darkly. At present we are like one looking at objects through some semi-transparent medium that obscures the vision. In the perfect state we shall see face to face; there will be no medium between us and that upon which we gaze. Then we shall know as we are known. We shall fully know the truth as a whole, not merely in part, even as we are fully known.
Now abide faith, hope, love, these three, “and the greater of these is love”. In the perfect state faith will be changed to sight, and thus faith will have its end. Hope will end in fruition. Love alone will abide. Faith and hope make very good travelling companions, but we part company with them at the door of heaven. We go in with one thing, love. Nevertheless, the verse speaks of the present condition, and tells us that even now love is the greater quality. It must be so, for love is the very nature of God, and therefore love is eternal.
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Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". "Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany