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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

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Verses 1-13

The Love Chapter

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

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. 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. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 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. 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. 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. 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. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (vv. 1-13)

We have noticed that in the twelfth chapter of this epistle we have the gifts which the risen Christ gave to His church. In chapter 14 we have the use of the gifts; but in between the two chapters we have the spirit in which they are to be exercised. Someone has said that the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is “the divine smithy,” alluding to the furnace in the blacksmith’s shop, where the tools of chapter 12 are heated red-hot to be properly used in chapter 14. Gift without love is a poor thing. One might preach with great clarity and even eloquence, but if there is no love behind it, it would be almost wasting words. The word translated in the King James Version as “charity” is not the thought of the good works, the kindness, that we attach to the word, but the root and source of those good deeds, that which pleases God- love. So here the apostle emphasizes the importance of love, not only in the life of the servant of God, but in the lives of all Christians.

There are three well-known Greek words for “love”: eros, phileo, and agape. Eros you will recognize at once as the name we are familiar with in Greek mythology, as the god of love, the son of Aphrodite. Eros is the word ordinarily used in classical Greek for love between the sexes, the love of sweethearts, the love of husband for wife and wife for husband. Phileo is a broader word, generally used for the love of friends. It speaks of a kindly friendly affection, and is also used for the love of parents to children and children to parents, and the love of citizens for the state to which they belong. Then the other word, agape, is used for a higher type of love, a love that is all-absorbing, that completely dominates one’s whole being. This is the word that we have in this chapter.

It is very significant that in the writing of the New Testament the Spirit of God seemed to utterly forbid the use of the word eros. It is very freely used in the writings of the Greek poets and philosophers, but is never found in the New Testament. This word representing the love between the sexes had been so abused, so degraded by the Greeks that God, as it were, stood over His Book and said to those who were writing, “Do not put that word in here; it is too capable of being utterly misunderstood. I do not want that word in My Book, for so many vile things have been linked with it.” It had become so misused that it was not even right to think of it as expressing the true love of a chaste wife and a good husband. So God did not allow it any place in the New Testament.

The word, phileo, is used in its verbal form in many places in the New Testament, but always for friendliness, kindly feeling one toward another, and brotherly love, or fraternal affection. When it comes to a question of that which is divine, the Holy Spirit has chosen most carefully, and He uses this word, agape. “God is agape”-”God is love”-in this highest, most utterly unselfish sense. It is used in the New Testament for God’s love to us and our love to God, and for the love we have for anything we put in place of God. When we are warned against the love of the world, this word, agape, is used, for men devote themselves wholly and completely to the things of the world and to obtaining money, and so make a god of the world and of money. We can readily see how beautifully this should bring before us a love that is absolutely holy, and ought to be complete and supreme in our lives.

The love of this chapter then, this divine love, is not that which is in the heart of the natural man; it is not a love that you can pump up out of your heart if you are not a child of God, because it is not there. You may have “ phileo „.” Take that poor heathen mother; she loves her child, and she may even love her husband. That unsaved man and woman love their country, they love those that love them in this lower sense, but it is only when one has been born of God that he loves in the high sense represented in this chapter. That is why we read, “Every one that loveth is born of God.” If the word phileo had been used there, you might say that every mother who loves her children, every patriot who loves his country is born of God. But that is not true; this completely unselfish divine love is the portion of only those who are regenerated. This is the word that the Holy Spirit uses when we read, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5). It is He, dwelling in the believer, who sheds abroad this love in our hearts.

We shall divide this chapter into three parts for our purpose. In verses 1-3 we have the unique value of love. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not [love], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Here you see, the warning is against substituting mere talent for love. A man might preach and be so talented that he could stir his audience to deepest emotion, but there might be nothing there for God, nothing that would reach the needy hearts of men. To speak with the eloquence of an angel apart from divine love will accomplish nothing.

“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge.” You say, “Is it possible to have the gift of prophecy and not have love?” Oh, yes! They said of Saul, and he was not a child of God, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” When associating with prophets, he talked like a prophet; when associating with the world, he talked like a worldling. And then you have the tragic case of Balaam to whom God actually gave the gift of foresight. He was able to look on down through the years and utter marvelous prophecies, yet his heart was exercised by covetous practices; he wanted Balak’s money and therefore desired to curse Israel, but the Lord forbade him, and he said, “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?” (Numbers 23:8). Think of this marvelous prophecy coming from a man whose mere intelligence had been illuminated by the Spirit so that he could say, “The people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Since those words were spoken thirty-five hundred years have elapsed and they have proven true ever since. The people, God’s earthly people, the covenant people, Israel, have lived alone, and they are not reckoned among the nations. So one may have the gift of prophecy and yet not have love. What an empty thing! Think of Balaam, able to look down through the centuries and utter those prophecies recorded in Numbers 23-24. He prayed, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” but instead of that he died under the judgment of God because he was never regenerated.

“Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not [love] I am nothing.” Of course he is not speaking of saving faith here, but rather the gift of faith spoken of in chapter 12. And though it were possible for God to give me faith that would scatter the hills from their places, yet without love I am nothing. How solemn the words of our Lord Jesus, “Ye must be born again,” for it is absolutely impossible for any man to produce such love in himself apart from divine grace. The apostle is not speaking of mere sentiment.

A pastor was leaving his church to go to another. He was one of these modern, up-to-date preachers who could say a lot of sweet nothings that would not hurt a flea, and on the other hand would do no one any good. A young man came up to him and said, “Pastor, I am so sorry we are going to lose you. When you came to us three years ago, I was a young man who did not care for God, man, or the Devil, but since listening to your beautiful sermons I have learned to love them all.” That is the kind of sentiment that passes for love in these days. The apostle was speaking of the manifestation of divine life in the soul, a love that is absolutely unselfish.

“Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not [love], it profiteth me nothing.” You may say, “But I can’t give my goods to feed the poor apart from love; can I?” Oh, yes, I may do all that from a desire to be seen of men. The Pharisees of old did their charity that way, and they sounded trumpets before them so people could see them. “Verily, they have their reward.” There was no love there. It was merely hypoc- risy. And then we read, “Though I give my body to be burned, and have not [love], it profiteth me nothing.” I may be a religious zealot, so wedded to an idea that I am willing to die for it, and yet there may be no real love behind it all. Of course it took the love of Christ in the soul to enable the Christian martyrs to go to the stake singing for Jesus’ sake, it took the love of Christ to cause those devoted believers to go forth to the lions, ready to die with a song of love in their hearts. But it is quite possible to die for an idea, to yield your body to the stake because of some great principle, and yet have no real love in the heart. So we see the uniqueness of love; it stands alone, and is distinct from mere “charity,” as we call it.

In verses 4-7 we have the character of love. What is this love of which he is speaking? How may we know it? How may we recognize it when we see it? As we examine these verses phrase by phrase, I wish you would think of one blessed Person. If the apostle Paul had tried to give us a pen portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, he could not have done better than to use the words that we have here. As you read these verses you can see the blessed Savior of men moving about in this world on His mission of love. So true is this that you could substitute the word Christ for the word love, or charity here. Let me show you. “Christ suffereth long, and is kind; Christ envieth not; Christ vaunteth not himself, is not puffed up, doth not behave himself unseemly, seeketh not his own, is not easily provoked.” Was He ever provoked? Oh, yes. About what? About the wickedness, the sin, the hypocrisy of men. When they would have hindered His healing the poor woman in the synagogue because of their pretended regard for the sanctity of the Sabbath, Jesus looked round about upon them and was angry. There is an anger that is divine, but, “[love] is not easily provoked.” “Christ thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” This is indeed a character sketch of the Lord Jesus Christ. It tells me that it is only as Christ dwells in me that I will manifest these characteristics, and then I can truly say with Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). If I take this as a divine picture of what every man ought to be, if I dare to say that not until this is true of me am I really fit for a place with God in heaven, I might sink into utter despair if it depended upon me, for I never could measure up to this. There is so much in my heart of self, of evil, of unholiness, but as I receive Christ as my personal Savior, as I put my trust in Him, the One who died because of man’s selfishness, sin, and unholiness, I am born again of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, and Christ comes to dwell in my heart by faith. Now in the measure in which I yield myself to Him, He lives out His wonderful life through me, and thus I am able to manifest the love that is revealed in this chapter.

“[Love] suffereth long.” It does not become impatient when tried, when wronged, and when it has to face misunderstanding, and when people disapprove. Love moves on just as sweetly and graciously as when people do approve, and “[love] suffereth long, and is kind.” How much we need to realize that! Ella Wheeler Wilcox has said something that is not altogether true:

So many gods, so many creeds,

So many ways that wind and wind,

While just the art of being kind

Is all this poor world needs.

That is a very pretty sentiment, but it is not altogether true. The world needs a great deal more than that; it needs God, it needs Christ. But the world does need people who can be kind. I am afraid many Christians are not always very kind.

I remember hearing of an old Scotch preacher in whose congregation were a number of folks who fancied they had attained a spiritual experience far beyond the majority of the members, a state of perfect holiness wherein all inbred sin had been removed from their very being, and because they were so holy they were extremely critical of other people and harsh in their judgments. The old minister was not much of a theologian, and was not able to meet their arguments in regard to the doctrine, but when he heard them censoring others, he would lean over the pulpit and say, “Remember, if you are not very kind, you are not very holy, because holiness and kindness cannot be separated.” “[Love]…is kind.” Oh, the kindness of God as seen in the Lord Jesus Christ!

And then, “[Love] envieth not,” or really, “love is never jealous.” Did it ever occur to you that jealousy implies selfishness? Love delights to see another honored and esteemed. Of course there is a holy jealousy. The Lord is a jealous God. He would have us altogether for Himself. But this is a very different thing to a carnal jealousy which makes us unhappy when others are preferred before us. Jesus ever took the lowest place and was content to be despised and rejected.

“[Love] vaunteth not itself.” In plain English, “love never brags.” Love never exalts itself or its ability; it never tries to draw attention to itself. And love “is not puffed up.” There is a Scripture that says, “Knowledge puffeth up, but [love] edifieth,” or buildeth up (1 Corinthians 8:1). I think I know a great deal more than other people and so become conceited, puffed up over it, but real love does not puff up, it builds up.

“Doth not behave itself unseemly” or literally, “is never boorish.” The finest gentleman in the world is the man who knows Christ best. I remember reading a history of the world written by an English writer, completed about the year 1600. In the course of his history he came down to the early years of the Christian era, and he said, “It was in these days that there appeared in Judea that Knightly Gentleman, Jesus Christ,” and I was so taken aback, I thought, “I do not know whether I like that.” I stopped to analyze it and then I thought, “Could words have been used that more truly described the life of my Lord here on earth?” What is a gentleman? Is it somebody born heir to some vast estate and perhaps having the right to put a title to his name? Not necessarily. A man might be heir to millions but be a perfect boor. A man might be the poorest of the poor and yet be controlled by divine love and so be a perfect gentleman. Have you never noticed the refining influence of the Lord Jesus Christ? Take a man brought out of the gutter and saved by grace, see how the Spirit of God quiets him, changes him, until his whole character becomes different. Love never behaves in a boorish way.

“[Love]…seeketh not her own.” The apostle’s word to those quarreling women in Philippi was, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4). When divine love controls the heart, it will be others first instead of self first.

“[Love]…is not easily provoked.” We read, “Be ye angry and sin not.” A Puritan once said, “I am determined so to be angry as not to sin; therefore to be angry with nothing but sin.” Sin may well stir my indignation but, “[Love]…is not easily provoked.”

“[Love]…thinketh no evil.” How apt we are to make snap judgments of people. One says, “I think everything she does is done ostentatiously.” What business have you to be thinking those things? Love credits people with the best possible motives, and therefore because of that, “[love]…hopeth all things.” Love may see something upon which a very bad construction may be put, but it waits a moment and says, “Could I put a better construction upon that? I will not put the wrong one if I can possibly find a good one. I will hope for the best. I will never be guilty of marring a brother’s or a sister’s reputation because of something said or done that looks unwise to me and yet might be innocent.” That is love. And so, “[love]…endureth all things”-it is willing to suffer, for that is just the character of love.

In verses 8-13 we have the permanence or finality of love. Everything else may disappear but love abides. “[Love] never faileth.” We read of prophecy, “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.” Prophecy will be fulfilled eventually, but love will continue forever. “Whether there be tongues, they shall cease.” We do not know exactly when they passed away from the church, but we have no evidence that there are men today who have the ability to preach in languages never learned, and the apostle uses a very strong word here, “Whether there be tongues, they shall cease. “It is an altogether different word from the word translated “fail.” He knew that the day would come when the gift of tongues would no longer be seen, but love would remain. “Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Knowledge, in the sense that we have it now, only a partial thing, will vanish away in the light of the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him.

“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.” And now he uses a little illustration comparing the present with the days of our childhood, our glorious future with the years of maturity. “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.” I wonder whether that is actually true of every one of us. I am afraid some of us are quite childish still. I know full-grown men and women who profess the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, but still have a great many characteristics of children. Let them have their own way and they are perfectly delightful to get along with, but cross them and they pout like little children. The apostle says, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” In other words, I was through with childish ways.

May I make a plea for true Christian manhood and womanhood? Let us put away these little childish things that so often characterize us. One thing that often grieves my own heart is that there are so few Christian people content to do their duty as God shows it to them without human praise. As men and women in Christ we have put away childish things, and we are here to do the right as He shows it to us, and whether men praise or blame, what difference does it make? But in another sense, this is still the time of our childhood as compared with the glorious maturity that is coming when our Lord shall return and we shall be fully conformed to His blessed image. Someday we will put all these things away and will be just like Him.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly.” There were no glass windows in those days. They had a crude kind of glass, but it could not be used for windows. Sometimes they used a very thin horn which had been pressed out, and sometimes almost a transparent crystal was used. That may be what was referred to, but in all likelihood it is the brass mirror. You can see enough in a brass mirror to know whether your hat is on straight, but you cannot see what your complexion is like, and so the apostle says that we are just like folk looking at themselves in a brass mirror. We see nothing as we shall see it by-and-by. “But then face to face: now I know in part”-I know through the revelation that God has given, and thank God for that! How little I would know without that, but there are still many things concerning which He has not yet given me information. How many questions there are that even the Bible does not answer. “But then shall I know even as also I am known.” The exact tense, I believe, would be, “Even as also I have been known.” I will know others and will know all mysteries in that coming day, even as God knows me now and has known me all down through the years.

“Now abideth faith”-because “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). “Hope”-because I am living in hope of the coming of the Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him. “[Love]”-for this is the manifestation of the divine life. “These three; but the greatest of these”-even at the present moment here on earth, before I enter eternity-“is [love].”

May God give us to manifest the love of Christ through yielding ourselves wholly to Him, that He may live out His life in us and then by-and-by when faith has changed to glad fruition, when our most wonderful hopes have all been accomplished, when we stand face to face with our blessed Lord, love will abide throughout all the ages to come, and we shall understand then what we cannot understand now, the love that moved the heart of God and led Him to send His only begotten Son into this dark world that we might live through Him. What a wonderful thing to know Christ. Let us go out and live Him before men!

Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/isn/1-corinthians-13.html. 1914.
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