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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

Beet's Commentary on Selected Books of the New TestamentBeet on the NT

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Verses 1-13



Be emulous for the greater gifts. And, further, a surpassingly good way I show you.

If with the tongues of men I speak, and of the angels, but have not love, I am become sounding bronze or a noisy cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know the mysteries, all of them, and all the knowledge, and if I have all the faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, nothing am I. And if I give as food all my possessions, and if I give up my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I am nothing profited.

Love is longsuffering, is kind. Love is not jealous: love does not vaunt itself, is not puffed up, is not unseemly, does not seek its own, is not moved to anger, does not reckon the evil, does not rejoice at unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never falls. But both if there be prophecies they will come to nought; and if tongues, they will cease; and if knowledge, it will come to nought. For, in part we know, and in part we prophesy: but, when the fully developed have come, that which is in part will come to nought. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, I used to think as a child, I used to reckon as a child: when I became a man I made as nought the things of the child. For we see now through a mirror, in a dark saying; but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall understand, according as also I have been understood. And now remain faith, hope love; these three. But the greatest of these is love.

After asserting the broad foundation truth that in the Church, as in a human body, the various members are endowed by God with various gifts, all useful and all needful for the general good, Paul now says that we must, nevertheless, make these gifts objects of desire and effort, and that some of them are greater than others and therefore more worthy of pursuit. But, instead of naming at once the greater gifts, (see 1 Corinthians 14.,) he interposes 1 Corinthians 13. to show us the best way of pursuing them. And, in so doing, he gives us a standard by which to measure their relative worth. (Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 8., before discussing his subject from the point of view of knowledge, he proves that love is better than knowledge.) He then, in 1 Corinthians 14., repeats the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 12:31 and goes on to show that prophecy is more worthy of pursuit than the gift of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:31. Be-emulous-for: one Greek word combining the sense of “zealous” and “jealous,” both which are English forms of it. It denotes an emotion aroused in us by superior worth, whether it be earnest desire to gain for ourselves a like superiority, or a jealous care to keep for ourselves alone the object of desire, or mere idle vexation. Same word in 1 Corinthians 13:4; 1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Corinthians 14:12; 1 Corinthians 14:39; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 7:7; 2 Corinthians 7:11; 2 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Corinthians 12:20. The capacities for usefulness possessed by others ought to rouse us to seek the same.

Greater gifts: producing greater results. This exhortation implies that these gifts of God’s grace were to be obtained by human effort. How the extraordinary gifts were thus obtained, is not clear to us now, because of their cessation in the early dawn of church history. But we may suppose that the Spirit gave them only to those who had some natural and spiritual fitness for them as He now bestows His ordinary gifts. If so, by earnest desire to obtain and develop this fitness, men might be emulous for the greater gifts. Their effort, for both ordinary and extraordinary gifts, would include cultivation of the corresponding natural powers, prayer and faith for the Spirit’s presence and activity, and use of the spiritual power already possessed. Paul goes further than mere exhortation to pursue these gifts, and adds (in 1 Corinthians 13.) an indication of a way along which his readers may find them, a way surpassing all others.

Chap. XIII. This better “way” Paul begins to point out by asserting abruptly and solemnly that even a combination of the most highly prized gifts, each in its highest degree, is worthless apart from love: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. The worth of love, he shows by describing its various manifestations in human conduct, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; and show its superiority to spiritual gifts, by proving that they will become worthless like the toys of childhood, whereas love abides, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.

1 Corinthians 13:1. The word rendered love is unknown, as its significance was unknown, in classic literature. In a few places, oftener of things than men, its cognate verb is found. In the LXX. the verb is frequent, the substantive very rare. This word has the unique honor of being the only substantive noting a moral attribute which is predicated, simply and without explanation or limitation, of God Himself: for God is Love. Paul here teaches that this unique attribute of God is also the one moral quality which is itself all we need to be. All this was obscured by the old rendering charity, which cannot be predicated of God and has no corresponding verb, and conveys to most Englishmen a sense quite different from that intended by Paul. Of this a bad example is found in (A.V.) Romans 14:15 which receives its force from Romans 13:9-10. Unfortunately, the word love has with us lower associations from which the Greek word is quite free. But it is our best rendering.

From the tongues of men and of angels we cannot infer anything about the nature of the gift of tongues. For these words refer, not to actual fact, but to mere supposition. Nor does the words tongues necessarily denote “languages.” Paul means, “If I utter every kind of voice which rises from the lips of men and of angels.” So Homer Iliad bk. ii. 489: “Not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths.”

Of the angels: separated for emphasis from of men, and making the summit of possibility in this gift.

Love: to our fellow-men, as proved by 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. So usually when not otherwise defined: 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 16:14; Romans 12:9; Romans 14:15.

Bronze: a word denoting always in the Bible copper, either pure or containing as usual a small proportion of other metal generally tin. Just so, with us “gold” denotes both the pure metal and the alloy used for jewelry and coinage. Copper was wrought (Genesis 4:22) in very early times, probably (Hesiod, Works and Days 1. 151) earlier than iron; and for hardness and fusibility was alloyed with tin. Brass, i.e. an alloy of copper and zinc, has not, I believe, been found among the many metallic relics of the past.

Sounding bronze: pieces of metal, manufactured or crude, giving forth any kind of sound.

Cymbal: an instrument consisting of two half gloves, mostly of bronze which the performer struck together. Same word, (LXX.,) 1 Chronicles 13:8; 1 Chronicles 15:16; 2 Chronicles 5:12, etc.

Noisy: giving forth any loud unmeaning sound. Since those who spoke with a tongue merely gave forth, under impulse of the Spirit, a sound which in some cases (1 Corinthians 14:14 ff) neither they nor any one else understood, they were, unless love gave them moral worth, only like pieces of bronze, or at best instruments of music, struck by a player.

1 Corinthians 13:2. Prophecy: the gift most like that of tongues, but (see § 25) superior to it.

All the mysteries: see note, 1 Corinthians 3:4 : all the truths revealed by God to man through the secret teaching of the Holy Spirit.

All the knowledge: evidently different from, and not implied in, the mysteries; but not necessarily, or probably, superior. Probably the mysteries and the knowledge here correspond with “wisdom” (see 1 Corinthians 2:7) and “knowledge” in 1 Corinthians 12:8. If so, all the knowledge denotes whatever the mind of man has acquired by ordinary methods of study, these not excluding (1 Corinthians 12:8) the special assistance of the Spirit. Such knowledge would neither include, nor be included in, all the mysteries. Paul’s supposition is that all the secrets of the divine purpose and all the knowledge possessed by man were known to one person. That the conspicuous word if (5 times in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3) is not put before know, suggests that mysteries and knowledge were closely related to prophecy; but does not prove that they were necessarily included in it. The prophet’s words always conveyed knowledge; and, since he spoke under impulse of the Spirit, his words frequently announced (1 Corinthians 2:10) “the deep things of God.” But prophecy was a voice caused apparently by an occasional impulse of the spirit: mysteries and knowledge were abiding intellectual possessions.

The faith: an assurance that through the believer’s agency God is about to work a miracle. Such faith arose “in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:9) and was a condition (Mark 11:22) of the exercise of miraculous power. The close coincidence of faith so as to remove mountains confirms the testimony of Matthew 17:20; Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:22, that similar words fell from the lips of Christ. Notice that effective faith is a belief, not of anything, but of that which God has promised. It presupposes, and cannot extend beyond the word of God. Consequently, Mark 11:23 f is limited, by the gospel use of the word “believe,” to benefits actually promised by God. And it has no other limit.

Nothing am I: (differently used, 2 Corinthians 12:11 :) “my character has no real worth.” This suggests, (the hypothetical form of the sentence forbids us to say that it proves,) and the cases of Balaam and Samson prove, that a man may have superhuman gifts and yet be destitute of spiritual life. A solemn warning to the Corinthians, who (1 Corinthians 1:7) “fell short in no gift.”

1 Corinthians 13:3. Give away as food: an action highly esteemed (Matthew 6:2) by the Jews.

Give up my body: same words in Josephus, Wars bk. vii. 8. 7; where, by the example of the Indians who, “having given up their body to fire that most pure they may separate the soul from the body, die singing hymns,” Eleazar urges his companions besieged at Masada to a similar self-sacrifice. Dr. Lightfoot suggests (Colossians p. 394) that this highest possible grade of self-sacrifice and of supposed merit was suggested to Paul by a boastful inscription on a tomb at Athens (see Strabo, bk. xv. 1. 73) which he may have seen, in memory of a fanatic who in the time of Augustus publicly devoted himself to death there by leaping with a smile on the funeral pyre: “Here lies Zarmanochegas an Indian from Bargose, who according to the paternal customs of Indians immortalized himself.” Such cases enable us to conceive not only gifts to the poor but self-immolation without love, and with real excellence.

Nothing profited: no reward from God, Matthew 6:1. By these extreme cases Paul makes us feel that actions have no intrinsic value, that their worth, both as manifestations of character and as spiritual gain to the actor, depends entirely upon their motive, and that the one motive essential to reward is love. On the variation that I may glory, see Appendix B.

Notice in 1 Corinthians 13:2-3 an appropriate change of expression. Without love, they who “have” prophecy and miracle-working faith “are” nothing: for these gifts do not of themselves enter into, and ennoble, the inner man. And, without love, they who give up not only their goods but their bodies are no gainers: for spiritual wealth cannot be purchased even at this price. (Cp. Galatians 5:6.) The supposed combination of various merits in one man is made conspicuous by the recurring words and if; but is ruined by the melancholy refrain in each verse but have not love.

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 love stands apart from all other virtues as an essential element of all human excellence. For Paul’s words imply that without it, not only knowledge and almsgiving, but righteousness and truth are valueless, or cannot exist. With this unique dignity of love in man corresponds its unique position ( 1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16) among the moral attributes of God. In other words, human excellence is not, as many think it is, composite; but, like all great principles and like the moral nature of God, absolutely simple. This Paul makes us feel by portraying a man in whom are accumulated all sorts of supposed excellences except love, and by placing beside him (in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7) a man whose whole being is an impersonation of love. The one portrait we recognize at once as the most perfect we have seen. From the other we turn in disgust as utterly worthless.

The assertion of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 receive, if not complete proof, yet considerable support from the delineations of character therein contained. For absence of love implies selfishness; it may be an intelligent and respectable, or even spiritual, selfishness. But a selfish man, even though used by the Spirit as a medium of wonderful utterances, is morally no better than a trumpet giving forth an inarticulate sound. Nor does his knowledge or his liberality ever command real respect. For the one is used to advance, and the other is prompted by, unworthy purposes.

The above teaching guards from abuse, and is guarded by, the teaching of Romans 1:16; Romans 3:22. We venture to believe that we are now forgiven, even though we be nothing and have no merit, simply because in the Gospel God proclaims righteousness through faith for all that believe. And, since love is the one measure of Christian stature, we venture to believe that God will work in us even this gift by revealing to us through the Spirit His own love to us and to all men. According to our faith it is done to us. And the love to our fellows which we find in our hearts confirms the faith with which, when conscious of nothing but sin, we dared first to believe the promise of God. But the ultimate ground of our confidence is our consciousness, not of our own love, but of God’s love to us revealed on the cross, and in the words, of Jesus.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The excellence of love, asserted negatively in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, will now be made apparent by a description of its various manifestations in human conduct: positive description, 1 Corinthians 13:4 a; negative description, concluding with a positive contract 1 Corinthians 13:4-6; final positive description 1 Corinthians 13:7. That these verses say nothing about spiritual gifts, and retain their full force even though gifts be absent, proves that, whereas gifts without love are worthless, love even without gifts retains its value undiminished. No stronger proof of the value of love can be given. Thus the contrast of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 increases the force of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

1 Corinthians 13:4 a. Love is longsuffering: i.e. continues in spite of conduct likely to quench it. This continuance often, but not always, shows itself in restraining anger. Hence, in the Bible, the word is often (Romans 2:4; Romans 9:22 etc.) used in this connection.

Kind: gentle in conduct, so that a man is pleasant to deal with. In both these qualities the man of love is like God, (cp. Romans 2:5,) who is an impersonation of infinite love.

1 Corinthians 13:4-6. Jealous: evidently an idle vexation at the superiority of others. See under 1 Corinthians 12:31. We are never vexed at the excellence or success of those whom we love. Nor do we vaunt ourselves: i.e. parade before them any supposed superiority of our own. For boasted superiority separates; whereas love unites.

Puffed-up: as in 1 Corinthians 8:1. In view of those we love, we never indulge inflated opinions about ourselves. And we are thus saved, in reference to them, from unseemly conduct.

Does not seek her own: exemplified in Paul himself, 1 Corinthians 10:33. Contrast Philippians 2:20 f.

Anger: not here a simple purpose to punish, as in Ephesians 4:26, but the vindictiveness which so often accompanies it. To this, love never prompts; though it often compels us to punish.

Does not reckon etc.: 2 Corinthians 5:19; Romans 4:8; Philemon 1:18 : does not calculate injury as a debt to be paid off.

Does not rejoice in unrighteousness; reveals the moral worth of love. We are not pleased at the wrong-doing of those whom we intelligently love.

For we feel instinctively that by wrong-doing they injure themselves. E.g., many a bad father is sorry to see his children walking in his steps.

Rejoices with the truth: similar to Romans 7:22, “I am pleased together with the Law.” The truth, (Romans 1:18,) here impersonated, rejoices when it realizes itself in human conduct, i.e. when men do that which corresponds with the eternal reality, viz. the nature of God. Now love is the essence of God: and truth is love manifested. Therefore, whatever conduct gratifies, i.e. agrees with, the one, gratifies also the other.

1 Corinthians 13:7. Bears all things: is not shaken by any sort of ingratitude. And we are ever ready to believe all things from those we love; and to cherish all sorts of expectations of good about them.

Endures: see Romans 2:7. Love prompts us to continue doing good to those we love in spite of difficulties and perils. Paul’s own example: 2 Timothy 2:10. The word bear refers probably to ungrateful conduct in the person loved, and is thus parallel to “longsuffering” in 1 Corinthians 13:4; endures refers to any hardship involved in helping those we love.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 define clearly Paul’s use in 1 Corinthians 13. of the word love. It is a principle of action prompting us to use our powers and opportunities for the good of others, and to draw them to us that we may share, and thus remove, their sorrow, and that they may share our good. This principle appears, more or less perfect and intelligent, in all true human love. It is the mainspring of the entire activity of God. And so far as it rules our conduct are we like God. Of this principle, these verses are the strongest commendation. For the man in whom these traits of character meet commands, even though he have no special gifts, our highest respect. And all these traits of character are a natural outworking of the one principle of love. For a lack of any one of them proves that love is deficient. This practical picture of love also makes us feel by contrast the worthlessness of the character described in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

For shorter, but similar, personifications of love, see 1 Corinthians 8:1; Romans 13:10. In Clement’s Epistle, ch. 49, (see appendix A,) is an evident copy of these verses. Compare also the praise of “wisdom” in Proverbs 8:9.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13. After portraying in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 a man with various gifts in the highest conceivable degree but without love, and pronouncing him worthless, and portraying in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

the excellent practical outworking of love, even apart from gifts, Paul now shows that love surpasses gifts in that while they will pass away love abides.

Falls: as in Luke 16:17 : loses its position of dignity, by ceasing to be an active principle ever working out fresh results. For this is implied in the contrast of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. The gifts so highly prized will all pass away.

1 Corinthians 13:8-12. Will-come-to-nought: become inoperative, cease to produce results. Same word in 1 Corinthians 1:28 : see also Romans 3:3.

Knowledge: i.e. the special gift of knowledge, 1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 Corinthians 12:8. Notice that the gift of tongues will cease absolutely, when the tongue is silent in death; the gifts of prophecy and knowledge will cease practically. Of this last assertion 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 are a proof. That tongues will cease, needs no proof.

In part: in contrast to the fully developed. Our knowledge now embraces only fragments. This is true universally; but refers here to the special gift of knowledge.

In part we prophesy: we announce under the special influence of the Spirit only a part of the truth.

The fully-developed: the complete or full-grown, in contrast to the fragmentary. See note, 1 Corinthians 2:6. 1 Corinthians 13:10 states a universal principle; but refers specially to 1 Corinthians 13:9. It proves will-come-to-nought in 1 Corinthians 13:8. Knowledge and prophecy are but torches giving amid general darkness a partial light. Therefore, when dawns the eternal Day they will become useless. They who now know most and speak most fluently will then have no advantage over others.

1 Corinthians 13:11. Illustrates and confirms 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.

I thought: formed conceptions.

I reckoned: drew inferences. The child first speaks, then gives evidence of observation, and then of reasoning.

When I became: or “now that I-am-become,” “have-set-aside.” [The Greek perfects assert the permanence of the change from childhood to manhood, and the permanent dismissal of childish things.]

I-made-as-nought: as in 1 Corinthians 13:8; 1 Corinthians 13:10 : laid aside as useless the toys or schoolbooks which once I prized and used. This comparison, suggested probably by the word “full-grown,” (cp. Ephesians 4:13,) is an argument from the greater to the less. For the things of eternity are much more completely above and beyond our present thought than are the things of manhood to a child. Yet the mature knowledge of manhood makes schoolbooks etc. quite useless.

1 Corinthians 13:12. Proof that the comparison of childhood applies to the matter of 1 Corinthians 13:8; and thus parallel to 1 Corinthians 13:9.

Mirror: James 1:23; 2 Corinthians 3:18 : known in the earliest times, Exodus 38:8; Wisdom of Solomon 7:26; Sirach 12:11. They were usually circular plates of metal, with a handle. Their imperfect reflection suggested this metaphor. The Gospel is a mirror (2 Corinthians 3:18) showing us as in a camera obscura, but imperfectly, the things of eternity.

Dark-saying: the Greek original of our word “enigma.” It explains the foregoing metaphor. Our knowledge of eternity comes through the Gospel, which is, compared with the full light of eternity, a riddle difficult to solve: in other words, we see now through a mirror.

Face to face: Genesis 32:30; cp. Numbers 12:8. We shall stand before God, and look upon His face; (Matthew 5:8; Hebrews 12:14;) and, seeing Him, we shall see all things.

Now I know etc.; continues the contrast, which is individualized and thus intensified by the change, as in 1 Corinthians 13:11, from we to I. The change was prompted by Paul’s intense and personal conception of his own thought.

Understood: an intelligent comprehension which looks down upon and through a matter. Same word in 1 Corinthians 14:37; 1 Corinthians 16:18; 2 Corinthians 1:13 f; 2 Corinthians 6:9; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Romans 1:28; Romans 1:32; Romans 3:20; Romans 10:2.

I-have-been-understood: a silent reference to Him by whom all things are fully known. Cp. 1 Corinthians 8:3.

According as etc.: corresponding with God’s perfect knowledge of him. In other words, the light of eternity, which is the outshining of the mind of God, will reveal fully and accurately to each man his own inner self.

Those who now know most, and, moved by the Spirit, proclaim most fully the things of God, know and speak only a fragment of what will in that Day be known universally. Consequently, their gifts, so valuable now, will then be of no worth. For, compared with that time, our present life is but childhood; and the gifts we prize now will then be thrown aside as useless, like the toys we have already thrown aside. If so, knowledge and prophecy have only a passing value. And the gift of tongues will evidently cease soon in the silence of death.

From 1 Corinthians 13:12 it is quite clear that the light which will supersede the gifts of knowledge and prophecy is that of eternity. Consequently, 1 Corinthians 13:8 refers, not to the cessation of extraordinary gifts in the later ages of the Church, but to the end of the present life, either at death or at the coming of Christ. But it would be unfair to infer from this that Paul expected these gifts to continue till Christ comes. For, about this he says nothing; but declares only that sooner or later, to the individual and to the race, these gifts will pass away.

1 Corinthians 13:13. But now etc.: as contrast to 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, as in 1 Corinthians 12:18. While prophecy etc. will pass away, faith, hope, love, remain. This is evidently equivalent to “never falls,” in 1 Corinthians 13:8; and therefore denotes continuance in the life to come. For it is a clear contrast to “will be set aside” in 1 Corinthians 13:8; which declares, as we have seen, that the partial knowledge of time will be displaced by the perfect knowledge of eternity.

Faith: assurance that God’s word will come true, as a general principle. This will remain, although the special application of it in 1 Corinthians 13:2 will pass away.

Hope: that which looks forward to, and grasps before hand, things to come. Paul leaves us to test for ourselves the assertion of 1 Corinthians 13:13 a. But the contrast of knowledge and prophecy enables us to do so. For it is evident that the change which will make these valueless will not set aside faith, hope, love. That our happy state will continue for ever, we shall know simply because God has promised it, i.e. by a faith similar to our present belief of the Gospel. And we shall have the joy of looking forward to a further and ceaseless and infinite development of happiness and glory. Thus, amid glory already seen and possessed there will still be further glories not yet seen, (Romans 8:24,) and matter of continued faith and hope. And mutual love, animating and binding together the many members of that glorified family, will shine through every face and breathe in a thousand ever recurring words and acts of heavenly kindness.

These three; seems to imply that these are in some sense a complete description of our abiding state. Among these three continuing gifts love stands out as greater than the others. This is implied in “but have not love,” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; and is proved by 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 which surpass anything that can be said of faith or hope. The passing mention of these strengthens the contrast between love and spiritual gifts. For these last, as passing away, are evidently inferior to faith and hope; which nevertheless are inferior to love.

The argument of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 involves the important truth that the continuity of human character is not broken either by death or judgment, any more than it is now broken by change of circumstances. For we are told explicitly that when human knowledge fades in the light of eternity even then love will abide. Now knowledge refers, not to the abstract principle, which will never pass away, but to the superiority of knowledge possessed now by an individual. And, to give force to Paul’s argument, love must refer to the degree of Christian love attained here by each individual. Only thus can the permanence of love be a motive for the pursuit of it. Moreover, what is true of knowledge and prophecy is true of all other capacities for usefulness, wealth, rank, learning, eloquence, mental power. We learn, therefore that although before the gates of death we shall lay down for ever the various weapons with which God has armed us to fight for Him, we shall carry through those gates the moral character which the conflict of life has developed within us. And this gives to moral excellence an infinite superiority over the most brilliant powers for usefulness.

With love, which in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 had a place absolutely unique, are now associated, though in a subordinate place, faith and hope. Yet, though subordinate, they are here mentioned before love. Notice a similar association in Romans 5:1-5. All this suggests that faith, the entrance (Romans 5:1) into the Christian life, and hope, the immediate result (Romans 5:2) of faith, are designed to lead to love; and that the degree in which they do this is the measure of their abiding and practical worth.

That Paul says nothing about the eternal results of a right use of knowledge and prophecy, results which seem at first sight to place these gifts on a par with love, suggests that these results will be of eternal worth to us only so far as they have been an outcome of Christian love. And if so they do not in the least degree lessen the superiority of love.

Bibliographical Information
Beet, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". Beet's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jbc/1-corinthians-13.html. 1877-90.
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