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The apostle having spoken of the adornings of the church, which is the body of Christ, proceeds now to treat of her internal glory; and that glory is charity, for without this, all other endowments are the reproach of the christian world. This is indicated by the preseding words: “yet show I unto you a more excellent way.” Some bear hard on our Stephen Langton, abp. of Canterbury, who divided the bible into verses, for separating those words from this chapter. Though he erred in some places, yet all Europe adopted his plan. Origen had divided his Hexapula into sections, beginning each (mostly in the middle of a line) with a capital letter, whose sides were described with a fine pen, and the middle filled up in succession with vermilion, with yellow, and the blue of lapis lazuli, which conferred much beauty on the page. Sometimes oxides of gold and silver were employed, and sometimes whole manuscripts were written with them.
This charity is demonstrated by its fruits, as in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It eclipses all the endowments of prophesy, of tongues, and of knowledge. This charity conveys its glory to a future world, and with all the brilliancy of augmentation.
“Lasting its lamp, and unconsumed its flame.”
1 Corinthians 13:1 . Though I speak with the tongues of men, whose eloquence raised them from humble birth to the highest rank in the senate; men who could seize on assembled multitudes, and turn them as rivers of water.
And of angels. Paul may here have special reference to the choristers in the celestial courts. Though angels speak to one another in their own language, yet no doubt they are acquainted with all the languages spoken amongst men.
And have not charity. If I do not love the Lord supremely, with a love emanating from a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. The cymbals are well known, being chiefly used in military bands. They are generally made of tin, mixed with other sonorous metals; and in the figure of a plate having a cavity in the middle, which is grasped by the hand. One being held in each hand, they beat time to the music, and far exceed the trumpet in sound.
1 Corinthians 13:2 . And have all knowledge, elementary knowledge of the sciences, including Hebrew learning in general. Dr. Lightfoot translates here, that “Hillel the elder had eighty pupils, thirty worthy of the Holy Spirit to rest upon them, as it rested upon Moses. Thirty for whom the sun might stop his course, as it did for Joshua. The remaining twenty held a middle rank. The chief of these was Jochanan, learned in the Scriptures, the Mishnah, the Gemara, the idioms of the law. The scribes understood illustrations, comparisons, equations, geometry, parable, &c.”
If I had faith to remove mountains, to surmount impossibilities; yet without charity all would be unavailing.
1 Corinthians 13:3 . Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor. The prodigal gives all his riches through folly, and the concupiscence of his heart, and leaves reproaches on his memory. The good man, on the contrary, distributes his harvests and his riches in imitation of God. Philanthropic characters merit a record in the church. The benevolent Thornton, of London, imitated by John Crosse, vicar of Bradford; the philanthropic Reynolds, of Bristol, imitated by his neighbour Bonville; a Howard, the admiration of Europe; all these are names “as ointment poured forth.”
Though I give my body to be burned; literally, to be consumed in fire, as the martyrs, to attest the truth of religion, it profitteth nothing, unless I suffer for the love of Christ. To be “scorched with fire” deterrogates from the sense of the text, and from the glosses of the fathers.
1 Corinthians 13:4 . Charity suffereth long, restrains anger, is patient, lenient, as Ambrose reads, even as God has borne with us. And is kind. There is an urbanity, a sweetness, and a grace about christians who have lived long in the enjoyment of true religion, which far surpasses description. Charity under wrongs, frauds and injuries, seeks not her own by raising feuds in society, and vexatious suits at law: she prefers to suffer wrong.
1 Corinthians 13:5 . Charity doth not behave itself unseemly, “indecorously,” (as all the versions read) in whatever state or station it may be placed. Is not easily provoked: ποροξυνεται , is not irritated, non exacerbatur. Tremellius. Ne s’ aigrit point. Mons’ version. The Arabic, and all the other versions agree. But Tirinus, the jesuit, gives another comment. Non facilè concitatur ad iram, not easily excited to anger; but a gloss is not a version. The obtrusive adverb, easily, turns the reading, and perverts the sense. The Greek word occurs in Acts 17:16. Paul’s spirit was stirred within him, when he saw Athens wholly given to idolatry. Also in Acts 15:39, it is said “the contention was so sharp,” between Paul and Barnabas. Anger, like all the other passions, is holy and noble, while under the reins of judgment; but when it gains the ascendancy, a man blushes as though he had been overcome of wine.
1 Corinthians 13:6 . Rejoiceth not in iniquity. To rejoice at sin is a most profane and malignant passion, and is put here in opposition to the truth, or righteousness. To walk in the truth is to serve God in holiness and righteousness.
1 Corinthians 13:8 . Charity never faileth, εκπιπτει ; that is, says Theophylact, it never deviates, it accomplishes all, and aims at the consummation. It never recedes from its proper character, and this is said in opposition to the gifts in the preseding chapter; to prophecies which shall be superseded, to tongues which shall cease, and to knowledge which shall vanish away.
1 Corinthians 13:12 . Now, we see through a glass darkly. The word glass disturbs the sense; it was but lately discovered when Paul wrote. The literal reading is, Now we see in a speculum, (a polished metalic mirror) in ænigmas; for in an earthly father, we see the heavenly Father, and in all the figurative language of the scriptures, we see heavenly glory designated. Milton gives us a beautiful verse on Eve, when she came home to Adam, and told him what a figure she had seen in the pool of water, of a woman who moved as she moved, and when she retired, the figure retired.
1 Corinthians 13:13 . The greatest of these is charity, in regard of excellence of nature, and permanency of duration. Charity is the parent of faith and hope. Charity shall subsist when faith receives its consummation in promises, and hope in fruition of eternal glory.
Our apostle, passing from the exterior to the interior adornings of the church, comes to that godlike charity which is the chief excellence of the mind. A knowledge of languages, accompanied with a popular eloquence, was a great glory in the oriental world. The gift of prophecy, as in 1 Corinthians 11:4, was also a most edifying talent, especially when joined with all the sacred and literary knowledge which can adorn the mind, and with all the benevolence to the poor, and courage in suffering, which can possibly add lustre to the character; yet all were obscure where divine charity was wanting. This charity, this love of God shed abroad in the heart, is to all accomplishments as the sun to the universe; it confers grace on every action, and the radiance of heaven on every sentiment. A man of superior endowments destitute of love, is found on a nearer approach to tarnish all his lustre by avarice, vain glory, and sordid habits.
The superior encomiums which St. Paul here bestows on charity, prove that he was perfectly acquainted with the religion of his Master. Both Moses and Christ have resolved the whole law into the love of God and our neighbour. This charity is therefore the end of the commandment, and the fairest proof of our adoption. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
The sixteen characters here given of charity have only to be weighed, and copied in our heart and life, to enhance its worth in our esteem. It suffereth long, and is patient in bearing with evil men, and in requiting their deeds with kindness. it envieth not, it vaunteth not itself, being conscious of a worth which comes from above. It is so taken up with admiring the glory and perfections of God as to lose sight of its own superiority. And instead of envying another for superior learning and eloquence, a sure character of a meaner mind, it rejoices to be little in the eyes of God, and hallowed in his esteem. It believeth all things, when a neighbour makes an honest defence; hopeth the best, putting the most charitable glosses on all his conduct. How much preferable is this to an habitual suspicion, the natural effect of ingenious guilt. Yea, and where a man is overtaken in a fault, charity never fails in hoping, and in using means for the backslider’s restoration. How justly then is charity, a grace which the poor and illiterate may all have, preferred to knowledge which shall vanish away.
Humiliation should ever accompany knowledge, because we know but in part. The holy and adorable mysteries of revelation should abase us at the feet of Christ. Though he has disclosed to us the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, we know but a small part of the depth both of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Hence we prostrate with angels at the footstool of the throne, and adore in the lowest abasement.
We also tremble for thee, oh thou profane socinian, who art retailing thine unhallowed sneer and wit concerning the holy mysteries of our faith. While St. Paul confessed that he knew but in part, and saw but obscurely in the mirror of revelation, or by the ænigma of figurative language, thy tongue is profaning the doctrines of the Trinity, of the Atonement, and of the Holy Spirit. But remember, that He who confounded the scoffers at the ark, is coming in flaming fire against all who make light of the gospel. Divine charity is not only greater than knowledge and gifts, but it surpasses both faith and hope, which are essential to salvation, and must abide in all ages of the militant church. Faith, working by love, purifies the heart; and hope, loving the appearing of Christ, awaits his coming firm as an anchor. But when these are superseded, charity in heaven shall acquire everlasting consummation, and blaze in the emanations of God with unquenchable ardour.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25