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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

McGarvey's Commentaries on Selected BooksMcGarvey'S Commentaries

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Verse 1

This chapter has been admired by all ages, but, unfortunately, it has been practiced by none. In it Paul shows that love is superior to all extraordinary gifts, both by reason of its inherent excellency and its perpetuity. Also that it surpasses all other graces.] If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. [The apostle first compares love with that gift of tongues in which the Corinthians took so much pride. The comparison shows that speaking with tongues, even if it were exercised in an unexampled manner, is utter emptiness unless accompanied by love. The gift of tongues, even when it attained its highest conceivable development, is inferior to the language of angels; but even if one spoke with all the gifts of language human or divine, his word, if loveless, would be but a vainglorious noise, or sounds without soul or feeling; such as come from pounding on some brazen gong or basin, or from cymbals, which are the lowest, most monotonous, least expressive of all musical instruments. It is suggestive that Paul had doubtless heard the language of angels (2 Corinthians 12:4). Corinthian brass was a mixture of gold and silver, and was famous for its resonance when made into trumpets, etc.]

Verse 2

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. [Love is next compared with the gifts of prophecy and miracle-working faith mentioned in the last chapter. The gift of prophecy manifested itself in two ways: 1. Ability to receive revelations of those counsels of God which were either not revealed at all, or else concealed in mystery (Matthew 13:11; Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 3:3; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:26). 2. Ability to fully understand the revelations in all their bearings upon present and future life, former revelations, dispensations, etc. This latter Paul calls "knowledge." The phrase "I would not have you ignorant," so familiar in his writings, shows how frequently he used this knowledge to impart the full truth to others. The fate of those who exercised the gift of prophecy and miracles without love is described at Matthew 7:21-23 . Balaam, Judas and Caiaphas may be taken as examples, and Satan himself is partially such. To say that one possessed of such gifts was "nothing"--a spiritual cipher--was a crushing blow to the pride and vanity of the Corinthians. We see that Paul agrees with James that faith which does not work in love is profitless-- James 2:26; comp. Galatians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:3]

Verse 3

And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. [Love is here contrasted with those works of charity and self-sacrifice which are included under the term "helps;" so that in his comparison Paul practically exhausts the whole catalogue of gifts described in the last chapter, and shows the entire supremacy of love over all of them. The word translated "bestow to feed," means to dole away in mouthfuls and suggests that though the giving was entire and exhaustive, yet the manner of giving was so parsimonious and grudging as to emphasize the lack of love. From giving goods Paul passes to that higher order of giving in which the body is presented as a sacrifice to God, either by martyrdom, or as a daily offering (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 15:31; 2 Corinthians 12:15; 2 Corinthians 11:29). It has been urged that Paul could not refer to martyrdom, for, though Christians were burned by fire in great numbers some ten years later, yet there is no account of any such form of martyrdom when Paul wrote. But the mere silence of history proves nothing; besides, the case of the three Hebrews is precedent enough (Daniel 3:23; Daniel 3:28; comp. Hebrews 11:34). See also 2 Macc. 7. Willingness to fight and die for Christianity will not take the place of loving obedience to Christ. Having shown the supremacy of love when compared with miraculous gifts, Paul now enters upon a discussion of the intrinsic merits of love, thus preparing his hearers to grasp the superiority of love over the other two graces. He gives nine negative and six, or rather eight, positive qualities of love. All seventeen qualities will be found beautifully exemplified in the life of our Lord. The Corinthians were conspicuously lacking in the four which head Paul’s catalogue, as will be shown by comparing them with 1 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Corinthians 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:21; 1 Corinthians 12:26; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 4:6]

Verse 4

Love suffereth long, and is kind [In this catalogue the first and last negative qualities are coupled with their corresponding positives, suggesting a like coupling throughout. Love suffers evil and confers blessing, and seeks to thus overcome evil with good-- Romans 12:21; Matthew 23:37; Luke 22:48; Luke 22:50-51]; love envieth not [Is not jealous of the gifts, goods or fortune of another, nor of his spiritual prosperity, as was Cain (Genesis 4:3-8). Love excludes this feeling; the parent does not envy the child (Revelation 3:21). Moses was free from envy (Numbers 11:26-29), and so also was John the Baptist-- John 3:26-30]; love vaunteth not itself [does not parade itself-- Matthew 6:1; Acts 8:9; Matthew 11:29; Matthew 12:19; Matthew 12:38-39; Matthew 21:5], is not puffed up [is not inflated with pride or arrogance, because of wealth, knowledge, power, etc.-- Acts 12:20-23; John 13:1-5],

Verse 5

doth not behave itself unseemly [Self-love betrays its lack of sympathy by vulgar indecorum, and cares not how offensive its conduct is towards others. Manners often give the measure of the man (Luke 7:44-47; Luke 23:11; John 13:14-15). Christians should manifest a courteous spirit-- 1 Peter 3:8-9; Luke 2:51-52], seeketh not its own [Love is unselfish and disinterested, and is happy in the happiness of others (Romans 12:10; Romans 15:1-3; Philippians 2:4; Matthew 8:20; Matthew 20:28). Self-love is grasping and productive of evil-- 1 Corinthians 10:24-33; Luke 12:13-21], is not provoked [It does not lose its temper; is not easily roused to resentment. The same word is used for the "sharp contention" between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39). Love curbs exasperation-- Isaiah 53:7; Matthew 26:62-63; 1 Peter 2:23; Hebrews 12:3], taketh not account of evil [Is not suspicious of evil, is not careful to retain the memory of it, and does not keep a record of it for the purpose of returning it. It continues its blessing despite rebuffs-- John 10:32];

Verse 6

rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth [It does not rejoice in seeing sin committed nor in the downfall of those who are overcome by it (Romans 1:32; 2 Thessalonians 2:12; comp. John 8:3-11), but is glad when truth puts down iniquity (2Jo_4; Acts 11:23; Luke 10:17-21; comp. 2 Timothy 3:8). Possibly the verse also includes that malignant joy which many feel at the mishaps or misfortunes of others. It certainly condemns that false charity which compromises truth-- Proverbs 17:15; Galatians 1:9; Galatians 2:5; Galatians 2:11];

Verse 7

beareth all things [it endures wrongs without complaint, and bears the adversities, troubles and vexations of life without murmuring (Matthew 17:24-27), and often without divulging its needy condition-- 1 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 4:11-12], believeth all things [It takes the kindest views of men’s actions and circumstances. It sees things in their brightest, not their darkest, colors; and, as far as it consistently can, puts the best construction on conduct-- Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8; Genesis 45:5; Luke 23:34], hopeth all things [though the object loved is confessedly sinful to-day, yet this supreme grace looks with eager, hopeful expectation for its repentance on the morrow-- 1 Corinthians 3:2-3; Luke 13:6-9; Luke 15:20; Luke 20:9-13], endureth all things. [The word "hupomenoo," translated "endureth," is a military term, and means to sustain an assault; hence it has reference to heavier afflictions than those sustained by the "beareth" of verse 7. It refers to gross ill-treatment, violence and persecution, and such grievances as provoke resistance, strife, etc. (2 Timothy 2:10; 2 Timothy 2:24; Hebrews 10:32; Hebrews 12:2; Matthew 5:39; comp. John 18:22-23; with Acts 23:2-5). The enduring is not simply that dogged persistency which bears up despite adversity, it is an endurance which forgives offense (Luke 17:4). From love as it manifests itself in daily life Paul now rises to speak of love in its essence.]

Verse 8

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away.

Verse 9

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part;

Verse 10

but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.

Verse 11

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.

Verse 12

For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. [The superlative excellence of love is here shown in that it survives all things with which it may be compared, and reveals its close relation to God whose name is love (1 John 4:8), by its eternal, imperishable nature. Prophecies, tongues and knowledge-three supernatural gifts though they were--were mortals compared with the divine spirit of love. They were needful in developing the infant church, but as that institution passed onward toward maturity and perfection (Hebrews 5:12-14; Hebrews 6:1; Ephesians 3:14-21; Ephesians 4:11-16), they were outgrown and discontinued, because from them had been developed the clear, steady light of the recorded Word, and the mature thoughtfulness and assurance of a well-instructed church. They were thrown aside, therefore, as the wheat stalk which has matured its grain; or, to use Paul’s own figure, put away as the speech, feeling and judgment of childhood when they have produced their corresponding faculties in manhood. Though the triplet of child-faculties--speech, feeling, thought, do not form a close parallel with the triplet of gifts--tongues, prophecies, knowledge, yet they were alike in that to both, the child and the church, they seemed severally all-important. All Christians who mistakenly yearn for a renewal of these spiritual gifts, should note the clear import of these words of the apostle, which show that their presence in the church would be an evidence of immaturity and weakness, rather than of fully developed power and seasoned strength. But if the gifts have passed from the church as transient and ephemeral, shall not that which they have produced abide? Assuredly they shall, until that which is perfect is come; i. e., until the coming of Christ. Then prophecy shall be merged into fulfillment, and the dim light of revelation shall be broadened into the perfect day. We to-day see the reflection of truth, rather than the truth itself. It has come to us through the medium of minds which, though divinely illuminated, were yet finite, and it has modified itself, though essentially spiritual, so as to be clothed in earthly words; and it is grasped and comprehended by us through the use of our material brains. Thus, though perfect after its kind, and true as far as it goes, our present knowledge of heavenly things is perhaps as far from the full reality as is the child’s conception of earthly things (John 3:12). And so our present knowledge may well merge, as will prophecy, into a higher order of perfection, wherein both the means of manifestation (2 Corinthians 5:7) and of comprehension (1 John 3:2) will be wholly perfect. So, though at present we may indeed know God, yet our knowledge is more that received by description, than that which is received by direct, clear sight, and personal acquaintance; but hereafter we shall know God in some sense as he knows us, and know the beings of the heavenly land as thoroughly as they now know us. Mirrors were then made of polished silver or brass, and were far more indistinct than our present glasses; so that to see a reflection in one of them was far less satisfactory than to see the reality.]

Verse 13

But now [in this present state] abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love. [If we give the phrase "but now" its other sense, as though the apostle said "But to sum things up, to give the net results," then we have him saying that faith, hope and love are eternal. While it is true that faith in the sense of trust and confidence, and hope in the sense of unclouded expectation, shall abide in heaven, yet, in their large, general meaning, faith shall be lost in sight, and hope in fruition (Rom 8:24-25). It therefore seems more consistent to understand the apostle as asserting that the three graces shall abide while the earth stands; in contrast with miraculous gifts, which, according to his own prophetic statement, have ceased. He does not explain the superior excellence of love when compared with faith and hope, but the points of superiority are not hard to find. 1. If all three are eternal, the other two shall be greatly diminished as graces by the Lord’s coming, while love shall be infinitely enlarged. 2. Love is the basis of faith and hope, for we only fully believe in and hope for that which we love. 3. Faith and hope are human, but God himself is love. 4. Faith and hope can only properly work by love, and are worthless without it. But here the superiority is not so clear, for the three graces go hand in hand.]

Bibliographical Information
McGarvey, J. W. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". "J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on Acts". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/oca/1-corinthians-13.html. Transylvania Printing and Publishing Co. Lexington, KY. 1872.
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