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Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

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Verse 1

All 'Spiritual' Activity Is Devoid Of Value If Love Is Lacking (13:1-3)

'If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding bronze, or a clanging cymbal.'

We note immediately Paul’s movement to the first person. He is following his own suggestion. He is revealing true love. He does not want anyone to think that this is a direct attack on them, and so he directs any criticism against himself. He is not questioning their love, he is theoretically questioning his own. None can accuse him of discrimination. Yet all know that he is speaking of all.

The fact that he opens this section by referring to tongues confirms that tongues was an issue in the Corinthian church (previously it has come last). Some were seemingly making great claims on the basis that they spoke the language of angels, and they considered that this was setting them apart from ordinary believers (and from the world). And they were seeking to encourage all to speak in tongues suggesting that it would indicate that they lived on a higher plane and were special. Or Paul may have in mind certain Jewish literature in which speaking in the tongues of angels was spoken of. So Paul gets to the heart of the matter. He declares that it is not tongues of whatever kind which show whether they are living on a higher plane, but love for God and for each other.

He does not argue about the nature of tongues, which he later himself declares can be a spiritual gift. He later even encourages the use of genuine tongues in private prayer. But he says that what tongues are, whether the tongues of men or of angels, matters little if they are not accompanied by love, by love for God and by true love and concern for God's people. Tongues themselves, without the love that should go with them, both upwards and outwards, are just a loud and meaningless noise.

The 'sounding bronze', was possibly a gong as used in pagan worship. The clanging cymbal was associated with the mystery religions, especially with the cult of Cybele. Thus both indicate that what Paul is suggesting is that tongues without love can come from the empty air, or from spirits other than the Holy Spirit. But the main emphasis is on the fact that they are empty and meaningless, merely a loud noise, not something which is significant. However, what is certain is that they are no proof of spirituality. They are emotional gimmicks which actually say nothing but simply make a noise, like gongs and cymbals do, rather than genuine vehicles of God's truth.

Verses 1-13

Spiritual Gifts For The Well-being of Christ and His Body (12:1-14:33).

Paul now begins his reply to their question about spiritual gifts ('concerning spiritual things') and immediately gives an initial warning that such gifts can easily be perverted by the subtlety of evil spiritual forces. It is in the nature of spiritual gifts that they will be imitated and distorted by such evil forces with ill intent, for they are ever out to deceive, and will seek to mimic spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). Today it may be in a more refined way, but it is still ever a possibility. That is why 'prophets' must subject themselves to the judgment of others so gifted (1 Corinthians 14:29).

This is then followed by a brief description of the gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and the stress that each is necessary for the well-being of the body of Christ. The seemingly least important members of the church with the least of the gifts is as essential as the most important (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). And the stress is on their benefit to the whole body. We should note here that there is no contrast between body and head. Here he is speaking of Christ's own body into which His people have been incorporated through inundation by the Holy Spirit into His body. The people are both head and body, made one with Christ in His body as in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. The body is Christ and His people (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

When Paul mentions Christ's Headship in Corinthians it is describing His authoritative position and has no direct connection with the idea of His body (1 Corinthians 11:3). He finishes the chapter here by outlining different ministries and gifts, and stresses that each should be desirous of playing a full part, consonant with their gifts, in the church, as members with Christ of the whole body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27-31).

So all have their part to play through the Spirit in nourishing Christ's body. He then stresses the way in which these gifts should be used. They are to be used in love and concern for every member of Christ's body, lovingly, gently, humbly, unselfishly, and thoughtfully (1 Corinthians 13:1-10), for no gift or act of service has any value unless used in love. Indeed our knowledge is restricted and dimly perceived, something we should recognise in all humility, but love is possible in fullest measure (1 Corinthians 13:11-13 compare 1 Corinthians 8:1-3). There is no limit to Christian love.

This is then further followed by advice and warnings with respect to the utilisation of spiritual gifts during church gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:1-33), stressing the importance of gifts that can benefit all, and warning against enthusiastic overuse. They must not be allowed to crowd out the essentials of Christian worship, the word, exposition, prayer and worship in song.

Verse 2

'And if I have 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.'

And this is not only true of tongues, it is true of the other manifestations as well. It is not only tongues that are in his sights. He does not call such manifestations gifts in this chapter, nor does he say they are manifestations of the Spirit. Indeed, without love they clearly are not, for it is love which is the hallmark of those whom God has chosen. He merely mentions them by description.

I 'have prophecy', that is the ability to prophesy devoid of love, (note how 'have prophecy' contrasts with 'have love'), I may appear to know all mysteries and all knowledge, I may appear to have an abundance of faith so that I can work miracles and deal with great problems, but if I am lacking in love then, as far as God is concerned, I am nothing. Indeed both Jesus and John confirmed this, for Jesus said that love is the basis of all the commandments, including the commandments to honour and worship God (Mark 12:29-31), and John stressed that if we do not have love we do not know God at all (1 John 4:8; 1 John 3:10).

We should note that this is not just Paul's idea. Jesus Himself confirms that prophecy and miracles are no proof that a man is truly a Christian. He declared quite specifically that men could think that they were prophesying in His name and could do 'miracles', professedly in His name, and yet not ever have been known by Him (Matthew 7:22). Such manifestations are no proof of genuine faith in God.

Paul's case is, of course, deliberately exaggerated for emphasis. Note the use of 'all'. And he does not use the words 'appear to have', for he is speaking of outward manifestations which can be seen. They have the manifestations whether they are of God or not. We have used the words 'appear to have' because no one who truly has these as gifts from God through His Spirit will be lacking in love. It is rather a warning to those who outwardly appear to have 'gifts', but whose gifts may be imitations and may have come from another source, that they need to consider the true source and value of their gifts.

'If I have prophecy.' Prophecy without love is empty. It is thus self-induced, or worse, induced by false spirits. I may 'have prophecy' almost as though it were mine to do what I like with, but I may not have the Spirit. Here we have a clear indication that outward manifestations are not necessarily a proof of spirituality.

'And know all mysteries and all knowledge.' This was probably exaggerating a claim that some Corinthians were making as a result of still being influenced by their previous background in the mystery religions (compare 1 Corinthians 8:1-2). There men claimed wisdom and knowledge and an understanding of mysteries. These Corinthians saw themselves as achieving the same in the Christian church. They saw themselves as above the rest, as not needing the rest. 'All mysteries and all knowledge' probably parallels 'wisdom and knowledge' for in 1 Corinthians 2:7 it is made clear that mystery is a part of wisdom, the mystery that is linked with the crucified Lord of glory.

Yet the same ideas can be transformed and seen to be true for the Christian as the 'word of wisdom' and the 'word of knowledge' indicate, although there the wisdom and knowledge (and mystery - 1 Corinthians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 2:7) are closely associated with the full revelation of Christ, and with the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8 with 1Co 1:24 ; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 1 Corinthians 2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 2:11-16). And Daniel declares in Daniel 2:21-22 (see especially LXX) that true wisdom, and knowledge and revealed mystery are given by God.

'And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains.' Paul almost certainly has indirectly in mind the words of Jesus in Mark 11:23 and Matthew 17:20, although 'moving mountains' may well have been a proverbial saying. Here he is depicting not only faith as depicted in 1 Corinthians 12:9 but an extreme of faith, 'all faith', and therefore certainly sufficient to remove mountains. (Jesus said that it would only need the faith of a grain of mustard seed, but Paul is looking at it as seen by men. He is thinking of 'faith' as exalted by men, not true faith in God which is hardly possible without love).

Verse 3

'And if I bestow all my goods to feed others, and if I give my body that I may glory (or 'to be burned'), but have not love, it profits me nothing.'

''And if I bestow all my goods to feed others.' Even charitable giving to the extent of total self-sacrifice in which one is personally involved over a long period (the verb signifies feeding bit by bit), the giving of all that one has and with personal involvement, is without benefit (to us) if it is not accompanied by love. He is not suggesting that this is something that we must necessarily do, but describing the ultimate in sacrifice from the world's point of view, a life of self-giving and involvement and constant giving away of personal wealth, and he emphasise that unaccompanied by love it would be nothing. This is a warning to us that when we 'surrender all' we must ensure it is out of love for God. If it is but a gesture in order to earn a reward or to impress others then it profits nothing.

This example may well have been taken from what Jesus said to the rich young ruler, that he should go away, sell all that he had and give to the poor, although there the giving of his wealth was to be once for all. Beware, says Paul, as far as spirituality is concerned, even that is useless without love. It is an empty gesture spiritually speaking if it is not done in the love of God and if it does not result from loving and following Jesus. The poor will rejoice, but the giver will receive no benefit.

'And if I give my body that I may glory' or 'if I give my body to be burned'. The former has by far the stronger and earlier manuscript support, but the change demonstrates the difficulty found in understanding it. 'And if I give my body to be burned' gives us a straightforward and sensible meaning. We may see Paul as thinking in terms of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in Daniel (Daniel 3:19-20) who in a sense did 'give' their bodies to be burned (Daniel 3:16-18). It is the final sacrifice. But if it is done without love it is nothing.

However the extremely strong manuscript support, and the greater difficulty of the sense, emphatically point to the more difficult reading, for while we can see why, once many in the church suffered martyrdom by fire, the change might be made to read 'burned', we can see little reason why it should have been altered the other way. And we then have to ask what Paul means.

'And if I give my body that I may glory.' We know that in fact Paul did glory in the sufferings that he had to face for Christ (Romans 5:3 compare also 2 Corinthians 11:18 with 23-30; 1 Corinthians 12:9-10), which he has already mentioned in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, partly because he knew that it would work within him that which was pleasing to God, and partly because it was proof of his genuine concern for the churches.

And in the closing verses of chapter 9 he has spoken of beating his body and bringing it into bondage, giving of himself that he may win the prize, which he now says is nothing if done without love.

So he may well be saying that even if he gives his body up to suffering so as to endure in order to be able to glory in the result, (something which in fact ascetics did constantly), it would be without profit if it was without love. Endurance out of love for Christ and God's people is praiseworthy. Grim endurance for the sake of some earthly seeking after perfection, or in order to glory in what I am doing because I see it as good, without love for God and His people being involved, is meaningless.

But now lest we now despair because we cannot find the right emotion welling up in our hearts, (for we tend to think of love in a sentimental way), Paul goes on to define love.

Verses 4-8

How True Love Is Revealed (13:4-8a).

This definition of love covers all angles. Because it portrays the essentials of love looking from our point of view, it gives us a totally rounded view of what true love is. It thus covers what God's love to us is like. It covers in depth precisely what Jesus' love was like. It covers what our response to Him should be like. It covers how we should behave towards those we love, and especially to our fellow believers. And finally it covers what our behaviour should be like with regard to spiritual gifts, both in their use and misuse. Thus we would need to expound these verses a number of times, and more, if we wished to draw from them the fullness of their meaning. It is primarily a picture of true and genuine godly love, both God's and ours.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 a 'Love suffers long, and is kind. Love envies not. Love does not behave conspicuously like a braggart, is not puffed up, does not behave itself disgracefully, seeks not its own, is not provoked, does not take account of evil, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.'

This is the evidence of true love. Firstly as an overall idea this depicts God's love for those whom He has chosen, although it is not all directly applicable. His love is longsuffering and kind. It is true and righteous. It seeks only our good. He is never like a jealous man or a braggart, nor is He easily provoked. Rather He rejoices in the truth found within us. His love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all thing. It is constant and true. And it will not fail in the end. And it is our consciousness of this love which will enable our true response in love, for it is when we behold His love that we know what love is like.

But this also describes the love that was revealed by Jesus and what God's love for us should produce in our hearts. And that alone fully satisfies all the facets described in the words. And it does so as regards life in general, and as regards spiritual gifts in particular. For it is the attitude of heart described here which is what results in a free and open channel of blessing through which the Spirit can manifest Himself, so that the fruit of the Spirit is love (Galatians 5:22). And there is no doubt that Paul picks his words carefully here as a rebuke to some of the Corinthians, for these failings appear elsewhere in the letter.

The love that is truly from God is longsuffering and patiently enduring. It is kind and compassionate. (Compare here Romans 2:4 for both these ideas). It never feels envy, for it wants others to be blessed. It is not jealous, because it seeks the good of others and delights in their happiness. It rejoices in what others have in their prosperity, unless that prosperity is harmful, and in their blessings and gifts. It does not try to push itself forward or seek credit or admiration for what it does. It is not proud and boastful for its thought is only of others. It never behaves in any way that is unseemly, for it is fully thoughtful and considerate of others, and is clean and pure. It does not seek things for itself, for it is totally unselfish. It does not insist on its own way, it does not constantly demand its own rights, its thoughts are not concentrated on its own advantage. It does not react to provocation, or become irritated. It behaves well even to those who have behaved evilly towards it, for it does not take their evil into account in its response The point here is that it will not let its behaviour towards someone be affected for the worse by the memory of those wrongs. It will, of course, unselfishly keep in mind what people are in making its decisions, for the good of the whole, but it will not allow it to affect personal regard.

It is sad at the bad behaviour of others because it knows what the consequences of that bad behaviour will be for the person concerned, and it gets no joy from their weakness and failure. It wishes well for those who behave badly. It rejoices when the truth is at work because aware that it will bring blessing and deliverance to many. It rejoices when it sees truth operative in men. And it always rejoices in truth however manifested because it knows that in the end truth will help to bring all to rights. It puts up with anything thrown at it, with any insult or bad behaviour towards itself. NEB puts it, 'there is nothing love cannot face'. It covers up in others everything that might badly affect its own response. (Stego can mean to bear, to endure, to cover). It always believes for the best, without thereby being foolish, for it is also thinking of the good of all. It always trusts that God will act in all situations for the fulfilment of His own will, and acts accordingly. It always hopes for that which is best, for what is for the good of all. It endures through thick and thin. We could speak of the tenacity of love. It is unfailing in all its ways, and is itself unfailing. For 'love never fails'.

So is presented in microcosm the full orbed Christian life, the basis of true spirituality, the evidence of God working within, the consequence of walking with Christ, the result of His life being lived through us, the essence of what God is. Without at least the beginning of this springing up in our hearts we cannot call ourselves Christians, for this is the result of God working within us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), and of our knowing God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:8).

And when it comes down to the question of spiritual gifts exercised in the church that love will be revealed in the same way. It is longsuffering with those who use the gifts unwisely or amateurishly, it is kind in its attitude to such situations and to those involved. It does not envy those who have greater gifts. It does not push itself forward because of the gifts it has. It is not puffed up if it has the greater gifts. It does not use its gifts in an unseemly way, or respond in an unseemly way to the way others use their gifts. When it seeks gifts it does not seek them for its own benefit, but for the benefit of all. It does not allow itself to be provoked, either by what is done or what is said. It does not respond badly because the user of the spiritual gift has behaved badly towards it previously.

It does not rejoice at those whose wrong use of spiritual gifts leads them astray, although it may seek lovingly and in gentleness of spirit to put the situation right. It rejoices whenever the spiritual gifts result in the truth being known and enjoyed. It bears with love every manifestation of gifts whether it approves or not, it believes, unless it has knowledge to the contrary, that those using the gifts are probably doing so with the best intent and reacts accordingly. It hopes and longs that any problems will be sorted out so that the user comes into full blessing. It puts up with and endures even that with which it is sometimes unhappy. Thus it is not always passing judgment on those whose lack of true knowledge makes them immature in using the gifts. And it will always do what it can to help such people, for it never fails.

This does not mean that such love demonstrates a lack of concern for any misuses, for, where it has responsibility for the control of the church meeting, it will play its full part in controlling the use of those gifts, and will use discernment where it has a duty to do so, but it will always do so compassionately and tenderly, with the thought of the good of all, even the perpetrator, in mind. Otherwise it will leave matters to be dealt with by those responsible in the proper way without passing judgment. So the one who loves ensures the continuation of the use of spiritual gifts while looking to God and the eldership to enable them to be used for the best. That is why Paul later gives the guidance that he does.

And by taking up these right attitudes that love will ensure that the one who is himself revealing that love can himself use his spiritual gifts to the full benefit and blessing of the whole of the church, for his heart will be right and he will be a true channel for the Spirit's blessings.

In contrast some of the Corinthians do envy (1 Corinthians 3:3); do boast (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:18; 1 Corinthians 8:2); are puffed up (1 Corinthians 4:6): some of their women do behave disgracefully (1 Corinthians 11:5-6); they are self-seeking (1 Corinthians 10:24; 1 Corinthians 10:33), and so on. They need to look to their beginnings.

This description of love, which lays it bare to its foundations, must for one brief moment surely cause us to put all else aside, firstly as we bask in God's love for us, and then as we bask in the love that should flow from us to others. But then having done so, we must move on to see its importance and its permanence

Verses 8-10

'Love never fails. 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. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.'

First we learn of the transitoriness of spiritual gifts, even true spiritual gifts, in contrast with the unfailing nature of love. How sad then if our spirituality is dependent on these gifts! For all prophecy, whether true or false, will one day be done away. All tongues, whether true or false, will one day cease (they are not the language of Heaven after all). All earthly and spiritual knowledge of whatever kind will be done away. For in the general resurrection and future transformation all will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:35-58).

For both our prophecy (whether foretelling or forthtelling) and our knowledge is partial and passing. It can only deal with what is to come prior to the resurrection and can only make us aware of the outskirts of God's being. For once we know in reality the fullness of His presence in Jesus Christ, then all our earlier glimpses and efforts to understand will vanish, to be replaced by a full knowledge of Him. Prophecy and the word of knowledge will no longer be required. When what is perfect comes, what in our folly we thought of as our grasp of the truth will be seen for what it is, as we recognise how very little we had known and appreciated. The folly of any boasting will be revealed. Thus must we remember the inadequacy, in comparison with love, of all prophecy and all knowledge. They are only minimal in what they can do in revealing God to us. But in love we come close to the heart of God even now, and love will go on for ever, beyond the resurrection and into eternity. Therein lies true spirituality.

‘When that which is perfect is come.’ Some have sought to relate ‘perfect’ to spiritual maturity, (one of its regular meanings), as though once we are spiritually mature we no longer require the gifts. There is a certain level of truth in that but it is certainly not Paul’s meaning here. He himself delights to use the gifts (1 Corinthians 14:18), and who was more spiritually mature than him? To him the gifts properly used were of great benefit to all. There is no suggestion that he wanted them to pass away. He wanted them to be used so that all might benefit. Besides 1 Corinthians 13:12 relates the meaning to seeing God face to face (compare 1 John 3:2), and that suggests seeing Him in eternity.

Others have pointed to the completion of the New Testament as being the time when that which is perfect has come. But that is to idealise a situation which was not as black and white as suggested. And while that certainly did make the gifts not quite so necessary, the church did still need people gifted by the Spirit, for the word had to be interpreted, was not easily available, and not all had trained preachers. Not all ‘declaring forth’ was to cease with the completion of the Scriptures. It was rather that the declaring forth could be made with more certainty. But others still had to judge, and that was anyway not the main purpose of the gift of prophecy which was for exhortation. The fact is that if prophecy had not been inhibited by the growing church, it may well have been the better for it. It is true that part of the problem lay in the rise of influential false prophets, prophecy became looked at suspiciously, but formalism would turn out to be the greater danger. And again 1 Corinthians 13:12 does not obviously refer to anything other than seeing God in eternity.

Verses 8-13

Love Will Indeed Outlive All Spiritual Gifts, and Is Even Greater Than Faith and Hope (13:8b-13).

For then we are brought back to how such love compares with the subject in hand. Prophecies, tongues and 'spiritual knowledge' are all temporary, for they will fade away when the reality comes. Christian love on the other hand is permanent. It will continually abide and is the greatest bestowal known to man.

Verse 11

'When I was a child, I spoke 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.'

So we must recognise the inadequacy of prophecy and of our knowledge. We will in that day recognise that we have seen things as though we were still children. Paul illustrates this from his own experience. He remembers what it was like when he was a child. It affected how he spoke, how he felt, how he thought, with a child's minimal and distorted knowledge of the world. But now that he is grown up and has become a man he sees things totally differently, with an overall view, as they really are. So are we now also but children, and so it will be that when we 'grow up' and are spiritually transformed at the resurrection, all will be seen differently.

Verse 12

'For now we see in (literally 'through') a mirror, obscurely; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.'

For now we see things obscurely as in a mirror. Mirrors in those days were made of polished metal such as bronze, and what was seen in them was imperfect and distorted. Men spoke of seeing themselves ‘through’ a mirror, and saw themselves obscurely. In the same way when we at present look at heavenly things what we see is also dim, imperfect and distorted. But then, after the resurrection or transformation (1 Corinthians 15:52), when we have passed into God's presence, we shall see all face to face. We will not see obscurely as through a mirror. No mirror will distort our vision. It will be a face to face. encounter. Our eyes will see the King, fully in His glory. And then we shall know fully in the same way as we have been fully known. So it is foolish to put too much emphasis on prophecy and present knowledge, for they are fleeting and imperfect, they give but an obscure image.

'Then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.' Full transparency will produce fullness of glory. And then we will know God fully as He really is. And we ourselves also will have been fully known. All half knowledge will have been stripped way. Every heart will have been laid bare. The hidden things of darkness will have been revealed (1 Corinthians 4:5). What we truly are will have come out. Imperfection will have been forgiven, done away and replaced by full perfection. We will be fully known, and fully restored. As we walk at present we are contradictions. We are children of God and yet so unlike His children. We are sons of God and yet so unlike His sons. But then all that will be done away. We will be fully known and all that causes blemishes will have been removed. We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). And what will shine forth will be our love. And so will we be able to fully know the fullness of God.

We would suggest that had there not been prior reasons which influenced interpretation no one would ever have interpreted this as other than signifying meeting God in the hereafter.

Verse 13

'But now abides faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.'

There are in fact three things that, unlike spiritual gifts, are permanent and enduring, continually abiding now and which will abide through the resurrection and beyond, faith, hope and love. Unlike prophecy and knowledge these have become essential parts of what we are ourselves. And unlike them they are abiding, so that we have them now and we will have them in eternity. Faith because it is the channel of our life in Christ and will continue ever more fully when we see Him, for then we will trust Him even more fully than we could ever now think possible; hope because it continually uplifts us now and will, when we see Him in eternity, continue on making the future ever more bright, for, as we hope on, eternity will continue to reveal more and more of what we can never now even begin to comprehend (compare 1 Corinthians 15:19); and love because of what love is, unchanging and eternal, revealed in God and experienced in our own hearts from the moment when we became His, which will reveal more and more to our hearts of what He truly is.

But faith and hope are our response to what God is and what God offers, while love we share with God Himself. Love alone is reciprocal. He too loves, for He is love (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16), and we love because He first loved us. So His love reaches out to us and our love reaches out to Him. Thereby do we know each other. Thereby we enter into the heart of God. Thus even of these three love is the greatest for thereby even now we know God in a fuller way than prophecy or knowledge can teach us, and as we continue to grow in love we will continue to know Him more and more. So let love prevail for it is over all and beyond all.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/1-corinthians-13.html. 2013.
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