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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 13

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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The surpassing beauty of this chapter has been felt and expressed wherever it has been read, by persons of the most opposite religious views, and by those who can appreciate only its literary qualities. In the chapters that go before it there is eloquence too, but of a very different kind keen, impassioned, vehement; the next chapter but one also rises to the height of sublimity; but here all is serene. The opening verses are a grand introduction to what follows, sweeping away as worthless the very best things which want the cardinal principle of love. This is then defined by no fewer than fifteen characteristics eight negative, and seven positive. The terse precision and wonderful completeness of these strike every discerning reader; while the periods roll on in rhythmic melody, to the end of the chapter, like a strain of richest music dying away, or a golden sunset; and everything is seen out save Love, which is found standing alone as the enduring life of heaven. No other grace of the Christian character is so celebrated in Scripture. The first of the graces, certainly, is humility; as for faiths it is the saving grace, by which the soul passes from death to life; while in the grace of hope lies the spring of all activity; but it is Love alone which is so sung of as here. The chapter naturally falls asunder into three parts: first, the worthlessness of all gifts and all sacrifices, even that of life itself, in the absence of Love (1-3); next, the characteristics of Love (4-7); lastly, the perpetuity of Love.

The word “charity,” which our Authorised Version uses for the grace here described, is simply the Latin word caritas, which the Vulgate did well to employ instead of the corresponding word amor (= Ἔ ρως ), a word which then suggested to Christians a corrupt sense of ‘Love.’ Wiclif who translated the New Testament not from the original Greek but from the Vulgate Latin naturally converted caritas simply into its English form, “charity;” and in this, as was to be expected, he was followed by the Rhemish translators. But since this word had become associated with misleading ideas, Tyndale did well to depart from it, substituting the Saxon word “love.” In this he was followed by the version that goes under the name of Cranmer, and by the Genevan Version. That the Authorised Version went back to “charity,” is, we think, to be regretted. It is a beautiful word, and it has its own uses, for which no other word would suffice; and such is its musical roll, as one uses it in the reading of this chapter, that it will not be surrendered without a grudge. But while it is most desirable that the modern sense which is largely attached to it should be banished from the mind, as applicable here, it will gradually be seen that Tyndale’s noble word “love,” while expressing all that is here celebrated, reads quite as well.

Verse 1

1 Corinthians 13:1. Though I speak with the tongues of men. The gift of tongues seems to have been largely possessed and eagerly exercised in the Corinthian church.

and of angels who doubtless have a way of holding mutual communication, though here the reference seems quite general, for ‘the most exalted form of creature utterance.’

and have not love, I am become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal giving forth no real music but mere jumbling sounds.

Verse 2

1 Corinthians 13:2. And though I have the gift of prophecy a gift above tongues (chap. 14), for uttering the mind of God by immediate inspiration, but often for the opening of the Scriptures, to which the reference is here, as appears from the next words.

and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge: ‘Though I could lay bare the whole scheme of God towards the Church, from its most rudimentary to its ripest form in Scripture, without love I am nothing’ (see Matthew 7:22).

and though I have all faith, so as to remove mountains that gift of which our Lord speaks (Matthew 17:20, and see on 1 Corinthians 12:9), which enabled its possessor, on giving the word of command, to work stupendous miracles (an example of which may be seen in Peter, Acts 3:6, etc.).

Verse 3

1 Corinthians 13:3. And though I bestow [1] all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give (‘deliver up’) my body to be burned [2] a practice not unknown even to heathenism, as witness Sutteeism in India, happily now abolished. In the early Church, martyrdom was held in such honour as at length to be fanatically coveted. Yet without love, this will avail me nothing.

[1] The word primarily means to ‘feed by little morsels,’ as one does children; and Stanley, in illustration of this, quotes from Coleridge a striking MS. note on the passage as follows: “The true and most significant sense is, ‘Though I dole away in morsels all my property or estates.’ Who that has witnessed the almsgiving in a Catholic monastery or the court of a Sicilian bishop’s or archbishop’s palace, where immense revenues are syringed away in farthings to herds of beggars, but must feel the force of the apostle’s half satirical word ψωμίσω ?” But since the same word is used in Romans 12:20, where no such idea can be intended, we must not put into the translation of it more than the word “bestow” conveys.

[2] The true reading here is obviously that of the received text. But there is another reading differing from it only by a single letter, for which there is much stronger external evidence, but the sense of which is intolerable “though I give my body that I may glory.” And we note it here as one example of a class of readings in which common sense ought to outweigh the strongest external evidence. We may not be able to explain how such readings came to receive such support as they have; but we are not on that account to be forced into the acceptance of violent readings. Tischendort and Meyer justly regard it as a copyist’s blunder, repeated by successive copyists in moments of haste or weariness.

But what is the love meant here? Certainly, not mere natural benevolence, even in its most disinterested form. Fundamentally, it can only be what Israel was familiar with even from the days of their wilderness journeyings: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength, and thy neighbour as thyself.” Of this which in itself was matter of obligation, as the all-comprehensive law of every reasonable creature God promised that under the new covenant He would put it in their inward ports and write it in their heart (Jeremiah 31:33). Essentially it must have dwelt in all who were “circumcised in heart;” but in its peculiarly evangelical sense it was not under the ancient economy the characteristic term for saintship, which “the fear of the Lord” was. It was reserved for the lips of Love Incarnate to introduce and inaugurate this term, when in His interview with Nicodemus He told the astonished ruler that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever beheveth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life;” and he who drank the deepest of his Master’s spirit echoes this in the inspiring words, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” This love takes possession of our hearts by being shed abroad in them by the Holy Ghost “given unto us” (Romans 5:5), whereupon “we love Him because He first loved us;” and from Him this love flows down upon our fellow-men; for “this commandment we have from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.” “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God: he that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

Such then, is the love here opened up in its varied outgoings towards our fellow-men, and held forth as indispensable, incomparable, eternal.

Verse 4

1 Corinthians 13:4. Love suffereth long. This long-suffering is the protracted endurance of wrong, such as is fitted to provoke resentment. It is that command over natural impulse which keeps just displeasure from breaking forth into action. This is one of Jehovah’s most conspicuous names: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering”(Exodus 34:6); “slow to anger” (Psalms 103:8). Moses had more of this than any other of his day, yet to his cost he once failed in it. Indeed, of One only could it be said in the fullest sense, “When He was reviled, He reviled not again” (see Colossians 3:12-13).

and is kind. The word means to ‘shew oneself benignant, gentle, good, meek.’ Though used only here as a verb, it occurs frequently as an adjective, and precisely as it occurs here, in conjunction with long-suffering, the one being the negative, the other the positive side of the same quality; shewing that though there is no conjunction between them in the original, they were intended to go together, and therefore that the Authorised Version has rightly added the connecting “ and.” Thus: “The fruit of the Spirit is long-suffering, gentleness” (Galatians 5:22); “By long-suffering, by kindness ” (2 Corinthians 6:6); “Despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering?” (Romans 2:4).

love envieth not. The word signifies both “envy” and “jealousy,” qualities which though distinct are inseparable, so that only the context can shew which in any given case is intended. Here “envy” is plainly meant that miserable feeling of chagrin at the good of another, not possessed by ourselves, which corrodes the heart, and is “the rottenness of the bones” (Proverbs 14:30); that murderous principle of “Cain, who was of that wicked one and slew his brother; and wherefore slew he him? because his own works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12; and see Proverbs 27:4; Acts 7:9; Acts 17:5).

love vaunteth not itself; [1] is not puffed up does not ostentatiously parade its superiority to others, whether real or supposed, priding itself on it. Perhaps there is here some allusion to that unseemly display of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian church to which reference is elsewhere made. This quality is exactly the opposite of envy; the one envying in another what is not possessed by ourselves, the other looking down on another for the want of something which we possess. Ahab, though a king, mastered by the hateful passion of envy, throws himself on his bed, turns his face to the wall, and will eat no bread, because Naboth his neighbour will not disobey a Divine commandment by giving up to him “the inheritance of his fathers” (1 Kings 21:3-4). On the other hand, ‘I am better than you (says the whole air of the puffed-up vaunter), for I have this and that which you possess not,’ Selfishness is at the bottom of both alike, while love sees its own good in the good of another, and another’s in its own.

[1] The word here used occurs here only. It comes from a word which signifies ‘vain boaster.’

Verse 5

1 Corinthians 13:5. doth not behave itself unseemly [1] indecorously, unbefitting oneself and towards others unbecoming. There is in the Christian character a beautiful symmetry, instinctively suggesting what is befitting, and what is out of harmony with propriety and decency: it is sensitive to the amenities and courtesies of social intercourse.

[1] As a verb this word is used elsewhere only in 1 Corinthians 7:36, where it means “uncomely.” As a noun it is used only in the worst sense, as in Romans 1:27, that which is unseemly,” meaning ‘indecent.’

seeketh not its own is unselfish, disinterested (1 Corinthians 10:24; Romans 12:10). And who so eminent in this as our apostle himself next to Him “who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor”? How often is this grace inculcated (1 Corinthians 10:33; 2 Corinthians 7:3, etc.); and yet even then, as alas still, rarely found noticeably among Christians (Philippians 2:21).

is not provoked. To distinguish this from long-suffering is not easy. But if we take long-suffering to denote the length of endurance, and this other the self-restraint required to practise it (Proverbs 14:29), we shall have the thing intended. “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding,” and “is better than the mighty,” and “he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 14:29; Proverbs 16:32). It is Jehovah’s glory to be “slow to anger,” a quality much dwelt on in the Old Testament (Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). In Christ this was exemplified in perfection (1 Peter 2:23; Isaiah 53:7). See also Proverbs 19:11; Proverbs 25:28; James 1:19.

imputeth not evil. Most modern critics take this to mean ‘taketh not account of evil’ done by another, so as to harbour resentment on account of it. This seems to us unnatural, and the Authorised Version seems to us to give the true sense ‘imputeth not ill intention’ or ‘motive.’ This is the sense given by the Vulgate, which is here followed by all the old English versions (as also by Luther, Calvin, Beza, and Bengel). Love puts the most favourable construction on another’s actions; while the absence of love is always indicated by the disposition, when any action is to be accounted for, of two motions always to fasten on the worst.

Verse 6

1 Corinthians 13:6. rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth. Love’s native element is goodness and truth: apart from the truth it knows neither father nor mother, husband nor wife, son nor daughter: its antipathies are only with evil, its sympathies with truth and with those who believe and know the truth, who are ready to “contend earnestly” for it, and if need be to suffer for it. “Thou canst not bear them that are evil,” is the noble testimony borne from heaven to the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:2). The home of love is among the truthful, the believing, the holy; it breathes its own air in the “kingdom of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

The four concluding characteristics of love are the crowning ones; and, in view of this, the style changes, and in the successive clauses there is a fine roll, singularly musical and uplifting.

Verse 7

1 Corinthians 13:7. beareth all things from the wronging party.

believeth all things about him that are at all believable; such as that he has been misled, that he is prejudiced, that he is better than his actions, and may live to repent of it and do better. Accordingly, love hopeth all things even “against hope;” and when even that fails, and all hope of amendment is cruelly disappointed, it still endureth all things without revenging the wrong done. There would seem some tautology in the first clause and the last “beareth all,” “endureth all.” To avoid this, some would translate the first clause “covereth all things,” which certainly is the primary sense of the Greek word, and gives a good echo to Proverbs 10:12 “Love covereth all sins” which is quoted in 1 Peter 4:8. But our apostle uses this word always in the sense of ‘bearing’ or ‘forbearing’ (1 Corinthians 9:12; 1 Thessalonians 3:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). Admitting this, some would refer the two clauses to different kinds of wrong the first private wrongs, the last public. But all the four clauses plainly refer to the same kind of wrongs. The difference, then, we take to be this, that in the first clause love “bears all” in the belief or hope of some good in the wronging party existing or to come; in the last, when all faith in him and hope of him has departed, love still persists in “enduring.”

The last thing in this grand chapter in contrast not only with all gifts, but with all other graces is the perpetuity of love.

Verse 8

1 Corinthians 13:8. Love never faileth neither absolutely ceases, nor passes into any other and higher phase. This general proposition is next broken up into three details, referring to three of the gifts already dealt with.

but whether there be prophecies... tongues . . . knowledge, it shall be done away (the reference is to 1 Corinthians 13:1-2). The reason for this is now stated.

Verse 9

1 Corinthians 13:9. For we know in part even in respect of the supernatural gift of knowledge and we prophesy in part in necessarily broken, fragmentary utterances, giving at best but imperfect views of Divine truth.

Verse 10

1 Corinthians 13:10. but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away the partial of necessity giving place to the perfect, the temporary to the enduring. In the next two verses this is beautifully illustrated by the change that takes place from childhood to manhood, in ideas, in interests, in occupations.

Verse 11

1 Corinthians 13:11. When I was a child, I spake as a child prattling; I felt as a child, I thought (or ‘reasoned’) as a child. My thoughts were all a child’s thoughts, my notions of persons and things were childish, and my way of connecting things as causes and effects, premises and conclusions was ludicrous.

now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things wondering ever so spake, felt, and thought.

Verse 12

1 Corinthians 13:12. For new we see in a mirror [1] darkly or ‘dimly:’ Gr. ‘in a riddle.’ The mirrors of those days were not like ours, but polished metallic surfaces, reflecting objects but imperfectly; and since the figure seemed to be behind the mirror, the observer seemed to see “through” it. Bengel notes an allusion here to Numbers 12:8, “With him (Moses) will I speak face to face, and not in dark speeches ” (or ‘in enigmas’).

[1] The word certainly means “mirror” here, as in James 1:23, with which may be compared the Greek verb of the same in 2 Corinthians 3:18, not “window,” as some have been led to think from the word “through” being used with it.

but then face to face without a veil, with no obscurity.

now I know in part, but then shall I know (or ‘know fully’) even as also I have been known (or ‘known fully’). As we are here perfectly known of God, so hereafter we shall ourselves know perfectly; in the sense, however, not of absolute but of relative perfection.

Verse 13

1 Corinthians 13:13. And now abideth faith, love, hope, these three; but the greatest of these ( Gr. ‘greater than these’) is love. Most modern interpreters take “abideth” here to mean ‘are of equal duration’ eternal. Some (as De Wette, Stanley, Alford) understand “faith” and “hope” as eternally “abiding,” inasmuch as they pass in the future world into sight. But in that sense (as Meyer replies) it should rather be said that they disappear than “abide.” See Romans 8:24; Hebrews 11:1. The only other sense in which these graces could be said to “abide” eternally is, that since the whole of the unseen future can never be taken in at once, there must ever be room for “faith” in a coming future, and “hope” of what bliss will then be disclosed and experienced. But though there is a truth in this, it seems to us a more metaphysical thought than the apostle was likely to mean here; and he who wrote Romans 8:24 “What a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?” would scarcely have put “faith” and ‘‘hope” in the same category with so very different a grace as “love,” as having a common independent existence and eternal duration. A far simpler and more natural interpretation, we think, may be given to this verse. The instincts of some of the early interpreters (as Chrysostom) guided them rightly, we believe, to put the emphasis upon the first word “Now” in contrasting the supernatural gifts, which were soon to disappear from the Church, with the permanent graces of “faith and hope and love: ” All these supernatural gifts were designed only for the first starting of the Church, and are gradually to cease; but the cardinal graces of faith and hope and love, without which the Christian character cannot exist, will abide on earth as long as the Church itself is left there.’ In this view concur some modern expositors (as Neander). But what it may be asked is to become of “faith” and “hope” hereafter? A reasonable enough question in itself, but one on which no light is cast by this verse, as we understand it; the one object being to affirm that those three graces will outlive all mere gifts. As to the future of those graces, the truth would seem to be that since “faith” and “hope” will certainly pass into sight, and so be lost in any distinctive sense, they are to be viewed as, in their very nature, temporary means towards something else into which they are destined to pass; while love, from its very nature, though admitting of indefinite increase, can never pass into anything else and higher, and so is necessarily eternal.

Note. When one surveys the ethics of Paganism, even at its best, and observes how fragmentary it is, and how halting, how it glorified revenge as sweet and noble, while the patient endurance of wrong was regarded as unmanly and pusillanimous, in how Divine a light does that Religion stand forth which gives such a view of Love as we have in this chapter! In every other Religion and Ethical system, the true foundation of such a character is wanting, and the true source of the power to realise and exemplify it is unknown. Those Jewish scholars who refuse to accept Christians may produce from their rabbinical writings single passages embodying maxims akin to those of the New Testament; and wonderful indeed it would be if their writings should contain no such passages with the Old Testament in their hands, and those “read in their synagogues every sabbath day,” not to speak of the light of the New Testament reflected on them and insensibly influencing them. But the two have only to be put together to shew which alone has the stamp of Heaven upon it. Whoever will read this chapter with a simple mind will be unable to resist the conviction that the true secret of what alone unites all hearts was in possession of the writer of it, that he felt himself commissioned to open this secret to others, and that he even exulted in doing it. Christians in the first ages of the Gospel were proverbial for their love one to another. Now, alas, many would think them proverbial rather for the reverse. In view of this may we not hear the apostolic inference as verified in ourselves, “Whereas there is among you jealousies and strife, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?”

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/1-corinthians-13.html. 1879-90.
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