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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Corinthians 13

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-3

1

Chapter 18

CONCERNING SPIRITUAL GIFTS

This Epistle is well fitted to disabuse our minds of the idea that the primitive Church was in all respects superior to the Church of our own day. We turn page after page, and find little but contention, jealousies, errors, immorality, fantastic ideas, immodesty, irreverence, profanity. At this point in the Epistle we do come upon a state of things which differentiates the primitive Church from our own; but here too the superior advantages of those early Christians were sadly abused by ignorance and envy. The members of the Corinthian Church were possessed of "spiritual gifts." They were endowed at their conversion or at baptism with certain powers which they had not previously possessed, and which were due to the influence of the Holy Spirit. It would have been surprising had so entire a revolution in human feelings and prospects as Christianity introduced not been accompanied by some extraordinary and abnormal manifestation. The new Divine life which was suddenly poured into human nature stirred it to unusual power. Men and women who yesterday could only sit and condole with their sick friends found themselves today in so elevated a state of mind that they could impart to the sick vital energy. Young men who had been brought up in idolatry and ignorance suddenly found their minds filled with new and stimulating ideas which they felt impelled to impart to those who would listen. These and the like extraordinary gifts, which were very helpful in calling attention to the young Christian community, speedily passed away when the Christian Church took its place as an established institution.

If we are disposed to question the genuineness of those manifestations because in our own day the Spirit of Christ does not produce them, there are two considerations which should weigh with us. First, that which Browning urges: that miracles which were once needed are now no longer required, because they served the purpose for which they were given. As when you sow a plot in a garden you stick twigs around it, that no careless person may tread down and destroy the young and yet unseen plant, but when the plants have themselves become as tall and visible as the twigs, then these are useless, so if the miracles actually served to help the young Church’s growth, she by their means has now become sufficiently visible and sufficiently understood to need them no more.

And, secondly, it was to be expected that the first impact of these new Christian forces on the spirit of man should produce disturbance and violent emotions, such as could not be expected to continue as the normal condition of things. New political or social ideas suddenly possessing a people, as at the French Revolution, carry them to many actions and inspire them with an energy which cannot be normal. And gentle and without observation as were the Spirit and the kingdom of Christ, yet it was impossible but that, under the pressure of the most influential and inspiring ideas which ever possessed our race, there should be some extraordinary manifestations.

Nothing could be more natural than that these gifts should be overrated and should almost be considered as the most substantial and advantageous blessings Christianity had to offer. First being accepted as evidence of the real indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they came to be prized for their own sake. Originally designed as signs of the reality of the communication between the risen Lord and His Church, and therefore as assurances that the holiness and blessedness promised by Christ were not unattainable, they came to be regarded as themselves more precious than the holiness they promised. Given to this individual and to that in order that each might have some gift by which he could profit the community, they came to be looked upon as distinctions of which the individual was proud, and therefore introduced vanity, envy, and separation, instead of mutual esteem and helpfulness. One gift was measured with another and rated above or below it; and, as usual, what was useful could not compete with what was surprising. The gift of speaking for the spiritual profit of the hearers was little thought of in comparison with the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. Throughout this and the two following chapters Paul explains the object of these gifts and the principle of their distribution and employment; he enounces the supremacy of love, and lays down certain rules for the guidance of meetings in which these gifts were displayed.

Paul introduces his remarks by reminding them that their previous history sufficiently explained their need of instruction. "In your former heathen state you had no experience whatever similar to that which you now have in the Church. The dumb idols to the worship of which you let yourselves be carried did not communicate powers similar to those which the Spirit now communicates to you. Consequently, novices as you are in this domain, you need a guiding thread to prevent you from going astray. This is why I instruct you." And the first thing you need to guide you is a criterion by which you can judge whether so called manifestations of the Spirit are genuine or spurious. The test is a simple one. Everyone whose words or actions disparage Jesus proclaims himself to be under some other influence than that of the Spirit; everyone who owns Jesus as Lord, serving Him and promoting His cause, is animated by the Spirit.

"No man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed." But was there any possibility of such an utterance being heard in a Christian Church? It seems there was. It seems that very early in the history of Christianity men were found in the Church who could not reconcile themselves to the accursed death of Christ. They believed in the Gospel He proclaimed, the miracles He wrought, the kingdom He founded; but the Crucifixion was still a stumbling block to them. And so they framed a theory to suit their own prejudices, and held that the Divine Logos descended upon Jesus at His baptism and spoke and acted through Him, but abandoned Him before the Crucifixion. It was Jesus, a mere man, who died on the Cross the accursed death. This degradation of Jesus was not to be tolerated in the Christian Church, and was decisive as to a man’s possession of true spiritual gifts. To own the lordship of Jesus was the test of a man’s Christianity. Did he acknowledge as supreme that Person who had lived and died under the name of Jesus? Did he employ his spiritual gifts for the furtherance of His kingdom and as one who was really endeavouring to serve this unseen Master? Then no hesitation need be shown in admitting his claim to be animated by the Spirit of God.

In other words, Paul wishes them to understand that, after all, the only sure test of a man’s Christianity is his actual submission to Christ. No wonderful works he may accomplish in the Church or in the world prove his possession of Christ’s Spirit. "Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name have done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity." A man may gather and edify a large congregation, he may write ably in defence of Christianity, he may be recognised as a benefactor of his age, or he may be considered the most successful of missionaries, but the only test of a man’s claims to be listened to by the Church is his actual submission to Christ. He will seek not his own glory, but the good of men. And as to the gifts themselves, they should be no cause of discord, for they have everything in common: they have their source in God; they are for Christ’s service; they are forms of the same Spirit. "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all."

The new life then introduced by Christ into the individual and society was found to assume various forms and to suffice for all the needs of human nature in this world. Paul delighted to survey the variety of endowment and faculty which appeared in the Church. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, power to work miracles, extraordinary gifts of exhortation or prophecy and also of speaking in unknown tongues, capacity for managing affairs and general helpfulness-these and other gifts were the efflorescence of the new life. As the sun in spring develops each seed according to its own special kind and character, so this new spiritual force develops in each man his most intimate and special character. Christian influence is not an external appliance that clips all men after one pattern as trees in an avenue are clipped into one shape; but it is an inward and vital power which causes each to grow according to his own individuality, one with the rugged irregularity of the oak, another with the orderly richness of the plane. Variety in harmony is said to be the principle of all beauty, and it is this which the Divine Spirit in man produces. Individual distinctions are not obliterated, but developed and directed for the service of the community. At one in their allegiance to Christ, bound into one body by common affections, beliefs, and hopes, and aiming at the advancement of one cause, Christians are yet as different as other men in faculty, in temperament, in attainment.

There is no truth coming more determinedly to the front in our own day than this: that society is an organism similar to the human body. This indeed is no new idea, nor is it an exclusively Christian idea. That man was made for society and that it was each man’s business to labour for the good of the whole was common Stoic doctrine. It was taught that every man should believe himself to be born, not for himself, but for the whole world. Take one out of many expressions of this truth: "You have seen a hand cut off, or a foot, or a head, lying apart from the rest of the body; that is what a man makes himself when he separates himself from others or does anything unsocial. You were made by nature a part; and it is due to the benevolence of God that, if you have become detached from the whole, you can be reunited to it." And in the very earliest days, when the populace of Rome became disaffected and seditious and retired outside the city walls to a camp of their own, Menenius Agrippa went out to them and uttered his fable which Shakespeare has helped to make famous. He related how the various members of the body-the hand, the eye, the ear-mutinied and refused to work any longer because it seemed to them that all the food and enjoyment for which they toiled went to another member, and not to them. It was of course easy for the accused member to clear itself of the charge of inactivity and show that the food it received was not retained for its own exclusive use, but was distributed through the rivers of the blood, and how "the strongest nerves and small inferior veins" from it received the natural competency whereby they lived.

But although this comparison of society to the body is not new, it is now being more seriously and scientifically examined and pushed to its legitimate conclusions and applications. The "real meaning of the doctrine that society is an organism is that an individual has no life except that which is social, and that he cannot realise his own purposes except in realising the larger purposes of society." All the organs of the body by which we do our work in the world and earn our bread are themselves maintained in life and fulfil the end of their own existence by working for and maintaining the whole body; and except in the common life of the body they cannot be maintained at all. It is the same with the other organs of the body. The heart, the lungs, the digestive organs, have hard and constant work to do; but only by doing it can they fulfil the very purpose of their existence and maintain themselves in life by contributing to the life of the body in which alone they can live at all. The same principle holds good in society. It is obvious in trade and commerce; a man can only maintain himself in life by helping to maintain other people. And the ideal society is one in which each man should not only yield reluctantly to the compulsion of this natural law, but should clearly see the great ends for which mankind exists and labour zealously to promote these ends, should as eagerly seek what contributes to the good of the whole as the hand is stretched out for food or as the palate relishes what stays the appetite and nourishes the whole body.

Illustrating the relation of Christians to one another by the figure of the members of a body, Paul suggests several ideas.

1. The unity of Christians is a vital unity. The members of the body of Christ form, one whole because they partake of one common life. "By one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." The unity of those who together form the body of Christ is not a mechanical unity, as of a pound of shot in a bag; nor is it a unity imposed by external force, as of caged wild beasts in a menagerie; nor is it a unity of mere accidental juxtaposition, as of passengers in a train or of the inhabitants of a town. But as the life of the human body maintains all the various members and nourishes them to a well-proportioned and harmonious growth, so is it in the body of Christ. Remove from the human body the life that supports it, and all the members fall away from connection with one another; but so long as the life is retained it assimilates in the most surprising way all nutriment to its own precise type and form. The lion and the tiger may eat precisely the same food, but that food nourishes in each a different form. The life that animates the human body assimilates nutriment to its own uses, imparting to each member its due proportion and maintaining all the members in their relation to one another.

The unity of Christians is a unity of this kind, a vital unity. The same spiritual life exists in all Christians, derived from the same source, supplying them with similar energy, and prompting them to the same habits and aims. They accept the Spirit of Christ, and so are formed into one body, being no more isolated, self-seeking, and each man fighting for his own hand, but banded together for the promotion of one common cause. There is no clashing between the interests of the individual and the interests of the society or kingdom to which he belongs. The member finds its only life and function in the body. It is by the freest and most deliberate exercise of his reason and his will that a man attaches himself to Christ, seeing that by so doing he enters the only path to real happiness and attainment. The individual can only utter and fulfil his best self by doing his best possible for society. His devotement to public interests is no self-destroying generosity, but the dictate of duty and of reason. To quote a writer who deals with this matter from the philosophical point of view, "he who has made the welfare of the race his aim has done so, not from a generous choice, but because he regards the pursuit of this welfare as his imperative duty. The welfare of the race is his own ideal, what he must realise in order to be what he ought to be. The welfare of the race is his own welfare, which he must seek because he must be himself. Cromwell, Luther, Mahomet, were heroes, not because they did something over and above what they ought to have done. but because their ideal self was coextensive with the larger life of their world. ‘I can no other’ was the voice of each Their large purposes were what they owed to themselves just as much as to their world." Those who cannot philosophically reconcile the claims of society and the claims of the individual are yet enabled by their attachment to Christ and by their acceptance of His Spirit to merge self in the larger whole of Christ’s body and find their truest life in seeking the good of others. It is by their acceptance of Christ’s Spirit as the source and Guide of their own life that they enter into fellowship with the community of men.

2. Paul is careful to show that the very efficiency of the body depends upon the multiplicity and variety of the members of which it is composed: "If they were all one member, where were the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?" The lowest forms of life have either no distinct organs or very few; but the higher we ascend in the scale of life the more numerous and more distinctly differentiated are the organs. In the lower forms one member discharges several functions, and the animal uses the same organ for locomotion as it uses for eating and digesting; in the higher forms each department of life and activity is presided over by its own sense or organ. The same law holds good of society. Among tribes low down in the scale of civilisation each man is his own farmer, or shepherd, or huntsman, and his own priest, and butcher, and cook, and clothier. Each man does everything for himself. But as men become civilised the various wants of society are supplied by different individuals, and every function is specialised. The same law necessarily holds true of the body of Christ. It is highly organised, and no one organ can do the whole work of the body. Therefore one has this gift, another that. And the more nearly this body approaches perfection, the more various and distinct will these gifts be. One important function of the Church therefore is to elicit and utilise every faculty for good which its members possess. In a society in which Christianity is but beginning to take root, it may fall to one man to do the work of the whole Christian body-to be eye, tongue, foot, hand, and heart. He must evangelise, he must teach, he must legislate, he must enforce law; he must preach, he must pray, he must lead the singing; he must plan the church and help to build it: translate the Scriptures and help to print them; teach the savages to wear a little clothing and help to make it; dissuade them from war and instruct them in the arts of peace, instilling a taste for agriculture and commerce. But when the Christian society has left this rudimentary stage behind, those various functions are discharged by different individuals; and as it advances towards a perfect condition its functions and organs become as multifarious and as distinctly differentiated as the organs of the human body. Every member of the Church is different from every other, and has a gift of his own. Some are fitted to nourish the Church herself and maintain the body of Christ in health and efficiency; some are fitted to act on the world outside: they are eyes to perceive, feet to pursue, hands to lay hold of those who are straying from the light.

Everyone, therefore, who is drawn into the fellowship of the body of Christ has something to contribute to its good and to the work it does. He is in connection with that body because the Spirit of Christ has possessed and assimilated him to it; and that Spirit energises in him. He may not see that anything the Church is presently engaged in is work he can undertake. He may feel out of place and awkward when he attempts to do what others are doing. He feels himself like a greyhound, compelled to run by scent and not by sight, and expected to do the work of a pointer, and not seize his quarry, or as if set to do the work of an eye with the hand. He can do it only in a groping, fumbling, imperfect manner. But this is only a hint that he is meant for other work, not for none. And it is for him to discover what his Christian instincts lead him to. The eye does not need to be told it is for seeing, or the hand that it is for grasping. The eye and the hand of the child instinctively do their office. And where there is true Christian life, it matters not what the member of Christ’s body be, it will find its function, even though that function is new in the Church’s experience.

The fact, then, that you are very different from the ordinary members of the Church is no reason for supposing you do not belong to Christ’s body. The ear is very different from the eye; it can detect neither form nor colour: it cannot enjoy a landscape or welcome a friend: but "if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" Is it not, on the contrary, its very diversity from the eye that makes it a welcome addition to the body, enriching its capabilities and enlarging its usefulness? It is not by comparison with other people that we can. tell whether we belong to the body of Christ, nor is our function in that body determined by anything which some other member is doing. The very difficulty we find in adjusting ourselves to others and in finding any already existing Christian work to which we can give ourselves is a hint that we have the opportunity of adding to the Church’s efficiency. The Church can claim to be perfect only when she embraces the most diversely gifted individuals and allows the tastes, instincts, and aptitudes of all to be used in her work.

3. As there is to be no slothful self-disparagement in the body of Christ, so must there be no depreciation of other people. "The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you." When zealous people discover new methods, they forthwith despise the normal ecclesiastical system that has stood the test and is stamped with the approval of centuries. One method cannot regenerate and Christianise the world, any more than one member can do the whole work of the body. Paul goes even further, and reminds us that the "feeble" parts of the body are "the more necessary"; the heart, the brain, the lungs, and all those delicate members of the body that do its essential work entirely hidden from view are more necessary than the hand or the foot, the loss of which no doubt cripples, but does not kill. So in the Church of Christ it is the hidden souls who by their prayers and domestic godliness maintain the whole body in health and enable more conspicuously gifted members to do their part. Contempt for any member of the body of Christ is most unseemly and sinful. Yet men seem unable ever to learn how many members, and how various, it takes to complete a body, and how needful are those functions they themselves are wholly unable to discharge.

4. Lastly, Paul is careful to teach that "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal." It is not for the glorification of the individual that the new spiritual life manifests itself in this or that remarkable form, but for the edification of the body of Christ. However beautiful any feature of a face may be, it is hideous apart from its position among the rest and lying by itself. Morally hideous and no longer admirable is the Christian who attracts attention to himself and does not subordinate his gift to the advantage of the whole body of Christ. If in the human body any member asserts itself and is not subservient to the one central will, that is recognised as disease: St. Virus’ dance. If any member ceases to obey the central will, paralysis is indicated. And equally so is disease indicated wherever a Christian seeks his own ends or his own glorification, and not the advantage of the whole body. Simon Magus sought to make a reputation and a competence for himself by spiritual gifts. What in his case was mainly stupidity is in ours sin, if we use such powers and opportunities as we have for our own purposes, and not with a view to the profit of others.

Let us then endeavour to recognise our position as members of Christ’s body. Let us with seriousness accept Him as appointed by God to be our true spiritual Life and Head; let us consider what we have it in our power to do for the good of the whole body; and let us put aside all jealousy, envy, and selfishness, and with meekness honour the work done by others while humbly and hopefully doing our own.


Verses 4-13

Chapter 19

NO GIFT LIKE LOVE

THIS is one of the passages of Scripture which an expositor scruples to touch. Some of the bloom and delicacy of surface passes from the flower in the very handling which is meant to exhibit its fineness of texture. But although this eulogium of love is its own best interpreter, there are points in it which require both explanation and enforcement.

In the preceding chapter (12) Paul has striven to suppress the envy, vanity, and discord which had resulted from the abuse of the spiritual gifts with which the Corinthian Church was endowed. He has explained that these gifts were bestowed for the edification of the Church, and not for the glorification of the individual; and that therefore the individual should covet, not the most surprising, but the most profitable, of these manifestations of the Spirit. "Covet the best gifts," he says: Desire the gifts which edify, the gift of exhortation, or, as it was then called, prophecy. And yet there is a more excellent way to edify the Church than even to exercise apostolic gifts; this is the way of love, which he proceeds to celebrate.

1. Love is the ligament which binds together the several members of the body of Christ, the cement, which keeps the stones of the temple together. Without love there can be no body, no temple, only isolated stones or disconnected, and therefore useless, members. The extraordinary gifts of which the Corinthians were so proud cannot compete with love. They may profit the Church, but without love they are no evidence of the ripe Christian manhood of their possessor. Suppose I speak all possible languages-languages of angels, if you please, as well as languages of men-and have not love, I am but a mere instrument played upon by another, no better than a bit of sounding brass, a trumpet or a cymbal, not enjoying, nor moved by, nor swayed by the music I make, but insensible. As Bunyan says, "Is it so much to be a fiddle?" If no man understands the language I am impelled to use, then I am but as a clanging cymbal, making a noise without significance. And even though I speak a tongue which some stranger recognises as his own, it is not I who am coming into contact with his soul through a living influence; I am but used as an instrument of brass is used by the player.

Or take even the higher gift of prophecy. Suppose I am enlightened by the Spirit so that I can explain things hitherto misunderstood; suppose I can make revelations of important truths which have been accessible to none besides; suppose even that I have all faith-faith, as the rabbis say, to remove mountains; suppose I can work miracles, heal the sick, raise the dead, set the whole world agape with astonishment-all this without love, however it may profit others, profits myself not at all, and neither brings me into closer connection with Christ nor gives assurance of my sound spiritual condition. I may be among the number of those who, after doing wonderful works in Christ’s name, are repudiated by Him. For as among ourselves there are many gifts, such as learning, eloquence, sagacity; musical, and poetical, and artistic genius, which may greatly contribute to the edification of the Church, and yet reside in persons who can make little claim to sanctity, so in the early Church these extraordinary spiritual gifts seem to have carried with them no evidence of their possessors’ personal religion. They had certainly begun a Christian career, but they might be deteriorating, in character instead of developing and maturing.

There were, however, two Christian actions which might seem to be beyond question as evidence of a sound spiritual condition: almsgiving and martyrdom. The young man who sought guidance from Christ lacked but one thing: to sell his property and give to the poor. But, says Paul, "though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." It is only too possible to do great acts of charity from a love of display, or from an uneasy sense of duty which parts reluctantly and grudgingly with what it bestows. That is understood. Common sense tells everyone but the abjectly superstitious man himself that it is as Impossible to buy spiritual health on a bed of death as it is to buy the cure of his mortal disease.

But martyrdom? Can a man give any stronger proof of his faith than to give his body to be burned? Certainly one would with great reluctance disparage the integrity of those courageous persons who in many ages of the Church’s history have gone without flinching to the stake. But, in point of fact, a willingness to suffer for one’s opinion or one’s faith is not in every case a guarantee of the existence of a heart transformed from selfishness to love. At one period martyrdom became fashionable, and Christian teachers were compelled to remonstrate with those who fanatically rushed to the stake and the arena, just as suicide once became fashionable at Rome and evoked prohibitory legislation.

Not without reason then does Paul so emphatically warn men against looking upon such exceptional actions or such extraordinary endowments as undoubted evidence of a healthy spiritual state. Gifts and conduct which bring men prominently before the eye of the Church or the world are often no index to the character; and if they be not rooted in and guided by love, their possessor has little reason to congratulate himself. Too often it is a man’s snare to judge himself by what he does rather than by what he is. It is so easy comparatively to do great things, supposing certain gifts be present; it is at least always possible to human nature to make sacrifices and engage in arduous duties. The impossible thing is love. No eye to advantageous consequences or to public opinion can enable a man to love; no desire to maintain a character for piety can produce that grace. Love must be spontaneous, from the soul’s self, not produced by considerations or the requirements of a position we wish to reach or to maintain. It must be the unconstrained, natural outcome of the real man. Not even the consideration of Christ’s love will produce love in us if there be not a real sympathy with Christ. A sense of benefit received will not produce love where there is no similarity of sentiment. Love cannot be got up. It is the result of God entering and possessing the soul. "He that loveth is born of God." That is the only account to be given of the matter. And therefore it is that where love is absent all is absent.

And yet how the mistake of the Corinthians is perpetuated from age to age. The Church is smitten with a genuine admiration of talent, of the faculties which make the body of Christ bulk larger in the eye of the world, while too often love is neglected. After all that the Church has learned of the dangers which accompany theological controversy, and of the hollowness of much that passes for growth, intellectual gifts are frequently prized more highly than love. Do we not ourselves often become aware that the absence of this one thing needful is writing vanity and failure on all we do and on all we are? Ii we are not yet in the real fellowship of the body of Christ, possessed by a love that prompts us to serve the whole, with what complacency can we look on other acquirements? Do parents sufficiently impress on their children that all successes at school and in early life are as nothing compared to the more obscure but much more substantial acquisition of a thoroughly unselfish, generous, catholic spirit of service?

2. Paul having illustrated the supremacy of love by showing that without it all other gifts are profitless, proceeds (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) to celebrate its own positive excellence. It is possible, though unlikely, that Paul may have read the eulogium pronounced on love by the greatest of Greek writers five hundred years before: "Love is our lord, supplying kindness and banishing unkindness, giving friendship and forgiving enmity, the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the gods; desired by those who have no part in him, and precious to those who have the better part in him; parent of delicacy, luxury, desire, fondness, softness, grace; careful of the good, uncareful of the evil. In every word, work, wish, fear-pilot, helper, defender, saviour; glory of gods and men, leader best and brightest; in whose footsteps let every man follow, chanting a hymn and joining in that fair strain with which love charms the souls of gods and men." Five hundred years after Paul another eulogium was pronounced on love by Mahomet: "Every good act is charity: your smiling in your brother’s face; your putting a wanderer in the right road; your giving water to the thirsty, or exhortations to others to do right. A man’s true wealth hereafter is the good he has done in this world to his fellowman. When he dies, people will ask, What property has he left behind him? but the angels will ask what good deeds he has sent before him." Paul’s eulogium is the more effective because it exhibits in detail the various ramifications of this exuberant and fruitful grace, how it runs out into all our intercourse with our fellow men and carries with it a healing and sweetening virtue. It imbues the entire character, and contains in itself the motive of all Christian conduct. It is "the fulfilling of the Law." Its claims are paramount because it embraces all other virtues. If a man has love, there is no grace impossible to him or into which love will not on occasion develop. Love becomes courage of the most absolute kind where danger threatens its object. It begets a wisdom and a skill which put to shame technical training and experience. It brings forth self-restraint and temperance as its natural fruit; it is patient, forgiving, modest, humble, sympathising. It is quite true that

"As every lovely hue is light,

So every grace is love."

Thomas a Kempis dwells with evident relish on the varied capacity of this all-comprehending grace. "Love," he says, "feels no burden, regards not labours, would willingly do more than it is able, pleads not impossibilities, because it feels sure that it can and may do all things. Love is swift, sincere, pious, pleasant, and delightful; strong, patient, faithful, prudent, long-suffering, manly, and never seeking itself: it is circumspect, humble, and upright; sober, chaste, steadfast, quiet, and guarded in all its senses":

Paul’s description of the behaviour of love is drawn in view of the discords and vanities of the Corinthians and as a contrast to their unseemly and unbrotherly conduct. "Love suffereth long, and is kind"; it reveals itself in a magnanimous bearing of injuries and in a considerate and tender imparting of benefits. It returns good for evil; not readily provoked by slights and wrongs, it ever seeks to spend itself in kindnesses. Then there is nothing envious, vain, or selfish in love. "Love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself." It neither grudges others their gifts, nor is eager to show off its own. The pallor and bitter sneer of envy and the ridiculous swagger of the boastful are equally remote from love. "It is not puffed up, and doth not behave itself unseemly." Love saves a man from making a fool of himself by consequential conduct, and by thrusting himself into positions which betray his incompetence, and by immodest, irreverent, and eccentric actions. It balances a man and gives him sense by bringing him into right relations with his fellows and prompting him to esteem their gifts more highly than his own. Neither is love ever on the watch for its own rights, scrupulously exacting the remuneration, the recognition, the applause, the precedence, the deference, that may be due: "it seeketh not its own." "It is not easily provoked, nor does it take account of evil"; it is not fired with resentment at every slight, and does not make a mental note and lay up in its memory the contempt shown by one, the indifference shown by another, the intention to wound betrayed by a third. Love is too little occupied with itself to feel these exhibitions of malice very keenly. It is bent on winning the battle for others, and the wounds received in the cause are made light of. Its eye is still on the advantage to be gained by the needy, and not on itself.

Another manifestation of love, and one the mention of which pricks the conscience, is that it "rejoiceth not in unrighteousness." It has no malignant pleasure in seeing reputations exploded, in discovering the sin, the hypocrisy, the mistakes, of other men. "It rejoiceth with the truth." Where truth scatters calumny and Shows that suspicions were ill-founded, love rejoices. Successful wickedness, whether for or against its own interests, love has no pleasure in; but where goodness triumphs love is thrilled with a sympathetic joy. In place of rejoicing in discovered wickedness because it lowers a rival or seems to leave a more prominent position to itself, love hastens to cover the fault. "It covereth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things." It has untiring charity, making every allowance, proposing every excuse, believing that explanations can be made, accepting greedily such as are made, slow to be persuaded that things are as bad as rumour paints, hoping against hope for the acquittal, or at any rate for the reformation, of every culprit.

3. Finally, Paul shows the superiority of love by comparing it in point of permanence, first, with the gifts of which the Corinthians were so proud, and, second, with the universal Christian graces.

"Love never faileth"; it is imperishable: it grows from less to more; there never comes a time When it gives place to some higher quality of soul, or when it is unimportant whether a man has it or no, or when it is no longer the criterion of the whole moral state. The most surprising spiritual gifts can make no such claim. "Whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease." These gifts were for the temporary benefit of the Church. However some might misapprehend their significance and fancy that these extraordinary manifestations were destined to characterise the Christian Church throughout its history, Paul was not so deceived. He was prepared for their disappearance. They were the scaffolding which no one thinks of or inquires after when the building is finished, the school books which become the merest rubbish when the boy is educated, the prop which the forester removes when the sapling has become a tree.

But knowledge? The knowledge of God and of Divine things in which good men delight, and which is esteemed the stamina of character-is not this permanent? No, says Paul. "Knowledge also shall be done away." And to illustrate his meaning Paul uses two figures: the figure of a child’s knowledge, which is gradually lost in the knowledge of the man, and the figure of an object dimly seen through a semitransparent medium. We shall understand the significance and the bearing of these figures if we consider that when we speak of imperfect knowledge we mean either of two things: we may either mean that it is imperfect in amount or that it is imperfect in quality, in accuracy. When a boy begins the study of Euclid, the first proposition he learns is absolutely accurate and true; he may add to it, but he can never improve upon it. His knowledge is imperfect in amount, but so far as it goes it is absolutely reliable; he may build upon it and deduce other truths from it. But when we are walking on a misty morning and see an object at a distance, our knowledge is imperfect, but in quite another sense. It is imperfect in the sense of being dim, uncertain, inaccurate. We see that there is something before us, but whether a human being or a gatepost we cannot say. A little nearer we see it is a human being, but whether old or young, friend or no friend, we cannot say. Here the growth of our knowledge is from dimness to accuracy.

Both the figures used by Paul imply that our knowledge of Divine things is of this latter kind. They loom, as it were, through a mist. Many of their details are invisible. We have not got them under our hand to examine at leisure. Our present knowledge is as the light of a lantern by which we can pick our way, or as the starlight, for which we are thankful in the meantime; but when the sun of a wider, deeper, truer knowledge rises, what we now call knowledge shall be quite eclipsed. "When I was a child," says Paul, "I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." That is to say, Paul was distinctly aware that much of our present knowledge is provisional, We do not know the very truth, but only such approximations to the truth and such symbols of it as we are able to understand. We are at present in the state of childhood, which cherishes many notions destined to be exploded by maturer knowledge. We think of God as a Being very similar to ourselves, only very much greater; and in our present state we must be content with this imperfect knowledge, but prepared to put it away as "childish" when fuller knowledge comes. The atoning death of Christ may be spoken of as the substitutionary sacrifice of a Victim on whom our guilt is laid; but to speak thus of the death of Christ is to make large use of the language of symbol, and we must hold our minds open for the fuller knowledge which will make such language seem quite inadequate. Paul’s language warns us against speaking, or thinking, or acting as if our knowledge of Divine things were perfectly accurate, and as if therefore we might freely and unhesitatingly condemn all who differ from us.

The other figure is still more precise, although there is great difference of opinion as to what Paul means by seeing now "through a glass, darkly." The word here rendered "glass" is used either for the dim metallic mirror used by the ancients, or for the semi-translucent talc which was their substitute for glass in windows. Of these two meanings it is the latter which in this passage gives the best sense. It was a common figure among the rabbis to illustrate dimness of vision. If they wished to denote direct and clear vision, they spoke of seeing a thing face to face; if they wished to denote uncertain hazy vision, they spoke of seeing through a glass-that is, through a substance only a little more transparent than our own dimmed glass, through which you can see objects, but cannot tell exactly what they are or who the persons are who are moving. Thus they had a common saying, "All other prophets saw as through nine glasses, Moses as through one." The rabbis, too, had another saying which illustrates the second part of this twelfth verse: "Even as a king, who with common people talks through a veil, so that he sees them, but they do not see trim, but when his friend comes to speak to him, he removes this veil, so that he might see him face to face, even so did God speak to Moses apparently, and not darkly."

Interpreting Paul’s language then by the language of his own kith and kin and of the schools in which he had been educated, his meaning is that in this life we can see Divine things only dimly and as through a veil, but hereafter we shall see them without the intervention of any obscuring medium. Here and now we can make out only the general outline of the unseen realities; but hereafter we shall know even as we are known, shall see God as directly as He now sees us. We shall not have even then the same perfect knowledge of Him that He has of us, but shall see Him as immediately and directly as He sees us. Now He wears a veil through which He can see, but through which we cannot see; hereafter He will lay aside this. Our present knowledge of God and of all things unseen is necessarily vague, not susceptible of exact definition. There are some things of which we may be quite sure, others of which we must be content to remain in uncertainty. We may be quite sure that God exists, that He loves us, that He has sent His Son to save us; but if we attempt to run a sharp and clear outline round the truths thus dimly seen, we shall inevitably err.

It may be added that while Paul warns us against supposing that our knowledge is perfect, he does not mean to brand it as useless or delusive. On the contrary, his figures imply that it is necessary for our growth, and that unless we honestly use such knowledge as we have, we cannot win our way to knowledge that is perfect. It is the imperfect knowledge of the child which leads it on to further attainment. The fundamental doctrine of the Christian creed that there are three Persons in one God is certainly a very rough and childish expression of a truth far deeper than we can understand, but to reject this doctrine because it is evidently only an approximation to a truth which cannot be defined and stated in final terms is to refuse to submit to the conditions under which we now live and to ape a manhood which in point of fact we do not possess.

Paul’s crowning testimony to the worth of love is given in the thirteenth verse: "But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." He does not mean that love abides while faith becomes sight and hope fruition. Rather he indicates that faith and hope are also imperishable, and hereby distinguished from the spiritual gifts of which he has been speaking. Both in this life and in that which is to come faith, hope, and love abide. For faith and hope pass away only in one aspect of their exercise. If by faith be meant belief in things unseen, this passes away when the unseen is seen. If hope be taken as referring only to the future state in general, then when that state is reached hope passes away. But faith and hope are really permanent elements of human life, faith being the confidence we have in God, and hope the ever-renewed expectancy of future good. But while faith maintains us in connection with God, love is the enjoyment of God and the partaking of His nature; and while hope renews our energy and guides our aims, it can bring us to no better thing than love.

To see the beauty, fruitfulness, and sufficiency of love is easy, but to have it as the mainspring of our own life most difficult, indeed the greatest of all attainments. This we instinctively recognise as the true test of our condition. Have we that in us which really knits us to God and our fellow men and prompts us to do our utmost for them? Have we in us this new affection which destroys selfishness and brings us into true and lasting relations with all we have to do with? This is the root of all good, the beginning of all blessedness, because the germ of all likeness to God, who Himself is love.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-corinthians-13.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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