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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament
1 Corinthians 13

 

 

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Verse 1

Here our apostle begins a comparison between gifts and graces, and shows how much more excellent and desirable the saving graces of the Spirit are, than all those pompous and miraculous gifts, in which there is no real excellency, and nothing for which we should desire them, but only upon the score of usefulness and serviceableness to the church.

And he instances first in the gifts of tongues: Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels; that is, though I had the gift of tongues, or speaking divers languages in the highest measure and most exalted degree; could I preach and pray like an angel, discourse and talk beyond the rate of any mortal man, and have not the grace of love and charity; alas! what is all this to God, who is not taken with a noisy sound, as children are with a musical instrument!

Behold here, that the tongues of men or angels could have said nothing more plain or emphatical, to show how much more excellent the saving graces of the Spirit are than miraculous gifts, which commend us not to God, render us not like God, nor any ways qualify us for the enjoyment of him, giving him no intrinsic worth, or inherent excellency. They only proclaim God's goodness towards us, but are no ways evidential of any goodness in us towards him. Gifts are like the gold which adorns the temple, but grace is like the altar which sanctifies the gold.


Verse 2

Farther, Suppose I had the spirit of prophecy, and could speak by inspiration of things present, and things to come, and could understand deep and difficult points in God's word and works, what is this more than Balaam had?

And suppose I have all faith, that is, the highest degree of miraculous faith, so that I could remove mountains; yet this, severed from charity, or the predominant love of God and our neighbour, is all nothing. And I am nothing, that is, nothing worth in the sight of God.

Observe here, That miraculous faith may be severed from charity, but justifying faith cannot, which always worketh by love; and wherever that grace is found, it gives value and acceptance to all other graces.

Faith without charity is but a dead assent; hope without charity is but like a tympany, the bigger it grows, the more dangerous it proves; and the most diffusive alms-giving, without love, is but a sacrifice to vanity.


Verse 3

Observe here, 1. That alms amy be given without true love to God, or our neighbour for God's sake; they may be given out of mere natural pity to the poor, out of a desire to be well thought of, and well spoken of by men, out of an opinion of merit, and obliging God, or from some other cause, which includes not love either to God or man; and wherever they are thus given, they profit nothing to salvation.

The Greek word for feeding the poor here, signifies to divide victuals in several pieces, and so distribute it amongst the poor.

Lord! what a consideration is this, that a man may do all the external works of mercy, even the highest and most transcendent works, and yet want true love to God and his neighbour!

Observe, 2. That as alms may be given, so martyrdom may be undergone, without charity. If I give my body to be burned; that is, if I have so much fortitude and courage as to lay down my life for Christ and his truth, which is such an high expression of my obedience to him as angels are not capable of performing, yet, without charity, burning is but a vain-glorious blaze; and instead of sealing the truth with our blood, we seal but our own shame and folly.

Observe, 3. The apostle says not, If I be burnt, persecuted, and put to death by others: but if I give myself to be burned, if I voluntarily and freely offer up myself, not to imprisonment only, but to death itself, yea, to the most terrible kind of death, burning; yet if all this be not from a right principle and sincere end, if all this be without true love to God, and his glory, church, and truth, it will avail nothing to salvation.

Learn hence, That no kind of external sufferings, though ever so grievous, either for the truth of Christ indeed, or for that which a man's conscience judges to be the truth of Christ, is a sure and infallible sign of a gracious state: a man may suffer for truth, but not for truth's sake, only for interest's sake; he may suffer from a natural strength and stoutness of spirit, and not from a spiritual fortitude wrought in him by the Spirit of God.

Ah, Lord! how miserable is it to be burnt with fire here for Christ; and to hear him say afterward, Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire! It is indeed a great matter to suffer for Christ, but much greater to suffer with such a disposition of heart as Christ requires.


Verse 4

Here the apostle enters upon the description and commendation of the grace and duty of charity, and declares several excellent effects and properties of it; namely, It suffereth long, and is kind; that is, the charitable man is kind to all, patient towards all; he can bear injuries and reproaches very long, without either desiring or endeavouring to revenge them.

It envieth not; that is, he envieth neither the power, nor profit, nor preferment, nor applause, nor precedency, of any man; but is well pleased with the happiness of every man, and laments their misfortunes.

Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up; that is, it suppresses all self-applauding and admiring thoughts, all arrogancy in assuming to ourselves, and undervaluing of others.


Verse 5

That is, charity, or true love to our neighbour, will restrain us from all uncomely deportment towards him; it will not suffer us to do an ill or indecent thing to any one; it breaks not forth into violent and ungovernable passions upon any provocations, how just soever, how great soever.

Seeketh not her own; that is, her own praise, profit, or pleasure; it seeketh it not inordinately, it seeketh it not injuriously, either in the neglect of others, or to the hurt of others. Charity is not selfish, but generous.

It is not easily provoked; that is, charity is not provoked readily to think, speak, or act, unduly, by small injuries or occasions; but beareth, forbeareth, and forgiveth.

Thinketh no evil; that is, of any person groundlessly, but construes and interprets every thing in the best sense; for lightly to take up an evil report of our neighbour, to think or suspect, much more to believe and report, any evil of him, without sufficient evidence against him, is a violation of the law of charity.


Verse 6

Charity rejoices not in any evil done, either,

1. By ourselves, in the commission or after-contemplation of it; or,

2. By others. Lord, how sad it is when it becomes matter of mirth and sport, to see another stab at once the Christian name, and his own soul!

Or, 3. It rejoices not in any evil done to others; charity suffers no man to be pleased or delighted with any deceit or falsehood spoken of or done to others, or with any ill stories or malicious insinuations concerning them, or in any calamity befalling them.

But rejoiceth in the truth; that is,

1. Charity is so far from rejoicing either in the falls or misfortunes of others, that it rejoices when the truth and innocency, the righteousness and equity, of any person or cause is made evident and manifest. A good man rejoices when he sees any suspected for, or charged with, iniquity, upon due examination cleared and acquitted.

Or, 2. Rejoiceth in the truth; that is, in men's loving truth, doing justly, and living righteously, according to the rule of truth, the gospel.

Oh! what a complacency and inward pleasure doth it beget in a good man's mind, when he beholds truth and righteousness, piety and goodness, prevailing in the world!


Verse 7

Charity or love has strong shoulders to bear wrongs and injuries with patience, though very hard and grievous to be borne, without returning evil for evil: it will enable us to forbear one another in love, and not cease to be kind, notwithstanding provocations.

Believeth all things; that is, charity inclines a man to believe the best of his neighbour, till the contrary appears; it interprets every thing in the best sense, and makes the fairest construction of every man's case and condition. Not that a charitable man is a credulous man, and can believe whatever he pleases; but he believeth all things, so far as either reality or probabilty, so far as truth or appearance of truth, will encourage him to do it. A charitable man is very willing to believe that things are meant as they are spoken, and intended as they are done.

Oh, how uncharitable then, and unjust, are they who believe all is ill, when they know nothing ill; and think and speak ill of them, in whom they never saw any thing but what was good!

It is not sufficient that we do not judge our neighbour maliciously, but we must not judge him ignorantly; it is an injurious and unworthy jealousy, when a person's actions are fair, to suspect his intentions.

Hopeth all things; that is, it is the genius of charity, and the character of love, to hope the best of persons and things, so far as there is any ground of hope; yea, though they carry in them some cause and colour of suspicion: it inclines us still to hope the best concerning men's intentions and actions; and if our brother be bad at present, not to despair of his amendment, but endeavour his reformation by all proper means.

Endureth all things; that is, it puts up with wrongs and injuries, without desiring, much less endeavouring, to revenge them; it causes us to endure provocation with much patience, and extinguishes all inclinations to revenge. Some will conceal their anger, but seek revenge: their malice is like slow poison, that does not discover violent symptoms, but destroys life insensibly. Others have such fierce passions, that they strike fire out of the least provocations; they inflame their resentments, by considering every circumstance that will exasperate their spirits: but charity beareth all things, endureth all things.


Verse 8

Charity never faileth. Holy love is an everlasting quality and employment; it shall not fail at death, as other graces do, but be perfected at death.

Repentance should accompany us to the gates of heaven, but repentance ceases for ever in heaven; for no need of repentance where there is entire innocence.

Faith is swallowed up in vision, and hope in fruition; but love is then and there in its exaltation.

Thus charity never faileth, but all other gifts will fail; prophesying, languages, sciences, and all artificial knowledge, will cease for ever; knowledge itself in heaven shall vanish away.

But how vanish?

The meaning is, that such knowledge as we have now shall vanish then; that imperfect knowledge we have now will cease and be useless then. Our present knowledge is attained with much labour and study; but it shall be no more difficult to know in heaven, than it is for the eye to open and see; the beautiful face of truth shall in a moment be unveiled to us in heaven, and the curtain drawn away by the hand of God, which interposed between us and the light.

Again: knowledge of so imperfect a degree, as now it is of, shall vanish away: here we know what we know by divine revelation, but in part; and we prophesy by inspiration, but in part.


Verse 10

As the imperfect twilight is done away by the opening of the perfect day; so at death, when that which is perfect takes place, then that which was imperfect shall be done away.

Blessed be God for the hopes of that blessed place and state, where all imperfections shall cease, especially the imperfection of our knowledge.

Alas! here all that we know, either of the word or works of God, is but a part, a little part; and blessed be God that this perfect state doth not succeed the imperfect one after a long interval, (at the resurrection and re-union of the body,) but the imperfect state of the soul immediately is done away by the coming of the perfect one; the glass is laid by as useless, when we come to see face to face, and eye to eye.

O happy and vast difference between the Christian's present and future state!

True, he now begins to know; he knows in part here; but verily what he here knows is little of what he should know, little of that he might know, little of that others know, little of that he desires to know, and little of that he shall know, when he comes to heaven; then all imperfections shall be done away, when that which is perfect is come.


Verse 11

Here the apostle compares the Christian's imperfect state of knowledge and holiness in this life to a state of childhood; his perfect state of holiness and happiness in heaven to a state of manhood.

As a child conceives, thinks, and speaks, of things suitable to his childish state; but when he comes to manly perfection, and to the full use and exercise of his reason, he then puts away childish conceptions and things: thus it is with the best of us in this life; like children we conceive and think, we discourse and speak, of spiritual things, in a confused and imperfect manner; but when we arrive at our state of manly perfection in heaven, we shall have knowledge and all other graces perfected.

Learn hence, That Christians must stay for perfect knowledge till they come to maturity and ripeness of age; children must not expect to know what men know. Solomon's knowledge on earth, so famously celebrated, will be but ignorance, compared with the knowledge and enlargements which the saints have in heaven; there in natural things they shall be exact philosophers, in spiritual things complete divines; all dark scriptures shall be clear to them, all the knotty intrigues of providence wisely resolved: in a word, there they shall know God himself perfectly, though they can never know him to perfection.


Verse 12

As if the apostle had said, Now in our minority we see divine revelations, as the prophets did of old, in a dark enigmatical manner, and by symbolical representations of things upon the fancy, as in a glass; but then in the adult state of the church we shall see them after the Mosaical manner, in a way more accommodated to human nature, and as it were face to face: we shall see clearly, immediately, not by reflection, but by intuition.

These adverbs, now and then, distinguish the twofold state of gracious souls; and show what they are whilst confined to the body, and what they shall be when emancipated and freed from the body, that clog of mortality which now hangs upon them.

Observe here, 1. That our imperfect knowledge of God is set forth by seeing in a glass, because it is a weak and imperfect vision; a glass gives but a weak and languid representation of the face that is seen in it; and because it is a vanishing and transient vision, a man having looked in a glass, presently forgets what he saw there: and because it is no immediate sight, but mediante speculo, by the glass of his word and ordinances we see and understand something of God's nature and will; though after all our searchings here to find out what God is, we rather know what he is not, than are are able to declare what he is.

Observe, 2. That such as have seen God here, as in a glass, in the glass of his ordinances and providence, in the glass of his word and works, shall see him face to face, and fix their eye upon him in heaven to all eternity: when once the pious soul is unsheathed from the body, it glistens gloriously; as soon as the cage is open, this bird soars aloft, and sings melodiously.

It is death's office to beat down the partition-wall, a gross, earthly body; and then the glorified soul shall have a clear and perfect vision, an immediate and possessive vision, a satisfying and soul- transforming vision, a permanent and eternal vision, of the holy and blessed God, which the apostle here calls seeing face to face.

Observe, 3. How St. Paul in the latter words of the verse gives us a plainer expression of that which before he had spoken more darkly and obscurely: Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known.

Where note, How the apostle changes the person: before it was, we see through a glass darkly; here it is, I know in part. He had included himself before in the word we: but he doth in more apparently in saying, I. Now I know in part. When so great an apostle acknowledges the imperfection of his knowledge, who can, who dare, boast of the largeness of his understanding?

Note farther, The apostle's saying, Now I know, intimates, that he had begun his acquaintance with God here, which he expected should be improved and perfected in heaven; he that knows not God in part here, shall never know him face to face in glory; heaven is a place of perfection indeed, but nothing is perfected there, which did not commence and begin here.

Observe, 4. When the apostle says, We shall know even as we are known: he means, that we shall know God as really and truly, though not so fully and comprehensibly, as he knows us; we shall know him in his nature and attributes; then and there will his wonderful clemency be sweetly displayed, his exact justice visibly demonstrated, his perfect wisdom clearly unfolded, all the knotty intrigues of providence wisely resolved, all the mysterious depths of divine counsels fully discovered, to the delightful satisfaction of the admiring and adoring soul, who shall then see as it is seen, and know as it is known.


Verse 13

The design of the apostle in these words is,

1. To inform the Corinthians, that the sanctifying graces of faith, hope, and charity, are far to be preferred before all the fore -mentioned extraordinary gifts of prophecy, miracles, tongues, healing the sick, and raising the dead, not excepted. The least degree of sanctifying grace from the Holy Spirit, is to be preferred, with respect to ourselves, before the largest measure of extraordinary gifts which are wholly for the good and benefit of others.

2. As our apostle had compared gifts and graces together before, so he compares graces amongst themselves now. Faith, hope, and charity, are set in competition, and the preference given to the last; partly with respect to its present excellency, for charity is the end, to which faith and hope are but the means; and partly with respect to its future duration. Faith and hope will vanish with this life; faith will end in sight, and hope in enjoyment; but charity will never be outdated, but last and flourish when we come to heaven, and be a special ingredient in, and a considerable part of, our happiness there, which consists in the rapturous contemplation of divine love; in living, praising, admiring, and adoring God, our great Creator, and in loving all whom he loves, and that eternally.

Learn, 1. That faith, hope, and love, are abiding graces; they do and must keep house, not only in the church-militant in general, but in the soul of every member of the church-militant in particular.

Learn, 2. That of all these graces, charity is the greatest and most excellent,

1. In regard of its extent, reaching to God, angels, and men.

2. In regard of its use, extending to the good of others; whereas faith and hope are particular and private graces.

3. In regard of perfection, as rendering us more like to God.

4. In regard of duration: farewell faith and hope, when we come to heaven; but welcome love.

Therefore the greatest of these is charity.

 


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Bibliography Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:4". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/wbc/1-corinthians-13.html. 1700-1703.

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