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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
1 Corinthians 13

 

 

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Verse 1

1. Though I speak—A case, it is said, which never will happen; but the particle though, or if, ( εαν,) here used, implies a case objectively possible, and which experience will decide as to its real occurrence.—WINER, Grammar, page 291. See the note on 1 Corinthians 13:2.

Tongues—The Corinthians’ favourite charism, first mentioned in order to humble it before love.

Of men—Though my tongue could speak every language of the entire human race.

Of angels—Whether the gifted Corinthians claimed that one of their charisms was to speak in angel dialect is more than we know. St. Paul himself, (2 Corinthians 12:4,) when caught up into paradise, “heard unspeakable words,” apparently the speech of higher natures. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus implies speech of disembodied spirits, so telegraphic as to reach from paradise to hades inferior.

I am become—To this, if gifted yet loveless, I am brought.

Sounding brass—Corinthian brass (a metal formed by the mixture of silver and gold) was proverbially famed for its ringing sound when struck, or blown as a trumpet.

TinklingClanging is better, as more truly denoting the sound produced.

Cymbal—Two concave metallic plates struck against each other, and giving a sound varying with the size of the instrument. Possessing no variation of tone or mellowness, they served as a fit illustration of a vain clatter, while the richer ring of the sounding brass indicated the vainglory of the ostentation of tongues.

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Cymbals were used (1 Chronicles 13:8) in the most ancient times, with other instruments, in religious service. The old Egyptians used wooden cymbals, (crotala,) and the modern Spaniards use castanets, so called because made of chestnut wood.


Verses 1-3

a. All gifts valueless without Love, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

Paul traces the gifts surpassed by love as fourfold: Tongues, whether of men or angels; prophecy, with all its included powers of knowledge; miracle-working faith; vain-glorious sacrifice of goods or body. These rise, perhaps, in a series of climax. Love in her divine exaltation treads over them all.


Verses 1-13

2. Infinite superiority of Love over Gifts, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

The central gift of Christianity—not transient but permanent—the diamond excellence of which all other virtues are a phase—is LOVE. And to rouse his Corinthians above their eagerness after the transient, the apostle tasks all his powers to present the diamond before their eyes in its most attractive brilliancy. All critics view this passage as one of Paul’s genuine gems. It has something of the rhythm, as well as the splendour, of poetry. But it is brief and condensed, and not one word is inserted for mere fine writing; for Paul does not one moment forget his argument; the object of which is, to impress his brethren that that one virtue within the reach of all, the permanent heritage of the Church, is divine love.

We might call it one of the misfortunes of our English version that the Greek word for love, αγαπη, has been translated charity. But it is rather the fault of the language itself than of the translators. When St. Jerome came to translate this part of the New Testament he could find no word in the Latin language which would properly fit the true Christian idea of divine love. Paganism had not the word, because paganism had never possessed the idea. The word amor came most near, but that had degrading associations. He selected the Latin word caritas, signifying dearness, which has been used in most of the translations of modern Europe. But this word becoming charity in English, has sunk to mean mere almsgiving, or favourable construction of others’ actions, as when we say a charitable opinion. Dr. Hodge says, the Greek word occurs one hundred and sixteen times in the New Testament, and is translated love in all cases but twenty-three, and its translation in those passages is arbitrary.

The chapter has three distinct stages or paragraphs. The first declares, with intense hyperbole, the absolute worthlessness of every virtue if love be wanting, (1 Corinthians 13:1-3;) the second draws a brief beautiful picture of love in actual life, (1 Corinthians 13:4-8;) the third (1 Corinthians 13:8-13) traces our progress through transient developments, in contrast with the abiding three graces, faith, hope, and love. Paul, as on other occasions of depreciatory remark, speaks in the first person.


Verse 2

2. All mysteries—Blessed mysteries, such as Jesus indicated, Mark 4:11, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven;” namely, the revelations unfolded by Christianity to man. These mysteries were for ages concealed. Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:26. There are also mysteries of iniquity. 2 Thessalonians 2:7.

Faith—A divinely energized power of will, so that it moves external nature as the ordinary volition moves the body. See note on Matthew 17:20.

Have not charity—That miraculous endowments are not confined to the holy is indicated by the cases of Balaam, Samson, and the witch of Endor. Note on Acts 8:24. The apostle only supposes a possible thing in a most extraordinary degree.

Nothing—All these endowments put together leave me a moral cypher.


Verse 3

3. Bestow… goods—It is curious that the word charity has come to signify just that alms-giving which Paul here declares may be performed without it. Churches, colleges, alms-houses, asylums, may all be founded by loveless men to perpetuate a name, or, vainly, to expiate their sins.

Body to be burned—Mr. Barnes pertinently remarks that martyrdoms in ancient times were not by burning, but by axe or sword, by stoning or crucifixion. Burning, first introduced by Nero, was adopted by the Romish Inquisition, and by Queen Mary in England. The words of the apostle were almost prophetical. Yet the fiery furnace was the penalty visited on Shadrach and his comrades in Babylon.

The braving certain death by burning or otherwise is often displayed by men from motives excluding love. There are crises in which men prefer death to life, especially, for instance, when stimulated by a point of honour. For this the North American Indian dares and defies the cruelest of tortures; the Hindu widow mounts the funeral pyre of her dead husband; and the Japanese gentleman executes the hari-kari by ripping open his own body in the presence of a public assembly gathered to witness and honour the deed. These actions may have their own proper reward. But in the apostle’s sense, if loveless, they profit nothing so far as salvation is concerned. Our Lord, in commanding his disciples to flee from persecution, divested martyrdom of its vainglory. Yet in times of bloodiest persecution by pagan powers the expectant victim often rejoiced in the hope of the martyr’s crown. There were those who would have rushed to that end by exposing themselves to arrest, but, instructed by our Lord’s words, the Christian leaders dissuaded such a course.


Verse 4

4. Charity—The love of the apostle is not merely an emotion, but also a principle and purpose. It is, indeed, more or less grounded in the moral and sentimental feeling, but it often exists in full action in unemotional persons. It is a strong wish, desire, and purpose for the happiness of another or others, and a happiness in seeing that other’s happiness accomplished. It is verified by the blessed Spirit; it co-exists with the love of God. The two great commandments are, supreme love to God, and love to our fellow as to ourself. It is the primal virtue, of which all other virtues are but varying forms. This love, though unknown to heathendom, was taught in the Old Testament, and appears in full glory in the New, incarnated in Christ and registered in his evangelic law.

Suffereth long—The stronger that love the greater the suffering it will endure, both for and from its object, and still remain kind in feeling and manner. Love is the parent of patience, forbearance, and firmness.

Envieth not—In the eight negatives now following Paul reprehends the various forms of selfishness which lovelessness assumes, namely: envy, braggartism, ostentation, offensiveness, self-interest, irritability, suspicion, injuriousness.

This selfishness is not identical with, but is the exaggeration of, that self-love or desire of happiness which is the right and duty of every intelligent being. The primal law does not forbid us to love ourself, nor require us to love our neighbour more than ourself. Indeed, duty to ourself, the obligation of self-love, stands first. We owe and must perform duties to ourselves which we cannot perform for others, nor others for us. This the law of love, the golden rule, presupposes. If we love our neighbour as ourself we will not require him to do for us what we should do for ourself; and we should concede to him the right to perform to himself solely the duties each one owes solely to himself. There is thus an equal circle of right and duty drawn around every individual self. But selfishness undertakes to secure one’s own advantage in disregard, or at the expense of, the rights of others. It violates the law of equal love for every one.

Vaunteth not itself—Brags not of personal superiorities, false or real.

Not puffed up— Imaginary assumption of personal importance.


Verses 4-7

b. Picture of Love in daily life, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

The hyperboles of the apostle in the last paragraph rush like a cataract; the descriptions of this paragraph flow like a gentle and limpid stream. He does not describe love in its heroic moods, dying for its loved objects, but in the aspects of ordinary life, and particularly in references to those vain glories and bickers among his Corinthians, of which love would be the corrective. He gives fifteen traits of love. The first three touch the patient kindness of love; the next eight are negatives, describing qualities which love does not exhibit, but which, unfortunately, the tempers of the Corinthians did; then four traits which our apostle’s conduct was exhibiting towards them. The passage is no fancy piece, but aims at practical life.


Verse 5

5. Behave… unseemly—Lovelessness cares not how offensive its demeanour towards others. It cares not how much mortification it creates in other breasts by its coarse, offensive, or haughty style. Even religious people often clothe their religion in a hard, stiff, legal aspect, rendering it unattractive, and producing rejection by those whom it should win. On the contrary, true love, brought to the surface, seeks to please, and thereby sheds a winsomeness over the manners and character. And it is wonderful how this quality does win its way; not by fighting a fierce battle, but by disarming beforehand, and rendering, the battle unnecessary. Worldly self-interest, policy, diplomacy, and courtliness often put on this manner. The gentleman is a gentle man. It is one of the benefits, indeed, of a common interest that it creates a common desire to please, and thus promotes more or less courtesy and cordiality of temper. It is thus that trade and commerce are, as intended by Providence, wonderful promoters of peace, civilization, and humanity. There is a contest between commerce and war, in which the former is gaining a gradual and most humane victory.

Not… provoked—Not exasperated. For just so far as the exasperation extends love is neutralized. Hence the easily, inserted by the translators, without Greek, is unnecessary. But the not being exasperated now and then requires a permanent and perfected love. That is very necessary, indeed, to soothe by anticipation the irritability and prevent the exasperation. This irritability is often a sin of the disordered and sensitive nerves. It is a physiological sin. It requires an immense deal of love to neutralize the sharp sensations that sting the irritable nerves of some persons to fretfulness and exasperated words. This is the trial of some temperaments. And such persons should be careful how they excuse themselves for their sin on the ground of temperament. The moment they do this they are in great danger of giving themselves the privilege of the sin, and so making the sin of the nerves the sin of the will and the consent. We should, like a skilful general, rather concentrate our strongest force at our weakest spot.

Seeketh not her own—Love may arise from common interest, and even from self-interest. It is provided by God that these should be productive of this good result. But love, just so far as it is pure love, thinks not of itself. It is happy in the happiness of others, having no regard for any happiness of its own, excepting this very delight in the others’ well-being. Its very excellence is, that it places its own happiness in the happiness of others.

Thinketh no evil—An unfortunate translation. Literally, imputeth not the evil. Not, as Alford, “the evil which is, but love does not impute it;” but rather the evil imputation when the good one was equally probable. For love, as will soon be said, rejoices in the truth. Even love prefers the truth above the friend. But love imputeth not the evil construction where truth will permit the good.


Verse 6

6. Rejoiceth… iniquity—The word rendered iniquity, properly signifies injustice, wrong. And here, as in all the clauses of this paragraph, we must keep the special person or persons loved in mind, and not rise too far into generality. Love sympathizes not in the wrong-doing committed by its object. This, the true and a most important sense, seems to have been lost sight of by the commentators. While love imputes the most favourable construction possible to its object, it does not rejoice in his real wrong doing.

Rejoiceth in the truth—Instead of rejoicing in the wrong, it sympathetically rejoices in the truth by which the wrong is reproved, exposed, and corrected. It plainly tells the corrective truth to the loved wrongdoer, as Nathan did to David.


Verse 7

7. In rendering the clauses of this verse we must, with the apostle, keep the loved object in view; as, for instance, his dear Corinthian Church. The verses picture to the life, for example, the persistent love of a mother for an erring son—the most beautiful of all human loves. The all things four times said are, of course, to be limited by the law of truth and justice just given, and made appropriate to the verb which each follows in the clause.

Beareth all things—Rather covereth all things. Such is the strict meaning of the Greek word. To render it beareth gives the same sense as endureth in the last clause. The word covereth implies the idea expressed by Pope in his Universal Prayer:

“Teach me to feel another’s woe,

To hide the fault I see,

That mercy I to others show,

That mercy show to me.”

So does a mother seek to cover the faults of her child; so would Paul rather cover than expose the errors of his Corinthians.

Believeth all things— Favourable to the beloved object. Such is the temper of deep love, limited in action by the laws of truth.

Hopeth all things—All future good for its object.

Endureth all things—How often is it said of a mother in regard to a son, “She bears every thing from him.” Paul bore countless things from the Corinthians, and sought to correct their faults for their own sake.


Verse 8

c. The transiency of all charisms contrasted with the permanency and supremacy of Love, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.

8. Never faileth—From divine love in its daily life, Paul now springs at once into its transcendent and eternal nature.

The charisms—prophecies, tongues, knowledge—are all provisional and partial; soon to be merged in the perfect and the universal.


Verse 9

9. In part—Our knowledge and our prophecies, based upon our knowledge, are alike limited and temporary.


Verse 10

10. The perfect will in due time supersede these partial gifts and performances. This does not mean that the gifts shall cease in the Church on earth in process of time, though that may be implied; but that they will be outgrown in eternity. Nor does it mean that our knowledge as a faculty will disappear; or that we shall cease to know any thing we now know in the future; but that our knowledge as a special gift, supernaturally bestowed over others, of which some Corinthians were so proud, should disappear. These, like glittering but needless ornaments, would drop off in our advancing stages of existence.


Verse 11

11. When—The specialties will all be superseded by eternal things, as childhood joys are superseded by manhood.

Was—Whately says the emphasis should be placed in reading on was, to imply that the playthings of childhood are suitable and right for childhood. As Pope says,

“Behold the child, by nature’s kindly law,

Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw.”

It was said by Lord Brougham that the human being learns more during his ten first years than in all his life afterwards. His infantile and puerile sports are but experiments of things by which he gains his first amount of knowledge.

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Verse 12

12. Through a glass—Not through a transparent glass, as window glass, but through or in a mirror. The word through is used because the objects seen in a mirror seem to be back of it, and we to look through the glass. The mirrors of antiquity were made not of glass, but of polished metal; and hence the image was seen darkly.

Darkly—Literally, in enigma. We can no more clearly understand the realities of eternity than childhood can understand the experiences of manhood. No words, however plain, can make him realize them as they really are. And so, to us, heaven and eternity are problems and mysteries, illustrated only by analogies which after all are enigmas.

Face to face—By direct, clear sight; not in mirror and enigma. As…

known—As I was known by God in my earthly existence, just so in eternity shall I, with perfect exactness, know the realities.


Verse 13

13. And now—As the net result from all these premises.

Abideth—In endless permanence.

Faith—Not the transient charism of 1 Corinthians 13:12, (where see note,) but the sure reliance on God that will be ever sure in heaven.

Hope—That even amid the highest good looks for a still higher. We cannot remember any other passage in the Bible that indicates the existence of progress for the soul in heaven than this word in this place.

These three—In view of the many passages of Paul in which the trinity is shadowed without being fully expressed, we cannot quite reject the opinion of Grotius, that Paul means a trinity of graces.

Greatest… is charity— Love is not only an eternal grace, but the highest among the eternal. Faith is indeed the condition to our Christian life, but love is its completion. Faith but unlocks the door by which we enter into the blessedness of its superior, love. Other graces contribute to heaven; love constitutes heaven: for a heart of love in a world of love is heaven. If love is a happiness derived from the happiness of others, how rich must be that happiness where countless millions are as happy as the boundaries of their finite natures permit! And this love is but a continuance and enlargement of a grace here possessed. If a spark of God’s love beams now in our heart, it is of the nature of heaven. If not, then we have no true faith, no well-grounded hope, no godlike love. These three go hand in hand, and never can be separated; nor can one exist without the others.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/1-corinthians-13.html. 1874-1909.

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