1 Corinthians 13

Divine Love: the Motive for the Exercise of Gifts
1 Corinthians 13
1 Corinthians 13. This chapter brings before us the activity of divine love in the exercise of gift. It is the perfect sequel to ch.12, where the gifts, their unity and diversity are explained. The “more excellent way” mentioned at the end of ch.12 is fully explained in ch.13. Love is the great motive for Christian service. We read in Galatians 5:6 that faith “works by love”. We read in Eph. 4:16 of the body’s “self-building up in love”. Often this chapter is read at Christian wedding ceremonies, or found on the walls of Christian homes. Marriage and family life are certainly valid applications of this chapter, but the real interpretation of it is the love that ought to be manifested in the assembly, where the gifts are functioning. Chuck Hendricks explained it like this: if ch.13 is a diamond, then ch.12 and ch.14 form the proper setting for us to appreciate the diamond. 
Agápe Love. There are a number of different types of love in the Bible, but in 1 Cor. 13 it is “agápe” love, which is love in a divine sense.

Agápe love is sacrificial and unconditional. It is selfless in that it gives and expects nothing in return. It is the love of a settled disposition. It is the highest of the four kinds of love. An example would be God’s love for us in sending His only-begotten Son to die for us (John 3:16). If He only thought of Himself, He would never have done it (Job 34:14-15). The word for “Agápe love" is sometimes translated "charity"; e.g. 1 Corinthians 13. The English word ‘charity’ actually helps us understand what love really is. We might ‘say’ we love somebody because they love us back, but that isn’t the idea. Charity is when you give to somebody in need knowing there is no way they can repay you. Only the divine nature, in which the believer participates, has the capacity to love this way.

The natural man can only produce the things we read in Romans 1; without affection, full of envy and murder, unthankful, etc. If behavior like that which is described in 1 Cor. 13 is possible, there must be a source outside man. It requires new birth. Love is the essential character of God, and therefore it is part of the divine nature which we receive by new birth. Read more…

The Irreplaceability of Love (vv.1-3)

The More Excellent Way. We might naturally think that if the local assembly just had this or that gift, or had more eloquent speakers, or had greater zeal in service, that the assembly would be great. Paul shows in this chapter than none of those things can really make the assembly flourish. In fact, all of these things can be carried on in an empty religious way. Not that these things in vv.1-3 aren’t good, but we shouldn’t overlook the key ingredient to a healthy assembly, which is love. Apart from love, everything else is futile.
 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. v.1 Great Eloquence. Even if one were so gifted a speaker as to not only communicate with man of all languages, but even to communicate with angels, apart from divine love it would be nothing more than an annoyance to the people of God. This is true of any gift, not only tongues. One may start out well, but if love ceases to be the motivation in using the gift, it can become a positive nuisance to our brethren. The apostle gives the example of musical instruments, which are wonderful in an orchestra, but if used out of step with the conductor they can spoil the whole performance. Notice that Paul says “if”… v.1, v.2 and v.3 are prefaced the same way. Paul is speaking hypothetically, as we see by comparing v.2 and v.9; Paul did not “know all” because no mortal does! It is not possible for Christians to speak the language of the angels, although some claim that they do (muttering gibberish). It could be that Paul is referring to the adaptability of angel’s speech, because certainly angels have no problem speaking in every human language. Another point is his use of the first person singular. Paul is really accusing the Corinthians of having a boastful spirit void of love, but notice how careful he is not to offend. He turns it around and says “I”, once again “transferring” these things to himself in a figure (1 Cor. 4:6). It has been described as a surgeon, who might use a bone saw to open the chest cavity, then switch to a delicate scalpel to perform surgery on the heart. Likewise, when addressing division Paul could say “you” (1 Cor. 11:18), but when addressing heart matters he could say “I”. See also Gal. 2:18.
2 And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. v.2 Great Spiritual Possessions. Going a step further, beyond the lesser gifts of eloquence into the realm of gifts that edify, even truly great gift does not make a servant great. John the Baptist was the “greatest born of women” (Matt. 11:11) and yet “John did no miracle” (John 10:41). It wasn’t John’s ability that made him great, it was his humility. The gift of prophecy is perhaps the greatest gift that a believer can have today, followed by teaching (knowledge), then by special faith to remove difficulties (mountains). Yet apart from love, all that gift is worthless; “I am nothing”. How much better to start off saying “I am nothing” and leave the rest to God, than to set off saying “I am something” and fall on my face! The point is this: the key ingredient to a healthy assembly is not gift… it is love.
3 And if I shall dole out all my goods in food, and if I deliver up my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I profit nothing. v.3 Great Acts of Service. The apostle takes it one final step, beyond even gift. Service is something God values very much, but if it is carried out without love, it is no help to anyone. Paul speaks of philanthropy (sacrificing our goods), and even martyrdom (sacrificing our body), apart from love. We can readily see how we might do something great without God’s approval, but it is insidious that we could do something great without God’s approval. The actions themselves are not enough. The motive must be right. Again, the key ingredient to a healthy assembly more than energy is love.

The Qualities of Love (vv.4-7)

4 Love (1) has long patience, (2) is kind; love (3) is not emulous of others; love (4) is not insolent and rash, (5) is not puffed up, 5 (6) does not behave in an unseemly manner, (7) does not seek what is its own, (8) is not quickly provoked, (9) does not impute evil, 6 (10) does not rejoice at iniquity but rejoices with the truth, 7 (11) bears all things, (12) believes all things, (13) hopes all things, (14) endures all things. vv.4-7 Now we get not so much a definition of love, but a description of its qualities. In this chapter, there are sixteen qualities of love that are listed, including v.8, although I see v.6 as one quality (no comma), and v.8 as more abstract, which leaves me with fourteen. Some of them are positive (“love is…”), but more of them are negative (“love is not…”). This shows that it can be just as helpful in seeking to understand a subject to learn what it is not, as well as what it is. These fourteen qualities are given with very little comment, then the final, more abstract quality, is expanded on in the last six verses of the chapter. We see all these qualities perfectly in the life of the Lord Jesus on earth! They bring before us a life of total self-abnegation, and sacrifice for others.
The first seven have more to do with the ordinary operation of the assembly:
  1. Patient. “Love… has long patience”. In the day-to-day function of the assembly, there is the need for patience, or long-suffering. On one side, the recipients might lose patience with those giving the ministry. The flesh might tire of hearing brother X’s story about his granddaughter for the umpteenth time. On the other hand, a teacher might lose patience with a distracted or incompetent audience. A shepherd might lose patience with a willful, wandering sheep, etc.
  2. Kind. “Love… is kind”. How easy it might be to say or do something unkind when we lose our temper. Kindness follows “long-suffering”… after love has suffered long, it is still kind! The high priest was never to rend his garment (Ex. 28:32). Likewise, the servants of Christ should never act so as to spoil the character of Christ that ought to be reflected in our conduct.
  3. Content. “Love… is not emulous of others”. This is the very opposite of the spirit of competition. Competition, or envy on the part of one member toward another, is absolutely destructive to the local assembly. The temptation, as explained in 1 Cor. 12:15-17, is to want the gift that someone else has. Love would never allow that spirit of envy to develop.
  4. Respectful. “Love… is not insolent and rash”. Love would give us to be slow to anger, and gentle with others. Aggression is destructive to the assembly. It is not necessary to get in our brother’s face, to make sure that he sees it our way. There is a danger of being forceful with our ministry, and as a result, we could render ourselves ineffective.
  5. Humble. “Love… is not puffed up”. Those who are motivated by love will not have a spirit of self-importance. If we have high thoughts about ourselves, we might try to take a place in ministry that the Lord has not given us. The Corinthians were puffed up (1 Cor. 5:2), and it had led to incalculable sorrow in their midst. Pride is so insidious… we are never out of the danger of pride.
  6. Proper. “Love… does not behave in an unseemly manner”. Love would give us to be courteous of others, in all walks of life, but especially in ministry. Do we butt in and talk over others? Do we step on others’ toes? Do our assembly meetings resemble a free-for-all? If the Corinthians had had love (ch.13), then the disorders of ch.14 would never have appeared. Love should regulate our behavior in public and in private.
  7. Selfless. “Love… does not seek what is its own”. Is my service “for the Lord” really for myself? Motives can easily be blurred when communion is broken. Our motives will be tested by the trials and difficulties of life. Christian ministry does not consist of “sharing” what I have enjoyed or what I have learned. Rather, it consists of serving one another in the spirit of self-sacrifice. “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister” (Matt. 20:26).

The last seven have more to do with when the flesh has been active, and difficulties have come in:

  1. Lowly. “Love… is not quickly provoked”. When trouble does arise, love does not immediately fly into self-defense mode. Lowliness is not taking offense. It is one thing to preach about love in a theoretical way, it is another thing to practice it when we are attacked unjustly.
  2. Unsuspicious. “Love… does not impute evil”. In times of difficulty in the assembly, one of the most dangerous behaviors is imputing evil without just cause. Love does not assume the worst. Love does not probe around looking for a reason to take another to task. Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, “judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1).
  3. Holy. “Love… does not rejoice at iniquity but rejoices with the truth”. At all times, but especially when difficulties arise (as they had in Corinth), we must choose what to focus on. The easy way out is to focus on the evil. This verse actually goes beyond focusing on evil, it speaks of rejoicing in evil. Love does not enjoy when evil is spoken or committed. Rather, love rejoices when the truth is spoken and upheld! This verse touches on the motive, which is why I think it is similar to holiness. Holiness is more than separation from evil; it is a hatred for evil, and a love of good. It is not hatred for the sake of hatred, but a hatred for evil because it spoils what is good. We know this because God was holy long before anything came in to spoil the good.
  4. Meek. “Love… bears all things”. Job and Moses are two great examples of saints in the Old Testament who bore tremendous burdens. Job was able to bear the pain and loss he suffered, but then broke down under the scrutiny of his three friends. Moses bore with the chiding of the Israelites for thirty-eight years, but finally broke down in Num. 20. The only One who never failed was the Incarnate Love, who bore not only the contradiction of sinners against Himself, but our sins in His own body on the cross.
  5. Open-minded. “Love… believes all things”. Never are we told to believe what is false or evil. We are not to be open minded where doctrine is concerned. But we ought to be open-minded to the thoughts and expressions of others; to realize that we might be wrong ourselves. Love would give us to be considerate of others, and willing to hear their side of the story; to believe what others say when there is no evidence to the contrary.
  6. Cheerful. “Love… hopes all things”. Love is always hoping for the best. We do not know why people do the things they do, but we should always put the very best construction on it. In everything that we pass through, we ought to see the good in it. Never should we “write off” another who is on a wrong path. The Christian who is “walking in love” (Eph. 5:2) will have joy even in times of sorrow.
  7. Persistent. “Love… endures all things”. One of Satan’s oldest tactics is to “wear out the saints of the most High” (Dan. 7:25). Love would give us to serve in the midst of trial, even though it might stretch on and on.

The Permanence of Love (vv.8-13)

The Permanence of Love vs. the Transient Character of Gift (vv.8-10)

8 Love never fails; but whether prophecies, they shall be done away [‘katargethesontai’]; or tongues, they shall cease [‘pausontai’]; or knowledge, it shall be done away [‘katargethesetai’]. v.8 Since love is the essential character of God, it will never fade, nor become outdated. We who are partakers of the divine nature have something that can never fade, even when all else does. Love is “more excellent” than all the gifts, from the greatest (prophecy) to the least (tongues) because love will outlast them all. At the rapture, the need for prophecy and knowledge will be over, because we will be glorified with Christ. The need for tongues will cease before the rapture, and perhaps it already has (see note). Everything the Corinthians took pride in would fade, but love will go on and on throughout all eternity!
The Bearing of 1 Cor. 13:8 on Sign Gifts. Two different Greek words are used to describe the cessation of prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. In the case of prophecy and knowledge, which are gifts for edification, the word used means “they shall be discarded”, having the thought of an abrupt end. At the rapture, the need for prophecy and knowledge will be over, because we will be glorified with Christ. But in the case of tongues, perhaps broadly applicable to all the sign gifts, the word used means “they shall cease”, which is a phrase that allows for a gradual cessation, and it is used that way; e.g. Luke 8:24 where the raging storm died out after the Lord rebuked the wind and waves. It was fitting that God would mark the early days of the Church with sign gifts, but within the space of several decades, their use faded. The indication here that tongues would cease before the rapture raises serious questions about the resurgence of tongues in the charismatic movement. Certainly, we have no biblical justification to say that sign gifts are extinct today, especially in mission fields etc. where they may be employed by God to reach unbelievers. However, this scripture does give us an additional cause to question the source of these “latter-day” sign gifts. At the same time, the word ‘pausontai’ (“to die out”) does not necessarily indicate a long expanse of time, thus preserving the imminence of the believer’s hope. 
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part: 10 but when that which is perfect has come, that which is in part shall be done away. vv.9-10 Understanding for us is limited now. Regardless of how well-taught or well-gifted we are, it is only “in part”. Even the Apostle Paul admitted that “we” only know in part. Let’s remember that we are reading of things that are infinite, although they are communicated in finite language. How absurd to think that we have the capacity to take it all in. The fact that we “know in part” is another reason why we need each other. Partial knowledge doesn’t mean that there is more light to be discovered, and give us warrant to look for fresh revelation. Nor is this written to give us to doubt the certainty of the Word of God. Rather, it is intended to show us the fullness that awaits us in glory. “That which is perfect” refers to the glorified state into which the believer will be ushered at the rapture. It does not refer to gifts for edification, as some teach. Why? Because prophecy and knowledge is only in part… not “perfect” or “full”. Some who want to combat the modern use of tongues, etc. try to force “that which is in part” to mean the sign gifts, but that is not correct. That which is “perfect” is the glorified state. That which is “in part” is the sphere of Christian ministry today, which is only a partial character of things. The apostle’s point here is that the whole sphere of Christian ministry will vanish when we are glorified.
A Humbling Realization. If we really understood the force of the expression “we know in part”, what a difference it would make in the tone of our ministry! How foolish to speak as if we knew it all. Paul said earlier, “if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2). True knowledge is actually humbling. Someone who is proud in their knowledge is actually more ignorant than they realize. Nevertheless, knowledge has the tendency to puff up. Therefore, Paul could say, “And that I might not be exalted by the exceeding greatness of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn for the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul didn’t need the “thorn” when he was up in heaven, but he did when he came back down here.

Two Illustrations Contrasting the Present with the Future (vv.11-12)

11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I reasoned as a child; when I became a man, I had done with what belonged to the child. v.11 Illustration #1: Childhood vs. Manhood. Paul now gives two illustrations to bring out the great difference between the believer’s present and future. The first is the contrast between a child and a full grown man. Like a child, we have limited understanding now. We “speak” with our feeble human words, we “feel” with our feeble human senses, and we “reason” with our feeble human brains. But in a future day (in heaven), much like an adult compared to a child, we will have a fuller understanding. The lesson for us is this: we must realize that everything limited to the present (prophecy, knowledge, etc.) is childish compared to what is coming. We shouldn’t be so absorbed with these things that we fail to lay hold of what is eternal. The Corinthians were so preoccupied with childish things, showing off their gifts, especially sign gifts, like a child shows off his or her birthday present, that they were missing out on preparation for eternity.
12 For we see now through a dim window obscurely, but then face to face; now I know partially, but then I shall know according as I also have been known. v.12 Illustration #2: Seeing Through a Dim Window vs. Face to Face. When looking through a smeared or soot-covered window, we only see “darkly”… or “obscurely”. This word is only used once in the New Testament, and it almost conveys the idea of an enigma. In other words, the best understanding we can possibly have at this present time is but a hint; a rough, fuzzy outline of the reality that is soon to be revealed. It is compared to seeing without any window pane at all… seeing “face to face”. The idea of “face to face” is to see clearly. This is not talking about being face to face with the Lord, which we will be, but rather it is talking about clarity of understanding. We will never reach omniscience; to know as God knows. So what does this mean that we will know as we are known? It is similar to the way Paul says that “I am apprehended of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12). God not only knows facts about us, but He also knows our origin, purpose, and destiny. In the coming day, we are not only going to know many discrete facts in a piece-wise fashion, but we will understand God’s purpose and counsels in a holistic way.

Love is the Greatest of Christianity’s Main Moral Principles (v.13)

13 And now abide faith, hope, love; these three things; and the greater of these is love. v.13

The three things mentioned - faith, love, and hope - are the three great moral principles of Christianity; without which there would be no Christianity. Many times in the New Testament faith, hope, and love are put together (1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 5:5-6; Col. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:3; 1 Thess. 5:8-10; Heb. 6:10-12). Faith is implicit and complete trust in God: a total contrast to the unbelief and skepticism in the world around us. Hope for the believer is a deferred certainly; whether it be the hope of the Lord's coming, or of being conformed to the image of Christ, or of enjoying the glory of God. Love is a settled disposition of favor: something God has toward us, and what we ought to have toward our brethren. These three principles "now abide" (1 Cor. 13:13), and are necessary for the pathway.

But not all three will abide forever. Faith and hope are good companions for the pathway, but we will part company with them at door of heaven. Faith and hope are only needed because of the limitations of the human nature. When we get to heaven, we will see that which faith is the evidence or conviction of presently (Heb. 11:1). Our hope, being seen, will no longer be hope (Rom. 8:24). In other words, faith and hope will give way to sight. But love is the essential character of God, and it will never fade nor be replaced! Therefore, “the greater of these is love”.
When faith and hope shall cease,
And love abide alone,
Then shall we see Him face to face,
And know as known:
Still shall we lift our voice,
His praise our song shall be;
And we shall in His love rejoice
Who set us free.1
  1. Beaumont, J. Our Shepherd is the Lord. Little Flock Hymnbook #238. 1881
Tagged with: