“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
1 Corinthians chapter thirteen is widely recognized among Christians and non-Christians alike as the “Love Chapter” of the New Testament. As such, it should come as no surprise to find that portions of this chapter have found their way into many different merchandising efforts, including key chains, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, T-shirts, pillows, and refrigerator magnets among others.
While there are many who surely derive a legitimate spiritual benefit from these items, its important to take steps to ensure that we avoid trivializing the important Biblical truths contained within this chapter. If we allow the message of 1 Corinthians thirteen to devolve into little more than a cute slogan on a coffee mug, we may miss the important lessons we can learn from this beautiful portion of Scripture.
1 Corinthians chapter thirteen is placed squarely in the middle of a three-chapter discussion on the subject of spiritual gifts. While it may seem unusual to change the focus of this section to the subject of love, this digression actually serves an important purpose: it is designed to ensure that our priorities are in order when it comes to the proper exercise of our God-given gifts, skills, talents, and abilities.
As touched upon previously in 1 Corinthians chapter twelve, judgments such as “superior” or “inferior” are often determined by the standard of measurement we use. For the Christian community at Corinth, the external display of various spiritual gifts served as a measure of spiritual superiority. However, Paul the Apostle will go on to re-orient the Corinthians’ thinking in this regard by stressing the fact that love is the true measure of spiritual maturity here in 1 Corinthians thirteen.
One commentator expresses this idea in the following manner…
“Instead of selfishly and jealously desiring showy gifts which they don’t have, believers should pursue the greatest thing of all—love for each other. This chapter is considered by many the greatest literary passage ever penned by Paul. It is central to his earnestly dealing with spiritual gifts (chaps. 12–14), because after discussing the endowment of gifts (chap. 12) and before presenting the function of gifts (chap. 14), he addresses the attitude necessary in all ministry in the church (chap. 13).” (1)
Finally, another commentator laments the discord between the type of love described within this chapter and it’s practice down through the ages in the following manner: Many consider 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen to be the most wonderful chapter in the New Testament. It has been admired by all ages, but, unfortunately, practiced by none. (2)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (1 Co 13:1–13). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament”. <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=013>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
The thirteen verses contained within 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen are easily divided into three distinct portions. The first of these sections covers verses one to three. This segment will serve to reveal the ultimate futility associated with the exercise of a God-given gift without a corresponding attitude of love.
The next division is found within verses four to seven. This portion of Scripture identifies the nature and associated characteristics of love and provides us with a number of valuable insights. For instance, a person who studies this section may find that what some identify as “love” today may be something that bears little or no resemblance to the kind of love described in here 1 Corinthians thirteen.
The final portion of 1 Corinthians thirteen begins in verse eight and continues on throughout the remainder of this chapter. This passage identifies the temporal nature of the gifts we possess today and contrasts their short-lived character with the permanent and indestructible nature of real genuine love.
Like any good teacher, the Apostle Paul will not begin this portion of his letter to the Corinthians by immediately placing his audience on the defensive. Instead, Paul will use himself as a hypothetical example and thus serve as an indirect (but highly effective) mirror to the true nature of the Corinthians’ behavior…
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Having already alerted his readers to the existence of a “more excellent way” at the close of the previous chapter, Paul will go on to describe the “…way of life that is best of all” (NLT) by first identifying what it is not. To do so, Paul will utilize the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy (both mentioned earlier in 1 Corinthians 12:10) along with the spiritual gift of giving (Romans 12:8) to contrast the ultimate futility of such gifts in the absence of love.
But what exactly is love? We’ll begin to unpack the answer to this important question next.
It’s not uncommon to encounter others who are blessed with an outstanding skill or ability. Perhaps it is a talented musician or an accomplished athlete who is recognized to be among the best at what they do. It might be a skilled craftsman or a gifted artist who creates beautiful and inspiring work. Or it may be a coach or teacher who possesses the ability to help others reach their full potential.
We often honor the Provider of these abilities by identifying such individuals (and others like them) as people who were born with a “God-given” talent. But as great as it may be to possess an outstanding skill or ability, 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen tells us that there is something even better…
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV).
One of the best ways to identify genuine love is to look for the actions that reveal its existence. Just as an image in front of a mirror produces a reflection, real love is also reflected by the actions that it serves to produce. The opening verses of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen help to emphasize the importance of love while the next few verses will go on to provide us with a list of characteristics that we can use to identify the existence of authentic love within ourselves and others.
The problem is that “love” is one of those words that may be easy to say but difficult to define. For instance, consider the use of the word love in the following instances…
- I love football.
- I love ice cream.
- I love my pet.
- I love my friends.
- I love my children.
- I love my spouse.
Although the use of the word “love” is fully appropriate in each of these instances, it should be reasonably safe to assume that most people probably do not love ice cream in the same way in which they love spending time with their friends. The ancient Greeks found a way around this dilemma by utilizing four different words to describe the various aspects of love and we’ll consider that solution in greater detail next.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NET).
The word “love” is a word that demonstrates an amazing degree of versatility. Depending on the context, “love” can be used to express a variety of responses that range from a general sense of admiration all the way to an intense expression of deep emotional passion. There are any number of degrees along this trajectory and because of this, it is often easy for two or more people to define “love” in a vastly different manner.
The ancient Greeks addressed this problem by developing different words to describe the various aspects of love. One such word was storge. Storge was generally associated with an affectionate kind of love. It described the type of love that a parent might express towards a child, or a family member might have towards another family member.
In other contexts, storge could be used to identify the love that one might have for a beloved pet or a benevolent ruler. In this sense, we can associate the idea behind the use of this word with the natural feeling of affection that one might have for a favorite athlete, musician, actor, or political figure today.
Another word for love was eros, a word that described the sensual, physical aspect of a love relationship. Our modern-day word erotic is derived from this word and it encompasses the intense physical and emotional passion that a human couple might feel towards one another.
In fact, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 touched on the validity of this aspect of a marital relationship in saying, “The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer…” (NLT).
Although storge and eros are not used within the Bible, we will consider a different word for love that has found its way into the New Testament Scriptures next.
“If I speak human or angelic languages but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 HCSB).
Our 21st century world largely associates the word “Philadelphia” with the famous American city of that name. This word means “brotherly love” in the original language of the New Testament and serves to explain why the modern-day city of Philadelphia is also known as “The City Of Brotherly Love” today.
“Philadelphia” is derived from the ancient Greek word phileo, a word that can be defined in the following manner: to approve of, to like, to treat affectionately or kindly, to welcome, befriend. (1) This word also describes the type of love that can be found among those who share a common interest. For example, when a group of close friends get together for a time of social interaction, the affection, acceptance, fondness, and camaraderie that exists among them can often be identified with this type of love.
Other synonyms that can be used to describe the idea of phileo include words such as fraternity, community, and brotherhood, among others. Since human love may sometimes be tainted with the unfortunate qualities of selfishness, manipulation, and/or self-gratification, phileo probably represents the purest expression of love that most people will ever experience without God.
Some Biblical uses of this word can also be found within the following Scriptures…
“For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel” (John 5:20).
“In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God” (John 16:26-27).
“Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts” (Luke 20:46).
Despite these appearances however, phileo is not the most common word for love in the New Testament Scriptures. We’ll look at the most common word for love (including the word translated as “love” here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen) next.
(1) G5368 phileo Thayer’s Greek Definitions
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 HCSB).
The Greek word agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay) is the word that is most commonly translated as “love” within the New Testament Scriptures. This word appears more than one hundred times and can be found within every New Testament book except for the Gospel of Mark and the book of Acts. Agape is also the only word that is translated as “love” here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen.
This type of love can be defined in a number of ways. First, we can say that agape love is a love that find’s it’s origin in the will. Unlike other kinds of love, this type of love is not rooted in a feeling, emotion, or personality trait. Instead, agape love is characterized by a willful desire to love. In other words, agape love loves because it wants to.
For example, we can say that it is God’s nature to love but there is nothing inherently lovable within human beings that reject Him. Therefore, God chooses to love by His will. He determines to love because it is His nature to love. We can find an expression of God’s love in this regard by looking at a portion of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy…
“The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8 NIV).
Agape love can also be identified as the kind of love that continues without demanding anything in response. Unlike a relationship where one partner expresses love in the hope that it will be reciprocated, agape love makes no such demand. Rather, we can say that this kind of love is unaffected by external conditions or even by whether or not it is returned.
“What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels? If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge? And what if I had faith that moved mountains? I would be nothing, unless I loved others. What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive? I would gain nothing, unless I loved others” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 CEV).
While the New Testament word phileo describes the type of affectionate fondness that one person might have for another, agape love represents the kind of sacrificial love that is best demonstrated by Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. There may be no greater Biblical expression of this idea than the one that is found within the well-known passage from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
But while agape love has often been identified as “God’s love,” one commentator explains why that idea may not be entirely accurate…
“Strictly speaking, agape can’t be defined as ‘God’s love,’ because men are said to agape sin and the world (Joh_3:19, 1Jn_2:15). But it can be defined as a sacrificial, giving, absorbing, love. The word has little to do with emotion; it has much to do with self-denial for the sake of another.” (1)
Much like the word phileo, a look at a few New Testament appearances of the word agape (along with its associated forms) can help shed some light on its meaning…
“‘…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).
“And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:17).
“…the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Hebrews 12:6 NIV).
Another example of this kind of love can be found within Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This parable relates the account of a person who acted in a loving, compassionate, and self-sacrificial manner in coming to the aid of an injured traveler. In doing so, the Good Samaritan modeled the type of agape love spoken of here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen.
(1) David Guzik, Enduring Word Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 13 – Agape Love https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/1-corinthians-13/ © Copyright – Enduring Word
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 ESV).
Its been said that nothing can ever fully compensate for the absence of love. For example, there is no spiritual gift (no matter how powerful or impressive) that can take the place of love. Even something that is seemingly honorable or virtuous will ultimately amount to nothing if it is not fundamentally motivated by love.
If we were to paraphrase the Apostle Paul’s argument here in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, we might do so by saying, “If I had the ability to speak in any language but did not have love, it would simply be noise. If I possessed the kind of supernatural wisdom that would enable me to unlock any mystery but did not have love, it would be worthless. If I had the faith to move mountains but was deficient in love, it would amount to nothing. If I performed charitable works or sacrificed myself for a noble cause without love, it would ultimately be meaningless.”
To illustrate the truth behind this idea, we can turn to a number of Biblical examples. For instance, the Old Testament speaks of a man named Balaam, a person who clearly possessed a prophetic gift. However, Balaam did not employ his gift in an attitude of love. Instead, he used his prophetic abilities to ultimately bring harm upon the people of Israel– a decision for which he ultimately paid with his life.
Judas Iscariot offers another example. Jesus endowed Judas (along with the other disciples) with the authority to preach, eradicate demonic activity, and bring supernatural healing to others. Despite these things, Judas demonstrated his lack of love in taking what belonged to others– and much like Balaam, the account of Judas’ life did not end well.
The church of Corinth serves as a further example. Even though the members of the Corinthian church had an abundance of spiritual gifts, their lack of love led them to condone sexual immorality, exhibit an attitude of favoritism, and sue one another in court.
So how can we best identify the characteristics of genuine love? Well, the following verses will go on to provide us with the qualities that will answer that question.
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
As we examine the identifying characteristics of love here in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, we first should note that genuine, agape love is never associated with an emotional feeling. Instead, we can say that the emotional component of love is something that should find its origin in the qualities that are given to us within this passage. One source expands on this idea in the following manner…
“With a series of fifteen verbs Paul describes what love is and is not, and does and does not do. The vices contrary to love mentioned here appear elsewhere in the letter as characteristics of the Corinthians, whereas the virtues never describe them.
Paul employs the literary device of personification to suggest that a person who loves demonstrates it by selfless actions, marked by patience, kindness, etc. That is, if I have love, I am not proud or arrogant. If, on the contrary, I am easily angered and keep a record of wrongs, I do not have love. Love is not one of many virtues; it embodies them all. Love is not merely the doing of some heroic or virtuous action or refraining from vices or evil deeds. It is a ‘way’ of life (12:31b).” (1)
The first among these characteristics is patience. A look at the original language of this passage tells us that this word encompasses the following qualities: to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes and troubles, to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others, to be longsuffering, slow to anger, slow to punish (2)
In light of the lawsuits that had been initiated among the members of the Corinthian congregation, it appears that patience may have been a characteristic that was lacking among them. Of course, patience is a quality that is no less necessary today, especially when interacting with those who are hurtful, annoying, immature, or deliberately seek to injure us in some manner.
In these situations, its helpful to remember that patience is a quality exhibited by God Himself who “…is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This attribute was also modeled by Jesus who “…when he was reviled, reviled not again” (1 Peter 2:23). Although patience is a quality that may not come naturally for many of us, it can be developed by those who prayerfully seek God’s empowerment.
(1) Carpenter, E. E., & McCown, W. (1992). Asbury Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House.
(2) Asbury Bible Commentary The activity of love (13:4–7) https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/2-activity-love
(2) G3114 makrothymeo Thayer’s Greek Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3114&t=NKJV
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV).
The second identifying quality of love found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is kindness. While “kindness” is generally associated with the idea of compassion, benevolence, and good will, its interesting to note that one definition of this word is to show oneself useful (1) So we can add the constructive qualities of help, assistance, and practical service to these commonly accepted characteristics of kindness as well.
In a negative sense, these definitions also tell us that a person who acts in a malicious, spiteful, or derogatory manner is someone who does not exhibit this defining characteristic of love. It also implies that excessive teasing, hurtful jokes or comments, overly sarcastic remarks, undue criticism, or other, similar responses are not in keeping with the pattern of life described within this passage.
Of course, teasing, sarcasm, and similar types of bantering are often reflective of the fellowship and camaraderie that exists among a group of friends, family members, athletes, co-workers, military veterans, or others with shared experiences. These interactions often serve to demonstrate the appreciation and respect that the members of the group have for one another. So what’s the difference between one type of response and the other?
Well, the issue is really one of intent. When sarcasm is generated by something other than a sense of respect for another person, the result is likely to be unkind. The destructive effect associated with this type of attitude is described within the Old Testament book of Proverbs where we’re told, “Just as damaging as a madman shooting a deadly weapon is someone who lies to a friend and then says, ‘I was only joking'” (Proverbs 26:18-19 NLT).
On the other hand, a “non-characteristic” of love that is conspicuous by its absence is envy, or a feeling of disapproval towards those who are blessed or successful. One commentator offers the following observation regarding envy and its relationship to kindness…
“We are often not patient or kind because we are jealous. We are spiteful and short with people because we see them enjoying something that we want. They have a relationship that we envy; they have a quality about themselves that we do not have and we are angry about it, so we are short and spiteful. That is one reason why we are not patient and kind.” (2)
(1) G5541 chresteuomai Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5541&t=NKJV
(2) Ray C. Stedman, Supreme Priority 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 https://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/1-corinthians/supreme-priority
“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT).
Two additional characteristics that are not reflective of genuine love are boastfulness and pride. One translation of 1 John 2:16 helpfully identifies the “…boastful pride of life” as the “pretentious confidence in one’s resources…” (AMP). In light of this, we can say that a person with a genuine attitude of love is someone who recognizes that things like our social standing, talents, capabilities, and possessions do not make us inherently superior to others.
Although “pride” is sometimes identified with the legitimate feeling of personal satisfaction that accompanies a job well done, the attitude referenced within this passage is really more reflective of the egotistical bragging and empty bravado that characterizes a sense of arrogance, self-importance, and condescension. Another Biblical word-picture that helps to capture this idea is “vainglorious” (AMPC).
Thankfully, most people do not seem to possess these qualities to any great degree. Nevertheless, we should remember that pride can be extremely subtle and difficult to identify- and much like a destructive computer virus, it may begin with something that initially seems small and harmless.
As an example, let’s consider those who are involved in various online communities. How many social media posts represent a subtle expression of the type of attitude that Jesus warned against in the Gospel of Matthew…
“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They like to stand in synagogues and on street corners to pray so that everyone can see them. I can guarantee this truth: That will be their only reward” (Matthew 6:5 GW).
While everyone enjoys the affirmation and approval that comes with a “like” or “follow,” it may be worth considering this possibility: is there a chance that our seemingly God-honoring social media posts actually contain a hidden element of “vainglory” expressed by a desire to be seen, liked, and affirmed by others? (1) As one commentator observes, “Love is quiet, unassuming, and humble. When love does anything it does not do it for praise or the applause of others.” (2)
In light of this, we can say that love is closely aligned with an attitude of humility, a positive personal characteristic that involves courtesy, respect, and a modest self opinion. As we’re also reminded in Proverbs 15:33, “Humility and reverence for the Lord will make you both wise and honored” (TLB).
(1) Even those who are not spiritual recognize the existence of such things- see here
(2) Paul T. Butler, Studies In First Corinthians [pg. 289] College Press, Joplin, Missouri Copyright © College Press 1963 https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude. Love isn’t selfish or quick tempered. It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs that others do. Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil. Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 CEV).
Rudeness represents another characteristic that is not representative of genuine love. For instance, love is not ill-mannered nor does it treat “important people” well and “unimportant people” with disrespect. In short, love does not intentionally act in matter that serves to dishonor others. One source provides us with some additional insight into this idea…
“The Greek words are ouk aschemonei, meaning literally, ‘does not act unbecomingly, or, without graciousness.’ There is the type of Christian who thinks real loyalty to the Bible means one must act bluntly, candidly, without tact and charm, almost brutally. There may be candidness there, but there is no winsomeness. Love is courteous, tactful, polite, and respectful without compromising truth. Love applies the ‘Golden Rule.’ Love makes it possible to be right without being rude.” (1)
The next “non-quality” of love is described as “self-seeking” (NIV) or “self-serving” (NET). In other words, love does not only look out for its own best interests; instead, it chooses to anticipate the needs of others as well. We can illustrate this idea with the real-life experience of a person who once attended a church with a small parking area adjacent to a church entry door and a larger parking area across the street.
Since a number of church members typically arrived well before the rest of the congregation, this person observed many of these individuals as they enjoyed the convenience of leaving their cars in the small auxiliary parking area. However, that left many other members of the congregation (including the elderly, the infirm, and those with small children) to park their vehicles at a distance. Needless to say, this made it difficult for those individuals to attend the church’s services, especially in the intense heat of summer or the snow and cold of winter.
So the question is this: were the people who appropriated the best parking spots acting in love? Well, its likely that many of these individuals never even considered the impact of their decision upon those members of the congregation who found it difficult to walk in the inclement weather or the temperature extremes of winter and summer. But they should have.
This small example serves to remind us that love is not self-seeking; it considers the needs of others as well as what’s best for itself and then responds in an appropriate manner.
(1) Paul T. Butler, Studies In First Corinthians [pg. 283] College Press, Joplin, Missouri Copyright © College Press 1963 https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV).
In considering this passage, one source comments on the fact that genuine love “does not insist on its own way” with the following observation: “It would be the key to almost all the problems which surround us today, if men would think less of their rights and more of their duties.” (1)
This concept of love as an obligation or duty is extremely valuable, especially in those situations where we may not feel very loving towards others. You see, a person who primarily associates love with a feeling or emotion is someone who must insist on having his or her way. The reason for this is that “love” can only exist for such individuals if another person is willing to accommodate his or her feelings. If others are unwilling to conform in such a manner, then “love” can no longer exist between those individuals.
Since feelings and emotions are often changeable, this means that it is virtually impossible to maintain a genuine long-term love relationship that is primarily rooted in an emotional feeling. On the other hand, the agape love described here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen is a love that find’s it’s origin in the will. Since it does not originate in a feeling, emotion, or personality trait, it does not have to insist on its own way- and this is what makes it possible to maintain a genuine love relationship even the absence of an emotional feeling.
This concept was once illustrated in a humorous anecdote attributed to Ruth Graham, the late wife of famed evangelist Billy Graham. When asked if she had ever contemplated divorcing her husband, Mrs. Graham is said to have replied, “Divorce? No. Murder? Yes.” This tongue-in-cheek response served to demonstrate Mrs. Graham’s willful commitment to love her husband even in those instances where his actions may have caused her to feel otherwise.
As Mrs. Graham’s response implies, this “will to love” is especially important in regard to marriage relationships. As any couple in a long-term marital relationship is surely aware, there are times when one or both partners must willingly commit to love one another- and genuine love recognizes that there are instances where it is best to refrain from insisting on having one’s own way.
(1) William Barclay quoted in “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13“. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament”. <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=013>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and it cannot be made angry easily. Love does not remember wrongs done against it. Love is never happy when others do wrong, but it is always happy with the truth. Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ERV).
Another quality associated with genuine love is this: “(Love is) not easily angered” (CJB). In other words, a person who exhibits the characteristics found here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen is someone who is not touchy, irritable, or easily provoked. Such a person is not known to fly into a rage whenever things do not go well; instead, he or she prayerfully maintains the ability to manage an appropriate, God-honoring emotional response in the face of such difficulties.
In addition, we’re told that “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV). For example, love doesn’t say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget” nor does it say, “I’ll get even.” Instead, love waits for God to handle a act of injustice (perceived or otherwise) as He sees fit (see Proverbs 20:22). This attitude also precludes the mental process of tallying up the mistakes, failures, and shortcomings of others to use against them in the future.
Now at this point we should pause to make a critical distinction. This characteristic of love does not mean that we cannot be realistic about the frailties and weaknesses of others. Nor does it mean that we should ignore repeated behavior patterns to the point of gullibility. However, it does imply that a person who loves is someone who does not hold grudges, maintain a list of grievances, or question the motives of others without just cause.
Finally, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (NIV). Love is never pleased when unfortunate things happen to others even if they seemingly appear to deserve it. A person who loves is not blind to the fact that bad choices often lead to bad consequences but instead of viewing such consequences as “payback” for the wrongs that others commit, love is hopeful and sees such instances as potential opportunities for spiritual growth.
As we’re told in the Biblical book of Hebrews…
“The Lord corrects the people he loves and disciplines those he calls his own… It is never fun to be corrected. In fact, at the time it is always painful. But if we learn to obey by being corrected, we will do right and live at peace” (Hebrews 12:6, 11 CEV).
“Love is never tired of waiting; love is kind; love has no envy; love has no high opinion of itself, love has no pride; Love’s ways are ever fair, it takes no thought for itself; it is not quickly made angry, it takes no account of evil; It takes no pleasure in wrongdoing, but has joy in what is true; Love has the power of undergoing all things, having faith in all things, hoping all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 BBE).
In continuing with the description of love found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, we now arrive at a well-known portion of Scripture: “(Love) bears all things” (NKJV). The original language of this passage expresses the idea of something that serves to protect or keep by covering (1) and various Biblical translations have taken a number of different approaches in attempting to effectively communicate this idea.
- Love always protects (NIV).
- Love has the power of undergoing all things (BBE).
- Love is always supportive (CEV).
- Love always bears up (CJB).
Although this aspect of love should serve to encompass all of our interpersonal relationships, this idea is especially important when it comes to our relationships with others within the family of God.
You see, family members may sometimes possess insights into the character, temperament, and personality traits of other family members that others will never see or experience. While this is often true for biological family members, the same can also be said for those who represent our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Since the individual members of the Body of Christ may have insights into the flaws and weaknesses of other members of the Body, the way in which we handle this “inside information” often serves to determine if we are truly acting in a manner that reflects the principles found here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen.
If we happen to obtain such insight into the life of another member of God’s family, it helps to remember that we are not automatically obligated to share such knowledge with everyone. We should also not seek to publicize such information in manner that is brings shame or humiliation upon a fellow brother or sister in Christ.
Instead, such insights should prompt us to pray on behalf of others as we seek to adhere to the defining quality of love given to us here in 1 Corinthians 13:7: “(Love) quietly covers all things…” (MKJV). Nevertheless, there are some potential exceptions to this general policy and we’ll consider a few of them next.
(1) G4722 stego Thayer’s Greek Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4722&t=KJV
“This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience—it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance. Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage.
It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails. Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Phillips).
Charles Spurgeon, the well-known 19th century preacher once made the following observation…
“You must have fervent charity towards the saints, but you will find very much about the best of them which will try your patience; for, like yourself, they are imperfect, and they will not always turn their best side towards you, but sometimes sadly exhibit their infirmities. Be prepared, therefore, to contend with ‘all things’ in them.” (1)
Although “(Love) quietly covers all things…” (MKJV), this is not to say that we are responsible to remain silent concerning those things that may be illegal, immoral, or potentially life-threatening. This might include instances of theft, battery, sexual misconduct, or talk of a potential suicide to name a few examples. In such instances, we should recognize our responsibility to discuss such matters with the appropriate authorities.
The “appropriate authorities” in each instance would largely depend on the issue involved but as a general rule, a clergy member or pastoral minister is often the best place to begin. For indiscretions that fall outside these parameters, Jesus Himself provides us with the appropriate response…
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.
If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17 NLT).
Finally, we would do well to consider the following guideline from the New Testament book of Galatians in our relationships with others: “…if a Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help him back onto the right path, remembering that next time it might be one of you who is in the wrong” (Galatians 6:1 TLB).
(1) Charles. H. Spurgeon, Love’s Labours (1881) https://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons27.iv_1.html
“Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 HCSB).
1 Corinthians 13:7 identifies another characteristic of love in the following manner: “(Love) always trusts” (NIV). This aspect of love is more important than it may appear for trust is something that largely helps to determine the depth and quality of our relationships with others.
You see, most of us are unwilling to invest in someone we do not trust, for trust involves a degree of vulnerability. For instance, two business leaders can enter into an agreement with nothing more than a handshake if a sufficient level of trust exists. But if there is only a limited amount of trust between two parties, then each may seek the protection of a contractual arrangement where the terms and conditions of the agreement are clearly defined (sometimes in page after page of excruciating detail).
Of course, this aspect of genuine love may be represent a challenge in those instances where others have been demonstrably untrustworthy. The unfortunate truth is that a person who has repeatedly made poor decisions, broken promises, or demonstrated recurrent lapses in judgment is probably not someone who can be trusted, at least not entirely. So how should we understand and apply this passage of Scripture in such instances?
Well, perhaps we can understand this idea to mean that love is not inherently suspicious. In other words, love does not immediately seek to assign an ulterior motive or assume the worst about someone without sufficient cause. In those instances where trust in another person is not warranted, love places its trust in God’s ability to work in the hearts and minds of the untrustworthy to help such individuals to become men and women of integrity.
Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that trust should never be equated with gullibility. Even Jesus (who represents the supreme example of what it means to love) was honest and forthright concerning the true character of one of His disciples (John 6:70-71), the real motives of some who followed Him (John 6:25-27), and the actual agenda pursued by the religious leadership of His day (John 8:37-40).
As one commentator has observed in this regard: “(Love does not) try to persuade itself that a thief is honest or that the criminal is innocent, but it knows God is not willing that any man should perish. So love always hopes for repentance.” (1)
(1) Paul T. Butler, Studies In First Corinthians [pg. 285] College Press, Joplin, Missouri Copyright © College Press 1963 https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn’t jealous. It doesn’t sing its own praises. It isn’t arrogant. It isn’t rude. It doesn’t think about itself. It isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep track of wrongs. It isn’t happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 GW).
As we move toward the end of this section of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen, we are provided with one final characteristic of genuine love: “(Love) endures all things” (NKJV) or “(Love) always perseveres“ (NIV). This identifying aspect of love serves to emphasize the qualities of diligence, perseverance, and tenacity in responding to the challenges and difficulties we sometimes encounter with others.
One source offers the following insight into this passage by examining the concept of “endurance” as embodied within this portion of Scripture…
“The Greek word is hupomenei, literally, ‘remaining under.’ This does not mean passive resignation, but the kind of spirit which conquers its setbacks, trials and circumstances by faith in God.
It is the kind of ‘dogged constancy’ which ‘hangs-in’ in spite of hardships and obstacles. It is the enduring love shown by the patriarch Job, who said, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.’ It is the overcoming endurance of the apostle Paul who said, ‘For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2Co_12:10).” (1)
So with these identifying characteristics in mind, we can say that the defining qualities of love found here in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 should guide, direct, and inform the choices and decisions we make in our relationships with others. You see, genuine love always seeks the best for everyone involved in a given situation. The people and circumstances may change but a loving response can often be identified by asking the following question: “What is in the best interest of the people who are involved in this situation from God’s perspective?”
Yet just as a loving parent will not give a beloved child everything that he or she may ask for, there may be times when love dictates that we respond in a manner that may be perceived by others in very unloving terms. This is a topic that will occupy the focus of our next few studies.
(1) Paul T. Butler, Studies In First Corinthians [pg. 285] College Press, Joplin, Missouri Copyright © College Press 1963 https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Charity has patience, is kind; charity is not envious, is not vain, is not puffed up; does not behave indecently, does not seek her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil. Charity does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth, quietly covers all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 MKJV).
One of the challenges associated with living out the principles of love given to us in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen involves our interaction with those who may feel as if we have been unloving in some respect. Since we bear a responsibility to live at peace with others as much as possible and love one another fervently, the way in which we respond in these instances can help determine if we are truly aligned with these identifying characteristics of love.
One way to illustrate this idea is to use the familiar example of a parent and child. You see, a wise and loving parent knows that there are times when it may be inappropriate to give a child something that he or she may ask for. If a parent acts in a child’s best interest by lovingly refusing to act on a child’s request in such instances, the child may criticize the parent for being “unloving.” Even though a responsible parent knows such criticism to be inaccurate, that does not necessarily change the child’s perspective.
Unfortunately, this scenario may repeat itself in a more sophisticated form among adult relationships as well. For instance, one person in a relationship may present “love” as an “if-then” proposition, as in “If you love me, you’ll do _________.” Of course, this type of statement may be perfectly legitimate in certain contexts for as Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15 NIV). The idea is that those who adhere to Jesus’ commandments serve to demonstrate the reality of their love for Him.
However, this kind of statement may also represent a calculated and manipulative attempt to use “love” as a means to obtain a desired result. Since a person in an emotionally committed relationship may not wish to appear to be “unloving,” he or she may be motivated to respond to such pressure. The problem is that this type of “love” fails to conform to the characteristics given to us here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen. Instead, it often represents a selfish attempt to exploit the emotional feelings that one person holds for another.
In such instances, its important to recognize and identify the manipulative nature of such requests and refuse to act upon them no matter how “unloving” it may appear to those who might be involved.
“Love meekly and patiently bears ill treatment from others. Love is kind, gentle, benign, pervading and penetrating the whole nature, mellowing all which would have been harsh and austere; is not envious.
Love does not brag, nor does it show itself off, is not ostentatious, does not have an inflated ego, does not act unbecomingly, does not seek after the things which are its own, is not irritated, provoked, exasperated, aroused to anger, does not take into account the evil, does not rejoice at the iniquity but rejoices with the truth, endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things, bears up under all things, not losing heart nor courage” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Wuest).
As we seek to instill the characteristics of love identified here within 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen, we should also recognize that an action that we might regard as a normal expression of love may be perceived quite differently by others.
For instance, we should remember that there are other genuine followers of Jesus who are very different from us in terms of personality, culture, and emotional makeup. These other members of God’s family may not process information or communicate in a way that is similar to our own. They may be more or less mature and may not hold similar attitudes or opinions. Because of this, there may be some who respond negatively to what we may interpret to be an appropriate expression of love or affection.
When others do not respond to such expressions in a way we expect, it may result in hurt feelings or a painful sense of rejection. For some, it may lead to the mistaken perception that others are cold, unloving, or have difficulty expressing their feelings. For others, it may generate a dismissive attitude that regards those who are overtly affectionate as shallow or excessively emotional.
In such instances, it may be helpful to remember that genuine love always seeks another person’s highest good- and any attempt to compel someone to act or respond in a manner that is not truly reflective of his or her personality does not serve to exhibit sincere, authentic love. As we’re reminded in the following Scriptures…
“Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. Through the peace that ties you together, do your best to maintain the unity that the Spirit gives” (Ephesians 4:2-3 GW).
“Never act from motives of rivalry or personal vanity, but in humility think more of each other than you do of yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 Phillips).
“…give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10 NASB).
“Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NET).
Before we leave this portion of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen we should take some time to consider some difficult questions: “Why do Christians sometimes act in a manner that seems unloving? Why do the actions taken by God-honoring men and women sometimes appear to be inconsistent with the principles we find here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen?”
While there may be any number of potential answers to these questions, there are a few possibilities that we may wish to consider. First, we can say that emotional anger may sometimes cause people to say and do things that conflict with the characteristics of love that we find here within this chapter.
We can find one illustration of this idea in the life of Paul the Apostle, the very same man who was used by God to author the “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians thirteen. In the New Testament book of Acts we are told of an incident that occurred when Paul was taken to appear before the religious high council. Acts 23:1 records Paul’s opening statement to that court as follows: “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”
Upon hearing this, the High Priest immediately ordered that Paul be struck on the mouth for making such a remark. This, in turn, led to Paul’s heated response: “God will slap you, you corrupt hypocrite! What kind of judge are you to break the law yourself by ordering me struck like that?” (Acts 23:3 NLT). Although the Scriptures record that Paul later offered an explanation for his outburst, we’re never told that he actually retracted this statement.
We should not understand this to imply that anger justifies our behavior in every instance. However, it does serve to explain why Christians may sometimes respond in a manner that lies outside the parameters of love given to us here in 1 Corinthians thirteen. When these things occur, we can benefit by prayerfully employing the counsel given to us in the Old Testament book of Proverbs: “A wise man restrains his anger and overlooks insults. This is to his credit” (Proverbs 19:11 TLB).
“Love is patient and kind, not jealous, not boastful, not proud, rude or selfish, not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not gloat over other people’s sins but takes its delight in the truth. Love always bears up, always trusts, always hopes, always endures” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 CJB).
Another practical challenge we may encounter in seeking to live out the principles of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen involves the act of confronting another person in response to his or her behavior. Since many of us will eventually find ourselves in a position where we will have to address the actions of another person, the identifying characteristics of love found here in 1 Corinthians thirteen can help guide such interactions and ensure that we act appropriately.
Most of us are probably familiar with the old adage that says, “the truth hurts.” This serves to remind us of an important reality: whenever we bring the truth of a given situation to another person, we should be prepared for the possibility that it will result in pain for the person involved, no matter how gentle, loving, and humble we seek to be.
You see, its often hurtful to be informed that something we’ve hoped for, desired, or worked for will not come to pass. Its painful to be confronted by the news that our actions were not perceived as we intended or that we have acted in a less than God-honoring manner in some area of life.
Because of this, there is always the potential for an emotional backlash whenever it falls upon us to confront others with such realities. In fact, this potential is so great that it may cause us to hold back from speaking the truth in love in certain instances. But once again, we can look to the experience of the Apostle Paul to provide us with a good example in this regard.
The New Testament book of Galatians records a confrontation between Paul the Apostle and the Apostle Peter where Paul tells us, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11). While Paul did not elaborate on Peter’s response, it surely must have been painful for Peter to be confronted in such a manner. Nevertheless, Paul obviously believed that the need for loving confrontation outweighed whatever pain this interaction may have caused.
If we prayerfully allow the qualities of love from 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen to guide such interactions if and when they occur, we can be confident that we have conducted ourselves in a manner that honors God no matter what the response.
“Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong. It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out.
If you love someone, you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 TLB).
There is one final reason to explain why professing Christians may sometimes act in a manner that is inconsistent with the characteristics found here in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen. As distasteful as it may be to contemplate this possibility, the unfortunate truth is that people sometimes say and/or do things that are intentionally designed to hurt others.
We can look once again to the experience of Paul the Apostle for help in addressing this unpleasant reality…
“Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:15-17, emphasis added).
This passage reveals that Paul had no illusions regarding the ministerial motives of some who preached Christ: “…They are insincere, hoping to cause me more pain while I’m in prison” (CEB). But in contrast to those others, Paul chose to adopt a healthier (and significantly more God-honoring) attitude…
“But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice…” (Philippians 1:18 NIV).
So Paul did not deny the reality of this situation nor did he complain about the fact that there were other professing Christians who intentionally sought to injure him. Instead, Paul chose to focus on what was really important- the fact that the gospel was being preached.
If we should encounter others who deliberately attempt to injure us, we should seek God for the ability to respond in a similarly appropriate manner. As Jesus Himself taught, “…I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun shine on good and bad people alike, and he sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike” (Matthew 5:44-45 CJB).
“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
As we enter the final third of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen, we now come to a portion of Scripture that is highly controversial in many respects. You see, there is hardly a portion of the New Testament that has been subject to a greater difference of opinion among God-honoring teachers, scholars, and commentators than 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. Yet this passage represents more than just a subject for academic debate, for our understanding of these verses will produce a real-life impact on the way in which we view the spiritual gifts mentioned here.
Before we consider the differing points of view regarding this passage, let’s first try to identify some of the areas where virtually everyone can find common ground. First, its clear that this portion of Scripture paints a contrast between the temporary nature of spiritual gifts and the permanent nature of love. While the representative gifts of prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will cease at some point, 1 Corinthians 13:8 tells us, “Love never fails.”
Next, the fact that we “…know in part and we prophesy in part” highlights the limited nature of these spiritual gifts. In light of this, we can say the Corinthians had their emphasis in the wrong place; instead of placing their focus upon these temporary spiritual gifts, they should have concentrated on developing the lasting characteristics of love given to us earlier.
Finally, the cessation of these spiritual gifts hinges upon the arrival of “…that which is perfect”. This leaves us with two big questions:
- How should we define “that which is perfect“?
- When, and by what means will these gifts will be replaced in favor of “that which is perfect“?
We’ll take a closer look at the various attempts to answer these questions over the next few studies.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NIV).
One commentator has observed that “Unlike many of the spiritual gifts, love will never be outmoded, unnecessary, or eliminated.” (1) That being said, the question for us is, “when and by what means will these spiritual gifts become outmoded, unnecessary, or eliminated?” 1 Corinthians 13:10 provides us with an answer for the second portion of that question in saying, “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (ESV).
If we drill into the original language of this verse, we find that the word “perfect” is translated from the Greek word teleios, a word that means “brought to its end, finished wanting nothing necessary to completeness.” (2) Other sources associate this word with the idea of “maturity… fully equipped for an assigned task” (3) and “fulfillment” (4)
A great number of Christians hold to the idea that “the perfect” mentioned in this passage is a reference to to the completed canon of the New Testament. You see, the group of divinely inspired Biblical books of Scripture are referred to as the “canon.” This word means “rule” or “rod of measurement” and over time, it came to be largely associated with the collection of Biblical books that are recognized to be the authoritative Word of God.
Over time, all 27 books of the New Testament were assembled and officially accepted as a group, a process that gradually took place over three hundred and fifty years. So the idea is that once the church secured the complete set of divinely inspired documents that comprise the New Testament Scriptures, the need for the imperfect spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, and words of knowledge ceased.
There are are number of arguments both for and against this view and we will consider a few of them next.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2321). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
(2) G5046 teleios Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5046&t=NKJV
(3) Dr. Bob Utley Free Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 13 [13:10] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_13.html
(4) Barker, Kenneth L. Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Fully Revised): 1 Corinthians. 1793. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1985, 1995, 2002.
“Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NET).
A great many knowledgeable and God-honoring people hold to the position that the spiritual gifts referenced in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen were “set aside” following the completion of the New Testament canon. This view acknowledges that such gifts were needed prior to the establishment of the canon in light of the fact that first-century Christians did not possess the entirety of God’s Word in written form. Thus, they were dependent upon the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and/or revelation for God’s direction. However, once the church received the complete New Testament, the need for these special gifts was made obsolete.
One commentator offers a good defense of this view…
“Since the previous verse refers to the incompleteness of the divine revelation at that time, ‘that which is perfect’ [that is, ‘complete’] almost certainly refers to the completion of Biblical revelation, as finally announced by John, the last of the apostles (Revelation 22:18-19). We now have all the prophetic truth needed in the Scriptures for the guidance of the church until Christ comes again. With few, if any, exceptions, we also have all the attestation we need to its veracity and power, so there is little need any more for miraculous signs, even though many still desire them.” (1)
Another source accepts the validity of this position while allowing for the potential continuance of these gifts in subsequent centuries…
“…many devout Christians hold to the completed canon view, believing that the purpose of the sign gifts was to confirm the preaching of the apostles before the word of God was given in final written form, and that the need for these miracle gifts passed when the NT was completed. While this second view merits serious consideration, it can hardly be proved decisively. Even if we believe that the sign gifts largely passed away at the end of the apostolic era, we cannot say with finality that God could not, if He wished, use these gifts today.” (2)
(1) Dr. Henry M. Morris, The New Defender’s Study Bible [1 Corinthians 13:10] http://www.icr.org/
(2) Believer’s Bible Commentary William Macdonald Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 [v.8])
“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for languages, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known. Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 HCSB).
In addition to the “closed canon” view, there are a number of other perspectives regarding the arrival of “that which is perfect” and the subsequent dissolution of spiritual gifts. For instance, some associate the eclipse of these gifts with the end of the apostolic era. This view holds that once the core doctrines of Christianity were firmly established through the work of the Apostles, the need for these spiritual gifts passed away along with them.
Others link the Apostle Paul’s reference to “putting away childish things” with the advent of “that which is perfect“. Much like a child in the early stages of his or her development, proponents of this view believe that the church eventually outgrew the need for these spiritual gifts as it began to reach spiritual maturity. As with those who hold to the completed canon and apostolic-era viewpoints, this position would also preclude the continuing operation of these spiritual gifts today.
However, a number of other sources have taken issue with the idea that the operation of these spiritual gifts ceased around the end of the New Testament era…
“One suggestion is that perfection described the completion of the New Testament. But 1Co_13:12 makes that interpretation unlikely.” (1)
“Some have asserted that it refers to the NT. Nothing in this context points toward this. This is only a theory used to claim that the spiritual gifts have ceased in post-apostolic times.” (2)
“Some understand this to refer to the completion of the canon of Scripture, but that would mean that we now see more clearly than Paul did.” (3)
In light of these objections, we’ll conclude our look at this portion of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen with one additional perspective that allows for a great degree of freedom in interpreting this passage next.
(1) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck Bible Knowledge Commentary [13:10]
(2) Dr. Bob Utley Free Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 13 [13:10] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_13.html
(3) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell, Ryrie Study Notes © 1986, 1995 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp.
““Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 ESV).
As with other views regarding the subject of spiritual gifts, there are many among the people of God who believe in the continued validity and function of such gifts today. In general, those who support the modern-day operation of these spiritual gifts believe that they will be rendered obsolete by Jesus’ return or through our passing from this life into an eternal state of unity with Christ.
“The context (especially v. 12) suggests strongly that Paul is here referring to the second coming of Christ as the final event in God’s plan of redemption and revelation. In comparison with what we will receive then, the present blessings are only partial and thus imperfect” (1)
“When the future age comes in its fullness, faith and hope will give way to sight (see Ro 4:14-22; 8:24-25). Then will remain only love, intimate, personal relationship with God (v. 12). All that is partial and imperfect will disappear when the age to come dawns in perfection (vv. 9-10). Just as the speech, the thoughts, and the reasoning of childhood are abandoned when one reaches adulthood, so the partial and indirect knowledge of the present will give way to full and intimate knowledge of God in the coming age (vv. 11-12). Spiritual gifts, which now mediate the life of God to the community, will no longer be necessary when I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (v. 12).” (2)
Finally, we would do well to keep the following counsel in mind as we prayerfully consider our position on the subject of spiritual gifts,…
“Whichever view we hold, the abiding lesson is that while the gifts of the Spirit are partial and temporary, the fruit of the Spirit is eternal and is more excellent. If we practice love, it will save us from the misuse of gifts and from the strife and divisions that have arisen as a result of their abuse.” (3)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2036). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
(2) Lyons, George. “(3) The eternity of love (13:8-13)” In Asbury Bible Commentary. 1012. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1992.
(3) Believer’s Bible Commentary William Macdonald Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 [v.8])
“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part: but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.
For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I have been known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 RV).
Anyone who has ever attempted to view an object through a piece of opaque glass (such as the kind that is often found on doors, office buildings, and shower stalls) can appreciate the descriptive word-picture of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly…” (KJV). This idea is fairly straightforward: just as our visual perspective is limited whenever we attempt to peer through a piece of decorative glass, our spiritual perspective is similarly obscured today.
However, most contemporary translations of this passage render the word “glass” as “mirror,” thus making use of the poor reflective quality of first-century mirrors to communicate this point. You see, the mirrors used by the Corinthians were little more than highly polished pieces of metal- and unlike the high quality mirrors of today, a mirror of the New Testament-era tended to produce a soft image that was often distorted by surface irregularities.
This analogy served to illustrate an important point; much like the limited nature of our spiritual gifts, our knowledge of God is similarly incomplete today. One commentator goes on to detail the extent of these limitations with the following observation: “Humans, even redeemed humans, are hindered by (1) sin nature; (2) finitude; (3) limited perspective; (4) culture-affected conscience and worldview; (5) time as chronological sequence; and (6) human language to explain and describe a spiritual realm.” (1)
So much like a cloudy or broken mirror that produces a dim or fragmented reflection, our knowledge of God is also relatively indistinct and fragmentary today. Nevertheless, there will eventually come a time when such restrictions will be lifted, a point that is echoed in the New Testament epistle of 1 John: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
(1) Dr. Bob Utley Free Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 13 [13:12] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_13.html
“Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.
When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete—as complete as God’s knowledge of me. Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 GNB).
In contrast to the temporal, partial, and incomplete nature of spiritual gifts, 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen closes by affirming the lasting, permanent, and eternal qualities of faith, hope, and love. But what makes these particular qualities so special?
Well, as mentioned earlier in our look at 1 Corinthians chapter twelve, faith is an eternal quality because it represents “a belief in or confident attitude toward God, involving commitment to His will for one’s life.” (1) Unlike the temporal abilities we may possess today, our belief and confidence in God will only be strengthened and reinforced when we “see (Him) face-to-face…”
Hope encompasses the qualities of confidence, expectation, and a sense of pleasurable anticipation with respect to God’s work in our lives. (2) In contrast to the short-lived nature of spiritual gifts, there will never come a time when we will not enjoy these characteristics of our relationship with God.
Finally, love abides eternally for it is the fulfillment of God’s Law (Romans 13:10) and represents the greatest commandment: “….The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).
Finally, one commentator leaves us with the following reminder…
“Our ‘possessions’ and ‘gifts’ we leave behind us. Only godliness abides. At the gates of death we will lay down forever the various weapons and tools which God, in his marvelous grace, has put into our hands for this earthly pilgrimage. All our gifts and every other capacity designed for this temporary earthly existence we shall resign.
But we will carry through the pearly gates the moral and spiritual character which the Holy Spirit, through the conflicts and testings of life, has developed within us through the word. Faith, hope and love abide—but the greatest is love. Make love your aim (1Co_14:1).” (3)
(1) “Faith” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
(2) G1680 elpis Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=nkjv&strongs=g1680
(3) Paul T. Butler, Studies In First Corinthians [pg. 289] College Press, Joplin, Missouri Copyright © College Press 1963 https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Love never ends; but prophecies will pass, tongues will cease, knowledge will pass. For our knowledge is partial, and our prophecy partial; but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, argued like a child; now that I have become a man, I have finished with childish ways. For now we see obscurely in a mirror, but then it will be face to face. Now I know partly; then I will know fully, just as God has fully known me. But for now, three things last — trust, hope, love; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 CJB).
In his message to another New Testament-era church, the Apostle Paul wrote the following: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8 NIV). While a financial debt might eventually be paid in full, we should never reach the point where we might say of another person, “My obligation to love is now complete.” The third century Christian scholar Origen expressed a similar idea when wrote, “The debt of love is permanent, and we are never finished with it; for we must pay it daily and yet always owe it.”
Of course, the supreme example of love is recorded for us in Romans 5:6 where we read, “…at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (NIV). This should represent a familiar concept, for it is easy to envision a scenario where someone might be compelled to die on behalf of another person.
For instance, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other heads of state generally travel with a group of individuals who are tasked with the responsibility to protect and give their lives for that leader if necessary. There are others who might even choose to die for a just or good individual, a reality that is also acknowledged in Romans 5:7: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die” (NIV).
But how much greater is the love of Christ who laid down His life not only for the important and powerful but for the weak and unimportant as well? In so doing, Jesus left us with both an example and commandment to follow…
“This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:12-14).