Many people view 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter of love, as the most beautiful and perhaps the most important chapter of Scripture. While some earnest Bible students would disagree – this passage – penned by the apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is arguably at least one of the most beautiful and more important chapters in God’s Word.
My favorite author, Ellen White, put it this way:
“The Lord desires me to call the attention of His people to the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. Read this chapter every day, and from it obtain comfort and strength. Learn from it the value that God places on sanctified, heaven-born love, and let the lesson that it teaches come home to your hearts. Learn that Christlike love is of heavenly birth, and that without it all other qualifications are worthless.” (RH July 21, 1904).
Imagine how it would be if every professed Christian did this!
As I have been trying to do this the past year, I have learned that I have much to learn. I have been challenged, invigorated and blessed. And it has been a paradigm-shifting experience – in a positive sense. I definitely recommend it and I want to encourage you to follow this counsel – to join me on this journey.
You will be blessed!
A Helpful Tool
One thing that has helped me to understand and benefit from this passage is Albert Barnes good old classic commentary, which is said to have been issued in more than a million copies already by the time of his death in 1870. Here follows the first three verses of the chapter followed by parts of his commentary.
The Greatest Gift
”Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3 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
Verse 1. Though I speak with the tongues of men. Though I should be able to speak all the languages which are spoken by men. To speak foreign languages was regarded then, as it is now, as a rare and valuable endowment. Comp. Virg. AEn. vi. 625, seq. The word I, here, is used in a popular sense; and the apostle designs to illustrate, as he often does, his idea by a reference to himself, which, it is evident, he wishes to be understood as applying to those whom he addressed. It is evident that among the Corinthians the power of speaking a foreign language was regarded as a signally valuable endowment; and there can be no doubt that some of the leaders in that church valued themselves especially on it. See chapter 14. To correct this, and to show them that all this would be vain without love, and to induce them, therefore, to seek for love as a more valuable endowment, was the design of the apostle in this passage.
And of angels. The language of angels; such as they speak. Were I endowed with the faculty of eloquence and persuasion which we attribute to them; and the power of speaking to any of the human family with the power which they have. The language of angels here seems to be used to denote the highest power of using language, or of the most elevated faculty of eloquence and speech. It is evidently derived from the idea that the angels are superior, in all respects, to men; that they must have endowments in advance of all which man can have. It may possible have reference to the idea that they must have some mode of communicating their ideas one to another, and that this dialect or mode must be far superior to that which is employed by man. Man is imperfect. All his modes of communication are defective. We attribute to the angels the idea of perfection; sold the idea here is, that even though a man had a far higher faculty of speaking languages than would be included in the endowment of speaking all the languages of men, as men speak them, and even had the higher and more perfect mode of utterance which the angels have, and yet were destitute of love, all would be nothing.
And have not charity. αγαπηνδεμηεχω. And have not LOVE. This is the proper and usual meaning of the Greek word. The English word charity is used in a great variety of senses; and some of them cannot be included in the meaning of the word here. It means,
(1.) in a general sense, love, benevolence, good-will;
(2.) in theology, it includes supreme love to God, and universal good-will to men;
(3.) in a more particular sense, it denotes the love and kindness which springs from the natural relations, as the charities of father, son, brother;
(4.) liberality to the poor, to the needy, and to objects of beneficence, as we speak commonly of charity, meaning almsgiving, and of charitable societies;
(5.) candour, liberality in judging of men’s actions; indulgence to their opinions; attributing to them good motives and intentions; a disposition to judge of them favourably, and to put on their words and actions the best construction. This is a very common signification of the word in our language now; and this is one modification of the word love, as all such charity is supposed to proceed from love to our neighbour, and a desire that he should have a right to his opinions, as well as we to ours. The Greek word αγαπη means, properly, love, affection, regard, good-will, benevolence. It is applied,
(a.) to love in general;
(b.) to the love of God and of Christ;
(c.) the love which God or Christ exercises towards Christians, Rom 5:5, Eph 2:4, 2 Thes 3:5;
The love which is referred to in this chapter, and illustrated, is mainly love to man, (1Cor 13:4-7) though there is no reason to doubt that the apostle meant also to include in the general term love to God, or love in general. His illustrations, however, are chiefly drawn from the effects of love towards men. It properly means love to the whole church; love to the whole world; love to all creatures, which arises from true piety, and which centres ultimately in God.–Doddridge. It is this love whose importance Paul, in this beautiful chapter, illustrates as being more valuable than the highest possible endowments without it. It is not necessary to suppose that any one had these endowments, or had the power of speaking with the tongues of men and angels, or had the gift of prophecy, or had the highest degree of faith, who had no love. The apostle supposes a case; and says that if it were so, if all these were possessed without love, they would be comparatively valueless; or that love was a more valuable endowment than all the others would be without it.
As sounding brass. Probably a trumpet. The word properly means brass; then that which is made of brass; a trumpet, or wind instrument of any kind, made of brass or copper. The sense is that of a sounding or resounding instrument, making a great noise, apparently of great importance, and yet without vitality; a mere instrument; a base metal that merely makes a sound. Thus noisy, valueless, empty, and without vitality, would be the power of speaking all languages without love.
Or a tinkling cymbal. A cymbal giving a clanging, clattering sound. The word rendered “tinkling,” (αλαλαζον) from αλαλη or αλαλα, a war-cry,) properly denotes a loud cry, or shout, such as is used in battle; and then also a loud cry or mourning, cries of lamentation or grief; the loud shriek of sorrow: Mk 5:38, “Them that wept, and wailed greatly.” It then means a clanging or clattering sound, such as was made on a cymbal. The cymbal is a well-known instrument, made of two pieces of brass or other metal, which, being struck together, gives a tinkling or clattering sound. Cymbals are commonly used in connexion with other music. They make a tinkling, or clanging, with very little variety of sound. The music is little adapted to produce emotion, or to excite feeling. There is no melody, and no harmony. They were therefore well adapted to express, the idea which the apostle wished to convey. The sense is, “If I could speak all languages, yet if I had not love, the faculty would be like the clattering, clanging sound of the cymbal, that contributes nothing to the welfare of others. It would all be hollow, vain, useless. It could neither save me nor others, any more than the notes of the trumpet, or the jingling of the cymbal, would promote salvation. Love is the vital principle; it is that without which all other endowments are useless and vain.”
(*) “tongues” “In the languages” (a) “angels” 2Cor 12:4 (+) “charity” “Love” (b) “I am become” 1Pet 4:8
And though I have the gift of prophecy. 1Cor 12:10; 1Cor 14:1.
And understand all mysteries. On the meaning of the word mystery, 1Cor 2:7. This passage proves that it was one part of the prophetic office, as referred to here, to be able to understand and explain the mysteries of religion; that is, the things that were before unknown, or unrevealed. It does not refer, to the prediction of future events, but to the great and deep truths connected with religion; the things that were unexplained in the old economy, the meaning of types and emblems; and the obscure portions of the plan of redemption. All these might be plain enough if they were revealed; but there were many things connected with religion which God had not chosen to reveal to men.
And all knowledge. 1Cor 12:8. Though I knew everything. Though I were acquainted fully with all the doctrines of religion; and were with all sciences and arts.
And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains. Though I should have the highest kind of faith. This is referred to by the Saviour, (Mt 17:20,) as the highest kind of faith; and Paul here had this fact doubtless in his eye.
I am nothing. All would be of no value. It would not save me. I should still be an unredeemed, unpardoned sinner. I should do good to no one; I should answer none of the great purposes which God has designed; I should not by all this secure my salvation. All would be in vain in regard to the great purpose of my existence. None of these things could be placed before God as a ground of acceptance in the day of judgment. Unless I should have love, I should still be lost. A somewhat similar idea is expressed by the Saviour, in regard to the day of judgment, in Mt 7:22,23: “Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
(c) “prophecy” 1Cor 14:1 (*) “mysteries” “unknown truths” (a) “move mountains” Mt 17:20 (+) “charity” “love” (b) “I am nothing” Mt 21:19
And though I bestow. The Greek word here used (ψωμιζω), from ψαω, to break off) meant, properly, to break off, and distribute in small portions; to feed by morsels; and may be applicable here to distributing one’s property in small portions. Charity, or alms to the poor, was usually distributed at one’s gate, (Lk 16:20,) or in some public place. Of course, if property was distributed in this manner, many more would be benefited than if all were given to one person. There would be many more to be thankful, and to celebrate one’s praises. This was regarded as a great virtue; and was often performed in a most ostentatious manner. It was a gratification to wealthy men who desired the praise of being benevolent, that many of the poor flocked daily to their houses to be fed; and against this desire of distinction the Saviour directed some of his severest reproofs. See Mt 6:1-4. TO make the case as strong as possible, Paul says that if ALL that a man had were dealt out in this way, in small portions, so as to benefit as many as possible, and yet were not attended with true love towards God and towards man, it would be all false, hollow, hypocritical, and really of no value in regard to his own salvation. It would profit nothing. It would not be such an act as God would approve; it would be no evidence that the soul would be saved. Though good might be done to others, yet where the motive was wrong, it could not meet with the Divine approbation, or be connected with his favour.
And though I give my body to be burned. Evidently as a martyr, or a witness to the truth of religion. Though I should be willing to lay down my life in the most painful manner, and have not charity, it would profit me nothing. Many of the ancient prophets were called to suffer martyrdom, though there is no evidence that any of them were burned to death as martyrs. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were indeed thrown into a fiery furnace, because they were worshippers of the true God; but they were not consumed in the flame, Dan 3:19-26. Comp. Heb 11:34. Though Christians were early persecuted, yet there is no evidence that they were burned as martyrs as early as this epistle was written. Nero is the first who is believed to have committed this horrible act; and under his reign, and during the persecution which he excited, Christians were covered with pitch, and set on fire to illuminate his gardens. It is possible that some Christians had been put to death in this manner when Paul wrote this epistle; but it is more probable that he refers to this as the most awful kind of death, rather than as anything which had really happened. Subsequently, however, as all know, this was often done; and thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of Christians have been called to evince their attachment to religion in the flames.
And have not charity. Have no love to God or to men; have no true piety. If I do it from any selfish or sinister motive; if I do it from fanaticism, obstinacy, or vain-glory; if I am deceived in regard to my character, and have never been born again. It is not necessary to an explanation of this passage to suppose that this ever had been done, for the apostle only puts a supposable case. There is reason, however, to think that it has been done frequently; and that when the desire of martyrdom became the popular passion, and was believed to be connected infallibly with heaven, not a few have been willing to give themselves to the flames, who never knew anything of love to God or true piety. Grotius mentions the instance of Calanus, and of Peregrinus the philosopher, who did it. Although this was not the common mode of martyrdom in the time of Paul, and although it was then perhaps unknown, it is remarkable that he should have referred to that which in subsequent times became the common mode of death on account of religion. In his time, and before the common mode was by stoning, by the sword, or by crucifixion. Subsequently, however, all these were laid aside, and burning became the common way in which martyrs suffered. So it was, extensively, under Nero; and so it was, exclusively, under the Inquisition; and so it was in the persecutions in England in the time of Mary. Paul seems to have been directed to specify this rather than stoning, the sword, or crucifixion, in order that, in subsequent times, martyrs might be led to examine themselves, and to see whether they were actuated by true love to God in being willing to be consumed in the flames.
It profiteth me nothing. If there is no true piety, there can be no benefit in this to my soul. It will not save me. If I have no true love to God, I must perish, after all. Love, therefore, is more valuable and precious than all these endowments. Nothing can supply its place; nothing can be connected with salvation without it.
(c) “I bestow” Mt 6:1,2 (d) “though I give my body” Mt 7:22:23, Jas 2:14 (+) “charity” “love”
It gets better. Read part part II here…