1 CORINTHIANS CHAPTER 13.
A Psalm of Love. 1 Cor. 13,1-13.
The high worth of love: V. 1. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. V. 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, and have not charity, I am nothing. V. 3. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Paul had written, by way of introduction to this magnificent paean in praise of perfect Christian love, that he would show his readers the supremely excellent way to become partakers of the better spiritual gifts, of those which are of greater value for the edification of the congregation, those of wisdom, of knowledge, of prophecy. That way, which strives for the possession of gifts which will do most toward serving our fellow-Christian and the Church, is the way of love. The supreme excellence of this gift of God is brought out in a wonderful manner: If with the tongues of men I be speaking, and of angels, but am without love, I have become a sounding brass and a clanging cymbal. In comparing the various gifts of the apostolic age with the better gifts that find their expression through love, the apostle mentions, first of all, the gift of tongues. In the case of one that possessed this gift, a peculiar ecstasy replaced the ordinary function of reason, and in this condition the Spirit of God made use of the tongue in new and strange languages to praise the great works of God. But if a person had this gift in a most extraordinary degree, if he embodied not only the miracle of Pentecost, but of ecstatic and inarticulate forms of speech which needed special interpreters; yea, if this mystic utterance reached such heights that he could speak in the unutterable forms of heavenly language; if, however, he had no love for his brothers in his heart, this wonderful gift would have no value for him. Like a dead instrument of brass he would have become, like a clanging cymbal, both of which yield forth a tone when struck, the one a dull, deep tone, the other a shrill, penetrating tone, but are absolutely without life. Mark that the idea of instrumentality is brought out. The Christian that possesses any gifts is an instrument of the Holy Ghost in using them for the service of his neighbor. To parade any gifts before others for the gratification of vanity, for show, and in the expectation of praise, is to invite the severest censure of God.
Paul refers to a second gift: And if I have prophecy, and if I know all the mysteries and all the knowledge, — prophecy in its widest stretch amounts to nothing without love. The gift of prophecy is a higher gift than that of speaking with tongues, since its purpose is directly to edify the congregation by unfolding the future and combining earnest admonitions with this form of proclamation of the secrets of God. Some of the early Christians had this gift to such a degree that they had an insight into the mysteries of God and could expound the glories of His essence. "One might be a prophet and know very few mysteries; and one might know all mysteries and yet lack some other point of knowledge." 70) If such a person were not actuated by the love that finds its supreme delight in serving his neighbor, then his work might indeed have salutary effects, but he himself would be cast out as unworthy. And just so with the gift of the heart: And if I had all faith, to remove one mountain after the other, but had no love, I should again amount to nothing in the sight of God. One might have heroic faith, the confidence that works miracles, Matt. 17, 20; 21, 21, and yet be personally worthless. For such a faith apprehends Christ only in His wonder-working power, and is not necessarily the result of saving faith. But without love, though endowed with these most remarkable gifts, which are also so highly esteemed and may be of such wonderful value and seem to indicate a special divine favor, a person is in fact a mere nonentity in the eyes of God.
There may even be manifestations that seem to have all the earmarks of real charity: And if I should distribute all my property to the poor, if I should give it away, bit by bit, until I had nothing left; and if the sacrifice that I make rises to its climax in that of offering life itself, of suffering martyrdom in its worst form, but the motive for all this were not love, it would have absolutely no value in the sight of God. As Jerome writes: "It is terrible to say, but it is true: If we endure martyrdom in order to be admired by our brothers, then our blood was shed in vain." That a person gives all his goods to the needy, that he sacrifices body and life, may look like an act of pure love, but it may also flow from selfish motives and seek the person's own ends, and will therefore result in his condemnation.
Note: What the apostle here teaches and very impressively urges the Christians of to-day should also heed. The most extraordinary gifts of the apostolic days are not found in our congregations to-day, but there are still the gifts mentioned in the previous chapter. One possesses a rich treasure of Christian knowledge, another has the gift of speaking of divine things in a clear, interesting, comforting way, a third has been given an unusual measure of strength of faith, of Christian energy. And therefore it may easily happen that a Christian or a Christian preacher or teacher may feel a certain amount of pride in his understanding and knowledge, a measure of gratification at his ability to make an impression by his speaking, at his good works, his gifts to the poor, his zeal for God's kingdom and honor, instead of having in mind only the edification of his brethren. Such a one should remember that before God, with all his knowledge and works, he is nothing, amounts to nothing, and will gain nothing, unless his one motive is an unselfish love, which flows out of true faith. 71)
A description of true love: V. 4. Charity suffereth long and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, v. 5. doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; v. 6. rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; v. 7. beareth all things, believeth all thing's, hopeth all things, endureth all things. The apostle here pictures brotherly love, in personifying it, from both the negative and the positive side; he gives no abstract definition, but describes love in its substance, conduct, and actions. In the midst of the sins, evils, and trials of the fallen world, love suffers long, is long-tempered, patient toward injurious and provoking persons. As Luther writes: "In the first place, love is long-suffering, that is, patient, is not hasty and quick to wrath, revenge, impatience, and to insist upon its own rights: but is patient and suffers the unrighteous and weak until they finally come." Love is kind, benignant; it renders gracious, well-disposed service to others, is full of good will toward everybody in deeds, words, and conduct. Just as the Lord has patience with sinners, with the weaknesses of His elect, 2 Pet. 3, 9; Luke 18, 7; just as He is good and kind, 1 Pet. 2, 3, and has shown His kindness in Christ to all men, Titus 3, 4, even so all Christians should be found engaged in the virtues of the Lord.
The next sentences show that love will abstain from all forms of conduct that may hurt or harm one's neighbor. Love envies not, is not filled with selfish zeal, with passionate impetu-ousness; if there is need of striving in the interest of truth, it will never be done in passionate outbursts; if others have excellencies of person or of fortune, love is stimulated only to rejoicing admiration. Love makes no self-display, carefully avoids vaunting, boasting, magnifying its own real or supposed advantages; ostentation of superiority, especially of supposed superiority, is the very opposite of love. Love is not puffed up, is not guilty of moral indecency, of bad taste, is not proud in its own conceit, looking down upon others as inferior. Love does not act in an indecorous manner; it has the proper instinct for that which is seemly toward one's neighbor; it always exhibits a dignified, noble conduct; it is never guilty of a tactlessness that forgets its own proper place and duty, failing to give to others the respect, honor, or consideration due them. Conduct of this kind is opposed to the essence of love, which demands a quiet, meek, and humble behavior, seeking to excel, in the interest of one's neighbor, in that which is virtuous, honorable, intended to win the heart of one's fellow-Christian.
The apostle now continues his description of love in bringing out its manner of thinking, its inner character. Love does not seek its own advantage, its own pleasure, profit, honor; it is willing to give up its own gain if one's neighbor will but be profited. And therefore love is not embittered; it refuses to be irritated by the show of ingratitude which men return for the kindness shown them. On the contrary, under those very conditions love takes no account of evil, does not charge it against any one, does not keep it in mind, but forgives it gladly and freely. And in general, love rejoices not at wrong, is never gratified at the evil that comes upon one's evil neighbor, nor at the fact that he persists in his evil ways. Love rather rejoices with the truth, with those that are on the side of right and truth; when God's truth wins its way over the powers of darkness and makes men free from all unrighteousness and wrong, that is a cause of great joy to all true Christians. And particularly when a Christian brother receives that which is his in justice, then love feels the pleasure of fellow-feeling.
The apostle now reaches the climax in his characterization of love in four positive statements. All things love tolerates; not in the sense of covering and protecting wrong, but in the sense of suffering that which may be inflicted from outside. The emphasis is upon "all." No matter how grievous the insult on the part of those whom love has enfolded, love will continue with unabated strength. All things love believes; it simply refuses to yield to the suspicions of doubt and of consequent discouragement; it always finds an excuse for the beloved, always defends him, speaks well of him, puts the best construction on everything. Though its simplicity and trustfulness be abused again and again, it still believes that things will come out as they should. That does not mean that love is blind to the faults of the beloved, or that it would not rebuke the sins of one's brother. But in doing so, all things love hopes for; always love looks to the future with the certainty that the beloved will yield to the persuasions of good; it takes all the disagreeable features, all the difficulties of the situation upon itself, always with the hope that the labor of love cannot be forever in vain. And so love endures all things, it never gives up in defeat. "Here we see the inner power of love: her head held high, her eyes bright and shining, her hand steady and true, her heart strong with strength from above." 72) Thus Paul describes brotherly love, which is at the same time the model of that love which we owe all men, even our enemies. If we will at all times but keep this characteristic in mind, then it cannot fail that the picture will stimulate in our hearts the desire to possess true love in this highest and best form, and to avoid all that which does not agree with the glorious picture here sketched.
The eternal duration of love: V. 8. Charity never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. V. 9. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. V. 10. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. V. 11. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. V. 12. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known. V. 13. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. The first sentence is the topic of the last section of this chapter: Love never fails, it outwears all gifts, it never drops out of existence; like the eternal God, to whom it owes its being, it lasts forever. The gift of prophesying, of inspiration from the Lord, of foretelling future events and explaining the Word of God in connection therewith, will come to naught, be made useless and void, be abolished. As the content of all prophecy will be revealed in fulfillment, as all that was hidden will be clearly revealed, there will then no longer be need of prophecy. The gift of tongues, of ecstatic utterances in strange and unknown tongues, will cease, will stop, since they had only a temporary significance; they lapsed and terminated when their object was attained. The gift of knowledge, of comprehension of the things revealed, shall be done away with. A time will come when this, like the rest, will have served its purpose and therefore will be abolished for good and all.
Since the assertion that the gifts of knowledge and prophecy will cease might seem strange, Paul explains his statement: For in part we know, and in part we prophesy; but when there comes the perfect, the imperfect will be abolished. Our knowing in this world is imperfect, inadequate for a complete understanding of God, of His essence, of His will. There are only small parts of the eternal, heavenly truth which we understand, even with our enlightened Christian reason. We have no comprehensive view of the total, of the connection of the divine thoughts and counsels; the fullness of God's greatness and majesty is still hidden from us. We know only so much of God's essence and will as is necessary for our salvation. And the most enlightened and inspired commentators of the Bible are able to get only glimpses of the mysteries of the spiritual world, of the heavenly glories, through the revelation given to us in the Gospel. But this imperfect condition will cease, the knowing and prophesying in part will come to an end, as soon as the perfect appears, just as the blush of dawn disappears when the sun rises above the horizon in full splendor. When Christ will return in glory, when we shall be glorified with Him in heaven, then all the imperfections of this present knowledge will be left behind.
The great difference between the present and the future state is illustrated in the text by the difference between the child's estate and the man's estate: When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child; my speech, my aims, and my mental activity were those of a young child, immature, imperfect. At the present time our ideas of heavenly, divine things do not measure up to the glory and dignity of the subject. Now that I have become a man, I have abolished the things of the child; the adult no longer holds the imperfect, immature opinions and ideas of the child. Even so the full, mature, complete knowledge of God is reserved for yonder world. But mark that we shall have the very same divine, beautiful, spiritual matters to delight us in heaven which we now have in the world: that which we now understand and know only in part will then be revealed to us in its entirety, in the full glory of its substance. As the blossom loses its petals, but retains its center, which will eventually ripen into the perfect fruit, so we shall strip off the imperfect opinions of our understanding, while we retain the core in its fully developed state and see its fruition in heaven.
The contrast between the present imperfect and the future perfect knowledge is illustrated by another picture: For now we behold through a mirror, in an enigma; then, however, face to face. The ancient mirrors were made of polished metal, which reflected an image but faintly, without sharp and distinct outlines; thus is our beholding of the glories of God, as offered to us in His Word, not because the Word is dark, but because our understanding is not sufficient to grasp the wonders of His substance and qualities. And we behold in an enigma, what we often consider a riddle; on account of our darkened understanding, even in our regenerated state, the phraseology of the Lord in His Word often presents difficulties, we are often able to get but an obscure and uncertain idea of His meaning. That is what St. Paul frankly states, making his own person an example of the Christians in general: Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I, too, am known. Because the Lord had to fit the heavenly mysteries to the imperfect speech of human beings, because He had to clothe His eternal, divine thoughts in words, expressions, pictures, parables taken from this perishing world, therefore the perfection of the divine glory must needs be hidden from our eyes. But in heaven every believer will see, know, understand the fullness of the divine essence, attributes, plans, counsels in a perfect and blessed understanding, so thoroughly as he himself was known of God when the Lord changed his heart in conversion. It is a perfect and blessed knowledge of God. No longer will God then see anything strange, foreign, hostile between Him and us. All our sins will be removed fully from His sight. As Luther writes: "I shall know Him then in the clearest possible manner, without covering; for the covering was not taken from Him, but from me, for He has none before Him." In heaven we shall at last in love know God by direct contact, and all the mediated, imperfect knowing that is possible to us now will be left far behind and forgotten altogether in the bliss of the perfect salvation. Cp. Ps. 17, 15.
The prospect of this wonderful blessedness causes the apostle to close his psalm of love in a wonderful outburst of triumphant joy: But as it is, there remain faith, hope, love, these three. All other gifts, all other virtues pass away, these three remain permanently. Faith, hope, love remain in eternity, because that which a Christian believes, hopes, loves remains forever, since God is eternal, with whom we are united in faith, hope, and love. This conclusion is practically demanded by the statement that all imperfect things will be abolished. For of these three the apostle does not say that they are imperfect, that we believe in part, that we hope in part, that we love in part. Faith, even the weak faith, although it knows God only in part, yet, as saving faith, accepts the whole God, the whole Christ, the entire redemption in Christ, the full forgiveness of sins. Hope also, seeing and knowing only a few rays of the glory to come, yet has the entire future world as its object. And love concentrates upon the entire Triune God of our salvation, not upon some pitiful remnant. But love is not more lasting, but greater among these, the greatest of the three. Faith and hope also remain forever, since that in which we believe, that for which we hope, lasts forever. But the nature of faith and hope will cease; for what we have here believed and hoped for we shall there possess and enjoy. Our faith will reach the perfection of its state in beholding; our hope will be perfected in enjoyment. But our love of God and Christ, and therefore also of all our brethren, will be absolutely unchanged, only purified, since all the obstacles which here hinder the activity of love will there be removed. In heaven love will be altogether free and untrammeled in its ability to prove itself, and everywhere it will find love in return and thus be blessed in the fellowship of God, of the holy angels, and of all the saints.
Note: The fact that love is here called the greatest virtue does not in any way disagree with the fact that faith is the only means of obtaining salvation. "But they [our opponents] object that love is preferred to faith and hope. For Paul says, 1 Cor. 13, 13: 'The greatest of these is charity.' Now, it is reasonable that the greatest and chief virtue should justify. ... Nevertheless, let us, indeed, grant to the adversaries that love towards God and our neighbor is the greatest virtue, because the chief commandment is this: 'Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God,' Matt. 22, 37. But how will they infer thence that love justifies? The greatest virtue, they say, justifies. By no means. [It would be true if we had a gracious God because of our virtue. Now it was proven above that we are accepted and justified for Christ's sake, not because of our virtue; for our virtue is impure.] For just as even the greatest or first Law does not justify, so also the greatest virtue of the Law does not justify. [For, as the Law and virtue is higher, and our ability to do the same proportionately lower, we are not righteous because of love.] But that virtue justifies which apprehends Christ, which communicates to us Christ's merits, by which we receive grace and peace from God. But this virtue is faith. For as it has been often said, faith is not only knowledge, but much rather willing to receive or apprehend those things which are offered in the promise concerning Christ. 73)
Summary. The apostle praises the high worth of love, gives a description of its essential features, and describes its eternal duration.