In between chapter 12, which discusses the gifts that the risen Christ gave to His church, and chapter 14, which deals with the use of those gifts, chapter 13 reveals the spirit in which the gifts are to be exercised. Someone has said that 1 Corinthians 13 is “the divine smithy”; the phrase alludes to the furnace in the blacksmith’s shop where the tools of chapter 12 are heated red-hot to be properly used in chapter 14.
In chapter 13 the apostle emphasized the importance of love, not only in the life of the servant of God, but also in the lives of all Christians. A gift without love is a poor thing. One might preach with great clarity and even eloquence, but if there is no love behind his message, he would be almost wasting words. It is love that pleases God.
The word translated “charity” in the King James version refers not to the good works and kindness that we associate with charity today, but to the root and source of those good deeds: love. There are three well-known Greek words that we translate as “love”: eros, phileo„, and agape„. If you are familiar with Greek mythology, you will recognize Eros at once as the name of the god of love, the son of Aphrodite. Eros is the word ordinarily used in classical Greek for love between the sexes, the love of sweethearts, the love of husband for wife and wife for husband. Phileo„, a broader word speaking of a kindly, friendly affection, is generally employed in reference to the love of friends. It also refers to the love of parents for children and of children for parents and the love of citizens for the country to which they belong. The third word, agape„, speaks of a higher type of love, a love that is all-absorbing, a love that completely dominates one’s whole being. This is the word that Paul used in chapter 13.
It is significant that in the writing of the New Testament the Spirit of God seemed to forbid the use of the word eros. It is found frequently in the writings of the Greek poets and philosophers, but never in the New Testament. This word had been so abused and degraded by the Greeks that God, as it were, stood over His Book and said to those who were writing, “Do not put that word in here; it is too capable of being utterly misunderstood. I do not want that word in My Book, for so many vile things have been linked with it.” Eros had been so misused that it was not even right to think of it as expressing the true love of a chaste wife and good husband. So God did not allow eros to have any place in the New Testament.
Phileo„ occurs in its verbal form in many places in the New Testament, but only in reference to human friendliness, kindly feelings, or brotherly love. In reference to that which is divine, the Holy Spirit chose most carefully and used agape„. “God is agape„”—”God is love”—in the highest, most utterly unselfish sense. This word is used in the New Testament for God’s love to us, for our love to God, and for the love we have for anything we put in place of God. We are warned against the love (agape„) of the world, for some men devote themselves wholly and completely to obtaining money and to the things of the world and thus make gods of the world and money.
We can readily see how beautifully Paul’s choice of words brings before us an absolutely holy love that ought to be supreme in our lives. This divine love is not that which is in the heart of the natural man; it is not a love that a person can pump up out of his own heart if he is not a child of God; agape„ is not there. He or she may have phileo„. A poor heathen mother loves her child and may even love her husband. Unsaved men and women love their country. They usually love those who love them in this lesser sense, but it is only when they have been born of God that they love in the higher sense represented in 1 Corinthians 13.
We read in 1 John 4:7, “Every one that loveth [agapao„] is born of God.” If the word phileo„ had been used there, you might say that every mother who loves her children, every patriot who loves his country is born of God. But that is not true. Agape„, the completely unselfish divine love, is the portion of only those who are regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. “The love [agape„] of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5).
The Value of Love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Paul warned against substituting mere talent for love: “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.” A preacher might be so talented that he could stir his audience to deepest emotion, but not accomplish anything for God. Apart from divine love, the eloquence of an angel would not reach the needy hearts of men.
Paul continued, “Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge…and have not charity…” You may ask, “Is it possible to have the gift of prophecy and not have love?” Oh yes! They said of Saul, who was not a child of God, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:11-12) When associating with prophets, he talked like a prophet; when associating with the world, he talked like a worldling.
Then there is the tragic case of Balaam, to whom God actually gave the gift of foresight. Balaam was able to look down through the years and utter marvelous prophecies, yet his heart was motivated by covetousness. He wanted Balak’s money and therefore desired to curse Israel—but the Lord forbade him. Balaam said, “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?” and then made the predictions recorded in Numbers 23-24. Since his words have proven true, we know that he had the gift of prophecy, but he certainly did not have love. His mere intelligence was illuminated by the Spirit. Balaam prayed, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” but he died under the judgment of God because he was never regenerated. What an empty thing the gift of prophecy is without love!
Paul went on, “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” Of course here he was speaking not of saving faith, but of the gift of faith mentioned in chapter 12. He was saying, “Even if God gave me faith that could scatter the hills, without love I would be nothing.” It is absolutely impossible for any man to produce such love (agape, not mere sentiment) in himself apart from divine grace. Thus how solemn are the words of our Lord Jesus: “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7)!
A minister was leaving his church for another pastorate. He was one of those modern, up-to-date preachers who say a lot of sweet nothings that can neither hurt a flea nor do anyone any good. On his last Sunday a young man came up to him and said, “Pastor, I am so sorry we are going to lose you. When you came to us three years ago, I did not care for God, man, or the devil, but since listening to your beautiful sermons, I have learned to love them all.” That is the kind of sentiment that passes for love these days, but it is not what Paul was speaking of. The apostle was referring to a love that is the result of divine life in the soul, a love that is absolutely unselfish.
He continued, “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.” You may say, “But I can’t give my goods to feed the poor if I don’t love them.” Oh yes, you can. You can do it because you want people to see you doing it. The Pharisees of old did their alms that way; they blew trumpets to attract attention to their giving and “verily… they have their reward” (Matthew 6:1-2). There was no love in their giving. It was merely hypocrisy. So we see the uniqueness of love; it is distinct from mere charity, as we use the word today.
Even if someone is a religious zealot so wedded to an idea that he is willing to die for it, he may not be motivated by real love. Of course it was the love of Christ that enabled the early Christian martyrs to go to the stake; it was the love of Christ that enabled those devoted believers to face the lions. Having a song of love in their hearts, they were ready to die for Jesus’ sake. But it is quite possible to die for an idea, to yield one’s body to the stake because of some great principle, yet have no real love in the heart.
The Character of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
What is the character of this love of which Paul was speaking? How can we know it? How can we recognize it when we see it? To answer these questions, we will examine verses 4-7 phrase by phrase, and as we do, think of Paul’s words as a pen portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ. In these verses we can see our blessed Savior moving about in this world as He fulfills His mission of love. In fact we can substitute the word “Christ” each time the word “charity” occurs:
Christ suffereth long, and is kind; Christ envieth not; Christ vaunteth not Himself, is not puffed up, doth not behave Himself unseemly, seeketh not His own, is not easily provoked; thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
This character sketch of the Lord Jesus Christ can be taken as a divine picture of what every man ought to be. It tells me that only as Christ dwells in me, can I display these characteristics and truly say with Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
If I dare to say that not until this character sketch is true of me am I really fit for a place with God in Heaven, I might sink into utter despair, for I never could measure up to this portrait. There is so much in my heart of self, evil, and unholiness, but as I receive Christ as my personal Savior, as I put my trust in Him who died because of man’s selfishness, sin, and unholiness, I am born again of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, and Christ comes to dwell in my heart by faith. Now to the degree that I yield myself to Him, He lives out His wonderful life through me, and thus I am able to demonstrate the love that is revealed in 1 Corinthians 13.
This love “suffereth long.” It does not become impatient when tried, wronged, or misunderstood. When people disapprove, love moves on just as sweetly and graciously as when people do approve. Love “suffereth long, and is kind.” How much we need to realize that! Ella Wheeler Wilcox expressed a pretty sentiment about kindness, but it is not altogether true:
So many gods, so many creeds,
So many ways that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all this poor world needs.
The world needs a great deal more than that. It needs God; it needs Christ. But the world does need people who can be kind. The kindness of God is seen in the Lord Jesus Christ, but I am afraid many Christians are not always very kind.
An old Scottish preacher had in his congregation some folks who imagined that they had attained a spiritual experience far beyond that of the majority of the members; they imagined that all inbred sin had been removed from their very beings and that they had achieved a state of perfect holiness. Because they were so holy, they were extremely critical of other people and harsh in their judgments. The minister was not much of a theologian and was not able to counter their doctrinal arguments, but when he heard them censoring others, he would lean over the pulpit and say, “Remember, if you are not very kind, you are not very holy, because holiness and kindness cannot be separated.”
Paul continued, “Charity envieth not.” He meant that love is never jealous. Did it ever occur to you that jealousy implies selfishness? Love delights to see another honored and esteemed. Of course there is a holy jealousy. The Lord is a jealous God; He would have us altogether for Himself. But a carnal jealousy makes us unhappy when others are preferred before us. Jesus always took the lowest place and was content to be despised and rejected.
Then too, love “vaunteth not itself.” In plain English, love never brags. Love never exalts itself or its ability; it never tries to draw attention to itself.
Love “is not puffed up.” Paul said in 8:1 that “knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth.” I may think I know a great deal more than other people and so become puffed up or conceited. But real love does not puff up; it builds up.
Love “doth not behave itself unseemly” or literally “is never boorish.” The finest gentleman in the world is the man who knows Christ best. I remember reading a history of the world written by an Englishman about the year 1600. The author, when dealing with the reign of Caesar Augustus, said, “In his days, there was born in Bethlehem of Judea that goodly gentleman, Jesus Christ.” Taken aback, I thought, I do not know whether I like that. But when I stopped to analyze it, I thought, What words could have more truly described the life of my Lord here on earth?
What is a gentleman? Is he someone born heir to a vast estate? Is he someone who has the right to put a title before his name? Not necessarily. A man might be heir to millions but be a perfect boor. On the other hand, a man might be the poorest of the poor, yet be controlled by divine love and so be a perfect gentleman. Have you ever noticed the refining influence of the Lord Jesus Christ? Watch a man brought out of the gutter and saved by grace, and see how the Spirit of God quiets him and transforms him until his whole character becomes different. Love never behaves in an “unseemly” ill-mannered way.
Love “seeketh not her own.” The apostle’s word to the quarreling Christians in Philippi was, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4). When divine love controls the heart, the rule will be “others first” instead of “self first.”
Love “is not easily provoked.” Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be ye angry, and sin not.” A Puritan once remarked, “I am determined so to be angry as not to sin; therefore to be angry with nothing but sin.” Sin may well stir my indignation, but love “is not easily provoked.” Was Christ ever provoked? Oh yes. About what? About the wickedness, the sin, the hypocrisy of men. When, because of their pretended regard for the sanctity of the sabbath, they would have hindered His healing the poor man with the withered hand, Jesus “looked round about on them with anger” (Mark 3:5). There is an anger that is divine, but Christ was not easily provoked.
Love “thinketh no evil.” How apt we are to make snap judgments of people. If you were to say, “I think everything she does is done ostentatiously,” I would reply, “What right do you have to be thinking those things? Love credits people with the best possible motives.”
Love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things.” If something happens that could be construed to be very bad, Love says, “Could I put a better construction on that? I will not give what I saw a negative interpretation if I can possibly think of a positive one. I will hope for the best. I will never be guilty of marring a brother’s or a sister’s reputation because of something said or done that looks unwise to me, yet might be innocent.” That is love.
Finally, love “endureth all things.” It is willing to suffer, for that is the character of love.
The Permanence of Love (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
Everything else may disappear, but love will remain. Love “never faileth.” Prophecy will be fulfilled eventually and tongues will “cease,” but love will continue forever. We do not know exactly when tongues passed away from the church, but as already noted we have no evidence that there are men today who have the ability to preach in languages they have never learned. The word translated “cease” is a very strong term. Paul knew that the day would come when the gift of tongues would no longer be seen, but love would remain. Knowledge too “shall vanish away.” In the sense that we have it now, knowledge is only a partial thing at best and it will vanish away in the light of the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him.
Paul explained, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” Then he used a little illustration comparing the present with the days of our childhood, and our glorious future with the years of maturity: “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.”
I wonder whether that is actually true of all of us. Are we all through with childish ways? I am afraid that some of us are quite childish still. I know fully grown men and women who profess the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, but who still have a great many characteristics of children. Let them have their own way and they are perfectly delightful to get along with, but cross them and they pout like little children.
May I make a plea for true Christian manhood and womanhood in the matter of praise? One thing that often grieves my own heart is mat mere are so few Christian people content to do their duty as God shows it to them without human praise. If we are men and women in Christ who have “put away childish things” and are doing what is right, what difference does it make whether men praise us or blame us?
If we have “put away childish things,” in one sense we have reached adulthood. But we must confess that we are still in our childhood if we compare our present state with the glorious maturity that will be ours when our Lord returns and we are fully conformed to His image. Some day we will be just like Him.
But now, Paul said, “we see though a glass, darkly.” There were no glass windows in his day. There was a crude kind of glass, but it could not be used for windows. Sometimes people used a very thin pressed-out horn or an almost transparent crystal, and that may be what Paul was referring to, but in all likelihood he had a brass mirror in mind. You can see enough in a brass mirror to know whether your hat is on straight, but you cannot see what your complexion is like. So the apostle was saying that we are just like folk looking at themselves in a brass mirror. We see nothing now as we will see it when we see “face to face.”
“Now I know in part.” I know some things through the revelation that God has given—and thank God for that. How little I would know without it! But there are still many things about which He has not yet given me information. How many questions there are that even the Bible does not answer! “But then shall I know even as also I am known.” If I were to use the exact tense of the original, I would say, “Even as also I have been known.” I will know others and I will know all mysteries in that coming day, even as God knows me now and has known me down through all the years.
“Now abideth faith” because “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). “Now abideth… hope” because I am living in hope of the coming of the Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him. “Now abideth… charity” because love is the result of divine life. “But the greatest of these”—even at the present moment here on earth, even before I enter eternity—is love.
God grant that we may demonstrate the love of Christ through yielding ourselves wholly to Him so that He may live out His life in us! Then when faith has changed to glad fruition, when our most wonderful hopes have all been accomplished, when we stand face to face with our blessed Lord, love will remain throughout all the ages to come. We will understand then what we cannot understand now: the love that moved the heart of God and led Him to send His only begotten Son into this dark world that we might live through Him. What a wonderful thing to know Christ! Let us go out and live Him before men.