1CORINTHIANS 13:1-13 – THE SUPERLATIVE GREATNESS OF LOVE
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
In Chapter 12 Paul clearly stated that the gifts are ‘for the common good’ of the Church, the body of Christ, and given by God’s determination. But the Corinthians are obviously relating to the gifts with the same arrogance that attracted Paul’s rebuke in relation to a range of other issues. These he addressed in previous chapters. Now he addresses their wrong attitude to the gifts by teaching them that there is something far superior to the practice and pursuit of the gifts.
A. THE RELATIVE INSIGNIFICANCE OF THE GIFTS – verses 1-3
Read verses 1-3. Answer these questions:
 List the gifts, abilities and actions mentioned by Paul:
 Is there anything about these gifts, abilities or actions, that makes them wrong in themselves?
 What does the absence of love do to the exercise of these gifts, abilities and actions?
A.1 The greatness of gifts, human abilities and human actions
Paul draws attention to some impressive human gifts, abilities and actions – things that would make any onlookers say ‘Wow!’ and to marvel at the apparent godliness of such a person.
If I speak with the languages of men and of angels.
Paul is here anticipating what he will say in Chapter 14 about the Corinthian abuse of the gift of languages. His point here is that, yes, the gift of languages is indeed impressive. [Note that some Christians today believe that Paul is here distinguishing two different kinds of ‘speaking in tongues’ – a ‘speaking in tongues’ that uses human languages, and a ‘speaking in tongues’ that uses the language of the angels. This is difficult to prove from the scripture. Whenever angels appeared and spoke, they actually spoke in the language of the humans to whom they spoke. They were all understood by the people they addressed, and their words are recorded in human language – whether Hebrew in the Old Testament, or Greek in the New Testament.]
If I have the gift of prophecy ...
As indicated in a previous study, ‘prophecy’ is the challenging and confrontational application of God’s truth to the contemporary situation.
... and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge ...
This seems to be a reference to the gift of teaching [called a ‘message of knowledge’ in the list in 12:7-10]. This is a person who understands the truth of God revealed and recorded as Scripture.]
... and if I have faith that can move mountains ...’
This is a reference to an extreme expression of the gift of faith listed in 12:7-10 – a special endowment of faith, additional to the faith in Jesus Christ by which we are saved.
If I give all I possess to the poor ...
The list of gifts in Romans 12:6-8 includes ‘contributing to the needs of others’ and ‘showing mercy’. The list in 1Corinthians 12:28 includes ‘those able to help others’, which may also refer to the gift of generosity.
... and surrender my body to the flames ...
This is not a reference to a ‘gift’, but to an extreme depth of commitment to Christ – a commitment that willingly faces martyrdom rather than give in and give up when the pressure becomes great.
There is nothing wrong with any of these gifts, abilities and actions, in themselves. Indeed they are good and they are great.
A.2 The destructiveness of the absence of love
But each of these great, impressive gifts, abilities and actions is made nothing if they are expressed and exercised without love.
Paul states his point quite dramatically – that in the absence of love:
The ability to speak in the languages of men and angels is only a lot of meaningless noise.
The ability to proclaim and apply God’s truth and the clear understanding of God’s word, and a powerful faith - are insignificant: I am nothing, he says, if I have not love.
Neither the generosity that gives away all its possessions, nor the commitment that embraces martyrdom, are of any gain, without love.
God’s good gifts to his people, God’s enabling and empowering of his people – they are all rendered meaningless, ineffective, empty – without love.
B. THE QUALITIES THAT DEFINE BIBLICAL LOVE – verses 4-8a.
Read verses 4-8a.
List the 16 qualities Paul uses to define love. Explain each of these qualities in your own words.
B.1 Looking at these qualities
Check all scriptures listed.
Patience – which translates the Greek verb makrothumeo, which means to bear with, to endure patiently, to be ‘long-suffering’, to be patient with. In the New Testament it is most frequently used in relation to Christians patiently enduring until the return of Christ, and also of God patiently bearing with humans. It is used of our attitude to others in 1Thessalonians 5:14. A similar concept, using different words, is found in Colossians 3:13.
Kindness – chresteuomai – to show oneself useful, to act benevolently. This is the only use of this verb in the New Testament. The related adjective – chrestos ¬(useful) - is used in Ephesians 4:32,
Does not envy – zeloo – to have a warm feeling for or against something. The word is used to refer to envy, jealousy (both envious jealousy, and protective jealousy), and zeal. Here is it is used in the negative sense. [It is particularly relevant to the Corinthians’ attitude to the gifts.] It is used this way in:
Acts 7:9; 17:5
Galatians 4:17; 5:26
Does not boast – perpereuomai, and related to perperos – braggart. The KJV has ‘vaunteth not itself’. It does not actively brag about itself. This is the only use in the New Testament. This absence of boasting goes hand in hand with the next quality. Similar concepts, using different words, are found in:
1Corinthians 1:18,29; 4:6,7
... is not proud – phusioo – to be ‘puffed up’. Paul has already criticised his Corinthian readers for being puffed up – 4:6,18,19; 5:2, and has referred to it in 8:1, where he contrasted it with love. In its only other New Testament use Paul uses the same word to criticise Christians who perceive themselves as super-spiritual in Colossians 2:18.
It is not rude ... aschemoneo – to behave in an inconsiderate manner. Its only other New Testament use refers to an engaged man delaying marriage and thereby not acting with consideration for his aging fiancée – 1Cornithians 7:36.
... it is not self-seeking - the verb is zeteo. Coupled with ‘self’ it refers to going about set on, committed to fulfilling and achieving your own desires, goals, comfort, etc. It is such a strongly focused attitude and action that it is sometimes translated ‘worship’. This verb is used frequently in both positive and negative senses in the New Testament. It is particularly the Corinthians’ attitudes that draw Paul’s rebuke. Combined with ‘self’ or ‘own’, it is used in:
... it is not easily angered – paroxuno – easily stirred up. It is used in this negative sense only here in the New Testament. [It is used in a positive sense in Acts 17:16].
... it keeps no record of wrongs – logizomai – counts, reckons; kakos – intrinsically morally or ethically worthless or depraved. Love does not sit around keeping a record of the evil or worthless actions of others and holding these actions against them. [logizomai is used frequently by Paul in his explanations of the gift of justification – the imputed righteousness of Christ.]
These two verses speak of God not counting our sins against us, and give a very clear understanding of what this characteristic of love means:
Love does not delight in evil ... chairo – rejoice; adikia – injustice, legally wrong. This is contrasted with - ... but rejoices in the truth – sugchairo – to rejoice or sympathize with; - alethia – truth. The Scripture commands us to rejoice in God – Philippians 3:1; 4:4, and tells us that the apostles rejoiced when God’s people were walking in line with the truth – Romans 16:19; 2Corinthians 7:7-16; Colossians 2:5; 1Thessalonians 3:9; 2John 4; 3John 3. Thus love does not rejoice when believers do what is wrong, but rejoices when believers do what is right.
Note that in the next four qualities the NIV has ‘always’, translating pas which means ‘all’. Translators seem to be divided as to whether Paul’s use of pas is primarily referring to time or to quantity. [The KJV has ‘all things’. NEB has ‘there is no limit to ...’. The TEV has ‘never fail’ and ‘never gives up’.] So in each of these four qualities the question is: does love always do these four things? Or, does love express these four qualities in relation to all things? Perhaps we should take Paul to mean both – always, and in relation to all things.
It always protects ... stego – to put a roof over, that is, figuratively, to cover with silence. Paul used this word in 1Cornthians 9:12, where he said that he ‘put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ’. He is speaking here of the fact that he did not expect payment for his work as an apostle – rather he ‘put up with’ not being paid. He kept silent about his ‘right’ to be paid. Similarly love keeps silent, puts a figurative roof over, anything that would harm or hinder if exposed. Love protects by keeping silent where the unloving would speak. . [On the other hand, sometimes love has to not keep silent – as Paul testifies in 1Thessalonians 3:1,5.]
... always trusts ... pisteuo – the usual word for believe. Because love is being discussed, this ‘always trusts’ applies here in relation to people. The default position of love is that it trusts, it believes the best about people until such belief is proved false.
... always hopes ... elpizo – the usual word for hope. Love always hopes for, expects, the best of others. Such confidence is grounded in our knowledge that it is God who is at work in his people, bringing them to maturity in Christ:
... always perseveres – hupomeno – literally to stay under. It refers to enduring, to staying even though staying is hard. It does not give in or give up when the going gets tough. In terms of love – it does not give up even when loving is difficult. Other New Testament uses of this word:
James 1:12; 6:11
Love never fails – ekpipto – to drop away, be driven off course, to become inefficient. In other words – love is always effective. The word translated ‘never’ is oudepote – which means ‘never at all’, ‘not even at any time’.
This multi-faceted love is the ‘most excellent way’ that Paul shows his readers. This love is what the Corinthians, and all believers, should be diligently cultivating and pursuing, rather than coveting the spectacular gifts. In the Corinthian context this love stands in stark contrast to the Corinthians’ attitude – both in issues already addressed by Paul in previous chapters, and in this issue of the misuse of the gifts and mistaken values placed on possession of certain gifts.
C. THE CONTRAST – verses 8b-13
Not only is love ‘the most excellent way’ because its qualities are far superior to the gifts, but it is also superior to the gifts because of its permanence and its permanent effectiveness.
C.1 The temporary nature of the gifts – 8b
Love never fails – never drops off, never, at any time, becomes ineffective. In contrast Paul tells us what happens to three of the gifts.
Prophecies ‘will cease’ [NIV] – katargethesetai [future tense – it will happen; indicative mood – statement of fact; passive voice – the ceasing will be the result of an outside influence acting upon the prophecies]; from katargeo – to render useless, to abolish, to cause to cease.
Tongues [speaking in languages] ‘will be stilled’ [NIV] – pausontai [future tense – it will happen; indicative mood – statement of fact; middle voice – they will cease in and off themselves, not by an outside agent] from pauo – quit, desist, cease, come to an end.
Knowledge ‘will pass away’ [NIV] – kaargethesetai [identical word and form to the verb used re prophecies]
It is important to note that the NIV has completely inverted Paul’s choice of voice in the above three statements. In the NIV translation the action relating to tongues has been translated as passive voice, while in the Greek it is the only one that is not passive; the two that are passive voice in the Greek, the verbs relating to prophecies and knowledge, are not translated as passive by the NIV, but as either middle or active, depending on how one understands the English usage. Again, it is rather puzzling why the translators have chosen to make this change.
The voice of these verbs is of particular significance for the following reasons:
 Paul states that ‘tongues’ will cease [middle voice] – which means in and of themselves, without any outside influence causing that. He doesn’t mention ‘tongues’ again in this particular argument. Some teachers suggest this passing away coincides with the completion of the written word [the New Testament], others suggest it coincides with the Roman rout and dispersion of the Jews in AD70. Those who take the latter view see tongues as a sign specifically to unbelieving Jews.
 Paul states that both prophecy and knowledge [which are both teaching gifts involving the proclamation of God’s truth] will be brought to an end [passive voice] by someone or something apart from themselves. They will not just fade out, like speaking in languages; rather, something will be done to them that brings them to an end, and renders them useless.
 Paul then contrasts the present state to the future state when this deliberate abolition of ‘prophecies’ and ‘knowledge’ will occur.
The present - now
‘we know in part and we prophesy in part’ [verse 9]
Is imperfect [verse 10].
We see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.
The future - then
I shall know fully, even as I am fully known [verse 12]
Will be perfect [verse 10]
We will see face to face [verse 12].
This contrast between the present and the future is, Paul reasons, similar to the contrast between the way a child thinks and understands, and the way an adult thinks and understands [verse 11].
His point is:
‘Tongues’ are going to cease in and of themselves. They are simply going to fade out.
Prophecy and knowledge [the preaching, teaching gifts] will one day be rendered useless.
Something that gives perfection of knowledge will occur that will bring this abolition of teaching about – ‘when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears’ [verse 10 NIV].
Note that the NIV has again altered the voice of this verb in verse 10, which is again the same word [identical in every grammatical aspect] used to refer to knowledge and prophecy in verse 8 – katargethesetai – future, indicative, passive – which should be translated ‘will be brought to an end’. It doesn’t just ‘disappear’ it will be brought to an end, abolished, by something acting upon it from the outside.
The pertinent question is, what is this event that renders the teaching gifts - prophecy and knowledge - obsolete, that abolishes them forever?
Two answers are suggested:
 The completion of the written word.
 The return of Christ.
Of these the second is recommended for the following reasons:
 The completion of the written word does not stop the need for the exercise of the teaching gifts. This is clear in Ephesians 4 where all the teaching gifts are mentioned as keeping the church strong in the presence of false teaching. In addition, the scripture as a whole commands people to teach and disciples of Christ to learn. It would contradict this strong emphasis to suggest that the teaching gifts would be bought to an end by the completion of the written Word.
 Paul states that when ‘perfection’ comes, we will know fully, and see ‘face to face’. This does not automatically occur with the completion of the written Word. But it does occur with the return of Christ [see 1John 3:2]. At that day we will see him as he really is and where he really is, seated on the throne, Lord of glory.
 From the Apostles’ perspective their teaching, along with the Old Testament – ‘the prophets’, constitutes the word of God. Although at the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians not all of the apostolic teaching had been committed to writing, the apostles, in their teaching, were putting that Word in place. The sign gifts were confirmation of their teaching, and it is the sign gifts that ceased when the apostolic message no longer needed this visible confirmation.
Speaking in ‘tongues’ – it will simply cease.
The gift of prophecy, the proclamation of God’s truth and its application to contemporary contexts – it will be brought to an end by the return of Christ.
The gift of knowledge, the teaching of God’s truth – it also will be brought to an end by the return of Christ.
But love, along with faith and hope – it remains: it stays, it continues, it is forever.
Discussion: Suggest why Paul states that love is greater than faith and hope.