William Kelly Major Works Commentary
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.1 Corinthians Chapter 13
Love is the theme in hand, not "charity," for which we are indebted to Wiclif's too close following of the Vulgate. Tyndale and Cranmer gave "love," from which our Authorized translators often went back again to "charity." The apostle discourses on it worthily of Him who displayed its perfection here below. Not law, but love, is in harmony with God's assembly. Doubtless it is handled with special reference to the need and dangers of the Corinthians, but the Holy Spirit gave it out with divine precision and fulness. Love was a new sound even to a Jew; how much more to the Gentiles, used to walk in the vanity of their mind, darkened in understanding, hardened in heart, who, after having cast off all feeling, gave themselves up to lasciviousness, though none the less hateful and hating one another! Selfishness reigned, whatever the sentiments and pretensions of men, and this because God Himself was unknown, sin was unjudged and unforgiven. For love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God; as, on the other hand, he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love, while he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. So our apostle tells the Thessalonians that they were taught of God to love one another, and the Colossians, that love is the bond of perfectness, reminding Timothy that the end of the charge laid on him, and on others through him, was love out of a pure heart and good conscience and faith unfeigned.
It is well, however, to remark its connection here with the assembly of God, and the working of the Holy Spirit in it. Everywhere precious, never out of season, above all it is the lifebreath of the church. Where love is not the regulating power in the Spirit, the very nearness of the saints to each other, and the action of the gifts, prove the greatest dangers; where love governs, all else works smoothly to the edification of the saints and to the Lord's glory. If the Corinthian saints, in their ministering of the gifts, had forgotten the supreme excellence of love, the apostle puts it forward with all prominence between his treatment of the Spirit's presence and action in the assembly, and the order laid down for the due exercise of gift there.
Love, he shows, has intrinsic and divine excellency, surpassing all gifts, even the gifts that edify. For such gifts may be where there is no love. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, yet have not love, I am become sounding brass and a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know all the mysteries, and all the knowledge, and if I have all the faith so as to remove mountains, yet have not love, I am nothing. And if I should dole out in food all my substance, and if I should deliver my body that I might be burned, and have not love, I am nothing profited." (Vers. 1-3.) The apostle begins with the superiority of love to the gift of tongues in any conceivable degree. It is as evident from this verse as from Acts 2 how baseless is the effort of Meyer and others to deny that they were articulate and intelligible languages. "Of angels" completes the cycle for the apostle, who here, as elsewhere, personates the supposed case. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 9:26-27; Rom. 7: 7-26, according to the principle stated in 1 Corinthians 4:6.) To speak all possible tongues without love were to become sounding brass or a clattering cymbal, not even vox but sonitus and praeterea nihil. But he goes farther. The possession of the prophetic gift, with an inward consciousness, and not merely acquired knowledge, of all the mysteries and all the knowledge that is revealed, nay, the possession of all the faith so as to remove mountains, if without love, leaves one nothing. It is plain that he is not treating of divinely given faith in Christ's person, which is inseparable from eternal life and love too. It is the gift, or χάρισμα, of faith. Power is not grace. (See Heb. 6; Matt. 7) If one should bestow all one's property in charitable doles, and give over one's body to the flames of martyrdom, without love, he is nothing profited, whatever others might reap.
We may notice that the reading, καυχήσο-(or -ω-)-μαι, "I may boast," is that of A B, 17, the Roman Æthiopic, etc. But it is, as Matthaei said, whatever Jerome alleges, "prorsus absurda lectio," and a change by one letter from καυθήσο-(or -ω-)-μαι, "I may be burned," whether inadvertently, or by the design of such as did not understand the scope of the passage; for the motive of boasting would exclude love so completely, as to render ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω a needless addition. The fact however is instructive, in that it is one of not a few proofs how mistaken and perilous it is to accept absolutely the united verdict of the three most famous uncials.
Next we come, not to a definition of love, but to its qualities as in this world, specified for our instruction. It is what Christ was here, active as well as suffering in love above evil. "Love is long-suffering, is kind; love is not emulous, is not vainglorious, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not its own things, is not easily provoked, reckoneth not the evil, rejoiceth not over iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." (Vers. 4-7.) Patience in the midst of trial is the first-mentioned attribute of love, which even shows positive kindness instead of harbouring a vindictive thought. Again, as it does not indulge in envy or jealousy of another, so there is no self-display (or, as some think, forwardness), nor the arrogance whence it springs. Hence indecorum, or rude behaviour, is incompatible with love, as it is marked by disinterestedness and slowness to anger, and by readiness to forget the wrong that is done.
"Thinketh no evil" scarcely expresses the clause, but rather not having the evil in the mind and tongue. "No evil" would answer to the phrase if anarthrous. Here it is an actual evil done, which would rankle but for love, which is ever above evil, always free and always holy.
Hence love does not rejoice over unrighteousness, as malice does, too glad to cover its own evil by that of others; the joy, the sympathies, of love are with the truth, which is personified here as elsewhere. Thus love bears all vexations, believes all possible good (cf. Acts 9:27; Acts 11:22-26), hopes all, in spite of evil manifest enough at present, endures all things, persecutions or afflictions, knowing the! we are set for this. God being seen in Christ raises the heart above the depressing power of evil or even suspicion.
Strange to say, the Vatican manuscript (B) reads οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ μὴ ἑαυτῆς, that is, love only seeks her own advantage! So do even the Gentiles, who know not God. It is the character of selfishness, not of love. Yet Clement of Alexandria cites this false reading, and reasons on it as if correct in Paed. iii. 1, sec. 3; though elsewhere he cites the clause as it should be. One sees the folly of making such men authoritative in the least degree.
The perpetuity of love, in contrast with means of present testimony or blessing by the way, is next urged. "Love never faileth; but whether prophecies, they shall be done away; whether tongues, they shall cease; whether knowledge, it shall be done away. For in part we know, and in part we prophesy; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away." (Vers. 8-10.) Evidently this again proves the immense superiority of love. It will never be out of date. Prophecies, knowledge, shall be done away, and tongues cease; but love abides. They are suited to our time-state, they are but in part, and do not square with the perfection where no evil exists and love is in fullest exercise. Love is thoroughly in keeping with a condition of glory, while incidental and partial agencies as naturally terminate with its arrival.
There is a difference in the phraseology as to tongues as compared with prophecies and knowledge, and it has been inferred, perhaps justly, that the cessation of tongues intimates their dropping when God's aim was achieved, whilst the means of edifying fall in with continuance, till the perfection of glory brings them to a comparatively abrupt end. Those habituated to the accuracy of scripture expression will not doubt that a difference is intended by the change of words. Certainly, however this be, there is the utmost care to maintain the Lord's coming as our immediate hope. All expression of a long future for us on earth is avoided here and everywhere.
The apostle proceeds to illustrate the present and the future by the childhood and full growth of a man as follows. "When I was a child, I talked as a child, I thought as a child, I reckoned as a child; when I am become a man, I have done away with the things of the child. For we see now through a mirror in a dark form, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall fully know, even as I also was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but [the] greater of these [is] love." (Vers. 11-13.) Clearly the drift of the passage is not to cast uncertainty on our present measure of knowledge, but to set forth its partial character, as compared with the fulness in glory. He confirms the difference by another similitude, the reflection of a mirror with no more than a dim shape seen thereby, and seeing face to face. The medium, or rather our seeing now, is necessarily imperfect, and the result more or less dark. By-and-by it will be immediate vision, and I shall know fully as I was also fully known. It is a difference not merely of measure but of manner too. Our very learning now, no matter how much we have learnt, proves our ignorance. It will not be so then. The state which needs to grow, as well as the means which contribute to growth, will have passed away. Truth will be fully known as a whole in that day, not learnt piecemeal as now.
"But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but [the] greater of these [is] love." The apostle speaks of the main moral principles characteristic of Christianity not of power in testimony; and here too love has the greater place, though all are great and abiding. But there is no intimation of faith and hope abiding throughout eternity. They remain, but to say that these three shall remain for ever is to interpolate rather than interpret. It is well known how some try to explain the continuance of faith and hope, where all is seen and enjoyed in glory: the one as anticipation certain to be fulfilled; the other as trust, entire and undoubting
But scripture cannot be broken; and faith is the evidence or conviction of things not seen, as hope seen is not hope. (Rom. 8; Heb. 11) Faith and hope therefore refer only to the present state, love alone to eternity as well as to the present. Fruition supersedes the faith that looks at God's word for the object presented, and the hope that desires and waits for it; but love never fails. So it was laid down in verse 8, in contradistinction from the instruments or signs there given of God. Then, after the setting out of the intervening verses which explain or confirm, the apostle resumes with νυνὶ δέ μένει, "now however remaineth" not love only, nor first, but "faith, hope, love, these three; but the greater of these is love," which last is turned to grave account in the chapter following. They are the cardinal points of every Christian, as is attested right through the New Testament; and of the three love has the pre-eminent place, not because it contains in itself the root of the other two, but because they point and lead through Christ our Lord to it, as their end which has no end, that nature and activity of divine goodness which we share now by grace in a world of evil, and which will last everlastingly where there is no evil but only good in source and fruit.
In writing to the Thessalonians the Apostle could remember their labour of love and tell them that he had no need to write to them about it, they themselves being taught of God to love one another. Was it so at Corinth? He thanks God for enriching them in all word and all knowledge, so that they came short in no gift, but as to love kept ominous silence. Was it love to form rival parties? to cry up the servants into leaders? to crave after worldly wisdom? to slight impurity? to refer differences to courts of law? to enfeeble family ties? to seek relief in change of circumstances? Alas! the Corinthian saints were proud of their knowledge, though even at that time it had worms and stank, for they were perverting it to tamper with idolatry, and needed to learn that, while knowledge puffs up, love builds up; while the one gives no deliverance from self-seeking and self-indulgence, the other strengthens the believer in the self-sacrificing service of Christ, free from all, yet becoming slave to all, in order to gain the most possible. And assuredly the palpable alienation of the Lord's supper, and even of the love-feast mixed up with it, from the divine object of it was the saddest proof that they needed that teaching on love which grace gave them: with what special aim we shall hear presently.
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.
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.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.