1 Corinthians 13:1-13
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.…
This is one of the passages of Scripture which an expositor scruples to touch. The bloom and delicacy passes from the flower in handling. But although this eulogium is its own best interpreter, there are points in it which require explanation and enforcement. Note —
I. THE SUPREMACY OF LOVE.
1. The extraordinary gifts of which the Corinthians were so proud may profit the Church, but they are no evidence of the ripe Christian manhood of their possessor.
(1) Suppose I speak all possible languages, and have not love, I am but a mere instrument played upon by another — sounding brass, etc.
(2) Take the gifts of prophecy, miracles, etc. Without love, however, they may profit others, they neither bring me into closer connection with Christ nor give assurance of my sound spiritual condition.
(3) Take almsgiving. The young ruler lacked but one thing: to sell his property and give to the poor. But, says Paul, "though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor," etc., I may do this from a love of display, or from an uneasy sense of duty.
(4) But martyrdom? Well, at one period martyrdom became fashionable, just as suicide once became fashionable.
2. Too often it is a man's snare to judge himself by what he does rather than by what he is. But no eye to advantage or to public opinion can enable a man to love. Love must be spontaneous from the soul's self, the unconstrained, natural outcome of the real man. Love cannot be got up. It is the result of God entering and possessing the soul. "He that loveth is born of God." And therefore it is that where love is absent all is absent. And yet how the mistake of the Corinthians is perpetuated from age to age. The Church is smitten with a genuine admiration of talent. Do parents sufficiently impress on their children that all successes at school and in early life are as nothing compared to the more obscure but much more substantial acquisition of a thoroughly unselfish spirit?
II. ITS POSITIVE EXCELLENCE (vers. 4-7).
1. It is possible that Paul may have read the eulogium pronounced on love by the greatest of Greek writers five hundred years before: "Love is our lord, supplying kindness and banishing unkindness, giving friendship and forgiving enmity, the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the gods; desired by those who have no part in him, and precious to those who have the better part in him; parent of delicacy, luxury, desire, fondness, softness, grace; careful of the good, uncareful of the evil. In every word, work, wish, fear — pilot, helper, defender, saviour; glory of gods and men, leader best and brightest; in whose foot steps let every man follow, chanting a hymn and joining in that fair strain with which love charms the souls of gods and men." Five hundred years after Paul another eulogium was pronounced on love by Mohammed: "Every good act is charity; your smiling in your brother's face; your putting a wanderer in the right road; your giving water to the thirsty, or exhortations to others to do right. A man's true wealth hereafter is the good he has done in this world to his fellowman. When he dies, people will ask, What property has he left behind him? but the angels will ask what good deeds he has sent before him." Thomas a Kempis dwells on its varied capacity. "Love," he says, " feels no burden, regards not labours, would willingly do more than it is able, pleads not impossibilities, because it feels sure that it can and may do all things. Love is swift, sincere, pious, pleasant, and delightful; strong, patient, faithful, prudent, longsuffering, manly, and never seeking itself; it is circumspect, humble, and upright; sober, chaste, steadfast, quiet, and guarded in all its senses."
2. Paul's description of the behaviour of love is drawn as a contrast to the unseemly and unbrotherly conduct of the Corinthians.
III. ITS PERMANENCE.
1. As compared with gifts of which the Corinthians were so proud (ver. 8). These gifts were for the temporary benefit of the Church. They were the scaffolding which no one thinks of when the building is finished, the school-books which become rubbish when the boy is educated, the prop which the forester removes when the sapling has become a tree. But knowledge? The knowledge of God and of Divine things — is not this permanent? No, says Paul.
(1) When a boy begins the study of Euclid, the first proposition he learns is absolutely accurate and true; he may add to it, but he can never improve upon it. His knowledge is imperfect in amount, but so far as it goes it is absolutely reliable. But when we are walking on a misty morning and see an object at a distance, our knowledge is imperfect in the sense of being dim, uncertain, inaccurate. We see that there is something before us, but whether a man or a gatepost we cannot say. A little nearer we see it is a man, but whether old or young, friend or no friend, we cannot say. Here the growth of our knowledge is from dimness to accuracy. Both the figures used by Paul imply that our knowledge of Divine things is of this latter kind. They loom, as it were, through a mist. We are at present in the state of childhood, which cherishes many notions destined to be exlploded by maturer knowledge.
(2) The other figure is still more precise. The word here rendered "glass" was a common figure among the rabbis to illustrate dimness of vision. If they wished to denote direct and clear vision, they spoke of seeing a thing face to face. They had a common saying, "All other prophets saw as through nine glasses, Moses as through one." The rabbis, too, bad another saving, "Even as a king, who with common people talks through a veil, so that he sees them, but they do not see him, but when his friend comes to speak to him he removes this veil, so that he might see him face to face, even so did God speak to Moses apparently, and not darkly."
2. Paul's crowning testimony to the worth of love is given in ver.13. He does not mean that love abides while faith becomes sight and hope fruition. For faith and hope pass away only in one aspect of their exercise. If by faith be meant belief in things unseen, this passes away when the unseen is seen. If hope be taken as referring only to the future state in general, then when that state is reached hope passes away. But faith and hope are really permanent elements of human life, faith being the confidence we have in God, and hope the ever-renewed expectancy of future good. But while faith maintains us in connection with God, love is the enjoyment of God and the partaking of His nature; and while hope renews our energy and guides our aims, it can bring us to no better thing than love.
(M. Dods, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.