1 CORINTHIANS - CHAPTER 13
Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
2000 James Melough
“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.”
Corinthians appear to have been infatuated with the dramatic character of the gift of
tongues, even though, as Paul declares in chapter 14, it was inferior to the gift of
prophecy, which was, with tongues, only a temporary gift that was soon to cease.
The point being stressed by the Apostle was that no matter what the gift, it
was worthless if used apart from love.
reference to “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” is no mere figure of speech,
for both instruments are made of brass, the Biblical symbol of judgment.
Sounding is associated with the word echo, itself an unreal
hollow reproduction of an original sound, while cymbal is also derived from a
word meaning hollow, and tinkling is literally clanging or clashing.
The gift of tongues, used without love, is only a clanging noise, a hollow
echo, evoking wonder, but accomplishing nothing worthwhile, and ensuring God’s
judgment on the man thus guilty of misusing his God-given gift.
“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.”
14 makes it clear that prophecy was a gift far superior to that of tongues, but it
too was worthless when used apart from love. Likewise, to be able to understand all truth, and to possess all
knowledge, and to have an outstanding measure of faith, was still to be a mere nobody
(lit., one having no value), unless the gift was used in love.
here refers to the knowledge of spiritual truth in general, while knowledge
embraces every sphere of knowledge.
“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.”
sounds the warning against mere philanthropy, or the willingness to sacrifice myself
in the name of serving Christ, if love isn’t the motive.
notes that verse 1 is literally “I give out nothing”; verse 2 “I am nothing,” and verse 3 “I gain nothing.”
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth
not itself, is not puffed up,”
verse needs no comment. Love is patient
and kind, never envious, never boastful, never proud or self-important.
Patience is the passive side of love: it is slow to respond to provocation.
Kindness, on the other hand is active: it seeks to do good rather than just
“Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily
provoked, thinketh no evil;”
will never be guilty of offensive behavior even in the face of provocation; will
never be selfish or quick to take offense. “Thinketh no evil” is better rendered, “ will not remember
wrongs done to it.”
“Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;”
will not gloat, but rather mourn, when another falls into sin.
Since truth is the Word of God, the thought is that love will rejoice
when others walk in obedience to that Word.
“Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all
word beareth has the thought of holding up what is placed upon it, or of
covering what is placed underneath it. Love
will never be taxed beyond endurance. It will bear all that is placed upon it.
Likewise it will always be quick to guard at all cost what is entrusted to it.
all things doesn’t mean
that love is so gullible as to believe what it knows to be untrue, but rather that it
is always willing to give the benefit of doubt rather than be suspicious of everyone
and everything. It will always entertain
the hope that good may eventually come out of evil, nor will it ever relinquish this
“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail;
whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall
never faileth” is literally “the activity of love never ceases.”
It will endure eternally. Prophecy
and tongues, on the other hand, were, as noted already, temporary gifts for the early
Apostolic age only. Knowledge too was a
temporary gift, the exact nature of which is difficult to determine, see 12:8.
“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.”
commentators, rightly I believe, take this to refer to the fact that until the
completion of the canon of Scripture, the knowledge of God’s mind and will must of
necessity be incomplete: it hadn’t yet been revealed to the prophets.
This was true when Paul wrote this Epistle.
“But when that which is perfect is
come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”
others have pointed out, the perfect thing which was to come is neuter gender,
and it means literally to be made complete, so very obviously it can’t refer
to Christ, nor does it: the reference is to the canon of Scripture which was
incomplete at the time Paul was writing this Epistle, but which was made complete
when John wrote the Revelation, the emphasis upon its completeness being declared in
the Divine warning at the end of that book neither to add to nor to subtract anything
however, doesn’t exclude the truth that at the Rapture our incomplete understanding
of Scripture will also be done away, but our lack of understanding is not what is
referred to in this verse. The reference
is, not to our incomplete understanding, but to the incompleteness of the canon of
Scripture at the time Paul wrote. This
verse lends no support to the contention that all the spiritual gifts were to
continue till the Lord’s return.
“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.”
as the Scriptures, in Paul’s day, were incomplete, so is there also a stage in the
believer’s life corresponding to the incompleteness associated with childhood, a
stage we are exhorted to leave as quickly as possible, God’s strong rebuke being
directed to those who refuse to grow up spiritually, see for example, 1 Co 3:2-3 and
14:20, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able
to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For
ye are yet carnal .... Brethren, be not children in understanding ... but in
understanding be men.” This may
be the answer to the question, Why didn’t God give the complete revelation
of His mind and will all at once at the beginning of the Church age?
As it is with new converts (spiritual infants) today, so was it also with the
beginning of the Church. She too had a
period corresponding to spiritual infancy. No
believer is capable of taking in all truth at once.
The principle is recorded in Isa 28:9-10, “Whom shall he teach knowledge?
and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from milk, and
drawn from the breasts. For precept must
be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little,
and there a little.”
fact that we’ve had a complete Bible since the end of the first century doesn’t
negate this principle. The way it was
given originally - little by little - is the way it is learned by every generation of
believers, but in those days the prophets ministered the Word orally first, and to
have attempted to teach all that now constitutes the complete canon of truth would
have been as futile as to give meat and not milk to babies.
“For now we see through a glass (as in a mirror), darkly; but then face to
face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
applies, not only to that early day of an incomplete canon of truth, but also to the
whole of the Church age, for even with the Scriptures complete, our understanding of
them is but partial. As for those of
that early day, a complete revelation was needed, so for succeeding generations there
has been needed a fuller understanding of that revelation which is now complete.
That full measure of understanding will be ours only when our earthly course
is finished, and we stand complete in heaven. This
is the operation of the same principle just discussed.
As with the individual believer, so also with the Church: there is progression
in the acquisition of knowledge, but complete knowledge awaits that day when we see
the Savior face to face.
“But now abideth faith, hope, charity, but the greatest of these is
miraculous sign gifts have long since passed away, but for every phase of the
Church’s earthly experience, faith, hope and love abide, for without faith and hope
even the existing gifts are of little value; but even faith and hope, apart from
love, are of little worth, for faith without love degenerates into mere stoicism,
while hope without love becomes selfish and cynical.
Love is the great catalyst giving value, not only to every gift, but even to
faith and hope.