For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2000 James Melough

13:1.  “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.”

The 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.

The 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.

13:2.  “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.”

Chapter 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. 

Mysteries here refers to the knowledge of spiritual truth in general, while knowledge embraces every sphere of knowledge.

13:3.  “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.”

This sounds the warning against mere philanthropy, or the willingness to sacrifice myself in the name of serving Christ, if love isn’t the motive.

Vine notes that verse 1 is literally “I give out nothing”;  verse 2 “I am nothing,” and verse 3 “I gain nothing.”

13:4.  “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,”

The 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 suffer wrong.

13:5.  “Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;”

Love 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.”

13:6.  “Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;”

Love 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.

13:7.  “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

The 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.

Believeth 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 expectation.

13:8.  “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.”

“Love 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.

13:9.  “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.”

Many 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.

13:10.  “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”

As 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 from it.

This 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.

13:11.  “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.”

Just 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.”

The 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.

13:12.  “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.”

This 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.

13:13.  “But now abideth faith, hope, charity, but the greatest of these is charity.”

The 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.

[1 Corinthians 14]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough