1 Corinthians 13:1–13
The Life Question is, What is love?
The Biblical Truth is that self-giving love is the highest expression of the Christian life.
The text is designed to help you experience God’s life-changing gifts by evaluating how well you express God’s love and then committing to express God’s love in every aspect and in all your relationships.
The English Word Love
Suppose you were an immigrant who came to America with little knowledge of our language. In how many ways would you hear or read the word love? You would hear the word used of romantic love or physical attraction. You would see people on television or in the movies use love to refer to lust. You would hear church people speak of love for God and others. We use the word in all these ways. No wonder those who are learning to speak English as a second language must be confused. Fortunately, first-century Greek had several words for various aspects of love. Christian love is agape, self-giving love. It is the kind of love God showed in sending His Son into the world. It is the kind of love that Christians should have for God, fellow Christians, all people, even their enemies. The classic biblical description of this love is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible—1 Corinthians 13.
Faith, Hope, and Love
The three Christian qualities of faith, hope, and love are closely related. They appear together in several passages from Paul’s writings (Rom. 5:1–5; Gal. 5:5–6; Eph. 4:2–5; Col. 1:4–5; 1 Thess. 1:3; 5:8), but the most famous of these is 1 Corinthians 13:13.
Although closely related, faith, hope, and love have distinctive meanings. Faith is the basic response to God through which we are saved and our fellowship with God is maintained. It includes belief, commitment, and trust. Hope is the confident expectation of God fulfilling His promises. Love is self-giving action that God showed for us and that we are to show to Him and others.
Search the Scriptures
Love is indispensable. No spiritual gift has any value if it is not done in self-giving love. Even great miracles, acts of charity, and martyrdom are nothing without love. Love refrains from acts motivated by selfish pride and practices acts of self-giving love. It is tough and lasting. When all the spiritual gifts are left in the past, faith, hope, and love will last, but the greatest of these is love.
Love’s Priority (1 Cor. 13:1–3)
What spiritual gifts are mentioned in these verses? Why did Paul use I instead of you? What did he say about spiritual gifts without love? What acts of sacrifice did Paul mention in verse 3? How could someone do one of those acts of sacrifice without love? How did Paul use the word nothing?
Verses 1–3: 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. 2And 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. 3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profited me nothing.
“If” is a sharper translation than though. Notice Paul’s use of the word I instead of you. He probably did this in order to show that this applied as much to him as to the Corinthians. He also had spiritual gifts that needed to be practiced in love. The key word in the passage is charity. This is a misleading translation in light of what the word means today. The King James translators were influenced by the use of charitas in the Latin version. We know that Paul was not writing about what we mean by charity because of his example of giving all one’s possessions to feed the poor (v. 3). That is what we would call an example of charity. The word love is used in most translations; but as we already have noted, our word love is ambiguous. We need to remember that Paul used the Greek word agape, which refers to self-giving love. The Greeks had other words for erotic love and for warm affection, but the New Testament used agape of God’s kind of love for us and for the love we show others.
The close relationship between this chapter and the entire section of the letter on spiritual gifts is clear in verses 1–2. Verse 1 focuses on tongues, the most highly prized gift of some of the Corinthians. The way some thought of that gift it became an example of selfish pride instead of self-giving love. Paul mentioned the tongues of men and of angels. If we could speak any language or tongues, this must be done in self-giving love. If not, we are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal (“a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” HCSB). Paul may have been thinking of pagan worship, or he may just have been referring to a loud noise.
Verse 2 mentions some other spiritual gifts, including the one Paul valued most (see 14:1–5)—the gift of prophecy. He also wrote of the gifts that enabled people to understand all mysteries, and all knowledge (see 12:8). He even included the gift of “the working of miracles” (v. 10). Even if a person could say, I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but lacked self-giving love, he would be nothing. Jesus spoke of faith that could move mountains (Matt. 21:21), but without love such a person would be nothing. Miracle workers are not always moved by self-giving love. Deuteronomy 13:1–5 warns against prophets who accurately foretold future events but who encouraged worship of other gods. Matthew 7:21–23 tells of people who claimed to work miracles in Jesus’ name. Jesus said to some of them that He never knew them.
In verse 3 Paul moved beyond spiritual gifts to deal with two impressive kinds of sacrifice. The first example is someone who gives away all his possessions to feed the poor. This is what Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do, but he refused (Matt. 19:21–22). The second example is someone who gives his body to be burned. This is an apparent reference to martyrdom. The three Hebrew children of Daniel 3 were thrown into a fiery furnace. Nero burned Christians alive. Many Reformation martyrs were burned at the stake. If someone did either of these without love, he gains nothing. You may wonder how anyone could make either of these sacrifices without love. Apparently, some do these things to draw attention to themselves (Matt. 6:2–4) or they do them out of fanaticism. Suicide bombers are motivated by false ideas of paradise. These are extreme examples, but they reinforce the main truth of Verses 1–3: Anything done without love amounts to nothing, and those who do these things are nothing.
What are the lasting truths of 1 Corinthians 13:1–3?
1. Exercising your spiritual gift without love is of no value.
2. Making the greatest sacrifices without love is equally without value.
3. As Christians, all our actions should be done out of self-giving love.
Love’s Practice (1 Cor. 13:4–7)
Why did Paul describe rather than define agape? Which of the qualities of agape are stated negatively and which are stated positively? What does each quality mean, and how does it apply to life situations today? How did Paul use faith and hope to describe agape? Which of the qualities do you most need to do better?
Verses 4–7: Charity suffered long, and is kind; charity envies not; charity vaunted not itself, is not puffed up, 5doth not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7beareth all things, believeth all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul did not attempt to define agape; instead, he described it by listing many of its characteristics. These characteristics are not self-contained; there is much overlapping. Paul was looking at love from many perspectives. There is not a smooth transition, but there is symmetry. “We have fourteen descriptive statements in pairs. The first pair of characteristics has both members positive. Four pairs of negative characteristics follow, the last member being stated both negatively and positively (v. 6); and then we have two more pairs of positive characteristics (v. 7).”
Love suffers long (“is patient,” HCSB). Love is patient in the sense of being forbearing with people. It shows self-restraint with people who test a person’s patience. It is slow to show anger or take offense at the kind of people who try their patience. As James said, they are “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (1:19). The opposite kind of person is sensitive to even the slightest offense. Paul had many opportunities to have his patience tested in dealing with the Corinthians, and they had many opportunities in dealing with one another. Unfortunately, nearly everything made them lose their cool.
Christian love is kind. Preschoolers are taught to be kind to others, but our culture has much unkindness and rudeness in it. On a large scale of life, kindness leads to civility and courtesy as well as active good will toward others. Patience and kindness are basic Christian virtues that complement each other. “The German philosopher Nietzsche hated Christianity for encouraging kindness. He accused Christian love of draining strong people by making them kind.… Far from being weakness, kindness is enormous strength—more than most of us have, except now and then. Kindness is the power that moves us to support and heal someone who offers nothing in return. Kindness is the power to move a self-centered ego toward the weak, the ugly, the hurt, and to move that ego to invest itself in personal care with no expectation of reward.”
Love envies not (“does not envy,” NIV, HCSB; “is not jealous,” NASB). Envy is the desire to have something someone else has. It may be possessions; it may be a good reputation; it may be a promotion. The opposite to envy is contentment with what you have and gladness for the good fortune of others.
Love vaunted not itself (“is not boastful,” HCSB; “does not brag,” NASB). This word is found only here in the New Testament. Some suggest that it means what we would call a “windbag.” This is closely related to the next characteristic—love is not puffed up (“is not conceited,” HCSB; “not … arrogant,” NRSV). Both are expressions of pride and the opposite of being humble. The proud person in this sense is puffed up with his own self-importance, and he expresses this with boasting. Pride also separates from God. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was so puffed up that he even bragged on himself to God, while at the same time putting down the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6, HCSB). No wonder the first Beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3).
Love does not behave itself unseemly (“does not act improperly,” HCSB; “is not rude,” NIV). The word is “anything disgraceful, dishonorable, indecent. It is a general term with a wide range of meaning. Love avoids the whole range of unseemliness.” The opposite of this is doing what is right and good.
Love seeks not her own (“is not selfish,” HCSB; “is not self-seeking,” NIV; “does not insist on its own way,” NRSV). In a sense, this includes every bad characteristic in Verses 4–7. Sin is basically self-seeking, putting yourself above God and others. It is self-centered in every way. The opposite is the kind of self-giving love being described.
Love is not easily provoked (“not easily angered,” NIV; “not irritable or resentful,” NRSV; “not quick to take offense,” NEB; not “quick tempered,” CEV). These are people who wear their feelings on their sleeves. In the church they are sensitive to anything that displeases them. They are quick to take offense at what others say and do. The opposite of this is forbearance, which is being willing to put up with what others say and do.
Love thinks no evil (“does not keep a record of wrongs,” HCSB). Thinks is logizetai, which is connected with the keeping of accounts, noting something down and reckoning it to someone. Some people never forget any wrong done against them. When an argument comes up, this person brings up all these past wrongs. This is the opposite of forgiveness, which sets aside sins and wrongs done to people. God is our model for forgiveness. He cleanses us of sins and puts them far away from us.
Love rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth (“finds no joy in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth,” HCSB). “It is all too characteristic of human nature to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Much of the news columns of our daily papers is taken up with the recounting of iniquity, either in the sense of disaster, or in that of evil deeds.… There is a stern moral element throughout the New Testament, and nothing is ever said to obscure this. Love is not to be thought of as indifferent to moral considerations. It must see truth victorious if it is to rejoice.” Love and truth go together. We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
Love bears all things. This word has the idea of carrying something. It may apply to bearing our own burdens or to bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2, 5). This is possible because God bears our burdens (Ps. 55:22). We can bear burdens only with God’s help. Put this with love endureth all things. The word here means “to bear up under” life’s troubles and trials. Love is the motivating power of both carrying burdens and bearing troubles. The opposite of these is to fail to bear burdens, to falter in hard times.
In verse 7 love is described in terms of the triad involving faith and hope. Love believeth all things and hopeth all things. verse 7 can be translated, Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (NIV).
What are the lasting truths in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7?
1. Christian love is unique.
2. Christian love has many characteristics.
3. Summarizing these characteristics is impressive.
Love’s Permanence (1 Cor. 13:8–13)
Why is love more permanent than spiritual gifts? How is love the sign of mature people? What did Paul mean by seeing through a glass, darkly? How is love placed above faith and hope?
Verses 8–13: 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. 9For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11When 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. 12For 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. 13And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Love never faileth (“ends,” HCSB). “It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen” (Phillips). To put it another way, love lasts. This is not true of all human love. Ideally, when Christians marry, they should have a commitment with a love that lasts. This chapter is often part of a Christian wedding. It is a commitment to unconditional love.
Paul contrasted the permanence of love with the impermanence of spiritual gifts. In Verses 1–3 he showed that spiritual gifts without love amount to nothing. In verses 8–10 he showed that spiritual gifts belong to this age and come to an end, but love lasts forever. He mentioned three gifts, which are representative of all gifts. Prophecies, which Paul considered the highest gift, shall fail (“come to an end,” HCSB). Tongues, which Paul saw as a personal gift with little value to the church but which some considered the chief gift, shall cease. Knowledge … shall vanish away.
Some Bible students see this as the end of spiritual gifts. This view emphasizes words such as fail … cease … vanish away. Others believe the gifts will remain but will be totally transformed. Whichever group is right, this does not mean that heaven is a place of inactivity. There will be ways of serving God and one another.
The difference between using spiritual gifts now and the service of the future life is not true versus false but partial versus complete. We know in part, and we prophesy in part now, but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. The word for perfect means to be “complete” or “mature.” In verse 11 Paul used an analogy based on his growth from childhood to adulthood. When he was a child, he spoke, understood, and thought like a child. When he became a man, he put away childish things.
Paul used another analogy in verse 12. The word glass means “mirror.” The word darkly is the word from which we get our word enigma. It means “in a riddle” or “indistinctly” (HCSB). This is what Paul meant by seeing through a glass, darkly. Paul contrasted this imperfect image with seeing and being seen face to face. When people of that day peered into the future of God’s people, what they saw was blurred and imperfect. But the time will come when believers shall see clearly. When that time comes, Paul wrote, Then shall I know even as also I am known. “My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me” (NEB). “At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me!” (Phillips).
Verse 13 again brings together “faith, hope, and love.” All three are said to “abide” (NASB). This word can also mean “remain” (NIV, HCSB). These three basic Christian responses are lasting. We may wonder how faith, which in this world means to be able to see the unseen realities of God, will function in heaven. The same question can be asked of hope, which shall have been realized. No doubt their functions will be different from what they are now, but these words can refer to the objects of faith and hope that will comprise heaven.
Paul said that love is the greatest of these. What did he mean? For one thing, God’s love is the basis for both faith and hope. The Bible says that God is love. Although God is called faithful, He is not called faith. And although God has a future plan and He is our hope, the Bible does not say that God is hope. Another factor may be that love is the only one of the three that provides the foundation for genuine fellowship, such as will characterize heaven.
What are the lasting truths in 1 Corinthians 13:8–13?
1. Christian love lasts forever.
2. Spiritual gifts as practiced in this life will pass away.
3. The partial knowledge of this life will give way to full knowledge in the future life.
4. Faith, hope, and love will remain, but love is the greatest of these three Christian virtues.
Self-giving love is indispensable to the Christian. Any activity, however religious, must be done with such love. This includes spiritual gifts. Without love, they mean nothing. This principle also applies to acts of great sacrifice. Love has many characteristics. Listing these gives a good sense of what self-giving love does and does not do. Christian love lasts throughout life’s varied experiences. Spiritual gifts will end, but faith, hope, and love will remain; and love is the greatest of these. The challenge of this powerful lesson is to evaluate yourself to see if your love fits what the Word of God says that Christian love should be.