I would like to discuss, verse by verse, in simple terms, the meaning of what is commonly known as the Love Chapter of the Bible, which comprises the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first known epistle to the Corinthians.
1. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
In the previous chapter, Paul has just concluded instructing the Corinthians that God has given to each a unique spiritual gift. He has just explained that not all gifts are equal, neither are they distributed equally to all, but that each member is given a gift which can be can used for the edification of the church.
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” asks Paul. “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:29-31). In verse 1 of the Love Chapter, Paul says, in essence, that though he possesses the most excellent of gifts, so that he can speak with the “tongues of men and of angels”–yet if he has not love, then he is nothing more than “sounding brass” or a “clanging cymbal”. All of his excellency of speech and skill in language, which may be worthy of the ears of celestial beings, is nothing more than the clashing of base metals that have no ability to communicate anything of true value. It is love that binds the gift of language into speech worthy of its listeners.
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, but have not love, I am nothing.
Paul esteems the spiritual gift of prophecy most highly among the spiritual gifts. We know this explicitly in the following chapter of Corinthians, in which the apostle exhorts the church to “desire gifts” but especially the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). He stresses that the purpose of the prophetic calling is for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of humanity (1 Corinthians 14:2).
Yet, in the Love Chapter, Paul ordains that although he has the gift of prophecy and “understanding of all mysteries” and “all knowledge”, and though he has the kind of faith of which Jesus spoke–the type which is so abounds that it can move mountains, yet if he has not love, then, Paul says, “I am nothing”.
3. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Jesus clearly had a heart for the poor. Mercy and compassion are at the core of Jesus’ commandments. Yet there was something else Jesus once said: “For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always” (Matthew 26:11). It was at this point in Jesus’ life that a woefully sinful woman had poured an expensive alabaster flask of “very costly fragrant oil” on His head. And when the disciples saw what she had done, they became indignant because, to them, it seemed like a waste of costly goods. Yet Jesus saw this as an act of inexhaustible love; for she, in fact, had anointed Him for His death.
Jesus, first and foremost, is concerned with the condition of the heart, above and beyond the condition of the body. Though He cares for our needs, as a good father for his beloved children, it is the soul of man that most concerns Him. Therefore Paul says, “And though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
4. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
The King James and New King James render this text beautifully: “Love suffers long, and is kind.” Love is willing to suffer on behalf of the one loved. The NIV renders this: “love is patient, love is kind” and aptly summarizes the longsuffering that must often be endured if one is to love at all. “Love does not envy, love does not parade itself, is not puffed up”. These are all hideous traits unworthy of the profession of God’s love. There is no room for ambitious pride, or mean jealousy, or crude boasting in the realm of God’s Kingdom.
5. does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
Love checks its behavior; it is not only after it’s own selfish gain. It is not easily angered or provoked unnecessarily. Love is, by all means, temperate.
6. does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
How can love love that which is evil? It can not cohort with reckless wickedness. Love must, at all times, revel in the truth of God’s Word.
7. bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is all-encompassing. There is no weight which it cannot endure, no trial which it cannot upbraid. It is full of faith. It is ever hopeful. It is always in a state of perseverance, even until the end. Love is all in all.
8. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
Love cannot be drowned or placed under the dominion of men or of angels. And Paul returns to his original thesis: where the tongue brings forth speech, it will be stilled, “where there is knowledge it will pass away”. All earthly matter will vanish–and even that which we think we know will fail. Yet love, never fails. It never ceases. It never vanishes away.
9. For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
This is where we are forewarned to remain humble of the great gifts bestowed upon us by the Almighty Creator. We are reminded that even those of us who have the most excellent gifts only understand a dose of the Truth; that it is God alone through His Son, Jesus Christ, that holds the key to the unfathomable mysteries of the universe. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part”.
10. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
And we are gently instructed, even amidst divine words of love, that the end is always near. That one day, the Lord Jesus Christ shall descend from His glorious throne on high and culminate the End of the Ages. The imperfect shall be driven away by fire and vanquished for all eternity. When the Perfect shall come, there will be no need of such spiritual gifts as prophesy or tongues or of inspired knowledge, for we will exist in a state of perfection unobstructed by the limitations of our present condition.
11. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
This present state is a state of childhood and the Kingdom of God is the state of manhood. While we lived as children on the Earth, we prophesied and reasoned about the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven. But when we become men–that is, enter into our future position with Christ–we will put away the childish things of the present for which we now so dearly strive.
12. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
One of my favorite analogies of our present earthly state in light of the eternal one to come, is that now it is as though everything in our view is on par with looking through a “glass darkly”.
Matthew Henry, English Bible commentator and minister wrote, in the 1700s: “All things are dark and confused now, in comparison of what will be hereafter . . . now we can only discern things at a great distance, as through a telescope, and that involved in clouds and obscurity; but hereafter the things to be known will be near and obvious, open to our eyes; and our knowledge will be free from all obscurity and error.”
We will, one day, see Him face to face, and look upon His eyes as a flame of fire, burning not with judgement, but with love, for those who are called by His name. “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
13. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The word which Paul used to describe this great love was not a romantic or an amorous one, but a love which exceeds all versions thereof. The word that he used in the Greek was agape–a word that has become synonymous with sacrificial, selfless, Christian love. “Faith, hope, love,” these three, are Paul’s greatest assets. Yet, of these three only love shall remain, when all else has marked its path bravely along the trail of life and ceased at the onset of Eternity.