This verse-by-verse study on 1 Corinthians chapter 13 was taken from my paper titled "A Verse-by-Verse Study of 1 Corinthians Chapters 10-14; Philippians Chapter 3; and James 3:1-4:6. In the original paper and the version on my internet site, I was able to use bold, underlining, italics, and footnotes. I always use the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition, unless I mention otherwise. Sometimes I will use double brackets [[ ]] and (( )) to make them more obvious.
I'll quote part of what Paul W. Marsh said as an introduction to this chapter ("New Layman's Bible Commentary" [Zondervan, 1979], page 1449). "It is hardly correct to refer to this chapter as a digression, providing as it does that cardinal Christian quality without which all the charismata [plural of charisma; gifts] are worthless. Moreover, the theme of 'gifts' as it is continued in chapter 14 proceeds to unravel its many practical problems under the all prevailing plea, MAKE LOVE YOUR AIM. It is the essential link between the principle expounded in chapter 12 and the practice explained in chapter 14.
Love is a specifically Christian revelation. The Greek language with all its richness, incapable of expressing this deep reality, provided an obscure word [agape] to be invested with an entirely new connotation by the NT writers. While Greeks praise wisdom and Romans power, Paul pens a psalm in praise of love which stands alone, by-passed in a world of hate."
I'll also quote part of what Gordon D. Fee said as the introduction to his discussion of 1 Cor. 13:1-3 ("First Epistle to the Corinthians" [Eerdmans, 1987], page 630). "... For Paul [being spiritual] meant first of all to be full of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which therefore meant to behave as those 'sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be his holy people' (1 Cor. 1:2), of which the ultimate expression always is to 'walk in love.' " Fee mentioned here that some of the Corinthian Christians tended to equate being spiritual with being used in spiritual gifts. Many Christians of our day make the same serious mistake.
"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels [[The plural form of the Greek noun "glossa" that is translated "tongues" here (and often) could also be translated "languages." The NIV, for example, translates this noun as language(s) seven times in the New Testament (all seven uses are in the book of Revelation). The Bible does not mention the tongues/languages "of angels" anywhere else, but it is reasonable to assume that such tongues/languages do exist. (I had a footnote: I heard a testimony [I assume it was accurate] that confirms that a person speaking with tongues can (as God wills) speak the/a language of God's angels.) At least some of the tongues/languages spoken on the day of Pentecost were the languages of men (Acts 2:4-11).]], but do not have love [Greek agape], I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [[The apostle's point is that tongues being used without love will not prove to be a blessing to the body of Christ. Being "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" hardly qualifies as a blessing. Paul said what he did here knowing that tongues were being misused at Corinth (as chapter 12 suggests and as chapter 14 clearly demonstrates) and knowing that there was a shortage of love in manifestation at Corinth because of their sin/fleshiness. (The flesh cannot produce genuine agape.) Throughout this chapter the apostle emphasizes the need for Christians to always walk in love (the Spirit of God enabling them to do so). That is the dominant message of this chapter.
I'll quote part of what Fee said here ("First Epistle to the Corinthians," page 631). "... To 'have love'...means to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us. Thus...for those who 'walk in the Spirit' the primary ethical imperative is 'love one another.' [Christians will love one another to the extent they walk in the Spirit.] This is found at the heart of every ethical instruction (In a footnote Fee said, "See 1 Thess. 4:9; Gal. 5:13, 22; 12:9; 13:8; Col. 3:14; Eph. 5:2"), and the other exhortations are but explications of it."
It can also be said that without the underlying attitude/motivation of love, charismatic ministry-gifts like tongues or prophecy (genuine gifts) can do more harm than good. Chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians shows that much of the public tongue speaking being done in the church at Corinth was not edifying the church. Even if the Corinthians who were misusing tongues in the church at Corinth thought that they were edifying the church before Paul instructed them otherwise (in chapter 14), they were not edifying the church. It seems rather clear that they were more interested in themselves, their gifts, and their personal edification than they were interested in edifying the church (by love) through their gifts.]] (2) And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge [[The Greek favors the interpretation that "the gift of prophecy" here includes the potential of "[knowing] all mysteries and all knowledge." The NIV has, "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge." First Corinthians 14:30, which (in context with 14:29-32) is speaking of prophets and prophesying, speaks of receiving revelations from God (which is something more than speaking prophetically under the anointing of the Spirit). On "the gift of prophecy," see under 1 Cor. 12:10, 28 in the three-part article on 1 Corinthians chapter 12, and see the two-part article on 1 Corinthians chapter 14.]]; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains [Compare Matt. 17:20; 21:21; and Mark 11:23. On the charismatic gift of faith, see under 1 Cor. 12:9 in the article on 1 Corinthians chapter 12. I am not suggesting (nor do I believe) that mountain-moving faith always fits in the category of being a charismatic gift.], but do not have love, I am nothing. [The apostle certainly makes the point that charismatic gifts (genuine charismatic gifts) being manifested without love do not constitute an acceptable ministry, one that glorifies God and accomplishes His intended purposes.] (3) And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor [See Matt. 6:1-4. Compare the charismatic gift of giving in Rom. 12:8. Again, I am not suggesting (nor do I believe) that all the giving in the body of Christ fits in the category of being a charismatic gift.], and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. [[These things do not profit those doing them (before God) because they are not being done for the right reasons if they are not being done in/by love (including love for God and love for the neighbor). Such works are not acceptable before God, and He will not reward them. It must be understood that Christians are enabled to walk in love by the indwelling Spirit of God; love (agape) is the first fruit of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in Gal. 5:22. But Christians do not just automatically walk in love; we must cooperate with the Spirit and walk after the Spirit through faith, based on what God says in His word.]] (4) [Paul undoubtedly wrote (under the inspiration of the Spirit) these characteristics of love contained in 13:4-7 with the shortcomings of the Corinthians (their manifestations of fleshiness) in mind.] Love is patient, love is kind [Patience and kindness are also listed by the apostle along with love as fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22.], and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant [I somewhat prefer the KJV's more literal "not puffed up" instead of "not arrogant." The same Greek verb is also used in 1 Cor. 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; and 8:1.], (5) does not act unbecomingly [The NIV has, "It is not rude."]; it does not seek its own [cf. 1 Cor. 10:24; Phil. 2:21], is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered [The NIV has, "it keeps no record of wrongs." This does not mean that we are to overlook obvious sin being committed by Christians - that would not be love (cf., e.g., Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 6:1-11; and 2 Thess. 3:6-13).], (6) does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth [[If, for example, a minister is involved in fleshly competition with other ministers, he might rejoice if another minister fell into sin, including the sin of teaching false doctrine, as if that somehow elevated him. The fall of another minister might make him look a little better (by comparison with the fallen minister) from the point of view of the flesh, but the reality is that the fall of Christians always hurts the body of Christ, including each of its members, not to mention the fact that God is robbed of glory that He should have received.
"Unrighteousness" is always against "the truth." THE TRUTH includes RIGHTEOUSNESS (cf., e.g., Eph. 4:21-24 [Eph. 4:24 speaks of the "righteousness and holiness of the truth"]; 2 Thess. 2:12; Titus 1:1; and James 5:19, 20). Christians must always rejoice with righteousness and with the truth. Both ultimately come from God.]]; (7) bears all things [[I prefer this translation ("bears") for the Greek verb ("stego") used here (cf. 1 Cor. 9:12; 1 Thess. 3:5; both verses use the same Greek verb); however, as the margin of the NASB shows, this Greek verb can also be translated "covers." The BAGD Greek Lexicon gives "bear, stand, endure" as one set of meanings for this verb and "cover, pass over in silence, keep confidential" as the other set. BAGD does not offer an opinion regarding which of these two meanings was intended by the apostle here. The NIV translates, "It always protects." (Protection is related to covering.)]], believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [[I believe the NIV's "always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" better communicates Paul's intended meaning, but I prefer "always believes, always hopes, always endures (or, perseveres)." With the first verb of this verse included, it would read "always bears, always believes, always hopes, always endures (or perseveres)." (Instead of "always" we could translate "in everything.") Apparently the idea is that no matter what happens (in and through all things), love (and the Christian who walks in love) keeps on bearing, keeps on believing, keeps on hoping, and keeps on enduring (or, persevering) - it does not stop or turn aside for anything; it keeps pressing on.
The apostle apparently includes the idea here, which he will expand upon in the following verses, that love is enduring, never-ending, eternal. This is true because it is God's love. Christians are enabled to walk in this love through the indwelling Holy Spirit; however, as it was obvious at Corinth, Christians can still walk after the flesh instead of the Spirit, not that this is acceptable Christianity. To say that love is eternal and that the charismatic gifts will come to an end (as Paul will go on to say in the following verses) is, for one thing, to further demonstrate that love is more important than the charismatic gifts (not that we have to choose between love and the charismatic gifts, but we must always walk in love and operate the gifts in love).]] (8) Love never fails [[These words do not teach, as I have often heard it said, that our walking in love will always eventually result in the repentance of the other person. Some people never will repent. The love of God does not win over all people.
The most literal translation here, which I prefer, is "love never falls." I believe Paul's intended meaning is rather clearly established by the rest of this verse and the following verses. His primary point is that love (unlike tongues and prophecy) is a never-ending thing that will not pass away, it will never fall/fail. In the light of verse 7, when I say love is a never-ending thing, I am including the idea that those who walk in the love of God (by His grace/Spirit) will endure/persevere through all things and forever. (All good things come from God, including love, truth, life, righteousness, and holiness.)]]; but if there are gifts of prophecy [cf. 1 Cor. 13:2], they will be done away; if there are tongues [cf. 1 Cor. 13:1], they will cease; if there is knowledge [In this context, Paul is speaking of knowledge that is received by revelation, like with the word of knowledge (1 Cor. 12:8). Now "we know in part" (1 Cor. 13:9; cf. 13:12). In the eternal age to come we will have full, complete knowledge (see 1 Cor. 13:12).], it will be done away. [[Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (knowledge in the limited sense just mentioned) are only for this age; they will cease/be done away with when the eternal age arrives. Some Christians seem to be desperate to find a verse to back up their idea that the charismatic gifts (gifts like tongues and prophecy) ended with the first-generation apostles and the completion of the New Testament. They say that the words "when the perfect comes" of 1 Cor. 13:10 refer to the completion of the New Testament.
((I had a footnote: I'll quote what Paul Marsh ("New Layman's Bible Commentary," page 1450) said regarding the idea that " 'the perfect' refers to the completion of the Canon of Scripture." "Such an interpretation exists only by virtue of the need to explain the absence of certain charismata in many churches today." I'll also quote part of what D. A. Carson ("Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14" [Baker, 1987], page 71) said regarding this topic. "As Turner ["Spiritual Gifts Then and Now," "Vox Evangelica" 15 (1985):7-64] remarks, the reference to the parousia [we will be glorified at the time of the parousia] is 'so sure that Calvin was able to say: "It is stupid of people to make the whole of this discussion apply to the intervening time [before the coming of Christ]." However much we respect the New Testament canon, Paul can only be accused of the wildest exaggeration in verse 12 if that is what he was talking about.' "))
I do not believe there is any possibility that this is what Paul meant. (See under 1 Cor. 13:10.) This verse (13:8), when read in context with 13:7-13, does not offer any support for the idea that the charismatic gifts are not for us today, and I do not know of any other verses that support that idea. Will I admit that much damage has been done through a misuse of charismatic gifts or supposed charismatic gifts? Emphatically yes! But that does not give us the right to try to eliminate charismatic gifts from the body of Christ.]] (9) For we know in part [Compare 1 Cor. 13:12. We can only know the part that God reveals to us.], and we prophesy in part [We can only prophesy the part God gives us to prophesy.]; (10) But when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. [[The Greek prepositional phrase that is translated "the partial" here is exactly the same as the Greek translated "in part" twice in 1 Cor. 13:9 and once in 13:12. For Paul to say "the partial here in 13:10 [which includes knowledge and prophecy according to 13:9] will be done away" is essentially a repetition of what he said regarding prophecy and knowledge in 13:8, even using the same verb for "will be done away." The Greek adjective translated "perfect" here could just as well be translated "complete." Paul is speaking of that which is perfect/compete in contrast with that which is partial/in part. Whether we translate complete or perfect, the apostle is speaking of the eternal state that will start for us when Christ returns and we are glorified.
The Greek behind "the perfect [or, complete]" is neuter in gender, which confirms that Paul is not referring specifically to Christ Himself. (If Paul were referring to Christ as the Perfect One, he would have used the masculine gender.) It is true, however, that at the time Christ returns (comes), we will enter eternal glory (the completed/perfected state).]] (11) When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. [Throughout this present age we are like children in comparison with our future glorified state, which is likened to adulthood. In the eternal, glorified state, we will no longer need things like gifts of prophecy; all such things will have been put away, being beneficial only for our present childhood-like state.] (12) For now [throughout this present age] we see in a mirror dimly [[With our present limitations we are not able to directly look at, or to fully know, God, or the things of God. We see, as in a mirror, only an imperfect and incomplete reflection (at least in some ways it is like a reflection) of the glorious reality. I'll quote what Craig S. Keener said regarding ancient mirrors here ("Bible Background Commentary - New Testament" [Inter-Varsity Press, 1993], page 480). "Mirrors were often made of bronze, and given the worldwide reputation of Corinthian bronze, would perhaps strike the Corinthians as a local product (also cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). But even the best mirrors reflected images imperfectly (some philosophers thus used mirrors as an analogy to describe mortals' searching for the deity)...."]], but then face to face [Compare 2 Cor. 5:7; Phil. 3:12-14. Then, in the glorified state, we will see directly, fully, and clearly (instead of a partial, imperfect reflection). With the words "face to face," the emphasis seems to be on our being able to see and to fully know (at least in one sense) God Himself (cf. 1 John 3:2; Rev. 22:4).]; now I know in part [Compare "we know in part" of 13:9; in the Greek "in part" is the same in both verses.], but then ["Then" here, as earlier in this verse, refers to the time starting with our glorification.] I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. [God fully knows us now (cf. 1 Cor. 8:3), but we will not fully know Him (which includes experiential knowledge of Him), including knowing fully the things associated with the glory of His eternal kingdom, until we have been glorified. Even if He were to reveal all things to us now, we would not be able to receive the revelation. This full knowledge is contrasted with the knowing in part mentioned in this verse.] (13) But now faith, hope, love, abide [or, "remain," NIV] these three; but the greatest of these is love. [[The idea here is not that faith, hope, and love abide [remain] now, though it is true that they do abide [remain] now. The BAGD Greek Lexicon has the following heading under "nuni" (the Greek word translated "now" here): "with the idea of time weakened or entirely absent," and it lists 1 Cor. 13:13; Rom. 7:17. English sometimes uses "now" in a similar, non-temporal sense, as in "now hear this" or "now since that is true, this must be true also." The Greek word translated "now" in 13:12 is a different word.
The idea is that faith, hope, and love abide (remain) forever (they are eternal), unlike the charismatic gifts (like prophecy and tongues). Faith, hope, and love will play a vital role in God's eternal kingdom, but the charismatic gifts are just for this present age. Once we know fully (1 Cor. 13:12), we will not need the partial knowledge provided by the charismatic gifts.
It is easy to see that love is of foundational importance and is eternal; for one thing, "God is love" (1 John 4:16). And it should be easy enough to see that love is more important than charismatic gifts, not that the gifts are not important for this present age. Remember that Paul's main point in this chapter is that love is essential and Christians must walk in love, including in their use of the charismatic gifts.
Love, according to this verse, is even greater than faith and hope. (In a different context, if we were discussing how to be saved, for example, I would say that faith is more important than love. We cannot begin to love as we should without the enablement of the Spirit who comes to us through salvation BY FAITH in Christ Jesus.) It is not difficult to see how faith and hope can be considered eternal. When we think of faith in the basic sense of an attitude of the heart where we put God first, trust Him, believe Him, and obey Him, it is easy to see how faith will continue forever. And hope is appropriate for God's people in heaven in the sense of our having infinite confidence regarding the future.]]
I'll quote part of what Raymond D. Brown said regarding agape under 1 Cor. 13:1-13 ("Broadman Bible Commentary," Vol. 10 [Broadman Press, 1970], pages 369, 370). "The fourth [Greek] noun for love is agape. It appears most striking that this word occurs only rarely among the Greeks. Yet it is the word most widely used for 'love' in the New Testament and in the LXX [Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament)]. The verb agapan [agapao] occurs approximately 200 times in the LXX. The noun agape is used there 19 times. The verb agapan [agapao] is used 130 times in the New Testament and the noun almost 120 times.
... Christians were aware of its presence [agape] in the LXX to express different kinds of love (cf. Jer. 2:2; Deut. 4:37; Hos. 3:1; 11:1; Gen. 22:2). Paul uses the word, partly, because it is used widely in the LXX.
... The other Greek words for love had distinctive connotations among Greek-speaking people. Since the word agape was not used widely by them, it could be filled with Christian meaning. And it is employed to express various kinds of love in the New Testament (cf. John 17:26; Rom. 8:37; 1 Cor. 2:9; 2 Thess. 2:16; Matt. 5:43-48).
Agape is used to express the spontaneous, creative, caring love that is expressive of God's nature and that extended to undeserving men in Christ. Men who accept God's love are empowered by the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:22) to live thankfully and obediently in response to God's love and thereby live by the love that redeems them in Jesus Christ. ... It comes not through self-assertion but through self-surrender. ...
Love is centered in concern for others. Moreover, love is the principle that controls the exercise of all gifts: love creates unity, not division. To follow the way of love is to follow the very nature of God himself. Agape is the most excellent way because it is grounded in God. ...."
May God's will be fully accomplished through this verse-by-verse study of 1 Corinthians chapter 13.