ICC New Testament Commentary
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.13:1-13. A PSALM IN PRAISE OF LOVE
The thirteenth chapter stands to the whole discussion on Spiritual Gifts in a relation closely similar to that of the digression on self-limitation (ch. 9.) to the discussion of εἰδωλόθυτα. Either chapter raises the whole subject of its main section to the level of a central principle. The principle is in each case the same in hind, namely, that of subordinating (the lower) self to the good of others; but in this chapter the principle itself is raised to its highest power: from forbearance, or mere self-limitation, we ascend to love.
The chapter, although a digression, is yet a step in the treatment of the subject of Spiritual Gifts (12:1-14:40), and forms in itself a complete and beautiful whole. After the promise that he will point out a still more surpassing way, there is, as it were, a moment of suspense; and then jam ardet Paulus et fertur in amorem (Beng.). Stanley imagines “how the Apostle’s amanuensis must have paused to look up in his master’s face at the sudden change in the style of his dictation, and seen his countenance lit up as it had been the face of an angel, as this vision of Divine perfection passed before him” (p. 238). Writer after writer has expatiated upon its literary and rhythmical beauty, which places it among the finest passages in the sacred, or, indeed, in any writings.* We may compare ch. 15, Romans 8:31-39, and—on a much lower plane—the torrent of invective in 2 Corinthians 11:19-29. This chapter is a divine προφητεία, which might have for its title that which distinguishes Ps. 45, —‘A Song of Love’ or ‘of Loves.’ And it is noteworthy that these praises of Love come, not from the Apostle of Love, but from the Apostle of Faith. It is not a fact that the Apostles are one-sided and prejudiced, each seeing only the gift which he specially esteems. Just as it is St John who says, ‘This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith.’ so it is St Paul who declares that greater than all gifts is Love.
No distinction is drawn between love to God and love to man. Throughout the chapter it is the root-principle that is meant; ἑγάπη in its most perfect and complete sense. But it is specially in reference to its manifestations to men that it is praised, and most of the features selected as characteristic of it are just those in which the Corinthians had proved defective. And this deficiency is fatal. Christian Love is that something without which everything else is nothing, and which would be all-sufficient, even were it alone. It is not merely an attribute of God, it is His very nature, and no other moral term is thus used of Him (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16). See W. E. Chadwick, The Pastoral Teaching of St Paul, ch. 6; Moffatt, Lit. of N.T., PP. 57, 58).
This hymn in praise of love is of importance with regard to the question of St Paul’s personal knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is too often forgotten that Saul of Tarsus was a contemporary of our Lord, and the tendency of historical criticism at the present time is to place the date of Saul’s conversion not very long after the Ascension. Furrer and Clemen would argue for this. Saul may not have been in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion and Resurrection; but he would have abundant means of getting evidence at first hand about both, after the Appearance on the road to Damascus had made it imperative that he should do so; and some have seen evidence of exact knowledge of the life and character of Jesus of Nazareth in this marvellous analysis of the nature and attributes of Love. We have only, it is said, to substitute Jesus for Love throughout the chapter, and St Paul’s panegyric “becomes a simple and perfect description of the historic Jesus” (The Fifth Gospel, p. 153). Intellect was worshipped in Greece, and power in Rome; but where did St Paul learn the surpassing beauty of love? “It was the life of love which Jesus lived which made the psalm of love which Paul wrote possible” (ibid.). In this chapter, as in Rom_12, “we note that very significant transference of the centre of gravity in morals from justice to the sphere of the affections.” See Inge, in Cambridge Biblical Essays, p. 271.
Most commentators and translators are agreed that here, as in the writings of St John, ἀγάπη should be rendered ‘love’ rather than ‘charity’; for the contrary view see Evans, p. 376. In the Vulgate, ἀγάπη is usually translated caritas, but dilectio is fairly common, and to this variation the inconsistencies in the AV. are due. The RV. has abolished them, and the gain is great. ‘Charity’ has become greatly narrowed in meaning, and now is understood as signifying either ‘giving to the poor’ or ‘toleration of differences of opinion.’ In the former and commonest sense it makes v. 3 self-contradictory,—almsgiving without ‘charity.’ See Sanday and Headlam, Romans, p. 374; Stanley, Corinthians, p. 240.
The chapter falls into three clearly marked parts. (1) The Necessity of possessing Love, 1-3; (2) Its glorious Characteristics, 4-7; Its eternal Durability, 8-13.
The one indispensable gift is Love. If one were to have all the special gifts in the highest perfection, without having Love, one would produce nothing, be nothings, and gain nothing. Love includes all the most beautiful features of moral character, and excludes all the offensive ones. Moreover, it is far more durable than even the best of the special gifts. They are of use in this world only; Love, with Faith and Hope, endures both in this world and in the next.
1 I may talk with the tongues of men, yea of angels; yet, if I have no Love, so far from doing any good to a Christian assembly, I am become like the senseless din in heathen worships. 2 And I may have the gift of inspired preaching, and see my way through all the mysteries of the Kingdom of God and all the knowledge that man can attain; and I may have all the fulness of faith, so as to move mountains; yet, if I have no Love, so far from being a Christian of great account, I am nothing. 3 I may even dole out with my own hands everything that I possess,—may even, like the Three Children, surrender my body to the flames; yet, if I have no Love, so far from becoming a saint or a hero, or from winning a rich recompense from Heaven, I am not one whit the better. Love is the one thing that counts.
4 For Love is patient and kind; Love knows no hatred or envy.
It is never a braggart in mien, or swells with self-adulatio
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.
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.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
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.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
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.
For 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.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.