And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
1 Corinthians 13:13
A proper understanding of the text in question begins with a proper understanding of the first-century church. Imagine being a Christian but having no immediate access to the Bible. The early Christians had complete access to what we call the Old Testament. Beyond that, they relied on the letters sent to them by Apostles and other New Testament writers. These letters arrived sporadically – sometimes at the direct request of the recipient, and sometimes as generally written treatises and words of exhortation to all brethren.
Some say that the early Christians had it far easier than Christians today, due to their being able to write and have direct communication with the Apostles of Christ, but think about it: When you compare Christians now and then, which ones really had direct communication? I can open my Bible and within seconds read and know everything God wants me to know about how to be saved and live faithfully. I know I can, because Peter said so:
According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:
(1 Peter 1:3)
But what if I’m a Christian in the first century and Peter hasn’t written that yet? He’s also a thousand miles away, and mail was carried – not electronically – but personally. Can we really say that they had direct communication?
And what about those Christians back then? Imagine if someone walks into your church building claiming to be a Gospel Preacher and asking for a few minutes to preach to the congregation. Maybe out of a trusting heart, you turn your pulpit over to this man…and he begins to ramble on about things totally out of step with the Word of God. How do you know he’s a false teacher? Because you can compare what he says with what the Bible says.
In the first century the Bible was still being written; what could congregations do to ascertain a true teacher from a false? Thankfully God, in His wisdom, gave the early church miraculous gifts. Only a true teacher of God would have these amazing supernatural abilities. If a person in the first century wanted to preach and he could give a blind man sight, then the congregation would know that man was inspired of God – and therefore could be trusted.
Now let’s focus on one congregation in particular: the church at Corinth. Here was a congregation littered with problems. So many, in fact, that Paul devoted not one but two inspired letters to this congregation, with the hopes of turning their attitudes and actions back toward God.
A sampling of their many problems:
Suing one another
Paying the preacher (say it aint so!)
The Lord’s Supper
and so on…
At first glance, the reader of Paul’s first Corinthian letter might see these as random issues; the result of too much influence by the sinful world. And while it’s no doubt true the wicked city of Corinth did a number on the faithfulness of the brethren, it’s not true that these problems are all disconnected.
There is one major issue that united each of the problems: They didn’t know how to love. More than that: The didn’t understand love. So Paul has to show them why love is such a big deal.
The set up to chapter 13 is (obviously) chapter 12. After 11 chapters of dealing with problem after problem, we come to yet another squabble: They fought over the miraculous gifts. So Paul beings ch12 by addressing the problem they were having with their spiritual gifts:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.
Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.
Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.
(1 Corinthians 12:1-3)
Again, imagine being a Christian in the first century. Here comes a man claiming to be a teacher of God. How do you know? Today you can compare his words to the Bible, but those Christians didn’t have such a convenience. If this man were able to do some miracle (a real miracle – like give the blind sight) then you would know he was from God, and could trust his message.
Which is why Paul says in v3 that no one speaking by the Spirit of God (i.e. inspired) calls Jesus accursed (i.e. speak false doctrine). And no one is going to preach the truth (“say Jesus is Lord”) except by inspiration (the Spirit).
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.
(1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
The wisdom of God is seen yet again in the dispensing of these miraculous gifts. Not one Christian (other than the Apostles) had all the gifts. The reasons for that are obvious, and will be made clear by Paul in just a moment.
There is a diversity (and a dividing out) of gifts, all given by the same Holy Spirit (v4), just like there are different offices in the Lord’s church (v5), but just one Lord (you see Paul is subtly hitting on a theme of unity). Different Christians do different works (v6), but all under the banner of the one God Who works in and through everything.
So why does God not give all the gifts to every Christian? Because he wanted them to work together (v7). The “manifestation of the Spirit” (the gifts) “is given to every man” (individually) “to profit everybody” (collectively).
For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
(1 Corinthians 12:8-10)
The gifts, as Paul explains them:
Wisdom – practical application of what is taught from scripture
Knowledge – literally, clarity
Faith – the kind that can move mountains (Matthew 17:19-20)
Healing – ability to cure diseases
Miracles – working of special powers (like striking a man blind, etc)
Prophesy – foretelling (a gift most needed with no Apostle present)
Discerning of spirits – ability to judge truth from fiction
Tongue-speaking – ability to speak languages never studied (Acts 2)
Tongue-interpretation – ability to translate languages never studied
A word on tongue speaking, since that was evidently the most coveted-after gift by the Corinthian Christians (1 Corinthians 14): There are those today who claim the ability to “speak in tongues.” Upon hearing what they call “tongue speaking” it’s clear there is a difference in what they do, and what Paul writes about here. What some today call “tongue speaking” is little more than inane babbling. The word “tongue” as it’s translated in the King James Version, is literally “language.” In other words, the miracle of “tongue speaking” wasn’t speaking a language that no one understands (anyone can do that), but rather in speaking a language that you never learned.
I’ve never learned how to speak Chinese, but if suddenly I was able to stand before the congregation and speak Chinese – fluently – then that’s obviously a miracle (a supernatural occurrence, or something that supersedes the laws of nature). Naturally I can’t speak a language I never learned, but super-naturally (via a miraculous gift) I can.
But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
(1 Corinthians 12:11-13)
Paul ties it all together by showing them how God’s plan is for unity through these diverse gifts. All the Christians had to work together for the plan to work. Imagine if the one speaking in tongues wasn’t getting along with the interpreter. How would anyone learn (that’s the point Paul makes in ch14)? Or what if the one giving wisdom refused to expound?
Everyone has to be on the same page, or nothing is accomplished. It goes back to the very first problem Paul addresses in the letter: division (ch1). We’re supposed to be one (ch12:12). God is one. His church is one – it has many members working in harmony in that one institution. We all were baptized into that ONE body. And all these Corinthian Christians, who each has a different gift, are all apart of the one body, and received those gifts from the one Spirit (v13).
Incidentally, some Calvinists teach “Holy Spirit baptism” and use this text to do so. But is Paul saying that we are baptized into the Spirit, or that we’re baptized by the Spirit? We’re baptized into the one body (the church – Ephesians 1:22-23) BY the Spirit. How? By His teaching – by obeying the Gospel that He inspired.
The beginning of chapter 13 is really the end of chapter 12, as Paul is continuing his discussion about the problem with the miracles at Corinth. One major problem the Corinthians had was their attitude (manifested in a host of problems already covered in the letter). With regard to their miraculous gifts, some Corinthians had the idea that certain miracles were better than others, and would brag and belittle each other based off the gifts they had been given by God.
Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
(1 Corinthians 12:30-31)
So as not to imply that they should not want/need the gifts they’ve been given, Paul reminds them to “covet” (literally, “have warm feelings”) the gifts they’ve been given. BUT…there’s a better way. There’s something better than even the best gift: Love.
There are 4 different words for love in the Greek alphabet:
1. eros (εpος́)
This is the love that draws a man and woman together; sexual love.
2. storgay (στῶpγει)
This is family love; the love of a parent to a child, or child to parent.
3. phileo (φιλεο)
This is brotherly love. It’s also used for a very strong affection.
Actually, it’s the strongest form of love in the Bible; a pure and unconditional emotional attachment.
4. agapé (ἀγάπη)
This is love that motivates one to charity (which why it’s translated as such).
God is ἀγάπη (I John 4:8). That is, He is the source of ἀγάπη.
This love is what motivated Christ to die for us (John 3:16).
We are to ἀγάπη our enemies (Matthew 5:44). We can ἀγάπη them and still not like them, because ἀγάπη is about doing good to them.
This is why “charity” is actually a perfect translation. This is the sacrificial love of God. It’s the kind of love that was missing in Corinth.
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.
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.
(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Corinth was covetous over their gifts, so Paul opens with a bombshell. You think it’s a big deal to speak in tongues? I can speak with the language of angels. But so what, is his point. If he doesn’t have love, then even that celestial language is nothing more than the annoying one-note crash of a cymbal (v1). You think you have gifts? Paul understood all mysteries; he had all knowledge. (v2) But so what? If he didn’t have love, he’s nothing (literally: “less than a man”). He could give everything, help everyone, sacrifice even his own life, but without love – it’s all for naught (v3).
One can almost get a sense of what it must have been like for the Corinthian church to be sitting in the assembly while this letter was read. Up until this point, no doubt the various answers Paul gave to their problems sparked heated exchanges, but as the public reader began with reading this section aloud, no doubt the audience fell silent – humbled.
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.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
What is it about agapé? What is it about the one who practices it, that makes it special?
It suffers long – it’s patient
It is kind – it has a pleasant disposition
It doesn’t envy – it’s not jealous over someone else’s success
It doesn’t vaunt itself – it’s not boastful
It isn’t puffed up – it’s not conceited
It doesn’t behave unseemly – it’s not lewd, or crude
It doesn’t seek its own – it’s not selfish
It isn’t easily provoked – it’s meek
It doesn’t think evil – it doesn’t hold grudges
It doesn’t rejoice in sin – it’s not happy to see an injustice
It rejoices in truth – it celebrates righteousness
It bears all things – it keeps on keeping on
It believes all things – it gives the benefit of the doubt
It hopes all things – it looks for the good in all things
It endures all things – it doesn’t give up
But wait: God is agapé. Therefore God suffers long, et al. But Christ is God. So then Christ suffers long. But aren’t Christians are to be Christ-like? Therefore Christians are to suffer long. I am a Christian. Therefore [insert your name here] is to suffer long, be kind, etc…
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.
(1 Corinthians 13:8-12)
Love will never fail (literally: be done away with). Something will, though. (v8) All those gifts the Corinthians so cling to, they will all eventually be done away with. Prophesies, tongues, knowledge, etc, all will be done away with. Right now (in Paul’s present), he says “we know (have miraculous knowledge) in part, and prophesy in part” (v9).
The words “in part” literally mean “out of part.” It doesn’t mean the Apostles didn’t have all the truth. On the contrary, from the day of Pentecost on (Acts 2 – when the church was established), they had all the truth. The Old Testament contained in scrolls, and the entire New Testament in their minds via inspiration, just waiting to be penned. What Paul is saying is these miracles came out of a temporary setting. When will they end? When that which is perfect (literally, complete) is come (v10).
If the purpose of the miracles is to function as a stopgap until revelation is completed (not the book…well the book too, but ‘revelation’ as in the totality of inspired writing), then it stands to reason that once the New Testament is completely written the need for miracles would decrease drastically as Christians the world-over slowly obtain all of God’s Word.
Thus, the genius of God shines forth: Only the Apostles had the ability to pass on miracles (Acts 8:19), so then when all the Apostles died, with them would die the furtherance of miracles. After everyone the Apostles laid hands on died (again, Acts 8:14-19), all miracles would cease. By then the Word would have been completed and there would be no further need for miracles. Easy-peasy.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
(1 Corinthians 13:13)
So in hammering home his point that Love is better than any miracle, Paul makes an interesting observation: Love is not just greater than miracles, but it’s even greater than faith and hope. The foundation of his point is: After all miracles have ceased, all we’ll be left with is faith hope and love.
So why is love ultimately greater than faith and hope? Consider a chart of what Paul basically just finished writing:
1ST CENTURY END OF TIME (ETERNITY)
At the time of his writing, all four of the things he mentioned in ch13 are in existence (miracles, faith, hope, and love). By the close of the 1st century (and into the early 2nd) miracles will fizzle out leaving only three: Faith, hope and love. Those will continue until….Jesus returns (the end of time), and all the saints go marching in.
There won’t be faith in Heaven; nor will there be hope in Heaven. Paul wrote in Hebrews that Faith is the…evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). In Heaven, that in which I had faith will be seen, therefore there’ll be no more need for faith.
There’ll be no need for hope in Heaven, either. Since hope, biblically speaking (“ἐλπίζω”) means “belief + expectation.” Right now I have hope in Heaven (Colossians 1:5), because I believe I’m going AND I expect to go. But once I’m there, the hope will be fulfilled, therefore there’ll be no more need for hope.
Love on the other hand, will endure for ever and ever and ever. We will love the Father, Son, Spirit, and the brethren for all eternity. Thus, love is the greatest – because it’s the only one that is eternal. Didn’t Paul say that “Love never fails.” in v8? He didn’t say faith wouldn’t fail (be done away with), nor did he say hope would never fail. But Love will never be done away with. That’s what the Corinthians didn’t understand. That’s what sparked all the various problems.
How wonderful it is to be a Christian, and to know the love of Christ which passes all understanding (Ephesians 3:19). The same love that the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God (1 John 3).
Love is the greatest because it will never fade away.
Love is the greatest because it will never die.
Love is the greatest because we will take it with us into the unending of eternity!