1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.


Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is one of the most well-known chapters from the Bible, and is often read at weddings. However, what sometimes goes unnoticed is the context of this chapter – which we see herein verses 1 through 3. Paul discusses love in the context of spiritual gifts. He is building off the the discussion of spiritual gifts, which he started in Chapter 12, explaining in Chapter 13 that without love, none of the gifts have any value.

Paul’s desire to bring about unity. The Church in Corinth has apparently developed some disunity and formed factions, over the issue of spiritual gifts, wrongly believing that some gifts are better than, and more important than, others.

Paul begins here with a re-listing of some spiritual gifts. We’ll read through some commentary notes to better understand the text, starting with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary and verse 1.

(1) Though I speak . . .—The more excellent way is “Love.” Without it all moral and intellectual gifts are valueless. If there be love—the love of God, and the love of our brethren—in our hearts, all will be well. This hymn of praise in honour of love is remarkable. (1) as coming from St. Paul, and not from St. John, from whose pen we might naturally have looked for it; and (2), occurring here in an atmosphere of controversy, preceded and succeeded as it is by close logical argument.

On the first point we may observe what a striking illustration it is of the completeness of St. Paul’s character. The clear, vigorous intellect and the masculine energy of the great Apostle are united to a heart full of tenderness. We can almost feel its pulsations, we can almost hear its mighty throbbings, in every line of this poem.

That this passage should be found in the middle of a protracted argument suggests the idea that we have here the result of a sudden and direct inspiration. The Apostle had always been conscious of a mighty power working in him, mastering him, bringing him into captivity to Christ. There suddenly flashes upon him the realisation of what that power is, and he cannot but at once give utterance, in language of surpassing loftiness and glowing with emotion, to the new and profound conviction which has set his whole soul aflame. This chapter is the Baptismal Service of Love. Here it receives its new Christian name. The word (agapè) which is used here for love is peculiar to the New Testament (and a few passages in the LXX.). It is not to be found in any heathen writer. The word “charity,” which signifies either tolerance or almsgiving, is an insufficient rendering of the original, and destroys the force of the passage, especially in 1 Corinthians 13:3, where “almsgiving” without love is pronounced worthless. The Latin caritas was used as the rendering of agape, probably because the ordinary Latin word amor (love) was considered too significant of a mere earthly or fleshly affection; and hence the word “charity” in the English version. Perhaps it was hoped that the word “charity,” when planted in such a soil. and with such surroundings, would have grown to have that larger significance to which the original gives expression. If so, the experiment has not succeeded, the word has not become acclimatised to this chapter. The word “love” had better be restored here. The rare purity of its surrounding atmosphere will completely deprive it of any earthly or sensual taint.

This chapter, occupied with the one main thought, divides itself into three parts—
1 Corinthians 13:1-3. The greatest gifts are valueless without LOVE.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The pre-eminent characteristics of LOVE.
1 Corinthians 13:8-13. Gifts are transient; virtues are eternal, and chief of them is LOVE.

Tongues of men and of angels.—The gift of tongues (see Notes on 1 Corinthians 14:0) is placed first as that most over-estimated at Corinth. It is useless without love. It would be impossible to define love, as it is impossible to define life; but the best conception of what St. Paul means by love can be found from the description which he subsequently gave of it. Stanley, contrasting the meaning of the word employed by St. Paul with the various words for love in other literature, remarks: “While the ‘love’ of the New Testament retains all the fervour of the Hebrew ‘aspiration’ and ‘desire,’ and of the ‘personal affection’ of the Greek, it ranges through as wide a sphere as the comprehensive ‘benevolence’ of Alexandria. Whilst it retains the religious element that raised the affections of the Hebrew Psalmist to the presence of God, it agrees with the classical and Alexandrian feelings in making its chief object the welfare of man. It is not religion evaporated into benevolence, but benevolence taken up into religion. It is the practical exemplification of the two great characteristics of Christianity, the union of God with man, the union of religion with morality; love to man for the sake of love to God, love to God showing itself in love to man.”

As sounding brass.—Not a brass trumpet, or instrument of any kind, but simply a piece of metal, which when struck will merely produce noise.

A tinkling cymbal.—Better, a clanging cymbal. This instrument can produce by itself no intelligible tune. (See Psalms 40:5.)

You might notice that Paul makes a reference to the tongues of angels. This is another verse used in favor of the practice of non-human tongues, seen most prevalently today in the Charismatic movement, within Protestantism. We will more fully flesh out this topic in Chapter 14, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to point this verse out here, especially as this chapter is in the heart of Paul’s discussion on spiritual gifts.

tongues = γλῶσσα glōssa, gloce-sah’; of uncertain affinity; the tongue; by implication, a language (specially, one naturally unacquired):—tongue.

It should also be noted, though, that whichever side of the discussion of tongues you believe, Paul is clear that tongues are a lesser spiritual gift than prophesy and he tells us here that tongues are nothing without love.

love = ἀγάπη agápē, ag-ah’-pay; from G25; love, i.e. affection or benevolence; specially (plural) a love-feast:—(feast of) charity(-ably), dear, love.

Greek has several words for love, but the one Paul uses in Chapter 13 is agápē. The others are listed below. From wiki:

  • Agápe (ἀγάπη, agápē) means “love: esp. brotherly love, charity; the love of God for person and of person for God”. Agape is used in ancient texts to denote feelings for one’s children and the feelings for a spouse, and it was also used to refer to a love feast. Agape is used by Christians to express the unconditional love of God for His children. This type of love was further explained by Thomas Aquinas as “to will the good of another”.
  • Éros (ἔρως, érōs) means “love, mostly of the sexual passion”. The Modern Greek word “erotas” means “intimate love”. Plato refined his own definition: Although eros is initially felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even becomes appreciation of beauty itself. Plato does not talk of physical attraction as a necessary part of love, hence the use of the word platonic to mean “without physical attraction”. In the Symposium, an ancient work on the subject, Plato has Socrates argue that eros helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth, the ideal form of youthful beauty that leads us humans to feel erotic desire – thus suggesting that even that sensually based love aspires to the non-corporeal, spiritual plane of existence; that is, finding its truth, just like finding any truth, leads to transcendence. Lovers and philosophers are all inspired to seek truth through the means of eros.
  • Philia (φιλία, philía) means “affectionate regard, friendship”, usually “between equals”. It is a dispassionate virtuous love, a concept developed by Aristotle. In his best-known work on ethics, Nicomachean Ethicsphilia is expressed variously as loyalty to friends (specifically, “brotherly love”), family, and community, and requires virtue, equality, and familiarity. Furthermore, in the same text philos is also the root of philautia denoting self-love and arising from it, a general type of love, used for love between family, between friends, a desire or enjoyment of an activity, as well as between lovers.
  • Storge (στοργή, storgē) means “love, affection” and “especially of parents and children”. It is the common or natural empathy, like that felt by parents for offspring. Rarely used in ancient works, and then almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family. It is also known to express mere acceptance or putting up with situations, as in “loving” the tyrant. This is also used when referencing the love for one’s country or a favorite sports team.
  • Philautia (φιλαυτίαphilautía) means “self-love”. To love oneself or “regard for one’s own happiness or advantage” has been conceptualized both as a basic human necessity and as a moral flaw, akin to vanity and selfishness, synonymous with amour-propre or egotism. The Greeks further divided this love into positive and negative: one, the unhealthy version, is the self-obsessed love, and the other is the concept of self-compassion.
  • Xenia (ξενίαxenía) is an ancient Greek concept of hospitality. It is sometimes translated as “guest-friendship” or “ritualized friendship”. It is an institutionalized relationship rooted in generosity, gift exchange, and reciprocity. Historically, hospitality towards foreigners and guests (Hellenes not of your polis) was understood as a moral obligation. Hospitality towards foreign Hellenes honored Zeus Xenios and Athene Xenia, patrons of foreigners.


Returning to the verses, we will look at the note from The Pulpit Commentaries on verse 2:

1 Corinthians 13:2

Prophecy. The power of lofty utterance belonged to Balaam and Caiaphas; yet it availed them nothing without love. “Lord, Lord,” exclaim the troubled souls at the left hand, “have we not prophesied in thy Name?” Yet he answers them,” I never knew you.” All mysteries. Though I can speak of the secrets of God once hidden but now revealed (Matthew 13:11Romans 16:271 Corinthians 2:7Ephesians 3:3, etc.). And all knowledge. Insight into the deeper meanings of Scripture, etc. All faith. Not here meaning “justifying faith,” or “saving faith,” which can no more exist without showing itself in works than light can exist without heat; but fides miraculosa, reliance on the power to work wonders. Judas, for instance, must have possessed this kind of faith, and it was exercised by “many” who will yet be rejected because they also work iniquity (Matthew 7:21-23). So that I could remove mountains. It has been supposed that this must be a reference to Matthew 17:20Matthew 21:21. It is, however, much more probable that, if St. Paul derived the words from our Lord, they came to him by oral tradition. And the inference must in any case be precarious, for the phrase was so common among the rabbis that “remover of mountains” was one of their admiring titles for a great teacher. I am nothing. No expression could ‘involve a more forcible rebuke to intellectual and spiritual pride.

In verse 2, Paul tells us that even the gift he described as preferable / higher (prophecy) is nothing without love. Same with faith. It is interesting to note a couple of details in this verse. He describes to some degree the function of the gift of prophecy, saying that it – perhaps at its fullest – allows one to understand all mysteries and all knowledge.

mysteries = μυστήριον mystḗrion, moos-tay’-ree-on; from a derivative of μύω mýō (to shut the mouth); a secret or “mystery” (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites):—mystery.

knowledge = γνῶσις gnōsis, gno’-sis; from G1097; knowing (the act), i.e. (by implication) knowledge:—knowledge, science.

Ellicott adds this as to verse 2:

(2) Prophecy.—The Apostle valued the gift of prophecy—i.e., preaching—more highly than the gift of tongues, which stood first in Corinthian estimation. He therefore naturally selects it as coming into the same condemnation, if unaccompanied by love. All the secrets of God’s providence and complete knowledge (see 1 Corinthians 12:8), even such a transcendent faith as Christ had spoken of as capable of moving mountains (Matthew 17:20), may belong to a man, and without love he is nothing. We must not take these words as implying that the Apostle possessed this vast knowledge and faith personally. The whole argument is put hypothetically—it supposes a man possessed of these qualities.

The discussion in the two commentaries, as to faith that moves mountains, is interesting. It seems likely that Jesus’s words – recorded in Matthew – are common knowledge by the time of Paul. This either means that there was a young oral tradition of repeating his sermons, or that there was transcription and dissemination of his words, through writing. Alternatively Paul may have been given direct insight into Jesus’s teaching through supernatural means. All of these possibilities are remarkable.

We’ll wrap up this section with a note from The Pulpit Commentaries on verse 3:

1 Corinthians 13:3

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor. The five words, “bestow to feed the poor,” represent the one Greek word psomiso, and after all do not give its force. It is derived from psomion, a mouthful, and so means “give away by mouthfuls,” i.e. dole away.” It occurs in Romans 12:20 for “feed.” Attention to this verse might have served as a warning against the often useless and sometimes even pernicious doles of mediaeval monasteries. Much of the “charity” of these days is even more uncharitable than this, and shows the most complete absence of true charity; as for instance the dropping of pennies to professional beggars, and so putting a premium on vice and imposture. To be burned. The reading is extremely uncertain. The change of a letter gives the reading, that I may glory (καυχήσωμαι for καυθήσωμαι)Perhaps the scribes thought that “death by burning” was as yet (A.D. 57) an unheard of form of martyrdom, though it became but too familiar ten or twelve years later in the Neronian persecution. St. Paul was, however, probably referring, not, as some have supposed, to branding, which would bare been expressed differently, but to the ease of the “three children,” in Daniel 3:23, where the LXX. has, “They gave their bodies into the fire;” or to the various tortures and deaths by fire in 2 Macc. 7. At the burning of Ridley and Latimer, Dr. Smith chose this verse for his text. Its applicability is on a par with millions of other instances in which Scripture has been grossly abused by employing its letter to murder its spirit, and by taking it from the God of love to give it to the devil of religious hatred. The burning of a saint was a singular specimen of the Church’s “love.” It profiteth me nothing; literally, I am nothing benefited. A consideration of this verse might have shown the Christians of the early centuries that there was nothing intrinsically redemptive in the martyrdom into which they often thrust themselves.

Verses 1 and 2 describe the emptiness and uselessness of gifts, when they are unaccompanied by love. Paul tells us also in verse 3 that works, without love, are useless.

The note provides an interesting discussion concerning “burning.” This Epistle was written prior to the persecution by burning put forward by Roman Emperor Nero in 64 A.D., by about a decade. Perhaps Paul, who does seem to possess the gift of prophesy, knew what was coming for the Church.

As a sidenote, there is a somewhat prevalent belief among people who are not believers (some even calling themselves scholars) that Christianity was a hoax created after the burning of the Jewish Temple in 70 A.D. As you’ll see at the link, (one book among several), those arguments even appear authoritative and scholarly at first blush. The problem of course is that this is not remotely the historical consensus because those hoax arguments don’t work within the archaeological record and frankly they make sense. If Christianity was invented by the Romans after 70 A.D., why does Roman historian Tacitus record the persecution of the Christian sect, at the hands of Nero, in 64 A.D.? According to Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, many of the tortured Christians were chained to trees and set on fire as punishment for allegedly starting the great Roman fire of that year.

The hoax notion also cannot account for the literal thousands of papyrus scrolls and fragments found all of over the known world, from the earliest days of the Church, attesting to its existence and history. India – for example – was outside of Roman control. Why is there written and historical evidence of Christianity being there, in the first and second century, if the religion was part of a Roman-specific hoax?

Christianity did not become the legal and official religion of the Roman Empire for another three centuries after the alleged hoax was concocted. The people who believe that Christianity was a hoax, would have you believe that Christians were viciously persecuted for three hundred years by the Roman Empire until the Roman Empire abruptly and finally decided to put its long-term scheme into practice and adopt the faith as its own religion? That… does not make sense. It is unfortunate, but true, that many alleged scholars make arguments that sound authoritative but are nonsensical when scrutiny is applied. Given the somewhat recent trend of anti-religious scholarship coming out of the West, it will be more important than ever for all Christians to make overt efforts to study apologetics.

In the next section of verses, Paul outlines the characteristics of love.