The Greatest of These is Love – 1Cor 13

In my experience Christians often ask about the interpretation of 1Cor. 13:

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

They often focus way too much on the spiritual gifts and miss Paul’s point that speaking in tongues is considered a childish thing that should vanish with adulthood. Doesn’t that mean that those who are so fond of speaking in tongues got stuck in childhood and never want to grow up?

They miss the essence of the passage. It is love that is important, not the others and all the other things mentioned will vanish over time. Love remains forever.

1. First of all, Paul is not suggesting that angels speak their own languages. He is talking hypothetically. Through this passage he tries to express, that if he did what was impossible, if he went to the extremes, but had no love, he was nothing.

He is not saying it was possible to speak the language of angels or understand all mysteries and all knowledge, or to remove mountains by strong faith. He is simply trying to make the point: even if you do what is NOT possible, if you have no love, you are nothing. So rather than striving to put up a great show, we should all strive for LOVE.

2. Then he goes on to explain how love is expressed.

In v8 he speaks about the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. My view is that the Spirit belongs to the Kingdom era, and the purpose of the sign gifts was to bring the Jewish people back to God (remember, Greeks were after wisdom, the Jews were after signs). Signs always signal a pre-agreed message, which only the Jews could understand as these were prophesied. I will not go into any more details, if you wish, you can read a longer discussion here.

In v9 he says, knowledge and prophecy are partial. I suggest knowledge refers to the knowledge of God and His purposes and also to their teaching. Prophecy is not foretelling the future, but admonishing the people of God. In the Kingdom, where the world will be full of the knowledge of God, and where righteousness will dwell, these things will not be needed.

In v11-12 Paul explains this further. Knowledge and prophecy belong to the childhood. The completeness (other translations have “perfect” or “complete”) is the Kingdom, for that is the time when everything is fulfilled and the whole creation is brought and placed under the authority of the Second Adam.  Paul never really explains what he means, but being a Jew his greatest hope, and the very central hope of the NT as a whole is the Kingdom.

Which would have come IF the Jewish people repented and accepted God’s Kingdom offer. At the time of Paul’s writing the rejection of the Kingdom was not yet final on the part of the Jewish people. It  may be that when James the Just was killed God finally withdrew His Kingdom offer and a few years later He brought judgment upon the Jewish people.

Since the Kingdom offer was taken away – and along with it the Spirit (including the miraculous gifts), that belongs to the Kingdom, Paul could not see the arrival of the completeness. He will see it in the resurrection.

This passage, and its expectation of the Kingdom is proof that it was written before James (correctly, Jacov) the Just was killed, when the hope of the Kingdom was still very much alive.

Commentary

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