Summary: Love puts all the spiritual gifts into proper perspective.
Thirty-two years ago I sat on the grounds of a college in Denton, Texas reading a New Testament. Although I was raised in church, I felt like I was reading the Bible for the first time. The highlight was when I came across 1 Corinthians 13. I have the chapter number circled, and it is the first scripture reference I wrote in the book cover.
How do you suppose the first readers, the Corinthians, felt when they read this passage? Paul had a reason for writing it to a church whose members were not so loving, even though they were rich in spiritual gifts. As Paul discusses the subject of spiritual gifts, he takes a moment to say, “Let’s put into perspective what really matters.”
The Greek word for love is agape. It is a uniquely Christian word in that it was rarely used in literature outside the New Testament and Christian writings. The New Testament writers took the word and adapted it to describe the love of God for man that is based on grace. It is the love Christians are to possess for one another and for all our neighbors, a love that we are able to give because we received it from our heavenly Father. The text can be neatly divided into three parts (as Gordon Fee notes): the necessity of love, the character of love, and the permanence of love.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Paul mentions speaking in tongues first because that is the gift the Corinthians are most excited about. It is also the easiest for us to nod our heads in agreement with when Paul says it is but mere noise without love. Tongues sound at best like a foreign language and oftentimes like hollow noises. But Paul’s point is not that speaking in tongues is mere noise making. He will discuss in the next chapter the pros and cons of tongue speaking. Here he is making the point that this legitimate spiritual gift loses its purpose when the speaker does not love. What is the purpose of all spiritual gifts? To build the body of Christ. Thus, if one is speaking in tongues out of pride or mere personal pleasure, then he turns what should be a blessing to the church into hollow, even harsh sounding, noise.
The next gifts presented and his conclusion begin to make us pause: 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 have not love, I am nothing.
First, consider these gifts. In the next chapter Paul will exalt prophecy. Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy (14:1). Certainly understanding mysteries and knowledge must be important. He most likely means understanding the tongues spoken, which themselves are speaking forth revelation from God. In other words, it is receiving special revelation from God. How more essential of a gift can one have? Then there is extraordinary faith that calls forth great acts of power. Paul, says that even if one has such gifts; indeed, even if he has the full magnitude of these gifts, if he does not possess love he is nothing.
Nothing? What does that mean? That he is worthless? That he may as well not exist? Paul’s point is this. Some of the Corinthians, because of possessing rather extraordinary spiritual gifts, considered themselves to be extraordinary Christians in the sight of God. He is saying that we may possess the most extraordinary gifts of anyone, but if we do not possess love, then we are nobodies in the sight of God.
The last gifts or character traits listed make us pause even more. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Are not these very activities acts of love? There is giving away all one’s possessions, presumably to feed the poor. This is what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do: You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
The second act may be just as translated – yielding his body up to be martyred through burning. Other Greek texts have the word “boast” instead of “burn,” so that it reads, “if I deliver up my body so that I may boast.” In chapter nine, Paul delineates the financial sacrifices he has made as an apostle. He then says he does not want help: For I would rather dies than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting (15). However translated, the idea is still of great physical sacrifice, whether it be to literally die or to live a life of sacrifice.