Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

1 Corinthians 13:1-13



Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.

At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.

Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.

In chapters 8-10, Paul addressed the issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols.

In chapter 11, he dealt with the issues of head coverings (vv. 2-16) and abuses at the Lord’s Supper (vv. 17ff.).

In chapters 12-14, Paul deals with the issue of spiritual gifts. Rather than celebrating one another’s gifts, the Corinthian Christians have become prideful concerning their particular gifts and dismissive of the gifts of others. Therefore spiritual gifts have become a divisive influence among them (see especially 12:12-31).

Paul concludes chapter 12 by saying, “Moreover, I show a most excellent way to you” (12:31b)—words that introduce what he has to say in chapter 13 about love. Most scholars agree that the chapter break is unfortunate—”Moreover, I show a most excellent way to you” should really be the start of chapter 13 rather than the end of chapter 12.


1If I speak with the languages of men (Greek: anthropos—men, humans) and of angels, but don’t have love (Greek: agape), I have become sounding brass (echon chalkos), or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love (agape), I am nothing. 3If I dole out (psomiso) all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love (agape), it profits me nothing.

If I speak with the languages of men (anthropos—men, humans) and of angels (v. 1a). In this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul repeatedly addresses issues related to the gift of tongues (12:10, 28, 30; 13:1; 14:2, 4-25), giving us reason to believe that those issues are especially serious in Corinth. Apparently, some Corinthian Christians count speaking in tongues as the most significant of gifts, and have become prideful about their ability to speak in tongues. In chapter 14, Paul goes to great lengths to put that gift in perspective. Prophecy, not speaking in tongues, is the superior gift (14:1-5). Speaking in unintelligible tongues does not benefit the church (14:6-12). The person who speaks in tongues should “pray that he may interpret” (14:13), because such speech without interpretation is not helpful (14:14).

In his lists of gifts (12:4-10, 28), he places the gift of tongues and their interpretation last. He devotes the first half of chapter 14 to counsel concerning the gift of tongues—much more space than he devotes to problems with other spiritual gifts. In that chapter, he makes it clear that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of tongues (14:2-5, 20-25). Elsewhere, he lists gifts without mentioning the gift of tongues (Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-12).

The gift of tongues as mentioned in chapters 12-14 differs from the speaking in tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2)––and from the two occasions in Acts where people are said to speak in tongues (Acts 10:46; 19:6):

  • At Pentecost, speaking in other languages was for the purpose of communication–– making it possible for each person to understand in his or her own language. No interpretation was required. There is no record of apostles using this gift elsewhere in their missionary work, probably because it was unnecessary. Most Jews understood Aramaic and/or Greek.
  • At Pentecost, the disciples were said “to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability to speak” (2:4). They are NOT said to be speaking in tongues. The word “tongues” appears in 2:3, but those are “tongues like fire”––symbols of the power that the Spirit has conferred on the disciples. To confuse those tongues of fire with speaking in tongues would constitute a distortion of the text.
  • The speaking of tongues of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is ecstatic speech that hinders communication unless an interpreter is provided. Paul regards it as a legitimate gift, but neither as the greatest gift nor as essential (1 Corinthians 13:1).
  • There are numerous references in the book of Acts to Christians who have the Holy Spirit (2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:5, 10; 7:55; 8:17; 9:17; 10:19, 44-47; 11:15-17, 24, 28; 13:2, 4, 9, 52; 19:6; 20:23, 28; 21:4)––but on only three of those occasions is there any mention speaking in other languages (Acts 2:4) or speaking in tongues (Acts 10:46; 19:6). It is not clear whether the last two of those occasions (10:46; 19:6) constitute intelligible speech, such as that in Acts 2––or speech that requires an interpreter, such as that mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

“but don’t have love” (agape) (v. 1b). In the English language, the word “love” has a variety of meanings:

• Romantic or sexual love.
• Friendship—affection.
• A concern for the well-being of the other person.
• Or simple enthusiasm (“I just love chocolate”).

These differences can lead to confusion. For instance, someone who says, “I love you” might mean that he/she simply wants you to satisfy his/her sexual needs (or other needs, such as the need for security). That is quite different from someone whose love has to do primarily with a concern for your personal well-being.

The Greek language solves these ambiguities by having three words for love—eros, philos, and agape(pronounced uh-GAH-pay).

Eros is romantic or sexual love.
Philos is brotherly love—friendship love—companionship love.
Agape has to do with a concern for the well-being of the other person.

Eros is not used in the New Testament.

Philos and its verb form, phileo are used 55 times in the New Testament (Turner, 175). They are used to express the affection that one person feels for another (Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:12; John 11:3, 11) and the love that God has for people (John 16:27)—although agape and agapao are more frequently used for God’s love.

Agape and its verb form agapao are used 253 times in the New Testament (Turner, 175). They are used for the love that God has for people (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:8) and for the love that one person has for another (1 Corinthians 13). When Jesus says that the two most important commandments are “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:37-39) he uses the verb agapao rather than phileo. In his great love chapter (1 Corinthians 13), Paul uses agape exclusively.

Agape love is as much a “doing” as a “feeling” word. It requires action. It requires us to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion. An agape person will do what is possible to feed the hungry—and to give drink to the thirsty—and to welcome the stranger—and to clothe the naked—and to visit the sick and the person in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). Those are the kinds of actions we will pursue if we truly love others with agape love.

I have become sounding brass (echon chalkos), or a clanging cymbal” (v. 1c). Echon is a loud sound, and chalkos is metal, such as copper or brass. “Sounding brass” is a good translation. Paul is saying that speaking in tongues, in the absence of love, simply makes loud noises. While a loud noise can serve a purpose, constant loud noises merely irritate and distract.

If I have the gift of prophecy (v. 2a). As noted above, Paul singles out prophecy as a superior gift (14:1-5), second only to being an apostle (12:28)—but prophecy without love has no value and imputes no value to the prophet.

and know all mysteries and all knowledge (v. 2b). Keep in mind that Corinth is a Greek city, and the Greeks prize philosophy, wisdom, knowledge, and mysteries. Mysteries, as used here, has to do with Godly secrets that God has chosen to reveal to us.

Knowledge, as used here, has to do with special God-given knowledge—spiritual understanding. That kind of knowledge is a great gift, but has a tendency to “puff up” (physioi—inflate with pride) the person who possesses it (8:1)—and that has happened to these Corinthian Christians. While knowledge in the service of others can be good, people who use their knowledge to establish their superiority or dominance over other people are not in accord with God’s will. They will only get an inflated opinion of themselves that will do nothing to help anyone.

Note that Paul uses the word “all” three times—”all mysteries and all knowledge and…all faith.” He is talking about complete mastery of mysteries and knowledge and faith—like having Ph.D. degrees in these subjects. No matter how complete the mastery, these virtues, in the absence of love, conveys no value to the one who has mastered them.

and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains (v. 2c). This language came from Jesus, who said, “Have faith in God. For most certainly I tell you, whoever may tell this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and doesn’t doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is happening; he shall have whatever he says” (Mark 11:22-23). What wonderful faith-based power? However, in the absence of love, faith does no good for the one who has it.

“but don’t have love (agape), I am nothing” (v. 2d). Paul says that, without love, none of these things—the understanding of mysteries, the possession of knowledge, or even powerful faith—imputes any value to the one who possesses them.

Keep in mind that Paul isn’t talking about just any kind of love. He is talking about agape, which is concerned for the well-being of the other person and which acts to help the beloved. Unless we have that kind of active, unselfish love, we are nothing.

If I dole out (psomiso) all my goods(v. 3a). The Greek word psomiso is related to the word psomos, which means “a morsel or piece of food, particularly of bread” (Zodhiates, 1496). Paul uses it to speak of feeding a hungry enemy (Romans 12:20). When Paul speaks here of giving away all his possessions, the implication is that this charity is done in behalf of the poor—to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, etc. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 25:31-46 that he values such actions, and the person who does them can expect to be rewarded (see also the story of the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22). However, Paul says that even sacrificial giving in behalf of the needy confers nothing on the donor if the giving is done in the absence of love.

“and if I hand over my body so that I may boast” (v. 3b). There is a textual problem here. Some manuscripts read, “if I hand over my body so that I may boast,” which could suggest selling oneself into slavery and using the proceeds in behalf of the needy. Other manuscripts read, “if I hand over my body to be burnt,” which suggests martyrdom by fire.

The arguments in favor of each option are complex, but it isn’t necessary for us to resolve them here. Whichever option we choose, the idea is of supreme sacrifice—giving oneself wholly and without reservation.

“but don’t have love (agape), it profits me nothing” (v. 3c). But Paul says that even great sacrifice, in the absence of love, gains the person nothing. In other words, God will not reward a person for sacrificial giving done in the absence of love. This should serve as a warning to people who might expect to buy their way into heaven by over-the-top charitable giving. That kind of charity, done for selfish reasons rather than out of love, won’t succeed in gaining them any benefit.


4Love is patient (Greek: makrothymei) and is kind (Greek: chresteuetai); love doesn’t envy (zeloo). Love doesn’t brag (perpereuetai), is not proud (physioutai), 5doesn’t behave itself inappropriately (aschemonei), doesn’t seek its own way (paroxynetai), is not provoked, takes no account of evil; 6doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7bears (stegei) all things, believes (pisteuei) all things, hopes (elpizei) all things, endures (hypomenei) all things.

“Love is patient” (makrothymei) (v. 4a). The Greek word makrothymei is derived from two words—macros (long) and thumos (anger). To be makrothymei is to be long-suffering—to endure irritants without allowing one’s anger to lash out in retaliation.

This kind of patience is characteristic of God, who is “merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving (Hebrew: hesed) kindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). This hesed love grows out of Yahweh’s commitment to the covenant relationship with Israel. In many cases, Yahweh punished Israel for its sins—but always as discipline designed to foster repentance rather than as punishment designed to destroy. Yahweh kept coming back—kept finding ways to restore Israel—kept loving.

Now God calls us to that same kind of long-suffering love for each other.

“and is kind” (chresteuetai) (v. 4b). The word chresteuetai, like agape, is an action-word. It suggests being helpful—doing good works. The patience of verse 4a involves restraint—holding back negative action. The kindness of verse 4b involves action—stepping forward to solve a problem or to share a burden or to meet a need.

“love doesn’t envy” (zeloo) (v. 4c). The word zeloo is related to our word zeal, which can be either positive or negative. In the context of this verse, it suggests an intense desire for something that belongs to someone else—jealousy or covetousness or envy. A person who succumbs to zeloo cannot love the other person, because zeloo generates such negative feelings. Zeloo and agape are like oil and water. They cannot abide together.

“Love doesn’t brag” (perpereuetai) (v. 4c). The person who is focused on the welfare of the other person cannot at the same time be self-centered and egotistical. Once again, love and boastfulness are like oil and water. They cannot abide together.

So the person who loves another with agape love will try to lift up the other person rather than boasting of his/her own accomplishments.

“is not proud” (physioutai) (v. 4d). This is the word that is sometimes translated “puffed up” (4:6). The person who loves another with agape love will try to build up the other person rather than trying to puff up his/her own reputation.

“doesn’t behave itself inappropriately” (aschemonei) (v. 5a). It seems odd that this word is part of verse 5 rather than verse 4. It fits better with “boastful or arrogant” than with the words that follow.

The word aschemonei has to do with behaving “in an ugly, indecent, unseemly or unbecoming manner.” Having an a at the beginning of the word is like saying “not.” Therefore, aschemonei is the opposite ofeuschemon, which is proper behavior (Zodhiates, 283).

The actions of the Corinthian Christians at the Lord’s Table are examples of aschemonei behavior (11:17-22). Those who have food eat it while those who do not go hungry. Some of them become drunk on the communion wine. In doing these things, they show their contempt for the church and they humiliate the have-nots in their midst.

“It does not insist on its own way” (v. 5b). The person who loves another with agape love cannot at the same time be selfish and demanding of his/her own prerogatives. Agape love and selfishness are mutually exclusive.

doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil (paroxynetai) (v. 5c). The word paroxynetai has to do with being highly irritated or provoked to anger. Not being irritable or resentful is related to patience. The person who is not irritable or resentful doesn’t have a quick temper—and doesn’t harbor resentments.

Once again, this is a characteristic of God, who is long suffering and who calls us to emulate this Godly behavior.

doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness (v. 6a). There is something in us that enjoys seeing someone slip on a banana peel. There is something in us that loves to watch a powerful business person take a “perp walk” after being arrested. There is something in us that is happy to see a proud person humbled or a powerful person defanged. There is something in us that loves to gossip.

But none of those attitudes have been implanted in us by God. They are evidence of our sinful natures. The person who loves with agape love will rejoice with those who are rejoicing and grieve with those who are grieving.

but rejoices with the truth (aletheia) (v. 6b). The word aletheia usually means something that is true instead of false. However, in this context, it refers to behavior that is true to Godly standards—upright behavior. The one who loves with agape love will not rejoice in another person’s downfall, but will rejoice when the other person does what is right.

“bears (stegei) all things” (v. 7a). Paul has been telling us what agape love does not do. Now he tells us what it does do. First, agape love bears all things. The verb stego has two meanings in the New Testament. The first is to cover or conceal something. The second is to forbear or to endure. The second meaning is probably what is intended here.

“believes (pisteuei) all things” (v. 7b). The verb pisteuo comes from the word pistis (faith) and means to believe in something or someone—to trust. The person who “believes all things” is the opposite of a skeptic, whose basic approach to life is to doubt or disbelieve. The one who loves with agape love is optimistic, and is disposed to believe the best rather than the worst about people.

“hopes (elpizei) all things” (v. 7c). The person who loves with agape love doesn’t give up easily on the other person. He/she can recognize that there is a problem, but hopes to resolve the problem. He/she maintains an optimistic, positive attitude rather than a pessimistic, negative attitude.

“endures (hypomenei) all things” (v. 7d). The verb hypomenei comes from two Greek words—hypo(under) and meno (remain). It suggests a “hunkered down,” defensive posture that endures and perseveres in the face of hardship.

These verses raise a pastoral question. Is there a point beyond which a loving person is not required to bear, believe, hope, and endure? What about a person who is married to an alcoholic or a drug addict or an adulterer or a chronic gambler or a violent, abusive person?Is there a point beyond which God does not expect such people to bear, believe, hope, and endure?

First, let me note that MacArthur sees the four qualities mentioned in these verses as “hyperbole, exaggerations to make a point. Paul has made it clear that love rejects jealousy, bragging, arrogance, unseemliness, selfishness, anger, resentment, and unrighteousness. It does not bear, believe, hope, or endure lies, false teaching, or anything else that is not of God. By all things Paul is speaking of all things acceptable in God’s righteousness and will, of everything within the Lord’s divine tolerance” (MacArthur).

Second, we need to be careful not to confuse bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring with passivity. Passivity in the face of evil solves nothing. It took military might, not forbearance, to stop Hitler. It takes well-trained police to stop violent criminals. So also, on a more personal level, it can take well-planned confrontation to deal lovingly with a dysfunctional family member.

Paul, in these verses, is commending, not passivity, but love. Note that most of this letter to the Corinthians is confrontive. The Corinthian Christians are engaged in a number of practices that are not in keeping with God’s will, and Paul is doing everything he can to persuade them to change. That kind of active, confrontational love should serve as a model for us when dealing with dysfunctional people.

Most professionals working in the addiction treatment field don’t advise family members to sit back and take it. Instead, they advise intervention—and can often help family members plan an intervention. They advise confronting the alcoholic with choices—quit drinking or lose his/her job—quit drink or lose his/her family. They don’t do this in anger, but in love. The confrontation is intended to be redemptive—is designed to help the addicted person to move away from self-destructive behavior into a more positive lifestyle—and to provide the addict’s family with a safe, wholesome environment.

Bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring need not be passive. In many situations, the loving thing is to confront the person who needs to change his/her lifestyle.


8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10but when that which is complete has come, then that which is partial will be done away with. 11When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror (Greek: esoptron), dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. 13But now faith, hope, and love remain (menei—from meno) —these three. The greatest of these is love.

“Love never fails” (v. 8a). Paul now contrasts love with three of the spiritual gifts—prophecy, speaking in tongues, and knowledge. Love will never come to an end, but the need for spiritual gifts is temporary. Paul is thinking eschatologically (end of time—Jesus’ Second Coming). In this verse, he contrasts what we experience in this world with what we can expect to experience once the kingdom of God is fully realized.

Yahweh models the unending nature of agape love in his covenant relationship with the Israelite people. Time and again those people failed to be faithful and time and again Yahweh punished them. Those punishments, however, were redemptive rather than destructive. Yahweh allowed the Israelites to suffer for their sins, but Yahweh always provided a way back from their suffering. He redeemed them time after time. That should serve as a model for us. We need to maintain a loving spirit that acts to redeem those who fail us.

Also, love is unending in the sense that it will continue into eternity. When the kingdom of God is fully realized, love will be the chief characteristic of all relationships.

But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with (v. 8b). Unlike love, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and knowledge will come to an end when the kingdom of God is fully realized. It isn’t that they aren’t good gifts, but that they are useful only in this world. They won’t be necessary once the kingdom of God is fully realized.

In the next chapter, Paul will make it clear that prophecy is a greater gift than tongues (14:1-5). However, when the kingdom of God comes fully, prophecy will no longer be required. In this world, prophets reveal the will of God to humans. However, in the kingdom of God, we will know God’s will without the help of prophets.

The same will be true of speaking in tongues and specially revealed knowledge. These are gifts related to revealing and establishing God’s will. They are important in this world but will be irrelevant in the next, where we will know God’s will completely.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part (v. 9). Even though the gifts of knowledge and prophecy are God-given, they are nevertheless incomplete. God reveals what the person needs to know to carry out God’s purposes, but that is limited.

but when that which is complete (teleios) has come, then that which is partial will be done away with (v. 10). The word teleios can be translated “complete,” “whole,” “unblemished,” or “undivided.” Once again, Paul is thinking eschatologically here. He is contrasting the teleios (which we will experience in the age to come) with the “partial” (which we experience now). When Christ comes again to usher in the kingdom of God in all its fullness, we will have no need for such things as prophecy, which constitute partial revelation for the time being. Such partial revelations will therefore come to an end.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things (v. 11). It would be possible to read this verse as a rebuke to the Corinthian Christians, who have failed to “put away childish things.” That, however, is not Paul’s intent. He is instead contrasting the world as we know it now (which we experience as if we were spiritual children) with the world that is to come (which we will experience as spiritually mature people). Once that New Age comes to pass, the things that seem important to us now (such as prophecy and knowledge) will become totally unimportant.

“For now we see in a mirror (esoptron), dimly, but then face to face (v. 12a). Once again, Paul contrasts what we experience in this age with what we will experience in the age to come. The word esoptron can mean “looking glass” or “mirror.” We need to keep in mind that people in Paul’s day didn’t have the kind of high-quality mirrors that we take for granted today. We are accustomed to looking into a mirror and seeing an exact reflection that tells us how we look.

In Paul’s day, however, the mirrors were usually made of metal, and the reflections that people would see in such mirrors would be much less helpful. You might encounter a mirror of that sort in a public restroom at a rest stop along an Interstate highway. State agencies install those mirrors, not because they provide a quality reflection, but because they are more resistant to vandalism than glass mirrors. At best, they will give you an idea whether your hair is mussed. They certainly won’t provide the kind of exact reflection that you are accustomed to seeing at home. The next time you see such a mirror, reflect on this verse.

When Paul says that we see in a mirror dimly, he means that the spiritual awareness and insights that we enjoy now are but a dim reflection of the awareness and insights that we will experience in the age to come. In that new age, we will not see dimly, as in the reflection from a bad mirror, but face to face.

This could make us sad that we are so limited in our spiritual vision now, but I would encourage a different view. In those moments when the light suddenly dawns on us spiritually, we experience great wonder and joy. We remember such moments, and often try to share them with other people. We want others to enjoy the vision that we have seen. Just imagine, then, what it will be like in the age to come when God allows us to see everything clearly. We will be like people whose vision is suddenly restored by cataract surgery. Our spiritual vision will suddenly go from cloudy to clear.

Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known (v. 12b). Once again, Paul contrasts what we experience now with what we will experience in the new age. We know imperfectly now, but in the age to come God will reveal the spiritual mysteries completely. Just as God knows us fully now, in the age to come, we will also know God fully.

But now faith, hope, and love remain (menei—from meno—abide or remain)—these three. The greatest of these is love (v. 13). The Corinthian Christians, with their Greek heritage, prize philosophy, wisdom, knowledge, and mysteries. Paul, however, draws their attention to higher values—faith, hope, and love.

It seems surprising that Paul would introduce faith and hope at the end of this love-chapter. His only mention of faith so far has been to note that “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing” (v. 2). He hasn’t mentioned hope at all.

Faith and hope are important for the present, but won’t be needed in the age to come. For the time being, we know God by faith and have hope for the future. When God’s kingdom has fully come, we will know God face to face and will embrace the future.

Love is in a different category. It will be as applicable in the New Age as it is in this one. The primary difference is that we love imperfectly now, but will love perfectly then—even as God has loved us. It is the sine qua non (that without which nothing) of the Christian faith.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan