The word rendered "charity" in the Old Version, and "love" in the Revised Version of our New Testament, is not a classical substantive. It is emphatically a Christian term. And this need not be wondered at; for as the virtue itself is one, if not created, yet developed by Christianity, it is what might have been expected to find that the thing gave rise to the name. This chapter has been called a psalm of love, and is admired both for its elevated thinking and its melodious diction, whilst to such as are imbued with the true Christian spirit it is especially congenial and delightful.
I. MISCONCEPTIONS HAVE TO BE REMOVED. E.g.:
1. The use of the word "charity" is ambiguous. It is often used as equivalent to tolerance, as in the phrase, "the judgment of charity;" and often as synonymous with "almsgiving," as in the sad proverb, "Cold as charity." Neither of these uses meets the requirements of the text.
2. "Love" is also an ambiguous word, being commonly applied to the feeling of attraction and attachment between young people of opposite sexes—a usage which evidently has no applicability here.
II. THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN LOVE HAS TO BE EXPLAINED.
1. It is between one human being and another. The question is not of reverent love to God, but of the mutual feelings of those endowed with the same spiritual nature.
2. It is a sentiment, and there is no love where there is simply a principle of action, cold and unimpassioned.
3. It is a sentiment which governs conduct, restraining men from injuring or slandering one another, and impelling them to mutual assistance.
III. THE SOURCE OF CHRISTIAN LOVE HAS TO BE TRACED.
1. Its true and ultimate origin is in the nature of God, who is love.
2. Its introduction among men is chiefly owing to the Lord Jesus, who was the gift of the Father's love, whose whole ministry to earth was a revelation of love, and whose benevolent conduct and sacrificial death were the fruit of love.
3. Its individual power and social efficacy are owing to the presence and operation of the Spirit of God. Not without significance is love mentioned first in the inventory of the fruits of the Spirit, which are these: love, joy, peace, etc.
IV. THE EXCELLENCY OF CHRISTIAN LOVE HAS TO BE EXHIBITED. This is done in this chapter, systematically, in several ways.
1. It is superior to the supernatural gifts generously bestowed upon the Church in the first age.
2. It is the motive to dispositions and actions of the highest degree of moral beauty.
3. It will survive all that is most prized by man as intellectually precious and desirable.
4. It is superior even to gifts, or rather graces, so lovely and admirable as are faith and hope.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:1
Love and language.
It would seem that, of all gifts, the gift of speech, and especially that variety of it known as the gift of tongues, was most prized by the Christians of Corinth. Probably for this reason the apostle puts this in the forefront, when he compares other possessions and virtues with the grace of love.
I. IN WHAT THE SUPERIORITY OF LOVE OVER SPEECH CONSISTS.
1. In the fact that the gift of tongues draws attention to the possessor himself, whilst charity goes forth from him who cultivates it to others. The gift in question was one splendid and dazzling. Whether it consisted in a power to speak intelligibly in foreign languages, or in the pouring forth of sounds—articulate, indeed, but not corresponding with any language known to the auditors—in either case it was a brilliant faculty, drawing all eyes to the speaker and all ears to his voice. On the other hand, the affectionate ministrant to the wants of his poor or afflicted neighbours would usually go his way unnoticed and unadmired. It is better that a man should be drawn out, as it were, from himself, than that his attention should be, because the attention of others is, concentrated upon himself.
2. In the fact that the grace of love is far more serviceable to the Church and to the world than the gift of tongues. There was a purpose subserved by this gift—it impressed carnal listeners, it was a proof to the Church itself of a special Divine presence. But love led men and women to sympathize with one another, to minister to the wants of the needy, to raise the fallen, to strengthen the weak, to nurse the sick, to comfort the bereaved, to rear the orphan. Thus its fruits vindicated its supremacy.
3. In the fact that the Lord Jesus loved, but never spake with tongues.
4. In the fact that the gift of tongues is but for a season, whilst love is indestructible and eternal.
II. BY WHAT COMPARISON THE SUPERIORITY OF LOVE IS ILLUSTRATED. The gift without the grace is likened to the sounding of brass, to the clashing of a cymbal of bronze. There is noise, but it is vex et proeterea nihil; there is no melody and no meaning. On the other hand, love is like a strain of exquisite music vibrating from the strings, warbling from a flute, or pealing from the pipes of an organ; or, better still, it is like the clear bell-like voice of a boy in some cathedral choir, rendering an immortal passage of sacred poetry to an air sounding like an echo from the minstrelsy of Paradise. The former arrests attention; the gong when struck produces a shock; but the latter sweetly satisfies the soul, then soothing and refreshing the spirit's longings for a heaven bern strain, and leaving behind the precious memory of a melting cadence.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:2
Love and knowledge.
Different gifts have attractions for different minds. To the Corinthians the charisms of language seem to have had an especial charm and value. It might be supposed that those possessions here mentioned—prophecy, unravelling of mysteries, and knowledge, especially of spiritual things—would have a deeper interest for such a one as Paul. And that he did prize these is not to be questioned. Yet such was his appreciation of love, that in this eulogium of it he sets it above those half intellectual, half spiritual gifts.
I. THESE GIFTS ARE IN THEMSELVES VALUABLE. There is nothing here said to disparage the gifts. On the contrary, they are introduced in a way which witnesses to their excellence. Prophecy is the speaking forth of the mind of God—a function the most honourable the mind can conceive. To understand and reveal mysteries would universally be acknowledged to be a high distinction. Knowledge ranks high in connection with a religion which addresses man's intelligence. All these are, so to speak, aspects of religion peculiarly congenial to a thoughtful Christian, and peculiarly advantageous to a Christian community.
II. BUT IT IS POSSIBLE THAT THESE GIFTS MAY BE OF NO VALUE TO THE POSSESSOR. That is, in case they be unaccompanied by love. The purely intellectual character is the unlovely character. The man may be the vehicle of truth, and yet the truth may pass through him without affecting his character, his spiritual position. Who does not know such men—men of Biblical scholarship, sound theology, great teaching power, yet loveless, and because loveless unlovely? To themselves they may be great men, and in the view of the Church; but in reality, and before God, they are nothing!
III. IT IS LOVE WHICH MAKES THESE GIFTS VALUABLE TO THEIR POSSESSOR. How needful love is to impart a spiritual flavour and quality to these great endowments, is clear enough, i.e. to every enlightened mind.
1. Love infuses the spirit in which they are to be used. How differently the man of intellect or of learning uses his powers when his soul is pervaded by the spirit of brotherly love, every observer must have noticed. "Let all your things be done in charity" is an admonition appropriate to all, but especially so to the man of genius or of ability.
2. Love controls the purpose to which they are to be applied. Not for self exaltation, not for the advancement of a great cause, but for the general welfare, will love inspire the great to consecrate their talents, according to the mind and method of the great Master himself.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:2
Love and faith.
St. Paul was so emphatically the apostle of faith, that it is hard to believe that he wrote anything approaching to disparagement of that great and efficacious virtue. If he devoted a great part of his chief Epistle—that to the Romans—to an exhibition of the power of faith, it is not likely that here or anywhere he should write one word which could cast faith into the shade. And, in fact, the reference of the apostle in this passage is not to faith in Christ as a Saviour, but to that special faith m a special promise which was the means of enabling the possessor to perform great marvels—in the figurative language of Scripture, to remove mountains.
I. THIS LANGUAGE IS NOT IN DISPARAGEMENT OF THE FAITH WHICH WORKS BY LOVE. It is always taught in Scripture that faith precedes love; the heart must find Christ and rest in him and live from him, in order that it may love him. Confidence in a personal Saviour revealed in his words and life, in his sacrifice and triumph, will certainly awaken affection, more or less ardent according to the temperament and history of the individual believer. Strong faith is fitted to enkindle warm love.
II. WE ARE TAUGHT THAT "GIFTS" ARE NOT ALWAYS A SIGN OF PIETY. The faith which was so much admired and coveted in the primitive Church was confidence in a certain definite promise of the Lord of supernatural aid to those whose position rendered such aid expedient. The removal of mountains is, of course, a figure for the vanquishing of difficulties, and probably for the performance of miracles. It would seem that there were in the early Churches some who possessed this gift who had not the spiritual qualifications which were far more to be desired. And it is not to be denied that even now there are in all Christian communities men largely endowed with gifts of administration, learning, and eloquence, who yet are lacking in those first qualities of Christian character which are a sign of the Spirit's indwelling. Far more to be desired is simple faith in the Saviour than the faith which removes mountains and dazzles multitudes.
III. THESE LESSONS ARE ENFORCED BY THE CONSIDERATION THAT PAUL POSSESSED BOTH SUPERNATURAL GIFTS AND FERVENT CHARITY, AND WAS WELL ABLE TO COMPARE THE TWO. Never were wonders, miracles of moral power, wrought more manifestly, more repeatedly, than in the ministry of the great apostle of the Gentiles. If any had reason to boast, he had more. Yet to him his love to the Saviour, and his devotion to those for whom that Saviour died, were of far more consequence and value than all his supernatural gifts.
"Love is the brightest of the train,
And strengthens all the rest."
1 Corinthians 13:3
Love and almsgiving.
Of all the comparisons between love and other qualities, gifts, or practices, this is the one which sounds most strange to our ears. For in our minds charity and almsgiving are so closely associated that it scarcely seems possible that they should be placed in contrast one with the other. Yet so it is; and every observer of human nature and society can recognize both the insight and the foresight of the apostle in this striking, almost startling comparison.
I. ALMSGIVING MAY ORIGINATE IN INFERIOR AND UNWORTHY MOTIVES. The apostle supposes an extreme case, viz. that one should give away all his substance in doles to the poor; and he gives his judgment that such a course of action may be loveless, and, if loveless, then worthless. For it may proceed from:
1. Ostentation. That this is the explanation of many of the handsome and even munificent gifts of the wealthy, we are obliged to believe. A rich man sometimes likes his name to figure in a subscription list for an amount which no man of moderate means can afford. The publication of such a gift gratifies his vanity and self importance. His name may figure side by side with that of a well known millionaire.
2. Custom. A commentator has illustrated this passage by reference to the crowds of beggars who gather in the court of a great bishop's palace in Spain or Sicily, to each of whom a coin is given, in so-called charity. Such pernicious and indiscriminate almsgiving is expected of those in a high position in the Church, and they give from custom. The same principle explains probably much of our eleemosynary bestowment.
3. Love of power. As in the feudal days a great lord had his retinue and his retainers, multitudes depending upon his bounty, so there can be no question that individuals and Churches often give generously for the sake of the hold they thus gain upon the dependent, who become in turn in many ways their adherents and supporters.
II. ALMSGIVING MAY IN SOME CASES BE INJURIOUS. In fact, it often is so.
1. To the recipient. The wretch who lives in idleness on rich men's doles is degraded in the process, and becomes lost to all self respect, and habituated to an ignominious and base contentedness with his position.
2. To society generally. When it is known that the man who begs is as well supported as the man who works, how can it be otherwise than that demoralization should ensue? The system of indiscriminate almsgiving is a wrong to the industrious poor.
3. To the giver. For such gifts as are supposed, instead of calling forth the finer qualities of the nature, awaken in the breast of the bestower a cynical contempt of mankind.
III. NEVERTHELESS, TRUE CHARITY MAY EXPRESS ITSELF IN GIFTS. The man who doles away his substance in almsgiving, and has all the while no charity, is nothing; but if there be love, that love sanctifieth both the giver and the gift. For he who loves and gives resembles that Divine Being whose heart is ever filled with love, whose hands are ever filled with gifts.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:3
Love and self immolation.
It would seem that Paul had some anticipation of the approaching developments of Christian society. There is no ground for believing that, at the time when he wrote, any member of the Church of Christ had suffered at the stake for fidelity to principle and to faith. Such martyrdoms had occurred in Palestine, when the enemies of Jehovah had been triumphant and had wreaked their vengeance upon the faithful Jews. And even before Paul's decease, in Rome itself, Christians came to be the victims of the infamous Nero's brutality, and perished in the flames. Stronger language could not be used to set forth the superiority of love to zeal, fidelity, and devotion than this of St. Paul: "Though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing!"
I. THE READINESS TO DIE, AT THE STAKE OR OTHERWISE, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, IS GOOD. As the three Hebrew children were content to be cast into the burning, fiery furnace, as the faithful Jews died at the stake under the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes, as Polycarp at over four score years of age gave his body to be burned, as the holy Perpetua suffered this martyrdom with willing mind, as in our own country at the Reformation many suffered in the fires of Oxford and Smithfield, so have multitudes counted their lives as not dear to them for the blessed Saviour's sake. It cannot but be that such sacrifice of self, such holy martyrdom, ever has been and is acceptable to Christ, who gave himself for us. For he himself has said, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
II. THE ABSENCE OF LOVE TAKES AWAY EVEN FROM THE VIRTUE OF MARTYRDOM. There is a story of a Christian of Antioch who, on his way to martyrdom, refused to forgive and be reconciled to a brother Christian. Such a case is an exact example of the zeal without love which the apostle here pronounces worthless. If Christian charity be absent where zeal is present, there seems reason to fear that the motives which induce to self immolation are pride, self glorification, and an inflexible obstinacy. If there be not love to Christ's people, there is no real love to Christ: "He that loveth God loves his brother also." It is strange to think that self delusion may go so far that men may suffer martyrdom without being truly Christ's. Yet so it is. And we may be reminded, from the possibility of this extreme case, how readily men deceive themselves and suppose that they are influenced by truly religious and distinctly Christian motives, when all the while self is the pivot upon which their whole conduct revolves. And it may be suggested to us how inexpressibly essential, in the judgment of our Lord and his Spirit, is that grace of love, the absence of which cannot be atoned for even by a passage through the fiery flames of martyrdom.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:4, 1 Corinthians 13:5
Love and our fellow men.
In this panegyric of charity, we find,
I. LOVE IS LONG SUFFERING AS OPPOSED TO IMPATIENCE. There is no possibility of mixing with human society without encountering many occasions of irritation. Human nature is such that conflicts of disposition and of habits will and must occur. It is so in the family, in civil life, and even in the Church. Hence impatience and irritability are among the most common of infirmities. And there is no more sure sign of a disciplined and morally cultured mind than a habit of forbearance, tolerance, and patience. But Christianity supplies a motive and power of long suffering which can act in the case of persons of every variety of temperament and of every position of life. "Love suffereth long."
II. LOVE IS GRACIOUS AND KIND AS OPPOSED TO MALICE AND ILL WILL. There is no disposition known to human nature which is a more awful proof of the enormity of sin than malevolence. And the religion of the Lord Christ in nothing more signally proves its divinity than in its power to expel this demoniacal spirit from the breast of humanity. In fact, benevolence is the admitted "note" of this religion. The sterner virtues, as fortitude and justice, were admired and practised among the heathen, and celebrated by the moralists of antiquity. These and others were assumed by Christianity, which added to them the softer grace of love—love which justifies itself in deeds of benignity and loving kindness.
III. LOVE IS OPPOSED TO ENVY AID JEALOUSY. These are vices which arise from discontent with one's own condition as compared with that of others, and are justly deemed among the meanest and basest of which man is capable. Christianity proves its power of spiritual transformation by suppressing, and indeed in many cases by extirpating, these evil passions from the heart, and by teaching and enabling men to rejoice in their neighbours' prosperity.
IV. LOVE, AS OPPOSED TO ANGER, IS NOT PROVOKED WITH THE CONDUCT OF OTHERS. This must not be pressed too far, as though anger in itself were an evil, as though there were no such thing as righteous indignation. Christ himself was angry with hypocrites and deceivers; his indignation and wrath were aroused again and again. But the moral distinction lies here: to be provoked with those who injure us or pass a slight upon our dignity and self importance, is unchristian, but it is not so to cherish indignation with the conduct of God's wilful enemies.
V. LOVE KEEPS NO ACCOUNT OF EVIL RENDERED. This trait in the character of the Christian is very beautiful. It is customary with sinful men to cherish the memory of wrongs done to them, against a day of retribution. Love wipes out the record of wrong doing from the memory, and knows nothing of vindictiveness or ill will.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:4, 1 Corinthians 13:5
Love and self abnegation.
Where there is sincere Christian love, that grace will not only affect for good the intercourse of human society, it will exercise a most powerful and beneficial influence over the nature of which it takes possession; changing pride into humility, and selfishness into self denial. And this is not to be wondered at by him who considers that for the Christian the spiritual centre of gravity is changed—is no longer self, but Christ.
I. LOVE DESTROYS BOASTFULNESS. It "vaunteth not itself." In some characters more than in others there is observable a disposition towards display. There may be real ability, and yet there may be the vanity which obtrudes the proofs of that ability; or there may, on the other hand, be an absence of ability, and yet the fool may not be able to conceal his folly, but must needs make himself the laughing stock of all. Love delights not in the display of real power or the assumption of what does not exist. How can it? When love seeks the good of others, how can it seek their admiration?
II. LOVE IS OPPOSED TO PRIDE. It "is not puffed up." The expression is a strong one; it has been rendered, "does not swell and swagger," "is not inflated with vanity." The explanation of this is clear enough. The pretentious and arrogant man has a mind full of himself, of thoughts of his own greatness and importance, Now, love is the outflowing of the heart's affection in kindliness and benevolence towards others. He who is always thinking of the welfare of his fellow men has no time and no inclination for thoughts of self exaltation, aggrandizement, and ambition. It is plain, then, how wholesome, purifying, and sweetening an influence Christianity introduces into human society; and how much it tends to the happiness of individuals, cooling the fever of restless rivalry and ambition.
III. LOVE IS INCONSISTENT WITH ALL UNSEEMLINESS OF DEPORTMENT. There is an indefiniteness about the language: "Doth not behave itself unseemly." Possibly there is a special reference to the discreditable scenes which were to be witnessed in the Corinthian congregation, in consequence of their party spirit, rivalry, and discord. But there is always in every community room for the inculcation of considerateness, courtesy, self restraint, and dignity. And the apostle points out, with evident justice, that what no rules or custom can produce is the spontaneous and natural result of the operation of Christian love.
IV. LOVE IS, IN A WORD, UNSELFISH; i.e. "seeketh not her own." Here is the broadest basis of the new life of humanity. Love gives, and does not grasp; has an eye for others' wants and sorrows, but turns not her glance towards herself; moves among men with gracious mien and open hands.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:6
The joy of love.
There is, perhaps, no test of character more decisive than this: in what is the chief pleasure of life placed? Where is satisfaction of the soul? Whence does joy proceed? If Christianity is indeed a revolutionary religion, it will effect a change here—in this vital respect. Even in St. Paul's time, it appeared that with Christianity a new force—the force of love—had been introduced into humanity, a force able to direct human delight into another and purer and nobler channel than that in which it had been wont to flow.
I. JOY NO LONGER FLOWS FROM THE PRESENCE AND PREVALENCE OF UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. It seems to attribute a fiendish spirit to human beings to suppose that they can anywhere and at any time be found to rejoice in wrong doing and unrighteousness. Yet it is, alas! possible for sinful men to take a malignant pleasure in the prevalence of sin; for it is the proof of the power of the moral forces with which they have allied themselves, of the victory of their own party. The iniquity of others serves to support and justify their own iniquity. And it must be borne in mind that there are cases in which designing men profit by deeds of unrighteousness, take the very wages of iniquity. Against such dispositions Christian love must needs set itself; for when iniquities prevail, happiness and hope take wings and fly away.
II. JOY FLOWS TO THE CHRISTIAN HEART FROM THE PROGRESS OF TRUTH AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. Truth is the intellectual side of righteousness, and righteousness the moral side of truth. There is, accordingly, a real antithesis between the two clauses of the text.
1. This joy is akin to the joy of God. The Father rejoices over the repenting and recovered child, the Shepherd over the restored, once wandering, sheep. "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." And they who themselves are enjoying peace and fellowship with a reconciled God cannot but participate in the satisfaction with which that holy Being views the progress of truth and religion among men.
2. It is sympathetic with the gladness of the Saviour in the accomplishment of his gracious purposes. As Christ sees of the travail of his soul, he is satisfied; for the joy set before him, i.e. in the salvation of men, he endured the cross. And all who owe salvation to what Jesus did and suffered for man must needs experience a thrill of gratification when a rebel is changed into a subject by the grace of God.
3. It springs from the triumph of that cause which of all on earth is the greatest and most glorious. Every noble soul finds satisfaction in witnessing the advance of truth from the dim dawn towards the full meridian day for which he, in common with all God's people in every age, is ever toiling, hoping, and praying.—T.
1 Corinthians 13:7
Love and the conduct of life.
We are born into, and we live in the midst of, a system, vast and incomprehensible. Man is related to a thousand circumstances, and his moral life depends upon the principles which govern these relationships. It is by a sublime and spiritual intuition, itself an evidence of a Divine commission and apostolate, that St. Paul discerns the truth that love, when it takes possession of the Christian's nature, relates him anew and aright to "all things," i.e. to the whole system in which he finds himself, and of which indeed he forms a part.
I. Love "CONCEALETH ALL THINGS." The word is one which, perhaps, cannot be confidently interpreted. But it may and probably does mean "conceal "or "cover." And so rendered, how appropriate is it in this place! What so characteristic of true charity as the habit of covering up and concealing the faults and infirmities of our brethren? It is a difficult exercise, especially to an acute and candid mind; but because we see an error it is not necessary to publish it. There may be good done and harm avoided by hiding good men's infirmities and the human defects which are to be found even in an excellent cause.
II. Love "BELIEVETH ALL THINGS." There is no point at which the wisdom of this world and the wisdom which is of God come more violently into conflict than here. To worldly men it seems the height of folly to proceed in human life upon the principle of believing all things. This is, in their view, credulity which will make a man the prey of knaves and impostors. Now, the words of the text must not be taken literally. They commend a disposition opposed to suspicion. A suspicious man is wretched himself, and he is universally distrusted and disliked. Where there is reason to distrust a person, even charity will distrust. But, on the other hand, charity cultivates that strain of nobleness in character which prefers to think well of others, and to give credit rather than to question and disbelieve.
III. LOVE "HOPETH ALL THINGS." Here again we have portrayed a feature of Christian character which it needs some spiritual discipline and culture to appreciate. A sanguine disposition is often distrusted, and not unjustly. But we may understand that temper of mind which leads us to hope good things of our fellow men, and to view with confident expectation the progress of the truth over their nature.
IV. LOVE "ENDURETH ALL THINGS." This is to most men the hardest lesson of all. Many will cheerfully work from love, who find it no easy matter to suffer calumny, coldness, hatred, persecution, in a loving spirit and for Christ's sake. But we need the spirit of Divine charity to overlook all the assaults of men, and to pray for those who despitefully use us. This can and may be done when the whole nature is inspired with love to God and love to man.—T.