Chapter thirteen is the famous “love chapter,” a part of which is often used in weddings and such to demonstrate the greatness of selfless love. What is often overlooked is that this is right in the middle of Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts, and love was the comparison Paul used to show which gifts were greater than others.
In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul used a series of hyperboles to demonstrate love’s greatness compared to even the most extraordinary things. There are some who take Paul’s mention of “the tongues of men and angels” to prove that speaking in tongues means speaking in some kind of literal heavenly language that is different from human language. However, this is not supported by the text. The metaphor about faith moving mountains is a hyperbole, as was Paul’s comment about allowing his body to be burned 1 or giving everything away. There is no justifiable reason to read “tongues of angels” as a specific supernatural language when the others are clearly illustrative.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 contains a list of fifteen ways that love is the greatest action in which we can engage. It is a wonderful list often cited and should be read at engagement parties and weddings. Speakers at Christian funerals should be able to point to the person in the casket as someone who embodied these principles. Yet, in context, this list also describes how spiritual gifts are to be used within the Church.
1 Corinthians 13:8 begins with “love never fails,” which is often misread as the sixteenth item in the previous list. In reality, it begins the following sentence, showing again that love is greater than the gifts themselves, because they will end while love remains. Paul noted that three gifts specifically would end – prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is highly debated in reference to when these gifts will/did end, mainly centered on the meaning of “the perfect” in verse ten. Much has been written on this over the centuries, but there are three primary interpretations.
First, if “the perfect” refers to Jesus, then these gifts will remain until Jesus returns. This interpretation is based on the fact that only Jesus could be called “perfect.” Second, if “the perfect” refers to the final maturation of the Church (Ephesians 4:13), then these gifts will remain until the Rapture, when “we will be like him” (1 John 3:2). This interpretation takes “perfect” to mean “mature” in light of the immediate analogy of child/adult. Third, if “the perfect” refers to the Scriptures, then these gifts remained only until the completion of the New Testament. This interpretation takes “perfect” to mean “complete” as opposed to “partial” in verses ten and twelve. 2 This last interpretation seems to make the most sense in the immediate context, in the context of the whole New Testament, and in the experience of church history.
Regardless of one’s interpretation of the ending of these gifts, the fact is that they would not outlast “faith, hope, and love,” and that love is “the greatest of these,” including the gifts.
- The NET translates verse 3 with “if I give over my body in order to boast” (also NIV) rather than “to be burned” (NASB, ESV, KJV) due to a textual variant, which Metzger notes was given a “C” rating by the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament because of the strong evidence for both readings (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament, Second Edition, 1994). In other words, it is difficult to determine which was Paul’s original thought. ↩
- The Greek word τέλειος (teleios) can legitimately be translated as perfect, mature, or complete, so none of these interpretations can be dismissed based solely on the translation of this word. The context and analogies must be used to determine Paul’s meaning. ↩