A Look at 1 Corinthians 13 and Love as a Way of Life (2)
We’re looking at Paul’s portrayal of genuine love in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s start by looking at vv. 1-3. There Paul writes,
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Note that in vv. 1-3 he speaks in the first person: “If I speak . . . if I have prophetic powers,” etc. Most likely he did this because he is later going to declare that he speaks in tongues more than everyone (14:18) and all know that he is a prophet and operates in word of knowledge and in faith and miracles. So Paul is including even himself in this responsibility. Not even an apostle is exempt.
What does he mean by the “tongues of angels”? Is he speaking in deliberately exaggerated terms to draw the biggest possible contrast with love, or does he actually envision tongues speech as being, at least in some instances, the languages spoken by the angelic hosts? Both are possible and it’s hard to exclude either option.
Note well that Paul doesn’t simply say that “tongues” has become a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal” but that he himself has! In other words, if a person insists on using this gift (or any other gift) in the absence of love, it will have some sort of permanent and debilitating effect on the person himself/herself. You personally experience a transformation that is for the worse, not only for yourself but also for those who must endure you. By the noisy gong and clanging cymbal Paul probably means to suggest that tongues loses its significance or value to the body and becomes an annoyance and irritant.
Of course, what may be said about tongues when this gift is used in the interests of love? It then would undoubtedly become a glorious symphony that pleases, sanctifies, and soothes the soul.
This is amazing. Think of the profoundly beneficial effect of prophecy and knowledge and faith that is of the sort that it can move mountains. What marvelous testimony to the power of God. What a marvelous boost to the confidence and courage of Christians. After all, in 14:3 Paul says that prophecy builds up and encourages and consoles the people of God. But without love, all gifts are empty and vain.
Even the most extreme self-sacrificial philanthropy is emptied of value if not motivated and governed by love. Even personal martyrdom is a waste if there is no love. Clearly, motivation matters!
Note well: this means that merely possessing and exercising a spiritual gift says absolutely nothing about a person. It doesn’t matter how eloquently one speaks and prays in tongues or how generous he or she is in giving away their wealth to the needy, if alone, without love, such gifts and powers attest to nothing about you.
It’s instructive, and convicting, when we apply this to other experiences in the church: Our worship, the passion of our praise, the energy we exude, the size of our offerings, the size of our buildings, the fact that we know a lot of theology and can out-argue anyone, amounts to nothing in the absence of love.
To be continued . . .