Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
This chapter, beloved, is perhaps the most well-known passage in the entire New Testament Scriptures. It is a literary masterpiece that is simple in its language, uses an economy of words, and yet it is beautiful in its expression. Its message is suited to weddings, to greeting cards, and to wall-hangings.
But, to properly understand it, it needs to be set in its context, that is, in the context of the surrounding chapters and in the context of what was going on in the church at Corinth. Putting the subject of love in that context, we could, perhaps, best characterize this chapter as a rebuke. The apostle is setting before the church at Corinth the behavior of love to rebuke them. Everything that the apostle says here about love is everything that the church at Corinth was not. And so, verse 4: “Charity suffers long,” they were not longsuffering in Corinth. “Charity is kind”—they were unkind in Corinth. “Charity envies not”—there were envious ones in Corinth. “Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up”—they vaunted themselves and they puffed themselves up in Corinth.
This chapter divides nicely into three sections. The first three verses deal with the priority or the preeminence of love. Then, there are verses 4 through 7 that deal with the practice or the behavior of love. And then the last verses of the chapter, verses 8 through 13, deal with the permanence of love. This message will look at the first three verses, which deal with the priority of love.
The main point of these verses, as we read them in the context here, is that love takes precedence and love is preeminent over anything and everything else. You can live as a Christian with very few gifts, with not much of a position in the church, with not much prominence, but you cannot live as a Christian without love. Because of that preeminence of love, the apostle pauses for an entire chapter to discuss this subject. He calls it the more excellent way. He is discussing gifts in chapter twelve. He says to them that they ought to covet the best gifts. And then he says to them, “But I am going to show you a more excellent way. And that more excellent way is the way of love.”
By more excellent, he means superior. Superior to gifts is the way of love. He does not just mean superior in the sense that it is better or that it is preferred, but he means that this is indispensable, this is the indispensable way, the way of love.
Now, when he says that, he does not mean that gifts are unimportant in the church. So, we should not think of this as the apostle setting up one thing against the other. Here are spiritual gifts, and here is love, and it is one or the other. Rather, the apostle is saying this, that the best of gifts are nothing all by themselves, and they produce nothing…without love. Love takes precedence. Love is preeminent. Love is indispensable.
Now he has to say this, and we can understand this, because it is much easier for a Christian to be involved in Christian activity, in religious service, than to love. That is, it is far easier to come to worship with fellow believers than to love them. It is far easier to have a position of teaching in the church over others than to love them. It is far easier to believe and to have a faith that perseveres through trials, than to love others. It is far easier to give to others than to love them. It is far easier to sit in a room and write things that will edify others than to live in relationship with them and to love them. That is why the apostle says what he does here about the preeminence of love, that love is indispensable.
So, what he is saying to us is this: You may teach your children, but if you do not love them, that teaching is of no value. You may be committed, and your spouse with you, to a lifelong marriage, but if there is no love in your marriage, that is unprofitable. We may, as a church, preach the gospel with conviction and faithfully, but if that does not come with love, we might as well shout into the wind. I may live a godly life before the world, and I may speak the Word of God into their lives, but if I do that without love, that witness is futile. We may gather as a group of believers confessing the same truth, knowing it, holding strongly to it, but if there is no love among us, that is vanity.
We do not have to come up with our own examples here because as we look at the text, we see that the apostle gives us examples that are beyond any examples that we could come up with. He uses here five “if” clauses. In the KJV it is translated “though,” and I think that is a good translation because it captures the idea: “though” or “even though.” He is saying, “I might have…but.” I might have the gift of speaking with tongues, but if I do not have love, I am as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. Even though I might have the gift of prophecy and be able to understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and even though I might have all faith so that I can remove mountains by faith, if I do not have love, I am nothing. And even though I might bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and even though I might give my body to be burned, and have not love, it is of no profit to me.
Each of these represents something we would hold very highly, that we would esteem very highly, that we would esteem very highly in the church, that we would, perhaps, even esteem above life. The apostle says, “No, these are nothing without love.”
The first illustration: though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels. Tongues of men are languages that men speak. This is the gift to speak in another language without learning. It is the gift that was first given at Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out and the apostles and the 120 were able to preach the gospel in other languages. It is, obviously, a supernatural gift, an amazing gift. If you have ever had to learn a language, you understand the struggle of coming to comprehend another language. Now, it is of interest to us that the apostle mentions this gift here first. He mentions it first because this is the one that needed to be addressed and concerning which the church at Corinth needed to be admonished. They all wanted the gift of tongues, and so he says to them that even though one might have the gift of tongues and speak in the tongues of men…. And then note what he says, not just the tongues of men but of angels. There is no indication in the Scriptures that the angels had a special language of their own. Perhaps they did. But whenever angels speak, they speak in the language of those to whom they come. What the apostle is doing here is making a point by exaggeration, by hyperbole. I may understand all the languages of men (five to seven thousand different languages), I may be able to speak fluently and understand all the nuances of all those languages, and, he says, I might even be able to communicate in a heavenly language. What a gift. Amazing. He takes it to the extreme. But he says then, if I do not have charity, if I do not have love, I am just like a sounding brass (a gong), and a tinkling cymbal (ding).
Now a gong and a cymbal have their use in a context. So you use a cymbal in an orchestra. But all by themselves, they are just irritating sounds. “Turn it off,” we say. “Stop it.” Your car has a scaping sound, like a cymbal. What do you do? You get it fixed. Your dryer makes a banging sound. What do you do? You get it fixed. Because these sounds are (in a language later in the text) nothing. They are of no value. The apostle is saying here, “I may have the most outstanding gift, the most obviously supernatural gift, but if I do not have love, I have nothing.” A minister may preach with eloquence, with clarity. Someone may say that he sounds like an angel, but if he does not have love, it is of no benefit.
Second, the apostle speaks in verse 2 of the gift of prophecy: “though I have the gift of prophecy.” Like tongues, the gift of prophecy had a supernatural element and was a temporary gift. There are two aspects to the gift of prophecy: one was the receiving of personal revelations from God, and then being able also to explain and set those revelations forth to the people of God. In the early church this was a very useful gift, not only because the canon of Scripture had not yet been completed, but also because it served the edification of the church. It was a teaching gift in the church. The apostle couples with this gift the gift of understanding (or wisdom) and the gift of knowledge (of doctrine). He says, “May I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries.” A mystery is something that one could not understand apart from God’s revealing it to him, God’s giving him the understanding of it. And Paul is saying that you may have understanding of all mysteries. Here again, you see the hyperbole—all mysteries. And I may have all knowledge. So here is someone with not just a robust understanding of doctrine and of Scripture and of the mysteries of salvation, but a complete and a perfect understanding. None of us has that kind of knowledge. And the apostle is saying here, “Suppose that someone has an understanding of things that is superlative, that is, above what a man has ever possessed.” God is the omniscient One. And the apostle is saying that even if someone’s knowledge were like that, if he does not have love, his knowledge and his understanding and his gift to teach is of no value.
We do not have anymore that gift of prophecy, but still we have gifts of wisdom and of knowledge, people with outstanding biblical comprehension, people who are able to read Scripture and make application and relate what is in Scripture to history and to current events and make great application for us. Or, we have each one ourselves an understanding of theology. You have been listening to Reformed sermons since you were a child, you have been trained in catechism, you have been reading good Reformed theologians, you are able to call to mind what they said, you are able to identify doctrinal heresies. Perhaps you are considered a wise person. There are other people who have questions about Scripture or life, and they come to you because you have understanding. But what is all this without love? The apostle says, it is nothing. If you do not love God and the neighbor, it is nothing. He teaches us really this, that the humble child of God who may not be able to articulate what he believes but has a childlike faith may be of greater value and be a more mature Christian than the minister or the one who has knowledge and wisdom. I may understand and know all these things, but if I do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Third, the apostle speaks here in the second part of verse 2 of someone with a very strong faith. And again he speaks in hyperbole—though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains. Now we recognize that because this was a figure that Jesus used, Paul is not here talking literally about rearranging the landscape by your faith and moving Beacon Hill to the other side of the church or something like that. He is not talking about that kind of faith. Paul is talking here about a faith that Jesus said is like a grain of mustard seed but nevertheless believes that with God all things are possible. So we should be thinking here not just of somebody who has a miraculous faith or someone who pretends to be able to do miracles and who claims that his faith is so strong that he can heal and he can cast out demons; but we should be thinking here of a person who has a faith like Job’s and he goes through the most difficult of trials with a quiet trust in God and you do not hear him complain. Job lost ten children and he said, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” That is a faith that believes that with God all things are possible. You may have even that faith, but if you do not have love, the apostle says, you are nothing.
Fourth. In verse 3 he uses the illustration of someone who shows extreme generosity. Notice again the hyperbole. “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor.” No one bestows all their goods to feed the poor. They always keep something for themselves. And the apostle is talking here not about a philanthropy where the wealthy support non-profit causes that are beneficial to humanity. But he is talking about religious activity in the church. Here is a man in the church who gave away all that he had for the sake of the needy in the church and now lives as one of them, lives a very modest life. This man could be traveling the world. This man could be living in a mansion. This man could be driving a limousine. This man could be wearing new clothes. But he gave away all his wealth to help others, to lift them from their poverty. We look at someone like that and we say, Surely, this has to be love, for who would otherwise do that? Paul says that that can be done without love. You can give away all that you have for the sake of the poor, but without love, it amounts to nothing and is of no value before God. Just as someone having outstanding gifts, just as someone understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge, just as someone having a faith that removes mountains, so one’s giving away all that he has and not having love is vanity.
Then, finally, the apostle speaks here of extreme suffering. “Though I give my body to be burned.” He has in mind, of course, martyrdom. One could die a martyr’s death with commitment to a cause, with conviction. It may be the most painful and slow death of burning (and you know that), you may go gladly to the stake, and yet you may do it without love. We would say of someone who died with such commitment and eagerness for the cause of Christ: How commendable! This one not only gives his goods, but his life’s blood. Yet Paul says that if you do not do it with love, it profits nothing.
So these are the illustrations and they bring home the indispensable place of love. They bring home the preeminence and priority of love. It is essential. What we see here is that everything that is necessary to the Christian life, everything that is of any value in Christian activity, can be summarized in one word: Love. And is not that the way Jesus does it when He is asked which is the great commandment in the law? He summarizes it in one word, one requirement: Love. Without love we are nothing, we profit nothing.
We may have all knowledge, we may understand all mysteries, we may have all faith to remove mountains, we may bestow all our gifts to feed the poor, we may give our bodies to be burned; but without love, all that activity amounts to nothing and has no value in God’s sight. That is the point of these verses for us in this message.
Now, as we think of the love of God, we should be thankful for God’s unfailing love towards us, manifested in the cross, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And may our prayer be that our experience of God’s perfect love may create in us a similar love within the body. Amen.
Father, the word in this message is convicting. We pray that the Spirit, as we are convicted by it, may also work repentance and obedience, and in an experience of Thy great love for us may we toward others put the preeminence on this in the body of believers. We pray it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.