1 Corinthians 13:1-3
1. 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.
2 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.
3. 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.
Before looking at each verse separately, several observations should be made concerning verses 1-3. The structure of verses 1-3 is very clear, setting these three verses apart from the rest of the chapter. Each verse begins with an “if,” indicating Paul is speaking here of a hypothetical possibility.170 To press the hypothetical dimension even further, it seems clear that Paul is using hyperbole here.171 The statements Paul makes in all three verses hypothetically take a particular gift to its ultimate expression. In verses 1-3, Paul takes spiritual gifts to the Super Bowl. He seeks to demonstrate that any gift, exercised to its highest level of performance, is of greatly diminished value if that gift is exercised without love. In my opinion, Paul did not intend for us to assume that any of these hypothetical possibilities were even remotely possible.
Since some look to verse 1 to find a redefinition of the gift of tongues, this would not be the most forceful example of hyperbole. Let us look then to verse 2, where Paul speaks of faith that is able to remove mountains and of the gift of prophecy such that Paul can know all things. These words are written by the greatest apostle of all times. Few would dare to claim greater knowledge and revelation than Paul. And yet Paul goes on to say that we “know in part, and we prophesy in part” (verse 9). “That which is perfect”—knowing fully—will not come until Christ comes, and then we shall “know fully” (verse 12).
In verses 1-3, Paul speaks in the first person: “If I … .” There is not the accusatory “you” which there most certainly could have been. The gifts Paul selects are the greatest gifts, whether by the perception of the Corinthians (tongues), or in truth (prophecy, faith). It seems safe to say that all of the gifts Paul mentions in verses 1-3 are gifts Paul actually did possess and, to a degree, which far surpassed any of the Corinthian believers (see, for example, 14:18). Paul writes in the light of his own giftedness and points to the necessity of love for his gifts to be of benefit to others or to himself.
In these first three verses of chapter 13, a different time frame seems to be in view in each verse. In verse 1, Paul says, “I have become … .”172 In verse 2, he says, “I am … .” In verse 3, he writes, “it profits me nothing.” In verse 1, Paul seems to suggest that in living a loveless life, I become less than I was. The Corinthians are not the better for their lack of love; they are the worse. Worse yet, they are becoming something vastly inferior to what they once were. In verse 2, Paul speaks of a loveless saint in terms of his present state—“I am nothing.” In verse 3, Paul looks to future rewards for one’s sacrificial service. Seemingly great acts of sacrifice may win man’s approval, but they will not win us God’s approval. Love is essential for eternal rewards.
Paul takes what are considered to be the greatest gifts anyone could possess, starting with tongues (the “ultimate gift” for the Corinthians), and grants that each could be exercised to the fullest possible extent. Even then, these spiritual gifts would be of limited value unless exercised out of a heart of love.