GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
1 CORINTHIANS 13:1
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13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am only a roaring gong or a clanging cymbal.
The “more excellent way” Paul was talking about at the end of chapter 11 is presented a little like an off-speed pitch in baseball. It isn’t what the reader might have been expecting. Instead of another amazing spiritual gift, Paul wants us to know that what we have to have is… love.
Most readers are familiar, sometimes very familiar, with this chapter, but not in the context of Paul’s warning about spiritual gifts. We hear this chapter used and used again for weddings, because a certain slice of the verses makes a good sketch of the qualities of love. But let’s take Paul’s words in their context.
Paul attacks the sin of pride over speaking in tongues by elevating the possibilities of the gift with something never mentioned anyplace else in Scripture: “the tongues of angels.” It’s best to understand this as a heightened form of “tongues” or languages, along the same lines as one might say, “If you can move mountains, or if you can move planets from here to there,” that is to say, if you can do amazing things nobody ever even dreamed of. Whatever the great and superlative thing you can do, whatever the ability you have, but don’t have love, then what good is such a gift? What benefit to the church and to the kingdom of God is your ability if you can’t use it with love? You are missing the point of God’s gift.
Love is essential to fulfilling God’s purpose in the world. Without love, the works that I do have no value to God. It is true that he can put even a terrible sin to some use for his plan for all mankind, but those wicked things are not valued by him. If a man spits in my cup because he despises me and his action causes me to see that there is also a deadly insect in my cup that might have done me harm, I do not need to thank or praise that man for his wicked act. Therefore a spiritual gift, glorious as it might be, that is done without love, is a sinful act.
As Gerhard says: “The very love from which the good works of the godly proceed is so intrinsic to good works that it is said not undeservedly to enter the substance of good works. For whatever happens without love, however great the work may be, should not be judged to be a truly good work, as the apostle expressly teaches in 1 Corinthians 13. If then, good works are not worthy of eternity as regards their substance, surely also with respect to love will they not be worthy of it” (On Good Works §92 p. 131).
The Greek word Paul uses for “love” here and throughout the chapter is agape (ἀγάπη), which rhymes with “The top ‘A’” or “A hot day.” This common New Testament word was not at all common in secular Greek writings of Paul’s time or the years before. In fact, even in the Gospels it isn’t very common outside of John 14-17 (“He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him,” John 14:21). It seems that Paul and John in particular were looking for a more rare Greek word for “love” apart from desire, crave, and so on, to show a different kind of love. Even the nobler Greek word, philanthropia (ϕιλανϑρωπία), is not one’s love for your fellow man, but the justice to which a man is entitled. Agape is the love of God for his people (a love we do not merit) or the love of the Christian for other people. This is “the love the Father has lavished on us” (1 John 3:1); the love that brought Jesus down to lay down his life for us (1 John 3:16). It is the love we have “for all the saints” (that is, all other Christians, Philemon 1:5). This, then, is the love God wants us to show as we obey the Second Table of the Law, “a love that is active in decisions and choices to behave toward my neighbor in a self-giving way, in a forgiving way, and in a serving way.” Love always has an object, and our love is toward God and toward our neighbor (Luke 10:27). And “Whoever fears the Lord will steer his friendships the right way, for as a man goes, so shall his neighbor go also.”
What does Paul mean about the gong and the cymbal? He means that a godly gift of noise (for what is speaking in tongues to the believer’s ear but so much meaningless noise?), thrust without love upon a group meeting for worship, will stop everything for a moment, like the resonating bong of a gong or the tinny crash of cymbals, until the noise fades away. But there will be nothing useful afterwards. It would not be so if there was someone to interpret (1 Corinthians 14:13). And it would not be so if the one who wanted to speak in tongues would also wait his turn and not interrupt someone else’s speaking or singing (1 Corinthians 14:27). In fact, Paul will say later on that “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” (1 Corinthians 14:28). Otherwise, the ears will be deafened for a while to anything else, but the mind will not be instructed, and the heart will not be refreshed.
This verse preaches the law to us by exposing sinful arrogance and pride. It preaches the gospel to us by displaying God’s love, without which there is nothing but noise and chaos. “God is good, even though my feet had almost slipped” (Psalm 73:1-2). If we have ever envied the arrogant, let us look to the only source of true boasting, which is Christ our risen Lord.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota
God’s Word for You – 1 Corinthians 13:1 a roaring gong