“Charity never faileth…”
When looking at the claims of cults and sects based on scripture, we usually find that they major on difficult or challenging texts which are capable of other possible interpretations. What theologians through the ages have found hard to understand, cult leaders have no problem in interpreting! Though their interpretations are shown to be false, they adhere to their odd ideas, disregarding proper structure and rules of interpretation. Charismatics, JWs and Mormons do this all the time.
Usually the structure of texts is easily distinguished. Interpretations do not always come so easily, but should be arrived at after extensive study and comparison with the rest of the texts (context) and all of scripture. Charismatics and others, however, tend to have a secret agenda which pushes aside proper methods and even Biblical truths. This is the ethos we find in the study of this text.
It is very clear, as we shall see, that Paul is using a favourite tool of argument – rhetoric. To say that he is being literal here is nonsense and brings with it all kinds of problems. But, when read as rhetoric, the whole text becomes clearer. In this chapter he is posing questions in such a way as to not seek an answer… this is rhetoric. Only when we understand what he is doing may we look at the semantics of the text… the meaning of the words.
So, Paul is saying “If I were to… then this would be the result”. Or, “What if I did this?…then the result would be this…”. Paul is not putting forward ideas or looking for opinions; he is giving solid theological facts. Though phrased as indirect questions, the text as a whole does not require any answers – Paul is not opening up the discussion to debate! Nor should we: the truths of God are not a matter for debate, but of obedience.
Scripture is to be told, not argued. However, false interpretations - even small ones - must be opposed, because the truth is uppermost. Though charity or love is mentioned a number of times in this text, love never supersedes truth but accompanies it. Love without truth leads to falsity, but truth without love leads to hardness of heart. Which is the worst? I would say love without truth, for though lack of love is indeed to be avoided, God’s truth can still exist without it. But, love on its own, without truth, is dead and without purpose; it is just a frivolity without substance.
Here, Paul is demanding both: truth with love. It is necessary that those who do not like certain truths should subdue their opposition and insistence on love alone, and should learn what truth is. Those who know the truth and teach it, must not think love is secondary; it is a consort of truth, tempering what can sometimes be hard. A hard truth, however, is not false because it is hard. And it remains true even if the preacher is unloving. Sadly, preachers who teach truth are often accused of being harsh, when, all along, they are merely telling people what God says: what they say is ‘hard’ NOT ‘harsh’. Even a scant glance at scripture will show you that God is far harder on mankind than men and women are on themselves!
So, when reading this text remember it is rhetorical. The first verse in particular should be read in this way if you are to understand it properly, and not abuse it as charismatics and cultists do, ending up with an absurd meaning that has no basis in truth.
Reliance on love alone can be spiritually dangerous, because it refuses to accept what is true and rests mainly on sentiment and emotion. Do not fall into this trap. Truth must be upheld! Just remember – if we have to, we can make do with truth without love – but we cannot accept love without truth.
“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.”
This verse should be attached to the verses following, but I am deliberately examining it separately, because a proper understanding of its structure and meaning will determine the approach to the rest of the texts.
Charismatics take this text to mean that Paul spoke a special language of angels, which they believe was not understandable. Thus, they take all ‘tongues’ to mean heavenly language not known to men. Apart from the theological absurdity of this, the structure of the verse does not allow such an interpretation.
If we assume this verse refers to actual incidents, then we must treat the others in the same way… and this shows how absurd the notion is. For example, when did Paul remove mountains (verse 2)? When was he burned to death (verse 3)? Obviously, he did neither of these things, so why insist that these texts are actual events?
When, however, we read them as they are meant to be taken – as rhetorical – then interpretation becomes easier and more logical. Paul is saying “If I did this or that, and did not display love, then it would all be in vain”. So, he is talking about a “What if” situation, not about an actual situation. Taking this as our starting point, then, we can properly interpret this chapter…
The wording might suggest to some that Paul spoke in the tongues of both men and angels. But, this is not how the words are structured in the Greek, where they say “If in the tongues of men I speak and of angels…” Notice the ‘if’? The word ‘tongues’ here denotes foreign languages. Paul is therefore saying “If I spoke as a man or as an angel…” (where ‘angel’ may also be interpreted as a preacher).
So, says Paul, if I happened to speak as either a man or as an angel from heaven, if I spoke without showing love – agape, meaning affection or good will – then my preaching is in vain. That is, I would be like a hollow container or a clanging cymbal… all noise and nothing else. The emphasis is on the love, not the tongues.
How can I say this? I can say it because of the words used, the way they are put together, and the meanings of the words themselves. Glossa, tongues, can have one of many meanings. For example, it can refer to the physical tongue itself, the tongue as an instrument of speech, the language of a specific nation, or a piece of land pushing out into the sea. But, nowhere does it mean something heavenly and not understood.
It can also refer to ‘dark… strange… disconnected utterances’ that have no meaning and possibly spoken whilst in a trance, the province of pagans and spiritists, rather than of Christians. These kinds of utterances are said to be ‘unfit to instruct or to influence the minds of others’. It is this kind that charismatics think are genuine gifts of God. And it is this kind that so many Christians use today! Because they think it is from God, they keep on using it, bringing dishonour upon the Lord and preventing their own spiritual growth… indeed, with the very strong possibility of being influenced by Satan.
If the reader examines every instance of the use of the word ‘tongues’ he or she will discover that 99.9% of them all refer to the ordinary languages of nations, or to the physical aspects of the tongue. Not one text tells us there is an heavenly tongue that no man can understand.
We can open this study, then, by saying that Paul was giving a ‘for instance’. He was musing and passing on his thinking to the Corinthians, possibly because they were familiar with the false languages of pagan priests - rubbish claimed to be from and to the false gods, and just as invented as the so-called ‘heavenly tongues’ of modern charismatics, who are as pagan as were the Corinthian priests and their glazed-eyed followers.
“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 no 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.”
The next two verses are just as rhetorical. Paul says “And if I have the gift of prophecy… but I don’t have love/respect for those I speak to, I am nothing.” The word ‘if’ is vital. No man can know or understand ‘all mysteries’ of God. That is why the word ‘if’ makes complete sense. He is not telling us that he knew everything, but says… IF he knew everything.
If, then, Paul had complete access to prophecy, knowledge, and faith that accomplished everything in his wildest dreams… even if he had all these, but he did not show due regard for his fellows, then it was all in vain. He would be ‘nothing’, oudeis. We know he did not have full access, by his words in verse 9.
He continues the rhetoric… if he gave away everything he owned to feed the poor or if he allowed his body to be burned at the stake for the sake of the people, it would all be meaningless if he did not have regard for them, and it would be of no benefit to him, either. Once again, his emphasis is not on other gifts, but on the need for love or regard for people as human beings. His words cannot be taken to refer to actual situations, because he had no goods or wealth to give away, and his body was not burned alive for the sake of his hearers.
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
This love, says Paul, has many attributes, which he lists….
When a Christian has love for his fellows, he does so because it is essential and a proof of his love for God. Without love, a person is a liar if he says he is a Christian. Christian love puts up with a lot of things. He ‘suffereth long’, makrothumeo. That is, he is very patient and bears everything with dignity, not losing heart, no matter how bad things become. And he is also slow to anger and to punish others. He will be ‘kind’, chresteuomai – mild, kind-natured, doing acts of kindness.
Such a person does not envy another, zeloo – covet what others have with a hidden hatred, striving to obtain it at any cost. Those who are envious are indignant that others have what they want, zelos. He will not ‘vaunt’ himself, perpereuomai – be self-boasting and telling others how good he is, bragging. So, he will not be ‘puffed up’, phusioo, proud and arrogant.
He will not act ‘unseemly’, aschemoneo – in a way that is unbecoming for a Christian. This includes the idea of being indecent, askemon. This means that no-one can point a finger at the Christian, because he is acting properly at all times, within the bounds of known Biblical virtues.
Such a one will not be thinking of himself (‘looking after number one’), but will always put others before himself, heautou. When we do this as Believers we automatically reject the cult of self, wanting only our own desires and wants. Few Christians, sadly, actually think in this way, and show a contempt for others in their drive to fulfill their own wishes and selfish demands.
This kind of Christian is not ‘easily provoked’, paroxuno – sharp and bitter toward others, irritating them without reason or making them angry; scorning, despising, making them exasperated. There are Christians who think it is ‘fun’ to do these things to their fellow Believers. But, if the Christian had any true love, as he ought, he would not do them. It is similar to bullying someone at school!
The Christian who loves his fellows will not think wicked things or maliciously want to do anyone any harm – kakos. Nor will he be pernicious, destructive, filled with misery or distress, and trying to make others feel the same way (this is, by the way, a word against those who wish to be depressed). Nor will he cause trouble and be troublesome to others. With such attitudes and actions, he will quickly lose friends.
He will not rejoice in iniquity; that is, he will not be glad to hear of anyone doing evil, and will not himself enjoy doing evil or unrighteousness, adikia. This includes injustice and unrighteousness of heart and deed, which are a form of deceit, adikos. Are you a Christian who deliberately enjoys doing wrong? Do you do wrong and continue to do it? Have you been counselled not to do wrong, but do it anyway? Then you are in danger of God’s wrath.
No, instead, a genuine Christian loves the truth, aletheia, and does it. Even if the truth is against him he will do it and uphold it. As Christ said, if you love Me you will do what I command! The Christian must not just do it out of duty, he must love the truth, alethes - speak it, and live it, every moment of every day.
He will bear, stego, everything, put up with all kinds of attacks and sufferings. He will believe, pisteuo, everything given by God, trusting in Him completely. In particular he will have hope, elpizo, in all things, meaning that he has total confidence in being saved and is therefore filled with joy and trust. And because of all these things he will endure, hupomeno, everything that comes his way; enduring, taking things patiently even if they go wrong or not his way, does not run away or become reclusive (another word against depression), retaining and building his faith in Christ, bravely and with great calm.
Are we really talking about us, modern-day Christians? Do you recognize yourself in that long list of attributes that are themselves the result of agape, love? If you do not recognise yourself in them, why not? This is what we must be. It is not a wish-list or some unattainable dream. Without these attributes we are a sham and a lie, we despise and reject God and live our lives in sin.
“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”
Here we come across a text that is greatly misunderstood and wrongly interpreted by reformed Christians. Paul is now telling us that love continues into Heaven, whereas the other gifts will not be needed – prophecies, foreign languages, knowledge that must be accrued and learned. None of these will apply in Heaven, so they will vanish at the end of time. There is nothing in this text to tell us that gifts will cease with the apostles!
Charity, says Paul, ‘never faileth’ or never can be lost. But, the other things - and here Paul is merely giving us some examples - are gifts that are only useful on this earth. Therefore, logically and factually, they will die away when this earth dies away. They shall ‘fail’, katargeo, be done away with, destroyed, stopped, be rendered inoperative. They shall ‘cease’, pauo, caused to stop, left off, no longer causing a stirring. They shall ‘vanish away’, katargeo – as above.
It should be rather obvious that if knowledge ceased with the apostles, then we would be in a pretty static state today! Knowledge, gnosis, is vital to each one of us every day, so how can some think this gift has ceased? Knowledge is the essence of ministers who teach and study theology, passing on their God-given understanding to others. If this knowledge was the sole gift of the apostles, then this makes Paul out to be a liar, for he says here that no man has perfect and complete knowledge!
No, we only know in part and prophesy in part. No Christian is able to claim complete knowledge and understanding of anything, and this ensures humility. We only know ‘in part’, meros – a portion that has been allotted to us and only a part of the whole. That is why we must never rely only on one prophet/preacher/teacher, but on the long line of teachers and future-tellers who will continue to the end of time. If only one man knew everything it would make him a dictator. God gives us true men in every age – they did not die out with Paul or with Calvin!
In this life we take a long time to learn anything, but when the end of time comes (that which is perfect) and we enter Heaven, we shall all know everything! ‘Perfect’ is teleios – ‘of full age’, finished, brought to an end. It is also synonymous with the coming of Christ so it is likely that this term includes both. When Christ comes again and time has ended, then everything that is only partially known will be replaced, because we will know everything when He comes.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
On this earth none of us is perfect and none of knows everything, nor can we respond fully and properly to all situations. That is why Paul says we are as children; immature and without full knowledge. When we speak, we speak as those without full knowledge… though to listen to some, one might think they know everything!
Once we are spiritually grown up, we start to mature and think differently, partly because our knowledge has grown. For the moment, on this earth, we cannot see the full splendour of His truth. We do not see Him (or ourselves) face to face, but only through a ‘glass, darkly’. That is, by way of a mirror that obscures the true image. This means that we see life and the future only in part, and much of it is a riddle to us - ainigma (from which we get our enigma).
But, when that end time comes we shall see things face to face, prosopon – that is, to see everything as it really is, without obscurity, even as God knows the real ‘us’.
And now, says Paul, what is with us is trust in God (faith), a joyful expectation of eternal life (hope) and love (charity), but the greatest of the three is love. Though the word ‘greatest’ is used, it is likely that the actual translation of meizon ought to be ‘stronger’, because this fits the whole chapter better, for Paul has been saying that we can have any gift we like, but without love the gifts are meaningless. Pastorally, I would rather err in the direction of charity than to have many gifts and become hard and uncaring. But, far better still, is to have love with truth. Love must never be an excuse to lower the standard of truth, or to ignore it altogether, which is the way with charismatics and many other cultists.
© January 2003 (Revised October 2016)