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“If I Am Magnificent But Have Not Love”

A Commentary On 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

by Dr. Eitan Bar
5 minutes read

The deeper our understanding of God’s love as expressed through Christ, the more effectively we can love others. Indeed, before we can extend love outwardly, we must first internalize and experience it. In chapter 13, Paul anchors his definition of love on the perfect embodiment and demonstration of love: the Messiah, Jesus.

1 Corinthians 13:1

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

1 Corinthians 13:1

Paul utilizes hypothetical and hyperbolic language to convey that even if one could speak in both human and angelic tongues, without love, such an ability would amount to nothing more than the sound of a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal—sounds that are devoid of real purpose and benefit. Language is intended to build, explain, encourage, warn, etc. However, without love, it can degrade, trample, and destroy.

The phrase “resounding gong” alludes to practices in pagan temples where, during ceremonies, priests would strike an instrument known as a “gong.” This would produce an impressive sound effect, ostensibly opening a spiritual pathway to the gods. However, beyond the resonating sound, there was no substantial presence; these “mute idols” (1 Corinthians 12:2), as Paul calls them, were not truly there, or at least they were not there for you.

Similarly, “clanging cymbals” were used in Roman theater to create dramatic noise, symbolizing the divine wrath of the angry gods. Yet, even here, beyond the cacophony of the cymbals, there was nothing substantive, just some frightening noise.

Paul’s assertion is profound: even if one is so adept as to speak a hundred different languages, without love, such skills contribute nothing to society. These abilities are equivalent to mere sounds or noise, lacking any good purpose.

By emphasizing the critical role of love, Paul challenges the Corinthians to reassess their use of spiritual gifts. Language and communication, when not rooted in love, lose their intrinsic value and fail to fulfill their divine purpose, which is to unify, edify, and promote peace and understanding among people.

In this context, love is not merely an emotion but a transformative force that should underlie all human interactions. Without love, the most eloquent words become empty, and the most extraordinary deeds lose their value. This teaching has significant implications for our lives: it calls us to infuse all our actions and words with love, ensuring our impact on the world is genuinely constructive and nurturing.

1 Corinthians 13:2

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:2

Imagine becoming the wisest person on earth, knowing everything there is to know, and winning every possible Nobel Prize. Despite these remarkable achievements, in the eyes of God, they amount to nothing if you are envious, proud, dishonor others, self-seeking, easily angered, unforgiving, or find pleasure in the evil that happens to others.

Lacking love, one may use their knowledge for self-promotion. In the presence of love, that knowledge is directed towards serving others. Ultimately, it is not the knowledge that is of primary importance but the underlying motivation.

The Corinthians believed that the more faith people possessed, the greater their stature in the kingdom of God. However, we have all heard of individuals whose faith stems from pride or even foolishness, like fools who are ready to leap from a roof at a leader’s command or suicide terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives to destroy those of others in the name of blind religious faith. Therefore, Paul challenges the Corinthians—faith without love is useless. There must be a synergy between faith and love.

This profound assertion by Paul underscores a fundamental truth: the greatest virtues and abilities, even those as significant as prophecy, understanding mysteries, or possessing monumental faith, are utterly insignificant without the guiding principle of love. Love is the lens that gives our actions and beliefs their true meaning and value. Love transforms knowledge and faith from mere attributes into instruments of service and goodness.

In a broader context, this teaching invites us to reflect on our motivations and the purpose of our talents and beliefs. Are we driven by a desire to serve and uplift, or are our actions motivated by self-interest or religious pride? This reflection is crucial, as it aligns our efforts with the divine example of love demonstrated by Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 13:3

If I give away all my possessions to charity and even surrender my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:3

The term “give away all my possessions to charity” in the context of Greek custom could possibly refer to distributing food in extremely small portions to as many people as possible to be seen by many. Such acts are often performed from a self-serving motive—merely to impress others—akin to donating a trivial amount to a poor mother on the street, only to post a selfie of the act on social media.

I could donate all my possessions to charity, but if I do so out of self-aggrandizing motives, merely to feed my ego, I have not gained any favor in God’s eyes.

Even the ultimate act of charity, self-sacrifice, can stem from such motives. In the first century CE, Emperor Nero of Rome forced Christians to renounce their faith and deny the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, or else face execution by burning or crucifixion. To be willing to die for your faith, such as allowing your body to be burned for your faith’s sake, is a noble act.

However, noble acts like self-sacrifice can spring from pride rather than love. Likewise, during that era, Greeks who believed in dualism regarded physical suffering as a form of spiritual purification—the more one suffered, the more refined one’s soul became. Death, in their view, brought about the ultimate liberation of the soul. Therefore, they did not fear death; on the contrary, they embraced it, but from self-centered and egotistical motives.

According to Paul, even your most noble acts, if not performed out of love, are essentially designed to glorify yourself and are, therefore, not genuinely beneficial.

Paul’s teachings in this verse underscore a critical insight: love must be the foundation of all our actions. Without love, even the most sacrificial deeds become empty gestures. If you were the most pious and devout, surrender your body to be burned and die for your faith, but you did not love others in your life; it was worthless. You can’t love God without loving people. This principle challenges us to examine the true intentions behind our actions. Are we driven by a genuine desire to help and uplift others, or are we motivated by the desire to enhance our own image?

Applying this understanding to our lives involves a deep introspection about the purity of our motivations when we engage in acts of charity or self-sacrifice. It compels us to ensure that our deeds are not tainted by vanity but are expressions of true altruism. By anchoring our actions in love, we not only adhere to the highest ethical standards but also align ourselves with divine principles that value the sincerity of the heart above all.

In practical terms, this means transforming our approach to philanthropy and service from one that seeks recognition or self-benefit to one that is genuinely focused on the welfare of others. This shift in perspective is not only more fulfilling but also resonates with the deeper spiritual truths advocated by Paul, fostering a more compassionate and understanding society.

This article is from my book, “The Theology of Love: Christianity’s Most Underrated Doctrine.

The Theology of Love

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist