The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

The supremely excellent way of Christian love. This chapter has been in all ages the object of the special admiration of the Church. Would that it had received in all ages the loftier and more valuable admiration which would have been expressed by an acceptance of its lessons! Tertullian says that it is uttered "with all the force of the Spirit" ( totis Spiritus viribus ) . It is a glorious hymn or paean in honour of Christian love, in which St. Paul rises on the wings of inspiration to the most sunlit heights of Christian eloquence. Like the forty-fifth psalm, it may be entitled "A Psalm of Love." Valcknaer says that the "oratorical figures which illuminate the chapter have been born spontaneously in an heroic soul, burning with the love of Christ, and placing all things lower than this Divine love." In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 he shows the absolute necessity for love; in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 its characteristics; in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 its eternal permanence; in 1 Corinthians 13:13 its absolute supremacy.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)

The eternal permanence of love.

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1 Corinthians 13:12 (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Through a glass; rather, through (or, by means of ) a mirror. Our "glasses" were unknown in that age. The mirrors were of silver or some polished metal, giving, of course, a far dimmer image than "glasses" do. The rabbis said that "all the prophets saw through a dark mirror, but Moses through a bright one." St. Paul says that no human eye can see God at all except as an image seen as it were behind the mirror. Darkly ; rather, in a riddle. God is said to have spoken to Moses "by means of riddles" ( Numbers 12:8 ; Authorized Version, "in dark speeches"), Human language, dealing with Divine facts, can only represent them indirectly, metaphorically, enigmatically, under human images, and as illustrated by visible phenomena. God can only be represented under the phrases of anthropomorphism and anthropopathy; and such phrases can only have a relative, not an absolute, truth. Then ; i.e. "when the perfect is come." Face to face. Like the "mouth to mouth" of the Hebrew and the LXX . in Numbers 12:8 . This is the beatific vision. "We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" ( 1 John 3:2 ). "Now we walk by faith, not by sight" ( 2 Corinthians 5:7 ). Then shall I know even as also I am known ; rather, then shall I fully know even as also I was fully known, viz. when Christ took knowledge of me at my conversion. Now, we do not so much "know" God, but "rather are known of God" .

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:12 (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The body the dark medium of spiritual vision.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly," etc. It needs no illustration to show that our vision of spiritual things is very dim. The cause of this is our subject—the medium is dark, that medium is the body. Through the five senses we gather all the lights that flash on our consciousness and form within us ideas. But why is it dark?

I. The body tends to MATERIALIZE THE CONCEPTIONS OF THE MIND . We "judge after the flesh."

II. The body tends to SWAY THE DECISIONS OF THE MIND . The desires of the flesh often move and master the soul.

III. The body tends to CLOG THE OPERATIONS OF THE MIND . Business, sleep, refreshment, exercise, disease,—all these interrupt the soul. Our visions of spiritual things being so dim:

1. None should pride themselves in their knowledge .

2. Atone should arrogate infallibility of judgment .

3. All should anticipate higher and fuller visions .

When the medium is removed, we shall see "face to face."

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)

Permanence of love.

Why is it that the numerous objects around us are transient? On every side they appeal to us, connect themselves with hope and fear, enter into our business, awaken enterprise and ambition, and even inspire ardent love; yet they are ever passing away. Now, there must be a discipline in all this, and Christianity assures us what it means. It is that we may be trained in the midst of evanescence for that which is permanent. And this presupposes that there is not only an immortal soul in man, but that, by reason of his present organization and its relations, certain of his functions and acquirements are purely temporary, while others are to live forever. In fact, there are functions and acquirements which do not wait for the death of the body. They fulfil their purpose and expire long before age overtakes us. Yet, says Wordsworth—

''Not for this

Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts

Have followed, for such loss, I would believe

Abundant recompense."

It is in the spirit of a true and noble Christian philosophy that this great moral poet of the century sees no cause to "mourn nor murmur" because our nature has a rejecting instinct, which, as God ordains, throws off and leaves behind it tastes and habits that were once very useful as well as precious. Keeping in mind, then, that this rejecting instinct is an organic part of our constitution and has its allotted functions to discharge, we can appreciate all the more St. Paul's line of thought in the closing verses of this chapter. " Love never faileth." Its existence, activity, manifestation, will be perpetuated. The wonderful spiritual gifts of which he had said so much—prophecy, the ability to speak with tongues, knowledge—these should cease to exist. Although they proceeded from the Holy Ghost and were mightily instrumental for good in the incipient work of the Church, yet, nevertheless, they were to terminate. Scaffoldings were they all, useful as such, subserving most important ends, but mere scaffoldings, that could no longer remain when the edifice had been finished. What, then, is the ideal of the Church? it is not splendid endowments, for they are doomed to extinction, but the love "that never faileth." Whether the passing away of these gifts refers to the apostolic age or to "the age to come," matters nothing, since the idea of their discontinuation, rather than of the time it should occur, is foremost in St. Paul's mind. Imagine, then, his conception of love, when he could contemplate the Church as a vast body laying off these mighty accompaniments of its career, and yet, so far from being weakened, would be girded afresh with a power more resplendent and display it in a form infinitely more majestic. Disrobed of these habiliments, its contour would appear in the perfection of sublimity; its anatomy as an organism would be, as it were, transparent; the whole framework, the various parts, the ligaments binding them together, the circulating lifeblood, would disclose the single animating principle of love. Would it startle the Corinthians to learn that even knowledge should vanish away? "We know in part, and we prophesy in part." All knowledge cannot be meant, for love itself includes much knowledge, and, in its absence, would be simply emotional intensity. To possess the mere faculty of knowing would be worthless, if the mind could not retain the contents of knowledge and make them a portion integrally of itself. What the apostle teaches is that such knowledge as stands related to the present state and time, and grows directly out of imperfect human development, and shares the condition of all things earthly, is short lived and must terminate. Tongues shall cease, but the gift of speech shall not be lost. And he explains himself by saying that the gifts relating to prophecy and tongues were only partial, were exclusively adapted to a preliminary state of experience and activity, and completed their purpose in a temporary spiritual economy. We are here under specific, no less than general limitations, and, in certain directions, we are restrained more than in others. What the Spirit looks to is not knowledge alone, but to its moral aspects as well; to humility, meekness, self abasement, when the intellect is strongest, freest, and boldest; nor will he expand the understanding and its expressional force for their own sakes, but develop them only so far as subservient to an object higher than their immediate ends. Partial information, partial command of our mental faculties, partial uses of even the wisdom we possess—this is the law of limitation and restraint, under which the complex probation of intellect, sensibility, volition, aspiration, and outward activity, works out immeasurable results. Therefore, he argues, we now know and prophesy "in part;" at the best, we are fragmentary and incomplete; and yet this imperfection is connected with a perfect system and leads up to it. The perfection will come; the existing economy is its foreshadowing; nor could knowledge give any rational account of itself, nor could prophecy and tongues vindicate their worth, if the fuller splendours, of which these are faint escapes of light, were not absolute certainties of the future. Only when the "perfect is come" shall that which is "in part" be "done away." Institutions founded in providence and upheld by the Spirit are left to no chance or accident as to continuance, decay, extinction. God comes into them, abides, departs, according to the counsel of his will. If he numbers our days as living men, and keeps our times in his hand; if only his voice says, "Return, ye children of men;"—this is equally true of institutions. For the dead dust, man makes a grave; but the life of individuals, institutions, government, society, even the Church, is in God's keeping, and he alone says, "Return." How shall St. Paul set forth the relation of the partial to the perfect? A truth lacks something if it cannot be illustrated, and a teacher is very defective in ability when he cannot find a resemblance or an analogy to make his meaning more perspicuous and vivid. Truth and teacher have met in this magnificent chapter on ground reserved, we may venture to say, for their special occupancy and companionship. The great teacher sees the sublimest of truths in a glowing light, and most unlike Paul would he be if no illustration came to hand spontaneously. Is there something in the more hallowed moments of the soul that suddenly reinstates the sense of childhood? "When I was a child" in the heathen city of Tarsus, the capital of a Roman province; the mountains of Taurus and the luxuriant plain and the flowing Cydnus near by; the crowded streets and gay population and excited groups of talkers pressing on eye and ear; the festivals of paganism; the strange contrasts of these with the life in his Jewish home; his training under the parental roof; the daily reminders of the Law and the traditions of the Pharisees; what thoughts were they? Only those of a child, understood and spoken as a child. No ordinary child could he have been. Providence was shaping him then for an apostle, so that while the holy child Jesus was growing "in wisdom and stature" amid the hills of Nazareth and in the nursery of the virgin mother's heart, there was far away in Cilicia a boy not much younger, who was in rearing there, under very unlike circumstances, to be his chosen apostle to the Gentile world. Yet the boy Saul was but a child, and thought and spake "as a child." But is childhood disallowed and set off in sharp contrast with manhood? Nay; childhood is of God no less than manhood as to quality of being. What is contrasted is the childishness in the one case and the perfected manhood in the other. So that we suppose the apostle to mean that whatsoever is initial, immature, provisional, in the child, has been put away to make room for something better. The better implies the good, a childish good, indeed, and yet a good from the hand of God however mixed with earthly imperfections. Another movement occurs in the leading thought. Can one think of knowledge without an involuntary recurrence of the symbol of light? The symbol has quite supplanted the thing signified, and the enlightened man is more honoured than the knowing man. St. Paul proceeds to say, "Now we see through a glass, darkly;" the revealed Word of God is conveyed to us "in symbols and words which but imperfectly express them" (Hodge, Delitzsch); and yet, while there is a "glass" or mirror, and the knowledge or vision of Divine things is "darkly" given, there is a real knowledge, a true and blessed knowledge, for "we see." Enough is made intelligible for all the purposes of the spiritual mind, for all spiritual uses, in all spiritual relationships of comprehension, conscience, volition, affection, brotherhood; enough for probation, responsibility, culture, and lifetime growth. What in us is denied? Only curiosity, excessive appetencies of the faculties, habits of perception and judging superinduced in the intellect by the sensational portion of our nature,—these are denied their morbid gratification. A plethora of evidence is denied that faith may have its sphere. Over strength and over constraint of motive are denied that the will may be left free. Violent impulses of feeling are denied that the heart may be intense without wild and erratic enthusiasm, treasuring its life of peaceful blessedness in unfathomable depths like the ocean, that keeps its mass of waters in the vast hollows of the globe and uses the hills and mountains only to shape its shores. On the other hand, what is granted to the mind in the revelation of Divine truth? Such views of God in Christ as the soul can realize in its present condition and thereby form the one master habit of a probationary being, viz. How to see God in Christ. At present, we can only begin to see as by reflection in a mirror; and, as in the education of the senses to the finer work of earthly life the cultivation of the eye is the slowest and most exacting, the longest, the most difficult, and that too because the eye is the noblest of the special senses, so learn we, and not without much patient exertion, and oft repeated efforts to see God in Christ as made known in his gospel and providence and Holy Spirit. Yet the mirror trains the eye and prepares it to see God through no such intervening medium. The promised vision is open, full, immediate. We shall see him "face to face," says St. Paul. "We shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is," declares St. John. And then partial knowledge shall expand into perfect knowledge, and we shall know after a new and Divine manner, for nothing less than this is the assurance: Know as we are known. "Glorious hymn to Christian love," as Dr. Farrar calls this chapter, what shall be its closing strain? "And now abideth" (remains or continues)—the same duration as compared with the evanescence of extraordinary gifts being ascribed to the three—"and now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." Who can doubt it after reading this chapter? Here it stands beside the great gifts of the "tongues of men and of angels," and of the prophetic insight, and of miracle working, and of philanthropy and martyrdom, and, amid this splendid array, love is greatest. In what it does, it is greatest. In what it is, it is greatest. Here, finally, it is grouped with faith and hope, and yet the light that irradiates its form and features from the glory of God in the face or' Jesus Christ is a lustre beyond that of the other two, because the "greatest of these is love."—L.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:12 (1 Corinthians 13:12)

"Face to face."

He who looked into and, as it seemed, through the brazen disc saw a dim reflection of his own or his brother's features, or a misty representation or the landscape. But he who sees face to face sees, as by an immediate intuition, with nothing to hinder a perfect knowledge of perception. The comparison opens up to us a wonderful and most inspiring view of the perfection of the future, the heavenly state.

I. TRUE OF OUR KNOWLEDGE GENERALLY . The apostle speaks without any words limiting the application of his statement to religious realities. Man's pride of knowledge, notwithstanding his intellectual powers are limited in their range and in their efficacy. Some of the causes of this limitation we can see, and we can well believe that in another and higher state they may be removed. The senses or other avenues of perception may be multiplied in number and intensified in power. It may be that words—which are the medium of much of our knowledge—may be replaced by symbols more definite and instructive. Our feebleness of attention and application may be replaced by a vigour not possible in this body. Many things now known by inference may then be known by intuition. And whilst there may be a change in our own natural capacities and faculties, there may be also an enlargement of the material presented to our minds. And the search after truth may be more pure and disinterested as well as more vigorous. We are all aware that purity of heart is a condition of apprehending moral and spiritual truth; this condition will in heaven be perfected, and corresponding results may be expected.


1. Of religious truth. This we now know sufficiently for all practical purposes; but we are often conscious that we see but glimpses and hear but whispers of the great truths upon which our higher life and deathless hopes depend. The progress made by the child as he advances to spiritual maturity is probably as nothing compared with the advance to be made by the Christian when the veil of sense and time falls off. The mysteries by which the mind has often been perplexed shall be revealed; the harmony of truths we could not reconcile shall be apparent; the reasons of regulations we could not understand shall become plain. The world, ourselves, society, life, all are now full of enigmas. Eternity shall provide the solution.

2. Of our knowledge of God in Christ. We do know Christ, and, notwithstanding the objections of philosophers, we have a real though very partial and inadequate knowledge of God himself; for Christ said, "He who hath seen me hath seen the Father also." There have been special revelations of God to specially favoured members of the human family; but hereafter, the vision shall be open, it shall be for all the purified and glorified. "We shall see him as he is." "We shall know [God] even as we are known." Well is this called "the beatific vision:" to behold and know him who is infinite in nature, eternal in existence, perfect in all moral attributes.

III. TRUE ALSO OF OUR KNOWLEDGE OF OUR SPIRITUAL KINDRED AND BRETHREN . There are many circumstances which hinder us from enjoying more than a superficial acquaintance with some of our nearest kinsmen and our daily associates. But in heaven there shall be no disguise, no restraint, no separation. Misunderstandings shall vanish; we shall see "face to face." Imagination pictures, upon the suggestion of this principle, the fellowship of pure delight to be enjoyed with all "saints," in "the assembly and Church of the Firstborn, whose names are written in heaven."—T.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:12 (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Now, and then.

Divine knowledge is the truest riches of the intellect; Divine love, the dearest wealth of the heart. Love is greater than all gifts; greater than tongues and than prophecy, which shall pass away; greater even than knowledge, which here is but partial and progressive. How natural that St. Paul, whose mind was eager for knowledge, and whose life was so largely devoted to communicating it, should linger for a moment and think of knowledge such as it now is and such as it is destined hereafter to be!

I. THE PARTIAL KNOWLEDGE OF THIS PRESENT STATE . "We see as through a mirror, in an enigma."

1. Earth is a mirror dimly reflecting God's attributes. The glory, beauty, adaptations of nature, all speak of God. There is a reflection, and the wisdom, the power, the goodness, of the Creator may be recognized. Yet it is a dim reflection; lightning, tempest, and earthquake, sickness, anguish, and death, perplex the mind of the reflective observer. There is no complete and adequate solution here.

2. Life is a mirror dimly reflecting God's government. No careful, observant mind can fail to trace an overruling Providence in human life, in the life of the individual, anti in the life of the nation. Yet the reflection of a perfectly wise and righteous government, it must be admitted, is dim. We cannot always "justify the ways of God to men;" the heart often sinks at the sight of prosperous wickedness, of the slow progress made by truth and righteousness. The kingdom of God seems near us; but we ask, "Is it here?"

3. Revelation is a mirror dimly reflecting God's purposes. There has been doubtless a progressive removal of the veil which hides God from us. Yet this revelation has been chiefly for practical purposes. We look into revelation to satisfy our inquiries concerning the Divine nature, concerning the eternal life, and there meets our view a dim manifestation. We see, but we see "in an enigma."


1. There may be a reason in ourselves. Spiritual childhood will develop into manhood; the imperfections of the body, the infirmities of human nature, the prejudices of the earthly life, will disappear, and our vision will be purged.

2. A reason in the character of our knowledge. The processes here and now are slow, hesitating, inferential. Hereafter it would seem that we shall know by intuition much which now we learn mediately and with much liability to error.

3. A reason in the manifestation itself. More material will be offered to our faculties; clearer light will beam upon us. In the vaster dominion then accessible, of which only a province is now within our reach, there will open up to the glorified as in a blaze, a sphere of Divine knowledge.

4. A reason in the circumstances and the society of heaven. Here opportunities are restricted; there they will be illimitable. Here fellowship is imperfect; there the society of glorified saints and blessed angels will be fitted to stimulate and encourage the soul by sympathy with all its lofty quests and aspirations.

5. A reason in the prolonged opportunity of eternity. The reflection often forces itself upon us: "Art is long, and time is fleeting." There is no time for the dirtiness to pass off the mirror upon which, as we gaze, we breathe. Yonder infinite opportunity invites the ardent spirit to intermeddle with all knowledge; we feel that we can but lose ourselves in a prospect so vast, illimitable, and glorious.


1. The past of our existence will then be seen in due perspective, and will be plain to the mind looking back upon it.

2. Light shall be east upon the mysteries of earth and time. What has been perplexing and inexplicable when beheld so near at hand shall be clear and unmistakable as the appointment of Divine wisdom and love, when looked down upon from yonder heights.

3. Christ himself shall be then seen "as he is," so as even his dearest and most congenial friends cannot know him now. "Then face to face," to be "changed into the same image, from glory to glory."—T.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:12 (1 Corinthians 13:12)


I. OUR PRESENT IGNORANCE . Our knowledge of Divine things (for these are here chiefly referred to) resembles that which we obtain of natural objects when we see them "through a glass," or rather "reflected in a mirror." And ancient mirrors, of which the apostle speaks, were by no means so perfect as modern ones. Made of imperfectly polished metal, they gave but a very defective representation of objects reflected. The imperfection of our present knowledge is thus strikingly illustrated. We see now "darkly," or "in an enigma," and the enigma often puzzles us not a little. Our present ignorance arises from:

1. Imperfection in the mirror. Though the Scripture be inspired of God, yet it reveals plainly only necessary truth. Other truth is set forth in figure or is barely hinted at. So that we do not find by any means in God's Word a solution of all mysteries. We see much in it—we may see all that we need to see; but it is still a book of mystery, a mirror which only partially reflects the great realities. Then the mirror is often blurred.

2. Imperfection in our vision. We do not by any means see all that is reflected. Now dust is in our eyes, and now tears, and we see comparatively little. We have many ophthalmic disorders which impair our sight.

3. Dimness of the light in which we live. The haze of sin is around us; the atmosphere is darkened by evil; the beams of the Sun of Righteousness have to break through much fog.

4. We move as we gaze. Our life is rapid. We snatch hurried glances at things Divine. We do not see as much as we might see. The most of us might get longer seasons of quiet contemplation if we would. Not a few need to learn the wisdom of sacrificing the little for the great; alas! so many sacrifice the great for the little. We must do this and that and the other; and we never pause to ask the question— Why must we? It comes to this piece of folly—we must do the little and trivial; there is no need for us to do the great and the all important! For these and other reasons our present condition is largely one of ignorance. Still we should be thankful

II. OUR FUTURE KNOWLEDGE . Hereafter things will be changed. No longer shall we see in a mirror darkly, but "face to face." Our life will not then be a study of reflections. The atmosphere will then be purer. Our vision will be corrected and perfected. Earthly distractions will cease. Then remark how perfect our knowledge will be. Our knowledge of truth will be like God's knowledge of us: "Then shall I know even as also I am known." God sees us through and through, and is acquainted with all our ways; so hereafter shall we know those things which are now perplexing mysteries to us. The insoluble will then be solved, the contradictories reconciled. In our sphere then we shall be "perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect" ( Matthew 5:48 ). We shall know God more truly; for "we shall see him as he is." Note: The path of piety is the path of knowledge. The promise of the solution of great mysteries is made to the godly. Part of the torment of the lost may consist in the distraction occasioned by mysteries which for them have no promise of solution. This is the cause of not a little suffering and sorrow here; it may be such a cause hereafter, and a more intense cause. Believers are sometimes ridiculed for credulity, fancifulness, indifference to "facts." But believers are on the way towards the very highest know]edge and the completest grasp, in all their significance, of the greatest facts of the universe. Now we are but children, and concerned with things which, in comparison with "things to come," are childish (though in the child and the childish things there are the true germs of what in fuller development belong to the man and manly things); hereafter we shall become men, and put away childish things ( 1 Corinthians 13:11 ).—H.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 13:12 (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The nature of the future knowledge.

"Then shall I know even as also I am known." Better read, "I was known," i.e. known or apprehended of Christ. St. Paul's thought appears to be that soul culture brings the true, full knowledge and power. A man knows only in the measure of the progress of the work of Divine grace in him; and what we may call perfect knowledge can only come when we are ourselves morally perfected, wholly sanctified, through the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Two points claim consideration.

I. THE NATURE AND LIMITATIONS OF MAN 'S PRESENT KNOWLEDGE . It is dependent on our senses. Show that this means that our knowledge is limited to the spheres with which our senses stand related. Even transcendent and so called supernatural things cannot be conceived until set under sensible forms and figures. We can only transcend nature by the help of nature. The senses limit even the imagination. It may be shown that God's world is set ready for just the creatures he has put in it; and if any other than the sensible world is to be opened to us, we must be changed, renewed, regenerated, and so new sensibilities and capacities must be given and developed. Illustrate that the world of science is the proper sphere for men who have only senses and intellect. It is a vast sphere, a wonderful sphere, but only a limited sphere; and since researches or observations within it are dependent on the frailty of the instruments used, no absolute truth of science can ever be obtained. Illustrate from the observations of astronomers. No conclusion can be affirmed with absolute certainty because the disturbing conditions of the atmosphere can never be perfectly estimated in connection with any experiment. Then add to this frailty of the senses the influence of sin on man when his attention is directed to moral questions. No man can hope, of himself, to attain the perfect moral truth. Illustrate from the sadly mixed systems of all the great classical or modem moralists, and plead that the key to all truth is the vision of God which comes with the soul's conversion and regeneration. Here on earth a man knows nothing aright until he knows God, as manifested in the person of his Son.

II. THE NATURE AND LIMITATIONS OF MAN 'S FUTURE KNOWLEDGE . It will not be imprisoned in sense forms or figures. It will come by soul faculties, of which our bodily senses are but suggestive types. It will come out of new spheres and new relations. It will take new thought forms. It will replace observation by insight, so it will need no verification. It will bear relation to moral character, and not to intellectual endowments. It will be the apprehension men may gain, when the blinding influence of sin and self love are wholly passed away, and spiritual insight has no clouds or veils to pierce through. But man's future knowledge, however wonderful it may be, must still be limited, forever it can but be the knowledge of a created being. He can never know God, never know more than God may be pleased to reveal of himself and of his ways.—R.T.

- The Pulpit Commentary