(1Co 12:29-30 ESV) 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
These rhetorical questions all anticipate an answer of “no.” This is especially significant for tongues, as Paul plainly contradicts any notion that we should expect all Christians to one day speak in tongues. The gift of tongues is not a particularly honorable or expected gift — just one of several that a Christian might receive.
(1Co 12:31 ESV) But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Paul thus introduces the magnificent chapter 13, making clear that faith, hope, and love are all gifts of a higher order than the the more flamboyant gifts previously under discussion.
(1Co 13:1 ESV) If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Whether Paul intends to say that tongues might involve angelic languages or is speaking hyperbolically cannot be said for certain.
There does not seem to be any reason to think we are restricted to just one or the other [human or angelic languages], although the rhetorical pattern would suggest that speaking in tongues would most frequently entail speaking of (unknown) human languages, with the ability to speak angelic languages seen as an even more wonderful version or extension of the same gift.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 626.
The scriptures say nothing of angelic tongues before this passage, but the Essene community in Qumran had a fascination with the possibility of speaking in angelic tongues (Ibid.), and so Paul may have been speaking of actual angelic tongues or merely using the term metaphorically to speak of the greatest imaginable kind of tongue speaking. Either way, his point isn’t that we should seek to speak in the tongues of angels; rather, Paul quite plainly urges love as far superior to even the ability to converse with Michael in his native language.
The reference to a noisy gong or clanging cymbal is not a criticism of instrumental music. Paul chooses a gong and a cymbal because neither is capable of multiple notes and so cannot play a tune.
With both there is ‘noise, but no melody’ (Thrall). The gift of ‘tongues’ means noise, but, unless there is interpretation, no meaning. The sounds of gongs and cymbals would have been familiar at Corinth from their use by devotees of Dionysius or Cybele.
Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 175.
All this is contrasted, of course, with agapē. The translators have no recourse in English but to say “love,” but “love” is not adequate.
First, [agapē] is practical. When he tells the Thessalonians that they must love one another even more than they are already doing, this has nothing much to do with the stirring up of emotions. It is about what used to be called ‘charity’: the putting of one’s assets at the disposal of those, particularly within the Christian family, who at present need them more than one does oneself. …
Second, for Paul ‘love’ is about unity. Indeed, it is both the motive for that unity and the thing that will make it work. It is the sign of life in a community; when Epaphras returns to Paul with news of a new community of believers in Colossae, the key thing he announces to the imprisoned apostle is ‘their love in the spirit’. We have already noted Paul’s breathtaking exhortation in Philippians 2:1–4, urging the little community to be in full accord and of one mind. This is costly and difficult, which is one reason why he follows the command with the equally breathtaking narrative of the Messiah’s own self-abnegation, suffering and death—and vindication. …
Third, ‘love’ is for Paul a virtue. Like the other aspects of ‘the fruit of the spirit’ in Galatians 5 it would be easy to suppose that, being fruit, it would ‘grow naturally’. But, as any gardener will know, just because the tree is alive and blossoming, it doesn’t mean there is no work to do. The fact that the list of ‘fruit of the spirit’ ends with ‘self-control’ gives the game away: this is no romantic dream of a ‘spontaneous’ goodness. Love, joy, peace and the rest are all things which, though indeed growing from the work of the spirit within, require careful tending, protecting, weeding and feeding. One may indeed be ‘taught by God’ to love one’s neighbours, but this does not obviate the need for exhortation and moral effort.
The fourth and in some ways most obvious feature of Paul’s vision of agapē is that it is rooted in, and sustained by, Jesus himself. ‘The son of God loved me and gave himself for me’: this is not an extraneous and merely pious remark, but goes to the heart of what, in much later theological parlance, would be called both the extra nos of salvation (what God does outside us and apart from us) and also the intra nos (what God does within the believer). … The Messiah is both the model and the means of love.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 429–431 (italics added).
(1Co 13:2 ESV) 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
In parallel with v. 1, Paul addresses prophecy in terms similar to tongues. He is clearly hyperbolic, in that no one, not even Jesus, had a gift to understand “all mysteries and all knowledge,” as God the Father maintained some knowledge for himself while Jesus was on earth.
The reference to faith that could move a mountain could be a reference to Jesus’ own words, but the same expression is found in the Babylonian Talmud, and so it appears to have been proverbial.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to overlook the force of Paul’s statement. Paul is the apostle of faith, writing and preaching about faith in Jesus at length. Faith is a centerpiece of Paul’s theology and ministry. And yet he declares even the greatest imaginable faith to be “nothing” without love.
Oh, how I pray that the Churches of Christ would learn this lesson! Faith, doctrine, theology — all these things — are meaningless in the absence of love. Some among us protest that we must never set truth and love in opposition to each other; and yet Paul does exactly that, declaring it “nothing” to know all mysteries and all knowledge, without love. Truth without love is nothing. Nothing.
(1Co 13:3 ESV) 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
The textual evidence here is contradictory.
Witnesses are divided between give over my body … that I may boast and “give over my body that I may be burned,” with a number of other subsidiary variants of the second choice. The second reading would echo Daniel 3:95 LXX, where Daniel’s friends “gave their bodies to be burned,” but both external and internal considerations indicate that the first reading (“that I may boast”) is to be preferred. We take that I may boast to be the original text that was later altered once martyrdom by fire became a more common experience.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 633-634.
If we accept the reading ‘boast’ we may perhaps think of people who sold themselves into slavery and used the money to provide food for the poor (1 Clement 55:2). Paul is saying that it is possible for a person to give his body up to burning or to slavery and make this spectacular sacrifice without love. That person may be moved by dedication to a high ideal, or by pride or the like. If so, he gains nothing. First-century people commonly saw great merit in deeds of charity and in suffering. Paul totally rejects all such ideas. Love is the one thing needful. Nothing can make up for its lack.
Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 177.
And so, Paul is saying that even if he sold himself into slavery to raise money for the poor, without love, he would gain nothing. God would give no credit at all for such an act unless motivated by love.