Exposition of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, If you dont have love; [+ The nature of “tongues”]

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

If you dont have love Part 1

We have said that chapter 12 introduces the grace-gifts (manifestations) the Holy Spirit has given to every Christian according to the Spirits own choice of their distribution. In chapter 13, Paul takes on the daunting challenge of putting the grace-gifts into perspective for a church that is exaggerating their use in worship. Then, in chapter 14, Paul explains how the grace-gifts may be used in worship in such a way that the church is built up rather than falling into the trap of self-exaltation and division.

Even the least informed observer will conclude that chapter 13 is about love, but this obvious fact leads only to more questions: “What is love?” and “What is Paul saying about love?” The Greek noun agapeoccurs ten times in the chapter. This word is rare in Greek literature and finds its dominant use in the New Testament. For that reason, we look to the New Testament to determine its meaning in this context.

Anthony Thiselton explains: Love (agape) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of the other. It is therefore profoundly Christological, for the cross is the paradigm case of the act of will and stance which places welfare of others above the interests of the self.[1] (emphasis original). David Garland adds that this love for others is the check on the exercise of the gifts for personal gratification.[2]

When we explained chapter 12, we deferred a discussion of different kinds of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10) until this point. Note carefully that kinds of tongues — often called glossolalia because that term combines the Greek words for tongue and speak — is not just one thing but a set of behaviors that bear a family resemblance.

In discussing the grace-gift of tongues, we should begin by saying that this use of the word tongue is metaphorical. Obviously, everyone has a physical tongue, so the word refers to some type of spiritual activity involving the tongue. But what? Thiselton cautions that, in answering this question, It is almost universally agreed that reference to modern Pentecostal and charismatic phenomena cannot be used as a means of interpreting Paul and Corinth.[3] In other words, we cannot interpret the past by studying the present. That is backwards!

A few proposals about the nature of tongues

Some have thought tongues to be angelic speech, but not only does Paul distinguish tongues of men and of angels (1 Cor. 13:1), but he also says tongues will pass away (1 Cor. 13:8), which seems an unlikely thing to say for the tongues of angels. If tongues were heavenly speech, there would be no reason for them to pass away.

Others have suggested tongues to be the miraculous power to speak unlearned foreign languages. Presumably that would be useful in evangelizing other peoples. But Thiselton points out, If there were any hint of this use, Paul could not have said the person who speaks in a tongue speaks not to people but to God (14:2), let alone, the person who speaks in a tongue builds up only himself/herself [1 Cor. 14:4].[4] Further, Paul never says anything about such an evangelistic use and, instead, deals with the presence of tongues in the context of Christian worship. Paul makes a point of saying that tongues are an intrinsically noncommunicative form of utterance (1 Cor. 13:1; 14:2, 4, 79, 1617, 23).[5]

Still others propose ecstatic speech as the nature of tongues. However, this idea has drawn heavy criticism, not least because the term ecstasy has not been defined in terms that can be verified in the New Testament. Parallels in the wider Greco-Roman world are unconvincing.

So, where does that leave us? Thiselton suggests a connection with Romans 8:26, which says: In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. He explains that what Paul refers to as tongues in First Corinthians 1214 is the specific work of the Holy Spirit in actualizing inarticulate yearnings directed toward God from the depths of the heart of the believer.[6] These unintelligible yearnings can be understood by God but not by others.

Thiselton adds that these yearnings can express a longing for the [final] completion of redemption to take place, prompted by the Spirit through Christ to God, like all authentic Christian prayer.[7] Expressing another description, Thiselton explains, Tongues may then be viewed as the language of the unconscious because it is unintelligible (unless it is interpreted) not only to others but also to the speaker.[8] Garland suggests this might indeed be one kind of tongue and observes: Tongues, from this perspective, are a sign of weakness, not spiritual superiority. . . . As a token of our weakness, it explains why tongues will end (1 Cor. 13:8).[9]

If you don’t have love – part 2

Look back at verses 1-3 and the way Paul has structured his argument. These verses have several elements that need clarification. First, Paul uses the language of probability, suggesting actions that may or may not occur. Greek grammar expert Daniel Wallace says that verses 1-3 all follow the same pattern; Paul argues from an actual case to a hypothetical case.[10] In verse 1, we know that Paul spoke in tongues, but he did not speak in the tongues of angels. In verse 2, the actual-to-hypothetical pattern is more obvious. Paul did have the gift of prophecy, but, Wallace argues, to understand all mysteries and have all knowledge would have made Paul omniscient, like God. Obviously, that result is out of the question!

Another crucial element of Pauls argument is that even if he could do both the actual actions and the hypothetical ones as well, unless they were done with love for others, they would count for nothing before God!

The phrase resounding gong (1 Cor. 13:1) is likely a reference to resonating acoustic bronze jars used to project the voices of actors.[11] These were placed around the edges of stone theaters and amphitheaters to catch the sound of the actors voices and echo the sounds again. But hearing these echoes was not the same as hearing the original voices. Paul says that even the tongues of angels would just be an echo without love.

Garland provides a fine summary of these three verses when he says, Spiritual gifts minus love equal zero.[12]

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1035.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 606.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 979.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 97677.

[5] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 978, quoting L.T. Johnson.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 985

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 985.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 988.

[9] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 586.

[10] Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 471.

[11] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1036.

[12] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 614.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 The greater gifts for the church

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

And yet I will show you the most excellent way.

Because we Americans are prone to think individually, it does not occur to us that the personal pronoun you — as in Now you are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) — is plural. The English pronoun you is ambiguous as to whether it is singular or plural, but the Greek forms are crystal clear. The clause you are the body of Christ is obviously a metaphor that bridges the gap between the example of the human body (1 Cor. 12:12-26) and the church.

Paul previously argued against the exaltation of certain gifts but seems to reverse himself in 1 Cor. 12:28 by introducing a ranking of gifts. The critical difference is that some of the Corinthians were exalting spiritual gifts that could be misused to exalt the individual within the group, but the gifts Paul puts first are those whose value is measured by their benefit to others.[1]

It was an essential requirement for apostles to have seen the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 9:1, Acts 1:8). The church does not raise up its apostles but responds to their witness as those sent by the Lord. Apostles had no successors, and Paul uses the term in this sense in 12:28.[2] Those today who allow the word apostle to be applied to them are not using the word in its biblical sense.

In considering what follows, make use of the helpful insight that in speaking we are actually doing something asking questions, issuing commands, requesting help, expressing feelings and linguistic philosophers call this a speech-act. Thiselton usefully distinguishes the roles of prophets and teachers by using the speech-act concept:

Prophets perform speech-acts of announcement, proclamation, judgment, challenge, comfort, support, or encouragement, whereas teachers perform speech-acts of transmission, communicative explanation, interpretation of texts, establishment of creeds, [and] exposition of meaning and implication.[3]

It seems clear that the speech-acts of prophets focus on immediate application, while those of teachers focus on retaining, passing on and interpreting the congregations foundation traditions.[4] Contemporary preaching combines both.

Most interpreters and translators see verse 31 as a transitional verse that connects Pauls conclusion about gifts and his long tribute to the supremacy of love in the life of those indwelled by the Spirit. First, he commands believers to earnestly desire the expression in the church of the greater gifts, which are those given to build up others. That is the ideal prelude to his coming remarks about love.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permis


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 59899.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1015.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1017.

[4] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998) 582.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:12-20 Gods choice about gifts must prevail

1 Corinthians 12:12-20

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

Paul began his letter to the Corinthians by expressive his anguish over divisions in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Throughout the letter he has appealed for unity and the love necessary to sustain it. He continues that theme in our passage by using a metaphor the believers in Roman Corinth would understand: the human body and its various parts.

The Corinthians would have found this metaphor familiar in two ways. First, Corinth had an important temple of Asclepios, the god of healing. The Corinth Archaeological Museum contains a large number of terra-cotta models of heads, hands, feet, arms, legs, eyes, ears, and every part of the body . . . [created] in prayer or in thanks for restoration of health.[1] Second, the Corinthians would have understood language about the body and its parts as language traditionally used to argue for unity on the basis of a hierarchical political structure.[2] (emphasis original). Since ancient political writers used this metaphor to appeal for unity within a city or larger group of people, Paul did the same.

Several times in our study of 1 Corinthians, we have looked at the organization of Pauls argument to help us understand it better. David Garland shows that the literary structure for this weeks biblical text fits a pattern of ABBA, meaning that the verses labeled A complement each other, as do the verses labeled B. In this case that looks like this:

A The body as one but with many members (12:12-14)

B The inescapable diversity of members within the body (12:15-20)

B The inescapable interdependence of members of the body (12:21-26)

A The differing functions within the body (12:27-31)[3]

Today we will cover the first AB of the pattern. Concerning verse 12, Thiselton argues that the grammar puts greatest emphasis on Christ, next most emphasis on the unity of the one body, and third most emphasis on the plurality of the parts of the body.[4] Garland supports this idea by saying, Unity dominates diversity and makes diversity genuinely meaningful and constructive.[5] Keep in mind that the metaphor involves the human body, but the way that metaphor was understood in Roman Corinth involved unity within a hierarchical structure. The one at the top of the hierarchy is plainly Christ the Lord.

Gordon Fee explains Pauls point in 1 Cor. 12:13 by saying: What makes the Corinthians one is their common experience of the Spirit . . . . The Spirit is essentially what distinguishes the believer from the nonbeliever (2:10-14).[6] Since Romans 8:9 also makes it abundantly clear that having the Holy Spirit is the difference between being a Christian or an unbeliever, we get some clarity on the baptism referred to in verse 13. This cannot be a reference to water baptism because those who trust in Christ do not do so while being baptized in water. Instead, baptism in this verse is a metaphor for the immersion in the Spirit that happens to all, whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free (1 Cor. 12:13), at the moment of salvation.

Paul again changes metaphor in the clause we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13b). The Greek verb can mean drink or even refer to being watered, saturated or drenched in the Spirit[7] as it does in 1 Cor. 3:6-8.

Since 1 Cor. 12:13 is the only place in the New Testament where the biblical text expressly speaks of baptism in/by the Spirit, it has unfortunately been used by some Christian groups to support the idea of a Spirit-experience at some time after salvation. Thiselton explains why this idea is wrongheaded: Any theology that might imply that this one baptism in 13a in which believers were baptized by [or in] one Spirit might mark off some postconversion experience or status enjoyed only by some Christians attacks and undermines Pauls entire argument and emphasis.[8] (emphasis original).

Verse 14 strikes a blow against anyone who would try to exalt one spiritual gift as the sole mark of spirituality. It also ties the need for diverse gifts to the created order. Garland aptly states: One person alone, no matter how gifted, cannot play a Beethoven symphony, act a Shakespearian tragedy, or compete against another team. The same is true in the church.[9]

1 Cor. 12:18 shows us that God is the one who has placed the parts of the body into their harmonious arrangement, and he does not need any help from those who think they have a better design. It was Gods creative choice to have the body consist of many parts, not just one (1 Cor. 12:19). But those many parts work together to function as a single body (1 Cor. 12:20).

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 7.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 992.

[3] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 589.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 996.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 590, quoting M.L. Soards.

[6] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 603.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1000-01.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 997-98.

[9] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 589.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 Gifts point to the Spirit, not to us

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

This section of Pauls argument actually begins with verse 7, a verse we first discussed in the previous post: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. After making this summary statement, Paul enumerates some of the gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10). Some believe that Paul puts the gift of tongues last to counter an overemphasis on it in Corinth, but others think not. Either way, it is plain that Pauls list only includes gifts that can be seen publicly. Anthony Thiselton explains: The Spirit is at work where the public manifestation serves the common advantage of others, and not merely self-affirmation, self-fulfillment, or individual status.[1]

We will proceed mainly with brief statements about the nature of certain gifts in the list; a diversity of opinion exists about many of them. One reason for these differences of opinion is that many have tried to impose on First Corinthians certain dualistic categories like natural and supernatural that did not take on their current meaning until about 1700.[2] What does that statement mean? In the world of the first century, Christians rightly considered God to be involved in all aspects of life, both the natural and supernatural, as we might call them today. But, in our contemporary culture, many people take the term natural to mean something occurring in nature or produced by nature, without any thought of Gods involvement. If you look up the term supernatural in a modern dictionary, its primary meaning is relating to existence outside the natural world and we find no mention of God or his power until definitions three and four.[3]

An example of these dualistic categories could be schools. Our contemporary public schools avoid mention of God and generally offer natural explanations within every subject area. A school in Roman Corinth would have been baffled by the idea that God or the gods could be left out of any subject. Healing and sickness are also topics where many today might look for a solely natural explanation or treatment, but the citizens of Roman Corinth would never have discounted the involvement of God or the gods. These ideas affect how a commentator approaches the grace-gift of healing (1 Cor. 12:9) or that of performance of miracles (1 Cor. 12:10), among others. We must start with the viewpoint of Roman Corinth to understand what Paul would have meant in a message to the people living there.

We begin the gifts-list with the phrase message of wisdom (1 Cor. 12:8). The Christians in Roman Corinth had been accustomed to understand wisdom in terms of Greek philosophy, but Paul has already scorned human wisdom in comparison to the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5). Thiselton explains what Paul meant by wisdom: Wisdom, in this context, becomes an evaluation of realities in the light of Gods grace and the cross of Christ. . . . Wisdom relates to building up the community for the common advantage of all through appropriation of the power and lifestyle of Christ.[4]

The phrase message of knowledge is more difficult to explain. It seems reasonable to think that the knowledge in view here is that which God has revealed through Christ. This knowledge would be essential to living a life in imitation of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

To another the Spirit gives faith, and this cannot be a reference to saving faith, because that is something every Christian must have to become a Christian. David Garland rightly reminds us that Internal trust in God results in external results.[5] Since faith is a response to what God has said or done, perhaps the Spirit gives particular boldness to some to lead the way in implementing what God has said.

The phrase gifts of healing (1 Cor. 12:9b) would probably be more understandable when rendered as various kinds of healing (Thiselton). Thiselton correctly adds, The kinds may appear to include sudden or gradual, physical or mental, [and] the use of medicine or more direct divine agency.[6] Thiselton includes a well-worded Anglican statement which warns us against thinking it is sinful for a Christian to be ill and against making the person seeking healing believe that their own faith is the determining factor in a favorable outcome. Christianity does not advocate some magical process that always results in healing.

Verse 10 is a real bear! The first gift is translated by most English versions as miraculous powers and that is certainly one possibility for Greek words that mean deeds of power or powerful deeds. Thiselton explains, The text leaves open whether these powers or deeds of power are restricted to the miraculous or simply may include the miraculous where otherwise they would not be effective ones.[7] God certainly works miracles; the question is whether the acts accomplished through this gifted person must always be so awesome as to be translated as miraculous.

Next in verse 10 we have the gift of prophecy, a much debated term. Again, we follow Thiselton, who summarizes by saying: Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given [message] . . . leading to challenge or comfort, judgment or consolation, but ultimately building up the addresses.[8] This can mean, as it does in our church, a sermon. Thiselton points out that few churches appear to test or challenge preaching from the pulpit as was probably the case in Roman Corinth. Discussion within small groups allows for such testing today.

Our extended discussion of tongues and their interpretation will wait until 1 Corinthians 14. We will note here only that tongues is a gift plainly not given to all or demanded as proof of salvation (1 Cor. 12:10b).

Pauls list of gifts given by the Holy Spirit was not intended to be exhaustive. But the ones he does list are not available for anyone to claim; they are distributed according to the desire of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11). For the strong to exalt themselves over others by claiming a gift of the Holy Spirit — possibly one they were not given — is a presumptuous act. We can hope that someone with the gift of wisdom told them what result their audacity would bring.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 936.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 946.

[3] supernatural, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011) q.v.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 93940.

[5] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 581.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 948.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 953.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 964.