That is how 1 Corinthians 12 ends. Paul had been speaking of the ministries given to the church, and the “gifts,” as he calls them, that are given to individuals within the church in order to carry out these ministries.
These gifts are given by the Holy Spirit. They are enabling ministries, and include such things as the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, and the gift of teaching or working miracles. There are gifts of healing, of helping, of administration, and the ability to speak in diverse tongues.
These are all gifts given to various individuals by the Spirit of Christ in order to act on behalf of Jesus among the broader church and in the world. They are important abilities; without them, the work of Jesus could not continue. That is why Paul says that we should “desire” these gifts. The word for desire is actually zéloó, the word that comes down to us as “zealous,” meaning that we should seek these gifts of the spirit zealously.
And so, in large part, we as a church throughout history sought these gifts. In fact, we have established entire institutions to teach us how to carry out these ministries. On the more local level, we read books and organize Bible studies to teach us about many of these works of the Spirit.
But having these gifts and these ministries is not the highest calling of a Christian. There yet exists a higher calling, a far better way. In fact, as Paul calls it, it is “the most excellent way.” It is perhaps the greatest failure of the church throughout history that we have not focused on this highest calling.
And what is this “most excellent way?”
If we turn one page in our Bibles to the opening of 1 Corinthians 13, we see what it is:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 BSB)
Speaking With a Voice Like a Clanging Cymbal
Paul was writing to a church that was filled with many prideful people. Their pride stemmed from the fact that they thought themselves very spiritually superior to all others. Speaking in tongues was a big thing to the people of this church. They prided themselves in their ability to articulate words that could only be understood if someone interpreted them (which seemed not to always have been the case).
But the actual understanding of the words that were said seemed not to be the important thing to these people. Just the fact that they could speak in an unknown tongue was what was important to them. They thought that by doing so, it demonstrated their own superior spirituality.
“You are just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul told them.
As annoying and tiresome as this grating sound may seem to you (it does, at least, to me), Paul may have meant it in even a deeper sense. These sounds were often associated in those days with worship in pagan temples. Paul likened their speaking in tongues to that.
In so many words, he was telling them, “You may think you are speaking the language of angels, but far from it – your words sound like you are worshiping something other than God.”
They may not have thought of themselves as have been worshiping a pagan god, but certainly they were putting themselves up for admiration by others. They were saying, in a sense, “Look at me! See how spiritual I am!”
The same held true for claims of having “the gift of prophecy,” and with “knowing all mysteries and having all knowledge.” Even those who claimed to have faith that they said was sufficient to remove mountains were making those claims to gain admiration.
Of course, these things, prophecy, spiritual knowledge and faith, are all good, in and of themselves. However, if they are exercised without the single essential element of love, they are, in the word that Paul used, “nothing.”
Altruism for My Own Sake
“But what if I live a completely altruistic life?” you may ask. “What if I give all I possess to the poor? This is something that would seem selfless. After all, it is something that I would do purely for the benefit of others.”
Even in this, if love is not part of this ingredient, then according to Paul, we do not benefit from it. As paradoxical as it may seem, altruism without love is not true altruism. Even giving all that you possess to the poor can be done in such a way that it is merely a form of self-glorification.
In fact, much of the charity work that we see today is actually not so altruistic as the donors would like us to believe. Quite often, tax benefits, public relations, or political influence weighs quite heavily into the gifts that they give. Or it might be the building that is named in honor of the philanthropist, or the founding of a charity organization that can play quite heavily into the decision to give one’s money away, or some other less than admirable motivation.
But what about “the surrender of my body,” or as another translation puts it, “surrender my body to be burned?. Certainly, if one is called to give his life for those he loves, it can be an honorable deed. Jesus Christ himself showed us that. In fact, all of these virtues that Paul mentioned, on their own merit, are good things. Good, that is, if they are combined with the essential element of love.
However, if done in the absence of love, it is simply another way of glorifying one’s own existence.
But what exactly is love? The dictionary does us no good in this case. It only links love to some sort of emotional response. That is love as we know it in the world, but Paul here is talking about something deeper—something eternal.
So what is eternal love?
Looking into a Steamy Mirror
There is a reason that we have such a difficult time defining love. We have only an incomplete picture of it.
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part,” Paul writes, “But when the perfect comes, the partial passes away.”
To some extent, we may know what love is by our own experience, and we know a bit more about it from what we are taught in Scripture. Nevertheless, the truth is, there is very much that we do not know. Paul says that although we think we know so much about love, we really are only like children in this matter.
Some days ago, I listened to a young boy of about eight years old explaining to me the process of hauling logs out of the woods. His dad was a trucker, and this boy had ridden with him on various occasions, watching his dad shift gears and listening to his dad explain how to drive the truck. The boy had stood and watched as his dad loaded the big logs onto the bed of the truck using the large, hydraulic loader mounted on the back. In giving me his explanation, the boy even told me how to fix one of the hydraulic lines, should it break.
To be truthful, for a child of eight years old, the boy really did know quite a lot about the subject. From his explanation, I even learned some things about it that I had not known before. However, as much as the boy did know, he was still far short of all that he would need to know to actually drive the truck. Never mind that his feet would not yet reach the pedals! In his mind, he was ready to get behind the wheel.
But in truth, there was much that he would still need to learn.
Loading up a truckload of big logs and then maneuvering the load through narrow and hilly woods roads snaking through the trees is a relatively simple matter when compared to more weighty matters of eternity, but sometimes we speak like eight-year-old boys when speaking of these things. We see the knowledge that we possess about such matters as love as being sufficient enough to give us a full understanding.
Paul says to this, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”
What we know is incomplete. Even that which has been told to us in scripture is merely partial. We would do well to realize that we are not ready to get behind the steering wheel of this matter of love.
Paul tells us that what we can now see is as if we were looking in a “mirror dimly.” That analogy was a good one for his own days, since the mirrors were usually ones made of a polished piece of brass where one’s reflection was not clear.
It is different in our own day, of course. We instead might say it is like looking in a mirror that has been steamed up by the shower we had just taken. We may be able to see the outline of our face, but not well enough to start shaving. The image simply is not that clear.
So it is when we peer into eternity. We may be able to understand some things, but we would be mistaken to think that we possess anything like a full revelation.
Descriptions of What Love Is, and Is Not
Because of this inability of ours to fully understand, rather than trying to make a concise definition of what love is, Paul instead gives us a series of descriptions of love. The descriptions are in the form of both positive and negative examples, at least in some of the aspects.
“Love is patient, love is kind,” he begins. We can see how these two characteristics would be part of love and would seem to have no negative aspects about them, but what about the next item mentioned: Love is not jealous?
Did not God even call himself “a jealous God?” In the giving of the ten commandments, when he warned the people against making idols in order to worship them, he told them, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). In fact, so often does God tell his people that he is a jealous God, we would need to spend a good bit of time paging through the Old Testament to cite all of the times.
The word jealous is an interesting one. It actually is derived from the very same Greek word that I earlier cited when speaking of earnestly desiring something. The Greek word for this was “zéloó.” In that earlier verse of chapter 12, the word was translated as “zealous,” as we were told to zealously seek the gifts of the Spirit. Both words, zealous or jealous, speak of taking rather extreme action, either zealously or jealously.
Also, both can be used in either a positive or a negative sense. In the case of God being a jealous God, it is of course in a positive sense. God is jealous for his people; in that he requires devotion only to him. It is no different than a jealousy that a husband must feel for his wife. He becomes jealous when another man begins flirting with her, or even worse, if she begins to flirt with another man.
God is jealous for his people in this regard in order to protect them from defiling themselves in false worship. His jealousy is for the protection of his people. This is the proper purpose of jealousy. This is the emotion of jealousy in the positive sense.
However here in First Corinthians, Paul uses the word in the negative sense.
When Paul writes to us in 1 Corinthians that love is not jealous, he does not mean for instance that a husband, if he really loves his wife, should not feel jealous if another man is trying to entice her. This is exactly when he should be jealous. He needs to protect his wife from becoming defiled.
Rather, when Paul says that love is not jealous, he means when one is jealous of another person who is being recognized or promoted of given credit for something. An example of this is in Acts 7, where we read that Joseph’s brothers became jealous of Joseph because of their father’s apparent favor for him.
This is not the jealousy that grows from love, but rather from envy. If we love another person, we will be happy for him when he or she is recognized and congratulated for something, or even when they are favored. Many Bible translations actually do use the word envy instead of jealous in this verse in First Corinthians. In our modern usage of these words, the word envy does in fact better convey what Paul is saying.
“Love does not envy another.”
More Descriptions of Love
In this same manner, love does not brag and is not arrogant. Boasting and arrogance stem from the desire to exalt and build up one’s own reputation in the eyes of others. Love instead is glad when someone else’s reputation is made stronger.
Rudeness or irritableness have no place with love, nor does selfishness. When one constantly seeks their own way, and when one is continually resentful over some wrong done to him, it shows that they are not walking in love. Nor does there come satisfaction in seeing someone else be hurt or fail, or get into trouble, as if that would make me feel better about myself. What does give satisfaction is seeing that the other person is also living a life of truth.
In short, one could say that for one who is walking in love, the focus of attention is on the other person, rather than on oneself. That is why Paul says that this person “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” What each one of these phrases is really saying is that one who loves always hopes for and believes the best of the other person. The one who loves always will give the other person the benefit of the doubt. However, even when it is found that there is guilt, the person who loves will bear all things with the guilty one.
The gifts of prophecy and of tongues, two abilities with which Paul opened this chapter, will eventually cease to have a role in our lives. Prophecy will not be needed in the eternal state, since we will see God face to face. There will be no tongue that will not be known, since all the redeemed ones will themselves speak with every tongue of man and of angels. Likewise, in the eternal state, there will be no person who will possess superior knowledge of unknown mysteries, for everything will be revealed to us.
But love is eternal and love can never fail.
It is love more than any other gift or ministry that we should seek. It is love even more than spiritual understanding that we should strive to learn.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.”
 As translated in the New American Standard, which is actually the more literal translation of this phrase