Today’s passage begins one of the most well-known and beloved passages in the New Testament, Paul’s exposition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. The Apostle starts by stressing love’s absolute necessity in the Christian life through a series of statements that present things that are highly prized in themselves but then argues that these things avail for nothing if love is not present.
Given that Paul wrote this chapter originally to deal with certain abuses of the gift of tongues (see ch. 14), the Apostle appropriately initiates his definition of love by looking at the worth of speaking “in the tongues of men and of angels” (13:1). Some debate has ensued regarding the meaning of this phrase, with many people believing that Paul advocates a view of tongues that includes heavenly languages spoken by the angels but otherwise not known to human beings. More likely, Paul is simply referring to a common belief in the Corinthian church that the gift of tongues was a gift of angelic languages without actually agreeing with the Corinthian believers. The Apostle uses the phrase to get the attention of his audience, agreeing with the original readers that the gift of tongues is indeed quite valuable. But then he takes a turn and notes that as good as the gift of tongues may be, it is just noise if it is not exercised in love. Lovelessness makes tongues useless—but not just useless. As John Chrysostom comments, Paul means that “if I have no love I am not just useless but a positive nuisance.”
Next, Paul mentions three other spiritual gifts—prophecy, knowledge or discernment, and faith (v. 2). These things are good in themselves, especially prophecy, which Paul will extol in 1 Corinthians 14. Nevertheless, though the gifts can bring great benefits, these benefits do not obtain if love does not accompany those gifts that bring particular edification to the body of Christ.
Finally, Paul notes that giving away everything and even surrendering to martyrdom counts for nothing without love (v. 3). This is an exceptionally strong statement, since Jesus promises that those who leave everything behind to follow Him will receive a great reward (Mark 10:29–30). No reward will come even when we pay the highest price to serve Christ if we do not love. The motivation for our actions and discipleship is vital. If they are not moved by love, they count for nothing, not because our love earns life for us but because love is the fruit of one’s true surrender to Jesus (1 John 5:1).