And now I will show you the most excellent way.
What does Paul mean by "way"? The Greek word hodos is the usual word for "road, path." It is the word used in Jesus' famous claim "I am the way, the truth, and the life." It is the word used to designate the earliest Christians in Acts ("follower[s] of the Way"). But here Paul seems to use the "more/most excellent way" in contrast to the selfish way in which some of the Corinthian believers were exercising their spiritual gifts as status markers. And indeed in the verses 1-3 that follow, he shows that the "way" described as "not having love" nullifies the value of any of these gifts.
1 If I speak in the languages of men and of angels, but have not 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 have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Paul puts all of this in the first person: "If I …" He doesn't embarrass his readers by saying "If you speak in the languages of men and angels, but don't have love." This is Paul's pastoral style. He doesn't wish to offend or turn them off. They are well aware that Paul himself possessed and exercised on appropriate occasions all of these gifts. If they see that he views them as valueless if not exercised completely in a loving service to others, they will surely make the connection to themselves.
Paul lists five Spirit-given abilities ("gifts") that believers might have: tongues, prophecy, faith, sacrificial giving, and martyrdom. He does not say that they are valueless: only that they have no usefulness and accomplish nothing for God if they are not used in love.
We have been introduced to "tongues" in the previous chapter, and will read more about this gift in ch. 14. It is a matter of debate whether when he says "languages … of angels", he is exercising hyperbole, or recognizes that some with supernatural gifts really were speaking in angels' language. In the Bible angels deliver God's messages to humans, but use the humans' own language. It is reasonable to believe that angels could have a means of communicating their thoughts to each other that is different from any human language, even if this channel of communication doesn't use sound waves like human speech does. But could such a "language" really be uttered using human vocal mechanism? We will find out some day. But for the present we must leave the question unresolved.
Although Paul uses three words in v. 2—prophecy, understanding of mysteries, knowledge—I am subsuming them under one heading, "knowledge of God." In New Testament times, prophecy included the occasional ability to foresee events in the future (like Agabus in Acts, who predicted the famine in Palestine), and the ability to give Spirit-inspired explanations of Scripture and Spirit-inspired guidance on ethical issues. Paul himself exercised this gift. Paul also claims to have received from God the ability to explain divine truths that were previously hidden ("mysteries").
"Faith", as the following words "so as to be able to move mountains" shows, has to do with the ability to ask in faith and receive from God remarkable requests. The famous George Muller of Bristol, England, in the 19th century was a man of great power in prayer. Through the answers to his prayers, he built five large orphan houses, housed over 10,000 orphans, a third of whom came to love the LORD, received almost 7 1/2 million dollars, over 50,000 specific answers to prayer spread over several branches of his ministry, including the support of hundreds of missionaries, Christian publishing and distribution, and supporting educational and religious schools for all ages. I believe that Paul too had that gift.
Church history has seen many individuals down through the centuries who were able to keep virtually nothing that they earned, to give sacrificially, and to trust God to provide their basic needs. This is a remarkable gift, which brings much glory to God. Paul himself was able to live at times on virtually nothing, without asking others for help, and depending solely on God in prayer. He writes that "I know how to live on nothing or abundantly—I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength".
The most precious gift that one can give is one's life. This is the measure of the love of Jesus, that he gave his life for us. Christian martyrs are the most highly admired of all believers. In Paul's day many of his converts gave up their lives rather than recant their faith in the risen Jesus. And eventually, so also did Paul.
Yet none of these remarkable services is of any value unless it is rendered in Christian love. The Greek word translated "love" here—and as "charity" in the old King James version, derived from the Latin word charitas—is agapē. Listen as Paul describes this uniquely Christian kind of love:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Agapē is never used of romantic or sexual love. It isn't a "love" that takes. It means self-sacrificing and self-giving love, love that puts the interests of others ahead of self. It seeks no return. Those who are driven by it do not love in order to be loved. It takes no heed of whether or not its objects are "worthy." It is the very same love that moved God the Father to send his Son to Earth for us. It is the very same love that drove Jesus to the cross for us.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.Some things are ephemeral, fleeting, passing fancies, trends—others endure forever. tongues, prophecies and special divine revelations had their place in the opening century of the Christian faith. Without them the Church could never have begun. But they had their usefulness and have ceased. Paul seems here to distinguish prophecy, tongues and special divine knowledge from three modes of ministry that "remain"—faith, hope and love.
"Faith" is more than believing in the gospel for salvation, as Paul indicated above. It is the engine that drives prayer. And prayer will continue until the Lord returns.
"Hope" is the engine that drives service, that keeps us praying, witnessing, and serving others without discouragement in the midst of a world and a society that rejects God and lives contentedly without any thought of Him.
And "love"—agapē love—is the glue that both keeps us united as believers and impassions our service to others.
All of these three are of greater value than prophecy, tongues or special knowledge of divine truths. It is better to be a prayer warrior than to be a professor of theology who isn't. It is better to be encouraged and driven to service by the expectation of Jesus' return (i.e., "hope") than to be able to speak every language, ancient and modern, in the whole world, and not have that hope.
Yet, if you have to rank these, says Paul, the winner hands down is LOVE. For "God is love, and everyone who loves knows God" (1 John 4). If you truly believe in Jesus, you will have to reflect God's own nature, which is love.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.ⓒ2008 Harry Hoffner
13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.