Agonizomai: 1Cor 13:1-3 - The Dreaded 'L' Word

Saturday, August 09, 2008

1Cor 13:1-3 - The Dreaded 'L' Word

1-3 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. 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.

Paul is about to show us a better way - but better than what? Better than that displayed in the Corinth of his day, and better than that displayed in the Corinth within us and our own local congregation. That wrong attitude was laid out in the last chapter in verses 15-16 {1Co 12:15-16} where motivations were jealousy and pride over the gifts of the Spirit.

In order to make his point he resorts to a device called hyperbole. This is how Wikipedia describes the meaning of the term:
Largely synonymous with exaggeration and overstatement, hyperbole is a figure of speech in which statements are exaggerated. It may be used due to strong feelings or is used to create a strong impression and is not meant to be taken literally. It gives greater emphasis. It is often used in poetry and is a literary device as well as a referendum. Some examples include:

"He has a brain the size of a pinhead."
"I could eat a horse."
"I’ve heard that a billion and one times."
"She is one hundred feet tall."
Here, Paul is using such a device to underscore his point that even desiring the higher gifts in and of themselves is pretty useless if the motivation for wanting them is selfish or corrupt. Perhaps mocking a little bit the chaotic atmosphere of unrestrained tongue-speakers, strutting like peacocks at their worship gatherings, thinking themselves more spiritual than others, Paul goes over the top. "Even if I spoke with the language men and of angels..." he is effectively saying, "I wouldn’t mean anything, apart from love."

He first presents the plain truth - that there is the gift of speaking in a language not learned (what is called here "the tongues of men"); then he goes way over the top by alluding to communication between angels (however that is done). We are mere mortal men, tied to bodies of death, but angels are spiritual beings living in the light of the glory of God - messengers of very God of very God. But even if we could speak like them (the inference being that we can’t) then we would be nothing without love. {In fact, angels everywhere in the Bible, when speaking to men, speak in the language of the person to whom the message is being given. That is because they are communicating ideas and facts - truth, actually - in a way that will benefit the hearers. How angels speak to God and each other is not fully revealed to us.}

Why am I beating this to death with a stick? It is because, over the years, some people have taken what Paul is teaching here about tongues and made it stand upon its head to say the very thing that Paul was rebuking in the first place. They have taken Paul’s hyperbole against inappropriate and wrong tongue-speaking and twisted it to say that the Bible refers to the spiritual gift of tongues as an angelic language, or as a special prayer language. It would be laughable if there were not so many who are deceived by a shallow and cursory and prejudiced and deceived reading of the text. Over-literalism that does not take note of figures of speech can lead to error just as surely as can the refusal to receive the supernatural things described in the text.

Language is for communicating ideas and information so that others can receive it. That is why the gift of tongues was given to the early church - to communicate the things of God to people in their own language with the corollary that it was a deliberate miraculous sign to unbelievers (especially unbelieving Gentiles) in fulfilment of a prophecy that was given to shame the unbelieving Jews. {Isa 28:11-12,1Co 14:21-22}

Though this is not the place for a full treatment of the charismatic and Pentecostal errors regarding tongues it is worth noting that some will maintain that the reference "he that speaks in a tongue edifies himself" {1Co 14:4} supports the idea of a non-earthly language known only to God in which they pray, as if in some sort of blissful ignorance. Yet they maintain that they are being built up by the exercise of it. It’s a sort of "let your feelings go and abandon all sense of control and trust God moment." In other words it is a call to disengaging the mind from worship and it is nothing less than eastern mysticism in disguise - a deadly deceit and a trap for the unwary.

Those whose rationality simply evaporates once the subject of tongues comes to the fore, and who still insist that Paul is speaking of a heavenly language here - holding onto the idea that his reference to "tongues of angels" is literal, should take a look at verse 2 in which exactly the same tone is seen. "If I understand all mysteries" is equally hyperbolic. God alone understands all mysteries because nothing is hid from His eyes. But we are not God. We are nothing in and of ourselves. So the language is necessarily hyperbolic - a figure of speech only. It’s done for dramatic effect.

Similarly, no one has all faith and nobody I ever heard of had faith enough that actual mountains were moved. These are literary devices. "Even if this were true" Paul is saying "the gifts and the acts resulting from their use wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans without love being the underlying motive."

Paul does include some extreme things that people have done at various times throughout the gospel era - especially early on. Some sold their possessions and gave them for the common welfare - the widows and orphans in the church. Some were martyred through burning, and in other gruesome ways. But even these extreme acts of devotion, devoid of love, are quite without value. Pagans have been known to die for their own causes - noble, horrible deaths, in fact. Heretics have been burned at the stake and gone straight to hell where they will burn eternally - for whom Michael Servetus seems to be the poster boy. Communism purported to ensure that all things belonged to the people and were held in common because all were equal. The early idealogues of that system were no less sincere than many of today’s social gospelers.

Notice that the first few acts mentioned relate to what I am, and that the more down-to-earth things - if you like, the more real and practical things - relate to what I gain. In other words, I am nothing and I can do nothing of eternal value without love. Nor without faith, but a real faith is a faith that is born of love. We love Him because he first loved us. In fact, if we give up things (goods and even life itself) with the object of getting something we are being sub-Christian. Christians "sacrifice" not in order to gain, but because they have already gained all, through the free gift of God.


Blogger Derek Ashton said...


You've taken swipes at the Pentecostals and those who advocate a "social gospel," but they're good swipes (and presumably loving ones) that ought to be heeded. One might add this: the entire passage obliterates the whole idea behind the self-esteem movement in the church. This passage says if we are not focused on loving others we are worthless. No mention of self-love as a prerequisite, no mention of having our own "needs" (read "desires") met by other people in our lives. Your final paragraph should be pasted onto the front cover of EVERY book in the local religious bookstore as a disclaimer/warning to those who read and find their personal agendas seductively verified and validated to the detriment of their own souls.

Now I've taken a swipe of my own, and if it's not spoken in love . . . I am a clanging cymbal, am nothing, gain nothing. But God's Word still stands.

9:16 am  
Blogger agonizomai said...

Hi Derek,

I don't think there's anything unloving toward Charismatics or Pentecostals here. Giving (and taking) correction is a part of Biblical love.

For the record, I have been attending a mid-week Bible study for years in which some attendees are Pentecostal and others are Brethren. Whenever it is appropriate, I never miss the chance to speak to either the manifestational errors or dispensational ones that are made by those who hold these other beliefs. There's nothing here I wouldn't say, or haven't said to them.

And, yes, we still love each other as brothers in the Lord, even when there is disagreement.

But you haven't seen anything yet. Because Paul devotes so much time to the misuse of tongues you will find the theme recurring often in the next 10 posts.

I don't think that there is anything wrong with self-love. It comes naturally. We don't even have to think about it. I think that's the point. The wrong sort of self-love, begins when we start trusting ourselves instead of God to look after our needs and interests. That's why its by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving that we make all our requests known unto God and receive that peace which passes all understanding. Put simply, the most loving thing we can do for ourselves is to trust and obey God.

So long as we are seeking first the kingdom and His righteousness self-love takes its proper place and is no longer the focus or the main objective. Loving God first, and others AS ourselves.

Loving God FIRST is the key. It will put all other thoughts and behaviours into the right frame, as God intended them to be. The martyrs, for example, didn't stop loving themselves - they simply did so in a Biblical way, preferring love for God, in the end, even over the natural and good desire for self-preservation.



1:32 pm  

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