Many people consider 1 Corinthians chapter 13 to be one of the greatest poems that anyone has ever written.
However, Paul was not trying to write poetry. He was trying to advise a group of young Christians who were doing many wrong things. Although the Holy Spirit was working powerfully in their church, they were arguing constantly with each other. They had not yet understood that Christians should show love towards other people (Mark 12:31; John 13:34-35).
So, it was necessary for Paul to explain what love really is. By ‘love’, he did not merely mean human love. He meant the kind of love that God himself has shown to people (John 3:16). It is this kind of love that Christians can show to other people.
Paul first refers to a person who speaks the languages of both heaven and earth. This was a part of the actual experience both of Paul and of the Christians in Corinth (14:18). They too spoke in unknown languages by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the first Christians in Jerusalem had done (Acts 2:4-11).
Such a gift should allow that person to express the deepest thoughts from the Spirit (2:13). However, Paul is describing someone who acts without love. So even if that person speaks in all the languages of heaven and earth, their words are still without meaning. They are just a noise that expresses nothing.
Paul is not arguing, of course, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have no purpose. He explains their purpose in chapters 12 and 14. Paul is emphasising that love is essential for Christians.
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© 2014, Keith Simons.