Prophecy, Knowledge, And Faith Without Love Are Nothing
And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (13:2)
prophecy without love
In the beginning of the next chapter Paul speaks of prophecy as the greatest of the spiritual gifts because the prophet proclaims God’s truth to people so they can know and understand it (14:1–5). The apostle was himself a prophet (Acts 13:1) and had the highest regard both for the office of prophet and the gift of prophecy.
Continuing his hyperbole, however, Paul says that even the great gift of prophecy must be ministered in love. The most gifted man of God is not exempt from ministering in love. If anything, he is the most obligated to minister in love. “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). Of all persons, the prophet should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
Balaam was a prophet of God. He knew the true God and he knew God’s truth, but he had no love for God’s people. With little hesitation he agreed to curse the Israelites in return for a generous payment by Balak, king of Moab. Because God could not convince his prophet not to do that terrible thing, He sent an angel to stop the prophet’s donkey (Num. 22:16–34). Several other times Balaam would have cursed Israel had he not been prevented by God. But what the prophet failed to do through cursing Israel he accomplished by misleading them. Because he led Israel into idolatry and immorality, Balaam was put to death (Num. 31:8, 16). The prophet knew God’s Word, spoke God’s Word, and feared God in a self-protecting way, but he had no love for God and no love for God’s people.
Some years ago a young Sunday school teacher came to me and said, “I thought I really loved the girls in my class. I prepared my lesson carefully and tried to make everyone feel a part of the class. But I have never made any personal sacrifice for those girls.” She sensed that, with all her study of the Bible, her careful preparation of lessons, and her nice feelings about the class members, she still lacked the key ingredient of agapē love, love that is self-giving and self-sacrificing.
The power behind what we say and what we do is our motive. If our motive is self-interest, praise, promotion, or advantage of any sort, our influence for the Lord will be undercut to that extent—no matter how orthodox, persuasive, and relevant our words are or how helpful our service seems superficially to be. Without the motivation of love, in God’s sight we are only causing a lot of commotion.
Jeremiah’s ministry was in stark contrast to Balaam’s. He was the weeping prophet, not because of his own problems, which were great, but because of the wickedness of his people, because of their refusal to turn to the Lord, and because of the punishment he had to prophesy against them. He wept over them much as Jesus later wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44). Early in his ministry Jeremiah was so moved by the spiritual plight of his people that he cried out, “My sorrow is beyond healing, my heart is faint within me!… For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me.… Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 8:18, 21; 9:1). Jeremiah was a prophet with a broken heart, a loving heart, a spiritual heart.
Paul also often ministered with tears, frequently for fellow Jews who would not accept Jesus Christ. It was they who caused him most of his trials, but it was their turning against the gospel, not their turning against him, that caused him to minister “with tears” (Acts 20:19). In Romans he gives the touching testimony, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:1–3). Paul ministered with great power in large measure because he ministered with great love. To proclaim the truth of God without love is not simply to be less than you should be, it is to be nothing.
knowledge without love
Just as prophecy without love is nothing, so is the understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge. Paul uses that comprehensive phrase to picture ultimate human understanding. Mysteries may represent divine spiritual understanding and knowledge may represent factual human understanding. In Scripture the term mystery always signifies divine truth that God has hidden from men at some time. Most often it refers to truths hidden to Old Testament saints that have been revealed in the New Testament (cf. Eph. 3:3–5). If he could perfectly understand all unrevealed divine mysteries, along with all the mysteries that are revealed, Paul insists that he could still be nothing. That spiritual understanding would count for nothing without the supreme spiritual fruit of love. This indicates the great importance of love; without it, we can know as God knows and still be nothing.
Adding all knowledge would not help. One could fathom all the observable, knowable facts of the created universe, be virtually omniscient, and he would still be nothing without love. In other words, if somehow he could comprehend all of the Creator and all of the creation, he would be zero without love.
If all of that would amount to nothing without love, how much less do our very limited intellectual accomplishments, including biblical and theological knowledge and insights, amount to without love? They are less than nothing. That sort of knowledge without love is worse than mere ignorance. It produces spiritual snobbery, pride, and arrogance. It is Pharisaic and ugly. Spiritual knowledge is good, beautiful, and fruitful in the Lord’s work when it is held in humility and ministered in love. But it is ugly and unproductive when love is missing. Mere knowledge, even of God’s truths, “makes arrogant”; love is the absolutely essential ingredient for edification (1 Cor. 8:1).
Paul did not depreciate knowledge, especially knowledge of God’s Word. To the Philippians he wrote, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (1:9). We cannot be edified by or obey what we do not know. But we can know and not obey and not be strengthened. Only love brings “real knowledge and all discernment.” We can know and not be edified. Love is the divine edifier.
faith without love
If Paul did not depreciate knowledge, even less did he depreciate faith. No one preached the necessity for faith, especially saving faith, more strongly than he. But he is not speaking here of saving faith but of the faith of confidence and expectancy in the Lord. He is addressing believers, who already have saving faith. All faith, so as to remove mountains refers to trusting God to do mighty things in behalf of His children. It especially refers to believers who have the gift of faith. Even with this wonderful gift from God—of making the impossible possible—Paul says a Christian is nothing if he does not have love.
It is not by coincidence that the apostle uses the same figure used on one occasion by Jesus. After His disciples failed to heal the demon-possessed boy, Jesus told them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move” (Matt. 17:20). Jesus was speaking in hyperbole just as Paul is in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3. The Lord’s point to His disciples was that, by trusting Him completely, nothing in their ministry would “be impossible.” Paul’s point is that, even if a person had that great degree of prayerful trust in the Lord, but was unloving, he would be nothing.
Jonah had great faith. It was because of his great belief in the effectiveness of God’s Word that he resisted preaching to Nineveh. He was not afraid of failure but of success. He had great faith in the power of God’s Word. His problem was that he did not want the wicked Ninevites to be saved. He had no love for them, not even after they repented. He did not want them saved and was resentful of the Lord’s saving them. As the direct result of the prophet’s preaching, everyone in the city from the king down repented. Even the animals were covered with sackloth as a symbol of repentance. God miraculously spared Nineveh, just as Jonah knew he would. Then we read of one of the strangest and most hardhearted prayers in all Scripture: “But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’ ” (Jonah 4:1–3). Everything Jonah acknowledged the Lord to be, the prophet himself was not and did not want to be. A more loveless man of God is hard to imagine. His faith told him that a great success would come in Nineveh, but the prophet was a great failure. The preaching wrought a great miracle, as he believed it would, but the preacher was a nothing.
2. And if I should have the gift of prophecy. He brings down to nothing the dignity of even this endowment, which, nevertheless, he had preferred to all others. To know all mysteries, might seem to be added to the term prophecy, by way of explanation, but as the term knowledge is immediately added, of which he had previously made mention by itself, (1 Cor. 14:8,) it will deserve your consideration, whether the knowledge of mysteries may not be used here to mean wisdom. As for myself, while I would not venture to affirm that it is so, I am much inclined to that opinion.
That faith, of which he speaks, is special, as is evident from the clause that is immediately added—so that I remove mountains. Hence the Sophists accomplish nothing, when they pervert this passage for the purpose of detracting from the excellence of faith. As, therefore, the term faith is (πολύσημον) used in a variety of senses, it is the part of the prudent reader to observe in what signification it is taken. Paul, however, as I have already stated, is his own interpreter, by restricting faith, here, to miracles. It is what Chrysostom calls the “faith of miracles,” and what we term a “special faith,” because it does not apprehend a whole Christ, but simply his power in working miracles; and hence it may sometimes exist in a man without the Spirit of sanctification, as it did in Judas.
Without love I am nothing (2)
If lovelessness actively repels people from the church and the gospel, thus being the biggest single obstacle to effective witness in a community or a nation, it also evacuates the Christian of his significance before God. He becomes a nonentity, a cipher. God cannot use the loveless Christian for his glory, even if he is gifted with prophetic speaking; even if he is able to understand and explain the deep things of God, man and Satan; even if he is knowledgeable about a vast field of truth and experience; and even if he has the most incisive and bold measure of faith envisaged by Jesus himself—the faith which moves mountains.8
It would be tempting to assume that Paul is using rhetorical hyperbole in this passage, i.e. that the full impact and value of these important gifts (prophecy, revelation, knowledge) is diminished when love does not flow. That is not what Paul writes. If there is no love, he maintains, there is nothing of any real value in my ministry. I may be successful; I may get results; I may be admired, appreciated and applauded—but, as far as God and eternity are concerned, I am nothing. ‘The Corinthians clearly thought that the possessors of certain gifts were extremely important persons.… Not only are they unimportant, they are actually nothing.’
13:2. Second, Paul spoke of prophecy. Paul held this gift in high esteem. But he imagined the gift in a greater form than it had ever appeared in human history. Suppose he were to have the gift of prophecy to such a degree that he could fathom all mysteries and all knowledge. Prophets know things that are hidden from others because they receive revelation from God, but no prophet has ever had such omniscience. Yet, without love he would be nothing, even if he knew every divine secret.
Third, Paul raised the gift of faith. In this case, he did not have in mind saving faith that every believer exercises. Instead, he spoke of a special ability to trust and believe God to do great miracles. Paul described this faith as the ability to move mountains. The allusion to Jesus’ words is evident (Mark 11:23). It would be astonishing for Paul to have had the ability to move mountains through his faith. Nevertheless, even this dramatic ability would amount to nothing without love for others.
2. And if I have [the gift of] prophecy 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.
- Prophecy. The next gift that is mentioned in verses 1–3 is prophecy, or as a literal translation would read, “I have prophecy.” This means more than “to prophesy,” for it signifies that a person has become a prophet. In the preceding list of gifts (12:28), prophecy is second and tongues last. But here Paul begins with tongue-speaking and then introduces prophecy.
Paul exalts the gift of prophecy, because a prophet, in contrast with the tongue-speaker, strengthens and edifies the church (14:1–5). The prophet can be effective in his ministry as long as his prophecies are true. But, says Paul, a prophecy spoken outside the context of love amounts to nothing.
The Old Testament provides striking examples of prophets who in love brought God’s message to the people of Israel. Moses was God’s prophet par excellence, for he regularly stood between God and his people to convey God’s word to them (see Deut. 5:5). Considered a very humble man as he served the people, Moses received God’s revelation in visions and dreams; God spoke to him face to face. Moses demonstrated his faithfulness in God’s house, that is, among the people (Num. 12:3, 6–7; Heb. 3:5–6). He watched over God’s people, loved them, and prayed for them.
However, a false prophet speaks words not out of love for God’s people but for personal gain. A prophet who speaks presumptously in God’s name or in the name of other gods must be put to death, says the Lord God.
- Mysteries and knowledge. Once again Paul speaks hypothetically by saying that even if he understood all mysteries and all knowledge, but had no love, it would be of no avail to him. Some scholars take this saying as an explanation of the word prophecy. They read, “If I have prophecy, that is, know all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love I am nothing.”
This interpretation has merit, because both the terms mysteries and knowledge depend on the verb to understand and are thus intimately connected. And another passage links prophecy and mystery (Rev. 10:7). Moreover, mysteries are truths which God has hidden from his people. If God’s people want to understand these mysteries, they need divine wisdom. A true prophet receives insight into God’s mysteries and explains them to the people.
In an earlier passage about knowledge Paul says, “We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery” (2:7), for he and his co-workers are “stewards of God’s mysteries” (4:1). In the present passage, Paul refers to all mysteries; the term all mysteries may be a synonym for wisdom that receives a place next to knowledge (see 12:8). But even if Paul should possess the ability to understand all mysteries and all knowledge, without love everything would be in vain.
- Faith. “And if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” Faith is God’s gift to man, a gift which the recipient must constantly exercise, strengthen, and amplify (see 12:9). When faith lies dormant, it disappears, while unbelief and disobedience take its place. For example, Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon from a boy who suffered from epileptic fits. But when Jesus came, he told the demon to come out of the boy and never to enter him again (Mark 9:25). In private the disciples asked Jesus why they had failed. Jesus said, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20; compare 21:21).
The remark on moving mountains is a Jewish proverbial saying that conveyed the idea of making the impossible possible. It attests to the intensity of exercising one’s faith to remove insurmountable barriers. Both Jesus and Paul, in their respective contexts, allude to this proverb.
Whenever a person is able in faith to do the impossible, he or she is highly respected and greatly admired within the Christian community. But faith ought to be exerted in harmony with love. Otherwise it is useless. The brevity of Paul’s conclusion, “I am nothing,” is forthright and to the point, for indeed, faith without love is ineffectual.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, pp. 419–420). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Prior, D. (1985). The message of 1 Corinthians: life in the local church (pp. 228–229). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 453–455). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.