1 Corinthians 13:1–3 reads as follows:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (verse 1).
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 (verse 2).
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing(verse 3).
The typical interpretation of the words above is that if we do not have love, there is not any reward for whatever we do that is good in this earth. So then both Christians and non-Christians strive to attribute their actions to love — philanthropy is love albeit with a secular label. But is the conventional interpretation of the passage above really true? Must we have love in order for good actions to be rewarded by God? Does it matter for the reward that a great swimmer who rescues a child from drowning sees it as duty bestowed by his gift, not an act of love?
The first verse declares that an outcome of whatever does not proceed out of love is noise, meaning absent love, there does not exist any spiritual value for words not spoken in love. This is tantamount to saying preaching to people without love does not produce true discipleship within a Church or in society at large. Clearly, there does not exist any allusion to reward for actions in the first verse.
The second verse declares that another outcome of whatever does not proceed out of love is, ‘I am Nothing’, meaning there does not exist any increase in spirituality from an intellectual understanding of the gospel. The coupling of a brilliant understanding of the mysteries of the gospel with a rational faith in Jesus Christ — a faith arrived at in light of the convincing nature of the evidence — cannot generate any improvements in spirituality. Intellectual understanding within the mind produces spirituality only if the heart truly confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. In this regard, note that while we understand with the brain or the mind, it is within what we refer to as the heart that attitudes are formed. The second verse declares that absent the right attitude towards Jesus Christ, an attitude rooted in love for all He represents — patience, kindness etc. — a rational and brilliant understanding of the gospel does not possess any power for spirituality.
The third verse declares that absent a steeping of the decision to give up all earthly goods in love, it is foolish for a Christian to give away all that he or she owns. What the verse means is that a Christian cannot by giving away material possessions produce any increase in spirituality within his or heart. Remember also that if a person gives away all he or she has, there is nothing left for God to bless. Even Jesus did not give away all that He had when He came down to earth. He merely gave up something He had — equality with the Father — all so we can be saved. Jesus, who prior to His incarnation was and is the Word of God was, prior to His incarnation, a Spirit being just like the Father (the Word could not have needed to become flesh if He already was flesh, John 1:1,14). In order to save us, the Word gave up equality with the Father, took up a bodily form, the form in whose image we are created, so God could create a huge family made up of an only begotten Son, and many adopted sons. Note that God now is God not only to us, but also to Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3). The sacrifice in time made by Jesus Christ had then real consequences.
What then did the Father do in return?
For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father (John 5:22–23, NKJV).
But to the Son He says: Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom (Hebrews 1:8, NKJV).
With Father and Son, a sacrifice by the Son begets a reciprocal sacrifice by the Father. Love always is answer to Love between Father and Son. Without this reciprocal Love, our salvation would be impossible. While Jesus remains subject to His Father out of love, the Father bestows all of His rights on Jesus Christ. Since the Father is God, He has every right to do so, and we have no right as His creation to object. So we have just one God, the Father, yet honor God’s Son Jesus Christ as God because this is what God has demanded. We have then two persons we honor as God, yet only one God. Since the Holy Spirit brings to us both the Father and the Son, we honor the Holy Spirit as well, resulting in honoring of three entities as God, yet we continue to have only one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We end up then with a mystery: a triune God who regardless is one God.
What then is the true meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:1–3?
No action undertaken by a person can cleanse the spirit, soul, and body. The Holy Spirit declares through the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 that the precondition for spiritual growth (cleansing of spirit, soul, and body) is active, persistent walking in love — a walking in the faith that is grounded in love.
Any support for this? Consider, respectively Galatians 5:6, John 13:34, and John 14:21(words in brackets mine in spirit of an amplification of the words)
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (nothing done by or to the body) has any value. The only thing that counts (the only thing that enables cleansing of the spirit, soul, and body) is faith expressing itself through love.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Whoever has my commands and obeys them (whoever takes to heart importance of attempting to love as He, Jesus has loved), he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him (only those who take walking in love of Jesus Christ to heart can receive revelations of who He is).
Note how clearly Jesus states that only the person attempting to love as He has loved can receive a revelation of Him, meaning absent attempts at loving as Jesus loved, spiritual growth is impossible. If absence of love renders spiritual growth impossible, absent love, cleansing of spirit, soul, and body of intrinsic evil is impossible.
Lest the allusion to cleansing of body, soul, and spirit be misunderstood, I illustrate as follows. A person can by willpower refuse to smoke for 5 years. All of the 5 years, however, the temptation to smoke can be real, yet it is withstood by the mind, willpower, and rationality. When we are cleansed of sin, or equivalently, cleansed from propensity for evil, it is not that we struggle with desire to sin, it is that the desire to sin no longer remains. All that is left in us is love for what is good. It is this perfect cleansing, cleansing which rips the desire for sin out of our hearts that is impossible to achieve without help from God.
What then is a Christian to do?
In order to walk in love, we need to believe Jesus Christ that Love Never Fails. We also need to ask for the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the one who brings to us the love of God.
Romans 5:5 (words in brackets mine) declares:
And hope (the hope of becoming like Jesus Christ in glory, character, gifting) does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love (the capacity we require for loving as Jesus loved) into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.
But do we need to be Christians in order to be rewarded for the good we do in this life? Absolutely Not. Jesus Himself declares in Matthew 10:41–42, and the Holy Spirit through Apostles John and Paul corroborates in Revelation 22:12, or Galatians 6:7–8, as follows:
Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.
Behold I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Even for those who are Christians (Galatians 6:7–8), reaping or reward is a function of actions, decisions. If it is so for the Christian who professes faith in Jesus Christ, meaning there isn’t any partiality from God based on profession of faith in Jesus Christ, it of necessity must be so for the person who does not profess faith in Jesus Christ.
God rewards everyone — Christian or non-Christian for actions. But there are actions that help purify the spirit, soul, and body (actions that are rooted in the love of God), and there are actions that are moral and good that, regardless of lack of rooting in love of God, are rewarded by God. Since the Christian becomes progressively more like Jesus Christ whenever he or she walks in love, over time, doing of what is right, and earning of reward for what is right becomes easier for a Christian. In addition to reward for actions, presence of God the Father, and Son in a Christian’s life brings access to inner peace, serenity, and healing, things that cannot be bought with money or right actions.
So then, do you want to grow through all of eternity, becoming the best you ever can be, all of this while shrouded with inner peace, serenity, and healing, or do you merely want to do good and live forever?