a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal: A clanging gong produces a loud, harsh noise, as does a clashing cymbal. Paul uses this illustration to show that a person having a gift of the spirit, such as speaking in tongues, might draw much attention to himself. But if he does not have love for others, he would be like a brass object that echoes loudly when struck and makes a harsh, jarring, and discordant noise that repels rather than attracts.
move mountains: Or “transplant mountains.” Paul is apparently using an ancient figure of speech meaning “to make what seems impossible possible.”—Compare Mr 11:23, where a similar expression is used in connection with faith.
so that I may boast: In this context, the Greek verb kau·khaʹo·mai (to boast) conveys the sense of selfish pride. Speaking hypothetically, Paul says that if instead of love, such pride were his motive, he would give everything he owned to feed others or would even die a martyr’s death as a witness to the truth, but he would not benefit at all. (Pr 25:27b) Some manuscripts use a Greek verb that means “burn” instead of “boast,” and this reading is reflected in some Bible translations. However, the most reliable manuscripts use a word that means “boast.”
Love: In this famous description of love, Paul uses the same Greek term (a·gaʹpe) that is found at 1Jo 4:8-10, where John describes “the love of God.” Verse 8 even says that “God is love,” meaning that Jehovah is the very personification of love. (See study note on Joh 3:16.) Christian love is a quality that is best defined by describing how it acts. Christian love is synonymous with unselfishness and is guided by principle. Love guided by principle may not always include warm affection; the one who shows such love does so because it is the right thing to do. For example, a person may feel deeply hurt. However, he shows Christian love by refusing to “keep account of the injury.” (1Co 13:5) The godly love that Paul describes combines affectionate feelings of the heart with a mental determination to apply the righteous standards established by God.—See study notes on Mt 5:44; 22:37.
Love is patient: Or “love is long-suffering.” The Greek word could literally be rendered “having longness of spirit.” (Kingdom Interlinear) Both the verb and the noun forms denote calm endurance and slowness to anger. Patience is an aspect of the fruitage of God’s holy spirit (Ga 5:22), an identifying mark of a minister of God. (2Co 6:4-6; Col 3:12; 1Th 5:14; see App. A2.) Patience is a quality that Jehovah and Jesus constantly show in their dealings with humans. (Ro 2:4; 9:22; 1Ti 1:16; 1Pe 3:20; 2Pe 3:9, 15; see study note on Ga 5:22.) As imitators of Jesus and Jehovah, Christians are to show patience to others.—1Co 11:1; Eph 5:1.
Love is . . . kind: The Greek verb rendered “is . . . kind” (khre·steuʹo·mai) corresponds to the noun khre·stoʹtes (kindness), which is an aspect of “the fruitage of the spirit.” (Ga 5:22) Showing kindness involves taking an active interest in the welfare of others and engaging in friendly and helpful acts or favors. Kindness also involves thoughtfulness and consideration in responding to the needs of others, doing so in a gentle and friendly manner.—Col 3:12; Tit 3:4.
Love is not jealous: The Greek verb ze·loʹo conveys the idea of an intense emotion that can be either positive or negative. In this verse, it is rendered with the expression “to be jealous” because it conveys the idea of a negative emotion toward a suspected rival or one believed to be enjoying an advantage. The corresponding noun zeʹlos, often rendered “jealousy,” is listed among “the works of the flesh” at Ga 5:19-21. Such jealousy is selfish and spawns hatred, not love. Godly love is not jealous in an improper way but, rather, is trusting and hopeful, always acting in the interests of others.—1Co 13:4-7; for a positive connotation of the Greek verb, see the study note on 2Co 11:2.
does not behave indecently: Or “is not rude; does not act improperly.” The Greek term translated “behave indecently” may include the idea of acting disgracefully in a moral sense or of conducting oneself rudely, lacking good manners, and acting in a way that dishonors others.
It does not keep account of the injury: The Greek verb lo·giʹzo·mai, here rendered “keep account of,” was regularly used in ancient times for accounting and numerical calculations. It was also used in the sense of “think about” or “dwell on.” (See Php 4:8, where this Greek verb is rendered “continue considering.”) A loving person does not keep a record of, or dwell on, “the injury [or “wrongs”],” such as hurtful words or deeds, as if writing them in a ledger so as not to forget them. The same Greek verb is used at 2Co 5:19, where it says that in Jehovah’s dealings with his people, he is “not counting their offenses against them.”
It bears all things: A literal rendering is “all things it is covering.” (Kingdom Interlinear) According to some scholars, the verb is related to the Greek word for “roof.” A loving person figuratively covers over the imperfections and shortcomings of others by being slow to expose them and by keeping them confidential when no serious wrongdoing is involved. The Greek verb also conveys the idea “to bear up; endure,” such as at 1Co 9:12, where the same verb is translated “are enduring.”
Love never fails: Love will never come to an end or cease to exist, for “God is love” and he is “the King of eternity.” (1Jo 4:16; 1Ti 1:17) Obedient humans will display such love throughout all eternity. Also, love is never found lacking or wanting. Love is equal to any occasion, to any challenge. It always produces a good result, or outcome.—1Co 13:13.
knowledge: That is, the special knowledge that holy spirit imparted to some early Christians. The exact nature of such knowledge is not known. However, copies of God’s Word were not as easily available as they are today, so a person with the gift of knowledge would perhaps recall and grasp the application of a Bible text that he had read before, even though the congregation did not have the scroll available. Special knowledge, like the other miraculous gifts of the spirit, was a temporary provision that served to build up the Christian congregation in its early years.—See study note on 1Co 12:8.
it will be done away with: Lit., “it will be made ineffective.” By means of the holy spirit, God granted miraculous abilities to the apostles. They, in turn, could pass these special powers on to others. These abilities included the gift of prophecy, the miraculous ability to speak different languages, and the gift of special knowledge. However, these miraculous powers would pass away when the Christian congregation grew out of its early stage and reached maturity. (1Co 13:9-11) By then they would have served their purpose, having shown that the Christian congregation had God’s favor and backing.
we have partial knowledge and we prophesy partially: According to Paul, these miraculous gifts of knowledge and prophecy were incomplete. Apparently, those with the gift of prophecy lacked complete knowledge of what they foretold and could disclose future events only partially. A more complete understanding of prophecy would have to wait until the time “when what is complete comes.” (1Co 13:10; see study note.) However, the early Christians had sufficient knowledge to fill their spiritual needs at the time.—Col 1:9, 10.
when what is complete comes: The Greek word teʹlei·os (here rendered “what is complete”) may convey in various contexts the thought of being full-grown, perfect, or complete. Even though some Christians in the first century had the miraculous gifts of “prophecy” and “knowledge,” they understood God’s purpose only partially. (1Co 13:9) In this verse, “what is complete” refers to the full understanding of God’s purpose as revealed in the Bible. Christians will have complete understanding when Bible prophecy is completely fulfilled and God’s will regarding his purpose has been accomplished.
a child . . . a man: Paul uses the growth of a child to illustrate the progress of the Christian congregation. A child requires much assistance, but an adult does not. Similarly, at the time of Paul’s writing, the new Christian congregation benefited from the assistance of miraculous gifts, such as the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. For a time, these gifts were needed to show undeniably that God’s favor had shifted from the Jewish nation to the Christian congregation. (Heb 2:3, 4) But Paul shows that the congregation would eventually grow to adulthood, or reach maturity, and would no longer need those miraculous gifts.
in hazy outline: Or “indistinctly.” The Greek term often refers to a riddle, but by extension it may mean something that is unclear, obscure, lacking detail.
a metal mirror: Mirrors in Bible times were generally made of polished metal—usually bronze but sometimes tin, copper, silver, or gold. While an ancient mirror was useful, viewing an object in one could not compare to looking directly at the object. Paul used the analogy of a mirror to illustrate that the early Christians’ understanding of certain spiritual matters, especially prophecies still unfulfilled, was limited. It was not yet God’s time to reveal certain things, so those Christians saw God’s purpose in hazy outline, as if they were looking at a blurred reflection of it. Paul here contrasts looking into a metal mirror with seeing clearly, face-to-face. This will happen when Christians comprehend God’s purpose in its entirety as Bible prophecy is fulfilled.
just as I am accurately known: That is, accurately known by God. Paul recognized that God knew him far better than he knew God. He also understood that he would know [Jehovah] accurately, that is, enjoy the most intimate relationship with Him after receiving his heavenly reward.
the greatest of these is love: God is from eternity to eternity, and his foremost quality is love. (Ps 90:2, ftn.; 1Jo 4:8) So love will always remain, and the love of his worshippers, who are to imitate him, will grow fuller and broader throughout eternity. (Eph 5:1) In this sense, love is superior to faith and hope. When God’s promises and prophecies are fulfilled, his servants will no longer need to exercise faith in those promises and prophecies; nor will his servants keep hoping for what has already come to pass. Therefore, love is the greatest of the qualities that Paul mentions.