1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a ringing brass gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 And if I have the gift of prophecy and I know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I parcel out all my possessions, and if I hand over my body in order that I will be burned, but do not have love, it benefits me nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous, it does not boast, it does not become conceited, 5 it does not behave dishonorably, it is not selfish, it does not become angry, it does not keep a record of wrongs, 6 it does not rejoice at unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13:1-7
“Of Men and Angels”
by Sinclair Ferguson
Angels are in fashion—at least at Christmas time! Look at any collection of hymns or songs, and you may well find more references to angels in the section marked “Advent” than in all the other sections added together.
The New Testament word for “angel” means a messenger. Every time angels appear in the Christmas story, they are carrying messages from heaven to earth.
In the run-up to Jesus’ birth, angels appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and—in dreams—to Joseph, his adoptive father (like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a dreamer). A vast crowd of them appeared to a few shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. Interestingly, it’s clear that all these angels spoke the local language—which happens to have been Aramaic, a form of Hebrew. Angels can speak in human tongues.
So, what does Paul mean when he begins the “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13) with a reference to angel tongues as well as human tongues?
This isn’t the first time Paul has talked about tongues in this letter to the Corinthians. In the previous chapter, he writes about their ability to speak in “various kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10). In the next chapter he devotes 28 verses to discussing these tongues (1 Corinthians 14:1–28). Clearly this was a big deal in Corinth. Whether these “tongues” refer to foreign languages or ecstatic speech, the Corinthians—or at least some of them—may have believed they could speak “Angel”. Presumably speaking “Angel” carried more kudos than any other language. Imagine being able to speak the language of heaven! Were some of them even claiming that they had spoken with angels?
When one of our grandsons was about eight or nine, he told me how excited he was to be going to France for his summer holiday “because I’ll be able to practise my French on the French!” I said nothing. Despite five (miserable!) years studying French in school, I was silently thinking, “The French are the last people on whom I would want to practise my French”—and in my experience they have always agreed with me. But being able to practise your French on the French is nothing compared to being able to practise “Angel” on angels! Imagine it today: a publisher would offer a ghostwriter if need be to get your story. You’d be on the bestseller list and interviewed on TV (“Tonight we meet the author of I Spoke with Angels—this year’s number one bestseller”).
But notice what Paul says: if you can speak “Angel” but you lack love, you are “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. You may think you’re special, but in God’s eyes—and ears!—you act and sound like a brass instrument making a loud, unpleasant noise. Actually, he doesn’t say, You sound like. He says, You are. You are not what you think you are.
Metalworking was a significant industry in first-century Corinth. So, the Corinthians knew all about what Paul meant. Imagine a little Corinthian factory where the craftsmen made gongs and cymbals! All that clanging and banging—the Berlin Philharmonic it wasn’t! You would want to cover your ears with your noise-reducing headphones. That’s what speaking in tongues sounds like in God’s ears if the speaker lacks love.
Some scholars think Paul may have been thinking about the metallic amplification systems that were crafted in Corinth for use in the theatre: You think you are something? You are just a self-amplifier!
You probably don’t claim to have the ability to speak “Angel”. But what Paul seems to be doing here is applying a general principle to a specific problem he saw in Corinth. That problem keeps on recurring. You encounter it whenever you meet someone who wants to tell you all about his or her gift (or “gifting”, as people like to say today). Ministers and pastors are sometimes asked, “If I become a member of your church, will I get to use my gift?” “Will my gifts be recognised by the church?” Or even, “Why aren’t my gifts being recognised by this church?”
Paul valued the gifts of the Spirit, but he wasn’t much interested in that approach. His first question at a church-membership interview would not be about your gifts. He’d want to know about your love—about how you want to serve others for Jesus’ sake. He’d “sound you out”—perhaps in more than one sense! He knew that any true fellowship of God’s people will make room for our gifts when people see we want to serve others because we have come to love them.
Isn’t it odd that this chapter about love, which so many people “love”, begins by telling us what love isn’t? And about who doesn’t have it? Not really. One of the best ways of explaining something is by saying what it isn’t. Paul often does that. It helps eliminate a great deal of wrong thinking and misunderstanding. Here he says that love isn’t the same thing as having great gifts. You might be a very gifted teacher. You may be applauded as a musician. You might be admired for your spiritual prayers. But none of that matters if you do not love.
But if 1 Corinthians 13 contains a description of love, it must ultimately be a description of Jesus. And Jesus did speak with the tongues of angels as well as of men.
Jesus not only spoke “Angel”; he spoke with angels (Mark 1:13, Luke 22:43). He is their King. They are his servants and ambassadors. Throughout his earthly life they were—appropriately enough—waiting “in the wings” to do his will. Even on the cross he could have summoned legions of them and they would have come immediately to rescue him (Matthew 26:53). But he knew he couldn’t rescue us if they came to rescue him. It was him or us who would be saved, and he chose us. Although he could speak with the tongues of angels, he remained silent—because he loved us so much. Instead he spoke to his Father and asked him to save those who were watching him (“Father, forgive them,” he prayed). That was more important to him than speaking to the angels and asking them to save him.
In fact, Jesus not only spoke angel-language. He spoke the language of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (John 1:1). He was face to face with God, in intimate conversation with his Father. But “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He came face to face with us, taking our nature so that he might speak to us. As the Nicene Creed, an ancient statement of faith, affirms, “For us and for our salvation he came down”.
Whatever gifts you may have, love always means that you come down. It means that you use those gifts for the good of others, not to make yourself feel good. It means that you are willing to do things that are uncomfortable or inconvenient for you, or that go unnoticed.
For “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. If so, I am not like Jesus. And ultimately, love is being like Jesus. It silences all noisy gongs, clanging cymbals and self-amplification systems. Real love always comes down. We know that because Love came down at Christmas.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Love Came down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent (The Good Book Company, 2018), 13–17.