The Corinthian church had two problems: some felt useless (vv. 14-20), while others felt self-sufficient (vv. 21-26). It appears that they were tempted to experience these feelings because they were too focused on their gifts. They were quantifying their personal value based on how impressive their gifts were to others. As a result, division and confusion threatened their community.
Here, Paul tells the Corinthians that their individual gifts – no matter how impressive or important – are meaningless if they are not exercised in love.
Speech – Love = Noisy Nuisance
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. v. 1.
When love is lacking, our speech is a noisy nuisance. If speaking in tongues or eloquence is done without love, it is like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. These two instruments were used by pagan worshippers in Corinth to invoke a god, drive away a demon, or scare a worshiper. Thus, Paul is warning the believers that they would be no different than the pagan worshippers if they exercised their gifts without love, since it is the primary mark of the Christian (see John 13).
Gifts – Love = Nothing
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. v. 2.
Without love, we are nothing. We have no usefulness to the world or significance before God. The test that God applies to judge the exercise of our gifts is the motivation of our heart. He knows and sees the expression and the reality of our Christian love (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Obedience – Love = Loss
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. v. 3.
Without love, we cannot make it. Our sacrifice or knowledge or influence are meaningless if love is lacking. Only one thing is needed – love – and nothing can make up for it.
We cannot snuggle up with our eloquence, our gifts, our knowledge, our influence or our self-sacrifice. People may speak well of us, highly consider us, give us positions of opportunity or influence. All of this is meaningless without love. Love is the lens by which we assess the effectiveness of all our giftedness.