Paul is demonstrating just how worthless the spiritual gifts are when attempted without love for other believers. The Corinthians valued these gifts highly, apparently elevating those among them with the gifts of tongues and prophecy as the most spiritual. Paul has declared that this is not true. All the gifts are needed in the church.
Now, though, he is showing something else. The gifts are meaningless when practiced without love. Even more, the loveless person displaying the gift is “nothing.” By this, Paul means the person is accomplishing nothing within the body of Christ. The gift is being wasted on him or her in that moment.
Paul says this is true even of the gift of prophecy or prophetic powers, which he described as one of the higher gifts in the previous chapter (1 Corinthians 12:28, 31). He puts that gift together with the gift of knowledge and the gift of faith, using hyperbole to describe a level of giftedness no Christian has ever had. Paul is not necessarily saying such a thing can happen—only that even if it could, it would not change the primacy of godly, self-sacrificing love.
Imagine a person, Paul writes, with the gift of prophecy and a full understanding of all the mysteries of God and an iron-clad faith that allowed him or her to move actual mountains. Jesus told his disciples they could move mountains with the amount of faith that would fit in a tiny mustard seed (Matthew 17:20). Even this imaginary person Paul describes, without love, is nothing. All those gifts become worthless when exercised without concern, compassion, and empathy for other believers.
Paul responds to the Corinthians’ over-emphasis on certain spiritual gifts by showing them that all gifts are worthless if not practiced through godly love. Paul provides 14 descriptors of love, all action verbs, all choices made out of a commitment to set self aside and serve others. Choosing to love each other in this way would solve many of the problems Paul has confronted in this letter. The spiritual gifts provide a glimpse of what is knowable, but when the perfect comes, we will know all. Love is the greatest of all the virtues.
First Corinthians 13:1–13 is one of the most loved and well-known passages in the Bible, but Paul places it after his teaching on the spiritual gifts for a specific reason. Some of the gifts may seem impressive, but if attempted without self-sacrificing love for others, they become meaningless, even destructive. Paul uses 14 verbs to describe what love does and does not do. Love is the foundation for Paul’s teaching in the following chapter on prophecy, tongues, and even orderly worship. While this section is often quoted in romantic settings, such as a wedding, the concept in mind is that of agape: a self-sacrificing, godly love.