A Study of 1st Corinthians 13:11
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (I Corinthians 13:11)
Paul, the Apostle, communicated much like our Lord did before him. He often illustrated a point with things easy to be understood. The point Paul made was itself often difficult to follow, but those things he used for comparisons or illustrations could readily be followed. We have such a case in this verse before us. This verse in I Corinthians 13:11 should be understood, however, as a parenthesis in the general theme Paul was expostulating, and not the theme itself. And, as an illustration of parable-like quality we cannot make more of it than was intended, which was simply a case in point.
With a careful preliminary review of the things Paul introduced in chapter 11 and 12 it will be seen that he employed the five human senses in his instructions to the church at Corinth. In the first of these senses, taste, occasioned by eating and drinking at the Lord’s table, he admonished the Corinthians about eating and drinking unworthily, for failing therein one could not discern the Lord’s body (I Corinthians 11.29). In chapter 12, Paul expanded his use of the five senses, mentioning next the hand and foot (touch) in verse 15; then the ear (hearing) and the eye (seeing) in verse 16; and finally he writes of smelling in verse 17. Paul then gathered up these five senses by way of summary in the following: “But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him” (I Corinthians 12:18). After expounding on the mutual use of every member, great or small, for the benefit of the whole natural body, he then makes his intended spiritual application from the employment of these figures. “Now are ye the body of Christ, and members in particular” (I Corinthians 12:27). We hope to show the connection of Paul’s use of the senses with our text shortly.
It would be a mistake, at least in our view, to consider the things Paul wrote in chapters 11, 12, 13 and 14 of this epistle to be mere separate items of instruction. We are persuaded that the whole of what he wrote is in direct regard to the edification of the body or church. “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying” (I Corinthians 14:26). Edification of the whole body is clearly the theme that is threaded throughout these chapters. We will try to show from our text the connection of it with Paul’s instruction on edification, as well as his instruction regarding the senses.
The Apostle introduced the subject of childish conduct with “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (I Corinthians 13:10). Though there is much difference of opinion as to exactly what that “perfect” is which is to come, we believe it can be discovered from these verses, and the text of I Corinthians.
The Corinthians (as with all saints) had something that was only “in part,” or imperfect. That imperfection was to be done away with at the coming of that which is perfect. We affirm that the “perfect” will come in the resurrection of the dead when Jesus comes to gather His children to a better home (I Corinthians 15:23). This is supported by the great length to which Paul went in the 15th chapter of this book, where he deals in detail with the resurrection from the dead. There can be no perfection until the body has been sown and then raised, as is clear from the following: “So is also the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15.42-44). This could well be covered in much greater length than we have space for, but we believe our readers can fairly see the connection. It is this: We are limited in this life by that which Paul said was “in part,” our fleshly bodies, and those limitations will be done away with when we are raised a “perfect” man with Christ.
The Corinthians were in particular, as are all of us in general, selfish, or self centered. It clearly showed in the times they gathered at the table for what they believed was to remember the blood and body of the Lord. It showed in their coveting various gifts, especially the gift of tongues. It showed awfully in the attitude they manifested towards those they considered lesser members of the body. They vaunted themselves, were envious, puffed up, behaved themselves unseemly, and sought their own things. On and on the list could go, as Paul extolled the better way in chapter 13.4-8. The Corinthians were more interested in self-edification than the edification of the church at large. Selfishness pervaded their beings. But we will move on for a fuller explanation.
“God helps those that help themselves.” This is the universal creed of the Arminian’s religion, and while those that have been born of the Spirit are blessed to know better, they too are awfully influenced by the self-help creed. In the chaos of crisis the cry, “Every man for himself” is all too often the hasty recommendation. Even those we love often admonish us to “take care of yourself.” Ever go through a bookstore and see the many titles on “Self-Help?” “Learn more about your inner-self in five easy lessons,” whatever that means. “How to cure low self-esteem” is hawked about everywhere; and on and on it goes. Self is a virtual god wherever Jesus does not reign in the hearts of His children. And they too are frightfully smitten with various degrees of self-adoration, also known as love of self.
This monster, Self-love, has several sisters, one called Jealousy, another called Pride, yet another called Envy, and many cousins, Greed, Covetousness, Vain Glory, and Avarice, to name a few. The whole brood is the offsprings of Self. They thrive in the region called the flesh, or the Old Man, and have never been fully evicted, or put away, not by a single sinner saved by grace. For example; Paul spoke of those that were Christ’s having crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts, (Galatians 5.24) yet only 2 verses later he warned, “Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5.26). Surely the warning is evidence of the probability of these evils arising to harass us, and spoil our pitiful aspirations to total holiness in the flesh. Because of the constant conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, Paul had just cautioned the church “…so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5.17). Poor sinners, when brought to the light of free grace m the Lord Jesus Christ, soon enough learn that one of the chief things they cannot do that they would, labor as they may, is conquer self with all its hateful habits and propensities.
“When I was a child.” For a fair analysis of the apostle’s meaning here we will take the focus of his illustration back as far as possible. Even though life begins at conception, we assume childhood begins at birth, and thus we all there begin our pilgrimage. We can think of nothing more devoid of ability to self-help than a new-born child, but that soon enough begins to change. The new born possesses from birth all those senses Paul spoke of in earlier chapters, yet it has the mastery of none of them. It can hear, but has no idea what those sounds regard or how they originated. It can see, but has no recorded pattern of the things seen etched in its memory; thus nothing seen at the first can be intellectually discerned. So it is with touch and smell. The absence of comparative values initially renders these senses near useless. But all this is not to last long since the primal state is but temporary.
Three characteristics of the child are mentioned by Paul to illustrate his point; that of speaking, understanding, and thinking. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” At birth a child will almost at once begin to use its voice, crying out rather than uttering intelligible speech. This usually results from both instinctive cries for help, and because of a gentle slap on the posterior. Observe now at the outset, these primitive forms of speaking are nothing more than gestures motivated by selfishness; an urgency for comfort, food or self-preservation. Innocent and lovely as the new born child is, there is early evidence they are depraved; totally depraved. The child knows nothing of respect, deference, appreciation, patience or humility. It simply cries out for those things its selfish nature craves. At the first stages of the child’s life crude speech is present, but understanding and thinking are not in evidence.
As the child begins to grow, discernible speech begins to develop along with the bodily development. First children coo and gurgle; then they begin forming simple words as they hear their parents or guardians speak to them. With a constant association process through hearing and seeing, they learn to say those first associative words that at the moment thrill the parents. Soon enough, however, their native selfishness begins to motivate their speech more pointedly. For example, we ask every parent to candidly admit which of the two following words the child adopts a greater fondness for; a “yes” or a “no”? “No” wins by a landslide. Parents usually expend much effort in teaching their child right and wrong. They frequently tell the child something like, “No, do not do that.” The selfish child though, swiftly assimilates “no” into its speech, but as a tool to gain their own end.
The child continues to develop, and so does its speech patterns. Even though there are marked tokens of progress in decorum and order, regrettably selfishness abounds. Why is this, one may ask? On this God’s Word is clear. “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12.34). The poor child, darling as it may be, can only speak evil, for the heart is evil. The abundance of the evil heart will as naturally flow out of the mouth as water flows down a hill. Paul surely chose here a perfect subject for his illustration, for the child shows vividly the sinful condition of all born of Adam. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” (Jeremiah 17.9)? Self is stamped upon all it says and does.
Paul’s second characterization of his childhood was that of understanding. He said he understood as a child, meaning, of course, there was no mature discernment of the things he encountered. If, for instance, a child of today is warned by its parents not to play in the street, and asked if they understand, they will probably answer in the affirmative, while not really being aware of the necessity. Doing what they want to do will usually override their absence of. real appreciation or understanding of the dangers. Thus, we see again the selfish nature of the child. They are essentially self-willed. The child may feel the wind whipped up by a speeding car, hear its tires squeal, smell the smoke they produce, and see the vehicle go by perilously close, yet not comprehend any discernible danger. Even this activity of four of the five senses elicits no feeling of great alarm in the child. The understanding is shrouded by childishness.
It should be clear to all that may casually reflect on the nature of children that their basic understanding is, even at the earliest stages of life, governed by self interests. They may be sweet, gentle, personable little beings in short order, with acquired habits (for the most part) that commend them to the parents, yet they are primarily motivated by a hearty lust for the satisfaction of self. They understand only in part, and cannot do otherwise until they become a man.
“I thought as a child.” The thought processes of a human are far more complex than we are capable of discussing. It is a subject that has intrigued those far wiser than we are. However, we need not be a genius to conclude that children think in far more constrained ways than adults. Their thoughts are more centered on self, and pleasing self, rather than on the complexities that surround them. If, for instance, a child hears the sweet singing of a bird it may bring him pleasure, but it is not likely to arouse any thoughts of the ecology. The child may smell the sweet aroma of the supper its mother is preparing, and become aroused at the prospects of eating, and yet the child will not give a thought to the time and effort mother spent on the meal. Junior may look about his room and see all the toys cluttered about, and never think of the cost to his father. More than likely he thinks he is tired of them all and would rather have something new. The senses are employed; the corresponding thoughts are selfish. Children think childish things.
Thus we see the unmistakable trend in the lives of children; all of them without exception. Endowed with the senses, they progress along toward becoming “good” citizens of the world, learning from their senses, but using them primarily for the benefit of self.
Putting Away Childish Things
As we pointed out at the beginning of this article, this description of childhood was a parenthesis to illustrate Paul’s statement in verse 10 and then continued in verse 11. Paul closes his parenthesis with, “but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” The mature man, that man of adulthood, no longer speaks as he did in the days of his youth. Nor does he understand and think as he did when immature. The perfected man has come of age, and that childishness, speaking, understanding, and thinking in part, is now put away.
We must return to the first 2 verses of this chapter to get the basis for Paul’s illustration of childhood, for there he lays its foundation. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge: and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:1-2). As clearly as can be said, Paul affirms the imperative need for that which transcends even the speech of men and angels. The understanding of the deepest mysteries alone possesses no value, and to be able to think through the full array of composite knowledge is worthless without that component which transcends all the gifts and senses. What is this Paul prizes so highly? It is charity, or love!
To be void of charity is to speak, understand and think only as a selfish child. Throughout all these chapters Paul asserts that speaking without charity can only edify self; the church or body of Christ is not profited; only the speaker. Great depths of understanding treasured up only for self and not in charity freely imparted to the brethren is empty, and knowledge or thoughts from the deepest mines of learning not shared in love with the assembly of the saints is, as Paul maintains, nothing.
“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (I Corinthians 13:8-9). Our senses shall cease and our gifts will be gone when that which is perfect is come, the glorified man in the resurrection. But, may God be praised, charity never faileth. The unceasing status of charity is what makes it so vital while we sojourn “in part.”
The Apostle went to great lengths in laying a foundation for teaching the Corinthians how the church, or body of Christ, is edified. Like children, they must be matured and put away selfishness. It is charity, or love, that raises the believer above self interests to seek the welfare of their brethren. However, just as the child does not come in this world at once loving its parents, neither does the child of God at once love his brethren. This comes by association. The natural child gradually assimilates the parents’ love and tender care, and this association progressively develops a responsive love in return. So it is in the Church of the living God. We may love the dear old doctrines taught us by the Holy Spirit and feel a kinship for the practices taught in the Bible, but the outpouring of love which so edifies the body comes through our actual association with the saints as we are gathered with them.
“We love him, because he first loved us” (I John 4:19). No one has ever loved God before God loved Him and manifested Himself to them! It is this manifesting and revelation of God to His children that enables them to love Him, and love Him they will. There can be no exception to this. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (I John 4:8). This is a law of cause and effect. The love of God to us is the cause, and our love to Him is the effect. Does it not follow then that the little child of God first feels the love of his brethren to him, unworthy as he may feel? “Hinder me not, ye much loved saints” begins to stir in his breast. “Thy God is my God” becomes his watchword, and more and more in the passing of time the maturing Christian is engulfed with a love for these “lovely” people. Brethren. “This is the way.” Rich we are if blessed to walk in it.
It must be remembered that Paul couched his thesis in an illustration. Illustrations have limitations and will surely break down if we attempt to stretch them beyond the intended meaning. As children we develop and mature, but it must be kept in mind that adulthood does not bring perfection, only improvement. The child in Paul’s illustration gradually passed from total selfishness to a loving relationship with its parents. But – it still had all the selfish tendencies it was born with. So in the church. We, by the grace of God, develop and grow in grace, yet it is still “in part.” Jars and divisions will still rear their ugly heads. Due to human frailty strife and friction is yet real. Until then, when that which is perfect is come, only the superabounding gift of charity will sustain the love that has been shed abroad in the assembly. Only charity “never faileth.”
J.F. Poole – 1995