The Greatest of These Is Love
Text: 1 Cor. 13:8-13
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Last week we gave an overview of the apostle Paul’s teaching on love. We tried to give a well-rounded definition of “love” from the whole scope of the Bible, and then we shows how Paul describes love in 1 Cor. 13. We will continue that theme this week, but now we will see how Paul sets up a contrast between spiritual gifts which are temporary and spiritual gifts which are lasting. From there, Paul promotes three gifts as higher than all others. These three are faith, hope, and love. And from these three, Paul singles out one as the greatest of all.
The greatest of these is love.
Lasting Gifts are Greater than Temporary Ones
Love is different from the externally miraculous gifts like prophecy and tongues. The most important way it is different is that it is permanent. “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8). The other gifts will.
“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away” (1 Cor. 13:8). Paul picks out three gifts that are temporary, and these just happen to be the big impressive ones. That’s on purpose. Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge were gifts that the Corinthians boasted in. (Knowledge here refers to supernatural understanding.) They felt that these gifts proved that they had a greater share in the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of Christ.
It’s also worth noticing that tongues are even distinguished one more time. We’ll see this show up again in chapter 14, but Paul sees the gifts of speaking in tongues as having a very limited purpose, and he puts it lower than love, but also lower than prophecy and knowledge. There’s even a different word used for its expiration. Prophecies and knowledge are both said to “pass away.” The English translation doesn’t always capture this, but the same word is used for prophecies and knowledge. The same thing happens to them. But the gift of tongues gets a different word. Tongues will “cease.” There’s even a grammatical debate in this verse. It literally says, “tongues will have ceased,” which some argue shows that they will cease before other gifts. Other translators and commentators say that the grammar is inconclusive, and so they don’t go this far. But whatever we say, prophecy, knowledge, and tongues are placed on a lower station than love, and tongues are given their own category altogether.
When the Perfect Comes
Now, the next few verses introduce one of the more challenging parts of Scripture. Paul says that something called “the perfect” is coming, and he says that we are in a state of immaturity until it arrives. When it arrives, we will put away childish things. By implication, the miraculous gifts of the Spirit will pass away, leaving us with faith, hope and love.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. (1 Cor. 13:9-12)
Some of you are familiar with the way this passage is used in debates over the charismatic gifts. Many believe that this is the passage which determines whether those miraculous gifts continue today. I don’t think it is actually so clear because Paul is not asking that question. He’s still making his basic argument that the miraculous gifts are inferior to the basic Christian virtues, and that love is greater than all.
To this he adds the concept of immaturity and maturity. He includes the miraculous gifts under the concept of immaturity and says that we must all strive towards maturity. We must be willing to “put away childish things” and become grown-ups.
Now, the big question is: “what” or “when” is “the perfect”? We’ll discuss that in a moment, and there are different views. But I want you to see the main point clearly. The miraculous gifts will eventually pass away, but love will last forever. Indeed, Paul immediately goes on to say, “And now abide faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor. 13:13). So he’s making those gifts higher and more important than the others, and he is saying that all of the other gifts need to be used in such a way that promotes faith, hope, and love. Faith, hope, and love are the goals of all Christians, and they are what characterize mature and perfect people.
So, what is “the perfect” and when will it arrive?
There are two views you typically hear. The first is attractive because it is very useful, but unfortunately it does not really hold up under much scrutiny. It argues that Paul is talking about the fullness of special revelation. Proponents of this view will say that when the Bible was completed, “perfect” revelation of God’s Word had arrived. Since we have the perfect revelation, we are no longer in need of partial or incomplete revelations like tongues, prophecy, or knowledge.
The problem with this view is that it requires too much outside information. Paul does not seem to really ever talk about “the whole Bible” in his letters. That’s a concept that comes later, after the death of the apostles. Additionally, the language of “face to face” and “know[ing] just as I also am known” seem to push further, towards a subjective maturity on the part of the believers.
The majority position is that “the perfect” refers to the consummation of all things. This can be the 2nd Coming of Christ, or it can be what we experience at death when we are translated into glory. Either way, the point is something like, “when everything is said and done.” When we have obtained perfection, then we will have all of the knowledge we need. Miraculous will be unnecessary. Paul talks like this in Philippians 3, where he says, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). Those Christians who believe in speaking in tongues would use this argument to say that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit will continue with us until the end of history.
Now, I labored over this part of the passage for the better part of three days this week. I have to admit that it was more difficult than I was expecting, and I was not expecting it to be all that easy. I agree that any argument that Paul is talking about the completion of the Bible is impossible. That just requires bringing too much to the text that isn’t here. But, at the same time, I’m not so sure that he’s simply referring to death or the 2nd Coming.
For starters, Paul could have said “death” if that’s what he meant. He could have also said something about Christ’s return. After all, he talks about both of those things by name in other places. Instead, Paul uses a specific expression: “the perfect,” τέλειον in the Greek. This literally means, “the end goal,” and Paul uses it several other places in his writings. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 2, he said, “we speak wisdom among those who are mature…” (1 Cor. 2:6). That’s back when Paul was trying to convince the Corinthians that they really weren’t mature yet and needed the wisdom of Christ. The word for “mature” is τελείοις , a variant of our word “perfect.” Later in 1 Cor. 14:20, Paul writes, “do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.” Same word—mature. In Philippians 3:15, Paul writes, “let us, as many as are mature have this mind…” He’s talking about the mind of Christ, and again, he uses the same word and same concept of maturity. “Maturity” in Paul’s writings is a goal that we should all try to attain as best we can.
You should also know that the language of “face to face” does not merely refer to “total” knowledge. Neither does it simply mean clarity. “Face to face” refers to a sort of relationship of equal standing. It is used of spouses, of friends, and it is even used to describe the kind of relationship that God had with special prophetic characters in the Old Testament. In many places in the Torah, it says that Moses spoke with God “face to face” (see Ex. 33:11, Deuteronomy 34:10, Deut. 5:4). This didn’t mean that Moses was literally equal with God, but it does mean that God has promoted him to His “inner council.”
In Ezekiel, God promises to once again speak “face to face” with His people:
I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will plead My case with you face to face. Just as I pleaded My case with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will plead My case with you,” says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 20:34-36)
So, the Old Testament background would suggest that a “face to face” relationship with God is a prophetic one in the truest sense, a relationship in which God will speak to us directly, in His inner council and without any mediators between us.
What does this mean for “the perfect” in 1 Cor. 13? Maybe I’ve just made the whole thing even more complicated. But I’ll take a stab at it. I think that Paul is not trying to give us a time or even an event in this passage. I think he is simply continuing with his theme of maturity, with full Christian maturity being the goal. “The perfect” is when we have achieved our spiritual goal. It’s when we are “grown up” in Christ. This won’t be fully finished until our death, and so I agree with the majority reading. And yet this is the kind of thing that we are to try to achieve in this life, our goal, and it is also the kind of thing that Jesus promises to give us through the Holy Spirit. We already have it, objectively, because of what Christ has done for us. To use a well-worn expression in Reformed churches, it is already and not-yet. We are perfect and we should become perfect.
Now, this doesn’t tell us when the gifts will cease one way or the other. And it doesn’t do that because Paul wasn’t really trying to do that here. But this reading does reinforce the basic point, we should not make miraculous gifts our top priority. And they certainly cannot be used in a way that would contradict our goal. Instead, they need to be seen as tools to get us to the goal of perfection.
Faith, Hope, and Love
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). This is Paul’s conclusion to the whole thing. Whatever else we think has been going on, it should be obvious that faith, hope, and love rise to the top. They “abide.” These are the gifts which all Christians should always have. They are the three “Christian virtues.” And of these three, love is the greatest.
To say that love is greater than faith does not harm our understanding of justification by faith. Faith and love simply do different things. We are not saved by our love for God. If that were the case, we would be in great trouble. Because we never love God as we should, never perfectly, and almost never consistently. We are justified by faith precisely because our love is deficient!
Love is the greatest because love will last. Faith and hope are actually temporary gifts as well. That might sound strange, but we will not need “faith” in heaven. Why not? Because we will have sight. Everything that was promised will have arrived. The same goes for hope. Hope is a belief about the future. “Hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). So even with these three, the contrast between temporary gifts and permanent gifts is seen. Only love lasts forever.
The greatest of these is love. Love will last forever. And this is true because God is love. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). That line comes from John, not Paul, but the parallel is striking. Love abides forever because God is love, and if we abide in love, we abide in God. If we abide in God, we will abide forever.
And listen to what else John says about love. In verse 13 of 1 John 4, it says, “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us.” Love makes us perfect because love is the way that God abides in us. When we love one another, we are actually abiding in God Himself, however mysterious this is. Love is the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14), and so, in a sense, the perfect arrives when love arrives. Love brings us mature knowledge of God. Love makes us true prophets, those people who have a face-to-face relationship with God. Love is the greatest of all, and love is the gift which works in us to make us like our Maker, to bring us to our goal, which is God Himself.
So this is Paul’s detour on love. He’s trying to explain the role and purpose of spiritual gifts, but he knows he can’t do that unless the people have love. And this is true for all of our problems today. We will not make progress in holiness unless we love. We must love God and man. After all, as the Bible says, how can you love God Who you cannot see if you don’t love your brother who you can see? (1 John 4:20). We will not make progress in our relationships with other Christians unless we love. We will not be able to forgive others if we do not love them, and we will not be able to repent to others if we do not love them. And we will not be able to persevere in our faith without love.
Without love we will be nothing.
So today, I implore you, I command you, to love one another. How? Start by acting like the kind of person described above, the kind of person described last week. Be longsuffering and kind. Don’t envy. Don’t be pompous or boastful. Don’t be inappropriate. Don’t be self-seeking. Don’t get provoked. Don’t keep a record of wrongs or be vindictive and resentful. Don’t rejoice in injustice. Rejoice in the truth. Bear all things. Believe all things. Hope all things. Endure all things.
Go love one another. Love your enemies. You take the initiative. Give them good gifts. Speak to them in kindness. Befriend them and be friendly to them.
As we mentioned last week, it’s easy to become cynical towards love. It’s overused and misused in our day. But still, Paul says that love is the greatest of all. Love is our perfect goal. Love is what we must become if we are to become anything at all.
Let us pray.