When Mozart was a young man living at home with his father, it is said that he enjoyed playing a trick on his father from time to time. After a night out in Vienna with his friends, Mozart would come home to find his father fast asleep in bed. Mozart would then sit down at the family’s piano and loudly play a rising scale of notes, only to stop one note short of finishing the scale. And then Mozart would go to bed, knowing what would happen next.
His father would wake up with the unfinished scale replaying over and over in his head. He couldn’t bear the lack of resolution, so eventually he would drag himself out of bed, make his way to the piano and play the last note. Then and only then could he go back to sleep.
N.T. Wright says that love is like that. All the ways that we see love expressed in this world are like an unfinished scale that is leading us to the coming of God’s kingdom, where the music of love will finally be completed. And so, living a life of love isn’t just our duty; it’s our destiny.
So often, the moral demands of the Christian life are presented within a framework of duty – you have to do this and you have to do that, and you have to work hard to attain this seemingly impossible standard. But the apostle Paul sees the Christian life within the framework of God’s future which he has shared with us right here, right now, through Jesus Christ. In that future, Paul sees a world of joy, a world of delight, and above all, a world of love.
And so right now, we have three things that point to that future. We have a faith which looks at God as we see him lived out in Jesus Christ, and we fully trust him. We have a hope which looks ahead to what God has promised to do in the future. And then, thirdly, we have love, which is the greatest of all.
I like how N.T. Wright puts it, “Love is the way of life in the new world to which, by grace, we are bound. We need to learn it here and now. It is the grammar of the language we shall speak there. The more progress we make in it here, the better we shall be equipped.”
And I like that thought. Because if God is love, and if heaven is going to be a place filled with love, well then it only makes sense that we need to get ourselves ready for that place by filling our lives with as much love as we possibly can right now.
For the past couple of months, we’ve been studying this amazing chapter on love. This morning, we’re going to finish out our study of I Corinthians 13.
We started by looking at verses 1-3 where Paul spoke about the importance of love. We saw that love is the standard by which God measures our lives. Nothing we say, nothing we have, nothing we do has any value apart from love. Love is the most important thing.
And then, in verses 4-7, we saw how Paul described the characteristics of love. If God measures our lives according to the measure of our love, then we need to understand what love truly is. And so, Paul describes love for us in verses 4-7. “Love is patient, love is kind, and so on.”
And now, beginning in verse 8, Paul is going to answer the question, “Why does God measure our lives according to our love? Why has God chosen this standard instead of some other standard?” And that’s the question that we want to try to answer this morning.
Beginning in verse 8, Paul writes, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:8-13)
Remember, this whole discussion about love started with a discussion of spiritual gifts. We saw back in chapter 12 that the Corinthians were fussing and fighting about all the different gifts that they had. They thought that some gifts were more important than other gifts, so the ones with the “better” gifts were looking down on all the rest, and the ones with the “lesser” gifts were jealous of those with better gifts.
So, Paul said that all the gifts we enjoy in the church are equally valuable. It’s like a human body. We have lots of different parts in our body that all do different things, but every part of your body is important. And everyone in the body of Christ, the church, is important, no matter what your gift may be.
And then Paul closed out chapter 12 by saying, “you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts. But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all.” (I Corinthians 12:31, NLT), which then led Paul into his discussion of love.
So now, Paul goes back to compare love with those spiritual gifts and he shows us why love is better. Why does God measure our lives according to how well we love? Why not use some other standard? Why not measure our lives based on our faith, or our accomplishments, or our level of sacrifice?
Why not measure our lives according to our spiritual gifts? That was the standard the Corinthians wanted to use. In fact, they were so busy measuring their lives by their spiritual gifts that they had all but forgotten about love.
And so, in verses 8-13, Paul addresses a very specific issue for the Corinthians: “Why does God use love to measure our lives rather than spiritual gifts?” And in answering that question, Paul tells us why love is more important than anything else.
Paul gives the Corinthians two reasons why love is superior to spiritual gifts.
1. Spiritual gifts are temporary, while love is permanent
Verse 8, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” (I Corinthians 13:8)
Paul is contrasting love — which will never end — with prophecy, tongues and knowledge – three specific spiritual gifts which would all pass away. Paul has already talked about these gifts back in chapter 12, and he’s going to talk about them some more in chapter 14. These are obviously very important spiritual gifts. But Paul says to the Corinthians that all three of those gifts were only temporary, while love lasts forever.
First of all, there was the gift of prophecy. The gift of prophecy is the Holy Spirit-given ability to speak God’s words to man. It was basically the first-century equivalent of preaching, except that the prophets didn’t have to study and prepare their message. God simply spoke through them. Paul considered the gift of prophecy to be the greatest of all the spiritual gifts. But he also recognized its temporary nature. Prophecy would not continue forever. The time would come when prophecy would pass away.
Then Paul talks about tongues – the Holy Spirit-given ability to speak in a language which you’ve never studied or learned. And he says, “As for tongues, they will cease.” This was the Corinthians’ favorite spiritual gift. It was the one they thought was most important. And, once again, there was nothing wrong with the gift of tongues. It was a gift from God, so it obviously it wasn’t a bad thing. But Paul says that tongues were temporary. They would eventually cease, but love lasts forever.
And then there’s the gift of knowledge which is also temporary. “As for knowledge, it will pass away.” Which sounds strange at first. How can knowledge pass away? Does that mean there won’t be any knowledge in heaven? Of course not! In fact, our knowledge in heaven will be perfect and complete, far beyond any earthly knowledge we now possess.
But Paul is not talking about knowledge in general. He’s talking about the spiritual gift of knowledge. This was the Holy Spirit-given ability to have understanding or insight into the mysteries of God. It was a gift that was sometimes used to determine whether someone else who claimed to be a prophet was speaking the truth. And it was an important gift in the early church because they didn’t have a Bible they could use to check people out. But there would come a day when the gift of knowledge would no longer be necessary.
And you could say the same thing about each and every one of the spiritual gifts. They were all intended to be temporary. If you’re building your house, you use your hammer a lot. But when the house is complete, you put the hammer away. And it’s the same with spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual gifts was to build up the Lord’s church here on this earth. But once the church was built up, there was no more need for those gifts.
And so, the first reason Paul gives why love is superior to spiritual gifts is that spiritual gifts were temporary, while love is permanent. Love lasts forever.
2. Spiritual gifts are partial, while love is complete
Verse 9, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” (I Corinthians 13:9-10)
Spiritual gifts, as wonderful as they are, and as important as they may be to the church’s spiritual growth, are never perfect or complete within themselves. In fact, they were never designed to be complete. They were designed to build up and serve the body of Christ. If one person had all the spiritual gifts, he or she wouldn’t need anybody else in the body of Christ. Or if any one person had the full measure of any one particular gift, he or she wouldn’t need anyone else who had that particular gift.
We all have various spiritual gifts according to the grace given us. And we all have those gifts in varying measures or degrees. But no one has ever had a corner on the market when it comes to spiritual gifts or any particular gift. That’s not the way God planned things.
And so, Paul said, “We know in part and we prophesy in part.” Even those Christians who received the gift of knowledge didn’t know everything, and those Christians who received the gift of prophecy didn’t reveal everything that God wanted revealed. In our Bibles, we have some things that Paul shared with us, some things that James shared with us, some things that Peter and John shared with us. No single one of them had the whole message from God.
The gifts of knowledge and prophecy were intended to be partial and incomplete. No one has ever had the full gift of prophecy or knowledge. But even if they did, they would still be nothing without love. That’s what Paul said back in verse 2: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing.”
Even if someone had the full measure of all the spiritual gifts, love would still be superior because of reason number one: the gifts are temporary, while love lasts forever. But Paul’s point here is that no one had the full measure of any gift. “We know in part and we prophesy in part.” The gifts are partial by nature, while love is complete. And so, love is more important.
Someone might point out that love isn’t really complete because no one loves as fully as they ought to. And that’s true. But the difference is there’s no limit to love. We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us. Love is not designed to be partial. Love is designed to be full. We may fall short of God’s design, but that doesn’t change God’s intention for us. In that sense, spiritual gifts were partial by design, but love is complete. We are to love others fully and completely, just as Christ has loved us.
Some people debate the meaning of Paul’s words in verse 10: “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” Most everyone would agree that the “partial” here refers to the spiritual gifts and their temporary and partial nature. The question arises over what Paul meant by “the perfect” in this verse.
There are some who think that the word “perfect” refers to Christ and so, Paul is saying that when Jesus, who is perfect, returns one day, these gifts will cease. But the word “perfect” here doesn’t mean “sinless”. It means “complete”. There are several translations that I think translate this more correctly when they say, “When that which is complete is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”
I think Paul was saying that the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge were all temporary gifts intended only for the early church, gifts that would last until God’s word was completely recorded. And now that God’s word is complete, there’s no longer a need for those gifts.
We don’t need the gift of prophecy to tell us what God wants us to know. The early Christians needed that, but we can simply look in our Bibles to see what God wants us to know. We don’t need the gift of knowledge to know whether someone is speaking the truth or not. The early Christians needed that, but we can simply look in our Bibles to see if what they’re saying matches up with God’s Word.
But, whatever your interpretation, Paul’s point still holds true. Love is superior to spiritual gifts because spiritual gifts are temporary and partial, while love is permanent and complete. In the next couples of verses, Paul is going to give us two examples from everyday life to illustrate that – one to illustrate the temporary nature of spiritual gifts, and the other to illustrate the partial nature of spiritual gifts.
1. Spiritual gifts are temporary just like childhood is temporary
Verse 11, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (I Corinthians 13:11)
Childhood is a necessary but temporary developmental phase on the road to adulthood. Childhood is not the goal of life itself, it’s a temporary phase. Every parent wants to see their children grow up to be mature, responsible adults. I realize we sometimes say we wish they could stay children forever, but if they actually did that, we would be devastated. We want to see our children grow up. We love their innocence, but we want them to develop some maturity. And we understand that it wouldn’t be natural for our children to remain children forever. Someone has put it this way, “Babies are cute, but not when they have to shave.”
Children are different from adults. They talk differently; they think differently; they reason differently. If an adult continued to talk, think and reason like a child, we would say that adult has not really matured.
As we grow into adulthood, we continually put childish ways behind us. A ten-year old child doesn’t play with his or her preschool toys any more. A high school student doesn’t play with his or her ten-year-old toys any more. An adult no longer views the world the way a high school student does. For that matter, even a college student looks at life very differently than a high school student. As we grow into adults, we leave childhood behind us. Childhood is by its very nature, something that is temporary.
Paul says it’s the same way with spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are a necessary but temporary developmental phase on the road to spiritual adulthood. They are a temporary phase, not the goal itself. The goal is spiritual maturity and love. That’s what Paul means when he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Just as childhood has a temporary function, so do spiritual gifts. Childhood gives way to adulthood. Spiritual gifts give way to spiritual maturity and love. Spiritual gifts are temporary, while love lasts forever.
2. Spiritual gifts are partial just like a mirror is partial
Verse 12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)
Keep in mind that the mirrors in Paul’s day did not give the same quality reflection as today’s mirrors do. They were made not from glass, but from polished steel or other metals. In fact, the Corinthians were known for their bronze mirrors, which may have been one of the reasons why Paul chose this particular illustration.
But as nice as the Corinthian mirrors may have been for their day, they still couldn’t show everything perfectly. And so, Paul uses this example of a poor reflection in a mirror. A poor reflection is partial by nature. You can’t see all the little details like you could if you were looking at someone face to face. Even a perfect reflection in a mirror is a poor substitute for the real thing. I would much rather talk to Sueanne in person than to look at her picture, or talk to her on the phone, or even by video conference.
Paul says it’s the same way with spiritual gifts. They are only partial in nature. Now, through their spiritual gifts, the Corinthians could see what the church was supposed to look like, but it wasn’t a complete picture. It was an imperfect picture. It was a partial picture. But once we have the whole picture, it’s like looking at someone face to face.
Why is love better than spiritual gifts? Spiritual gifts are temporary; love is permanent. Spiritual gifts are partial; love is complete.
And then, Paul finished out this chapter the same way he started – by saying that love is the most important thing in the world. Verse 13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Love isn’t just more important than spiritual gifts; it is the most important of what were considered the highest virtues in the world – faith, hope and love
First of all, there’s faith. Faith is essential to the Christian life. Hebrews 11 tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6). We’re saved through faith, we’re justified by faith, and the Bible tells us that the righteous will live by faith. Faith is one of the highest of all Christian virtues. But love is more important.
Secondly, there is hope. Hope is also essential to the Christian life. We have the hope of salvation, the hope of our resurrection, and the hope of Christ’s return. Our hope is not like this world’s hope, which is marked by uncertainty and doubt. Rather, our Christian hope is confident in the promises of God. Paul said in Romans 15, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13). Hope is another of the highest of all Christian virtues. But Paul says that love is more important.
If you were going to make a list of all the ways that God could measure our lives, then I think that faith, hope and love would have to make the top three. And out of those three, Paul says the greatest of these is love. So, why is that? Why is love the most important? It may be for the exact same reason that love is more important than spiritual gifts.
Faith and hope are among the highest virtues, but, like spiritual gifts, they’re only temporary. We live by faith now, but the kind of faith we have now will not be necessary in heaven when we see Jesus face to face. When that time comes, our faith will give way to sight.
And our hope is for this life only. Paul wrote in Romans 8 about how we wait in hope for the redemption of our bodies. Why? Because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s still in the future. As Paul says in Romans 8, “Who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8:24). But once we’re resurrected, once we’ve entered heaven, once we are forever in God’s presence, then hope will no longer be necessary, because, “Who hopes for what he already has?” We will have everything God promised and more. Hope, like faith, is for this life only.
But love, love endures forever. Our faith will become sight, our hope will ultimately be fulfilled, but love will continue for all eternity. And so, we learn how to love right now, because that love will last forever.
And so, Paul finishes out this chapter the same way he started – by telling us that love is the most important thing there is in life. You may have skills that allow you to make a lot of money. God says, “I don’t really care about that. What I really what to know is, how good are you at loving other people?” You may be a leader in the church – an elder, a preacher, a Sunday School teacher – using all your abilities to do God’s work. God says, “All that’s well and good, but what I really what to know is, how good are you at loving other people?” Maybe you’ve got perfect attendance at church, you pray and read your Bible every day. But God says, “All that’s well and good, but what I really what to know is, how good are you at loving other people?”
Because you see, until we get love right, nothing else really matters.