A truck chugging along with 200,000 miles has more value than one that falls apart at 100,000. That’s Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. Spiritual gifts end; love never does.
But Paul isn’t pitting love against spiritual gifts. He’s condemning the Corinthians’ loveless use of spiritual gifts. Instead of offering spiritual gifts to build up the church, many Corinthians are using spiritual gifts to show off their “spirituality”.
Love is “a still more excellent way” (12:31). In today’s text Paul focuses less on the permanence of love and more on the impermanence of spiritual gifts.
First, let overview his whole argument . . .
Without love, spiritual gifts are just irritating noise, amount to nothing and profit nothing (13:1-3). Love behaves in certain ways—patiently, kindly, not enviously or boastfully, not arrogantly or rudely, not demandingly, not irritably or resentfully. It doesn’t rejoice in wrong but with truth. It bears everything, believes everything, hopes everything, endures everything (13:4-7). Now in 13:8-13 Paul claims spiritual gifts will end, love never will. Therefore, love is “a still more excellent way” to pursue spiritual gifts.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away (13:8).
Since “fails” can mean “not succeeds”, the Greek piptay is better translated “Love never ends.” By contrast prophecies, tongues and knowledge—all spiritual gifts—will end. Why?
For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears (13:9,10).
With “For” (Greek, gar), Paul explains the reason spiritual gifts “will be stilled.” They are “in part” and “imperfect.” Both translate the Greek merous and mean a part or a piece distinguished from the whole. Luke uses it of the “piece of broiled fish” disciples gave the risen Christ to eat (Luke 24:42). Furthermore, “in part” here implies incomplete.
One day the superior “perfection” will cause the inferior “in part/incomplete” to be “put to an end” (Greek, katargaythaysetai). Karl Barth’s phrase wonderfully capture’s Paul’s picture: “Because the sun rises all lights are extinguished.”
“[P]erfection” is the Greek teliown, meaning “complete” or “in full measure” in contrast with partial or incomplete. But what is this “perfection” that will cause the partial to disappear, and when will it come?
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me (13:11).
Paul uses a personal illustration. When he was a child, he behaved childishly. When he reached adulthood, he put childish behavior behind. In the same way, “perfection” will cause the end of this imperfect time.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (13:12).
Interestingly, Corinth famously produced some of the world’s best bronze mirrors. Paul, then, isn’t criticizing the inferior nature of a mirror (“a poor reflection”). Rather, he’s contrasting the indirect nature of a mirror’s reflection with seeing “face to face.”
Similarly, what we know of God through spiritual gifts is incomplete. When we see Christ “face to face” our knowing will have no limit. It will be like God’s way of knowing. He knows us “fully”; one day (“then”) we will know fully.
Paul’s made his point. Because gifts end and love doesn’t, the two belong to a different category. Gifts are given for this present age. Love, which the Corinthians lack, is “a more excellent way” because it is both now and forever. To repeat Paul’s point in 13:1-3, spiritual gifts, as important as they are for upbuilding the Body, are irritating noise, nothing and profitless without love.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (13:13).
Most commentators view this as the triad of the believer’s life lived out in the Spirit in this present age waiting for the final consummation. So Paul writes of faith as the believer trusting God’s promises in Christ, of hope as the expectancy of the final consummation, and of love as the believers live together as a community which shares in that faith and hope.
Why, though, does Paul mention faith and hope here? Perhaps because he’s emphasizing the nature of their present life in Christ. Almost automatically, he includes faith and hope, both because they are essential to that life and because, like love, they belong to a different category from spiritual gifts.
Love of the three elements of the Christian life that “remain” is the greatest because it’s of God himself. God doesn’t have faith, for he is the object of man’s faith. Nor does God have hope, for he is the fulfillment of man’s hope. But God is love. Therefore, love is “the greatest”.
* * *
Our problem is not spiritual gifts without love. Generally, we limit love to treating others “nicely”, though sometimes we extend it giving sacrificially. Almost never do we think of love as serving others supernaturally–that is, by spiritual gifts. Consequently, we lose an entire dimension of love the Spirit has for the church.
At the same time, even among Pentecostals and charismatics, we view gifts as a demonstration of the Spirit, but rarely as expressions of love for the church’s good. The gift is virtually an end in itself.
What to do? First, correct our thinking. Shape our minds with Paul’s exhortations in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Second, pray for the Spirit to give gifts to the church. Remember, he gives gifts. We can’t create them by some sort of spiritual “pep rally.” But realize, without them the church is lacking the upbuilding only the
Spirit can give.
Third, pray that, through spiritual gifts, we might more deeply love one another. Love gives the confirming evidence that we are Jesus’ disciples. Without love, spiritual gifts are noise and nothing.
And we have enough of that in the world. We don’t need it in the church.