8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 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. 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. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I think that the best way to introduce the text for today’s message (1 Cor. 13:8-12) is to state how Paul develops the theme of love in 1 Corinthians 13 as a whole. We can get the big picture by thinking through the chapter with the following outline in mind: love’s indispensability, its beauty, and its permanence. Its indispensability is given first (1-3), its beauty is then presented (4-7), and finally its permanence is discussed (8-13).
Let’s meditate on each section for a few moments. We are told that love is indispensable to intelligible human communication for without it we are nothing but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (v.1). It is indispensable to human dignity because even if I have gifts, knowledge, and faith without love “I am nothing” (v. 2). And it is indispensable to human value since without love “I gain nothing” in the pursuits and sacrifices of life (v. 3). Paul discusses the beauty of love first in particulars both positive and negative (4-6, love is patient and kind, love is not arrogant or rude, etc.). Then he states the beauty of love in a series of universals (love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things). The rest of the chapter is concerned with the permanence of love as indicated by the bookends of verses 8 and 13 (“never ends” with “abide”). After the preface (8a), there are two sections (8b-12 and 13). We are concerned today with verses 8-12; we leave verse 13 for separate treatment. My outline is twofold: a) the permanence of love declared, and b) the permanence of love compared.
We can begin with the permanence of love declared by asking this question: What new element if any is added to the endurance of love (1 Cor. 13:7d) when Paul says, “love never ends” (13:8a; some translations have “love never fails”)? We need to look back in the passage (at 7d) a little bit more in order to move forward (to 8a).
To endure means to persevere, to “hang in there” and not quit. So it has a temporal quality in that enduring love abides over time. The accent is on the tenacity, perseverance, and relentless character of love that endures whatever must be put up with for the gospel (it bears all things tenaciously for the sake of Christ). It does so with a relentless pursuit of all that we are required to believe in Scripture (love clings tenaciously to all that is to be believed no matter what must be put up because of belief in Christ). And no matter what must be put up with for these beliefs, love remains steadfast in hope of Christ’s return (love perseveres in hopeful expectation regarding what is promised come what may in the present time of waiting).
By contrast the never ending character of love (it never fails or it never ends) highlights the temporal element in a most complete way. Instead of stressing tenacity it stresses eternality. Love does not just abide over time; it abides through time and does not end when history on earth ends.
What a welcome word this is in itself that beyond the grave, beyond our time on earth, and beyond history as a whole something very good and very great abides. That something is love. If you were to fill in the blank of the following, what should you cite: what good thing of your experience on earth should you want to abide (note the word should)? Our Hollywood media people would probably give the answer: “sex of course” (that’s what even angels want; some even give up immortality for it!). However, whether these media people say what they say just for the money it generates, or if they speak through their characters for artistic expression of their actual philosophies and vain hopes (or for both), they are dead wrong, the answer is not sex. Of course sexual pleasure is not an evil. Not at all; it is a good gift from our Creator. But the good that will abide is love.
This has to be ultimately a reference to the love of God as that love is reflected in the creation and especially in His new creation, the church. It is God’s love reflected in sinners saved by grace. The words, “love never ends” are the words of eternal life. They mean that God will never fail to love, to love us in Christ, and to reflect that love in and through us so that our love will never fail as well. This is mega-scale of a Psalm I love to ponder where the Psalmist says, “I awake, and I am still with you” (139:18). I am still with you, in your presence, because you are still there in your steadfast love.
So the gospel takes us to the other side of history and into eternity. Love is there too; it abides in time and beyond time. It never ends. Thus, although there is an overlap in the ideas that end verse 7 and begin verse 8, there is an accent in 8a on the eternal character or permanence of love. That is Paul’s declaration. Next we have his comparison.
After adding this nuance to the description of love, Paul indicates where he is going with this new thought. He now sets forth a very memorable comparison that has the well known lines about being a child and seeing in a mirror put over against becoming a man and seeing face to face. Let’s cover this material with a series of questions.
A survey of these verses will show that the comparison is between love and knowledge. Although the gifts of prophesying (v. 9) and tongue speaking (v. 8) are mentioned, it is evident that they stand in the background with knowledge in the foreground. Consider how this is the case.
In verse 8, knowledge is the “third man out.” It does not refer to a gift on a par with the gift of prophesying and the gift of tongue speaking. Some kind of gift of knowledge is apparently cited in 1 Corinthians 12: 8 where Paul calls it a “word of knowledge.” In that context a gift is plausibly in view (cf. 12:4 with 12:8). But the conclusion that a gift of knowledge is not in view in 13:8 rests on a number of things: a) the way knowledge is cited in contrast to 12:8, b) the internal distinctions within 13:8, and c) the connection of 13:8 with the references to knowledge and knowing in 13:9-12. This is just following the pattern of looking back, looking within, and looking forward with regard to 13:8.
Looking back to the contrast with 12:8, it is evident that in 13:8 Paul simply speaks of “knowledge” whereas in 12:8 he speaks of a “word of knowledge.” There is not enough in our passage (13:8) to conclude that the gift of knowledge is in view. Looking at the internal distinctions within 13:8, it is interesting that only one gift is referenced unambiguously, tongues. Prophecies are the utterances given by the gift or activity of prophesying. Looking forward, it is clear that a striking emphasis is placed on human knowledge and knowing throughout this section (cf. we know in part, v. 9; I thought like a child, v. 11; we see in a mirror dimly, v. 12a; we will see face to face, v. 12b; I know in part, v. 12c; I shall know fully, v. 12d; and I will know as I have been fully known, v. 12e). This argues that Paul’s real concern is to compare love with knowledge (and not with the various gifts).
Even if knowledge were thought of here as a gift (some kind of ability to utter knowledge), it would still be the third man out in the sense that it would speak more directly of that which is the product of these gifts than do prophecy and tongues. The product of prophesying, tongue speaking, and the knowledge gift, if included as a gift, is knowledge.
The contextual flow of thought puts love over against knowledge. It gets there by mentioning some knowledge giving gifts. It is easy to understand why the gifts of prophesy and tongues are brought up in Paul’s concentration on knowledge. On one hand, they are central knowledge giving gifts. They pave the way to a treatment of their product. On the other hand, knowledge by the gifts of prophecy and tongues was sought in a disorderly way (cf. the orderly way that is presented next in chapter 14). A hint in the direction of curing this abuse is given when Paul states that these knowledge giving gifts are provisional and temporary (they will pass away and cease, vs. 8-9). But the comparison has love on one side (8a) and knowledge on the other side (8b-12). Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that Paul’s major concern in 8b-12 is with the provisional and temporary nature of knowledge. Paul tells us that knowledge is temporary in contrast to love due to the fact that it is incomplete, partial or literally “in part” (which occurs four times: v. 9, twice, v. 10, and v. 12). Thus the apostle says:
We know in part, v. 9a
We prophesy in part, v. 9b
“The in part” will pass away, v. 10
I know in part, v. 12b
It seems fair to say that in all these references Paul focuses on the partial, incomplete, provisional, transitory, and temporary nature of knowledge. Thus, to “prophesy in part” (v. 9) is to produce knowledge that is incomplete and “tongues” (v. 8) is short for the knowledge that is given to the church in this unique medium of speech.
By the parallels with becoming a man, seeing face to face, and knowing fully, “the perfect” is the state of things associated with the return of Christ. Although Edwards places the end of the special gifts at the time of the coming of the perfection of the church that occurred when the canon was completed (Charity, 305-306, 324-325), he still says that these words about seeing face to face are “most agreeable” with the state of the church in heaven (325).
It is the “in part” that will pass away. That is, partial knowledge will pass away. Even with the blessing of divinely revealed knowledge by means of prophesy and tongues, this knowledge is still to be earmarked as incomplete. Remember, eye has not seen and ear has not heard even half of what shall be revealed to the children of God.
1) Implication for the cessation/continuation debate
Without getting too far into the discussion over the cessation of the gifts, the major concern of 8b-12 yields the implication that this passage cannot be appealed to in defense of the conclusion that the gifts of prophecy and tongues continue until the return of Christ. As Gaffin puts it, Paul does not address the specific point at which prophecy will pass away (Perspectives on Pentecost, 110-112). What he does address is the passing away of the partial, especially that is, of partial knowledge, which is the product of prophecy.
Apparently, abuses at Corinth included not only a misconstrued relation between tongues and prophesy but the knowledge that derived from both was also misconstrued. Here Paul puts knowledge in its place in relationship to love.
3) The radical superiority of love over knowledge
Love never ends but knowledge is partial and knowing is necessarily incomplete and provisional. There is a superb quality to love that is such both in the now of history and the not yet of perfection. It is the same in essence on earth as it is in heaven. It is the same on the way as it is in glory. Since heaven is a world of love, then the way to have a taste of heaven now on earth is to love. On Paul’s lips, to love in this way means to love the Lord Jesus Christ. Without loving commitment to Him there is no true significance to your life, no dignity, no value, and no foretaste of heaven on earth!
In three ways, Paul lets us see some of the glory that shall be revealed to us. a) We have the analogy of a child becoming a man that pictures the present earthly state as one of immaturity that will ultimately come to maturity. Speaking, thinking, and reasoning like a child will set aside or given up (v. 11). Seeing through a glass or mirror dimly will be replaced with seeing face to face (v. 12a). Finally, knowing in part will become knowing fully “even as I have been fully known” (v. 12b).
1) We are encouraged by this love chapter to learn: knowledge is good. Knowledge of God in Christ by the gospel is of course not something bad. In this vein, Paul has already presented a balanced picture of love and knowledge. He stated that without love we are nothing even if we have “all knowledge” (1 Cor. 13:2; notice the focus on what I am with knowledge but without love). But lest we go too far in an anti-knowledge direction Paul subtly bonded knowledge with love when he contrasted wrongdoing with truth: “love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (13:6). Additionally, we are pointed to Christ as He is revealed in “all things” of the gospel (13:7, love believes all things). On His authority and promise, our Lord directs us to both the 39 books of the OT and to the 27 books of the NT as the things revealed concerning Him. That is where we go to find what we are obligated to know and believe. In other words, knowledge has a goodness that is desirable and that is therefore to be delightfully sought.
2) But as we have seen knowledge is for doing. If it does not come to terms with practical Christian living, it is sadly misconstrued. Love rejoices with truthful “right-doing” (v. 6). We learn in order to not simply delight in what fills our heads but to delight in obedience. We learn of Christ, from Him, and for Him. We learn in order to obey Him as our Sabbath King. We learn in order to delight ourselves in Christ.
3) The bottom line is that knowledge must be subordinated to love in order for it to function properly. It must be channeled to preserve and properly reflect its inherent goodness and value. It must be channeled and guided by love. Therefore, love must rule. Knowledge and knowing is not the be all and end all of daily life on earth. It is incomplete and must be ruled in every respect by love. Love rules, that is, Christ rules all knowing endeavors.
Given that knowledge can be misconstrued, Paul takes aim with a double barreled shotgun to make the important point that knowledge is inferior to love. It is incomplete and will become something remarkably different when the perfect One comes and with Him the perfect state of things. But love will not become something different when Christ comes. So love is something to grab onto with all your might for both now and hereafter. It is something most excellent. We should desire and seek it.
It is in this connection that passages like 1 Corinthians 13 and the principles taught therein should be like the governing window on a computer screen in which everything else is placed. Hence there is a rich value in spending much time studying these principles. And how we ought to humble ourselves before the Lord with the prayer that He enable us to walk more and more on this marvelous pathway. As we saw in a previous message, the Psalmist continually petitions the Lord to “incline” his heart to God’s word that he may obey God’s law (119:36; cf. 119:26, teach me, 27, make me understand, 32, enlarge my heart, 33, teach me, 34, give me understanding, 35, lead me in the path of your commandments, 36, incline my heart to your testimonies, 37, turn my eyes, and 38, confirm your promise to your servant).
This abiding quality of love as unending means that it is what should have the greatest importance to us. Specifically, in relation to all that we learn, love is to have priority and preeminence. It is for the sake of love that we are to learn and gain knowledge. It is for the sake of love that we are to use all that we know. This is just to say that we are to grow in knowledge but we are to do so, and this is critical, we are to do so for the sake of Christ and because of Him for the sake of others. This is Christian, Christ-like, love.