So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Today I want to complete the section of 1 Corinthians 13 that began with verse 8. We noted last time that verse 8a and verse 13 function like bookends tying “love never fails” together with “love…abides.” We titled the message last week, “The Permanence of Love.” This week’s message continues the same general theme and is titled, “Heaven: a world of love with faith and hope.”
There are two things that this passage teaches us: 1) we learn that faith, hope, and love abide in heaven. We get to heaven by faith in the risen Lord Jesus (Rom. 10:9-10) and that faith will not end when we get there. 2) And we learn that love is superior to faith and hope in heaven. After discussing these two points, we will make some concluding remarks and applications.
Not all commentators understand 1 Corinthians 13:13 as a reference to heaven. It depends on how we handle the word “now” at the beginning of the verse. So let’s compare the alternate views on this point, defend the claim that heaven (the heavenly state of affairs) is in view, and explain what it means for these virtues to abide in heaven.
The two ways to understand “now” are in a temporal sense and in a logical sense.
1) The temporal interpretation takes “now” as a reference to the present time in history. This is the time between the comings of Christ in which the church is making her pilgrim journey to heaven having not yet arrived but valiantly on the way. If the verse is understood this way, then the picture before us is shaped by the passages of Scripture that speak of the end of faith in sight and the end of expectation in realization.
On one hand, we are pointed to the fact that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We must recognize the fact that there is a sense in which faith will give way to sight. The eternal that is now unseen (2 Cor. 4:18), but upon which we fix our faith and hope, will become sight. That which is sight unseen will become sight seen. The contrast of walking by faith and not by sight will no longer hold. Walking by sight in this connection is not something bad (as if a contrast between belief and unbelief). Sight here refers to the coming of perfection and seeing face to face; it refers to the experience of being at home with the Lord in glory (2 Cor. 5:7-9; in 2 Cor. 4:18 the state of things “seen” refers to the time of eternal glory).
That faith is used as the opposite of seeing shows us that it overlaps with hope. It is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). By faith we grasp the reality that is to come; we lay hold of it with certain assurance. Thus, to say “we walk by faith” here means that the realities of being present with the Lord and of the resurrection of His saints have not yet come. It does not mean that when they come faith will pass into non-existence. It simply and wonderfully means that when these future realities come to realization then they will no longer be grasped from afar by faith. It is not saying that faith will pass away but that what faith now lays hold of as future will be the believer’s eternal experience. It is not that faith passes away but that the object of faith comes (cf. Thomas believed while seeing, Jn. 20:29).
Why then is this time of not seeing a time of faith? Believing what is not seen accents the fact that now the certainty is grasped by faith even though the reality is still future and as yet out of reach. It is evident then that the temporal sense of “now” is not necessitated by the faith/sight language (though the contrast of faith and sight might push our thinking in that direction).
On the other hand, what has been said of faith per 2 Corinthians 5:7 can also be said of hope per Romans 8:24-25, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Obviously, we do not continue in a perpetual state of anticipation and expectation regarding something that we now see and possess. Specifically, this passage is talking about the resurrection of our bodies (the redemption of our bodies, v. 23). In this life and on the pathway of our present pilgrimage, we eagerly anticipate and confidently expect the full resurrection harvest that is promised in our present experience of the Holy Spirit as firstfruits. This has to be associated with the resurrection of Christ as the firstfruits in that the Holy Spirit’s presence in us is the guarantee of our participation in the full harvest (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20; Eph. 1:13-14).
But does this tell us that when the harvest comes and we are raised in glory then hope will pass away? No, it is simply and wonderfully telling us that when the resurrection takes place we will no longer look forward to it with anticipation because it will then be a matter of realization. Like what was said of faith in relation to sight, when that which is hoped for comes, we will no longer hope for it. It is not that hope passes away but that the object of hope comes. Thus, there is no reason to restrict “now” to the present based on the notion, wrongly endorsed, that faith and hope are not permanent virtues.
2) What has been said so far opens the door to the other way of reading the verse. The logical sense of “so now” in 1 Corinthians 13:13 is translated “and thus” or “and therefore.” The idea is “so now in conclusion” rather than “so now here in the present.” Let’s see how this is defended and how it shows that heaven is in view by Paul.
The main consideration that supports the logical sense of “so now” is that Paul does not have the present in mind but the future because these three virtues are not the only ones that apply in the present. He says that faith, hope, and love abide in an exclusive way: “these three.” But Paul could not restrict the things that abide to these three if he were talking about the present (for in the present even partial knowledge abides). Further support is found in the fact that when Paul says that “these three abide” he states a contrast to the things previously discussed that do not abide such as partial knowledge. In other words, Paul has the heavenly state in view in contrast to the present state of seeing dimly like through an old mirror.
Therefore, we have to be discerning with respect to the overstatement that is made in some Christian poetry and hymns. Some interesting poetry misses Paul’s point of the abiding character of all three things cited here (Meyer, Commentary, 311, one is a Wesley hymn).
Faith will vanish into sight,
Hope be emptied in delight,
Love in heaven will shine more bright,
Therefore give us love.
Wesley makes a similar point:
Where faith is sweetly lost in sight
And hope in full supreme delight
[but love is] everlasting
This poetry overshoots by missing the significant fact that hope and faith abide in heaven, which leads directly to my next point of explanation.
Carson says some helpful things about hope and faith as “eternal, permanent virtues” (Showing the Spirit 75). With regard to hope, he states, “there is a sense in which hope is not merely the anticipation of the blessings to come, an anticipation no longer needed once those blessings have arrived, but a firm anchor in Christ himself. Our hope is in God, in Christ; and as such, hope continues forever, doubtless opening up an infinity of new depths of blessing, world without end” (74). So he asks the penetrating question, “Will we stop looking forward in anticipation to what is ahead once we begin to enjoy the new heaven and the new earth?” (74). The implied answer is obvious, “no we will not stop looking forward in anticipation.” With regard to faith he comments, “It is true that in one sense faith will be displaced by sight. But there is another sense in which faith is simply thankful trust in God, deep appreciation for him, committed subservience to him. Will there be any time in the next fifty billion years (if I may speak of eternity in the categories of time) during which the very basis of my presence in the celestial courts will be something other than faith in the grace of God?” (74-75).
Carson makes a great point here about “an infinity of new depths of blessings, world without end” that will continue out in front of us forever. There is a richness of glory beyond words. Or put another way, there is a richness to come in glory about which our words will be “in a perpetual state of beginning.” We will always find ourselves in the awesome wonder of knowing that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what God has prepared for us.
This sounds like an incompleteness of knowing akin to that developed in verses 8-12. But perhaps this informs us that the contrast of the now and the not yet is not exactly one of incompleteness to completeness but of very immature and dim incompleteness in contrast to mature and face to face “incompleteness.”
Incompleteness here is perhaps over stating in a way that does not keep in flow with verses 8-12. For in heaven, it is all there before us “face to face” but our grasp of the depths will be such that “an infinity of new depths” of glory will be forever at our finger tips. So, to try to avoid confusing knowing in part to knowing fully we have to stress the fact that the partial refers to a circumscribed and limited content regarding what may be known. Even with sixty-six books, what may be known objectively of special revelation is limited. But perfection will involve unlimited content as we behold the Lord in all His glory face to face. For Luther, our present state is like seeing the sun through a cloud because we cannot bear to look at the Lord’s brilliant majesty but the cloud will be removed and the Lord will unveil Himself (Cited by C. Brown, Miracles, 14).
This fact that hope abides into the unending future is a marvelous thought in itself. It is part of the blessing of heaven that the entry point is not a terminal point but a beginning point that opens a vast array of infinite blessings before our wondering eyes. Therefore, one of the good things of heaven is the fact that we will always have hope because there will always be things to anticipate, new depths to plummet, and new heights to scale. A fundamental quality of heaven will be expectation of greater things still to come. A profound experience of expectation will give a spring to every step that is taken in the heavenly realm.
Before this study of 1 Corinthians 13, I tended to think that the first step in heaven is the one that carries with it the greatest sense of anticipation and expectation. But this text shows us that our anticipation of the first step we will take in heaven is far lower and inferior to the anticipation that will fill our hearts to the brim beyond that first step. This is so because our expectation now is in part, immature, and dimly lit. Once we take that first step in glory into the presence of our Lord and to seeing face to face, then every subsequent step will be filled with face to face anticipation and expectation that is far superior to the dimly lit anticipation and expectation that we now have.
Love too of course will abide forever. This is what makes heaven, heaven. So heaven is a world of love with faith and hope. But love’s place is distinct. Let’s turn our attention to the other major point made in our text for the day.
Interestingly, in completing the story about love’s permanence, Paul adds the fact that faith and hope also abide in heaven. He adds this information in order to say a little more about love. At first it seems to weaken the distinctiveness of love that has been established in its comparison with partial knowledge. As he said, love never fails but partial knowledge will pass away; love does not have any “passing away” aspect to it. But immediately upon putting faith and hope on the same level with love in their permanence, Paul declares the superiority of love: it is the greatest of these virtues that abide in heaven.
What Paul says in effect is that although love is not the only virtue that is permanent, it is still the greatest among the greatest virtues. His conclusion is not that these three abide forever. Instead, given that these three abide, his conclusion is that love is the greatest. Support for its superiority has been already given in verse 7 where it is clear that faith and hope are acts of love. Because “and now” is an indicator of a conclusion, then the premise must have already been given. That premise could concern the eternal nature of all three but it is only love that is stated to be eternal in the previous context (8a). The premise then must be concerned with the superiority of love to hope and faith. This superiority is implicit in verse 7. Therefore, love has a priority in relation to faith and hope in that they are expressions of love (it is love that believes all things and hopes all things; cf. how love is in the forefront of conversion: we love Him because He first loved us, 1 Jn. 4:19).
Carson establishes this point of love’s superiority on two grounds. 1) Paul can imagine having faith without love but not love without faith. 2) Hope is expressive of love for love “hopes all things.” Hope contributes to love like “various colors contribute to white light.” So, “love is the all embracing virtue” and “Love is foundational, even of the virtues that characterize God’s people in eternity” (75; cf. it can be said that God is love but not that He is faith or hope).
1) Love excels in an extraordinary way. Paul has piled up considerations that force us to see the excellence of love. It is as if he has said, “This is an excellent way, it is the excellent way, as a matter of fact, it is the most excellent way. This can be seen when we discern the difference between love “endures” (v. 7), “never ends” (8a), and “abides (13)? Endures emphasizes its tenacity over time within history. That love “never ends” stresses its permanence for both time and eternity. To say it “abides” concentrates on its permanence for eternity. Thus, Paul compares it with other things that also abide (faith, hope) and states that it is the greatest. Thus even though other things may abide into the unending future, love still excels.
In every conceivable way love is excellent and thus is the way to walk now on the way to glory. Earlier Paul had compared love with the gifts (vs. 1-3) where even having all faith without love showed the indispensability of love in the life of faith. Thus in its relation to the gifts, in the greatness of its character or attributes with sweeping tenacity, and in the perspectives of time and eternity, love’s greatness is matchless.
2) This elevated description of love serves as powerful motivation to strive after love. We cannot sit still with folded hands if we grasp even the bare outline of the love that is placed before our eyes. We have to be moved, even constrained by the indispensability, the beauty, and the radical permanence of love. We have not seen even a glimpse or heard even a whisper of Paul’s description if we have no desire for this love stirred up within our souls (otherwise we are not listening; we just don’t get it). If by faith eye has seen or ear heard this elevated description of Christian love, then the heart must long for it, hands must reach out for it, and feet must walk in the pathway made straight by it.
3) In this light, we are exhorted to strive after the particulars of love that are described here in 1 Corinthians 13 (and elsewhere in Scripture, cf. Col. 3; Rom. 12). In love to our risen Lord we will thus pray for understanding, meditate and infer to the opposite, and apply these things where the rubber meets the road in the various roles we occupy in life.
Consequently, let me exhort you to pray this way for a better understanding of love. Being a matter of prayer reminds us of the challenge, our need, and how dependent we are on the enlightenment of the Spirit. We press forward in true humility when we press forward by prayer. I urge you to meditate on the word of God here regarding love. Chew on it, infer from the positives to the negatives and from the negatives to the positives. And earnestly apply charity and its fruits (cf. 13:4-7) where the rubber meets the road in your various roles in life as husbands, wives, parents, children, employers, employees, and brothers and sisters in the new covenant family of God.
So do these things, abound in them more and more to the glory and honor of our loving Savior, Jesus Christ, the risen Lord (cf. Phil. 1:9-11).