1 Corinthians 13:8-13
December 23, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:50 in the audio file.
Or, The Cardinal and Cosmic Greatness of Love
The sermon for this morning is a combination gift. It’s like getting socks for Christmas, but socks that you needed, even asked for. So you’re getting the next sermon from 1 Corinthians 13, but it is both practical for and pertinent to the holiday. The entire chapter is about love, all the way to the end. And while it isn’t directly connected to the incarnation, without the incarnation we wouldn’t know what love looked like in pants.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the White Witch cast a spell so that it was “always winter, never Christmas.” “It is always winter in Narnia—always winter, but it never gets to Christmas.” The lament comes out seven times in the book, and we can feel their cold, stiff sorrow. But in our world, “a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle), and since that time, there is a sense in which winter is vanishing and it will be always Christmas. More than a day of celebration, the birth of Christ brought tidings of comfort and joy, of loving fellowship with the Father forever.
And the angel said to them [the shepherds], “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10–11)
Because of Christmas the cold, dark, bitter winter cannot win.
The Christians in Corinth had gotten to a point where their priorities were at best upside down. Many of them had come to measure their spirituality and spiritual value according to the wrong standards. They elevated certain gifts, and the persons who exercised those gifts, over other spiritual gifts, not realizing either the reality that the Spirit gives all the gifts or that the persons are gifted variously for the whole body’s benefit. The source of the gifts is the same source, and the benefits of the gifts are reciprocal benefits. Elevating one above another, or putting distance between one another, is not right. There is a more excellent way.
That excellent way is the way of love. Paul began the chapter by showing that superlative supernatural gifts, exercised without love, amount to nothing (verses 1-3). Then he described love’s active nature, what it does and won’t do (verses 4-7). And now he’ll finish this focus by comparing love to good but temporary things (verses 8-13). Love is the greatest.
There are four parts to this final paragraph: the comparison (verse 8), the explanation (verses 9-10), the illustrations (verses 11-12), and the conclusion (verse 13).
Gifts, spiritual (and Christmas) gifts, do not last. Love does. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
The idea that love never ends is not new to the discussion, since Paul just wrote that love “endures all things” (verse 7). He also finishes this paragraph by declaring that love “abides,” it remains, it isn’t going anywhere. The Greek word in verse 8 for ends is more simply translated “fall.” The NASB has “love never fails,” so it never collapses, it never goes down, it isn’t ever ruined or finished.
That’s quite a statement, and it deserves more attention, including why is this the case? What is it about love that makes love permanent? For the moment, however, the point Paul wants to make is that not everything is permanent like love, especially the things that the Corinthians valued above love.
Paul refers to three of the gifts previously mentioned in chapter 12, gifts also repeated at the beginning of chapter 13. Prophecies and knowledge … will pass away. I understand prophecy to be more than preaching and teaching, and knowledge also refers to the spiritual gift of knowledge, of discernment about a situation or a prophecy rather than knowledge that any believer can have. The most important part, though, is that these gifts don’t last. A point in time is coming when there’s nothing more to reveal; every judgement will be brought to light.
The same is true of tongues, they will cease. Paul uses a different verb, and the verb has a different voice (middle), and a whole lot of words have been written about this change in vocabulary and grammar. But I’m on the side with those who do not think a great point can be made from this verse alone about when tongues as a gift no longer functions. Cessationism is a thing, but it’s not the thing here. The issue is that tongues, even the tongues of angels (which, by the way, presumably would never cease), which the Corinthians esteemed as the sign of spirituality par excellence, isn’t even something that will last.
When the power turns back on, candles just aren’t necessary any more. And when we see the Lord, we won’t need information about His return through prophecy and knowledge.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. Tongues adds nothing to the comparison that we don’t get with the other two. Tongues communicates God’s revelation to be known in another language, tongues just adds another step requiring translation. If we don’t need to go anywhere, we don’t need the car, let alone the trailer hitched to the back.
The revelation that we have (what we know), or that we get (what comes by prophecy), is only partial. Partial things are not incorrect, they are just incomplete. I don’t need to know quantum physics in order to do arithmetic, and even to know that my answers are correct. But it’s just some of the whole. What we have is true, but it isn’t perfect.
When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. But what is the perfect? There are three main options: the perfect refers to the completion of the New Testament, or it refers to the Christian’s personal maturity, or it refers to Christ’s return (related to either the Rapture, the Second Coming, or the Eternal State after the Millennial Kingdom). There are decent arguments for each of these, but even if all three gifts mentioned in verse 8 were sign gifts (rather than tongues by itself), Christians have not been made complete by having a completed Bible. The Bible lets us “see” God, but not face to face (like verse 12). When the perfect comes also does not sound like our individual arrival at maturity. So the best option is that the perfect comes when Christ comes and we see Him.
For Christians the eternal state begins either at death, when they go to be with the Lord, or at the rapture, when the Lord takes His own to be with Himself. For Tribulation and Kingdom saints it will occur at death or glorification. (MacArthur)
When we are with Him, the partial, as in the spiritual gifts as we know them, will pass away. I will be able to give you the perfect explanation about this, when the perfect comes, and when you won’t need the explanation anymore.
There are two illustrations that Paul uses that show how our current experience is not the final experience.
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. He uses himself as the example of growth. There is a natural progression of things, and while talking and thinking and arguing like a child is good for when you’re a kid, it’s not good if it lasts forever. Kids live more in the moment and for the moment. Kids think less about how what they do affects others. Adults have a longer view, and ideally a broader view than themselves. The analogy works with spiritual gifts. They are good for when they are appropriate; they are God-given. But the Corinthians, to some extent, considered tongues-talking as the evidence of greatest maturity. It wasn’t.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. The first-century Corinthians had mirrors, usually made of bronze. Even if we have better self-gazing technology, their mirrors weren’t bad for the day. It’s not a problem that the mirrors didn’t work, that they were too blurry or distorted or dark. The problem is that a mirror isn’t the person. It’s only a mirror image, so there is some degree of separation. That will not always be the case, someday we will see face to face. It won’t be an image on a screen, it will be God in person.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.. This is an amazing truth, both in the present and for the future. We are fully known by God. He is infinite and knows all things, but this type of known is more than data data, it is familiarity. He knows us, He loves us. And though we love Him, we do not see Him. We will. And we will enjoy that personal fellowship with Him forever. We do know Him now, but we will know Him even better later. When Paul says that he will know fully he doesn’t mean that he will become omniscient; finite beings don’t become infinite. But there won’t be distance between us.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Paul connected faith and hope with love already (verse 7): love “believes all things, hopes all things.” And since love doesn’t end, love keeps believing and hoping. Unlike spiritual gifts, these cardinal (meaning, of greatest importance, fundamental) virtues will go on and on. They abide, they will not pass away when the perfect comes.
Faith and hope must look somewhat different when we’re with the Lord, since faith is the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), and likewise hope that is seen is also not hope (Romans 8:24). But faith, as it is trust, won’t stop in heaven; we will always be depending on God. So hope, as it is eager and expectant for God to do great things, may only increase in heaven; we will always be ready for God to do more.
Faith, hope, and love are the trifecta.
They are all great, but the greatest of these is love. God is not faith (though He is faithful), God is not hope (though He is steadfast), God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). God was love before Genesis 1:1. God will be love in the new heavens and the new earth for eternity. God enfleshed love when the Son was born of a virgin in Bethlehem.
Love will be different then in some ways, less of a challenge, more Trinitarian.
The things that some the Corinthians loved and valued weren’t the things that we’re going to last. Wrong assessment happens in the church. It happens in our marriages and families. It happens in our hearts. It happens at Christmas.
But because of Christmas it is always the Christmas season. Because of the incarnation and the resurrection, there is always a way to deal with sin, always love that overcomes the separation of death. Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, our Lord, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. His is the Savior, Christ the Lord. The Son in flesh will wipe away more wickedness than the flood. He makes His blessings flow far as the curse is found. The Second Adam from above is reinstating us in His love. Winter is vanishing.
Faith overcomes the world (1 John 5:4), love will outlast it. For now, Christmas love is inconvenient, humbling, costly, messy. But also now, Christmas love changes people(s).
Love is of cardinal and cosmic greatness. We will never get tired of it, we will never grow too old for it, we will never know what its absence will feel like, we will never question its power. We will see Him face to face, and we will know perfect love.
God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son in order that all who believe in the Son should not perish but have eternal life. You are Christians, you believe in Christ, and it is Christmas, the time to remember when the Son was sent. So put on your love pants. I don’t know all the sorts of stumbling blocks you may face this week, but when you feel like your love is collapsing, look to Christ. Obey Christ. Imitate Christ. Your strength is in the eternal God of love.
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27, ESV)