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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (35)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (35)

1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Broadcast: October 18, 1998; Message Number 1494

Love is the Greatest (3)

So far in our studies in I Corinthian 13 we covered the first 7 verses and we learned that the love Paul is talking about is agape love. Characteristic of this love is that it is not drawn out by attractive qualities in its object(s). It is not selfish, hoping to gain something from others. On the contrary, agape love involves a firm decision on the part of the lover to act for the best interest of others. It is to put another person's needs and happiness ahead of your own and to do whatever it takes to help fulfill that need. The apostle went on to describe various aspects of this unselfish kind of love: love is patient and kind, love is not easily provoked, thinks no evil, bears all things and believes all things.

Now, beginning in verse 8, Paul goes on to mention two more aspect of love, namely its permanence and its perfection. "Charity never fails." This is how our King James Version translates the Greek. Other versions have "love never ends." The Greek actually says: "love never falls." This means, love never falls away and disappears; it never quits; it is never used up; love keeps on coming; the more you use it the more there is. Love is like bailing out a boat with a hole in it---the more water you throw out, the more there is; it just keeps coming in all the time. Love never quits; it never stops coming.

The Authorized Version is right after all, when it says love never fails. By its very nature it is permanent or never-ending. Like God's mercy, it endures forever. Characteristic of God's love is that it never quits, even though it may seem that for a time the Lord is displaying anything but love. God does with us as a mother eagle does with its young. To kick it out of the nest may seem cruel, but the eagle knows that is the only way the young will learn to fly. It braves the wrath of its young in order to force it into maturity. The treatment may seem cruel, but it is motivated by love.

Paul contrasts this quality of love with the things that will not last. "Love never fails," he says in verse 8, "but as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away." Paul is comparing love to three other spiritual gifts: the gift of knowledge, the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. These were the three favourite gifts in Corinth. They were making too much of these gifts, but Paul tells them that important as they are, they do not constitute God's best gifts. They are only temporary endowments. They won't last, but love will. Love is permanent. It never ends.

Prophesying is the gift of predicting future events as well as proclaiming the Word of God. In the New Testament both these aspects were present, but after the canon was completed, prophesying became just another word for preaching. The gift of tongues is the gift of supernatural utterance of a language never learned in praise and thanksgiving to God. (The apostle deals with this subject in detail in chapter 14.) It is called glossolalia, the ability to speak a foreign language that one has never learned.

The gift of knowledge is the ability to understand the truths of God's Word and to communicate it to others. In New Testament times it involved also the receiving of new revelation, but after the Bible was completed this gift was limited to understanding and expounding truths previously revealed.

These three gifts will cease, Paul says, although not all in the same sense and to the same extent. Of the three, tongues will cease completely, the others--prophesying and knowledge--will cease only in the sense that no new revelation will be given after the closing of the canon. Paul's choice of verb forms indicates that the gift of tongue-speaking will cease abruptly; while prophesying and knowledge will fade away more gradually and will be replaced by something else, which he calls the "perfect" thing.

Let's see what Paul says about this in verses 9 and 10: "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come then that which is in part shall be done away." In other words, when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

What is this perfect thing which Paul says will gradually increase in the life of these Corinthians and which will replace their preoccupation with these lesser gifts? Some think that the reference is to the written Word of God. Others suggest that the "perfect" thing is heaven. I don't think that is what Paul has in mind here. If we take the passage in its full context, it is clear that the word "perfect" refers to love. Love is the "perfect" thing, which as it grows and matures in our Christian life, will replace our need for and concern with the other gifts of the Spirit. We find ourselves growing up into that to which the gifts are meant to lead us, so when the end begins to be accomplished, the means to that end are no longer required.

This is what Paul is saying, and it is confirmed by the illustration he employs in verse 11, where he says: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought or reasoned as a child." There is nothing wrong with that. Children are supposed to act like children; everybody expects them to, and it would be strange if they did not. When I was a child, Paul means, I behaved like a child in every way. But I am no longer a child, he adds. I am a man now, and that means I gave up childish ways. I quit acting like a child. The word "gave up" or "put away" as the King James version has it, suggests a deliberate and radical repudiation of childishness. A big change took place in my life, Paul means. Things that mattered a great deal to me then, are no longer important to me now. Why? Because I have become a man.

Manhood or maturity is the end toward which a child always moves. Therefore, these things were no longer needed. The point of the illustration is this: you Corinthians should know that the mark of spiritual maturity is love--not your ability to speak in tongues or to prophecy or to show off your superior knowledge. The evidence that you have reached maturity in the faith is that you are able not just to show love to the unlovely once or twice, but to keep on loving them despite their lack of appreciation, ingratitude and downright obnoxiousness. As the ability to do that increases in your life, it will replace your childish concerns about the gifts of the Spirit.

God's gifts are designed to lead us to love; that is the whole point. The grace of God puts us in touch with a power of which the world knows nothing. It is the resurrection power of Christ, whereby we are empowered to do what we by nature could never do: love God above all and our neighbour as ourselves. Here the emphasis is on the latter: loving our fellow men--first, our fellow Christians, but then also all other people with whom we come in contact. That love we are to exercise and to put into practice in all situations, and therefore it is the mark of spiritual maturity. A Christian who does not love is a contradiction in terms.

Love is the "perfect" thing, and Paul says that one day it will be perfectly ours. Verse 12 states: "For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I know even as also I am known." While here in this life our vision is partial at best, therefore our love is imperfect also. Our ability to love is limited. It is like looking in a mirror dimly.

These ancient mirrors were not like the silvered glass ones we have today that give a clear and beautiful image. Their mirrors were simply polished metal, so that when you looked in them, all you got was a rather indistinct, blurred image. You could see, but darkly, or as the Greek says literally: enigmatically. An enigma is a riddle or a puzzle. While in our earthly state, Paul is saying, we look in mirrors which always distort things to some extent. At best we see a reflection; we don't see the thing itself.

"Then" it will be different, Paul says. He does not say what he means by "then." Neither does he explain with whom we will be "face to face." But he is obviously referring to the time when our Lord will return and usher in the new order and we will be with Him. When we are face to face with Him, we will no longer be hindered by any of the things that now mar our vision.

From seeing, the apostle next proceeds to knowing. Under present conditions all knowledge is partial. Part of human life is that we must struggle constantly to attain knowledge by the slow and laborious processes of learning--and we never do attain complete knowledge. Therefore, love too remains partial or imperfect. In heaven it will be different. Paul looks forward to knowing, just as he is known by God. God's knowledge of us is complete. There is nothing about us that He does not know.

Paul's point in all this is to show that big changes await believers when they depart this life. Things like prophecy, speaking in tongues and the earthly knowledge that we value so highly will then have no relevance any longer. Just as the things of childhood are left behind when we become adults, so these earthly achievements will find no place in heaven.

There is only one thing that does not change and that does not fall away, Paul says, and that is love. We can know here and now the love of God towards us in Christ. In this world already we can experience the love which God kindles in our hearts. It is the same love that we will know and show in eternity. We are loved by God now and we will be loved by God then. Love surpasses all the other qualities that we tend to value so highly.

In verse 13 Paul comes to his conclusion. He says: "And now abides faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Why these three graces and not others? We can understand why faith is included because it is the fundamental Christian attitude. Faith is the believer's thankful response to the divine provisions, particularly His provision in and through Jesus Christ. Therefore it will abide. That response will go with us into heaven, where we will sing praises forever to the Lamb that was slain for our sins.

Why is hope mentioned on this short list? Because hope is the expectation of good things to come. Earlier in this letter Paul speaks of "the things God has prepared for those who love him." As long as we are in this life, we do little more than dabble in the shallows of God's grace. We get a taste of His goodness-that is all. Being finite creatures we can't take it all in. Finiteness can never encompass infinity. But in heaven all limitations of the flesh will vanish. Our glorified bodies and sinless minds will give us a capacity to enjoy the things of God as we can scarcely imagine now. Every day will bring us new surprises which will whet our appetites for yet more revelations of divine realities. Hope, therefore, abides.

Love abides too, and the reason love is the greatest is because God is love. God is not faith; God is not hope; but God is love! Therefore, to learn to love is to attain the highest of all Christian virtues because it results in our becoming like God.

That is what life is all about, isn't it? The lie of the devil in the garden of Eden was, if you disobey God you will be like God; you will find happiness, your life will be fulfilled. That lie and its sad results are visible all around us, in our own lives and in the world today. But the Word of God says, if you obey God and trust in His Son and love Him, you will some day be like God and be truly blessed. When that which is perfect is come and you will come face to face with God, you will be transformed into His image. Therefore, love abides because "the greatest of these is love."

Why should love be the greatest, someone may object? Doesn't Scripture teach that faith is the most important gift? Doesn't it say that without faith it is impossible to please God? Yes, that is true. Yet there is something very unique about love. Paul measures all virtues in terms of their usefulness and he maintains that love is the greatest because it is the most useful. Faith, for all its importance, benefits only myself. The same is true of hope. It focuses on some future good that I greatly desire. But love benefits others as well as myself.

This is the key to understanding Paul's emphasis on love. All through this chapter, and indeed this entire letter, the apostle has been concerned to remind his fellow Christians that unless they show love to each other they are in a bad way, despite everything else they may excel in.

Do I need to make the application? Is love the key to what you are? If not, you have nothing that will last. Therefore, follow after love, the apostle concludes in chapter 14:1. The word "follow" means to pursue or to set your heart on something. Set your heart on love; make it your chief goal in life; work at it; think about it; aim toward it; and pursue it. That is the idea; that is what life is all about.

To become a loving, compassionate, patient, kind, truthful person is the reason for our existence and the great goal of our redemption. Everything else must either contribute to that end or be regarded as useless and wasted time. May God help us to keep this truth clearly before us. Never forget: "the greatest of these is love!"

Additional Info

  • Audio: 130522532
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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