Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2018
Lesson 39: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 (ESV)
The Greatness of Love
Good things often excite us with the possibility of something even better yet to come. People often look forward to promised sequels to well done books and movies. Carefully planned fireworks displays keep people waiting for that spectacular finale. Performers often hold back something extra special for a fan-pleasing encore. Even a good meal is topped of with a well anticipated dessert.
After that great section of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 where love is described as having such amazing characteristics, we could stop there and consider what an excellent piece of literature God gave us to think on. The things here are enough to meditate on and work on for a long time.
It gives us a deeply impressive and high view of how we ought to care for God and for one another as those God created with us. But verse 8 continues on through the end of the chapter in verse 13 and adds even more!
What we know now in this life about love is only a beginning — there’s even more to come!
Some translate it “love never fails”. The Greek word there is “piptei” (πίπτει) -“falls down, fails” – that is: love holds up – it doesn’t come crashing down to an end. These simple words bring the 16 characteristics of love to focus on love’s infallible superiority.
All the other virtues in the verses before this emerge from love. This divine kind of love grows when it’s implanted into a redeemed heart. Each one of these attributes should be getting stronger in us. But love and all its characteristics need to be nourished by our prayerful obedience, God enabled diligent efforts, and faith in God’s promises. We feed on his word, worship together, pray, and encourage one another as a family of believers.
temporary provisions God has used.
8. … 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,
There are three basic helps mentioned here. God had given his church the benefit of Prophesy, tongues, and knowledge. But, as Paul wrote this letter, one day they will have served their special purpose. The temporary provisions will be done away once the reason God gave them is fulfilled.
In chapter 14 Paul explains in more detail what he means by each of these gifts. For now, the basic meanings are enough for understanding his point here.
Prophecy will be done away:
Prophesy is the telling others about information God has made known. False prophets tell things that God hasn’t really said. But true prophets speak what God has revealed. It might include predictions about things that haven’t happened yet, but not necessarily. Mainly it’s telling about the helpful principles God has given us to live by. It includes warnings about the dangers of disobedience.
There’s a general sense in which all believers are prophets. One of our duties is to tell others about God’s revealed truth and warnings. We don’t get that information the way the Biblical prophets did. They held a special office. God spoke to them in direct visions, voices, and dreams. Some of them explained what God told them as they wrote the inspired books of Scripture. Our prophetic words are found in what the now completed Bible already says.
Specific prophecies given for just specific times in history had a limited purpose. When what they warned about took place, the prophecy was completed. Their purpose and warnings only have an historic value.
Some ancient prophecies were fulfilled long ago. Those that applied to ancient Corinth were to get them through until the Bible was finished. Some biblical prophecies apply to things throughout the church age until Christ’s return. But all are for particular periods of the history of God’s people on earth.
With our completed Bible, we have a full record of all we need to know for this life. In eternity we will know more directly from God all that we will need to know. The limited way we know and proclaim God’s word today will be surpassed. This need for this special provision of God will one day pass away.
Then Paul tells us that tongues will cease:
The word used here for “tongues” is the plural of the Greek word “glossa” (γλῶσσα) which was used for “languages”. One of the Old Testament prophecies was that when God was about to judge Israel for her disobedience they would be overcome by those who spoke different languages (Deuteronomy 28:49, Isaiah 28:11). The Old Testament captivities of the Jewish nation came from invading enemies speaking another language.
At Pentecost in Acts 2, God supernaturally caused his people to speak in other languages. It marked the end of the disobedient Jewish nation, and the beginning of the Gentile era of the church. It showed that the church was about to end its Jewish form.
Once the change was completed, opening the church to all nations, these special language gifts would no longer have that prophetic purpose for the church and would cease. We’ll see more detail about this in the next chapter.
And Knowledge will pass away:
Of course knowledge itself is just the knowing of things that are true. Our scientific knowledge is what we learn by our experience and senses. It’s imperfect since we can’t experience and sense everything in God’s universe. As we discover and experience new things what we call knowledge is always changing. Old data is replaced by more accurate information. Old theories are tossed out for better ones that are more consistent with what we know.
The infallible knowledge that God gives us directly by revelation is also incomplete. God sometimes provided special understanding to his church as Paul mentioned in 12:8, “For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,”
Without the completed New Testament books to explain how Christ fulfilled the ancient prophecies and promises a temporary gift had to be provided to guide the early church. Once the Bible was finished, all special and certain knowledge comes from its pages. When this church age is completed, our knowledge will again be surpassed. We’ll have a greater awareness of God’s truth from our first hand experience with God in heaven.
Today, during this church era, God’s truth is available to us in our Bibles. There we find all we need to know about God, his saving grace, and his principles for living. It’s our duty to know the Bible’s message, apply it to ourselves, obey it, and tell others about it. Our knowledge and prophetic truths are incomplete and immature in this earthly life. One day in glory they will be superceded by something far greater.
10. but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
The original Greek word for “perfect” here is “teleion” (τέλειον). It means the goal or completed end of something, it’s often used for maturity.
When the purpose of each gift is fulfilled, the partial and temporary thing will pass away. The special gift of speaking in other tongues was completed when the church was firmly established. It stopped being a Jewish church and came to include the Gentile Nations too. Special revelation was ended when the Bible reached its maturity and God’s revelation was completed.
So prophecy and the gift of special knowledge changed in it’s nature. Visions and private revelations were replaced by the Scriptures that apply to us all. But even with our Bibles, what we know now is still only partial. All these things relating to our time here on earth will be complete one day. They will be surpassed in the final spiritual maturity of believers in the resurrection. When our Lord returns we will be resurrected and sin will be no more. We will see Jesus directly, first hand as verse 12 says.
For now we struggle with our imperfections and incomplete knowledge. We need to be careful not to speculate about things beyond what God says. And we should never neglect what he does say to us in his written word.
we have a lot of spiritual maturing to do.
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.
One of the most wonderful things God gives us in life is to watch children grow up. We mark down when they first roll over on their own, start to crawl, stand up, and walk. We get excited at their first sounds, words and then rudimentary sentences. Baby grammar often has a cuteness in its profound simplicity. We smile when they confuse words for one another: like when the letter “K” in the alphabet is followed by the “elemeno P”, or when the early form of our Pledge of Allegiance is to one nation invisible. They eat things called vegibles and watch the telebision, or as I called it when it first came out, the telephone-pigeon.
Children reason differently too. They aren’t bothered by such things as the laws of physics or logic. In trying to deal with how things happen around them they rely on their well developed sense of imagination and fantasy. Shadows of ordinary things at night may just as well be monsters or ghosts. They can be lost for hours setting up little figures in a doll house, or strategizing small plastic soldiers on the battle field of a living room carpet.
But when we grow up, those childish things fade away. Our babies become toddlers, before you know it they beome teens, and all too soon — adults. Those we helped learn to walk, speak and stand, often help us with things we can’t do. It’s not helpful for an adult to still use baby talk, or imagine gremlins and fairies. We need to take up the responsibilities of the world God calls us to subdue for his glory. We need to work to earn our provisions, fix things that break, and raise our own little ones.
We need to grow up spiritually too. We’re held responsible to learn, love, and obey God’s written prophetic word in Scripture. We need to develop confidence in the effectiveness of prayer, worship, and Christian fellowship. But even these will be surpassed one day by the wonders of a world we can’t yet comprehend. The wonders of our eternal home in heaven are beyond us, just as the adult world is totally beyond the minds of our toddlers. But though God’s provisions are such a comfort to us now — there is so much more yet to come! There are depths and wonders we can’t comprehend.
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.
The KJV has “see through a glass darkly” but that isn’t the actual meaning of the word here. The Greek word for “mirror” is “esoptron” (ἐσόπτρον) It sounds rather high tech. Literally it means a thing you look into to see your reflection. That’s how many of the Greek poets of that time used the word, and how it was used commonly.
Today’s mirrors are usually made of glass with a reflective backing. In biblical times they were rare, expensive and made of polished metals, particularly brass. The image was very imperfect, more like your reflection in a toaster or car window. The Greek word for “dimly” is “ainigmati” (αἰνίγματι) from which we get our English word “enigmatic”. Things are an enigma if it’s obscure, hard to understand or explain.
Probably Paul had Numbers 12 in mind. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses saying there were other prophets to listen to. God was angry with their rebellion and explained that while he at times spoke to others, he spoke to Moses in a special way that was more direct and clear. In Numbers 12:7-8 God said, “Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. …” The then accepted Greek version of verse 8 uses the same words Paul used here. God didn’t speak to Moses “in riddles” — “in enigmas”.
What we see now is like an enigma. We only know God and his ways partially. Paul described the wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 2:9 saying, “But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him –‘ ”
In that final time we will see our Lord face to face and all we know now will fade in comparison. We’ll find a knowledge and wisdom far beyond the partial revelation we rely on for now.
13. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
For now, these continue …
There is Faith: We know very little about our infinte God, but we trust in all the truth we have for now. When faith turns to sight in the resurrection, we’ll see things we can’t even imagine. In a sense, faith will continue in heaven, but it will be a more mature trust in more complete truths about God and his works.
We have Hope: Our hope is fixed on the certainty of God’s promises. Even in heaven, there will always be a great expectation of God’s continued care.
But love is greater. It’s inclusive of all the 16 virtues listed here in 1 Corinthians 13. Our trust in things becomes a living faith by the love Christ puts in our hearts. We not only accept something to be accurate or true, we love its truth and learn to love the one in whom we trust.
We might hope that something will come about. But when this godly love is implanted into our regenerated souls we learn to love the things promised, and the one who made the promises. What we know is going to happen, becomes a longing, an anticipated blessing, not just a future event.
Learning to love in all these 16 ways is essential to be growing up in Christ. We might pride ourselves in our earthly achievements and accomplishments, but, as Paul started this chapter …
1. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If the best of our gifts are self-centered, it’s just pride and arrogance. Without love — it’s only noise.
While we wait with great hope, trusting in God’s promises, our main focus ought to be on Love in all its grandeur:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Someday, maybe awhile yet, maybe soon, there’s more to come! The love we will know in the resurrection will be greater than even the best love we know now. But our lives and love are better now, when we’re conforming to this image of Christ.
We pray that we will learn to love as he loved us — unselfishly, and for God’s greater glory. It’s part of the advancement of his kingdom here on earth where we’re called to live right now.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)