Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be restrained; where there is knowledge, it will be dismissed. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial passes away.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways. Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
Many things fail. Scottish poet Robert Burns gave us the common saying: “The best laid schemes of mice and men, often go awry.”* And this world is filled with dreams, hopes, and promises that failed to be perfected by mortal man. Our plans and schemes will always eventually fail, even if they succeed for a period. But more often than not, we are too familiar with the failings of mankind.
If we think we are immortal in our humanity alone, we are sadly mistaken. Or if we think we are indispensable we are deceived, Charles de Gaulle observed, “The cemeteries are filled with indispensable men.” We pass away, and our years are swept over by the next generation that goes on also to be forgotten. Our only hope of immortality lies in God, and to be known and remembered by Him is the only eternal victory that any one of us knows or will ever know.
But what is that hope in God like? What is the life that we desire or that we expect through faith to receive? The idea of heaven for Islam is a place where all of our earthly lusts shall be fulfilled – but to me this is tragically sad, for physical desires and lusts are substitutes for the greater spiritual reality offered in Christ. Lust knows no enduring satisfaction. It is as Solomon said in his own pursuit of pleasure – the end is vanity, boredom, and emptiness:
I became great and surpassed all in Jerusalem who had preceded me; and my wisdom remained with me.Anything my eyes desired, I did not deny myself. I refused my heart no pleasure. For my heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I considered all the works that my hands had accomplished and what I had toiled to achieve, I found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind; there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, BSB)
So what is the eternity that God has prepared for those He redeemed? For that future reality is to be ours today claimed through faith. The great shape of eternity for the redeemed is described by this one word: love. As Jesus said:
Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, that they may see the glory You gave Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world…And I have made Your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love You have for Me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:24-26 BSB)
In these final verses of this chapter the apostle describes how this reality of love which will be our reality in heaven can begin in our hearts and lives today.
“Love never fails.” The first thing Paul stresses is that love fits every occasion on earth. We often forget that the most effective tool in the toolkit of the Holy Spirit is love.
The word translated “fails” was ekpipto and used for something failing or falling off, such as the petals of a flower. Love is not a temporary grace that we will only have or need while on earth – it is a permanent grace for all times, even into eternity. Due to the permanence of love the remaining section of this chapter tells us three things about love: (1) It is practical, useful for every occasion; (2) It is to increasingly become a central part of our character as we mature in Christ; (3) It will be the greatest aspect of our heavenly reality for eternity.
The Practicalness of Love
Whenever we are faced with challenges, or opportunities, or disappointments, or blessings – whatever the issue is on earth, whether we be on the receiving end of someone else’s action, or we are the ones who are given the opportunity to act – we find that knowing God’s love and sharing God’s love is the most helpful thing we can do.
Generational issues in the church are causes for discouragement and confusion by some. Younger people tend to do things that seem unwise to us older believers, and we are often unsure how to relate to them. But what Paul is telling us is that all ministry issues and circumstances in the life of the church, or the life of any Christian, should first be approached with love.
If you are in a mess – whether you have made it yourself or others have made it for you – love your way out of it! If you are not sure how to relate to another Christian – whether of a different generation, mindset, or culture, determine to love first and foremost.
Meditate on the greatness of God’s love for you, and then determine to bring His eternal love for others into every situation in life. Are you discouraged? God loves you, so be encouraged. Are you troubled by someone, God loves you and loves them as well, so receive His love and relate to the other person in love. Do not respond in anger to the one who is angry at you, rather respond in grace and in love.
“Prophecies … will cease,” “tongues…restrained,” “knowledge … dismissed” – Paul’s words here have given rise to many interpretations. There are several understandings, however, which all can agree on. First, he is revisiting the same issues which he brought up at the beginning of the chapter:
If I can speak in the tongues of men and of angels … If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (13:1-2).
Second, Paul is indirectly pointing out in this chapter, written to a divided church, how many things in church life can be divisive, but that love is always a unifying factor among Christians. We go and remain where we feel loved and appreciated. When we feel unloved, and unappreciated, we do not remain.
They shall cease, but when? The differences in interpretation are not matters of disagreement about what is said here – for it is said plainly enough – but rather the application in time as to when these things will happen. There are roughly two interpretations:
- Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge (in the sense of divine and special revelation) ceased at the close of the apostolic era, or around 100 A.D. Once the New Testament was completed and the apostles had passed away, the age of special prophecies, speaking in tongues, and special knowledge of revelation ceased, being no longer needed. Historically this was the church’s interpretation for most of its existence.
- Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge have not yet ceased and will cease at the return of Christ, or in the establishment of the New Jerusalem or heaven. For the last hundred and fifty years this interpretation has gained popularity among many corners of Christianity, prompting the rise of Pentecostal churches and Charismatic teachings.
I lean toward the first interpretation for several reasons, but do not consider the second interpretation heretical. For many reasons let me say the following: some of those of us who believe like me, have acted as if we are afraid of the Holy Spirit. There is absolutely no need to look at this matter in fear. Much of what is attributed to the Spirit is not His work, but sheer human emotion and imagination. But we still do not need to be afraid. We can be confident that the Holy Spirit will show what is authentic and what is not. This is one of the reasons, I believe, that the next chapter in 1 corinthians says, “Do not forbid the speaking in tongues,” and I believe we should not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).
I think we can leave this matter with God and not be troubled about it. In another article I have written clearly on this matter: http://nighttimethoughts.org/?cat=1590&paged=2
The Maturing Aspect of Love
We cannot miss the fact that Paul pointed out that mature people focus on love, and not on divisive factors. As a pastor of many years I have received my share of random letters and comments by those who complain about something. Most of those letters are not signed, and so they deserve little attention. It is an act of cowardice to send a letter to someone and leave it unsigned, and cowards normally give poor advice. But the under current of most of these letters is anger and immaturity, not mature love.
If you want to see how mature someone is in Christ, look at how he loves others. Is he patient and kind? Is he hopeful and positive? Does he lift others up? Does he look for the good and not the bad? Peter wrote: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:18). As you grow in your faith, you are to grow in knowledge also, but notice that the Spirit inspired Peter to write first that we are to “grow in grace,” or to grow in love. As essential as knowledge is, Paul warned us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The one who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the one who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:1-3).
There is the danger even in knowledge about the Bible, to let it puff us up with pride, and the end result will be putting people off and discouraging others. Remember, the Pharisees were very knowledgeable about the Old Testament, but intolerant and unloving toward others.
Are you growing in knowledge? Good for you! But grow even more so in love.
The Love of Heaven
The final point is that love will always exist, and not only exist but also seen in eternity to be the greatest aspect of our eternal life To know the love of God and to live and serve in that love for eternity will be heaven for us.
This is why it is so important for us to grow in love here. Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians and called the knowledge of Christ’s love an experience that “surpasses knowledge.”
I pray that out of the riches of His glory He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to comprehend the length and width and height and depth of His love, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)
By describing love as having length, width, height and depth, he is challenging us to see the love of God in its different lights, and to experience His love in our different circumstances. The Spirit did not command Paul to end his words there, but he went on to teach us that the Spirit will do this in our lives if we will let Him. He said:
Now to Him who is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21)
* Burns poem “To a Mouse” was written in 1785 and his words were:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
A modern English update is:
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!