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Third Millennium Study Bible
Notes on 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Love never fails - 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Kistemaker observes:

Notice that the word love occurs at the beginning of this verse and reappears twice in 1 Cor. 13:13. Between these two occurrences, Paul describes the temporary character of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 13:8-10). . . . In this segment, Paul stresses immaturity, imperfection, and temporality.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8, one could view this statement as a summary of the previous verse, especially in light of the comment that love "always perseveres" (1 Cor. 13:7). At the same time, the statement allowed Paul to build a contrast between love, which always remains (1 Cor. 13:13), and the spiritual gifts, which will cease.

Paul refers to prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. It is likely that Paul mentioned these three items as representative of all the spiritual gifts, which have a temporary, earthly function until the end of the age. An alternate (but less likely) interpretation is that Paul had only these three in mind because they have special revelatory functions.

In the Greek, 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 forms one sentence. The context (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12) suggests strongly that Paul was referring to the second coming of Christ as the final event in God's plan of redemption and revelation. As Beale says:

Paul's references to things that "pass away" in 1 Corinthians 13:8, 10 employ the word katargeo, which consistently has an eschatological connotation in this letter, referring to those things that do not survive the transition from this age to the age to come (1 Cor. 1:28; 2:6; 6:13; 13:8, 10; 15:24, 26).

So, in comparison with what believers will receive then, the present blessings are only partial and thus imperfect. Pratt makes an interesting observation here when he says:

Even though Paul alluded to the gifts of prophecy and message of knowledge in the previous verse, he avoided speaking directly of them. Instead, he spoke of the benefit Christians derive from them. The gifts do not disappear; imperfect understanding disappears. Christians will put the gifts behind them when their need for the gifts is gone.

It was therefore a sign of immaturity for the Corinthians to attach so much significance to, and take so much pride in, the temporary, incomplete gifts of the Spirit.

The view that Paul may be referring to the complete revelation contained in the New Testament Scriptures - a view that makes prophecy and other revelatory gifts obsolete - has little support from the context. Still other understandings of perfection have been suggested, such as the maturity in love for which the Corinthians were to aim, the maturing of the early Church and the death of the individual Christian.

Pratt explains Paul's two analogies of a child's maturity and a poor reflection:

First, he appealed to a parallel with the human experience of maturation, explaining that as a child he talked, thought, and reasoned like a child. But when he became a man, he got rid of childish ways. The gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are so limited by the constraints of this life and their partial nature that they may be compared to childish things. Just as it is unimaginable that a mature adult would resort to childlike immaturity, so it is unimaginable that these gifts will endure beyond their usefulness into eternity.

The second analogy involves the experience of looking at a poor reflection as in a mirror. In Paul's day Corinth was well-known for its mirrors. Because their mirrors were made of polished brass, some interpreters have argued that Paul referred to the fact that metal mirrors reflect one's image only imperfectly. Corinth, however, made high-quality mirrors that probably provided good reflections. More likely, Paul meant that a reflection is no substitute for a real person. A modern parallel would be the photograph. Modern believers enjoy clear photographs of loved ones, but those pictures barely begin to portray the wonderful people they depict.

For Paul the gifts of the Spirit are the photographs the church has access to now. When Christ returns, however, then everyone will see face to face. Everything of which the gifts now speak in part will then be revealed in full. Just as a reflected image outlives its usefulness when the thing it portrays can be seen face to face, the gifts will have outlived their usefulness "when perfection comes" (1 Cor. 13:10) at Christ's return.

Paul writes: "I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." Perhaps because the Corinthians liked to boast of how much they knew (1 Cor. 8:1), Paul concluded by stressing the partial character of our present knowledge. The shift from the active ("know") to the passive ("am . . . known") is found elsewhere in the Paul's letters and serves to emphasize believers' dependence on God's grace (1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9; cf. 1 Cor. 14:38). Paul did not suggest here that believers' knowledge of God would one day be comprehensive, for that would be impossible. Only God is omniscient. Instead, he focused on the intimacy and immediacy of God's knowing, which believers will someday share.

Thus, 1 Corinthians 13:12 does not say that we will be omniscient or know everything. To have said that, Paul would have used the Greek word ta panta, but instead he simply says that we will know in a fuller or more intensive way, "even as we have been known", that is, without any error or misconceptions in our knowledge (Grudem). See WCF 25.5; WLC 86, 90; WSC 38.

Paul closed his discussion of "the most excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31) with a summary statement that must have been familiar to the Corinthians. Paul spent much of his ministry emphasizing the importance of faith and hope. He presented faith primarily as the means by which believers are joined to Christ and thereby receive the blessings of salvation (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:9). Hope, in turn, Paul described mainly in terms of the glories of salvation that believers receive in heaven, including things like bodily resurrection. For Paul, faith and hope represented the means of obtaining the blessings of the gospel (faith), and the ultimate blessings themselves (hope). In this context, he placed even more value on love.

Paul also said that faith, hope and love remained now. Although some commentators understand now to introduce only a logical conclusion, it is difficult to disregard it completely as a temporal marker because of the present tense verb remain. Thus, Paul meant faith and hope existed at the time that he wrote, not that they would always continue to exist. Hope does not continue when its object has been realized (Rom. 8:24). Faith similarly relates to that which is yet unseen (Heb. 11:1).

To show the importance of Christian love, Paul included it alongside faith and hope. The centrality of love would have been evident if Paul had stopped at that point, but instead he raised love to an even higher level. While faith, hope, and love stand above all spiritual gifts (displacing the Corinthians' favorites of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge), the greatest of these is love. In this statement Paul raised a crucial question for the Corinthians:As their church struggled in its worship, especially in the practice of prophecy and tongues, what was its highest priority? Paul's position was plain: the highest virtue for them to pursue was love for one another.

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