8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When 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 put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor 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.
13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Ancient settlers, such as the Pilgrims, needed ships to get from the Old World to the promise of the New World. The ships served them well, yet when they reached the New World, they left the ships behind. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is an important one. They did not insist on dragging the ships onto the land and continuing to live in them. The ships were necessary for a time but once that time had come and gone it would have been foolish to hang on to them. In a sense, this is the point Paul is making to the Corinthians. They have been given certain spiritual gifts, but they are clinging to and valuing themselves based on the possession and ability to use these gifts. They have completely lost sight of the fact that, much like the ships, these gifts are only necessary for a time in the present age; soon, they will not be needed. Why take pride in, and value something that is temporary, all the while ignoring something that will last forever?
So, what is it that will last forever? Precisely what Paul has been describing in this chapter: love. Love is the language which God’s people will continue to speak throughout the duration of this present age and into the ‘age to come’. It is the most excellent way. The only way to truly understand the importance and preeminence of love in the present age is to understand Paul’s vision of the future age. It will be a time of joy, perfect harmony and love. This is what God’s future for His people will look like. Yet, it is not limited to the future alone, because it has broken into the present age, primarily through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Love is the only Christian gift that will never cease to be necessary. In the present age, it is the river on which all other Christian gifts and virtues flow, but in the age to come it will be the only thing that is needed. Faith and hope are of vital importance now, but even they, won’t be necessary in God’s glorious future because what we have faith in now will be seen and what we hope for will be realized. Love will still be needed because everything will be characterized by love in the age to come.
With all of that in mind, Paul has shown the importance of love in order to dwarf the spiritual gifts that were so enticing and attractive to the Church in Corinth. Prophecies are great, but they will be stilled in a world where all has been fulfilled. Tongues won’t be needed in an age where everyone speaks and understands the same language of love. Special knowledge will be rendered unnecessary in a time when all will be known. When the age to come arrives in full all of these partial things will pass away, being no more necessary than a ship on the land. Although some have, at times, argued that the perfection to which Paul refers is the completion of the New Testament, this seems unlikely, as Paul says that when perfection comes, then we shall see face to face. He is presumably talking about man and God, and this is only something that will happen in the ‘age to come’. Thus, it is the ‘age to come’ that is the perfection to which Paul refers. It is the time when those in Christ will be completely restored to the image of God (Col. 3:10).
Paul reverts to three images to drive this point home. The first image is that of a child. When he was a child, Paul says he did things that were appropriate for a child, but when he matured he put those things away. There are many things that children do that seem quite cute, yet if someone were to continue that behavior into adulthood, it would be perceived as rather grotesque. The Corinthians were acting like children in that they were clinging to and exalting the flashy spiritual gifts as if they were the point of the present age rather than mere tools. They were dividing the body of Christ as a result of their own selfishness and ceasing to be the community of Christ driven by God’s love for one another, the type of love that lays down one’s life for others. The Corinthians have acted childishly because they have mistaken the part for the whole, the partial for the complete, and have taken the tool and exalted it above the final product. On top of that, they failed to realize that the final product, God’s love, was available in the present age.
The next image is that of a mirror. This would have been a familiar object for Paul’s readers because mirrors were made in Corinth. When you look in a mirror, you see things backwards. Additionally, mirrors back then did not provide the best reflections. Paul’s point is that in the present age, you can see something of what God is doing, but it will only be fully understood and realized when we can see him face to face. This is similar to John’s belief in 1 John 3:2 which says, “now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Paul’s final image encapsulates the first two. In this present age, the best we can do is to have partial knowledge, so there’s no point in getting puffed up or creating divisions over that. In the age to come we will know fully, because we will have been transformed into creatures that are completely characterized by God’s love. All of this hinges, however, not on what we know, or even what we will know. It all hinges on whether God knows us.
Paul believed there to be continuity between the present age and the ‘age to come’ that made what we do in this present age important. He wanted the Corinthians to begin to operate in the language of God’s love because it will be the only language used in the future age. Do you operate well in displaying God’s love or do you tend to cling to and value other things as the Corinthians did? God back through verses 4-8 and insert your name wherever you see the word ‘love’. Does this sound like you or do you still have some work to do?