The Supremacy of Love

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1 Corinthians 13:8-13

INTRODUCTION: For the past three weeks we have been studying this amazing chapter from the Bible on love. Today we will finish the chapter with verses 8-13.

The first week we looked at verses 1-3 where Paul spoke about the measure of love. We saw that love is the standard by which God measures our lives. Nothing we say, nothing we have, nothing we do has any value apart from love. Love is the true measure of all things.

Last week we examined verses 4-7 where Paul described the character of love. We talked about the fact that if God measures our entire life according to the measure of our love, then we had better understand what love truly is. And so Paul describes love for us in verses 4-7.

Verses 1-3 answer the question, “How does God measure our lives?” The answer is “Love.” Verses 4-7 answer the question, “What is love?” The answer is found in the verses: “Love is patient, love is kind, etc.” Verses 8-13 answer the question, “Why does God measure our lives according to love? Why has God chosen this standard rather than any other?” That is the question we hope to answer during the course of this morning’s message.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 – 8 Love 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. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 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 put childish ways behind me. 12 Now 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.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (NIV)

Why does God measure our lives according to love? Why not some other standard? Why not faith, or accomplishments, or sacrifice? Why not according to spiritual gifts? That was the standard the Corinthians wanted to use. In fact they were so busy measuring their lives by their spiritual gifts that they had all but forgotten about love. And so in verses 8-13 Paul addresses a very specific issue for the Corinthians: “Why does God measure our lives by love rather than spiritual gifts?” And in answering this question for the Corinthians, Paul also answers our more general question of why God chooses love as a measure over all other things.

I. Paul explains why love is superior to spiritual gifts as a measure of life. (verses 8-10)

    A. Spiritual gifts are temporary, while love is permanent. (8)

In verses 8-10 Paul gives the Corinthians two excellent reasons why love is superior to spiritual gifts as a measure of life. The first reason is that spiritual gifts are temporary, while love is permanent. Look at verse 8: “Love 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.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

Here Paul contrasts love which never fails with prophecy, tongues and knowledge – three specific spiritual gifts which will all pass away. Paul has already spoken about these gifts in chapter 12. He mentioned them in verses 1-3 of this chapter, and he will speak of them again in chapter 14. They are clearly important. However, Paul explains to the Corinthians that all three of these gifts are only temporary, while love lasts forever.

First, the gift of prophecy. We spoke about this gift when we studied verses 1-3. We saw that the gift of prophecy is the Holy Spirit-given ability to speak God’s words to man. We saw that sometimes this involved direct revelation concerning specific situations, or sometimes God speaking directly to the hearts of individuals through the preaching of his word. Paul considered the gift of prophecy to be the greatest of all the spiritual gifts. But he also recognized its temporary nature. Prophecy would not continue forever. The time would come when prophecy would cease.

The nation of Israel had already experienced times of no prophecy. The prophet Amos announced: “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land — not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. 12 Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12) The prophet Micah proclaimed: “This is what the LORD says: ‘. . . night will come over you, without visions, and darkness, without divination. The sun will set for the prophets, and the day will go dark for them. 7 The seers will be ashamed and the diviners disgraced. They will all cover their faces because there is no answer from God.” (Micah 3:5-7)

Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. And for 400 years God remained silent. There were no more prophets speaking the Word of God from the time of Malachi until John the Baptist appeared in Judah proclaiming the kingdom of God arriving in Christ. Prophecy had ceased in the past. It would cease in the future. Eventually it would cease forever. But not love. Love would never end.

Next Paul speaks about tongues – the Holy Spirit-given ability to speak in a language which you have not learned. “Where there are tongues, they will be stilled.” This was the Corinthians’ favorite gift, the one they were especially using to measure their lives. Now once again, there is nothing wrong with the gift of tongues. It is a gift from God – how can it possibly be bad? The problem was the misuse of tongues, the misplaced emphasis on tongues, and most of all, the unloving attitude which accompanied all this. Paul sets the record straight. Tongues are temporary. They will eventually be stilled. Love lasts forever.

And then there is the gift of knowledge: Paul says the gift of knowledge is also temporary. “Where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” This verse sounds strange at first. How can knowledge pass away? Does that mean there will be no knowledge in heaven? Of course not! In fact verse 12 tells us that our knowledge in heaven will be perfect and complete, far beyond any earthly knowledge we now possess.

Paul is not speaking about knowledge in general here. Rather, he is talking about the spiritual gift of knowledge. This gift is the Holy Spirit-given ability to have understanding or insight into the mysteries of God. It is a gift given to some in the body of Christ in order to minister that understanding or insight to others. But one day such a gift will no longer be necessary. We read in Jeremiah 31:34 “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. The time will come when there is no longer a need for the spiritual gift of knowledge, because all believers will have full understanding and insight into the mysteries of God.

You could say the same thing about each of the spiritual gifts. They are all temporary. You use the hammer a lot while you are building the house. But when the house is complete, you put the hammer away. It is the same with spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual gifts is to build up the church of Christ on earth. However, once the church has been completed, there will be no more need for the gifts. The first reason Paul gives why love is superior to spiritual gifts is that spiritual gifts are temporary, while love is permanent. Love lasts forever.

    B. Spiritual gifts are partial, while love is complete. (9-10)

The second reason Paul gives is that spiritual gifts are partial in nature, while love is complete. Look at verses 9-10: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10)

Spiritual gifts, as wonderful as they are, and as important as they are to the church’s spiritual growth, are never perfect or complete in themselves. In fact, they are not designed to be complete. They are designed to build up and serve the body of Christ. If any one person had all the spiritual gifts, he or she would not need other people in the body of Christ in quite the same way. Or if any one person had the full measure of any one particular gift, he or she would not need others who have that particular gift in the same way either.

We all have various spiritual gifts according to the grace given us. And we all have those gifts in varying measures or degrees. But no one ever has a corner on the market when it comes to spiritual gifts or any particular gift. That’s not the way God planned it. No one has all the gifts, and no one has the complete and perfect expression of any one gift. That would defeat the purpose of the gifts, which is to build up the body of Christ, each one using his or her gift to serve others and relying on others to use their gifts to serve them in return.

And so Paul says, “We know in part and we prophesy in part.” The gifts of knowledge and prophecy are partial, imperfect, and incomplete. No one has a full gift of prophecy or knowledge. But even if they did, they would still be nothing without love. That’s what Paul said back in verse 2: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing.” Even if someone had the full measure of all the gifts, love would still be a superior measure, because of reason number one: the gifts are temporary, while love lasts forever. But Paul’s point is that no one does have a full measure of any gift. “We know in part and we prophesy in part.” The gifts are partial by nature, while love is complete. Love is a superior measure.

Someone might point out that no one loves as fully as they ought to either. And that’s true. But the difference is there is no limit to love. We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us. Love is not designed to be partial. Love is designed to be full. We may fall short of God’s design, but that does not change God’s intention for us. In that sense spiritual gifts are partial by design, but love is complete. We are to love others fully and completely, even as Christ has loved us.

People debate the meaning of Paul’s words in verse 10: “when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” Most everyone would agree that the “imperfect” refers to the spiritual gifts and their temporary and partial nature. The question arises over what Paul meant by “perfection” in this verse.

Some would argue that the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge were all temporary sign gifts intended only for the early church, that those gifts are no longer in operation today. They interpret the phrase “when perfection comes” as meaning “when the writing of the Bible was completed.” Once God’s word was complete, there was no longer any need for those gifts. That’s a very common interpretation in many churches today.

I think the more natural meaning of Paul’s words is this: “when perfection comes” refers to the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness when Christ returns. When Christ returns we will be perfected and completed. We will be resurrected with our new perfect bodies and brought into God’s perfect heavenly kingdom. “When perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.”

But whatever your interpretation, Paul’s point still holds true. Love is superior to spiritual gifts as a measure of our lives. Why? Spiritual gifts are temporary and partial, while love is permanent and complete.

II. Paul illustrates the temporary and partial nature of spiritual gifts using the examples of childhood and a mirror. (verses 11-12)

Next, in verses 11-12, Paul gives two examples from life to illustrate this truth: the example of growing to maturity from childhood, and the example of looking at one’s reflection in the mirror. The childhood example illustrates the temporary nature of spiritual gifts. The mirror example illustrates the partial nature of spiritual gifts.

    A. Childhood is temporary by nature. (11)

First, let’s look at the childhood example, where Paul illustrates the temporary nature of spiritual gifts. Look at verse 11: “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 put childish ways behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Childhood is a necessary but temporary developmental phase on the road to adulthood. It is a temporary phase, not the goal of life itself. Every parent wants to see their children grow up into mature, responsible adults. We sometimes say we wish they could stay children forever, but if they actually did, we would get over that very quickly. We want to see our children grow up. We love their innocence yet long for their maturity. It would not be natural for them to remain children forever.

Children differ from adults in many ways. They talk differently; they think differently; they reason differently. If an adult continued to talk, think and reason as a child, we would say that adult has not really matured. As we grow into adulthood we continually put childish ways behind us. A ten-year old no longer plays with his or her preschool toys. A high school student no longer plays with his or her ten-year old toys. An adult no longer views the world as a high school student does. Even a college student looks at life very differently than a high school student. As we grow into adults we leave childhood behind us. Childhood is by nature and definition, temporary.

It is the same way with spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are a necessary but temporary developmental phase on the road to spiritual adulthood. They are a temporary phase, not the goal itself. The goal is spiritual maturity and love. That’s what Paul means when he says, “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 put childish ways behind me.” Just as childhood has a temporary function, so do spiritual gifts. Childhood gives way to adulthood. Spiritual gifts give way to spiritual maturity and love. Spiritual gifts are temporary, while love lasts forever.

    B. A poor reflection is partial by nature. (12)

Next Paul uses the illustration of a mirror. Whereas the childhood example illustrates the temporary nature of spiritual gifts, the mirror example illustrates the partial nature of spiritual gifts. Look at verse 12: “Now 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.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The mirrors in Paul’s day did not give the same quality reflection as today’s mirrors do. They were made from polished steel or other metals rather than from glass. In fact the Corinthians were famous for their bronze mirrors – which is probably one of the reasons why Paul chose this particular illustration.

But as fine as the Corinthian mirrors were for their day, they could not reveal everything. And so Paul gives the example of a poor reflection in a mirror. A poor reflection is partial by nature. You don’t pick up all the fine details as if you were looking at someone face to face. Even a perfect reflection is a poor substitute for the real thing. I would much rather talk to my wife in person than look at her photograph, or talk to her on the phone, or even by video conference.

It is the same way with spiritual gifts. They are only partial in nature. Now, through the gifts we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror what the church of Jesus Christ should look like. Then, when Christ returns and the church is perfected in love, we shall see face to face. Now we know in part, then we shall know fully, even as God fully knows us. Why is love superior to spiritual gifts as a measure of our lives? Spiritual gifts are temporary; love is permanent. Spiritual gifts are partial by nature; love is complete.

III. Paul proclaims the supremacy of love over all other things as a measure of life. (verse 13)

Paul has explained to the Corinthians why God measures our lives by love rather than by spiritual gifts. Now he goes on to explain why God chooses love as a measure of life over all other things. Look at verse 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Here in verse 13 Paul proclaims the superiority of love not only to spiritual gifts, but to all other things as well. He does this by naming the three highest virtues of all: faith, hope and love. This trilogy of virtues was widely recognized as the highest of all the Christian virtues. Let’s look at all three of them briefly.

First of all, there is faith. Faith is essential to the Christian life. Hebrews 11 tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see . . . without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:1,6) We are saved through faith, we are justified by faith, and the Bible tells us that the righteous will live by faith. Faith is one of the highest of all Christian virtues.

Secondly, there is hope. Hope is also essential to the Christian life. We have the hope of salvation, the hope of the resurrection, and the blessed hope of Christ’s return. Our hope is not like the world’s hope, marked by uncertainty and doubt. Rather, Christian hope is bold, strong and confident in the promises of God. “Hope does not disappoint us,” writes Paul, “because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:5) Hope is another of the highest of all Christian virtues.

If you were going to make a list of all the ways God could measure our lives, faith, hope and love would have to make the top three. And out of these three, Paul says the greatest of these is love. Why? Why does love top the list? For the exact same reasons that love won out over spiritual gifts.

Faith and hope are among the very highest virtues, and yet, like spiritual gifts, they are only temporary and partial. Faith is for this life only. We live by faith now, but faith will not be necessary in heaven when we see Jesus face to face. In that day faith will give way to sight.

Hope also is for this life only. Paul wrote in Romans 8 about how we wait in hope for the redemption of our bodies. Why? Because it has not happened yet. It is still in the future. As Paul says, “Who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8:24) But once we are resurrected, once we have safely entered heaven, once we are forever in God’s presence, then hope will no longer be necessary, because, “Who hopes for what he already has?” We will have everything God promised us and more.

Hope, like faith, is for this life only. But love endures forever. Faith will become sight, hope will ultimately be fulfilled, but only love continues for all eternity. Love remains in the present and lasts forever.

CONCLUSION: And so Paul demonstrates the supremacy of love over all other things as the measure of our lives. This entire chapter is one of the most beautiful and meaningful passages in all of Scripture. Let us review it one last time together.

Verses 1-3 answer the “How” question: “How does God measure our lives?” The answer is: “Love.” Nothing we say, nothing we have, nothing we do has any lasting value apart from love. Love is the standard by which God measures our lives.

Verses 4-7 answer the “What” question: “If love is the standard by which God measures our lives, then what is love? The answer is: “Love is patient, love is kind, etc.” Or basically, as we saw last week, love is like Jesus.

Verses 8-13 answer the “Why” question: “Why does God measure our lives according to love?” The answer is: “Because love is the greatest thing of all.” Spiritual gifts are temporary and partial. Love is permanent and complete. Even faith will change to sight, and hope will change to fulfillment, but love will never be replaced. Love lasts forever. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

© Ray Fowler

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