I aim to conclude this portion of Paul’s letter tonight by wrapping up his section on love. We will do well to remember that this portion of scripture is written within the context of a congregation that was fighting over spiritual gifts.
They boasted about their gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues. They equated spiritual maturity with impressive gifts of knowledge and eloquence and discernment. They didn’t have any idea that their impressive gifts, used without love, actually turned them into noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
They were so proud of their teaching and their instruction and their doctrine and their knowledge, all the while they actually were demonstrating a lack of knowledge and their lack of maturity because of their lack of love.
Love is the mark of genuine spiritual maturity, not gifting.
And if I can prime the pump of application for us here at Morningview, what ought we to be warned against in this text? I think one thing that parallels our congregation with Corinth, is a subtle temptation toward boasting in our doctrine, in our teaching, in our gifts of knowledge.
We may believe that the miraculous spiritual gifts of revelation have ceased, but we still certainly can be guilty of boasting in our right apprehension of doctrine, our clarity, our teaching, or even our teachers, and can easily do so without love.
It’s all too easy to joke about or disdain other churches and other believers for their apparent immaturity. But when we do that we are no different than the Corinthians, who were boasting in knowledge while demonstrating a lack of it.
We can boast of our maturity and our doctrinal awareness, while simultaneously demonstrating a lack of both through our lack of love.
Any of that sound familiar? Ancient Corinth isn’t as far away from Montgomery as we might be tempted to think.
With that priming of the pump done, let’s remind ourselves of Paul’s words to Corinth:
13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. 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, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 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. 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.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Our text begins with Paul’s argument introduced. Paul’s argument introduced.
His thesis, if I may summarize it directly, is that love is superior to all other spiritual gifts and graces because it lasts forever. Love outlasts all other spiritual gifts, and therefore it is superior. It never ends.
That’s the point of verse 8: Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
Love doesn’t end, even though his three selected spiritual gifts will end. Prophecies will no longer be needed once the things prophesied about have arrived. Tongues will no longer be necessary when the fullness of divine revelation is present. And the gift of knowledge will no longer be required once divine revelation is in front of our eyes.
Of course, Paul isn’t saying that ALL Knowledge will pass away, as if we all become ignorant idiots at some future time, but rather the vehicle for divine knowledge, the spiritual gift of receiving, discerning, and proclaiming divine knowledge will no longer be required.
Those three gifts will cease, Paul says, but love will not. And therefore, Love is superior because it will remain durable, it will continue to exist, continue to be exercised, and continue to grow.
That’s easy enough, and fairly uncontroversial. Now let’s move onto verse 9 and get into more disputed territory.
In verse 9 we see Paul’s argument explained. Paul’s argument explained.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
Why is love superior to these spiritual gifts of revelation? Not only will love last forever, unlike the gifts of prophecy and knowledge and tongues, but love is complete.
The gifts of knowledge in this age are partial, they are incomplete. We know in and we prophecy in part now, but then, when the perfect comes, the incomplete will pass away. The partial will no longer be necessary.
More about the incompleteness in a moment. But for now I’d like to think through what is probably the most disputed part of this passage. What is Paul referring to when he says “The perfect?”
when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When is that time? When does the perfect come?
I won’t go through all the proposed options. Rather, the two most likely options in my estimation are that either the perfect refers to the future completion of the New Testament, or the perfect refers to the 2nd coming of Christ and the eternal state. Those are the two main options: the perfect equals the coming completion of the bible, or the perfect refers to the return of Christ and the entrance of his people into the final state.
For those who believe the perfect is the completion of the new testament, and these would include men of high regard like B.B. Warfield, and scholars like Richard Gaffin today, it seems to me that they are trying very hard to defend the church against the error of continuationism, or the idea that the revelatory gifts of tongues and prophecy continue today.
And so, they argue that the perfect has come, the completed canon, and therefore the revelatory gifts have passed away. The partial is no longer needed, now that the perfect scriptures have been given.
While I am sympathetic to that position, and I do agree with where they land on the ceasing of the revelatory spiritual gifts, you can go back and listen to my defense of cessationism from my sermons on 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, I am not convinced that the perfect here refers to the closing of the canon. And I say that for several reasons.
If the perfect refers to the closing of the NT canon, the original Corinthian audience would have seemingly not have been able to understand Paul’s original meaning. There is nothing in Paul’s letter referring so some future point when scripture would cease being given. Rather I think they would have heard the word “perfect” more like Jesus meant it in Matthew 5 when he said:
“you must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” which is the spiritual and moral perfection of his people.
But the most compelling reason why the perfect isn’t the closing of the canon is found in verse 12. Not to jump the gun, but verse 12 says that when the perfect comes we will see him “face to face.”
While the biblical writings are in one sense perfect, they don’t give us a face to face meeting with God. Scripture is clear in passages like 1 Peter 1:18 and 1 John 4, that one day we will see God face to face and we will be perfected, but that day is not now.
Instead, I am convinced that the majority position is correct: that the perfect refers to the final state in the New Heaven and New Earth, which is initiated at the 2nd coming of Christ. The list of scholars who take this position is long.
I think this interpretation is the plain reading of the text, and is consistent with the rest of Paul’s eschatology. The age of revelatory gifts was then in Paul’s day, and it was partial, temporary, necessary for a season. Revelation in this age, gifts of discernment and knowledge, are all limited and finite, hindered by sin and by natural weakness.
But when the perfect comes, we will see him face to face, our knowledge will not be mediated through another, it will not be tainted by sin, it will not be corrupted, it will not be limited by our natural weaknesses. And that describes the future, not now.
And I think that is exactly what Paul illustrates in the next couple of verses. Verse 11 says, “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.”
Paul is equating the revelatory spiritual gifts to speaking like a child. Infantile babble. Surely the gifts were producing genuine revelation. God spoke through them, and the revelation was true and good and needful for the church in it’s infancy.
But it was limited and partial. These prophecies and words of revelation and tongues were like training wheels. Gifts of discernment and gifts of knowledge are only necessary when the object of divine revelation is distant. We won’t need them, once the object of divine revelation is in front of you.
That’s the point of verse 12:
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.”
Now, our knowledge is distant and mediated. It is like we are looking toward something that is far away, peering through a telescope at something that is slightly obscured by fog and mist.
There is a scene in the Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian is with the Shepherds on the Delectable Mountains, and he is able to get a glimpse of his destination at his journey’s end, the Celestial City, he’s able to see heaven, but he can only do it through a telescope, and Bunyan says that his sight is slightly obscured because Christian’s hands are shaky.
His sins and his weaknesses make his vision of heaven unsteady. That’s where we are in this age, given real revelation, a real glimpse, but a shaky vision. We’re unable to hold the telescope steady.
But then, when the perfect comes, we will no longer need a telescope. We won’t be hindered in our vision by the fog of sin or the mists of weakness. Our knowledge won’t be partial. Instead, we will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Let’s consider the final statement of verse 12 for a moment. It’s full of great encouragement for us, if we stop and linger on it.
Paul says that when the perfect comes, we shall fully know, even as I have been fully known, which means that our knowledge then, when the perfect comes, will be as complete, like God’s knowledge of us now.
Consider that. How well does God know you now? Scripture is clear that he knows your rising and your sleeping. He knows where you are going, and what you are doing. He knows the hairs on your head, knows the thoughts in your mind, knows the ambitions and goals in your heart.
He knows whom you will marry, and what your great great grandchildren’s names will be. In fact, he knew you before you were born, and he knitted you together in your mother’s womb.
He knows everything about you, and he knows you better than you know yourself. That’s how thorough his knowledge is.
And Paul is saying that when the perfect comes, our knowledge will be like that. Not that we somehow come to possess divine omniscience and instantly come to possess every bit of data in our brains.
But rather, the quality of our knowledge goes from child-like and infantile, to mature. We go from a partial glimpse, to full high-definition. We go from seeing our spouse through a veil, to seeing him face to face.
We won’t talk to God through a distance, we will talk to him like Moses on the mountain. That’s where this phrase Face to Face comes from, it was used in the Old Testament to describe Moses’s speaking with God directly.
But when we get to heaven, we’ll have even better communion than Moses had. We’ll have better knowledge than the Old Testament’s greatest prophet. We’ll speak face to face, and we will see him as he is, because we will be made like him. That’s what John says.
Moses never had that, not at the burning bush, nor on the top of mount Sinai. But we will be perfected, and that will enable us to experience the fullness of knowledge and communion and fellowship that not even Moses could have in this life.
Brothers and sisters that is what awaits all of those who believe. Let your thoughts linger on that time, on the bliss of eternal communion and perfected knowledge. When you are discouraged and despairing because of the imperfection of our knowledge in this life, remember what is to come.
When you’re frustrated because you’re not sure what to do, or unable to understand something, or your natural weaknesses and your sinful mind let you down again, be encouraged about what awaits God’s people. Your mind won’t be worn out, and your knowledge will one day not be limited and obscured. One day you will be face to face with God.
But if you aren’t trusting in Christ as your savior, then you need to know that God fully knows you too. He knows your wicked thoughts, your corrupt and selfish motives, your covetous intentions, your jealous glances, your bitter feelings, your greedy ambitions. He knows them all. He has seen each one of them, and not a single one will be left out of his mind when you see him face to face.
That’s right, those that have rejected God in this age will also see him Face to Face. And you will stand condemned as the list of your sins is recounted. All of your darkness, your shameful actions and thoughts and feelings, all of them will be trotted out as evidence of your just condemnation.
You are now fully known, and then you will likewise be fully known to all.
But you don’t have to let that be the case. God in Christ has provided a way of escape. The God of love has provided a sacrifice of love for all those that would come to him. Simple faith is all that is needed. Trust in the Son of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.
His blood was sufficient to save the worst of sinners, and his love is more than enough to overcome the hardest of hearts. Don’t wait to see him face to face as your judge. Come to him now by faith, so that when you do see him face to face, it is as his bride, and not his enemy.
Faith is all that is needed, and now is the age of faith. Hope in Christ is what’s required, and now is the age of hope.
That’s part of what Paul says in the final verse.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Now is the age of faith and hope and love. These three are necessary for now.
Faith ties itself to what God has revealed, and it agrees with that revelation. It assents to it.
Hope attaches itself to what has been promised in the future, and it awaits it with anticipation.
But love is superior to even these to divine graces, because love continues forever while faith and hope will be fulfilled. When the perfect comes, they will not be needed.
In heaven, faith will be swallowed up in vision, and hope [will be swallowed up] in fruition. There is no room to believe and hope, when we see and enjoy the reality.
In that sense then, faith and hope are temporary.
But love, love flows from God’s own divine perfection, and within us it produces both love to God and love to all those who are made in his image.
Let me close with a wonderful quote from an old commentator, describing this state of perfection and the love therein, and says that these evidences of love in us, love to God and to those made in his image,
“will all shine forth in the most glorious splendors in another world, and there will love be made perfect; there we shall perfectly love God, because he will appear [lovely] forever, and our hearts will kindle at the sight, and glow with perpetual devotion.
And there shall we perfectly love one another, when all the saints meet there, when none but saints are there, and saints made perfect. O blessed state! How much surpassing the best [here] below! O [how beautiful] and excellent [this] grace of [love]! How much does it exceed the most valuable gift, when it outshines every grace, and is the everlasting consummation of them!
When faith and hope are at an end, true [love] will burn forever with the brightest flame. Note [also], Those whose hearts are fullest of this divine principle [of love] border most upon the heavenly state and perfection… [Love] is the surest offspring of God, and bears his [most lovely] impression. For God is love, 1 John 4 8, 16. And where God is to be seen as he is, and face to face, there [love] is in its greatest height—there, and there only, will it be perfected.”
 For good summaries of the interpretive options, see: D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 87ff.; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1987), 714f., especially 714n381.
 E.g., John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 364.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 6.464.
 Contra: Carson, Showing the Spirit, 95–96 I remain unconvinced of Carson’s argument that Faith and Hope are in some sense eternal. He’s normally a wonderfully careful exegete, but i was disappointed with his treatment of (e.g., ) 1 Cor. 15:19. Ibid.
 Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, 3:6.464.