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The Sunday Sermon – 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

18/09/2012

Love’s Future! 

1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

While God’s love was seen in eternity past, and demonstrated at Calvary, and while God’s love is a present reality, for we experience it today through the work of God the Holy Spirit, there is also a future, or eschatological characteristic in the agape love of God also, and it is summed up in Paul’s first statement in verse 8, Love never fails!  There are three great lessons which we should learn about the enduring qualities of God’s agape love:-

Love’s Future Permanence!

Agape love will go on, even when the church has ceased to need the spiritual gifts that are so prized at Corinth!  As we turn our attention to verse 8 to 11, we have to be aware that these verses have been the subject of controversy for many years.  The area of contention has centred on the question of when the gifts of the Holy Spirit will cease.

Because there are commonly two opposing interpretative positions in the understanding of this particular passage, I will summarise them both briefly, and I will then argue that the real problem to be addressed is not actually the continuance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but rather the NATURE of those gifts![1]

* The Classical Cessationist position is that the so-called ‘sign gifts’ as laid out in 1st Corinthians 12 are no longer available to us today in the church, for they died out at the end of the Apostolic Age.  Based on this passage, the argument is that we now have the completed Scriptures, and the Word of God, is what is meant by the phrase, “that which is perfect is come.”  They then argue, because ‘that which is perfect is come’ then tongues have ceased, (supernatural) knowledge has vanished, prophecies have failed.  The ‘sign gifts’ are therefore, not for today.  Now it must be pointed out that not all Reformed commentators agree with this interpretation, as we shall see below.   In fact, most it would seem that the view that this passage refers to the completion of the Canon of Scripture is a fairly recent position, introduced as a kind of ‘knee-jerk’ reaction among conservative evangelicals to the birth and growth of the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century.  A Pentecostal minister once remarked to me that Pentecostalism had been to 1st Corinthians 13 what Darwinianism had been to Creation!  It provoked a pendulum type swing in the opposite direction!  When the Pentecostals began to make their specious claims to extra biblical revelations, to claim improbable supernatural revelations and to concoct counterfeit miracles, the Evangelical Church in reply over-compensated by attempting to prove that there was a line drawn in history beyond which such ‘gifts’ could not pass.  That line was defined, some evangelicals argued, in 1st Corinthians 13:8-13.  But in so arguing, they adopted an exegetical position that had not previously been taken – nor had ever been seen as necessary to be taken.  In fact these evangelical defenders of orthodoxy were arguing on the wrong grounds entirely, for the error of Pentecostalism lay not in its interpretation of the meaning of ‘that which is perfect,’ but rather in their understanding of the nature meaning and purpose of spiritual gifts!

* The second position is that of the Charismatic, who will believe that unintelligible tongues, spectacular, sign like miracles, words of wisdom, ecstatic prophecies etc are all part of the daily worship pattern of the church until the Second Coming.  When reading and preaching on these verses, he will argue that the perfection referred to is the perfection of heaven, not the perfection of the Scriptures, and because, in their view that which is perfect has not yet come, so the ‘sign-gifts’ are still operating in the church.  Which position is right?  Actually neither!  Let us see:-

  1. The Treatment of Spiritual Gifts. Charity never faileth.  Let us make this point clearly first, for Paul makes it first.  God’s agape love has never failed, and never will fail!  One of the reasons that there have been so many various interpretations of the passage, is that Paul’s primary argument here is not that the gifts of the Spirit will cease at some given point in the history of the church.  Paul is writing this passage primarily to prove that love will NOT cease!  It will never become obsolete, and it will never fade away!  Perhaps the fact that the focus of much preaching on this text has centred on the argument over what Paul is saying about the permanence or otherwise of spiritual gifts is indicative of the carnal thinking of the Christian church.  We have a tendency to focus upon the temporary; to exaggerate and concentrate upon the matters of this age, when what really matters is eternity!
  2. The Transience of Spiritual Gifts. but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  This is the first important principle that we must learn.  Spiritual gifts will not last forever!  But let us look at the gifts that Paul has chosen to illustrate this point.  Over the last few studies, when we have considered the nature of these gifts, I have argued strongly that the ‘mystique’ of these gifts, as fostered and encouraged by the modern charismatic movement should be removed.  I have also argued that every gift that God gives to His church is given by the work of the Holy Spirit!  James 1:17 Reminds us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.“  When we take such a de-mystified view of these gifts, and realize the breadth of the inclusiveness of the work of the Spirit in the church, matters take on a completely different perspective. So:-
  3. The Termination of Spiritual Gifts. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  A day will come when all of the spirit’s gifts to the church will cease, and we have here an indication of when that will happen, it is WHEN THAT WHICH IS PERFECT IS COME!  But what does Paul mean by THAT WHICH IS PERFECT?
  • Prophecy will fail!  There will come a day when there is no more prophecy!  But what is prophecy?  It is the forthtelling of God’s will in particular situations!  The closest approximation to prophecy today is preaching!  A day will come when there will be no more need for preaching, but that day has not yet come!  We are still in the day of Grace, when God’s chosen method of presenting the Gospel message to sinners is through preaching!  It has not yet ceased, but one day it will!  When will that day be?  2 Peter 1:18-21 And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. 19We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
  • Tongues will cease!  There will come a day when all the languages of this world will be of no relevance whatsoever!  There have been times, like at the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 when God enabled his people to proclaim the Gospel in languages which were not their own native tongue, and which they had not learned!  But a day will one day come, when that would be unnecessary, for tongues, languages, will have ceased!  When will that day be?
  • Knowledge shall vanish!  There will come a day when our imperfect theological systems, in which we search for understanding of Divine matters that in many cases are too much for our human intellects, will be no more!  Knowledge is simply gnwsis – just simple knowledge!  The Amplified Version explains this part of the verse well, “As for knowledge it will pass away, that is it will lose its value and be superseded by truth.”  When will that day be?  So now notice:-
  • Perfection and partiality!  On the day when perfection comes, our partial knowledge shall be ended!  But this could not mean that the perfection meant is the perfection of the complete Bible.  The church has the had the Scriptures for many centuries, but no-one would surely argue that we have complete knowledge!  There are doctrines that are completely clear, but there are others where we still disagree, and yet can agree to disagree, while still maintaining fellowship. We are still debating issues of predestination, election, and covenant.  We disagree on baptism and forms of worship.  We argue over the issues of the second coming.  Our knowledge is far from complete!  But it will be complete when we see the Lord face to face
  • Perfection and maturity!  Paul talks here about the difference understanding that exists between childhood and manhood.  He is speaking of the day ‘when that which is perfect is come’ as being a day when the church grows up and matures.  Elsewhere Paul speaks of Christian growth and sanctification as a matter of progressing toward true maturity, (Ephes. 4:13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ) but in the knowledge that true perfection in Christian maturity will never come until the day when we are in Glory with the Lord.

So, we cannot accept that the perfection of which Paul is speaking is the completion of the Scriptures, but rather is a reference to the day when the completed church is in heaven with the Lord, when her knowledge of the ways of God are complete.   This is the view of Charles Hodge, Matthew Henry, Jamieson Fausset & Brown, Adam Clarke, and many of the other great commentators.  The Calvinistic notes to the Geneva Bible for this verse read, “Again he commends the excellency of charity, in that it will never be abolished in the saints, whereas the other gifts which are necessary for the building up of the church, so long as we live here, will have no place in the world to come.”

About that glorious day the Scriptures tell us,

Psalm 17:15 As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

John 17:24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

1 John 3:2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.  

This is confirmed in verse 12.  When we shall stand, face-to-face, before our Lord and Saviour, we shall. “Understand it better, by and by!”

 

It is here that we must see a delicate balance, which we might call Practical Cessationism.  The Holy Spirit still gives Good Gifts to the Lord’s Church, and will do so until the end of this age.  But the gifts that God gave to the apostles at the birth of the church, the miraculous ability to speak in unlearned languages, the wonderful healings and deliverances, which were the signs of God’s presence and power in that early church should not be expected as part of the normative experience of worship in the church today, for we now have the Canon, and we no longer have the Apostles.  There ARE Spiritual Gifts in the Church today…  But they are not what the Charismatics think they are!

So, we have seen that when the church arrives in heaven, all the spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit has given to the church today will no longer be needed.  But LOVE WILL GO ON!  The Apostle’s message to the warring factions in Corinth, each one seeking prominence for his own gift, is that one day all their splendid gifts will be no longer needed, but the love with which God has loved them, and which they should have for each other goes on!  It goes on beyond the grave and into eternity and it lasts forever and ever!

 

Love’s Future Perfection!

Paul now gives us another interesting insight into the love’s future, and in order to illustrate it, he uses an object with which the Corinthians are familiar, a mirror or window.  (Both may be implied in the text)

  1. Our muted vision of God in this ageFor now we see through a glass, darkly Corinth was renowned for the manufacture of mirrors!  We may be sure however, that the quality of glass manufactured in Corinth was very poor compared with that we know today.  The image, whether seen through a pane of glass, or reflected in a mirror, would have been very vague and distorted.  Through the Corinthian window the observer saw only the outline, the dark shadow or shape of a person on the other side of the window.  In many ways that is how we see God in this present age.   Our vision of Him is not yet as clear as we might think!  In Ephesians, Paul prays, That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, 18May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; 19And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.   (Ephes. 3:17-19)
  2. Our marvellous vision of God in the future! but then face to face In Glory we shall behold Him face to face, and we shall see Him as He is!  What a marvellous day that will be!
  3. Our partial knowledge admitted! now I know in part How little we know about God!  Even our greatest theologians cannot comprehend all the mysteries and glories of Deity!  He is past our finding out!  Paul said in Romans 11:33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
  4. God’s perfect knowledge ahead! but then shall I know even as also I am known Not only do we not fully comprehend God in all His fullness, we do not even have complete knowledge of ourselves!  We have to ask God to search us!  Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.   So imperfect is our perception of ourselves that we need the Holy Spirit to search us and to reveal our sinfulness and wickedness!  Our self-perception is so blurred by our sin that we cannot even see that we are sinners in need of a Saviour, unless the Lord Himself reveals it to us!  And His knowledge of each one of us is perfect, in fact we might say that it is encyclopaedic in its breadth and depth!   Psalm 139:4-6 For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.  It is important that we understand just how much the Lord knows about us as individuals, for when we get to heaven, our knowledge of Him will be like His great knowledge of us!

Now what is this important point that Paul is making with regard to love?  It is simply this; imperfect though it may be, dim and clouded though it may be, we already have a down payment of that heavenly knowledge, that heavenly vision of Christ here in this world!    Paul speaks in other places of the Holy Spirit as an, ‘earnest’ of what is to come.  2 Cor. 1:22  Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.   2 Cor. 5:5  Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.   Ephes. 1:14   Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.   When God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we have in effect a wonderful foretaste of heaven, and a present surety of the everlasting presence of God!  Is it any wonder that a hymnwriter spoke of the moment of his conversion in these terms, “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul, when at the Cross, the Saviour made me whole!  My sins were washed away, my night was turned to day, for heaven came down and glory filled my soul!”

 

Love’s Future Pre-eminence!

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Finally, Paul now uses an extraordinary turn of phrase.  He talks about three aspects of our faith that are both with us now, and yet abiding forever.  Some Reformed theologians have disputed this, arguing that the very reason for love’s greatness lies in its everlasting qualities, in contrast to the other two graces, which are for this world only.  In the notes to the Geneva Bible, reflecting Calvin’s attitude, we read the following comments,  (It is): as if the apostle should say, “Such therefore will be our condition then: but now we have three things, and they remain sure if we are Christ’s, without which, true religion cannot consist, that is, faith, hope, and charity. And among these, charity is the chiefest because it ceases not in the life to come as the rest do, but is perfected and accomplished. For seeing that faith and hope tend to things which are promised and are to come, when we have presently gotten them, to what purpose would we have faith and hope? But yet there at length we will truly and perfectly love both God and one another.”

So we have no problem whatsoever affirming that God’s love is eternal, is with us now, and yet remains with us into the eschaton.  But it is hard to agree with the Geneva notes’ insistence on such a stark dichotomy between love and the other two graces in our text.  Surely what Paul says about love he also says about faith and hope!  The question that underlies this verse is “What goes with us, out of this world and into eternity?”    “What is there in this earthly world which will benefit us when we stand before the Lord in judgement, when the books will be opened and the secrets of all hearts will be known?”  “What use will be our good works of self righteousness, our religious strivings and our pathetic attempts to placate an offended God?”

Only these three graces are of any permanence whatsoever:-

  • Our Saving Faith!  So Jesus warns His disciples that seeking the Kingdom of God must be their first priority!  Matthew 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.   We may well ask why such faith would be necessary when we are in eternity with the Lord.  Faith, after all, is that gift of God which enables us to walk with the Lord and to place our trust in Him, even when we have not seen Him.   As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:7 For we walk by faith, not by sight.  But faith is more than that!  Faith in Christ is the very basis of our standing in God!  Hebrews 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Ephes. 2:8-10 For by grace are ye saved through faith.  In eternity, that standing will never be altered, and it will never die!  In that sense faith goes with us into eternity!
  • Our Christian Hope!  The very basis of our assurance is the wonderful hope that we have in Christ.  It is an enduring hope!  Paul wrote to Titus in chapter 2:13 of that epistle, saying that he was Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. It is hope for now and hope for eternity, for like our saving faith, it carries us to glory!  Such hope stands with us on heaven’s shore and stretches away out into eternity!  It is the hope and assurance of the one who arrives in heaven’s glory, with the countless eons of eternity stretching ahead, knowing that nothing whatsoever can ever change his state of blessedness and glory!
  • Our Agape Love!  Love never fails, for love began in the heart of God before eternity, and love cost God His dearest and most precious possession, and his love has been freely given to us and even in heaven, the greatest of these permanent, eternal graces, is LOVE!

 

This theology of the present yet continuing supremacy of Christ’s love was not a concept new to Paul.  To the church at Rome he wrote:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 37Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. 38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-39

Horatius Bonar wrote:

O love of God, how strong and true!
Eternal, and yet ever new;
Uncomprehended and unbought,
Beyond all knowledge and all thought.

O love of God, how deep and great!
Far deeper than man’s deepest hate;
Self fed, self kindled, like the light,
Changeless, eternal, infinite.

O heavenly love, how precious still,
In days of weariness and ill,
In nights of pain and helplessness,
To heal, to comfort, and to bless!

O wide embracing, wondrous love!
We read thee in the sky above,
We read thee in the earth below,
In seas that swell, and streams that flow.

We read thee best in Him Who came
To bear for us the cross of shame;
Sent by the Father from on high,
Our life to live, our death to die.

We read thy power to bless and save,
E’en in the darkness of the grave;
Still more in resurrection light,
We read the fullness of thy might.

O love of God, our shield and stay
Through all the perils of our way!
Eternal love, in thee we rest
Forever safe, forever blest!

One of the greatest expressions of God’s love for us is found in the twenty third Psalm.  A minister was in the habit of advertising his sermons in the local paper.  One week he phoned the paper and asked them to insert the title for Sunday morning.  Insert, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he instructed.  “Is that all?” asked the newspaper clerk.  “That’s enough,” replied the minister.  The following day the advertisement appeared in the churches page of the paper.  It read, “The Lord is my shepherd, – that’s enough!”  The minister made that the theme of his sermon.

When we read this great psalm we can see God’s love for us   One preacher summarised the psalm like this:-

God’s love is,  “Beneath me, in green pastures, beside me by still waters, with me, in my shepherd, before me, at a table, around me, protecting me from my enemies, and beyond me, in the house of the Lord for ever!”

That is God’s agape love for us!  Love that elects us, saves us, keeps us, and remains with us long after this world has passed away, and long after the Holy Spirit’s gifts to the Lord’s Church will be needed!

 

 


[1] See also the passage on 1st Corinthians 14:1-4

From → Sermon Notes

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