The text for this message is I Corinthians 13:8-11: “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. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 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.”
In verse 8, love is contrasted as to its permanence with three extraordinary gifts. First, prophecies: “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies….” Prophecies. These are direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. They may be a word that one receives concerning the future, as Agabus received when he tied himself with Paul’s belt and said that Paul would be imprisoned when he came to Jerusalem. But the idea of it is more than just one who tells the future or knows something from God concerning the future. It is especially one who sets forth the mind of God or the will of God for a specific situation. And the gift of prophecy was an extraordinary, temporary gift in the early New Testament church, and an important one before the New Testament Scriptures were finalized, written, and canonized. So, in chapter 12:28 this gift is listed second: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets….” It was an important gift in the New Testament church in the apostolic age. “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.”
Then, the third one that he mentions here is knowledge: “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” When the apostle speaks here of knowledge, he does not refer to an intellectual grasp of things. Nor does he refer to the saving knowledge that every believer has. But he is referencing here another apostolic, special, extraordinary gift that was given during the time of the New Testament church. It is closely related to the gift of prophecy. With the gift of knowledge, someone was given the ability to understand, as he puts it in verse 2, “all knowledge and all mysteries.” The word “knowledge” is logos, and it refers to a logical, coherent understanding of a specific message from God. It was given to one, and it could be understood by others as it was shared with them. Again, it was an important gift in the apostolic age, before the Scriptures were complete. It was not a gift acquired through listening and learning so much as a supernaturally given gift. This gift was used for instruction in the church, and in many ways it was similar to the gift of prophecy and similar to the gift of inspiration.
I mentioned, from verse 8, two of the three gifts listed there: the first one (prophecy), and the third one (knowledge). I did that because those two share the same verb in the original Greek. The King James translation says, “whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.” And then it says, “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” But the exact same word is used in the original in both cases. The verb is future passive. It means that something is going to happen to prophecies, and something is going to happen to knowledge in the future. The word means, literally, to be annulled or abolished. The apostle is saying that prophecies will be annulled, knowledge will be abolished. It will be set aside. That is because, as he says in verse 9, they are partial: “We know in part, and we prophesy in part.” Whatever it was that a prophet spoke was revealed to him from God, just a little glimpse into the great mysteries of the gospel and of God—just a little glimpse. Whatever knowledge one had by this special revelation from God also was limited. And these gifts were intended as temporary gifts for a little while in the church. They would be annulled. They would be abolished. They would vanish away. They would fail. “When that which is perfect is come,” verse 10, “then that which is in part shall be done away.”
“That which is perfect” can be understood in two different senses or refer to two different things. If we look ahead to verse 12, I think that the idea is of heaven: “Now…then.” “Then” refers to heaven. So, that which is perfect could be referring to the perfection that will be ours in heaven. Certainly, then, in heaven, we will not need prophecies anymore and we will not need those who have special knowledge to teach us, because we will see Jesus face to face as He is. Yes, we will spend an eternity plumbing the depths and the riches of knowing Him, but there will be a full capacity that we will be able to have in our sinless human minds when we come to perfection.
But verse 10, when it says “that which is perfect,” could also be referring to the fact that after the time of the apostles the church will have come to its maturity (because the word “perfect” has that basic idea of maturity). When the church has matured, that is, when it has gone through this apostolic age, when the revelation that God had intended for her is complete, when the Scriptures have been written, then these extraordinary gifts of prophecy and knowledge will be annulled. Paul’s point here is not when they will vanish away. But we will come back to that in a little while.
The other gift that is mentioned here in verse 8 is the gift of tongues. “Whether there be tongues,” Paul says, “they shall cease.” What was this gift of tongues? We can turn to the book of Acts, chapter 2, and we see that the gift of tongues was a gift of speaking in a language that one had never learned. One was given this gift to be able to speak in a different language so that he could proclaim the wonderful works of God. That is what happened in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost, so that the Galileans there were able to speak in languages that they had never learned, to people-groups whose language they had never heard before, and to speak to them in these different languages. So, on Pentecost, in Acts 2, the Greeks and the Parthians and the Medes and the Arabians and the Alexandrians and so on were amazed to hear these men of Galilee speak in their languages the wonderful works of God. That was the gift of tongues.
The purpose of this gift was twofold. One was for the proclamation of the gospel in different languages. They taught the wonderful works of God. But the other purpose of this sign of tongues was to demonstrate that the gospel would now go to the ends of the earth, that it would not be limited to a people-group who spoke Hebrew—the Jews. It was a sign especially to the Jews, and against the unbelief of the Jews, that, in the words of Jesus, the kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to others. That was the sign of speaking in tongues. It was a gift that followed the apostles when they went preaching, so that, in different congregations, some who had this gift and who knew the gospel were able to teach others with whom they did not share a common language.
The apostle says of this gift, verse 8: “Whether there be tongues, they shall cease.” This is from a different Greek verb. The other one had the idea of someone acting upon them, to set them aside. This one has the idea of their doing this themselves. They would simply come to a halt. It is the same verb that is used in the book of Hebrews to describe the Old Testament sacrifices. When those Old Testament sacrifices had reached their purpose and fulfillment in the cross of Jesus Christ, then they ceased. This will happen also to tongues. They will peter out of their own accord, the apostle is saying, because they are no longer necessary, they have served their purpose, they will cease. It is from this verse that we get the word “cessationist” with regard to this Pentecostal gift of tongues. We are cessationists. We believe that this gift has ceased.
Paul’s main point here is not to tell us when these gifts will cease, but simply that they will cease, that these gifts are temporary, that they have a time and a place and a usefulness in the New Testament church, but they will finish when that time and usefulness is completed. We believe that was the time of the apostles, because in another place he calls these the gifts of the apostles.
The apostle’s main point here is a comparison between these temporary gifts and love, which is eternal. They will cease, in comparison to love, which will never cease. Love will not fail. Love will not be abolished. Love is not temporary but permanent. And it is so permanent that it will be carried into the perfection of heaven. The apostle is going to make that point even more strongly in the final verse when he talks about faith and hope in comparison to love. If you want to speak of gifts, there are these ministering gifts (tongues, prophecies, knowledge), and there are these common gifts that all believers have (faith and hope). Then there is also another common gift that believers have, namely love. And that is superior even to faith and hope, which, in heaven will also no longer be necessary.
His point here in this comparison is that charity never faileth. His point has to do with this: what is it that should be emphasized in the church, in the life of the church? Given that love will never end, and all the other gifts will end, love is the goal of these other gifts. All these other gifts work towards and they serve love. The other gifts, we could say, are simply means to bring us to the end, which is love, to the highest good, to the more excellent, the supreme way of love.
That is what the apostle means elsewhere when he says that all the gifts are given in the church for the sake of edification. Chapter 8, for example: “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” Why did God give prophecy? Why did He give tongues? Why did He give knowledge? He gave it so that the church might know Him, God, and love Him, and that they might know His Son. Think of the gift of tongues that proclaim the wonderful works of God. This gift was for the edifying of the body in love.
That is important as we think about gifts in the church today. Gifts and offices in the church are given for exactly the same purpose today. God does not appoint a man as a minister or an officebearer in the church so that he can use that position or the gifts that he is given to advance himself or to gain a following for himself. But God gives officebearers in the church so that the sheep, the people, may be led into the life of the body and to love one another in the body. He does not give sermons in the church just so that you, as an individual, can advance your intellectual understanding and knowledge or so that a minister can be recognized as a great teacher. But He gives sermons in the church to teach us all this important and eternal lesson with regard to love and to call us to love God and to love one another with a pure heart, fervently.
That should be the purpose of all the work of the church. Why do we teach our children in the catechism class? It is not just a school lesson. We want our covenant children to learn to keep the two great commandments: to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love the neighbor as themselves. Why do we do evangelism? Why do we have lectures? Why do we put things on the Internet and distribute literature? It is not to promote our name as a church, but we want to spread the knowledge of God so that people can be built up in their love for Him.
Think of other aspects of our life as a church. Why do we fellowship with one another? Why do we have a monthly potluck? To bring the members of the body together informally. We do that formally in worship, but informally to know one another and to build one another up in love. You can even think of something like church discipline and the work of the elders in church discipline. Why do we do that? What is the purpose of it? The goal of church discipline is to restore an erring brother or sister and to preserve the church and the love of the truth by warding off false doctrine. So, you see, all the gifts serve love. And that is important for us personally.
What is spiritual growth? Spiritual growth is growth in love. Spiritual growth is growth in character in this way, that we show the characteristics of love as we have looked at those here in this chapter. You can think of your own spiritual growth. Your spiritual growth should be that it improves the way that you live in the relationships that God has given to you. First your relationship to Him, but then, as you love Him, also all the other relationships in which you live as well, so that your spiritual growth is a growth in your character. You become more patient and you become more kind and you become less selfish and become less proud. You become more understanding, you become more hopeful, you believe more about others that is good, and so on. That is spiritual growth. You become better husbands. You become more loving mothers. You become more obedient children. You become a better employee. You become one who, in your life and goals, loves God and seeks Him first and not yourself. That is spiritual growth.
That is what the apostle is saying here: love is the most valuable thing because it is permanent. And because it will last through this world and into the next, it must be held high and revered and sought above all other gifts. The goal of all gifts is love.
The apostle makes that point very strong with that illustration in verse 11: “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.” I do not think we are saying enough about this illustration when we say that what the apostle is saying here is that when we get to heaven we will not need the childish things that are spiritual gifts in the present—that all we will need then is love. No, the illustration means more than that. What he is saying is that already now, in the life of a mature Christian, love should have preeminence. So, stop your trifling over inferior things, things that do not matter. Grow up. Maturity is what was needed in the congregation at Corinth. And that is why he uses this illustration. The real problem in Corinth was pride. They did not fall behind, he says in chapter 1, in any spiritual gifts. And they thought that because they had so many gifts as a congregation, it was such a vibrant church, that they had advanced beyond the rest of Christianity, beyond even the apostles themselves. And they had become proud with the gifts that they had received. We saw this already in chapter 4, verse 8. There he said: “Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us” (that is you have left us behind in the dust according to your own thinking). You think that you have attained to something perfect. You do not see any need anymore in your congregation for spiritual growth. Yet, this great thing is missing. There is a gaping hole. Love is missing.
They thought they had advanced especially in their gift of tongues. That will become evident in chapter 14. What Paul is saying here in this illustration is that this claim is wrong, that no one reaches perfection until heaven, and that these gifts that they were putting all the emphasis on were far from perfect gifts. Think, for example, if in the congregation at Corinth there was the gift of healing. Someone was healed from a sickness. Was that perfect? No, it was weak, it was temporary, because still they would become sick again and die. So, he says here of their knowledge, it was in part. And of their prophecy, it was in part. Where they think they were perfect, they are, in fact, behaving as children. They are focusing on baby talk, so to speak. Baby talk was more important to them than maturity.
There is a link between this illustration and what the apostle says about them in chapter 3:1, 2: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” What they were doing was elevating these “junior” gifts, baby gifts, babble of a baby, a step here and then a stumble. And they were saying, “Look, we’ve arrived!” What the apostle is saying is, “when I become a man, when I am mature as a Christian, when we mature as a church, then,” chapter 12:31, we will “covet earnestly the best gifts…a more excellent way” of love.
So, in a mature church all our learning and all our living and all preaching and all our teaching and all our giving and all our activity should have this great goal, to foster in the church a greater love for God and for one another. If we do not have this (as in the earlier verses of the chapter), we are nothing. We may have knowledge, but it puffs up. We may have the right worship, but it may be just external without love. We may have pamphlets and confessions and King James Bibles and Psalters, but if we make those the marks of spiritual maturity, we are majoring on the minors. All of these should serve love in the church. That is the important thing. Those are the basics. Here is the emphasis. The emphasis must be on love. It is the most valuable thing because it lasts to eternity.
As we finish the sermon, we should reflect back on what the apostle has said in verses 4-7. These are the things that we need to foster in ourselves if we would be spiritually mature. Spiritually mature in our homes, among our children, in a work that we are engaged in, in the church, so that the love of Christ shows itself in the way that we live with one another and handle one another, that we suffer long, that we are kind, that we are not envious, that we are not proud, that we are not selfish, that we are not easily provoked, that we are not keeping a record of wrongs, that we are not rejoicing in the failings and iniquities of others but in the truth concerning them, that we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things—because charity never faileth.
Is that what you emphasize in your homes? Is this what you look for in your own spiritual growth? Is this what we are working on in the church? And is this the witness that we are giving to the world?
Father, we are grateful for the application of the word to us in this message, especially as the emphasis now comes on this important responsibility that we have to love Thee and to love one another, and to do that in response to and in gratitude for Thy eternal, unfailing love towards us in Jesus Christ. We love Thee, Lord, because Thou hast heard our prayers and our plea. We pray, Lord, that we may mature and grow in this love above all else. We pray it, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.