Message # 51 | 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 | June 25, 2017


Duncan McColl. Two towns, Calais, ME and St. Stephen, N.B. share an amazing history. There is one anecdote that most residents will happily share.

During the war of 1812 we ran out of gunpowder for the fourth of July. Calais asked St.Stephen and St. Stephen let us borrow their gunpowder so we could have fireworks that year,” boasts Calais resident Chris Bernardini.[1]

These two towns, separated by the St. Croix river, also share skating rinks, fire stations and emergency services.

There are a lot of things we do together. If they need assistance, Calais is more than helpful to run across the border and help out. If something happens in Calais, St.Stephen is second on the scene,” Bernardini mentions.

This history of comradery goes back more than 200 years. One day during the U.S. Revolutionary War, a British soldier named Duncan McColl was sent on a mission that took him in plain view of sharpshooting Yankees. Their musket balls shredded his clothing, tore off his cap and the heel of one shoe. At last their officer, awed by the sight, gave the order to cease firing. “God,” he said, “must have work for that man to do.” After the war, McColl became a parson. He built a church at St. Stephen, just across the narrow St. Croix River from Calais. His congregation included people from both sides of the border. When the War of 1812 broke out, he called a meeting of Americans and Canadians. “I’ve christened you and married you and buried you,” he told them. “We’ve been like one family . . .”[2]

McColl told his people that they were brothers in Christ. So they ignored the war and continued worshipping together. Today the same spirit of fellowship and friendliness still prevails in the sister towns of St. Stephen and Calais. Though separated by a national border, the Americans still cross the river to attend church. A fire in one town is a call for volunteer fire fighters and equipment from the other town. On the Fourth of July the Canadian Mounties parade with the Americans; in return state troopers from Maine, and various bands cross the river to help their neighbors honor their Queen.[3]

The people of Calais and St. Stephen have throughout their history set certain priorities that have affected their culture for a couple of hundred years. They have realized that their unity is of more importance than other qualities that might divide them.

And it is this that Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to understand and embrace. Certain spiritual gifts are less significant and will diminish in value, but love will never fade. Therefore, pursue love. Let love tie you together.

Purpose Statement. Love will never fail while all other gifts will, therefore pursue love as your main priority. The point of this section is to redirect the Corinthians from a feverish, selfish pursuit of spiritual gifts to a passionate pursuit of sacrificial, God-honoring love. This does not mean however that these spiritual gifts are bad. In fact, the next chapter tells them to “pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 14:1).  Fallen Condition Focus. The problem is that our flesh tends to pursue diminishing gifts while failing to pursue perfect love.

Overview. Love never fails (13:8). In the future, all other spiritual gifts will diminish or be completely cut off due to irrelevance (13:9). When the perfect (Christ) comes, the gifts will become insignificant (13:10). First metaphor. In the same way that childish actions cease when we become adults, spiritual gifts will cease in the future (13:11). Second metaphor. In the same way that looking into a foggy mirror is less effective than looking at someone face to face, spiritual gifts will be set aside as ineffective when we see Christ face to face (13:12). Love is the greatest (13:13). Therefore, pursue love (14:1).

Love compared to other gifts (13:8-10)

Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will cease. These spiritual gifts are like torches that have offered light into the darkness and fog of this corrupt world, but will become irrelevant when the Sun shines bright as day. Simply put, the presence of the Son will obliterate any value they may have offered.

The gifts themselves, not their content.  Knowledge itself will never pass away and “if it did, no one would know it” [4] The content produced by prophecy will never pass away. Instead these specific gifts will no longer exist because they will no longer be relevant or helpful.

The gifts will be made to cease. The verbs accompanying prophecy and knowledge are passive verbs and carry the meaning of being made useless, abolished, or destroyed. Many of the modern translations are similar to the ESV in this verse. “As for prophecies, they will pass away . . . as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Cor 13:8 ESV). The NET Bible offers a more accurate rendering, “if there are prophecies, they will be set aside . . . if there is knowledge, it will be set aside” (1 Cor 13:8 NET). So then, both prophecy and knowledge will pass away – but more strongly – they will be abolished. On the other hand, the verb cease which follows tongues is in the middle tense.

Potential significance of different verbal forms. Some have made a great deal out of the differences of verbal forms in this verse. From this, some have concluded that both prophecy and knowledge will be made to cease in the future, but tongues will cease on its own accord at a point prior to the other gifts. Those who draw this conclusion as well see that it is significant that tongues is not mentioned in verse 9.

The cessation of tongues took place a short while after Paul wrote this letter, but the gifts of prophecy and knowledge have not yet been done away, because the perfect has not yet come. Like tongues and all other gifts, those two gifts are temporary, but they are less temporary than tongues. . . . Paul considers tongues already to have stopped, because that gift is not mentioned after verse 8.[5]

The absence of tongues in verse 9 is not likely significant because verse 12 doesn’t include prophecy but does include knowledge. To draw a conclusion about tongues due to its absence in verse 9 would require drawing a conclusion about prophecy’s absence in verse 12. While, it is possible that Paul purposefully used different tenses so as to make a distinction between tongues and the other two gifts, it is more likely that he was just using some creative variety in his writing. While I personally like the idea of tongues ceasing on its own prior to the other gifts, this passage would not be the best one to use to draw that conclusion. When tongues ceases is hardly Paul’s point in this passage.

That which is perfect.[6] Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are going to be abolished at a very certain time – when the perfect comes. To what is the perfect referring? There has been a great deal of debate over this question, so we will briefly acknowledge the three main interpretations. (1) The perfect is the mature church (or potentially the mature individual). This word perfect most often speaks of spiritual maturity throughout the New Testament, therefore many believe that Paul was using this idea to refer to the mature church or an individual. First, it is incredibly unlikely that the cessation of a gift would be tied to individual maturity. Secondly, it is hard to imagine that the Corinthians would have thought of the mature church. That which is perfect is likened to seeing “face to face” and having “been fully known.” Neither of these concepts fits well the mature church. (2) A second view is that the perfect  is the completed canon. There are likely many motivations for this view, some theological and others practical. If we conclude that the perfect is the completed scriptures, then the gift of prophecy is done and we don’t need to worry about ongoing prophecy and how it should or should not be received. As well if the scriptures are the perfect, tongues have ceased and we don’t need to wonder how those should be implemented in the modern church – after all they tend to be strange and divisive. One passage that has been used to draw this conclusion is found in James.

For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22–25 ESV).

In this passage you have both the concept of a mirror and “the perfect” referring to the scriptures. There is at least one problem with using this verse to draw such a conclusion. In James, scripture is tied to a mirror, but in 1 Corinthians, the mirror is less significant than seeing “face to face.” It’s not referring to the perfect but instead that which proceeds the perfect. In fact, the verse in James would indicate that our present possession of the scriptures is less preferred to our future presence with Christ when we will see him “face to face.” (3) The final main view is that the perfect refers to the second coming of Christ. This would be the majority position. First, the concept of seeing “face to face” is strongly in favor of the perfect being a reference to the coming of Christ.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 ESV).

Secondly, while Scripture reveals a great deal about ourselves, to say that we “shall know fully” prior to seeing Christ is a stretch. Thirdly, a concern with drawing this conclusion is that we must then accept that all the gifts are still active for today, but we need to be careful that we don’t allow fear of potential ramifications to keep us from accepting the most likely interpretation of the passage.

Two Analogies (13:11-12)

Child to adult. In the same way that childish actions cease when we become adults, spiritual gifts will cease in the future. As a child, our ability to reason and think is not as mature and developed as when we are adults. This is likened to the use of spiritual gifts. The spiritual gifts are profitable for this moment in time, but in eternity will no longer be necessary. They are torches that help light our way presently, but in heaven, Christ will shine in such a way as to make those torches irrelevant.[7]

Mirror to face to face. In the same way that looking into a foggy mirror is less effective than looking at someone face to face, spiritual gifts will be set aside as ineffective when we see Christ face to face. To best appreciate this analogy, we must remember that mirrors in the first century were not like the modern mirror.

Archaeological discoveries throughout the Near East attest that during the biblical period mirrors were made not of glass, but of highly polished metal, e.g., silver, gold, copper, or bronze. . . . The poor quality of a mirror, used metaphorically by Paul to denote a cloudy reflection (1 Cor. 13:12), seems also to suggest metal rather than glass.[8]

Corinth was famous for its manufacture of mirrors. But the modern mirror as we know it, with its perfect reflection, did not emerge until the thirteenth century. The Corinthian mirror was made of highly polished metal and, even at its best, gave but an imperfect reflection.[9]

The spiritual gifts and the word of God that we possess now are wonderful gifts, but they are a foggy reflection in comparison to what we will see and understand when we see Christ.

Conclusion (13:13-14:1)

So then, Paul’s final exhortation, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13 ESV). Unlike the spiritual gifts that will become irrelevant throughout eternity, faith, hope, and love will abide. And yet, Paul makes a distinction between love and the others – faith and hope.

Faith and hope are eternal. It is true that in one sense, faith and hope are not needed throughout eternity. After all, presently, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7 ESV). As well, the primary place for hope is in the midst of that which is not seen. Paul writes in Romans, “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? (Rom 8:24 ESV, Cf. 2 Cor 4:18).  So then, the logic goes, if we see Christ there is no need for hope – there is no need for faith.

Yet, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19 ESV). Paul seems to believe that hope has some value in eternity “for there is a sense in which hope is not merely the anticipation of the blessings to come, an anticipation no longer needed once those blessings have arrived, but a firm anchor in Christ himself.” And for faith, there is a sense that faith will be replaced by sight, “but there is another sense in which faith is simply thankful trust in God, deep appreciation for him, committed subservience to him. Will there be any time in the next billion years during which the very basis of my presence in the celestial courts will be something other than faith in the grace of God?” [10]

But love is preeminent, so pursue it. And yet the greatest of these is love. Earlier in the chapter we learned that faith and hope were qualities of sacrificial love. For that alone we see that love is preeminent to faith and hope. But also, we see that God is love, yet we are not directed to think of God as faith and hope. He is of course the objects of our faith and hope, but he doesn’t have faith and hope. Therefore, love is the greatest.

QUOTING N.T. WRIGHT. The point of 13:8–13 is that the church must be working in the present on the things that will last into God’s future. Faith, hope and love will do this; prophecy, tongues and knowledge, so highly prized in Corinth, will not. They are merely signposts to the future; when you arrive, you no longer need signposts. Love, however, is not just a signpost. It is a foretaste of the ultimate reality. Love is not merely the Christian duty; it is the Christian destiny.[11]

When we see face to face what will be more clear? Charles Spurgeon[12] offers a number of areas in which our knowledge and understanding will be dramatically enhanced when we see Christ face to face. First, when the perfect comes and we see Christ face to face we will have a more accurate view of ourselves. As we grow in the Christian life we see more and more of ourselves:

nothing very pleasing, I grant you—but something very profitable, for it is a great thing for us to know our emptiness. . . . But in heaven, I doubt not, we shall find out that we never saw even ourselves in the clearest light, but only as “through a glass, darkly,” only as an unriddled thing, as a deep enigma; for we shall understand more about ourselves in heaven than we do now. [13]

Secondly, when the perfect comes and we see Christ face to face, we will see and know the providence of God far more than we do today. In eternity we will better understand God’s dealings with mankind on a much larger scale. We will discover the wars that devastated nations, the diseases that filled the grave, the earthquakes that made cities tremble. We’ll better understand how all these cogs fit into the great divine machinery. We’ll see him who sits upon the throne and we’ll realize that all his decisions were right – but not yet.

Third, when the perfect comes and we see Christ face to face, the truths of scripture that we have all wrestled within ourselves and with others will be more thoroughly revealed. The mysteries of the faith, while it may still take us many years, will become more and more clear – but not yet in this darkened and foggy mirror.

Finally, when the perfect comes and we see Christ face to face, we will see God and come to a more thorough understanding of His character. Of course our finiteness will always prohibit us from ever fully exhausting and understanding the infinite, but we’ll know more fully than we do now.

dear friends, the atmosphere of heaven is so much clearer than this, that I do not wonder we can see better there. Here there is the smoke of daily care; the constant dust of toil; the mist of trouble perpetually rising. We cannot be expected to see much in such a smoky atmosphere as this; but when we shall pass beyond, we shall find no clouds ever gather round the sun to hide his everlasting brightness.[14]



[2] “Canada at War: EXTERNAL AFFAIRS: Practical Internationalism”, (Time Magazine, May 21, 1945, Vol. XLV No. 21).

[3] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 756.

[4] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 68.

[5] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, 362.

[6] D.A. Carson offers a very helpful overview of these positions in Showing the Spirit, pages 68-72.

[7] Karl Barth, in The Resurrection of the Dead, page 81, “because the sun rises, all lights go out.” Carson adds to this, “when that wonderful knowledge of God becomes ours, the purpose of such gifts as prophecy, knowledge, and tongues will have disappeared: what possible service could they still render (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 70). Spurgeon uses a very similar illusion in his message “Now and Then” from this same passage.

[8] Susan Rattray and Mark Allan Powell, “Mirrors,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 642.

[9] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, 3rd ed., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 147.

[10] D. A Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 74-75.

[11] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 652.

[12] C. H. Spurgeon, “Now, and Then,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 17 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1871), 411-418.

[13] C. H. Spurgeon, “Now, and Then,” 412.

[14] C. H. Spurgeon, “Now, and Then,” 418.

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