The theme of this last part of 1 Corinthians 13 is love never fails—love will never end. The Corinthians, like many Christians today, often had their eyes on the wrong things. They were concerned about what spiritual gift they had, they were focused on exerting their rights, they wanted to participate in immoral behavior.
Instead of being controlled by the Spirit, they allowed themselves to be controlled by sins like selfishness, arrogance, and envy—just to name a few. If they had focused on just one of the fruit of the Spirit—love—those sins would have been stifled.
Instead of bragging about the great spiritual gift they had received, they would have—in love—been using that gift to help others.
Instead of demanding their right to do this or that, they would have been concerned about their brothers and sisters whose conscience was weaker.
Think about today. If we truly had love, what would happen to sins like gossip, slander, envy, jealousy, and so on?
So, in this last part, Paul praises love. First, he explains that…
LOVE WILL OUTLAST SPIRITUAL GIFTS
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. (1 Corinthians 13:8)
For we know in part,
and we prophesy in part. (1 Corinthians 13:9)
But when that which is perfect is come,
then that which is in part shall be done away. (1 Corinthians 13:10)
There is a great deal of discussion on these verses about what they mean about tongues whether and when tongues will cease. Much of it is technical, so let me briefly summarize:
1) When Will Tongues Cease?
Where it says “prophecies, they shall fail” and “knowledge [in terms of the spiritual gift, not us knowing anything] it shall vanish away,” the two Greek words used in both phrases are the same. But when it says “tongues, they shall cease,” Paul uses a different word, and even a different tense (middle instead of passive).
Why? Is he saying something different about when tongues will cease as compared to prophecies and knowledge? Or are we reading too much into the Greek grammar if we say that? There are good scholars on both sides that issue.
But it is curious that Paul does use a different word. It’s also curious that, while he mentions tongues, prophecy, and knowledge in verse 8, he only mentions prophecy and knowledge in verse 9—suggesting that tongues would cease before prophecy and knowledge.
I think this passage leans toward tongues ceasing very soon after the New Testament period, but, for the complete argument, you have to use it in conjunction with other evidence. For instance, look at the passages that talk about the purpose of sign gifts (to validate the writing of the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:3-4). Now that the New Testament is written, those sign gifts are no longer needed.
Also, tongues are only mentioned in 1 Corinthians (which was written before most of the rest of the New Testament) and in the early part of Acts (which is a history of the early church). In the later writings of the New Testament, they aren’t mentioned. Why?
There’s also the lack of speaking in tongues being mentioned in writings after the New Testament. For example,
When in A.D. 96 [forty years later] Clement of Rome wrote his letter (I Clement) to the Corinthian church, he nowhere mentions tongues in all the sixty-five chapters of that letter.
Why not? Perhaps because tongues were no longer being used.
2) What Is The “Perfect” That Will Come?
There are several possible answers given, but the two main ones are:
A. The Competition of the New Testament.
The Bible is now complete, or perfect. This would make tongues, prophecy, and knowledge unnecessary and so they would cease. Our focus would then be completely on the Word of God.
As someone who believes that tongues have ceased, I want this to be the right answer. It would fit in with the idea I mentioned earlier that the sign gifts were used to validate the writing of the New Testament and, with it completed, they are no longer needed. But, it is a difficult fit in this context, as you’ll see.
Be careful of letting what you want the Bible to say be the determining factor in interpretation.
The second option for what the “perfect” that will come refers to is…
B. The Coming Of The Believer Into Christ’s Presence
One day, either at the Rapture or at our death, every Christian will come into the presence of Christ. We will be given new bodies, which will be perfect and sinless. This is what Paul seems to be getting at in verse 12—
12 For 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. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
If we were to say that the “perfect” in verse 10 referred to the competition of the New Testament, then this sentence doesn’t make sense. Would he really say, because we have the Bible, we will know even as we are known? Does the Bible give us a “face to face” view of God? No. This has to refer to the time when the believer meets the Lord “face to face.”
So all the spiritual gifts, especially the ones that the Corinthians held in high esteem like tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, are going to come to an end. Some, like tongues ended earlier. The need for others will end when the believer comes into the presence of Christ.
What was Paul saying to the Corinthians in this passage?
Once again he was coming back to their abuse of spiritual gifts and the lack of love among the Corinthian believers. His point was that they had emphasized the wrong thing. They had focused on the gifts (all of which will end) and forgot about love (which will never end). They had the wrong perspective, which he illustrates next…
WE NEED TO HAVE LOVE’S PERSPECTIVE
The Perspective Of A Child
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. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Children often have a wrong perspective of what’s really important. A toddler will throw the biggest tantrum over a toy that costs 25 cents. A child might be upset because he doesn’t get to do what his older sibling gets to do. A teenager thinks that the most recent computer game is the end-all-be-all of everything.
As parents, we are often caught in the middle trying to understand that, to them, it really is very important and trying to help them understand, that it really isn’t very important!
The child needs time to grow up in order to grow up in their perspective. When they are older, they can hardly believe it when their parents remind them of the things that they thought were so important!
Here’s another way of illustrating this change in perspective from childhood to adulthood. I attended Prairie Elk School until I was 12. Then we moved away. I did not set foot in the school again until a few years ago, after we moved to Baker. My mom and sister and I found an open window (it’s abandoned now) and climbed in. How do you think that one-room country school looked to me as an adult? Small! That room was tiny compared to what I remembered it being!
Paul’s saying to the Corinthians that their emphasis on who has the best spiritual gift is like a child fighting over a toy. In the bigger picture, it’s not that important. What is important is love. They were over-fascinated with things that, when they got to Heaven, would seem so small and insignificant. In fact, Paul shifts to another illustration and points out…
The Perspective Of Heaven
For 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. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Paul is talking about the future here, when we finally get to meet Christ. He says that now, “we see through a glass, darkly.” The glass he is referring to is a mirror (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary lists “mirror” as the third entry for “glass”). But when we look in a mirror nowadays, don’t we see a clear image? Yes.
However, in Paul’s day, a mirror was not made of reflective material and glass like today (the modern mirror was invented in 1835). Instead, mirrors in Bible times were simply polished metal. If you’ve ever looked at your reflection in the side of a toaster or a spoon, you’ll understand why Paul says we see through a glass, “darkly.” It’s a muddled image.
Our perspective of Heavenly things is limited here. But when we are in Heaven, we will see clearly. I don’t think we will know all that there is to know, I think Paul was only saying that our ability to understand God and His Word would not be hindered. There will be no more debates over whether or not tongues have ceased, or the proper method of baptism, or anything like that. It will be crystal-clear.
So Paul is saying that our perspective now must start changing to what it will be in Heaven. What is most important? Having superior spiritual gifts or love? Paul drives home the answer in the final verse:
LOVE IS REALLY THE GREATEST
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
In Heaven, will we need faith and hope? No, those are necessary when we do not have a clear picture of God and the future—when we have to look “through a glass, darkly.” In Heaven, we won’t need speaking in tongues, or prophecy, or words of knowledge because we will know as we are known.
But there will be love in Heaven and there will be love forever. So what Paul was telling the Corinthians, and what we also need to hear is this: major on love in the here and now because when you get to Heaven, it’s the major thing there. Not that the spiritual gifts aren’t important—they are. But love needs to be in all that we do.
In what ways do we act like children and place our emphasis on what’s not that important and forget about the importance of love?
How can considering the “perfect” that is to come help motivate us to show love better today?
 Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, vol. 18, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 470.