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.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Ask your average punter on the street what the most important mark of a Christian should be, and you’ll invariably get one answer: “Love.” Followers of Jesus should be loving. And although 1 Corinthians 13 appears a painfully obvious passage to choose on the topic of Christian love—it gets a very good workout at wedding services, both in church buildings and also those done by civil celebrants—there are some strong words here for us. The context is the first thing to notice: chapters 12 and 14 both talk about how God helps his church by giving them gifts by his Spirit. So then this chapter: great spiritual gifts minus love equals nothing.
The Corinthians put tremendous emphasis on abilities and characteristics that they had been given by God for the good of the church; much more emphasis than on love for one another. But without love controlling and driving everything, even when the most other-worldly gifts are used, both the action and the person lose their significance (1 Cor 13:1-3).
In order to articulate why love makes such a difference, Paul goes on to describe love (13:4-7). As he does so, however, it becomes clear that the characteristics he lists don’t describe us, or our love. I am not patient or kind, or without envy—at least not in any more meaningful sense than superficially, and only on fleeting occasions. But they do describe Jesus. Jesus is infinitely patient, perfectly kind; never envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He doesn’t insist on his own way; he rejoices in truth rather than unrighteousness. If you want to see love in higher definition than anywhere else, look at Jesus on his cross.
Paul expects that we as Christians will display this same love. How can we not? If we have felt that love, how can we not love others in the way that God first loved us? If his Spirit empowers us, how can we not love as he loved?
This is part of what allows us to understand why love is given so much importance by God, over and above any spiritual gift (13:1-3). While the punter on the street might say that love is the defining mark of the Christian, the person in the pew may well name something more ‘spiritual’ as the mark of a Christian. Speaking in tongues, prophecies, having a distinctive knowledge of God—these things might impress us, and they definitely impressed the members of the church in ancient Corinth. Yet Paul does not hesitate to say that he cannot write to the Corinthians as spiritual people (3:1), for these gifts are earthly. When Jesus returns in his triumphant glory and judges all people throughout history and takes his forgiven people to unending life with him, there won’t be any tongues. There won’t be any prophecies. There won’t be anyone with a distinctive knowledge of God. Why? Because when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away (13:10).
Faith and hope will not look the same when Christ comes in glory. I take it that we will continue to trust in God’s ways and live according to them, albeit with sight (cf. 13:12). And I take it that we will continue to hope in Christ even as we experience the blessings we currently long for. Not only love, but also faith and hope remain. For when love defines the Christian life, it will necessarily result in faith and hope: love believes all things, hopes all things (13:7).
There are three things in particular that I’m looking forward to in heaven. The first is that there will be no more sadness or suffering. The second is related: that I won’t be part of that problem anymore; I won’t hurt others by my selfishness and lack of love. But the third thing is what Paul tells about in verse 12: we will see God clearly in the face of Jesus. At that point I will know the one I love to the fullest extent possible, as will each of us who have trusted in God in this life. You won’t need me or anyone else to tell you anything about God—in any language!
Love never ends; love will always be the defining characteristic of our life with God. Do you want a window into what heaven will be like? Love is that window. This passage calls us to love like Jesus loves in recognition of how he has loved us, and as a foretaste of the life to come.