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Love: The Greatest of These

July 16, 2023

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Love: The Greatest of These

1 Cor 13:8–13 – Being God’s People: 1 Corinthians – Daniel J. Baker – July 7, 2023


“If you’re able, please stand...” A reading of 1 Corinthians 13. “....Thanks be to God.”

Carolyn Weber. Surprised by Oxford. Her story of attending the University of Oxford. A university filled with ancient traditions. Built during a thoroughly Christian and Catholic era, the school calendar is named after the liturgical church year. “Michaelmas,” fall term named for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels on Sep 29; “Hilary,” winter term named after St. Hilary whose feast is in January; and “Trinity,” spring term named for Trinity Sunday in late spring.

While there she encountered a man who for most of the book she refers to as TDH—“tall, dark, and handsome.”

She stayed in Oriel College while there, established in 1324. The university was established in 1096. 1096! Not 1996 or even 1896, but 1096!

When she got to Oxford she was encountering something ancient. Traditions that were centuries old. Terms and titles that were older than the United States.

But halfway through her first year she encountered something other than TDH and an excellent education when she was there. Something far older than almost-1000-year-old-Oxford. Something that made Oxford itself appear like a candy wrapper blown around on a sidewalk—so recent and passing. She encountered the love of God.

This morning we’re in what we call 1 Corinthians. One of the letters contained in the New Testament. Most of the books of the New Testament are letters—by Christians, written to Christians. In this case by Paul and Sosthenes to a church planted recently in the city of Corinth.

In this letter they’re discussing issues relevant to this early church. Chapters 12–14 are “concerning spiritual gifts.” Paul’s giving them an accurate view of spiritual gifts. How they’re from God and vitally important. But also not as important as some other things.

In this chapter, he’s reminding them that love is more important than spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 13:1–7, love is what gives value and life and reward to our relationships. Gifts are really important! But in 12:31 love is called “the more excellent way.”

But then in 1 Corinthians 13:8–13 he adds to this. He tells us why love is “the greatest.” It’s not for a reason we would expect: Love is the greatest because love will endure—not just endure the tests in this life, but it will endure beyond this life altogether.

Sermon: Love is “the greatest” because it will endure (1) Beyond the Gifts (13:8); (2) Beyond this Life (13:9–12); (3) Beyond Faith and Hope (13:13)


I. Beyond Spiritual Gifts (13:8)

Read 1 Corinthians 13:8.

So far in the chapter we’ve been able to think of “love” as a character quality, a way of life, something you can accomplish in your behavior. But when we get to these verses—1 Corinthians 13:8–13—it’s clear that true “love” is something not of this world at all.

In 1 Corinthians 13:7 we saw that love is faithful in all situations. But again, when we turn to the rest of the chapter, love is presented as enduring beyond this realm altogether.

“When the perfect comes” (1 Cor 13:10) and we’re fully mature as Christians (1 Cor 13:11) and see God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12) and “faith” and “hope” have given way to sight (1 Cor 13:13), love will remain. It will not end (1 Cor 13:8).

Something that endures beyond death is something not fundamentally of earth at all. It’s divine. It’s of God. That’s true of love.

Love is the work of God himself, who is eternal and divine. Galatians 5:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22–23)

Last week we thought about 1 John 4:19, “we love because he first loved us.” This week we want to think about “love” as being a “fruit of the Spirit.”

A fruit of the HOLY Spirit. A fruit of the ETERNAL Spirit (Heb 9:14). A fruit of the UNCHANGING Spirit.

Ephesians 6:

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Eph 6:24)

“Incorruptible” means “not subject to corruption or decay” (BDAG). This kind of love we can only give back to God if it’s from him in the first place. A love that is “the fruit of the Spirit” can be “incorruptible”—unaffected by damage or destruction or decay.

Such a love like this is of the same stuff as God’s love. Romans 8:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38–39)

“Death” cannot “separate us from the love of God.” Which means it endures beyond the grave. All the normal things that affect us in this life—things in nature, things in the spiritual realm, the normal events in life, death—none of these impact God’s love for us.

That’s why the love which is ours as a “fruit of the Holy Spirit” will be unchaning as well.

Once he establishes this, he compares it to the gifts of the Spirit—PROPHECIES, TONGUES—and even the partial “KNOWLEDGE” that we call “knowledge. These things “will pass away.” They’ll be destroyed, abolished.

Not because they’re evil. But because they’re simply for this life only. They will have reached their God-given expiration date.

Kind of like training wheels on a bike. When you can’t ride a bike, these are great. But once you can balance and ride easily, training wheels are totally unnecessary. They’re silly, actually. Once you can ride, they make riding harder, not easier.

The same is true for spiritual gifts and the kind of knowledge we have in this life. They make life easier and better now. But a day will come when these things will become totally obsolete. They’ll be like using a flashlight in the middle of the day. Not evil. Just completely unnecesary.

Love is greater than the gifts, because the gifts are temporary. Even something like knowledge is temporary—the “word of knowledge” spiritual gift but also what we refer to as “knowledge” in this life.

Love is greater.

But that requires some more explanation. Which leads to Point Two: Why is Love Greater? Because it’s greater than what’s passing.

II. Beyond this Life (13:9–12)

Read 1 Corinthians 13:9–12.

Thankfully for us Paul doesn’t end this passage at verse 8. He takes that idea of “knowledge” passing away and begins to develop it.

He writes one of the great passages in the NT. It peals back the curtain a little to help us see what’s coming—not just in the next years or decades of this life. But BEYOND THIS LIFE.

He does it with symbols and images and not with the clarity we all want. But that makes sense, since he’s writing as someone who hadn’t yet experienced it.

But still, what’s here is like going on vacation to the mountains. At some point on your drive you get out of the car and it feels cooler. There’s a little breeze. And then you start going uphill and seeing the mountains in the distance. Your adrenaline elevates just a bit. You’re leaving behind the grind of daily life. You’re not there yet, but you can feel you’re on the way. That’s what this passage is, the cool breeze of the new heaven and new earth reminding us of what’s coming for God’s people.

To make his point Paul gives us four comparisons. He’s comparing what’s true now and what will be true in the next life.

  1. Partial to Perfect (1 Cor 13:9–10)

The first comparison speaks to the issue of spiritual gifts directly. They are only “in part.” Even our knowledge—true as it might be—is only “in part.”

And one day “the perfect” will come. When that “perfect comes,” then all the things that are “partial will pass away.”

This whole passage is about what’s partial now and being fulfilled later. That’s why it makes no sense to speak of “the perfect” here as the completion of the New Testament. Or as having anything at all to do with the cessation of spiritual gifts in this life. “The Perfect” will happen when all the other things in this passage happen—when Christ returns, in the new heaven and new earth.

The New Testament is “perfect,” of course, in that it’s exactly what it was supposed to be. But even what’s given to us in the New Testament is only partial knowledge. When we’re with Christ in the new heaven and new earth we’ll have a complete knowledge that will make even the New Testament seem inadequate to describe what we’re experiencing.

The same thing happened when Christ came the first time. Suddenly the Old Testament was a different book. Suddenly it was clear that while the Old Testament was “perfect” for its purpose, it was also only partial as it described Jesus Christ and his ministry. It wasn’t at all wrong and certainly not evil—just partial.

This idea of “partial knowledge” disappearing and a “complete knowledge” taking its place is why some translations use “completeness” (NIV) or “The Complete” (The Message) instead of “the perfect.”

  1. Children to Adults (1 Cor 13:11)

Second, he uses the analogy of human development, childhood to adulthood.

The child is bad or evil for being a child. He’s simply a child. When you’re a child and you think like a child, you’re not doing anything wrong.

His point here is that this life in many ways is like being a child. There’s so much we don’t understand and can’t understand. One day we’ll understand things in a completely different way.

It’s not that our understandings are wrong, though certainly some are. The point is that there will be a maturity and completeness to our perspective one day that will make us look back on these days as our childhood.

In Ephesians 4:13 Paul uses the idea of “the fully mature man” to describe what the church will be when Jesus returns. “Mature” in that passage is the same word as “perfect” in this paragraph. The church as a whole is growing from childhood to a fully mature adulthood.

  1. Mirror to Face-to-Face (1 Cor 13:12a)

Third, Paul uses the image of a “mirror.” This is no random idea. Corinth was famous for making bronze mirrors. Polished bronze gives you some kind of reflection. But you’re seeing “dimly.”

Dimly” is the word from which we get “enigma.” We see in a mirror enigmatically. The word can mean either something like a “riddle” or “indirectly.”

Both make sense. In our world we do see God’s fingerprints everywhere we turn. But we also see them as if they’re a “riddle” to be solved. At the very least, we’re seeing “indirectly.”

But one day we’ll see “face to face.”

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)

It’s not simple to know exactly what we will see when we “see him as he is,” but we’ll see God in a way we can’t now. What we can see only through faith now, we’ll behold in some complete and full way.

Like the sunrise after a long night. Things are visible around us. But it’s still dark. The vividness of colors isn’t yet clear. Everything has a grey tint to it.

But then the sun is fully up. Not hidden by the earth any longer. The richness and variety of color is evident everywhere. We can’t even look at the sun because it’s so bright.

Paul is telling us that right now we’re in the early light of dawn. But the sunrise is almost here. Then we’ll see him, in some way as he is.

  1. Partial Knowledge to Full (1 Cor 13:12b)

Fourth, we get one more idea to help us bask in this future glory. “Then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Typically we think of a Christian as someone who “knows God.” And that’s true! But God here reminds us that this true knowledge is only “in part.” Whatever knowledge we have of God in this life, it’s only a small portion of the reality.

But God is reminding us in 1 Corinthians 13 that a day is coming when we “shall know HIM fully.” Even as we are “fully known” by God, so we shall fully know him.

Herman Bavinck reflects on the glories of what is to come near the end of volume 4 of his Reformed Dogmatics. It’s clear he has our passage in mind as he’s thinking of the glories to come. He writes:

As we look into the mirror of God’s revelation, we only see his image; then we will see him face to face and know as we are known. Contemplation, understanding, and enjoyment of God make up the essence of our future blessedness.

The redeemed see God, not—to be sure—with physical eyes, but still in a way that far outstrips all revelation in this dispensation via nature and Scripture. And thus they will all know him, each in the measure of his mental capacity, with a knowledge that has its image and likeness in God’s knowledge—directly, immediately, unambiguously, and purely.

Then they will receive and possess everything they expected here only in hope. Thus contemplating and possessing God, they enjoy him and are blessed in his fellowship: blessed in soul and body, in intellect and will.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics[1]


It’s the stuff that endures BEYOND THIS LIFE that is the truly precious treasure we possess.

When this world disappears and the new heaven and new earth has come, we’ll be in the realm of THE PERFECT. Our knowledge of God and his ways will be full. We’ll somehow see him as he is. We’ll be fully mature and no longer children in our understandings.

God and God’s people will be there. Which means love will be there. Unending, everlasting, incorruptible love.

III. Beyond Faith and Hope (13:13)

When you have this understanding you can make sense of the last verse of this paragraph: 1 Corinthians 13:13.

This verse is surprising because of how highly Paul values “faith.” And it’s also surprising because of how inseparable faith, hope, and love are in this life:

  • There is no such thing as having faith that doesn’t produce love.
  • There’s no such thing as having love that isn’t the overflow of saving faith.
  • Hope and faith can never be separated either.
  • All Christian faith is fixed on a future hope.

But when you think of THE PERFECT coming and the FULLNESS of KNOWLEDGE coming, SEEING GOD that’s coming, you realize that Paul is emphasizing that word “NOW” in a way we don’t want to miss.

“So NOW faith, hope, and love abide...” In other words, “NOW at this time, NOW in this age before THE PERFECT has come, NOW when only see in and know in part, “these three remain/abide.”[2]

But when THE PERFECT and THE FULL comes, faith and hope will become sight. They’ll disappear. But LOVE will still be there.

Remember this aspect of FAITH and HOPE:

We walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor 5:7)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? (Rom 8:24)

Faith and Hope are ours because full SIGHT is not. Full possession is not.

When you’re trying to get to a restaurant before it closes to grab a burger you might say, “I hope we get there before it closes, so we can eat.”

You’re hoping for something in the future, something you hope is fulfilled.

But if you get there before it closes and get your burger and starting eat it, you don’t say, “I hope we get there before it closes, so we can get dinner.” Why not? Because you did get there and you’re eating your dinner. There’s nothing to HOPE for. It’s fulfilled. “Who hopes for what he sees?” Now you’re no longer hoping, you’re eating. If it’s good, you’re feeling gratitude, thankfulness.

And faith is the same. Faith is ours now because Sight is not. But one day Sight will be ours, and faith and hope will give way to a new Seeing, a new Possession, a new Fulfillment.

When we see what we’ve been hoping for, when we’re seeing Jesus, we won’t need FAITH or HOPE. But LOVE will remain.

Love is the greatest of these because it will be there BEYOND FAITH AND HOPE.

There will be no end to love.


Love is the greatest because love will endure beyond spiritual gifts, beyond this life, beyond faith and hope.

This kind of love very different from romantic passions or passing obsessions we might have. This kind of love is of God.

God is love (1 John 4:8). And God says to us, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). And we’ve read that nothing in all of creation can “separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:39).

And this love is ours through Christ. It’s ours because of our faith in Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ who is the gift of the Father’s love. Jesus who lived a perfect life of love for God and love for others.

Belieivng in Christ and receiving his love isn’t us EARNING God’s love. Faith is simply what we do to receive it. Faith is us being brutally hot and jumping in the river—and then realizing that this river started in eternity past and goes into eternity in the future.

Turn to Christ and receive his love!

Carolyn Weber:

I am sorry, God. I am sorry for all the ways I fall short, for all the ways I prefer myself to You. I am sorry that I have refused your gift of freedom from the trappings of myself. Thank You for Your offer of real life through Christ. Please fill my hunger, please quench my thirst, please give me rest as I know only You can do. Please take me and leave only You. I am Yours.

To be one person one moment: lost. Then to be another person the next moment: found. It is the difference...between night and day. Outwardly I seemed the same, but inwardly everything had changed. I went to the window and watched the birth of the dawn. Everything, every thing appeared in this better light, this brighter light. The ordinary revealed its extraordinariness....This is the ultimate Valentine. “The Lord is my Light.” Surprised by Oxford, the birthday of my life came. Yes, my Love came to me.
Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford[3]

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:722.

[2] See the commentaries by Richard Hays and Ben Witherington for this way to read the passage. Thiselton (NIGTC) also leans this way but not as emphatically. The other way to read “now” is as a logical connective, “So, then, faith, hope, and love abide” (or, “Therefore, faith, hope, and love abide”). Read this way some say faith and hope exist in the new heaven and new earth. But this minimizes the temporal element of the passage and seems to be strangely de-emphasizing references like 2 Cor 5:7 and Rom 8:24.

[3] Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford, 270, 271.

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