We should ever keep in mind, for the proper understanding of this beautiful song of love in I Corinthians, that Paul is discussing the concept love from the viewpoint of its superior nature to all other spiritual gifts in the church. And, when he does so, he does not merely speak of the concept love in the abstract, but as love concretely reveals itself in the Church on earth by the operation of the spirits of Christ. 

Shall the gifts in the church really serve for themutual benefit of all, for the entire body of Christ and for each member in particular, then these gifts must all stand in the service of love, the love of God, which is out of the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. 

For these “Spiritual Gifts,” we repeat for the tenth time, are only means to an end, and they are in no sense of the word an end in themselves. All must be so used in the church, that by virtue of the “love,” they are the “more excellent way!”

That love is “more excellent” is evident from its manifestation. It is “longsuffering” and it “endures” all things. 

But why is love thus?

The deepest reason must be the fact that “God is love!” 

And this love of God must be manifested in the entire economy of salvation in, the church, both in this age and in the age to come. The exceeding greatness of the love, mercy and infinite goodness of God must be manifested in the church. Wherefore “love” is not a temporary arrangement “till the time appointed,” but it belongs to the quintessence of salvation itself. Take “love” out of salvation and you deny the very meaning of salvation! 

Wherefore it is the wonderful reality, that, when all the gifts in the church have served their purpose, they shall be removed, or belong to the past stages of the church’s life on earth. But “love” shall never belong to the past! 

This is the point Paul elucidates and teaches in a masterful way, showing us the architectural lines of the work of God’s good-pleasure over all things. 

The passage we refer to is found in I Corinthians 13:8-13. Since the passage is of such great moment, we will quote it in full. We read: “Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether thee be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror darkly (in a riddle); but then face to face: now I know in part: by then shall I know fully as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these thee: and the greater of these is love.” 

It should be observed that Paul gives us one complete section. He begins and ends by saying the same thing about love, only he begins with a negative statement, whereas he ends with a positive statement concerning love. Writes he in verse 8 “Love never faileth . . .” and ends with the positive “and now remains faith, hope, love, these three . . .” We believe that these two words, to wit “never faileth” and “remains” constitute the key words in this passage. 

Concerning the term “never faileth,” it should be noticed, that the term really looks forwards, anticipating the idea of “always remains” and backward toward the manifestation of this “love” in that it is “longsuffering” and that it “endures” all things. It never fails in its wonderful manifestation, since it is so enduring in nature, greater than even faith and hope. It never fails in its inner manifestation, since it never ceases in its Divine operation. 

And positively, it should be noted, that love is “greater” than faith and hope. Such is the comparative degree of the adjective in the test. Writes A.T. Robertson in his “W.P. Of The New Testament.” The form of meizoon is comparative, but it is used as superlative, for the superlative form megistos had become rare in the Koine. (Robertson’s Gratnmar, pp. 667 f.f.)” This is entirely possible. However, I really believe that the comparative form indicates that Paul is comparing “love” not with two other gifts, but rather with faith and hope as in one class. And the reason why “love” is greater than either faith or hope is, undoubtedly, the fact that the former is basic for the latter. Faith is energized by love, and rooted in love. See Gal. 5:6. And the hope, which is in our hearts, is there only because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts. Were the love taken from our hearts, we would not trust and hope in God. Compare Rom. 5:3.

Concerning this never failing and abiding love, superseding all gifts, faith and hope included, Paul has a few very important matters to tell us, when he compares this “love” with other spiritual gifts (charismata) in the church, particularly: speaking with tongues, prophecies, and knowledge. (See verses 8 and 9). We should notice the following: 

1. That on the very surface there is a distinction between the gift of “tongues” on the one hand and the gifts of “prophecy” and “knowledge” on the other hand. It would seem that the difference between these gifts was underestimated by the Corinthians. Lacking a sense of the proper relationship of all the gifts to the church, as rooted in love, they also lacked this sense of proportion of the relationship of the several gifts mutually. Hence, they gave a greater importance to “tongues” than they did to “prophecy.” The obvious reason for this was that tongues afforded the flesh free play for displaying itself. The superficial mind always loses sight of the essential. And, now, Paul suggests very strongly the superiority of “prophecy” over “tongues.” 

2. For this reason it is stated of “tongues” that they “shall cease.” Notice they simply cease. They just stop. Suddenly they are no more in the church of God. They are of a very short duration. They were designed by God only to serve as a “sign”. They were merely a mode of making the content of prophecy and knowledge known. But this mode of impartation of knowledge and prophecy can and does fall away, without in the least affecting the church’s possession of the necessary knowledge of the mysteries of God. Hence, they shall “cease.” 

3. On the other hand “prophecy” and “knowledge” must be “done away,” that is, by an act of God whereby he drastically changes the order of things, He annuls, abolishes, and puts an end to prophecy and knowledge, changing its very nature. This will be affected by God in the Parousia, when all things shall be perfected in heavenly perfection. This shows that the gifts of knowledge and prophecy are a permanent gift in the Church, while that of speaking with tongues is not permanent. And all attempts on the, part of certain sects to revive the speaking with tongues is erroneous. Furthermore, this also shows that the knowledge referred to in the text is that which is the possession of the entire church throughout the New Testament dispensation, taken as a whole. This refers to all her theology and confession. And this also refers to all her prophesying, and preaching in which she says: Know the Lord! This latter cannot simply cease, but must be superseded by a greater and better form of knowledge and prophecy, and thus the old must be abolished forever, by the bringing in of the better and eternal. 

In the Parousia of Christ, when the world shall pass away in fire, all analytical knowledge will also pass away. When all the theological works of all the theologians will be burned nothing will be lost. All these books will be absolutely useless in that “form” of seeing “face to face.” They will no longer fit the situation. They will all be abolished by the Lord. That will be the time when no one will say to his neighbor: know the Lord! 

The disannulling of the present knowledge and prophesy does not mean that this knowledge is for the present not a valid knowledge. It is—it is the gift of the Holy Spirit. We must be busy in theological effort. Such is our calling. It is the very essence of a “knowing in part and of a prophesying in part.” We should observe that this “in part” is not the same as “from part.” See Romans 11:25 where we read “because hardening has come upon a part of Israel . . .” Here we do not read “apo merous” but we read “ek meorus,” that is “out of part.” Luther translates this as meaning “piece-meal” knowledge. (stuckweise). Such piecemeal knowledge is valid knowledge. It does not mean knowing, “relatively,” a knowledge of approximation. It rather refers to a knowledge which is genuine and real, a revelation of the full counsel of God in Christ, which the entire church will grasp together, putting it together in piece-meal. It is analytical knowledge. 

This is clear from the history of dogma and of the confessions in the church. 

How gradually the church began to grasp the importance of all the great dogma’s of Scripture, of the mysteries of God in Christ, is evident from the fact; that each age in the church performed a definite task in the making the truth in Christ their content of prophecy and of knowledge. Surely the church saw this all by faith in essence. But to lay it all down in confessional statement was a slow and a laborious process, occasioned by much error and misconception. And always this was because we know in part and prophesy in part

This is indeed sobering. 

Such an understanding of the limitation shows that all prophecy and knowledge is limited, partial and also temporal. It shall be annulled and abolished. 

We are now as church really to be compared with the little child in relationship to the adult. It is the same child, the same person, in both cases. The one, the child, is the immature person. The adult has put away the things of the child, in speaking, in psychological feelings and affection, and in thought processes. There is a tremendous change. Such will be the change, only in a far greater degree, in the knowledge of the Church now and in the future age. 

Now we see, as it were, through a glass darkened. We see as it were in a “dark saying.” We need to ponder the meaning, think upon it, meditate. Nothing is intuitive in the “knowledge” in the church. All is labor. Now the light falls over our shoulder, as it were, upon the mirror of revelation—we stand, as it were, with our backs to God. 

Presently we shall see face to face. 

We shall see the glory of God, all the mystery, unfolded before our wondering gaze: We shall see face to face. We shall know with a knowledge which is complete and full. Our knowledge shall fully agree with the knowledge of God to us. 

Here we do not argue who is the greatest; we do not vie for superiority and honor. We are like little children. We look in faith and hope wrought by love to hear from the more sure prophetic word, “O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold I will set thy stones in fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy pinnacles of rubies, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy border of precious stones. And all thy children shall be taught of Jehovah, and great shall be the peace of thy people.”