This is the kind of phrase that makes for a nice Christian wall decoration or the theme of a contemporary worship song or an encouraging forearm tattoo, but what does it actually mean?
If we were talking about Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, I could understand. They won the championship. If we were talking about God’s love, I could understand even more. But if we’re just talking about love in general, as in the emotion or the motivation, I’m not sure I get it.
Is Paul saying that everything that is motivated by love will succeed? If so, what do we do with loving parents that struggle to raise their children, or loving pastors that struggle to build their churches, or loving spouses that struggle to hold their marriages together?
Thankfully, we don’t have to answer this question. It’s the wrong question.
A quick look at I Corinthians 13:8 shows that “fails” cannot mean “to fall short of success or achievement.” It means “to dwindle, pass or die away.” How can we be sure? Look at the rest of the verse.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. (NIV)
Most people tack “Love never fails” onto the end of the previous verses, like a summary statement, obscuring Paul’s message. The Biblical editors actually knew what they were doing when they put “Love never fails” at the beginning of verse 8. They understood the context.
Chapter and verse allows people to study the Bible in its natural divisions. Sadly, it also opens the door to Fortune Cookie Christianity. You know what I mean, the kind of Christianity that tears verses out of their natural contexts and slaps them onto bumper stickers.
People call I Corinthians 13 the Love Chapter, which makes sense. They also tend to quote these verses at weddings, which also makes sense. But I’m not sure Paul would have approved.
I Corinthians 13 is part of a three-chapter section about spiritual gifts. In chapter 12, Paul explains how a single body is made of various parts just like the Church is made up of a variety of spiritually-gifted people. Now look at how chapter 13 begins:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Paul is still talking about spiritual gifts. He is explaining that the gifts are not to make church people into superheroes, promoting themselves, but into servants, promoting others. Love is the motivation behind the gifts, the key to Church unity.
He then goes on to describe what love looks like in verses 4 – 7. If you read the previous chapters you would know that the Corinthians struggled in this area. They lived in a city that could be called the Las Vegas of Asia Minor. Despite their conversions, many of them were self-oriented, spiritually-immature pleasure-seekers.
So why would Paul tell the Corinthians that the spiritual gifts were coming to an end?
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
When completeness comes? Many translations say something like, “When perfection comes, the partial will be done away.” Clearly Paul is playing with the words, but what did he mean? What was he anticipating?
In chapter 7, Paul already covered this. He said that Christ’s return was imminent. He encouraged the believers not to waste their time with things like marriage or starting a business. They needed to stay focused on their mission with the time they had left.
Why would the gifts end when Christ returns?
Spiritual gifts were given to help believers catch a glimpse of the unseen. Speaking in tongues was a witness to the indwelling Spirit of God, their access point to the risen Christ. Gifts of prophecy, wisdom, discernment and knowledge were ways for God to reveals things to his people, to guide them toward the truth.
Notice the motif in this section—talked, thought and reasoned like a child. That’s a clear reference to the gifts of tongues, knowledge and prophecy. Paul is saying that while Jesus is gone, our relationship with the unseen is by faith through the gifts, but when Jesus returns, faith will become sight. We will all have greater clarity, like the mind of an adult compared to the mind of a child.
Notice the same analogy with the mirror. Mirrors in the first century were just polished metal, offering a vague reflection. This is how Paul compares the effort of reaching toward the unseen spiritual world by faith. However, when Christ returns, everything will be made clear, the gifts will no longer be necessary.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
When Paul says “now,” he means during the Church age. Faith is how we link arms and strain toward the invisible realities together, using our spiritual gifts. Hope is what we share as we anticipate his return. Love is the motivation for our actions, the thing that binds us together.
But when Christ returns, faith, along with all the gifts, will lose their purpose. Hope will be realized. However, love will go on (cue Titanic music).
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:2 – 4
A bride and her husband? God dwelling with his people? Obviously love will endure into the next age, which is why love is greater than faith and hope, which does not. This is why love never fails.