For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 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. – 1 Corinthians 13:9-13 ESV
We live in an interim stage. The “perfect”, as Paul refers to it, has not yet come. The Greek word he uses is teleios and it refers to “wanting nothing necessary to completeness.” It can also mean “full grown, adult, of full age, mature.” He uses childhood and adulthood to compare our present situation with what is to come as a child. At the present time, under our current conditions, we don’t know everything. We have limitations because of our flesh. So God has given temporary helps in the form of spiritual gifts to compensate for our lack of knowledge and understanding. Tongues, knowledge and prophecy are present-age necessities designed to help man grasp the reality of God’s truth. But the day is coming when they will no longer be necessary. The apostle John described our present limitations, but assured us of our future completeness when Christ returns. “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT).
Paul explains that the gifts, while given by God, are like childhood qualities that will done day be outgrown. We will give up “childish ways” because we will be fully mature in Christ. In the meantime, we are hampered by a limited perspective, an earth-bound, flesh-restricted outlook that prevents us from seeing all the truth of who God is and what we will be. We have partial knowledge. We suffer from incomplete understanding. So God provided the gifts to help us speak truth and edify one another. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes our current predicament, describing our earthly bodies as tents. They are like temporary dwellings in which we are forced to live, much like the Israelites lived in tents during the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness.
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit.
So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. For we live by believing and not by seeing. –2 Corinthians 5:1-7 NLT
Paul wants the Corinthians to know that their true hope lies in the future, not the present. But in the meantime, we are to live according to faith, hope and love. Our faith is to be focused on what is to come, the final fulfillment of our salvation, when we will be glorified and united with Christ in sinless perfection. We are to place our hope on that future reality. The author of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). We hope in what we cannot see – our future glorification. As Paul says, “we live by believing.” And our faith and hope are to be accompanied by love. In fact, he says that of the three, love is the greatest. When Christ returns and our glorification takes place, faith and hope will no longer be necessary. The unseen will have become visible. We will see Him as He is and we will be like Him. But love never ends. It will continue on throughout eternity, because it is the very nature and essence of God Himself. We will love and be loved. We will live in an environment of perfect love, unhindered by sin and no longer impacted by hate.
The Corinthians were obsessed with the gifts, but for the wrong reasons. They didn’t understand their purpose. They saw them as spiritual badges of honor that gave them precedence and importance over one another. They failed to recognize their God-given purpose of enlightening and edifying one another. And their use of them was not accompanied by love. But Paul reminds them that love trumps all – even now. We don’t have to wait until heaven to experience the unhindered love of God. When we use the gifts He has given to us, we are expressing His love to one another. We are sharing and caring for one another. The gifts were intended not only to reveal the truth of God, but His love. Paul will close out this letter with some powerful words of encouragement: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV). We live in the now. And it is going to take faith, hope, strength, endurance, and patience. But none of these will be successful if we fail to love. Love brings heaven to earth. Love makes the future present, the unseen visible, and our hope tangible.