There once were two weddings. The first took place on a pristine beach on a lake high in the mountains. The setting was breathtaking. The young couple showed that sweet nervous excitement that made everyone smile. A classical guitarist picked gathering music as we assembled for the ceremony. It began simply with the reading of selected verses from 1 Corinthians 13. The couple had written their own vows, which ended in a promise: “I will be faithful to you as long as we both shall love.”
The second was a high church affair. Johann Sebastian Bach reverberated from ranks of pipes, the dress was formal, and the floral arrangements were extravagant. The vows were from the Book of Common Prayer, and the homily — from 1 Corinthians 13:8 — assured all that “love never ends.” An old man seated near the front muttered — a few decibels too loudly — “Nonsense. How naïve.” Despite the frowns he received that day, his grumbles proved oddly accurate. The couple was divorced within two years.
Stories like these reveal how 1 Corinthians 13 functions today. It’s either background noise at weddings or, if read carefully, sounds a bit unreal. Even if we argue for a serious engagement with the text, the love described in the chapter is just too good. Who can love with a love that “never ends,” living as we do in a world in which everything else does?
Of course, Paul knew this. The words he wrote to close the chapter provide the key to resolving the tension. By showing us just what does come to an end, Paul highlights what he means by a love that does not.
Paul borrows three gifts from the previous chapter — prophecies, tongues, and knowledge — to make his point. Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge (at least two of which are among the “higher gifts” he told them to “earnestly desire”) will all “pass away.”
Paul is not just making a case for the cessation of the “sign” gifts. That position argues that prophecies will cease because Apostolic revelation is complete, and, thus, the gift once given to some has become the Bible given to all. Paul says much more here. In 13:8, he’s talking about eschatology, about the radical difference between this age and the world to come. One day, all of God’s people will see Him face to face, and they will walk and talk with Him in the cool of the day — as Adam once did in the garden. Prophecies will cease because when we stand before Him on the other side, reveling in His majesty, no one will need God’s lisping baby talk (John Calvin’s metaphor) adapted to frail humans this side of glory.
Tongues will cease, too. They will end because the division of humans by language, pronounced at Babel but overturned at Pentecost, will one day be but a distant memory of a former world. When the new comes, the church will be comprised of all nations, all peoples, and all tongues — all together. Now we labor to translate the Bible into the thousands of languages in which it does not yet appear. Then, no one will need translation assistance, for they will hear God’s voice as clear as a bell.
Even knowledge, a spiritual gift given to some, will pass away. Those blessed with this special gift help the rest of us understand the things of God a bit more fully. No one knows everything about God and His ways — not even those who speak as if they do. But one day, “when the [telos]” comes (v. 10), that “perfect” end of the story toward which history is relentlessly moving, partial knowledge will give way to complete knowledge, and we shall “know fully” even as we “have been fully known.”
In all three of these gifts, we possess only a mere down payment of a future world that is not yet here but is surely coming. We cherish such gifts, yet what they represent are but childish scratches on the canvas, the immature bud of a rose yet to bloom, a muted reflection of what no eye has yet seen and no ear has yet heard.
LOVE AS DESTINY
Love is not like that. The love of God has already been revealed in the most profound of ways, for love is properly known only in Christ. John said it this way: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). And if God’s love for us in Christ defines love, our love for one another is tangible evidence that the glory of God is being revealed, as Jesus once declared (John 13:31–35).
Love is not natural, not our default response; rather, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God… . If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:7–12). As in 1 Corinthians 13:10, the word perfected is a translation of the Greek word telos, a word that sniffs of eschatology (last things). Where love is displayed, the “end” of the story is evidenced in us now.
Love is the reality in this world of the one to come. Thus, love expressed by followers of Christ living in community is, in its very essence, an announcement of the gospel — a proclamation made by attitudes and actions, with fidelity, patience, kindness, forgiveness, and in all the other ways 1 Corinthians 13 describes. It is, literally, the gospel incarnate. Thus, it never ends.
Therefore, love must never be reduced to ethical obligations laid on people who hope for heaven. Such an approach to love is contrary to thegospel, but, sadly, it is popular.
Neither must love be treated as if it were an emotional veneer, thin compared with the sturdy substance of propositional truth. We who cherish the riches of doctrine sometimes make that mistake. For Paul, there is no truth where there is no love.
Instead, we must exult in love as gospel grace in action. We must cherish God’s unmerited love to us in Christ. We should be awestruck by God’s love to us through the love of others. Perhaps most amazing is the humbling realization that God’s love f lows through us to others, leveraging our past hurts to encourage them in their present struggles (2 Cor. 1:3–4). Each touch of love leaves an eschatological fingerprint on the hard surfaces of life, evidence that the gospel is true no matter how things may appear.
A church that claims to preach and teach the truth but does not love well will inevitably be off-putting and judgmental. But one that loves well (consistent with the truth) will be irresistibly attractive to a broken world. Truth expresses the gracious logic of the gospel, but love is its pulse. Love never ends, for God’s own heart beats that pulse, the not yet of the next world throbbing already in the arteries and veins of this one.
LOVE AS DUTY
In the gospel, however, love is also a duty, its presence crucial to a healthy church and its absence deadly. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes God’s gifts: grand ones, mysterious ones, others sometimes virtually invisible. None, he says, should be overlooked; none allow for boasting. Yet unless love marks our communal life, the church will be an empty shell, gifted but never quite what it is supposed to be.
Thus, we who are in Christ should live in love — indeed, we must live in love. And that love can and must endure. The saints will persevere in love, for God will empower and enable that love. We may not walk away from love’s obligations when circumstances change, including when a spouse becomes harder to love because of bipolar disorder or Parkinson’s disease. Love may not hate the boss who fired you or the boyfriend who dumped you, for love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). It can do this because love trusts and believes the gospel in every trial.
Paul concludes, “So now, faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). Those are striking words considering what he says about faith and hope elsewhere. Faith is a wondrous gift that believes what it cannot yet see. Hope inspires within us what the circumstances of a harsh world so often crush. Yet love is greater, for faith will give way to sight, and then faith will not be needed. And hope will one day possess what it longed for, so it will not be required any more.
But love will not give way to something better. Love is already God’s best: the eternal made temporal, the proof of the gospel’s validity, the presence of the future, and the astonishing evidence of God’s new creation on display in this old world. Love truly never ends, for love is of God, and God is love (1 John 4:7–8).