What is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13?
This chapter, or parts of it, is often read at weddings. Because the subject of the chapter is love and it is a wedding favorite, many people have entitled it, “The Love Chapter.” It’s not that it can’t be used during the wedding ceremony. I myself have done this as a pastor.
But marital love is not exactly the kind of love was talking about. And the context has nothing to do with weddings. First Corinthians 13 is couched between a chapter about spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12) and a chapter explaining the use of prophecy and speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14).
Paul introduces 1 Corinthians 13 at the end of the last chapter by saying, “And now I will show you the most excellent way (to practice the spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:32b). He is basically telling us that the foundation for how to operate in spiritual gifts is to do it with love, unconditional love.
Even if you didn’t know the context of the chapters before and after, 1 Corinthians 13 begins with gifts as the examples (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Paul mentions four gifts, three of them spiritual gifts. He uses the examples of speaking in tongues in prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:10), faith (1 Corinthians 12:9), and a gift of service, charity or generosity (2 Corinthians 9:11).
So Paul is still talking about gifts and we won’t see it stop. He takes a moment to describe unconditional love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Unconditional love is a selfless and humble action. We know from other places in Scripture that this kind of love is learned from God, demonstrated by him first (1 John 4:19).
Then Paul returns to speaking about love in the context of the gifts. We know love is the foundation of the practice of gifts because it lasts beyond them. Paul says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away (1 Corinthians 13:8). Remember that the earth will also pass away.
The question is when these things will happen. While there are spiritual gifts, we know that at least one of them, knowledge, still exists today. Paul is referring to a word of knowledge from the Spirit, but the fact that we still have knowledge today, and we live in the knowledge explosion era of humanity, it has not passed away.
In the same way, although speaking in tongues is a reference to the gift here, we still have all types of languages all over the world. Languages, or tongues, have not ceased either. Paul is indeed speaking of gifts, but the vehicles for their existence, language and knowledge, still exist. Why would the Holy Spirit not still speak through these means today?
Many people use 1 Corinthians 13:8 to say that the gifts ceased in the first century, the apostolic age. But that doesn’t fit the context, and Paul would not have been thinking of that anyway. He taught on the gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:11; Romans 12:6-8).
If he wanted to say that the use of gifts of the Spirit came to an end, he had ample opportunity. Instead, he actually encourages the use of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:39).
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 13:9-10. We have these things in part now, knowledge and prophecy, but they will cease at a certain time. According to verse 10 these things will pass away “when the perfect comes.” So what is “the perfect”?
A theological movement, called Cessationists, will tell you that “the perfect” is the completion of Scripture and the apostolic age, around 95-96 AD. This is when the book of Revelation was completed by the Apostle John. But how would Paul have known this? He was martyred before this date.
Another approach is that “the perfect” refers to Christ. The church would need all of these gifts that Christ and the Spirit give to it to be effective for him until his return. So “the perfect” could refer to the second coming of Christ, when he comes on the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). After Christ comes back, the church would no longer need these gifts. The end times will be in full swing.
I’m sure there may be other interpretations of “the perfect” but these are the two most popular views. Either way, Paul is referring to something that perhaps only the Corinthians understood from his teachings while he was with them, or something that was revealed to them by one of the apostles.
Paul gives the example of the partial passing away by talking about the maturity of a person from childhood to adulthood. Some things are useful when we were children, but as we grew up, we no longer needed them or used them. So also, in my understanding and interpretation, the church will no longer need these gifts. It is likely a time in the end times when Christ returns.
He then provides a second example of partial ability in the now (1 Corinthians 13:12). He talks about seeing in the mirror dimly. In Paul’s day, the mirrors that people used were not nearly as clear in their picture as today’s mirrors. They were usually made out of bronze, and not the shiniest of bronzes either. A person could see himself, but not the fine details we see today in our mirrors.
The partial knowledge we have today will be a complete knowledge when we finally meet Jesus. His coming will signify the end of this era and the beginning of another, an eternal era. He finishes by talking about more enduring timeless qualities, faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Love will always be the greatest of these because it was demonstrated by God for each one of us. Faith and hope have their time as well, as we have faith in Jesus that will be complete in his return. And hope for his return keeps our faith sharp and active.We