The Eternity of Love
Series: Love Is
It is wise to live for what lasts, but when you really think about it, what really does last? The answer of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is the one thing that never ends, so give your life to it.
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
One of the marks of wisdom is the ability to think long-term vs. short-term. If you go to get financial advice, the advisor will probably tell you to curb your spending a bit and put money into savings and retirement. Why? Because you don’t want to spend your money on things that will feel good in the moment, only for it to be gone when you really need it. That’s called instant gratification, which is nice, but limited, and not what you want to sink all of your money into, or the day will come when you won’t be gratified at all. That’s just money, but the principle can be broadened from how we spend our money to how we spend our lives. Why give your life to something that won’t last? But then again, what really does last? We’re almost done with a series of sermons looking at 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter of the Bible about love. The last few weeks we’ve really focused on the passage’s description of love in verses 4-7, but this week beginning in verse 8, the passage zooms out. It’s no good knowing what love is and is not if you aren’t convinced you should really give your life to it. So, to close, God gives us two reasons to give ourselves to love, the first we’ll look at today, the next, this coming Sunday, and the first is that love is the answer to our wise question, “What really does last?” Or as the beginning of verse 8 puts it, Love never ends.
But the partial will
Our passage begins with this simple statement that love never ends. It then moves directly to a contrast: Love never ends, but some things do. Specifically, prophecy will pass away, tongues will cease, and knowledge will pass away. Here Paul lists three spiritual gifts which also appeared earlier in the chapter in verse 2. Each gift is a manifestation of extraordinary knowledge not generally available to humanity. Prophecy is the report of a spontaneous revelation God makes to the speaker, and the speaker then communicates it. Tongues is similar, only the communication is in a language unknown to the speaker. Knowledge is simply the knowledge of the revelation unknown to humanity generally. These gifts were mentioned earlier in chapter 13 because they are such extraordinary, impressive gifts, and they are mentioned here for the same reason: Though they are impressive and extraordinary, they will end, while love will not.
Paul then goes on to explain why in verse 9: We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. We’ll get to the perfect in a bit, but notice for now what he’s saying about the most extraordinary and impressive of spiritual gifts: In this life, they’re partial at their best, and therefore, when the perfect comes, they will be replaced by what is complete, while love never will. These gifts serve a purpose now: They mediate knowledge of God to us, but one day they will no longer be necessary, and therefore pass away. They’re nice for now, but we won’t be using them in heaven, while we will be loving God and one another still in heaven.
This was important for the Corinthians to realize because they became fixated on the identification and expression of their spiritual gifts. Instead of using their gifts in the service of love, they simply looked for ways to use their gifts. This can happen today when Christians come to churches and demand the church provide a way for them to use what they have identified as their gifts. But Paul’s essentially saying, “Don’t you want to live for what lasts?” Your gifts are going to go away. Whatever credit you get for them, whatever satisfaction they give, is going to go away, but love will remain. The gifts are the means, love is the end, because love never ends. Augustine, put it this way: “There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used…To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love—if indeed it is something that ought to be loved.” In other words, you should not enjoy your gifts and resources, that is, “hold fast to them in love for their own sake,” but you should use them by applying them to the purpose of holding fast to God and people in love for their own sake, because the gifts will end, but that love, the love of God and others, will never end.
It’s a worthwhile exercise for any of us when we find ourselves deeply engaged in something, devoting a lot of time, attention, and energy to something, to stop and ask the scary question, “Is this really going to last? Where is this all headed?” It’s a scary question because the basic message of our world is, “everything ends.” In a materialistic vision of the world, you end when you die. Maybe you leave behind some great family or accomplishment, but eventually they end too, then the earth itself ends, then our universe, and so forth. Nothing never ends, so nothing is really worth spending yourself, sacrificing for. The best you can do is be as happy as possible for the little bit of time you’ve got, and don’t waste your time asking where it’s all headed.
Or our world tries to deal with the end by saying that in the end, we will all be one. Our bodies will return to the earth, and our spirits, if we have them, will be reunited with the one, like a drop of water going back into the ocean, perfectly at peace. But do you see that in that vision, you still end when you die? All individuality ends, and you see what else ends then? Love ends. I can only love you and you can only love me if there is a “you” and a “me.” And so in many religions that embrace this view, such as Buddhism, love is not central to their ethic, and they’ve done little historically to address problems of suffering and injustice. But the Christian vision of the end is very different. It says there are some things that end: The partial ends, but there is also something that does not end: Love never ends, and therefore love is the great, central virtue of Christianity.
So in whatever you’re giving yourself to, stop and ask, “Where’s this all going? Am I seeking it as an end to be enjoyed in itself, or as a means to the end of love?” If you’re deeply engrossed in your work, that may be great, but if it’s for the acclaim or the money, that won’t last. But if you use your job as an instrument of love, you start to say, “I want to work hard because the I’m working unto the Lord, the work I do really helps people, by my good works I may have opportunities to speak the good news of Jesus to people around me, and the compensation I receive from this work enables me to provide for myself so as not to burden others, and enables me to give generously to the work of the church and any who are in need.” The love for God and people for which you use your work is what will never end.
It’s also what will enable you to keep going when the use of your gifts and resources doesn’t seem very impressive. We’re in a season now as a church where for us just to do the basic thing a church does of gathering for worship while honoring our governing authorities and protecting our neighbors from the spread of COVID-19, we need a lot of people to do very “unimpressive” things like check people in to the services, wipe down chairs, click through slides, and so forth. If you’re simply looking for a way to express your spiritual gifts, a lot of those probably don’t sound very appealing. But if you’re looking to love God and His people, there are numerous opportunities to do that right now. And if you’re going to do them, especially if you’re going to keep doing them, you have to keep the end in mind. Setting up chairs won’t get you of bed Sunday after Sunday, but contributing to the worship of God and the edification of the church might, if you love God and His church. That’s a love that will never end: In heaven you will love God and love His church, His people, who will be there with you. All else will fade, because at that time the perfect will come.
Because the perfect will come
Continuing from verse 9, after Paul says we know in part and prophesy in part, he says in verse 10 that when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. He uses the illustration of a child and an adult. Children speak and reason differently than adults. They’re in the growing process, but when one grows up, one does not hold on to childish ways. Even as I’m watching my son now learn to speak, his natural, unconscious goal, is to progress into grown-up words, not hold on to childish words. So also when the perfect comes, we will not hold on to the partial knowledge communicated through prophecy and tongues.
He explains his illustration with another in verse 12: Our knowledge is partial now because now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Mirrors in the ancient world were bronze and were actually quite clear, so the image here is not of a smudged mirror. The mirror image is more meant to convey that we see a representation of God now. It’s really Him who is communicated through prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, but He is communicated through those media; He is not known directly. To translate this into our day, now we see as through a computer screen over Zoom, but the day is coming, when the perfect vaccine arrives, when we will see face to face, even without masks! And when you progress to seeing people face to face, you aren’t going to pull out your phone and say, “Hey can we do this over Zoom? Let’s put the masks back on.” That’s a little image of what it will be like when Jesus returns.
We will see Him face to face, no longer through the medium even of Scripture or preaching like I’m doing now. Since Jesus took on human flesh, we will see the glorified human nature of Christ, united with His glorious divine nature in His one, unified person. That’s going to be glorious. But “seeing” in the Bible, especially seeing God, also connotes an enhanced knowledge. So verse 12 concludes: Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. Not only will we see Jesus with the eyes of our body; we will see God with the eyes of our heart. We’ll know Him like He’s always known us: No longer through the computer screen, but face to face. This doesn’t mean we will have exhaustive knowledge of God; the infinite God will always be incomprehensible to finite humans, but we will know Him intimately and immediately, as we have been known by Him.
Now, that should excite you, but if you really think about it…it should also scare you. Do you see what this is saying? It is saying that right now you are fully known by God. He doesn’t see you through a mirror dimly, and guess what that means? You can’t hide from Him. You can’t hit “stop video” and put up a pristine photo of yourself with God. And the day is coming when you will actually have to face Him. Isn’t this our greatest fear, in many ways? The fear or being fully known, but not truly loved? The fear that if you really knew me, if you really saw what went on outside of me, you’d be gone? And this passage says God knows you like that, but it also says: Love never ends. God is love, and His is the love that never ends. Even our sin against Him and His full knowledge of it could not end it.
In Jesus Christ, the perfect came, yet passed away for us on the cross. On the cross all the sins of God’s people, the sins He fully knows, were placed on Christ and judged in Him so that they could be forgiven in whoever believes in Him. And His love was so strong that not even death could end it. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, into the world of perfect love, so that whoever believes in Him could have His love poured into their hearts, and live forever with Him in that world of perfect love. Believe in Him, and that’s where this all ends. That’s where it’s all going. There will still be a “you,” and there will be a Jesus, who died for you, and you will see Him face to face.
And as our knowledge is perfected by seeing Him face to face, by knowing Him immediately and intimately rather than mediately, so also will our love be perfected. Our love will be perfected first of all because His love will no longer be doubtable. Right now I’m telling you of God’s great love for you, and you have zero reason to doubt it: He says in His Word that He loves His people with an everlasting love, He did not spare His own Son for you, He’s brought you here to hear the message of His love, and the promise of His love is made in Scripture to you as much as to anyone else: It is for whoever believes. You have no good reason to doubt it, and yet you might. I know I do sometimes. While on earth we walk by faith, not by sight, and alongside my faith I see doubt. But if you persevere in faith, the day will come when that faith will turn to sight, and there will be no more possibility of doubt. You’ll be in the infinite ocean of His love, without bottom or shore, and you will no more be able to doubt His love in that day than you can deny the chair on which are sitting today.
Have you ever felt the joy that comes when someone powerfully declares or expresses their love to you on earth? Even just from another human, another speck of dust like yourself? What will it be like, then, when you have the fullest possible expression of the love of the God of the universe? You will not be able to hold back loving Him. You won’t be able to help yourself; how could you? Our love here flows like water through a clogged pipe: It may really be there if God has poured His love in your heart by His Spirit, but it’s easily clogged. When the perfect comes, however, when we are in heaven, the clogs will be gone. Here our love gets clogged when we sense we aren’t loved in return, but in heaven we will love God and others simply for who they are, not how well they love us. As Augustine put it, we will hold fast to them in love for their own sake. We won’t be using them.
And, they will actually love us in return! It is natural if you really love someone to desire their love in return, and it’s painful when that isn’t reciprocated, but that whole experience will be no more in heaven. Sometimes on earth, we may love, but struggle to express our love: We can’t find the right words, the right actions. In heaven, however, we will be in no way hindered in our expression of love. Our joy will be complete not only in loving, but in being able to express such love appropriately. Our love here is also diminished by the vices mentioned earlier in our passage: We see someone doing better than us, and envy diminishes our love. We love other things and people get in the way of them, so we get angry at them. We refuse to love people we perceive to be beneath us because we’re arrogant. But in heaven all of that is gone. We rejoice in the beauty and high status in heaven of others, and they rejoice in ours. We now boast in nothing but in the Lord, and therefore nobody is beneath us.
And here even in our most loving relationships, we live with the fear that one day they will end. The person might stop loving us, or death might sever the love relationship. These things do happen; denial won’t help you. You can try to numb yourself to them, but then you’ll just become less loving and your capacity for joy will shrivel. There is only one thing that will outlast death, and that’s love: The love of God for you, and the love it creates in you for Him and others. And if you know that, do you see how it would free you to love here? We said earlier if you think everything ends, the best you can do is try to be as happy as possible now. Or if you aren’t willing to even ask the question of what ends, you’ll end up giving your life to something that does: money, career, pleasure, etc. But if you know love never ends, you could actually give up your money, pleasure, and even your life for the sake of love. All those things will end anyway, but the love you are acting upon will not. So ask the scary question, “Where’s this all going?” and hear God’s answer: The partial will pass away, but the perfect will come, and love will never end.