"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." (v. 12)

1 Corinthians 13:4-13 Monday 5 August 2013


It has often been noted that Methodists best express what theybelieve in the words of songs and hymns (as the current hymnbook"Singing the Faith" declares). This is common to many otherexpressions of Christianity as well - and it's not new. Long beforeWesley, Watts, Kendrick and Townend, hidden within the words of theNew Testament are words of early hymns, songs and creeds, which mayhave been sung or recited across the growing Church - first byword-of-mouth and later by Scripture - and cherished because of theheights of wonder and depths of praise therein.

Today's passage is a poem, a song, as part of one of Paul'sletters to a church in turmoil. It's read at countless weddings,where couples try to find words to express the love they feel foreach other. But not so fast! This is not simply a description ofsomething we all know well. This song is "love unknown". Read itagain, put your name in place of 'love' and see if it still fits.We should all think very carefully before ascribing this poem toourselves. This is not the sort of love that comes easily to hand.What we call love describes many different things, not all of themas honourable as this thing. The Greeks had a number of differentwords for types of love. Here, Paul is defining one of them: theword is 'agapé'. This is the very love of God. It is the love Godhas for us, and the love God wants to see displayed in our lives.It's the highest degree of love. God's perfect love.

For us it is an aspiration, that we will catch glimpses of fromtime to time, as we learn to love and be loved. For our Creator, onthe other hand, it is a constant state, and God's definingcharacteristic.

God's love as revealed in Scripture, and specifically in JesusChrist, is agape at its best. It is indeed long-suffering and kind,as Paul describes, but then he's forced to portray this unknownlove by considering what it's "not": envious, bragging, arrogant,rude, irritable, resentful, or taking pleasure in another'swrongdoing (traits which most of us will recognise are partly oroccasionally present in our relationships). In other words, thislove, this agapé, ought to surprise us by just how different it isin this world dominated by so many other characteristics. This lovetakes pleasure in the truth; it's all-covering, all-believing,all-hoping, all-enduring. It's a love that never fails.

But what hope for us, then? If we recognise ourselves to be sowoefully inadequate compared to the blazing light of God's love,why bother? Well, we miss the point of this if we don't understandverse 12.What do you see when you look in the mirror? But what ifthat mirror is steamed up? We only get a blurred outline (whichmakes shaving difficult!). But open the window, wait for the mirrorto clear, and soon you will see: face-to-face. Only, Paul suggests,when God's love has shaped and transformed you, it's not your faceany longer, but the beautiful image of God. Oh yeah, because we'veforgotten God's plan for us at the very beginning; his design thatwe are 'made in God's image' (Genesis 1:27). Right now, our lives and ourlove may be poor reflections of God - steamed up and cloudy - butwe are reflections nonetheless. Our lives and our loves should becherished as reflections of God. But then, becoming Christian andgrowing in Christ, is about something more: it's about becoming allthat we can be - it's about growing in that perfect love, and thisdoesn't usually happen overnight.

But it does happen: and this is part of our hope as Christians:we are God's beautiful work in progress, as we grow in the image ofChrist who istheImage of God. If we stay connected to and guided byGod, we will reach those heights of generous and self-givingperfect love, and see God's agapé reflected in us.

So then, this "love unknown" should not be "unknown" any longer- for we have received it from God, and we have seen it and know itin Jesus Christ.

To Ponder

  • This passage was never intended to be a poem to be read out atweddings, but rather part of a passionate rebuke to a particularchurch where divisions had emerged over "spiritual gifts"(prophecy, speaking in tongues and the like). Paul introduces thisgreat song by saying: "And I will show you a still more excellentway…" (1 Corinthians 12:31). How often do we get ourpriorities wrong in our churches, and put our preferences andprejudices before our highest calling?
  • "Faith, hope and love" (v. 13) are seen as the three mainvirtues of our faith. How do you understand them, and how are theyconnected?
  • Verse 10 could be translated: "But when the completion comes,the partial will be abolished". What, when, or who do you thinkPaul is referring to in this statement of hope?
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