by Spiros Zodhiates
Editor's note: In this series, Dr. Zodhiates elaborates on the Apostle Paul's magnificent description of the supreme Christian evidence: love.
"Love never faileth ..." (1 Cor. 13:8).
Our hearts are always warmed when we hear of faithful missionaries who under God gave their lives that others might live. Love is the motivating force that sends these genuine soldiers of the cross forth, even to die for Christ if called upon to do so. But simply to admire love and its great accomplishments, such as this, is not enough; we must want to learn to appropriate the secret of its power for ourselves. What is the secret of the power of love?
In verse eight, Paul turns from a consideration of love's temporary aspects to its eternal atmosphere. He takes only one word to express this: "never." This is a short word, yet its length is immeasurable. Eternity is where love started and that is where it is destined to live forever. All that pertains to God is eternal. His life, passed on to those who believe, is aptly called eternal life. His love is eternal also. The words "never faileth" manifest its eternity, its God essence.
"Love never faileth" is actually equivalent to "God never fails," for God is love. We find God described in the Scriptures as just, righteous, gracious, omnipotent, etc., but when it comes to the attribute of love, God is more than loving, He is love. Especially in the Gospel and Epistles of the Apostle John, the thought of God and the thought of agápe (love) are brought so near together that they are virtually identified. "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16).
Paul is not speaking in 1 Corinthians 13 about our own imperfect love, which even as Christians we often manifest, but about God's appropriated perfect love in us. Our love often fails, but not His. Therefore in a sense God must love through us, because even though we endeavor to have our love conform to His, our love can never perfectly do this.
God is not interested simply in passing on to us life that never ends, but life that is from Him and which therefore is abundant and eternal. It is not eternal life's everlasting quality per se that gives it its supreme value, but its divine nature and origin. Eternal life is the life of God, which may be communicated to men. Eternal love is the love of God. It is ever present, never absent.
In describing the manifestations of such love, Paul is actually describing the life of God in and through us. If and when we appropriate the life of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we appropriate His divine love also.
Paul moves in verse eight from the temporal manifestations of love to its eternal existence and value. He wants to show us that, although our bodies will die, there is something in us that is independent of the years and is the reason why our body will some day be raised up from the dead. This something in us is eternal and changeless, because we have been created by God in His image. It does not grow physically, but it does grow in knowledge. It does not fade as does the leaf; it is the same from the day of its creation, today, and forever. The years bring changes to many things-our manners, customs, modes of life. But there is a region that the years do not touch. It is the heart as the seat of man's emotions and personality. God has set eternity there.
"The heart is independent of tongues; when the voice is too weak for speech, the soul can sing. It is independent of prophecy; when sight is too dim to pierce the cloud, faith can cry, ‘O grave, where is thy victory?' It is independent of knowledge; when the laws of astronomy are forgotten, the starry mansions are visible to love.
"Here is one thing, Paul says, that never perishes. Let's think of that. The marvelous element about the fleeting years is not what they take away but what they leave behind. To Paul the marvel was not that tongues shall cease, nor prophets fail, nor knowledge vanish away, but that love should abide.
"And truly, that should be our marvel. It is not fleeting things which make us feel solemn; it is those which are permanent: the oldest and yet the youngest thing in the world-love which is timeless, yearless, dateless, endless!" (Matheson, Words by the Wayside, 80,81).
In the world, nothing that we can see or touch is really permanent. A stately old mansion gradually crumbles. Mountains are slowly worn down. Continental shores are slowly washed away by the sea. And man's body returns to the dust from which it came. Nothing will be ultimately permanent in the world to come unless its ultimate value is spiritual. Hence man will be raised from the dead physically and there will be a new heaven and new earth. Love is vital to that spiritual essence of man. "Love never faileth." Paul declares in this verse that love is perfect. God's love, which is inherently perfect, cannot be improved by the imperfect. What Paul is trying to do here is to give some criteria by which we may differentiate between the manifestations of the natural self and the power of God living and loving through us. We are perfect in Him but imperfect in ourselves. The struggle is that of conforming self to Him, of letting natural love be taken over and governed by supernatural love.
© From To Love Is to Live, an exegetical commentary on 1 Corinthians 13, 1967, revised 1998. Available from AMG Publishers.