For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. – 1 Cor. 13:9-10
We don’t talk about heaven much these days. Today’s Christians seem more preoccupied with this life and its ebbs and flows rather than with their future eternity. If we do, we are accused of pipe-dreaming, escapism and indifference to the problems of the here and now. Heaven is more of a palliative comfort technique; something to tell dying patients to provide them with some “hope”.
Now, in a sense, that misconception is understandable. Scripture speaks about heaven as our future “hope” (e.g. Col. 1:5) and you don’t need hope if you’re happy with where you are now.
Well, what wrong with that? Doesn’t the Bible teach us to be content (Phil. 4:11)? Aren’t we to avoid the example of the Israelites and their incessant, unfaithful whining in the desert (Ex. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3)? What’s wrong with being happy with your life this side of eternity?
Well, let’s say this: It’s one thing to be content and another thing to be complacent. Or if you prefer, there is godly contentment (2 Cor. 12:10) and ungodly contentment (Judges 17:11). In other words, as Christians, we are called to live in this world (John 17:11, 15), take care of it (Gen. 1:28), and be thankful for God’s providence (Eph. 5:3-4; Phil. 4:6; 1 Thes. 5:18; 1 Tim. 4:4), but we are also called to NOT live for this world (Mat. 6:19-20; John 17:16), to NOT love it’s evil (1 John 2:15-17) and to set our eyes and affections on the things that are above (Col. 3:1-3).
Because this world, beautiful and wonderful as it may be, has an expiry date. The apostle Peter wrote some interesting words about that: “…the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat” (2 Pet. 3:12b), while the book of Revelation is essentially a chronicling of the last days of the cosmos, followed by the creation of a new, eternal one (cf. Rev. 21:1). Now, the Bible is quite clear that this undoing of the universe will not be a natural phenomenon, but rather the active outpouring of God’s wrath and judgement on the universe’s rebellion against Him (2 Pet. 3:7). In other words, the fate of this world is bound up with its sin, and as God’s people, freed from the bondage of sin (Rom. 6:6-7), we are by nature separated from the world and its destiny. In fact, when we say that “Jesus saves”, this is what we’re (or should be) talking about: Due to Christ’s perfect and completed sacrifice for the consequence of sin, those who “put Him on” (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27) through repentance and faith (Mark 1:14-15), are delivered – saved – from God’s wrath and His coming, natural judgment on a sinful world (1 Thes. 1:10).
But God’s grace has no limits – neither has His creativity. God will let sin and the rebellion of the human and spiritual realms run its course, get as bad as it can possibly get, and then utterly destroy it; but He has also promised to create the world anew (Rev. 21:5).
Let’s take a moment to think about this: As far as we can push our collective theological minds, we can say that God didn’t have to create the world in the first place. He did it for His own pleasure; He put so much of His creative power into it; He made it as a work of love; and it ruined itself. And yet, God, who is outside time, will “wait” until the rebellion is done, save a few whom He has chosen through faith in Christ (and only), destroy the world as judgment and then… make a new one, which will never be infected by sin again, simply because sin had its day in the sun and lost. Satan, the originator of sin, will be forever imprisoned (Rev. 20:10), and those who will inhabit the new world will be completely and continuously free from the power of sin through the sheer sanctifying and perfecting power of Christ (Rev. 21:4, 27). It will be a new, perfect, unblemished world existing solely because of and for the glory of almighty God, whose creative power and wisdom designed all this.
When we say, “I’m a Christian”, do we see ourselves as part of this titanic plan? Are we thankful for God’s immeasurable grace that our existence is bound up with the eternally-saving and not the eternally-damning side of His plans? Do we live our lives like that?
Well, the evidence says no: If you look at the most popular Christian books today, not only will you notice a sad absence or twisting of Biblical doctrine, but also you will find that most of them could easily be classified as Christian “self-help” or “how-to” guides. And if you pull back and scan the “Christian” landscape of today, you will find that there is a virtually pornographic obsession with “me, my life and this world”. You know how some people say that “Jesus is a crutch”? Who do you think gave them that idea? Or why do you think atheists today will say that “you don’t need a God to be happy”? We live an earth-bound Christianity, and when it doesn’t work (and it wouldn’t), we slap on human remedies like spiritual duct tape, because we have no other resource.
But it shouldn’t be like this. If we are truly saved, if Christ can claim us as His own, if God calls us His children through Christ, then we are headed for a place dominated and centred upon God’s glory (Rev. 21:23). We are destined to receive an inheritance that knows no end (Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4). If we think like that, if we see our lives in that context, then there is no telling of the victories we will naturally gain over the struggles of this life. Why? Because our perspective will change. In fact, all of Christian living is built on this foundational attitude and perception (Mat. 6:33).
Are we excited by the prospect of heaven? Are we of those who “who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8) or have we invested our joy and energy in this passing world so much that the thought of heaven is something we hope will matter to us on our deathbed?
So, with all that in mind, let’s look at our original verse (1 Cor. 13:9-10). Addressing the confusion over the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Paul writes to the Corinthians and, like a good doctor, points out that their main problem wasn’t so much the misuse and abuse of those gifts in their assembly, but the fact that such behaviour demonstrated their lovelessness towards each other. It was a church riddled with problems, including gross sexual immorality, indifference towards the poor, secular lawsuits between brethren, and chaos in the use of the gifts that the Holy Spirit gave – and still gives – to believers in order to edify each other in the Lord. Instead, the Corinthians seem to have been using those gifts, especially the easily-imitable tongues, in a “more spiritual than thou” manner (1 Cor. 12:31). And Paul sees through and past all that noise, and pinpoints the one thing that was lacking and that would fix everything if it were applied: Love.
We are familiar with the famous 1 Corinthians 13. It’s the chapter of Love (vv. 1-8a). You can even find it elegantly quoted in non-biblical contexts. It’s inspiring because it shows us not only HOW love should be manifested among us, but it also helps us understand what it means exactly when the Bible tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8).
But that’s not all. In Chapter 13, Paul tells the Corinthians that they also have a problem of perspective when it comes to the use of the gifts. He tells them that in all their “spiritual” squabbling, they’ve forgotten that the gifts, even the super-gifts like prophesying, will not last forever, but one day, they will pass away (cf. 1 John 2:17).
And it is in that context that Paul describes something amazing: The end of faith – but not like Sam Harris dreamt it. The apostle talks about a time when all gifts will cease and something that he refers to as “that which is perfect” (το τέλειον; toh tehleion) (v.10). And when that “perfect” comes, he writes, there won’t be any need anymore for faith because we will be able to see face to face (v. 12).
Now, there are three main interpretations of what the “perfect” is, and they are mostly of interest because they have to do with the question of whether or not the gifts of the Spirit, like prophesying and speaking in tongues, have now been rendered inoperative or still continue today. It is not my intention to discuss that issue here, since it is not really important to what we’re looking at. I think it’s enough to list the three interpretations of the “perfect”:
1. The completion of Scripture. According to this interpretation, the “perfect” came when the book of Revelation was finished.
2. The rapture of the Church and the second coming of Christ. According to this interpretation, the “perfect” will come when the invisible Church is taken into the heavens (1 Thes. 4:15-17) and Christ returns to set up His millennium kingdom (Rev. 20:4-6) and judge all of mankind (Rev. 20:11-13).
3. The eternal state in God’s glory. According to this interpretation, the “perfect” will come when we have gone past the millennium kingdom of Christ and entered the New Jerusalem, or what we refer to as “heaven” (Rev. 21:9-22:4).
Considering that Paul talks about seeing “face to face”, I think that “perfect” he’s talking about fits with the third interpretation. Having the Scripture completed certainly doesn’t allow us to see “face to face” (just think of all the theological debates going on today) and in the millennium kingdom of Christ there are still teachers needed to proclaim and expound the Word of God (i.e. “prophesy”; cf. Joel 2:28).
Our end of faith comes when we don’t need faith anymore, because the “dim mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12), the smokescreen, will finally be removed. Take a moment to think about that:
The Lord says to Moses:
“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” – Exodus 33:20
Isaiah, upon seeing a vision of the Lord cries out:
“Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The LORD of hosts.” – Is. 6:5
Paul writes to Timothy:
[God] alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see – 1 Tim. 6:16
And even John, when he sees Christ in glory:
“And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.” – Rev. 1:17
… and yet, one day, we will be able to see Him face to face, clearer than we see each other now. No more obstruction by sin, human finiteness, worldly distractions, satanic powers, fleshly weakness, temptations, grief, persecutions or anything else we can add to that list. No more sorrow (Rev. 21:4), but only an unending, everlasting, eternal, perfect joy of and in our God. Imagine the unity with Him and between us as the perfected body and bride of Christ! Think of the unquenchable praise, the unparalleled worship and the adoration that we will give Him for who He is and what He has done. Imagine an eternal state where everything that keeps you from worshiping the Lord with all your mind, soul and being is gone. Imagine the unleashed glory of that place and of those who inhabit it forever!
And so, let me ask again: How does all that match the way we see our lives? How do we feel about it? Is it the greatest burning desire of our soul, or is it something that we’re vaguely looking forward to when we’re tired of having a good time here?
As always, I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of a great truth. There is so much to unpack, but for now let me leave you with this:
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God – 2 Cor. 7:1