(1Co 13:8 ESV) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
N. T. Wright gives the context, in particular, the fact that Paul now looks to the Second Coming to put spiritual gifts in proper perspective —
The point of 13:8–13 is that the church must be working in the present on the things that will last into God’s future. Faith, hope and love will do this; prophecy, tongues and knowledge, so highly prized in Corinth, will not. They are merely signposts to the future; when you arrive, you no longer need signposts. Love, however, is not just a signpost. It is a foretaste of the ultimate reality. Love is not merely the Christian duty; it is the Christian destiny.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 296.
Love never fails
The Greek is actually “love never falls.” To “fall” in Paul’s writings generally refers to falling away, that is, becoming damned or destroyed upon Jesus’ return.
(Rom 11:11 ESV) So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
(Rom 14:4 ESV) Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
(1Co 10:12 ESV) Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
Hence, we might translate, “Love never brings to damnation” or “Love never suffers damnation.” Paul is pointing toward the end of the age.
Just so, when Paul says that prophecies “will pass away,” the verb is a favorite of Paul for the destruction that will come at the end of the age —
(1Co 1:28 ESV) God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,
(1Co 2:6 ESV) Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.
(1Co 6:13 ESV) “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”– and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
(1Co 15:24 ESV) Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
(1Co 15:26 ESV) The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
The same word is used in verses 10 and 11.
“Perfect” in v. 9 is teleios, meaning mature or perfect, and is a characteristic of God.
(Mat 5:48 ESV) You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And so, we cannot ignore the eschatological implications of Paul’s words —
(1Co 13:8-11 ESV) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
The boldfaced words are eschatological or else point toward God-like perfection, and so they refer to the end of time when Jesus returns. In v. 11, of course, Paul is speaking of the now — but his point is that, because God will destroy prophecies, tongues, etc. at the end of time, we should treat such things as the temporary expedients they are and cling to the permanent — especially love.
(1Co 13:12 ESV) 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
“Face to face” borrows from the Septuagint for Gen 32:31, where after wrestling with the angel of the Lord, Jacob declared that he’d seen God “face to face,” as well as the fact that God spoke with Moses “face to face” (Deu 34:10). Plainly, this is not a reference to reading about God in the Bible. This is a reference to an intense, truly personal meeting with God
— as in the Second Coming.
Now, on the other hand, love and the charismata are set in antithesis to each other, and we have the eschatological argument that the latter will cease. They are accordingly, unlike love, not the appearing of the eternal in time, but the manifesting of the Spirit in a provisional way. Thus these very gifts hold us fast in the “not yet.” The form of expression is purposely harsh: prophecy will “be destroyed.” Gnosis is mentioned because of its significance as a Corinthian slogan (cf. 8:1ff.). What Paul is driving at here emerges—harshly, from the logical standpoint—in the next verse in the distinction between the transient and abiding aspects of these gifts.
Han Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (New Testament) (1988).
In short, Paul is setting up a contrast between the way things are now and the way they’ll be when Jesus returns. He is not speaking of the writing of the New Testament, the closing of the canon, or the end of the age of miracles. His words are carefully chosen to refer to the end of this age and the return of Jesus.
When does prophecy end? When Jesus returns. When do tongues end? When Jesus returns. When does knowledge — as a spiritual gift — end? When Jesus returns. When will we see face to face? When Jesus returns. When will our knowledge be perfect and no longer partial? When Jesus returns.
Some have argued that the “perfect/complete” thing to which Paul was referring was the completion of the canon or the maturing of the church, one or the other of which they attribute to the disappearance of the more spectacular gifts from most if not all churches in the post–apostolic period. The context (especially v. 12) makes it abundantly clear, however, that the point at which Paul expects the gifts to pass away or disappear is when we see the Lord “face to face” and “know [him] fully, even as [we are] fully known.”
… In Paul’s context, it seems he is waiting for complete or perfect versions of that which is manifested in the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge (i.e., perfect communication, communion and interpersonal knowledge between God and his people), which will arrive when we experience the fullness of the new creation in the presence of the Lord himself. Thus, when all the complete versions of the partial realities we experience through spiritual gifts in this life arrive, those partial realities will be laid aside and will disappear.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 656-657.
Does that mean that miracles still happen? Well, of course they do, or why do we bother to pray for them?
On the other hand, as clear as this seems to be, Paul’s language leaves us to wonder what he means when he writes,
(1Co 13:13 ESV) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
“Abide” in contrast to what?