I have discovered a poetic beauty in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 that I have never seen before. Allow me to step through each section of the text visually. I have written the English words in the order of the Greek language, so that you may see the structural beauty of this text. It sounds like Yoda speak, which is another reason it is so cool.
First, let’s look at an abbreviated 1 Corinthians 12 to provide context.
The context is Paul’s argument from 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. The church in Corinth is being ripped apart by warring factions. Everyone is arguing over who has the better spiritual gifts. The real issue, in my opinion, was a power struggle. Who is the authoritative voice now that the Law of Moses has been contextualized and the Holy Spirit is running wild amongst Jews and Gentiles alike?!?
Our English translations usually render verse 31 “I will show you a still more excellent way.” The literal translation, however, reads “and still by hyperbolic way to you I show.” The alternative path that Paul is about to show the Corinthians is one that goes above and beyond imagination. It is excessive. It overflows. It is the most excellent way.
The way is love. We are very familiar with 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, especially if you have been to a wedding recently. We love the list of adjectives that describe agape love. But, we often stop at the first half of verse 8.
Let the magic begin…
Notice the first word: The Love. It never falls apart, fails, ends, collapses, ceases…
However, the stuff that we get so worked up about–our gifts of prophesy, tongues, and knowledge–they will end. They will be abolished, crushed, fade away, disintegrate. Nill.
Notice the structure. “from part” we know. “from part” we prophesy. Our knowledge, our ability to speak the truth, is small and limited by our own perspective. We only have part of the picture.
Here is a key place where our English language has really led us down the wrong path for interpreting this text. Look closely at the structure. “When might come to teleion.” The Greek word telos is highly debated amongst Bible and Theology nerds. It means more than the end, as if it the final stop of a railroad track. It means the fulfillment of purpose.
The New Living Translation says, “But when the time of perfection comes.” The word perfect is so dangerous. Our Greek, Western heritage brings so much Platonic baggage with that word that it makes it seem like it is a hard stop. You can’t go beyond perfect, can you?
The New Revised Standard version says, “but when the complete comes.” That is a little better, but still has a finality to it.
I think the word maturity communicates it more closely to the meaning Paul may have intended. My reason for that will become clear in a moment. first…
Look what maturity does to our “from part” way of being. It abolishes it. It opens it up and allows us to see more fully. Keep going…
Paul uses a metaphor to explain it. Infants grow to maturity. When I was an infant, I acted like one. When I become a mature adult, my infant ways are abolished. Or, at least they should be. Can you hear the finger wagging here?
For now, as infants, life is an enigma. That is literally what it says. The Greek word is einigmata, from which we get the English word enigma. It represents something that simply does not make sense. The grown-up world doesn’t make sense to the infant.
Here is where it blossoms into something incredibly beautiful. Notice how the infant looks at the world. She looks into a mirror. Who is she looking at? herself.
Where does the gaze fall when maturity arrives? We look face to face. In maturity, I will perceive (not know) just as also I was perceived.
I have always been taught that this passage was all about how glorious Heaven will be after we die. Right now we are stupid humans, but someday, after this life is over, we’ll get to understand all the mysteries of the universe.
I don’t think that is what Paul is saying at all. Paul is telling the Corinthians to grow up. He’s telling them to stop gazing in the mirror and wondering how important they are in their own eyes. The bickering and one-upsmanship is childishness and not part of the body of Christ that God is trying to mature in this world.
God’s love causes us to look at each other AND ACTUALLY SEE EACH OTHER!
We are called to love each other in the same way that God loves us. Each of us is a beloved child of God and we are called to look out for everybody.
Notice the last word of this majestic poem: The Love. Mic drop.
Here is is all put together.