KEY THOT: Unlike gifts like prophecy, tongue, knowledge which are temporal and temporary, love “never ends”—love is eternal. Spiritual gifts are gifts of partial revelation (“we know in part and prophesy in part”). When the “perfect comes” (a reference to the arrival of the perfect kingdom at Christ’s return), all these gifts of revelation become unnecessary because the perfect knowledge of the heavenly realities is revealed: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Cor 13:12, NKJV). (Some bible teachers have argued that the “perfect comes” is a reference to the completion of the NT canon, so that now we have the “perfect knowledge” of the NT scripture, gifts are unnecessary. I think this is misreading the Scripture to fit our doctrine, for Paul states quite clearly that when the "perfect comes," he shall see “face to face” and shall know "just as I also am known"—a more likely reference to the experience of the perfect kingdom that arrives at Christ's return.)
Be that as it may, Paul rounds up his argument by saying that the three foundational attributes we must possess as believers are faith, hope and love. But of these three, love is the greatest because "love never ends/fails". Faith and hope can still fail us because they are based on partial knowledge. But love is eternal and will never fail: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).
Paul is asserting that "now" (Greek: nuni, meaning at the present time) we need all three—faith, hope and love. We need faith to apprehend current spiritual realities and hope to apprehend future spiritual realities but we need love in the present, future and for all eternity--so love is the greatest. So when the perfect day comes, we may not even need faith and hope anymore, for everything will be clear as daylight. We will have perfect knowledge and there will be no room for faith and hope. When that happens, only love remains because only love is eternal.
So in that sense, love “never ends/fails”—it is forever. All gifts shall pass away when the perfect has come: prophecy, tongue, knowledge, and even faith and hope. But only one thing remains—love. Paul is not saying that prophecy, tongue, knowledge, faith and hope are unnecessary now, but only that they will become redundant because they are all founded on partial knowledge. It’s wrong to conclude that Paul is asserting that all we need now is love: but what he is saying is that love is the only quality that is both temporal and eternal and it is foundational to the exercise of other gifts.
Chapter 13 is a digression from his discussion on spiritual gifts in Chapter 12 and Chapter 14. Immediately after his conclusion that "the greatest is love”, he goes on to say: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1). He has not forgotten about spiritual gifts, but his digression in chapter 13 into the subject of love is to remind us that love must be the basis for the exercise of all of God’s gifts, otherwise these gifts are in vain.
Father God, thank You that love is the only thing that is eternal. Teach us to love as You have loved us. Amen.