God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 13:8b-10 We know only in part
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 1, 2023
But where there are gifts of prophecy, they will fade away; where there are tongues, they will cease; where there is knowledge, it will fade away. 9 For we know only in part and we prophesy only in part, 10 but when the complete comes, the partial disappears.
In the early 1970s, the NIV translation was underway. My mother was especially interested in it. She had a little copy of the very first part, the Gospel of John. In 1973, the whole New Testament was finished, and she carried it, along with her old King James Version, to church and to Bible class every week. A couple years later, an individual copy of Isaiah was available, and she added that to her little pile of the partial NIV. I don’t recall whether she ever had the Psalms portion, although I know it was available. Then, in 1978, the whole Bible was completed by the NIV folks. Her little pile of this portion and that portion was shelved, and she loved just coming to church with just her new, brown hardcover NIV Bible. What was partial faded away when the complete item arrived.
The three gifts that Paul holds out for our attention are imperfect by nature: prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. Love, Paul just said, never ends. It is permanent and lasting. Love is present for us in this life and also in the life with Jesus that is yet to come. Not everything in a Christian’s life is like this. Prophecy points forward to another, and another, and another, The whole future is never revealed all at once. Prophecy is useful in this life but no use in heaven, so it won’t be there.
“Speaking in other languages is important now, helping people throughout the world to know him, but in heaven it won’t be necessary, for all who believe in him will see him and know him personally.” Tongues, if that means unknown languages, were a sign to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22). “their presence belongs to an abnormal and temporary condition of things” in the earliest days of the church.
Knowledge, too, is imperfect in this lifetime because human beings are constantly growing in knowledge and understanding. This is true of individuals, for who among us doesn’t know more today than we did in high school? And this is also true of every discipline. Even pastoral studies continue to develop over time. Our college students learn new things about the Greek and Hebrew languages, more about Christian counseling, and other things, than our pastors learned when they were in school. But in heaven, all this will disappear in favor of the complete knowledge of the resurrection. “We know that when Christ appears, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), and “the truth will be with us forever” (2 John 1:2).
It took me time to learn that although I preach in a big church that serves a school, a high school, and a college, it is not the teachers and professors that need me to preach to them about lofty things. No, it is every child and every parent that needs to hear the simple matters, the Catechism, and the Gospel stories. It helps of course to preach out of the whole lectionary (the assigned readings for each week) and to add to it so that our people hear us touch on the whole Bible over the course of a few years, but the basics of sin, repentance, forgiveness, faith, the resurrection, prayer, and the sacraments must be covered again and again, or they will seem to be minor things to our people. Those things must never become minor or secondary subjects. Although this knowledge, too, will fade away in the end, the Holy Spirit works through our preaching and teaching to reinforce their faith and bring them home to the resurrection.
I suppose we could think of this in terms of building a wall the way Nehemiah did in his time (Nehemiah 2:17, etc.). A wall that is not even begun in some places but is eight feet tall in others doesn’t do much good. But Nehemiah had everyone work hard so the whole thing at least reached half its height, and then posted guards to defend the workers (Nehemiah 4:6,13).
So it is with our teaching. We don’t need to have thirty or forty men listen to sermons on the most difficult parts of the Bible; we need five hundred Christians to learn about the cross every single week, to be taught the meaning of baptism, of faith and forgiveness, so that the whole structure, the entire congregation, is built up and growing more and more every week. Luther said: “When I preach here (at Wittenberg), I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely forty are present, but at the hundred or the thousand young people and children. It’s to them that I preach, to them that I devote myself, for they, too, need to understand” (Table Talk).
We look forward to the day when everything will be revealed and we will revel in our Lord’s glory. But until then we know only in part, so we have more knowing to share, more preaching to do, more forgiveness to proclaim. There will be time to rest hereafter. It’s still time now to work, so listen to the prophet: “Be strong and work.”
Pastor Timothy Smith