Paul concluded his discussion of spiritual gifts with this statement, “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31, NKJV). Paul’s reference to a more excellent way was meant to describe the ultimate attainment for a believer who wants to become like Christ. You could say that Paul was unlocking the secret to a successful Christian life. He said:
I may be able to speak the languages of men and even of angels, but if I do not have love, it will sound like noisy brass. If I have the gift of speaking God’s Word and if I understand all secrets, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I know all things and if I have the gift of faith so I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give everything I have to feed poor people and if I give my body to be burned, but do not have love, it will not help me. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NLV)
Paul was talking about a way of life the ran counter to the mainstream culture of his day. Paul’s ministry took place when the Roman Empire was at the height of its success. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written around 55 B.C., when Nero had just become the emperor of Rome. Nero was one of the most violent leaders of the Roman Empire who killed his own mother and made public his hatred of Christians by burning them alive.
Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 emphasized the importance of putting others above ourselves. His statement “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV) suggested that Paul expected believers to strive toward perfection in their pursuit of loving others. In fact, Paul likened Christian love to the completeness or perfect maturity that a believer is able to achieve in his or her life. Paul stated, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10).
The Greek word translated perfect in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is teleios. “Teleios means brought to its end, finished” (G5046). When Jesus was dying on the cross, he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word he used, teleo and teleios are derived from the same Greek word telos, which means “to set out for a definite point or goal” and by implication, “the conclusion of an act or state” (G5056). Paul made it clear that the goal every Christian should be to love his neighbor as himself (Matthew 22:39), but he also understood that perfection was not something that could be attained in this life. Paul concluded his discussion with a statement about life after death. He said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face;: now I now in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). What Paul was saying was that everything we know about each other right now is like a snapshot that can only capture a brief moment in time. When we get to heaven, we will see the whole story and be able to recognize the truth about who we really are. We will have a type of full perception that enables us to be perfectly united with everyone we love (G1921).