These Three Remain (Week 1)
Faith (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Back in the year 2000, a movie came out starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton and Jenna Elfman. In this movie, Ben Stiller plays a Jewish rabbi and Edward Norton plays a Catholic priest both of whom are in love with Jenna Elfman. However, because she’s not Jewish, Ben Stiller can’t date or marry her nor can Edward Norton since Catholic priests take a vow of chastity. But what happens is that both men find themselves struggling with and questioning their call to their respective religions. The name of this movie was Keeping the Faith. And what happens in the movie is that we watch these two men struggle with their faiths.
But in this sense “faith” is a metonym, a word that acts as a stand in for an entire concept. And so the movie is called “Keeping the Faith” but really what it means is “Keeping the religion”. Faith in this sense is simply a stand-in for one’s entire set of religious beliefs. And there are times when that’s okay. There are times when we can use the term faith to simply mean religion or set of beliefs. But is that all faith is? What does it mean to have faith? What exactly is faith?
This morning we’re starting a new three-part series we’re calling “These Three Remain”. This series comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13 which says “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” So we’re going to park in this one verse for the next three weeks. And over these next three weeks, we’re going to be discussing the idea of faith, hope and love. You know… simply concepts.
The overarching questions we’re going to ask is “What does Scripture mean with these concepts?” One of the difficulties with language, both written language and spoken language is that words can sometimes have wildly different means based on the context. If someone says “It’s going to be warm today”, what they mean by that will be radically different depending on the time of year and the location of the person. In Nova Scotia in January, 10 degrees is warm. But in Florida in July, warm takes on a completely different meaning. Or the other day I told Karly that I read an article on the human brain. And she responded with “Oh, how did you find it?” And I said, “Oh, I thought it was really fascinating. I learned a lot.” To which she replied, “No… I mean… where on the internet did you find the article.” What she meant by the word “find” and how I interpreted “find” were radically different.
And this is the challenge of studying Scripture. We have to try to figure out what the original author meant with these rather loaded terms instead of simply reading our own understanding of them into the text. So that’s our goal over the next three weeks, to ask the question “What did Paul mean by faith, hope and love?”
More importantly, he says that these three remain. Even after everything else passes away, faith, hope and love will remain. So what does that mean for our future? And if we can understand what that means for our future then maybe we can also start to get an idea of what that should mean for us presently. But before we jump in, let’s open with prayer.
Okay, so to understand what Paul is talking about here in verse 13 we have to understand the context it’s written in. The church in Corinth is one that has been deeply divided over a number of issues. There was a huge divide between the rich and the poor in the church, but there was also a divide over which church leader to follow, with some wanting to follow Paul while others wanted to follow Peter or Apollos.
Beyond this, there was also a division in the church based on spiritual gifts. Some of the people believed that some gifts, such as prophecy, interpretation or words of knowledge were more important than other gifts. Not only were the gifts more important, but those who had those particular gifts were, by proxy, also more important in the church.
So one of the things Paul is writing to correct is this idea that some spiritual gifts are better than others or that the people who have those gifts are in any way better than the Christians that have other gifts. Chapter 12 of this book is all about the various spiritual gifts and how the entire body of Christ should be unified despite their diverse gifts. Paul then starts off chapter 13 by talking about how love is even more important than any of these gifts. Not only is love more important, but all of the spiritual gifts, if not used from a place of love, are essentially useless.
And he ends chapter 13 by saying this, starting in verse 8:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Paul is drawing a contrast between spiritual gifts and these three, faith, hope and love, which he says will remain. For Paul, spiritual gifts are something useful and pragmatic. Something that we use here and now, but which will eventually fade away. What Paul is talking about is this present age versus the age to come. Many scholars refer to this time period between when Jesus ascended into heaven and when he returns a second time as “The Church Age”.
This is the time period when the Church as a whole makes up the body of Jesus and act as his hands and feet in the world. And as Paul understands it, the whole point of spiritual gifts is to benefit the Church. Spiritual gifts either help build up the Church or help the Church complete our mission of going out into the world and inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth.
Obviously, establishing the Kingdom of God on earth is not something we can do in and of ourselves, but through the Spirit of Christ and his spiritual gifts in our lives, we can build towards the Kingdom of God. But Paul says that there is a day in the future when prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled and knowledge will pass away. In this sense, Paul is looking past this age into the age to come. Paul is looking into the age after Jesus returns and after he establishes his kingdom finally and fully on earth. The $5 word for this age is the Eschaton. The era after the final things.
After Christ returns, in Paul’s theology, we move from the church age into the Eschaton. The time when Jesus is physically present and ruling on earth. The time when heaven and earth overlap completely forever and ever. And Paul says, spiritual gifts are great and wonderful and useful, but they’re really only for this age. Once Jesus is here we won’t need them anymore. But even after Jesus returns and we live with him forever and ever, faith, hope and love will continue to exist. These three remain.
But understanding that doesn’t really get us any closer to understanding what faith is and what it will look like in the Eschaton. For many of us, faith is basically synonymous with belief. Specifically we think of faith as believing the right things, sometimes without proof. We can’t prove something to be true, so we take it on faith. Which isn’t inaccurate. But I think there’s more to faith than that.
Faith is more than simply right or accurate belief. Faith is more than simply knowing the right things about God. Paul says as much in verse 9 and 10. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” Later in verse 12, he repeats this idea when he says, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Now the problem with thinking about faith as right and accurate belief is that how can faith continue to exist once we are fully in the presence of God and once we know fully even as we are fully known?
Here’s another way to think about it. The oceans of the world… the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, Arctic and Southern, make up 71% of the surface of the earth. The deepest part of the ocean—that we know of—is 36,000 feet deep. For comparison, Mount Everest—the tallest mountain in the world—is 29,000 feet high. The ocean is pretty big. Scientists believe that we have explored and understand somewhere around 5% of the world’s oceans. Which means 95% of the ocean remains a mystery to us.
Furthermore, other scientists believe that the universe, which is 92 billion light years across—meaning it would take a beam of light 92 billion years to cross—is made up of 96% dark matter and dark energy. Matter and energy that we cannot see, detect or measure in any way. So everything we see in the universe from planets to stars to galaxies to black holes as well as all of the subatomic particles like leptons and bosons and quarks… all of that makes up 4% of the universe. Not that we completely know and understand that 4%. Just that the part of the universe we can even hope to know… is only 4% of the whole.
And finally the human brain. Neuroscientist Jeff Lichtman says that if the complete understanding of the human brain was represented by a mile that we currently understand about 3 inches of that mile. Which works out to about 0.005%. We know that neurones fire electrical impulses between each other and we know that various parts of the brain are responsible for different functions. But we can’t really explain why it works. We don’t understand how a thought forms or where exactly consciousness resides within the brain.
So we know about 5% of everything we can know about the oceans. We have the ability to understand at most about 4% when it comes to the universe and when it comes to the thinking organ within our own heads we can wrap our minds around about 0.005%.
And all of these are closed, fixed, finite systems. In theory we could maybe someday understand them completely. God, on the other hand, is infinite. There is no end to God. This should bring new meaning to Isaiah 55:8-9 which says,
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’
What we know and understand about the infinite, divine God must always be held in tension with what we don’t know. God’s thoughts and God’s ways are so unimaginably beyond us that we can’t even begin to scratch the surface. Bible scholar Peter Enns says it this way, “It isn’t like we have got God 90% down and there’s about 10% lingering and we’ll get to that sooner or later but basically we know exactly how God works.”
When it comes to God, we don’t have him 90% figured out. We don’t even have him 9% or 0.9% figured out. Which is to say, if having “faith” simply means having right belief about God, then none of us has true faith. All of us are wrong about God in our theology somewhere. Obviously we don’t know where we’re wrong or we would change that particular belief.
Which means the faith God calls us to and the faith that will endure into the Eschaton must be more than simply right belief. Right belief, accurate theology, can help us with faith. But belief and theology in themselves are not faith. In which case, what is faith?
A clue to this might be found in Genesis 15:6. In the proceeding verses, God tells Abraham that he will make his descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. And it says in verse 6, Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Abraham, or Abram as he’s still called at this time, believed God. Now, at this point in Abraham’s story. What did he know about God? What kind of right belief did he have? This is before Jesus came, before the prophets, before Dave wrote any of the Psalms, before Moses and the law. This situation is even before Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac on an altar and experienced God in that event. At best, Abraham’s Bible was about 10 chapters. And he most definitely didn’t have anything written down. So he might, at best have about 10 chapters worth of oral stories passed down to him.
Abraham knew very little about God. But he trusted God. God said that Abraham would have descendants that surpassed the stars in the sky. And Abraham trusted that God would make it happen. And I think that’s a better, more accurate understanding of faith. The faith God calls us to is trust. God wants us to trust him.
And our understanding of God, both cognitively, from reading and studying Scripture and experientially, from all those times when God is personally faithful to us, that understanding will invariably help us to trust God more. But the point is not simply to believe rightly; to acquire intellectual knowledge about God. The point is to trust God.
This is echoed by Jesus in Matthew 11 when he says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for am I gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
In the system of Rabbinic Judaism that Jesus lived in “yoke” was a term used for the particular teaching of a rabbi. Each rabbi had their own yoke, things they taught as acceptable or unacceptable. And here Jesus says, anyone anywhere who is weary and tired and overburdened, come to me. Learn my yoke or my teaching. While Jesus doesn’t use the word faith here, the idea is clear that Jesus is calling us to come learn from him, rest in him and ultimately to trust him. What is faith? Faith is trust that includes but is not limited to accurate belief.
Which of course begs a final question. How exactly is this kind of faith/trust supposed to remain into the Eschaton, into the next age? How will we trust and have faith in God once he is present here with us? I’m so glad you asked that.
Scripture tells us that no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind has conceived of the things God has in store for those who love him. So on one hand, we need to recognize that what life will look like in the age to come is very much a mystery to us. And there’s a danger in speaking too definitively about what it will look like. At the same time, Scripture does give us a couple hints at what this perfect, sinless world might look like.
Now, imagine, if you will, that sin never entered the world. Imagine Adam and Eve never made the decision to rebel against God and walk away from perfection, what would that look like? If you take the Bible, and you remove the sin portion of it, you’re still left with something. You’re left with a book that contains four chapters. Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelation 21 and 22. These are the four chapters that paint the picture of what a world unmarried by sin could look like. Now, a couple observations about this world.
First of all, it starts in Genesis with a garden and a gardener. And it ends in Revelation with a city and tons of people. It starts with a garden and increases in complexity until it becomes a city. So there’s a progression there. We’re going to come back to this idea next week. But it also starts with a single gardener.
Now the interesting thing is that in Genesis 2:18 we’re told, The Lord God said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper suitable for him.” God then, eventually, took a rib out of the man, later called Adam, and used it to form Eve. And when Adam wakes up, he says in verse 23, This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man. Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh is a very ancient Jewish way of says that this person is strong where I’m weak and weak where I’m strong.
So while in Genesis 1, at the end of each day of creation God says “it is good”, “it is good”, and finally “it is very good”, in Genesis 2, still before the fall we see God saying “it is not good”. And still before the Fall we see Adam recognize that this woman in some way has strengths that compliment him. Central to the Judeo-Christian tradition is that even before the fall into sin each of us was designed with deficiencies that can and should be made up for through others. And it stands to reason that if God designed us to complete each other from the very beginning that that concept would continue in the Eschaton.
This concept goes against everything western individualism stands for. In the West, we love the idea of being self-sufficient. We believe each and every one of us should be an island unto ourselves completely and totally independent from others. But that’s not how we have been designed by God. Instead we’ve been designed with deficiencies. We’ve been designed with weaknesses that can only be overcome when we rely on each other.
And in this way, we can understand how faith will continue into the Eschaton. Even in the age to come, we will be dependent on each other and dependent on God to sustain us. And so we will be called to trust each other and continual trust God to provide everything we need. Even after Christ returns we will need to continue to have faith, belief and trust in both him and our fellow humans. Faith is more than just accurate belief, it is trust in Christ that will continue into the age to come.
So what does this mean for us now? Well, first of all, it means we act now in light of this future reality. God’s future, that is, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Heaven, is continuing to break into our present reality. And we as the Church are called to participate in the world as if that future were already present here and now. This is what scholars mean when they talk about the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. The future Kingdom of Jesus is already here, but not yet fully here. It’s in the process of becoming more and more of a reality in the world. And we as followers of Jesus, as members of his body, are called to participate in the inauguration of that kingdom. We’re called to participate in building towards that kingdom. One of the ways we do that is by people who both trust others and act in trustworthy ways. By being people of faith and faithfulness, we demonstrate to the world around us what the kingdom of God can and will look like.
What this means is that we absolutely must be willing to lean on each other. We must be willing to admit our weaknesses and the times when we need the support of the Church around us. Both admitting our weakness and accepting the help of others will hurt our pride. But the kingdom of God isn’t built on pride. It’s built on faith and trust. So the first thing we can and must do is to start being open and honest about our weakness and allowing the Church to make up for our deficiencies.
Secondly, we can let go of this notion that our job is to believe rightly. Right belief will help you trust God, but right belief is not a substitute for trusting God. To quote Peter Enns again, he says, “It’s easier to believe things than it is to trust God. I’ve been believing things most of my life. But having to trust God in difficult circumstances, that stretches you like you wouldn’t believe.” Your “job” is to trust God. Your job is to follow him wherever he leads you, regardless of what that looks like. For each and every one of us, that will look differently.
For some of us, maybe that means leaving your job and trusting that God will lead you to something new. For some of us, maybe it means opening yourself to a branch of Christian theology that you have previously been closed to since you “know” God doesn’t work that way. Maybe for some of us, it means trusting that God will handle the affairs of others and realizing that we don’t need to get in the middle of it. The possibilities are endless but it all comes down to this: You are called to trust God.
However trusting God is not a dichotomy. Trusting God is not a switch to be flipped either you do or you do not trust God. Rather trusting God is a scale. And through Scripture and personal experience you can learn to trust God more and more, deeper and deeper. So study Scripture. Learn from those who have gone before you, learn what trusting God looked like for them. Pray, seek God personally. Maybe even keep a journal of how God has continued to be faithful to you in the past. Consider how God has continued to sustain and guide you at various times in your life. And as you consider the past actions of God, you’ll find that it’s easier to trust him with your future.
Faith is not merely accurate belief, but rather trust in God and in the body of Christ that will continue into the Eschaton. So learn and study, but don’t stay there. Actually trust God, trust your fellow Christians and live in a way that others can trust you more as well.