Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Greatest of These

The verse is well known. Tucked poetically at the end of Paul’s famous discussion of love in 1 Corinthians 13, the 13th verse reads;

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Recently this verse came to my mind and impressed itself upon my thoughts for a time. Since another, brighter mind was with me, I turned to my wife and began to converse on the manner and sense in which love was superior to faith and hope. After conversing at some length, we managed to condense our wandering/insightful (mine/hers) ideas into three main observations. Love, we concluded, is superior to faith and hope in that it is uniquely eternal, uniquely definitive of a Christian, and uniquely divine.

First, though the following has often been observed, it is helpful to remember that the dawn of final glorification will also be the final glimmer of the sunset of faith and hope. When expectation becomes fulfillment, there shall no longer be a need for conviction of future reward, nor for trust in biblical promises. Thus, faith and hope, being obsolete, shall end, and love alone shall remain – and remain forever. But longevity alone is not a sufficient merit for achieving the title of greatest. Does the brilliant flash of a shooting star, or the crackling glimmer of a firework cower before the longer-burning light of a small candle? No, for what they lack in longevity they more than compensate for in quality and magnitude, brilliance and splendor. Can a similar comparison be made between love and its companion virtues, faith and hope? I believe that such comparison shall, once again, show love to have a unique superiority over faith and hope.

Throughout His ministry on earth, Jesus emphasized that one characteristic, above all others, was to be true of those who followed Him. One virtue was isolated and exalted so that it over-shadowed all others. Perhaps one might be tempted to think, surely this virtue must be that which, above all, seems most definitive of God Himself – namely, holiness. To be sure, we are commanded to be holy just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14016). What commandment could be greater! Jesus was once asked by a lawyer, a Pharisee, to name the greatest commandment in the Law (Matthew 22:34-39). His answer was not, Be holy, but rather it was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Exceeding the scope of the original question, Jesus further added the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a list of commandments organized by importance, it is love which occupies at least the first two positions. Faith and hope are conspicuously missing. As a final note on this point, consider what Jesus specifically states will define and identify His disciples in John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love triumphs again. But turn with me now, kind reader, to consider what may be the most interesting excellence of love, and that which has most provoked my thinking on this topic – the unique divinity of love.

It seems that, as I look back now, I have assumed that all virtues must be embodied and perfected in God. How could there be a virtue, seems to have been my thinking, that did not first find manifestation in the perfections of the Holy One? If I possess, in any degree, something which is right or good, it must be part of the imago dei, the image of God, which has been given to me. Man possesses a measure of wisdom, righteousness, justice, mercy, love, understanding, will, creativity, joy, and a host of other virtuous characteristics which reflect (albeit poorly) who God is. Since both faith and hope are virtuous, I believe I somehow have always imagined them as being part of the image of God in me. But this simply is not so. God has no faith. God does not hope. Consider the implication of Hebrews 11:1 which says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here we see faith and hope contextualized together as an assurance of something that is unseen but firmly believed to be coming. It is a definition which is fundamentally contradictory to the nature of God. God does not hope, He causes; He brings to pass; He sustains. He has no conviction regarding things unseen for He has known the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). God does not anticipate, He predestines. Faith and hope, then, are distinctly human in manifestation (though not origin)! They are virtues, indeed, but virtues which are not found in God. Love, however, is a virtue found in God! In the familiar words of 1 John 4:7-8, God is love, and those who do not have love are not of God. It would seem, then, that a logical conclusion can be made regarding the superiority of love to faith and hope. Something which is true of God must surely be superior to something which is not true of God. Therefore, since love is true of God, and faith and hope are not, then love must be greater than both.

ut now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.