For an introduction to this series, click here.
Ah yes. This is of course one of the great passages in the Bible. I memorized this entire chapter when I was a kid, and a lot of things have been said and books have been written about this chapter. It is important, however, to remember that this chapter is only part of Paul's overall discussion of spiritual gifts.
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (13:1-3)
Very familiar words, but remember that they are in the context of spiritual gifts. The gifts are not ends in themselves. They must be tempered with and exercised in love. Compare what Paul said about giving his body to be burned with what Jesus said: "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) I guess this proves the old saying that you can give without loving but you can't love without giving.
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (13:4-7)
This is a lot easier to read than it is to practice, of course. All these negative things come so easily to our flesh. But a life governed by Spirit-led love will not give in to those temptations and will seek the best for everyone, not just ourselves.
"Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." (13:8-11)
Now if you were just looking at that passage without context, you would say that means that one day in heaven there will be no need for prophecies and tongues and the other. But if you look at the context of chapters 12 and 14, the meaning becomes more clear. Paul is listing the spiritual gifts, and saying that they will pass away "when the perfect comes." I think the fact that these gifts have not been recognized by the church in some 1,900 years tells us what Paul was talking about.
Church history is an important study. It should not be more important than the Scriptures, but it helps to learn from the wisdom of past believers. From about the year 100 through the late 1800s, you will find no mention of the practice of spiritual gifts such as tongues, miracles and healing in the mainstream church, or even among practically all the fringes. If someone comes up with a novel idea or practice, be very careful. The church has not been perfect through the centuries, but God has always protected His church. God doesn't keep secrets from His children. If He had intended for these gifts to have been exercised, there would have been a consistent pattern of the use of these gifts throughout church history. That is not the case.