The greatest of these is love

Faith. Hope. Love. Over the centuries, they’ve been known collectively as the “theological virtues.” They are often linked together in the New Testament, perhaps most famously in this quote from Paul: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13, NRSV).

Paul has been building up to this the whole chapter. Just a few verses earlier, he wrote this: love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (vs. 7). I don’t read this as a description of four separate things that love does, but as part of the bigger, grander picture Paul is painting for the Corinthians.

As we have seen, love bears or puts up with all things, love endures all things, because it is not overcome by the trials of the present; it keeps its eyes firmly on eternity. And when Paul says that love “believes” and “hopes all things,” he is not saying that love must somehow be gullible. The verb that is translated as “believes” is also the one for having faith — and unfortunately, the English noun “faith” has no accompanying verb. Thus I think what Paul is saying is that in “all things,” no matter what the situation, love is able to endure because it keeps the faith and nurtures hope.

That’s not, of course, faith and hope in just anything. It’s neither wishful thinking nor chasing rainbows. It is faith that God and God’s word are trustworthy. It is the belief that God has not left us to our own devices, but has empowered us to do his will. It is the trust that our eternal destiny is being kept secure for us, as the apostle Peter declared:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet 1:3-5)

There they are again, running side by side: faith and hope. They are what we need to cope with the trials of the Christian life; they are what we need to sustain the kind of love that both Jesus and Paul envision.

But one day, we will no longer need faith. When the promised future finally arrives, we will no longer need hope. God will make his dwelling with us (Rev 21:3), the God who in his very essence is love (1 John 4:8).

Love is the embodiment, in the present, of what we hope for in the future. It is that toward which our faith and hope ultimately point.

Or at least it should be. Anything else is a different love than the one Paul intends.