1 Corinthians 13:8-10
Charity never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease…
The illuminated page of nature, on which God has written so many disclosures of His power and love — how small a portion of its wonders is man yet able to understand! Look at the tree which rises before your window, and shields you from the summer sun. You are familiar with its form, its foliage, and its flowers. But can you tell what is going on within it? Can you explain how it is, that, when the winds of autumn are singing their vesper hymn, the tree listens to their warning — how it forms and folds its leaves and blossoms, to have them ready for another spring? No. In the history of the simplest things in the vegetable and animal world there is much that man does not and cannot understand. Come, then, to our knowledge of human nature itself — how imperfect it is! how many new pages are opened from time to time which fill us with wonder and dismay! Perhaps you are able to tell how men will feel and act under the common circumstances of life; but who can tell the measure of the soul, or how deep and far man's powers and passions, in their wild energy, can go? We can understand benevolence in its common measure, when it gives what it does not want to others; but can we comprehend that love which warms and fills the martyr's heart? Passing finally to the knowledge of the Most High — are not clouds and darkness round about Him as of old? "Canst thou by searching find out God?" Let those who have tried it reply. A short time before his death, Newton said, "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." Here, then, we shall be told to reflect on human imperfection and be humble; for we see how little way the sight of man extends, how little man is able to know. But let us read our own nature aright. That "we know in part" is not humiliating; it is the ground and necessary condition of man's chief prerogative, and of the only perfection of which he is capable. Consider the difference between human and Divine perfection, and this will be plain to every eye. Divine perfection consists in attributes, each and all of them unbounded, except by the impossibility of being greater. Divine power extends to all things that power can do; Divine wisdom embraces everything that exists, or will exist, or ever has existed; Divine holiness is holiness which cannot be enlarged nor exceeded. The perfection of these attributes is, that they can be no greater than they are. To God nothing can be added. But human perfection, by which I mean the greatest height to which humanity can aspire, consists in continual progress — in continually advancing towards perfection. It is plain, then, that to "know in part" is not humiliating; it is not even an imperfection; it is a happy and honourable condition of our existence, for which we should be grateful to Him who made us. Had we been differently created, it must have been like the animals. What they know, they know in full; to them there is nothing "in part." What they know, they know as well in the first years of their existence as the last. And if man had not been created as he is, to "know in part," it must have been so with him; he must have had the instinct of an animal, the perfection of animals, for he could not have the perfection of God. Seeing, then, that improvement is the perfection to which human nature must aspire, let us next observe how this limited knowledge tends to induce and encourage it in every field of thought. Look again at the world of nature. Its wonders do not manifest themselves at once; if they did, the mind could not embrace them, or if it could, a heavy satiety, a lethargic self-satisfaction, would take the place of that restless energy which makes man labour and suffer to extend his knowledge. Everything opens gradually, as the sun rises, not full-orbed and fiery red, but gently heralded by the grey light and the kindling clouds. When you first point out to an intelligent child the wonders of nature, he fixes upon you his soft, dark, earnest eyes. The world seems enchanted. He asks where these things were hidden, that he never saw them before. He enjoys a deep delight, he finds a luxury in this gradual illumination of mind, to which he would have been a stranger had not God created him to know but in part. And so in maturer years, if the mind is kept from stagnation, into which it too readily subsides. Let a man give his attention to any department of knowledge, and he soon gives it his heart. He will leave all man loves at home, and encounter all man dreads abroad. The least new discovery fills him with rapturous joy. The glad energy, the intense devotion, with which he engages in the chase of knowledge, gives an idea of the manner in which the souls of the just will study the works and ways of God, and find everything radiant with happiness and eloquent with praise. It is the same with moral truth; by which I mean all truth which relates to God and to the nature and destiny of men. Our knowing but in part inspires that earnest desire to know more, which is compared to hunger and thirst for wisdom — a desire of truth which always burns in the breasts of those who are enlightened by the Word of God. With respect to mankind, also, it is true that partial knowledge inspires a desire to know more. I mean a real knowledge, for I would not give this name to that meaner sagacity which teaches us to distrust mankind. Who are they that complain most of men? They are those who dwell apart, who have none but selfish interests and pleasures, who never lift a hand to do good for others — these are they who talk of the fraud and falsehood of their race, while the lovers of mankind are those who go about doing good. The young always have this desire to know more of others. Alas, that rids generous affection should be driven back to their hearts, disappointed and dismayed, by what they see and hear! They find their parents talking with cold severity of others — of all others — of any others — even their nearest friends; and they listen with wonder and pain. Mankind are thrown apart and kept so; those cords of humanity, which untied would have been strong as the sheet-anchor's cable, become singly as weak as the silk-worm's thread, and the purpose of Christianity is not answered, which is to reconcile them to each other and make the divided one. So our knowing God but in part inspires an earnest desire to know more. It leads us on in religious improvement, and it makes that improvement a succession of bright revelations, in which man is continually learning what he thirsted to know. There are many things in the dispensations of Heaven which the thoughtful long to know, as the prophets and kings of ages past desired to look into the mysteries of God. "What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter." This hope of knowing hereafter is an anchor to the soul; it saves it from being wrecked in its own doubts and fears; it keeps it true to itself and its destiny, till it reaches the world where the wonders of Providence are unfolded to its astonished view, and it can read and understand them all. Above all, I would say that we cannot complain of the limitation of our knowledge till we make a better improvement of what we already know. Enough is already known to make us wise unto salvation. It remains that we apply it to our hearts and lives.
(W. B. O. Peabody, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.