I Corinthians 13:8-13
The Prophecy of I Corinthians 13:8-13
Finally, in I Corinthians 13:8-13, the apostle Paul prophesies that certain gifts will cease:
"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. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
Whatever else may be unclear about this passage, one thing is very clear: certain gifts--tongues, prophecy, and knowledge--are said to be only temporary. They will cease. This is the point in context: in contrast to love, which is eternal, spiritual gifts are temporary.
Stating The Issue
The question, of course, is, when? Answer: "when that which is perfect is come" (verse 10). The next question, then, is, what is "the perfect," and when did or will it come? Virtually all Charismatics agree that it is a reference to the second coming of Christ and so claim that these gifts mentioned here will continue until then. Many others believe the same. Still others understand it to be a reference to the eternal state, death, heaven, Scripture, or the mature church.
Before a passage can be interpreted, its context must be understood. Paul is dealing here with the subject of spiritual gifts generally and the gift of tongues specifically. He began this discussion in chapter 12, and all to this point is building to deal with the problem in the Corinthian church--not of spiritual gifts in general, but of the gift of tongues specifically (see I Corinthians 14). With this in mind, Paul writes this beautiful treatise on love (I Corinthians 13; see also chapter 10 of this book). Love, he says, must be the context of the exercise of gifts, and love must be its motive and aim. In short, love is superior to gifts.
He makes this point of the superiority of love by showing that love is eternal. But gifts are only temporary. Love will endure for ever; gifts will not. This is the point he develops in verses 8-13.
In verses 8-10, he simply states his case, that these gifts will not last indefinitely but will be replaced by something better, something more complete ("perfect"). In verses 11-12, he explains his statement with two illustrations: 1) childhood vs. maturity (verse 11), and 2) seeing through a dark glass vs. seeing clearly (verse 12). Finally, he concludes with a summary statement in verse 13.
In verses 8-9 Paul declares the temporary nature of three spiritual gifts: prophecy, knowledge and tongues. "Whether there be prophecies they shall be abolished. Whether there be tongues they shall cease. Whether there be knowledge it shall be abolished."
"Prophecy" simply means to speak forth. The gift of prophecy did not only refer to the ability to foretell the future, although that was a part of the gift. Nor did it merely mean the ability to preach. A prophet (one who prophesied) was one who received and so spoke forth new revelation from God. That revelation may have focused on the past, present, future, or simply matters of doctrine or life. Whatever the exact subject of a given prophecy, it was truth revealed directly from God, an "inspired" utterance. This is evident from I Corinthians 14:29-30, which states that the prophets spoke what had been revealed to them. (This will be developed more fully in chapter 15.)
The gift of "knowledge" was a revelatory gift as well. God would directly reveal some truth to a person so gifted, and He gave them special knowledge of some subject. Many regard this gift as merely the ability to understand the truth as it is revealed in Scripture, but this does not do justice to the remainder of the passage. Paul says that knowledge will be "done away," and of course knowledge in that sense will never be done away. Clearly, Paul is speaking of a special kind of knowledge, the gift of knowledge, revelatory knowledge. (For further development see chapter 16.)
The gift of "tongues" is the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language which is previously unknown or unstudied by the speaker (see chapter 18 for a detailed discussion).
Two of these gifts (prophecy and knowledge) receive mention again in verses 9-10 and are described as "partial": "For we know in part and we prophecy in part. The phrase "in part" ( ek merous) means "partially, bit by bit." It refers to the gifts of prophecy and knowledge as only piecemeal, partial, in contrast to "that which is complete (perfect)." In that day, revelation came bits at a time. When a prophet or a man with the gift of knowledge spoke, the people received God's revelation "in part"; by the nature of it, it was not a complete body of truth. Those gifts were important and served a vital purpose, but still they were incomplete. It was incomplete revelation.
Paul says these two gifts (prophecy and knowledge) will "be abolished" ( katargeo, verse 8). The Greek verb ( katargeo) translated in this passage "fail," "vanish away" (verse 8), "done away" (verse 10), and "put away" (verse 11), means "to abolish, to render inoperative or invalid, or to abrogate." In verses 8 and 11 it is in the future tense and the passive voice, which mean that its subjects (prophecy and knowledge) will at some time be acted upon so as to be rendered useless. Specifically, the arrival of "the perfect" will abolish the gifts of prophecy and knowledge.
Tongues on the other hand, Paul says, "shall cease" ( pauo, verse 8). The Greek verb pauo indicates something a bit different from katargeo. Rather than "being abolished" (as prophecy and knowledge), tongues will simply "stop." Further, it is in the middle voice which differs from the passive in that the subject is not acted upon but participates in the action of the verb. The meaning, then, is, "to stop, to stop of themselves." To paraphrase it another way, "they will die out." While prophecy and knowledge will be rendered inoperative by the arrival of "the perfect," tongues will simply run out all by themselves.
The grammar here is important, for it helps to identify the time of the cessation of these gifts. The indication is that tongues will cease before the arrival of "the perfect" which abolishes prophecy and knowledge. If, for example, during a timed exam a teacher who knows his students well says "Jack and Rick will be stopped, but Carmen will stop," the meaning is plain: Carmen will complete the exam before the time runs out, while Jack and Rick will run out of time before finishing the exam.
This is what Paul indicates in this passage concerning the gift of tongues: prophecy and knowledge will be abolished by the arrival of "the perfect," but tongues will stop by themselves. This is why verses 9-10 make no mention of tongues at all. These verses do not say that tongues will be abolished by "the perfect" (literally, "that which is complete") but that the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, which are "partial," will be abolished by the arrival of "the complete." The gift of tongues will have already stopped.
The idea of verses 8-10, then, is that tongues will sometime "stop," and later when this "complete thing" arrives it will render prophecy and knowledge inoperative.
The question remaining is, what is "that which is perfect" ( to teleion, verse 10)? This phrase is variously understood by different interpreters. Suggestions include the second coming of Christ, the eternal state, heaven, scripture, and the mature church. Literally, the phrase reads "the complete" or "the complete thing." The idea seems to be that because this thing which will come is "complete" these other gifts, being "partial," will be rendered obsolete. Partial things are not needed in the presence of completion.
The question then is narrowed a bit. "The perfect" stands in contrast to "the partial." Since "the partial" is obviously a reference to partial revelation, "the complete" would most naturally refer to complete revelation. It seems easiest to take this "complete thing" as a reference to Scripture in its complete form, the complete revelation/cannon of Scripture. By the nature of it, when the full revelation of God comes (Scripture), prophecy and knowledge are no longer needed; they are obsolete.
Several considerations support this interpretation. First, the Greek word teleion ("perfect") suggests the end of a completed process, the reaching of a high stage of development, maturity. It is not at all "perfect" in the sense of "faultless" but in the sense of complete, or mature. It is consistently used in this way with reference to the Christian's maturity (e.g., I Corinthians 14:20, "men"), and in reference to the mature church. That this is the meaning in verse 10 is clear from the illustration of verse 11, which speaks of a process of growth from infancy to adulthood.
Unless this passage is the only exception, the term teleion ("perfect") is never used in Scripture to refer to any of the alternative views. Given the fact that it appears in the neuter gender it would be very difficult to see it as a reference to the return of Jesus Christ, where the masculine would be expected. The word is, however, used of Scripture (in its adjectival form in James 1:25, "the perfect law of liberty).
An exact parallel to this interpretation of this passage is seen in Ephesians 4:12-13ff which speaks of the church ("perfect man") being brought to its completion or maturity by Scripture ministered by gifted men. The same is seen in Ephesians 2:20-22 and, in effect, in II Timothy 3:16-17.
So this interpretation seems best to fit with the normal understanding of to teleion ("that which is perfect").
Second, revelatory gifts (such as prophecy and knowledge) are no longer present in the church, for reasons stated above and detailed in chapters 15 and 16. If these gifts are gone, then that which abolished them ("the perfect or complete thing") must by the nature of the case have already come. One controlling factor in defining "the complete," then, is that these gifts which it is said to abolish are no longer in the church. This fact demands that "the perfect" (which is what is said to destroy these gifts) must now be past, not future (that is, it has already come).
Opponents to this view realize the force of this reasoning and so redefine the gifts making them something less than revelatory in nature. However (as mentioned previously), to define prophecy and knowledge as something less than revelatory is not only gratuitous and impossible to demonstrate exegetically, but it is logical suicide as well! If, as their interpretation demands, the gift of knowledge means only a great understanding of the truth of Scripture, then in what sense are we to understand that this kind of will ever be abolished (verse 10)? Furthermore (to jump ahead in the passage a bit), the abolishing of that kind of knowledge would contradict the very point these interpreters attempt to establish from verse 12 when they speak of that personal perfection and greatly increased knowledge experienced in heaven! In heaven that kind of knowledge will be infinitely enhanced!
It is logically impossible to define the gift of knowledge as simply the Christian's increased understanding of Divine Truth, and then to speak of that as being abolished! The problem is inescapable. (For a fuller discussion of the nature and demise of the gift of prophecy, see chapter 15 of this book.)
In other words, the preferred interpretation of this passage must account for the abolition of "knowledge." The only reasonable way to account for this is to affirm that what is spoken of is revelatory knowledge and that this was abolished with the arrival of the complete revelation of Scripture.
Third, the truth of this interpretation is sure enough; that is, that revelatory gifts (such as knowledge and prophecy) are useless precisely because of the arrival of the written Word, cannot be denied.
Fourth, as previously noted, the contrast involved is clearly one of revelation. The teleion is the opposite of partial prophecy, piecemeal revelation. It is full knowledge which renders obsolete the partial knowledge, just as the vacuum cleaner rendered obsolete the old carpet beaters and automobiles the horse and buggy. The prophecy and knowledge gifts were temporal and partial in nature and to be rendered obsolete by a complete revelation. This is the contrast which Paul draws in these verses. He is speaking of partial revelation, partial truth being rendered obsolete; for the contrast to make any sense whatever, to teleion must refer to completion in the same sense as of "the perfect." Since the gifts of prophecy and knowledge focus, by their very nature, on divine truth, so must the teleion. Without this the contrast is destroyed!
To interpret "the perfect" as heaven or the second coming or glorification is to introduce a third idea into the discussion. Paul is speaking of the completed revelation of God. This growth from a partial word from God to a completed Word of God is the process which would one day be complete (verses 10-11). Possessing the complete Word of God, those partial, revelatory gifts are like child's toys (verse 11).
Complete revelation is the thought of verse 12 as well. Granted, the imagery of "face to face" seems to vividly portray the experience of the believer in heaven after death or the second coming or in the eternal state. But this imagery must be considered in context. There is simply no reason to assume that Paul is speaking of heaven. He has reached the conclusion of his argument--growth from partial revelation to complete revelation; the "now" and the "then," the "face to face," and the "know even as I am known" must be understood in this context. Paul is speaking of revelation; the idea of glorification fits in this passage nowhere! The idea of the Christian's completion in heaven is completely foreign to Paul's line of reasoning here.
The assertion made by many that it is evident from the language of verse 12 that the context is heaven begs the question, and it is seeking to interpret the passage by the figures of verse 12 rather than determining the meaning of these figures in the light of the passage. This violates a fundamental rule of hermeneutics.
Furthermore, if seeing "through a glass darkly" is figurative language (and it surely is), so must be seeing "face to face." To demand from these words a literal viewing of Christ or a perfect knowledge in the absolute sense while allowing a figurative, metaphoric understanding of the first part of the statement is obviously inconsistent.
Paul is saying that with only these partial revelations, man receives only a partial picture of himself, as though seeing "through a glass darkly." But with the complete Word of God, it is as though he sees "face to face" and knows "even as also I am known," because only then can he fully see God's purposes for him, what God requires of him, and what God says about him. This is possible only with a real exposure ("face to face") to the "complete" Word of God which the "partial" prophecy and knowledge cannot offer.
The contrast, then, is not as great as it may at first seem to some. Paul is not saying that although we now have imperfect knowledge, we will one day receive perfect knowledge. No Christian will ever have perfect knowledge, nor is Paul saying that anyone will. Again, that thought is foreign to his line of reasoning. He is merely saying that exposure to complete revelation will give far more to the believer than he could otherwise have.
So verse 12 summarizes why those revelatory gifts must end: they were dark, dim, in comparison to the clarity of final and complete truth, the Word of God.
Finally, the concluding statement of verse 13 clarifies the matter further. "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." Notice the "now," "now" as a matter of time (Greek, nuni not de). When? Now--this present age. These things (faith, hope, love) abide now, even though those gifts are gone.
This is one place where all the other alternatives fall into inevitable contradiction. If heaven or the eternal state is in view, then Paul must be understood in verse 13 as saying "when we get to heaven we will need these gifts no longer, but we will have faith and hope and love." This is absolutely impossible. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The Christian now walks "by faith and not by sight," because he is not yet present with the Lord. But when he sees Him, faith will be no longer needed, nor will hope. "Hope that is seen is not hope, Paul says (Hebrews 11:3, II Corinthians 5:7, Romans 8:24; italics added). The basic assumption of these statements is that with sight, hope and faith will be no longer. Faith and hope will not be a part of the Christian's experience in heaven, or Paul and the writer to the Hebrews would be wrong in these statements.
But "now," even though those aforementioned gifts are absent, faith, hope, and love remain. The Christian now has faith and hope, waiting for the day when it will be exchanged for sight in the presence of his Lord.
Mention should be made at this point concerning the interpretation which equates "the perfect" with the "mature church" rather than with Scripture. This interpretation, which is held by a growing number of non-charismatics, fits the idea of teleion very well, and it may well be involved, but only by implication. The problem with it is that it is also a third idea brought in to the discussion. The issue under discussion is revelation (the gifts of knowledge & prophecy), and so for the contrast to be parallel (verse 10), teleion must have to do with revelation also. Otherwise the contrast/parallel is destroyed. The contrast is not a "partial" church verses a "mature church" but rather "partial" revelation verses "complete" revelation. If we approach verse 11 with the idea of the maturing of the church in mind, it fits very well, but again, there is nothing in the text/context itself which leads us in that direction. Of course the completion of revelation brought the church to maturity (cf, Eph. 2:20-22; 4:12-13ff; II Tim. 3:16-17), but the focus of teleion seems rather to be revelation specifically.
Many object that the neuter ("that which is perfect," or "the perfect thing,") could not be a reference to "Scripture," which is a feminine noun. But this objection can be raised against all of the interpretations, for ecclesia (church) and the various words for the second coming ( apokalupsis, epiphaneia, parousia) are all feminine nouns as well, and "heaven" is masculine. Nor could the neuter be a reference to Jesus Christ. Nowhere in Scripture does the neuter teleion refer to either the church, the Scriptures, the second coming of Christ, Christ Himself, or heaven. So the objection remains with all the positions equally. However, there is no grammatical need for the feminine if used of Scripture ( graphe) if that noun ( graphe) is not in the passage. The neuter fits the idea of revelation very well. It is not impossible for an unspoken noun to differ in gender with its pronoun. Furthermore, teleion, in its adjectival form, is used in reference to Scripture in James 1:25. So there is some warrant/precedent for this interpretation, which precedent cannot be claimed for the other positions.
I Corinthians 13:8-13 prophesies that with completed revelation (Scripture), the gifts of knowledge and prophecy were abolished, and that prior to that, tongues died off.
This passage, then, is a plain statement of the temporary character of some gifts. Specifically, the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge were gone from the church by the end of the first century.
Summary & Conclusion
The purpose of this chapter was to establish the fact of temporary gifts. The Scriptural evidence runs along at least the following eight lines of thought. That some gifts were only temporarily given is evident by virtue of:
1) The Qualifications for apostleship
2) The Nature of Certain Gifts
3) The Pattern of Biblical Miracles
4) The Purpose of Miraculous Gifts
5) The Testimony of Biblical History
6) The Testimony of Every Day Experience
7) The Promise of Christ
8) The Prophecy of I Corinthians 13:8-13
It is the clear teaching of Scripture that certain gifts were never intended to be permanent in the life of the church. They were only for that foundational, infancy stage of the church. To return to them, then, would be a return to infancy (I Corinthians 13:11). Christians today are far more blessed. They need not a return to those revelations but a new and honest confrontation ("face to face") with Scripture, the all sufficient guide for faith and practice.