1 Corinthians 13:8-12 (that which is perfect), Part 1 (the Second Coming)

spiritual gifts

(1Co 13:8 ESV) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

N. T. Wright gives the context, in particular, the fact that Paul now looks to the Second Coming to put spiritual gifts in proper perspective —

The point of 13:8–13 is that the church must be working in the present on the things that will last into God’s future. Faith, hope and love will do this; prophecy, tongues and knowledge, so highly prized in Corinth, will not. They are merely signposts to the future; when you arrive, you no longer need signposts. Love, however, is not just a signpost. It is a foretaste of the ultimate reality. Love is not merely the Christian duty; it is the Christian destiny.

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 296.

Love never fails

The Greek is actually “love never falls.” To “fall” in Paul’s writings generally refers to falling away, that is, becoming damned or destroyed upon Jesus’ return.

(Rom 11:11 ESV) So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

(Rom 14:4 ESV) Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

(1Co 10:12 ESV) Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

Hence, we might translate, “Love never brings to damnation” or “Love never suffers damnation.” Paul is pointing toward the end of the age.

Just so, when Paul says that prophecies “will pass away,” the verb is a favorite of Paul for the destruction that will come at the end of the age —

(1Co 1:28 ESV) God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,

(1Co 2:6 ESV) Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.

(1Co 6:13 ESV) “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”– and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

(1Co 15:24 ESV) Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

(1Co 15:26 ESV) The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The same word is used in verses 10 and 11.

“Perfect” in v. 9 is teleios, meaning mature or perfect, and is a characteristic of God.

(Mat 5:48 ESV) You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And so, we cannot ignore the eschatological implications of Paul’s words —

(1Co 13:8-11 ESV) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  11 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.

The boldfaced words are eschatological or else point toward God-like perfection, and so they refer to the end of time when Jesus returns. In v. 11, of course, Paul is speaking of the now — but his point is that, because God will destroy prophecies, tongues, etc. at the end of time, we should treat such things as the temporary expedients they are and cling to the permanent — especially love.

(1Co 13:12 ESV)  12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 

“Face to face” borrows from the Septuagint for Gen 32:31, where after wrestling with the angel of the Lord, Jacob declared that he’d seen God “face to face,” as well as the fact that God spoke with Moses “face to face” (Deu 34:10). Plainly, this is not a reference to reading about God in the Bible. This is a reference to an intense, truly personal meeting with God
— as in the Second Coming.

Now, on the other hand, love and the charismata are set in antithesis to each other, and we have the eschatological argument that the latter will cease. They are accordingly, unlike love, not the appearing of the eternal in time, but the manifesting of the Spirit in a provisional way. Thus these very gifts hold us fast in the “not yet.” The form of expression is purposely harsh: prophecy will “be destroyed.” Gnosis is mentioned because of its significance as a Corinthian slogan (cf. 8:1ff.). What Paul is driving at here emerges—harshly, from the logical standpoint—in the next verse in the distinction between the transient and abiding aspects of these gifts.

Han Conzelmann, 1 CorinthiansHermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (New Testament) (1988).

In short, Paul is setting up a contrast between the way things are now and the way they’ll be when Jesus returns. He is not speaking of the writing of the New Testament, the closing of the canon, or the end of the age of miracles. His words are carefully chosen to refer to the end of this age and the return of Jesus.

When does prophecy end? When Jesus returns. When do tongues end? When Jesus returns. When does knowledge — as a spiritual gift — end? When Jesus returns. When will we see face to face? When Jesus returns. When will our knowledge be perfect and no longer partial? When Jesus returns.

Some have argued that the “perfect/complete” thing to which Paul was referring was the completion of the canon or the maturing of the church, one or the other of which they attribute to the disappearance of the more spectacular gifts from most if not all churches in the post–apostolic period. The context (especially v. 12) makes it abundantly clear, however, that the point at which Paul expects the gifts to pass away or disappear is when we see the Lord “face to face” and “know [him] fully, even as [we are] fully known.”

… In Paul’s context, it seems he is waiting for complete or perfect versions of that which is manifested in the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge (i.e., perfect communication, communion and interpersonal knowledge between God and his people), which will arrive when we experience the fullness of the new creation in the presence of the Lord himself. Thus, when all the complete versions of the partial realities we experience through spiritual gifts in this life arrive, those partial realities will be laid aside and will disappear.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 656-657.

Does that mean that miracles still happen? Well, of course they do, or why do we bother to pray for them?

On the other hand, as clear as this seems to be, Paul’s language leaves us to wonder what he means when he writes,

(1Co 13:13 ESV)  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

“Abide” in contrast to what?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 (that which is perfect), Part 1 (the Second Coming)

  1. The idea of “the perfect” being Scripture does seem to be a very contrived argument. Hard to defend when studied in context.

    I think the idea of maturity/maturing deserves more attention than it often gets. The only other time Paul uses “teleios” in this book is in 2:6, and it’s about maturity. It’s interesting to me that Paul also uses this word, and the idea of maturity, when discussing gifts in Ephesians 4.

    Can in not be that we should see an inversely proportional relationship between miraculous gifts and maturity? The idea being that as one increases the other decreases. (Not meaning to explain the obvious there, just wanting to be clear) That seems to fit with much of what we observe in the Bible and in history.

    I also see a vast difference between miraculous gifts (i.e., men being able to perform miracles) and God doing miracles. God did miracles throughout the Bible, yet miraculous gifts are clustered around three moments in time: Moses, Elijah/Elisha, and Jesus and his apostles. Great men of faith who saw many miracles, like Abraham and David, did not perform them themselves. I can doubt the occurrence or frequency of miraculous gifts without questioning God’s ability to do a miracle any time he so chooses.

  2. I meant to add, the idea of miraculous gifts decreasing as maturity increases would also provide the contrast with the things that “abide.”

    But you’re going to explain that one to us next time, right? 🙂

  3. Yes, you are going to explain “the things that ‘abide'” and not leave us abiding in wonder, or are you?

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tomorrow
    In detail

  5. Dwight says:

    I think that if we read the “perfect” as “complete” it makes more sense as it is not talking about that which has no blemishes, but that which has been fulfilled or is wholly formed. I’ve always been taught that the “perfect” refers to the scripture and it might after all when the apostles died so did the passing on of knowledge by the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands which passed along spiritual gifts to those who were not apostles. Also with the apostles gone, was the ability to correct or acknowledge what was knowledge passed along by the Holy Spirit through others, thus if somebody spoke as having the spirit, but did not, without the apostles approval or rejection, it would and could be taken as God’s word, even if it wasn’t. After the apostles the only thing that could approve of new knowledge was the knowledge that was given to them previously.
    But since the “perfect” is not identified, it might be something else as well….maturity.
    I do not really buy the end time argument, because he is telling them things that they are presently engaged in and then positioning that against love, which will always be no matter what.

  6. Ray Downen says:

    I also don’t “buy” the end-time argument. My experience doesn’t include any miraculous “gifts” given by God, but it includes many commendable and praiseworthy men and women who have loved Jesus and served well. One man in particular gave excellent advice for many years and yet in his final years gave advice which to me did not seem “inspired.” That is, as a church leader, the results of following his advice resulted in the closing of the doors of the congregation he served. To me, this didn’t seem right or necessary.

    So what was the apostle speaking about that would “never fail”? And what would stop when “complete”? There was great need for prophecy and revelation prior to the time when apostolic writings were widely available. There is much less need for them now that the written Word is readily available in most languages of the world. Wherever the Word is available, special gifts might seem to NOT be necessary. Wherever the Word is NOT available, I’d think it still appropriate that God might work directly to reveal His will to people.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Actually, it’ll be Saturday before we get back to “abide” — unless I add some further material in between. It’s hard to predict these things.

  8. Dwight,

    “I’ve always been taught” is not a justification for any doctrine. I’ve found over the years more than a few things that “I’ve always been taught” that just are not true. The fact that my spiritual forebears were mistaken in what they taught me does not mean I have to continue in their mistaken ideas, nor does it condemn them to hell.

    For me to continue in those things because “I’ve always been taught” them just might condemn me to hell if I come to realize that what “I’ve always been taught” is not what the Lord says in his revelation to us. While I want to honor what “I’ve always been taught” and not throw out the baby with the bath so to speak, I want to honor God’s word even more.

    Hence, I’ll hold lightly to what “I’ve always been taught” that I might hold more firmly to what God is still teaching me in His word.

  9. The idea of an inverse relationship between the supernatural and maturity is pretty hard to find in scripture. So is the unsupported extrapolation of 1 Cor 13 to refer to ALL spiritual gifts. On the other hand, if one sticks to the three things Paul mentions in I Cor 13, a sensible inverse connection may well emerge. The three things mentioned — tongues, prophecy, knowledge– are external communication methods which are used to reveal God to us. When we know Him in completeness, we will no longer need such external supports. Thus the passing of the need for tongues and prophecy– and the need for external knowledge, which would include the our greatest source of knowledge about God… the Bible.

  10. “The idea of an inverse relationship between the supernatural and maturity is pretty hard to find in scripture.” You mean it’s hard for you to find; feel free to ask for help! 🙂

    We know that the Bible doesn’t document all miraculous activity. But there is a noticeable decline in the reporting of gifts as the church matures. Miraculous gifts are mentioned very little in the letters; the Corinthian church by far receives the most instructions about them. And the Corinthian church had a noticeable maturity problem. The other church that receives a mention of such activity is the Thessalonian church, in one of the first letters that Paul writes. While all of this is circumstantial, it fits well with the hypothesis.

    And viewing “teleios” as maturity fits the context of 1 Corinthians, both in terms of situation and word usage. Context is always our friend in Bible study.

    Now, help me, Charles. What I find hard to find in the New Testament is any hint that the Christians knew that the New Testament was being compiled. How would the Corinthians have been expected to know what Paul was talking about? I’d appreciate any insights.

  11. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Jerry,
    I don’t think that is what Dwight is saying. He is using the phrase anecdotally.

  12. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Charles wrote,

    The three things mentioned — tongues, prophecy, knowledge– are external communication methods which are used to reveal God to us. When we know Him in completeness, we will no longer need such external supports.

    Umm … it seems to me that these three are used as proxies for spiritual gifts in general. After all, his point is to re-center the Corinthians’ thinking about charismata in general, not just those three. He wants the church to focus on the eternal (faith, hope, love) rather than the temporary (charismata).

    For example, healing is just as temporary as tongues. There will be no need to heal after Jesus returns! Nor will we need to be able to distinguish between spirits (12:10). There will be no false spirits in heaven.

    The point, though, isn’t that healing is bad. People will be diseased until Jesus returns, and if God gives healing, that is good. The point is that healing points to something better — a world where healing is no longer needed. Hence, the gift of healing points both toward a better place and reminds us that we aren’t yet there. It’s temporary, good, needed, to be gratefully received, but not the centerpiece of Christianity.

    When we focus on healing, tongues, or whatever, we are focused on the inadequate, the temporary, and the destined to expire. Thus, these cannot be the focus of our religion or teaching. They are signs pointing to something better — wonderful to have but not to be confused with the destination.

    And so, I don’t see a distinction.

    I, of course, also see as a charisma God’s personal leading and transforming work through the Spirit — which to me is nearly at the core because it’s a work prophesied going back to Deuteronomy and to which the prophets all point. And yet, even the transforming work of the Spirit is a path toward the end — preparing us for theosis, our eventually unification with God.

    The difference pastorally is that we readily see the transformative work of the Spirit as pointing us toward something better — as a means toward a greater end. Whereas the Corinthians seemed to treat their charismata as ends themselves. Hence, someone who could heal was considered to be hot stuff for having “achieved” such a great level righteousness, rather than seeing healing as a blessing to be used transformatively to move the church toward the eschatological ideal — to bring people closer to Jesus and bring honor to him and only him.

    Something like that.

  13. v2eric says:

    Is anyone familiar with any “cessationist” commentators or preachers who interpret *teleios* here to be something other than the completed NT canon? Cheers!

  14. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    V2eric,

    I’ve heard it taught that gifts of the Spirit expired the generation after the apostles died, because the miraculous gifts could be passed on solely by the laying on of hands of the apostles. I can’t give you a name but perhaps that’s enough to do a Google search or two.

  15. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 14:1-13 (Tongues and prophecy in the assembly) | One In Jesus

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