Another possible reading of “that which is perfect” or teleios is “maturity.” However, the more general definition is —
In the NT “perfect” is usually the tr[anslation] of teleios, primarily, “having reached the end” …
L. Walker, “Perfect, Perfection,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 2321. And so “perfect” very well fits the “end of the age” sense I’ve argued for.
Nonetheless, Paul often uses teleios to mean mature, and 1 Cor 13:10 says,
(1Co 13:11 ESV) 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.
And the next chapter includes —
(1Co 14:20 ESV) Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature [teleios].
— which certainly sounds like maturity is under consideration. And I’ve made this very argument myself on just these grounds. But the problem is that “maturity” doesn’t quite fit the context. Consider —
(1Co 13:8-13 NET) Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 10 but when [maturity] comes, the partial will be set aside. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
So when who is mature? Me? Is Paul saying that when each Christian matures he will no longer need prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (perhaps) and that he’ll then see “face to face” and then be “know fully” as well as he is known by God? Uh, no. That doesn’t fit.
Nor is “maturity” an obvious contrast with “the partial,” which in the Greek means “less than the whole.” Completeness, making it to the end, the perfection of the next age all contrast nicely with “the partial” or “incomplete,” but not “maturity.”
So what does Paul mean by “when I became an adult”? Well, he’s arguing for us to live today as though Jesus had already returned, as though the new age had already dawned, based on values and principles that will last forever, not temporary expedients designed to help us get to the end.
The poem doesn’t just celebrate the fact that love is the greatest thing in God’s world. It doesn’t just explain what love will mean in hard-edged practice (patient, kind, not jealous or boastful, and so on). It isn’t, in other words, a poetic way of giving us simply a rule of life, another goal in the struggle for obedience or even Christlikeness.
The poem does much, much more: it yearns over the fact that our experience of love, as of everything else that matters, is decidedly incomplete. The way we are now, seen against the way we shall be in God’s design, is only partly what it is meant to be, and is emphatically partly not what it is meant to be. But Paul is urging that we should live in the present as people who are to be made complete in the future. And the sign of that completeness, that future wholeness, the bridge from one reality to the other, is love.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 298–299.
And so, you see, Paul is indeed arguing for maturity — but a maturity founded on the eternal and perfect. So the thoughts do indeed run together.
And yet even this exquisite chapter looks forward, particularly in the section just quoted, to the final discussion, which will concern the resurrection, the new world that God will make, and the continuity between the resurrection life and life here and now. 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.
Or as I wrote in a recent comment (edited a tad),
His point is to re-center the Corinthians’ thinking about charismata in general, not just tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. 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 or unneeded. 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. Healing is partial, and yet it points beyond itself to something better, eternal, and perfect.
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.
I also see as a charisma God’s personal leading and transforming work through the Spirit — which to me is nearly at the core of the Spirit’s role, 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.
So we’re not surprised to hear echoes of a plea for maturity. What shows what is required for a mature Christian? For a mature congregation? Well, a passion for the eternal over against the temporary.
So tongues and prophecy and miraculous knowledge are bad? Not at all. They are gifts from God.
So why not desire them? Well, the point is not to despise the gifts of God but to prefer and more earnestly desire the more important things: faith, hope, and love. And if we do these things, then we’ll be able to see the proper place of tongues and such like. Rather than being a matter of pride over against others, or a way to show off, they are gifts from God to be, well, re-gifted. We give our gifts to others by using them in service, humbly.
Therefore, tongues are inappropriate in the assembly because they do not serve the congregation by edifying them. Prophecy is not appropriate either if the prophets interrupt each other or dominate the proceedings. Love shows the way — and love necessarily leads toward service. If the gifts don’t serve the others present, they aren’t proper.
The question for the assembly is not whether I got to show my gifts or whether I achieved a state of great emotional excitement but whether I served the others present — and this is true whether we’re talking about tongues or leading prayer or making announcements.
It’s not about rules or a pre-approved list of authorized acts of worship. It’s about working out the practicalities of mutual love and service within the boundaries of why we are assembled — in light of those things that are eternal and perfect.