“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke 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 in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
A number of well-known evangelical Bible teachers (e.g., Wayne Grudem, John Piper, D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler) interpret the above passage this way:
“The spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will cease when the perfect comes. The perfect is the coming of Christ and the future state, not the completed Bible. Thus the New Testament teaches that the revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will continue in the church until Christ returns.”
I believe this understanding of the text fails because the exegesis doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as I will seek to demonstrate.
Whose “face” do we see?
In 1 Cor. 13:12, Paul uses the analogy of a “mirror” to teach the believers in Corinth that when they used the revelatory spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, they were only able to “see in a mirror dimly.” That is, apart from the “perfect” (telios, i.e., completed or mature) source of revelation which was to come, the church in Corinth possessed a dim understanding of God and themselves, just like the use of a poor quality mirror makes it difficult to see one’s face clearly. The Corinthian Christians “knew in part,” in incompleteness, with lack of clarity, by use of the revelatory spiritual gifts. “But then” (later, when the completed source of revelation comes) Paul says the Corinthians would see in the mirror more clearly; i.e, “face to face,” with greater perception and clarity, just as a high quality mirror gives a person a clearer and more complete sight of his face than a poor one can.
In verse 13:8, Paul states that the spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge — gifts which were “childish” in that they served the church in their infancy, and which were “partial” in that they communicated God’s Word to the church in a fragmented way, and permitted the early Christians to understand God’s overall purpose and plan only “dimly” — Paul says that those gifts “will be done away…will cease…will be done away.” That which provides partial revelation will cease, and that which is perfect (i.e., not morally perfect, but complete) will thereafter provide a far clearer and more comprehensive understanding of God and His will. The clearer and more comprehensive revelation of God’s Word which was to come would allow the Corinthians to look in the “mirror” and see a more perfect reflection of themselves, i.e., see themselves “face to face” (cf. James 1:23-25). Therefore, the Corinthians were not to boast in childish, incomplete revelatory gifts that would soon pass away, but were instead to pursue love, which will never cease because it is eternal.
Thus 1 Cor. 13:8-13 argues strongly that the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge have ended, for the church now has the mature and perfect revelation of God, the completed Bible. No other knowledge about God and our Savior is gained apart from that perfect Word. If we believe Paul’s teaching and predictions about the aforementioned gifts (that they are by nature childish, incomplete, and passing away), and we believe that the completed revelation of God is the Bible, we must conclude that the early revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge have ceased. The fact that this was indeed the testimony of the early and historic church — that those gifts ceased to be part of the church’s experience very soon after the age of the apostles ended — seals the deal.
When Paul later wrote, “Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39), the application of the verse is mitigated by the prediction Paul had just made that the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues “will be done away…will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8). As long as the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues (and knowledge) continued to operate, they were not to be forbidden. But when the “complete” thing comes, the Corinthians understood that those gifts would discontinue, since they were by nature incomplete and childish, and superceded by what is complete and mature (the canon). This is exactly what happened in the post-apostolic church. The church — indeed, the Holy Spirit — “put away” the “childish” revelatory gifts of tongues, knowledge, and prophecy in favor of the completed canon (the perfect and inspired words of the Holy Spirit), and the clear, mature, and comprehensive knowledge of God it provides. The church’s knowledge of God is not perfect in the sense that it is perfectly apprehended. It is perfect in the sense that it is complete.
Are you saying “knowledge” has ceased from the church’s experience?
People sometimes object to the above exposition this way: “Paul says ‘knowledge’ will ‘vanish away.’ Are you saying knowledge has already come to an end? That is absurd. We still know things and are still learning things, so your interpretation can’t be right.”
This objection is easily answered:
(1) Paul says the spiritual gift of knowledge will vanish away, not knowledge in general. The spiritual gifts are the main subject of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and in context, it is clearly the gift of knowledge (along with the gifts of prophecy and tongues) that Paul says will pass away.
(2) In 1 Cor. 13:8, Paul cannot possibly mean that “knowledge in general” will one day come to an end, for knowledge clearly continues in the age to come. “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9) When the apostle says “knowledge…will vanish away,” he can only be referencing the vanishing of the spiritual gift of knowledge.
Does “that which is perfect” refer to the future coming of Christ?
The common contention that the revelatory gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will continue until Christ’s return is unsupported by the context. Jesus is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13. Neither are His 2nd Coming or heaven directly referenced. Paul is talking about “knowing” God’s Word incompletely (via the “childish” revelatory gifts of tongues, knowledge, and prophecy) versus the coming time when Christians will know God’s Word completely (telios = “perfect,” which references completion/maturity, not “moral perfection” or “absolute perfection”).
Paul is saying that the church will go from a childish stage (with the three revelatory gifts providing incomplete knowledge) to a “perfect,” i.e., mature stage (where knowledge will be known completely). The New Covenant church was in its infancy when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. It was one of his earliest epistles, when the revelatory gifts were still in play. Yet Paul said a time was coming when the church would reach maturity and put away those childish things in favor of knowledge that is complete, mature. And that time came when the apostles passed from the scene and left us God’s complete, inerrant, infallible, enscripturated Word.
Interpreting “face to face” as a reference to Christians seeing the face of God in the eschaton is unwarranted by the context. Again, the phrase is connected to Paul’s mirror analogy. Look into a mirror, and what do you see? Your face. Thus will Christians see “face to face” (i.e., will “know” much more clearly and comprehensively) when the “mature” knowledge of God comes. This is why the “childish” and incomplete knowledge of God that came via the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge “ceased” and “vanished away.”
A related passage is Numbers 12:6-8: “Then He [God] said, “Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision. I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses. He is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings. And he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”
If Paul is alluding to these verses from Numbers 12 in 1 Cor. 13:12, then God speaking to the church via the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge is likened to the dark and obscure revelations given to the prophets in Num. 12:6. Contrasted with these “dim” revelations is the “complete, perfect” revelation (likened to the “face to face” revelations given to Moses) which God was now providing through the apostles, and which Paul insists would eventually supplant the more obscure and “childish” revelations given via the revelatory gifts.
Note that “face to face” is primarily an analogy for clearer and more complete revelation in both Num. 12 and 1 Cor. 13. It must be so, since Moses didn’t literally see God face to face (he only saw His backside and/or “the form of the Lord”).
Note, too, that the comparison between the prophets and Moses in Num. 12 is not eschatological in nature. Again, the comparison has to do with the clarity and completeness of revelation, as in 1 Cor. 13. The messages God gave via the OT prophets (12:6) were not as clear and complete as the canonical Word given through Moses (12:8). In the same way, the messages God gave via NT prophets like Philip’s daughters and Agabus (Acts 21:9-11) were not as clear and complete as the canonical Word given through Paul and the apostles (Eph. 2:20).
Also note that in both Num. 12 and 1 Cor. 13, special revelation (words from God and the knowledge they provide) is in view. The contrast is not between the experience of Christians in this present age and the age to come (a concept nowhere indicated in the chapter), but between the knowledge of God attained via one thing versus another.
Paul predicts prophecy, tongues, and the gift of knowledge will “fail…cease…vanish away” when the “perfect” (complete) source of knowledge comes. And those gifts did vanish away. The dark sayings, dreams, and visions of the New Testament prophets (Acts 2:17) were no longer needed and soon passed from the experience of the Christian church once the Word of God was completed. Thereafter the church had everything it needed to know from God concerning Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). Again, the knowledge of God attained in the completed canon is not perfect in the sense that it is perfectly understood. It is perfect in the sense that it is complete.
As the Westminster divines rightly concluded:
“Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1)
What about other New Testament usages of τὸ τέλειον?
Some object to the above exposition on the grounds that the “perfect” thing (τὸ τέλειον) in 1 Cor. 13:10 must refer to Christ’s return in glory, especially since Paul uses a related term elsewhere in the epistle to reference the same event. Here is how the argument is typically presented:
“In a number of New Testament contexts other than 1 Cor. 13, the related words telos (‘end,’ ‘termination;’ ‘last part’) and teleō (‘bring to an end’) are used in relation to the Second Coming of Christ. This is true in both non-Pauline writings (cf. James 5:11; Rev. 20:5, 7; 21:6; 22:13) and 1 Corinthians 1:8; 15:24. Since the Second Coming is plainly referenced in these other contexts, and especially in 1 Corinthians, it is more natural to understand 13:10 to mean that the ‘perfection’ will occur at the return of Christ, or if before, when the Christian dies and is taken to be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:1–10).”
On the surface, this argument seems quite reasonable. Paul does indeed use the related term telos in 1 Cor. 1:8 and 15:24 to refer to the coming eschaton (15:24: “then comes the end,” τὸ τέλος). The implication is that since the use of τὸ τέλος in 15:24 is relatively close to 13:10, Paul must be talking about the same thing in both places. Therefore, the “perfect” thing in 13:10 is the future state.
However, the argument withers and dies when we observe the following:
(1) As already noted, the term Paul uses in 15:24 is τὸ τέλος, which is not the same term he uses in 13:10, τὸ τέλειον. Telos and teleios are related but not identical Greek terms, telos being a noun, and teleios an adjective. If (as the argument infers) Paul intends to make an obvious connection between verses 13:10 and 15:24, why does he use different words which are commonly used in different ways?
(2) More importantly, Paul uses teleios (the same word he uses in 13:10) in the chapter between 13 & 15, and this without reference to Christ’s return. Verse 14:20: “Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature (τέλειοι).” In this nearer context (nearer to 13:10 than 15:24), the word teleios (same word used in 13:10) plainly does not refer to the future state. Rather, it means “mature” or “complete,” the exact adjectival meaning that I believe is found in 13:10.
(3) As well, Paul’s use of teleios in chapters 13 and 14 are in both cases related to a discussion of the spiritual gifts. It makes far more sense to interpret the apostle’s use of teleios in 13:10 in light of how he uses the same adjectival term in chapter 14, particularly since he is discussing the same subject in both places. Paul’s use of telos (noun form of the word) in chapter 15 comes in the midst of his discussion of the future resurrection, an entirely different subject. If we are seeking to understand the precise meaning of τὸ τέλειον in 13:10, does it make sense to skip over 14:20 (where the same Greek word is found) and liken τὸ τέλειον in 13:10 to τὸ τέλος in 15:24 — different words used in different contexts? No. Since Paul’s use of teleios in chapter 14 has nothing at all to do with the Second Coming, this is suggestive that his use of teleios in chapter 13 also has nothing at all to do with the future state.
(4) There are other examples in the New Testament of Paul using telios or telos in ways that clearly do not refer to the end of the age and the return of Christ; cf. Philippians 3:15; Romans 10:4, 12:2, 13:7. For example, Rom. 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect (τέλειον) will of God.”
(5) It’s true that in James 5:11, τὸ τέλος (noun form) may allude to the future state. Yet James also uses telios (the adjectival form, same word Paul uses in 1 Cor. 13:10) five times in his epistle — twice in 1:4, and once each in 1:17, 1:25, and 3:2. In none of these uses is the return of Christ referenced. For example, James 3:2: “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect (τέλειος) man, able also to bridle the whole body.”
(6) Other New Testament authors use both telios and telos without reference to the Second Coming; cf. Matthew 5:48, 19:21; Hebrews 5:14, 9:11; 1 John 4:18. For example, Heb. 5:14: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age (τελείων), that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
For all these reasons, I believe the objection is not sustained, and the exposition I have presented above stands.
1 Cor. 13:8-13 is powerful testimony that the fragmentary, revelatory spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge have passed away from the experience of the Christian church. The church now possesses all the knowledge of God and His redemption that it needs in the completed Bible.