Why Does God Seek His Own Glory?

Recently someone asked, “God loves Himself supremely . . . (but) doesn’t that make Him narcissistic?”  Here is my reply:

All creation exists for God’s own purpose and pleasure.  It is entirely fitting and required of man to glorify God for everything He is and everything He has done (Revelation 4:11) because all creation is a temple of His glory (Psalm 19:1-3).

God made the universe so that His glory would be revealed, acknowledged, and praised.  His wrath is revealed against those who refuse this duty (Romans 1:18, 21).

It is therefore entirely right and appropriate that God is zealous for His own glory (Isaiah 48:9-11; Psalm 29:1-2).  It is not “narcissistic” for God to do this, for again, the universe exists for the exact purpose of revealing His glory.  “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

It IS narcissistic when sinful man seeks his own glory and not God’s, for in doing so he is rebelling against the entire reason God made him (Romans 1:21).  Yet when God pursues His own glory, even zealously, it is exactly appropriate and in keeping with His creative purpose.

That said, there is a wonderfully unselfish and non self-centered aspect to this pursuit.  God is eternal Trinity, and His love is directed interpersonally — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22; John 3:35, 5:20, 17:1-5).  Thus the Son seeks to glorify the Father (John 8:31-32); the Father designs to glorify the Son (John 17:1, 5); and the Holy Spirit works incessantly in the hearts of men to bring glory and honor to the Father and to the Son (John 16:14; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 4:20).

And indeed, the end of our salvation is that God will glorify us (Romans 8:18, 30; John 17:22) — not that we will become God, but that we will be like Him (1 John 3:2).  God’s pursuit of His own glory is therefore directed entirely toward the Trinity, but also, simultaneously and wonderfully, for the eternal benefit of others (Romans 8:18; Colossians 3:4; 1 Peter 5:1).

“What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
(Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1)

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Why Do Reformed Churches Use Creeds and Confessions?

Evangelical Christians often wonder why Reformed churches emphasize the importance of creeds and confessions.  “What’s the deal with that?  Isn’t the Bible enough?  Why do we need creeds and confessions?”

Here are twelve reasons why I believe it is good and needful for all Bible-believing churches to use creeds and confessions:

1) They help Christians make sense of the Bible by highlighting what is important and summarizing its essential message.  (If the Bible is the world, the creeds and confessions are the road maps.)

2) They help the faithful memorize the essential beliefs of the Christian faith (especially regarding the work of the Triune God to save us).

3) They promote universal and apostolic unity.  (Creeds and confessions connect us to the past and to other churches by summarizing what true Christians around the world have confessed since the days of the apostles, not just what we believe in our local congregations.)

4) They provide specificity to our faith and help distinguish us from false teachers and sects (the original purpose of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds).

5) They provide structure for Christians to publicly confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (the original purpose of the Old Roman Creed, which eventually expanded to become the Apostles’ Creed).

6) They are useful for apologetics (equip Christians to give succinct answers for the hope that is within them, 1 Peter 3:15).

7) They delimit church power (establish where the doctrinal authority of the church begins and ends, and make that authority transparent to all).

8) They clarify the content of the Christian faith to those who may ask.  (“These are formal summaries of what we believe and teach.”)

9) They provide distilled, well-tested theological judgments that fence our thinking and help us not to stray from the biblical faith.  

10) All Christian churches hold to creeds and confessions, whether they admit to it or not.  (“Despite claims to the contrary, the Christian world is not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who just have the Bible.  It is actually divided between those who have creeds and confessions and write them down in a public form, open to public scrutiny and correction, and those who have them and do not write them down.  The reason is simple:  every church (and indeed every Christian) believes the Bible means something, and what it thinks the Bible means is its creed and confession, whether it chooses to write its beliefs down or not.” – Carl Trueman, Why Christians Need Confessions)

11. It is implicitly required of Christian churches to develop and use creeds.  (“While, however, the Scriptures are from God, the understanding of them belongs to the part of men.  Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole, and then adjust their teachings upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system.  Every student of the Bible must do this, and all make it obvious that they do it by the terms they use in their prayers and religious discourse, whether they admit or deny the propriety of human creeds and confessions.  If they refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the Church, they must make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom.  The real question is not, as often pretended, between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.” – A. A. Hodge, A Short History of Creeds and Confessions)

12) Confessing creeds is a biblical practice.  (The Old Testament saints daily confessed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and the New Testament church was founded on Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-18).  Early Christian churches began formulating faithful summary statements of the faith even while the apostles were still alive; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16.)

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Replacement Theology or Expansion Theology?

Modern Dispensationalists often accuse Covenant theologians of promoting “Replacement Theology” — the belief that the Christian church has replaced Israel.  At times we are also charged with encouraging anti-semitism.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Dispensationalists are correct that Israel and the church are at times separately distinguished in the New Testament.  The New Testament was written (at least most of it) between Pentecost and A.D. 70, when the Temple was destroyed and the Old Testament theocratic nation ceased to exist.  During this period, the apostles sometimes identified “Israel” as the mostly Christ-resisting Jewish community that was distinguished from the community of believers in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 10:1, 21).

Yet Dispensationalists tend to make too much of this observation, because Christ’s apostles also identified the multi-national church of Jesus Christ by the same terms used in the Old Testament to identify Israel.  What was the apostolic purpose in this, except to drive home the point that the New Covenant church is continuous with the “kingdom of priests” established under the Old Covenant?

For example, Peter wrote that the scattered churches of Christ (1 Peter 1:1) are “the holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), the same title given to Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:6 (“you shall be to Me a . . . “holy nation”).  To make sure his readers didn’t miss the point, Peter heaped together other descriptive terms in 1 Peter 2 — “chosen generation, a royal priesthood … His own special people” — all of which were used in the Old Testament to describe Israel (Isaiah 43:20; 61:6; Deuteronomy 4:20) but which the apostle used to identify the church of God.  Thus Peter plainly and repeatedly identified the scattered, multi-ethnic church of Christ as Israel, now expanded to other nations.

Furthermore, Paul taught that the olive tree onto which the nations have been grafted is the same as existed in the Old Testament (Romans 11:16-18).  Gentiles who were formerly “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise . . . have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).

The promise of world-wide, multi-ethnic blessings goes back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 28:14).  God said “all the families of the earth” would be blessed in Abraham (Genesis 12:3).  And now in Christ, all who believe in God, Jews and Gentiles alike, are the “sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  The fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is Christ and His multi-national church (Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8).

Looking at this from a different direction, Stephen, a deacon in the early Christian church, didn’t think it strange to identify Old Testament Israel as “the church.”  As he prepared to be martyred, Stephen referenced “the congregation (ἐκκλησίᾳ, the Greek word translated “church” throughout the New Testament) in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers” (Acts 7:38).

Thus was Paul right to identify the Christian church as the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).  This fits seamlessly with what the apostle taught earlier in Galatians 3:28-29:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you [Gentile believers in Galatia] are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

This is why Covenant Theology says that the church does NOT replace Israel, for the church cannot replace itself.  Rather, the church has been expanded to include all nations (Revelation 5:9-10).

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Do Christians Need to “Forgive Themselves?”

Don't forgive yourselfChristians are often told that we should “forgive ourselves” when we struggle with guilt.  Is this a correct way to believe and speak?

The reason we struggle with guilty feelings is because we have sinned against God, not against ourselves. Psalm 51:4:  “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight.”  (Cf. also Psalm 32:3-4.) “Forgiving ourselves” is therefore an inappropriate response, really the opposite of what we should do.

Here are the typical problems and weaknesses Christians encounter related to the experience of guilt, as taught in the Scriptures:

(1) we are prone to blaming others instead of admitting our sin (Gen. 3:11-12, 15; 1 Sam. 13:11-12; 15:13-25);
(2) we are prone not to being too hard on ourselves, but rather too easy (e.g., blind to the planks in our eyes, Matt. 7:3-5, 18:28);

(3) we are prone to self-absorption and a lack of humility (Phil. 2:3-8; James 4:10);
(4) we are prone to worry and anxiety (Phil 4:6-7; Matt. 6:25-34; 1 Pet. 5:7);
(5) we are prone to hardening our hearts (Prov. 28:14; Heb. 3:7-13; Mark 8:17);
(6) we are prone to forgetting God (Deut. 4:9, 23; Psalm 9:17; James 1:24-25);
(7) we are prone to being deceived by the Devil and our sin (Gen. 3:4; 2 Cor. 11:3; Matt. 7:15, 24:4; Eph. 5:6; Gal. 6:7; Rev. 12:9; Heb. 3:13; 1 Cor. 10:12-13);

(8) we are prone to unbelief that God has forgiven our sins (Eph. 1:7; Rom. 5:1; John 5:24) and to wallow instead in doubt and fear (Matt. 14:31; Mark 9:24; Luke 5:8, 12:32).

Here are the actions the Bible commends to us when we struggle with guilt:

(1) humble yourself before God and the brethren (James 4:8-10, 5:16; 1 Pet. 5:6-7);
(2) remember Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and is now exalted in Heaven (Acts 5:31; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Tim. 2:8);
(3) give thanks to the Lord for the promises of the Gospel (1 Thess. 1:10, 5:18; Eph. 5:20; Psalm 107:1);

(4) pray with confidence for grace and mercy from God, that you may be forgiven, cleansed of unrighteousness, and strengthened to forsake your sins (Matt. 6:12; Heb. 4:16; Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18; 1 John 1:9);
(5) as needed, ask forgiveness and make restitution to any people you have wronged (Matt. 5:23-24; Luke 19:8);

(6) rejoice, for even though sin is inevitable in this life, abundant forgiveness is always available in Christ because of His once-for-all sacrifice on the cross (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16; 1 John 1:9, 2:1-2; Heb. 10:10-17; John 19:30; Eph. 3:20-21; Rom. 10:13);
(7) whenever you’re tempted to doubt the Lord’s forgiveness, remember that He proved His love for you by dying on the cross, and is always faithful to keep His promises (Psalm 103:12; Rom. 5:8; John 15:13; Matt. 1:21; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Thess. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:13);
(8) resist the devil’s accusations, pray for the Holy Spirit to empower you, forget what lies behind, and press onward for Christ (Rev. 12:10; Eph. 5:18, 6:16; Luke 11:13; James 4:7; Phil. 3:13-14).

Conclusion: “forgiving yourself” is unbiblical language and an unChristian concept that grew out of self-esteem theology.  Man’s problem is pride, not a lack of self-forgiveness (James 4:6).  Indeed, Jesus assumes that we already love ourselves (Matt. 22:39), and that it is the spirit of rebellion to love ourselves even more (note Paul’s strong warning to Timothy:  “in the last days perilous times will come, for men will be lovers of themselves,” 2 Tim. 3:1-2.)  The Bible teaches us to forgive others, but never to forgive ourselves.  The entire notion of “forgiving yourself” should therefore be rejected.

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Another Side of the Wine vs. Grape Juice Discussion

Communion Wine & BreadOne aspect of the “Wine vs Grape Juice” discussion that isn’t contemplated nearly enough:  wine is often mentioned in the Old Testament as symbolic of Messianic, New Covenant blessings.

For example, Isaiah, contemplating the blessings of the Messianic kingdom, wrote, “The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain.  A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine.” (Isaiah 25:6)

Jeremiah described Christ’s kingdom this way, “They will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion.  And they will be radiant over the bounty of the Lord—over the grain and the new wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd.” (Jeremiah 31:12)

Similarly, the prophet Joel wrote concerning the kingdom of the Messiah, “The Lord will answer and say to His people, ‘Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine and oil,
And you will be satisfied in full with them.’ . . . The threshing floors will be full of grain,
And the vats will overflow with the new wine and oil.” (Joel 2:19, 24)

The prophet Amos also declared, “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed.  The mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.  I will bring back the captives of My people Israel.  They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them.  They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them.” (Amos 9:13-14)  See also Isaiah 27:2; 55:1; Hosea 2:22; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 9:17.

It is therefore no coincidence that Jesus’ first public miracle was turning water into wine (John 2:1-11).  This miracle was more than just a revelation of Jesus’ deity — it was a sign that He is Israel’s Bridegroom, the Messiah who had come to usher in the abundant blessings of the New Covenant (“the vats shall overflow with new wine” – Joel 2:24).  The prophesied new era was dawning, and it was time now for God’s people to put their trust in Jesus and believe that He is the one who makes all things new, who gives His Spirit and fulfills the Law with a Gospel that gives life, joy, and freedom.

This is why it became so commonplace for Jesus to eat and drink with His disciples — so often in fact that His enemies accused Him of being a glutton and a winebibber (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).  Jesus living on Earth was a never-ending celebration of kingdom blessings!  The King was with His people, and the great joy this brought to everyone (symbolized in the abundant food and wine) is why it was inappropriate for the disciples to fast at that time (Matthew 9:15).

Thus the use of wine in Communion is rooted not only in New Testament language and practice, but also in Old Testament prophecy and symbolism.  Wine in the communion cup is an ongoing testimony that the blessings of the Messiah and the New Covenant are ours (Matthew 26:28), and that Jesus will drink wine with us again in celebration when God’s kingdom is consummated (Matthew 26:29).

This is why it is so inappropriate to use a different beverage in the Communion cup.  It not only damages our connection with the worship of the historic Christian church (which used wine for the first 1800+ years of its existence), it also diminishes the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the messianic promises that Jesus fulfills.  Why would we obscure such a rich treasure of biblical teaching and christological expectation?

See my additional discussion on this topic, “What About Grape Juice in the Communion Cup?”:  https://pastorjoev.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/what-about-grape-juice-in-the-communion-cup/

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What About Grape Juice in the Communion Cup?

Is the use of grape juice in the Communion cup a legitimate option for Christian churches?

1. Grapes are loaded with sugar and begin to ferment almost immediately after they are harvested.  Because of this, it was highly impractical to keep unfermented grape juice in the days before pasteurization and refrigeration.

2. Wine and unfermented grape juice are two different beverages.  It’s not like grape juice is simply wine without the alcoholic content.  Grape juice undergoes a radical change during the fermenting process.

3. “The fruit of the vine,” as referenced in Communion passages (e.g., Luke 22:18), was according to normal biblical usage a reference to wine, not unfermented grape juice.  Those who argue that Jesus could have distributed nonalcoholic grape juice to His disciples use speculative and contrived exegesis to come to this conclusion (as also in their attempts to exegete John 2:1-11).  There is no reasonable doubt that Jesus often drank wine with His disciples (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34) and that wine was used at the Last Supper.

4. There is no evidence in the writings of the church fathers that Christians ever called for the use of unfermented grape juice in the Communion cup, and no evidence that the post-apostolic church ever used grape juice for that purpose.

5. There is no reasonable doubt the apostolic church used wine in Communion, especially since the Corinthian Christians who abused the Supper were getting “drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21).

6. Drunkenness was a problem in New Testament times just as much as it is today.  There were converted drunkards in the apostolic church (1 Corinthians 6:10-11), yet the Christians of that day used wine in the Communion cup.

7. The Scriptures teach that wine is a gift from God to man (Psalm 104:15), and the abuse of that good gift is no argument against its proper use.  The same argument can be made regarding food and sex.

8. The use of grape juice in Communion was virtually unheard of in the long history of the Christian church until Thomas Bramwell Welch invented a process to pasteurize grape juice in 1869.

9. The introduction of grape juice in the Communion cup did not result from learned, holy men studying the Scriptures and reforming the practice of the church according to the biblical pattern, but from churches capitulating to the temperance movement and succumbing to the pietistic commandments of men (Mark 7:7; Colossians 2:22; Titus 1:14).

10. The use of grape juice in Communion exalts man’s reasoning above Christ’s, who instituted the use of wine in the Supper.  We must not be wiser than God.

See my additional discussion on this topic related to wine being biblically symbolic of Messianic, New Covenant blessings:  https://pastorjoev.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/another-side-of-the-wine-vs-grape-juice-discussion/

Conclusion:  All of the biblical evidence points to the use of alcoholic wine in the Communion cup, and the way the historic Christian church understood the Scriptures and practiced Communion points the same way.  Add it all up, and we can rightly ask what right any church had after 1800+ years of unanimous agreement and unbroken practice to change the beverage that Christians use in their worship.  The use of grape juice (a different beverage than wine) in Communion is a recent innovation, a corruption of the universal practice of the church for 1800+ years that is based on speculative exegesis, and capitulation to human reasoning and man-made commandments.  Lacking reasonable Scriptural support to warrant such a radical change in the ordinance our Lord Himself instituted, the use of grape juice in Communion should be rejected.

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What Is the “Perfect” Thing in 1 Corinthians 13:10?

graphe“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.

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