The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series
The “Perfect Thing” of 1 Corinthians 13:10
Fri, 12 Jul 2013 - 4:32 PM CST
By Mark A. Barclift
In the midst of Paul’s beautiful chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, comes a short passage which has been misunderstood time and time again. By some it has been used to say things totally foreign to Paul’s intention. Others, faced with the difficulty of the passage, have skipped its significance.
In the New International Version (1984), 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 reads: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they shall cease; where there are tonuges, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. Whe I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, evan as I am fully known.”
It is unfortunate that such an important passage as this should be so misunderstood by so many. Even the most cursory review of a number of commentators reveals varying interpretations and overall vagueness.
The greatest variety of interpretations centers on the “perfect things” of “perfection” in verse 10. Admittedly, the text does not make the meaning of this term obvious, but any conclusion must result from a thorough understanding of the context. Any decision must be in harmony with the rest of this passage.
Perhaps the greatest point of conflict on this passage is the cessation of the miraculous gifts. The division comes between those who claim the “perfect thing” refers to the completion of the New Testament canon and those who believe this refers to a future event, either heaven or the parousia, or some general consummation of time.
The Consummation of Time
The first view is that “perfection” refers to a final consummation of all things. Leon Morris sees this as pointing to the end of God’s plan, “When consummation is reached, all that is partial will be done away.”l The difficulty of this view is its vagueness. All it really says is that at some future time this completeness will occur. W.G.H. Simon refers to it as a time “when heaven and earth shall pass away, together with everything even of what is best in the temporal order.“2
A somewhat more specific interpretation of the “perfect thing” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is heaven. Some commentators see the “perfection” as the state of existence that will belong to the believer in heaven. Albert Barnes says this quite clearly: “The sense here is, that in heaven — a state of absolute perfection-that which is in part … shall be lost in superior brightness.”3
The interpretation that enjoys the most support is that the “perfect thing” refers to the parousia. Nicoll writes that this perfection “comes with the Lord from heaven.”4
Ralph Riggs puts this view into perspective in The Spirit Himself: “It is stated that the time will come when these gifts of the Spirit will cease to operate. When is this time? When will that which is perfect come? When shall we see face to face? When shall I know even as I also am known? It is apparent that all four of these questions have the same answer. The answer is when Jesus comes.”5
THE COMPLETION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The final understanding of the “perfect thing” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is one which stands in stark contrast to all the others. This view claims that the “perfect thing” is the New Testament canon. In other words, when the last book of the New Testament was completed, God withdrew the various miraculous gifts. Though very few commentators hold to this view, it is especially popular in anticharismatic writings.
In an essay on the “Use and Abuse of Tongues” Theodore Epp and John Paton take this stance to a limited degree. In a discussion on the cessation of the gift of prophecy they claim the doing away of that which is in part was “especially fulfilled when the Scriptures as we have them today were completed.”6
Richard De Haan takes this view as absolute. Allowing for no possibility of biblical “speaking in tongues” for today, he asserts: “The gift of tongues was never intended to be a permanent feature of the church. It is one of the temporary charismatic gifts which served a special function during the transitional period while the church gradually lost its Jewish character and the New Testament was in the process of being written.”7
It is clear that the various interpretations of the “perfect thing” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 fall into two distinct categories. First, there are those who see the coming of the “perfect thing” as something in the ultimate future — the return of Christ, heaven, or some idea of a final consummation of things. The other category sees this “perfect thing” as already having come toward the end of the first century, specifically at the completion of the New Testament.
AN EXEGETICAL ANALYSIS OF 1 CORINTHIANS 13:8–12
Any understanding of “perfection” in verse 10 must be based on the context of this verse. Paul did not just make an isolated statement divorced from the rest of his letter to the Corinthian church. Rather, this verse fits in with his general discussion concerning the use of miraculous gifts of the Spirit in the Church.
Cessation of the Gifts
The NIV translates 1 Corinthians 13:8, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” This translation, as the King James Version, uses three separate expressions to signify the cessations of these three gifts. Actually, there are only two separate words used in the Greek New Testament in addition to the words used in connection with “love.”
The word “fails” used in reference to “love” has the idea of descending to a lower position than previously held. Literally, it means “to fall.” The use of this word signifies that love will never lose its place of preeminence. It will never fall from its exalted position.
The words following both prophecy and knowledge are actually a form of the same Greek word meaning to render something inactive. This points to a time when these gifts will no longer be needed. They will be put to an end because there will be no need for them.
The Greek word used in relation to tongues has the simple meaning, “to make cease or desist.”8 Tongues will be made to stop when this time comes about which Paul is writing.
Meaning of “Perfection”
The word translated “perfection” by the NIV has the idea of something that has been “brought to its end, finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness perfect.”9 It is used to describe something complete and lacking in nothing. Paul often applied this word to a “mature” man in Christ.
Unfortunately, the word itself cannot be taken specifically enough to determine what it is referring to. Obviously it is used in contrast with the incompleteness of the gifts, but to understand the reference in this passage, it is necessary first to understand the meaning of the “face-to-face” experience.
The Face-to-Face Experience
The proper understanding of this entire passage rests on a correct interpretation of verse 12. The idea of looking in a mirror would have been common to the Corinthians because Corinth was well-known for its manufacture of mirrors. These mirrors were highly polished metal but they produced an unclear reflection.
The word translated “darkly” literally means “a riddle.” This is the word from which we derive the English enigma. Paul is saying that, before the coming of “perfection,” our view of eternal things is indistinct. What we see and know of God is in a mystery or a riddle.
The concept of a “face-to-face” encounter is not unique to Paul in the Bible. In Numbers 12:8 (NIV, 1984), God speaks of Moses, “With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles.” It is very possible that Paul had this passage in mind when he wrote verse 12.
First John also contains a passage that may help in the understanding of this verse. Chapter 3, verse 2 (NIV, 1984) reads, “Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” This passage apparently refers to a face-to-face experience with Christ at His appearing. Undoubtedly, this is the same event as is described in 1 Corinthians 13:12.
It should be clear that the coming of the “perfection” could not possibly refer to the completion of the New Testament. This view has no biblical support and is not even considered by the best scholars.
Paul has written here (1 Corinthians 13:8–12) a passage difficult to understand, yet packed with significance. He writes of the supremacy of love, the ultimate cessation of the miraculous gifts, the second coming of our Lord, and our ultimate, condition in Christ.
This passage comes in the midst of his discussion of the use of these gifts. He assures the Corinthians that without love these gifts amount to nothing. Love will continue forever, it will never fall from its supreme position. On the other hand, the gifts will fall away when they are no longer needed. When Christ returns we will see all things clearly, and we shall know fully as we are known.
Mark A. Barclift, Nixa, Missouri
This article first appeared in spring 1984 Paraclete, vol 18, no. 2, pages 29-32.
1. Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 187.
2. W.G.H. Simon, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: SCM Press, 1959), 129.
3. Albert Barnes, Barnes Notes XXI (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), 254.
4. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositors’ Greek Testament, II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 900.
5. Ralph M. Riggs, The Spirit Himself (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1949), 99.
6. Don W. Hillis, ed., Is the Whole Body a Tongue? (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), 26.
7. Hillis, 76.
8. Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), 496.
9. Thayer, 618.