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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: What Did Paul Mean by the Statement, "When the Perfect Has Come the Imperfect Will Be Done Away?"

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What Did Paul Mean by the Statement, “When the Perfect Has Come the Imperfect Will Be Done Away?” (1 Corinthians 13:10)

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 5

One of the most crucial passages with respect to the subject of spiritual gifts is found in First Corinthians 13 where Paul wrote the following.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NRSV).

In this passage he has made a number of statements. It is important that try to find out what they mean since this has been a key text in the discussion over spiritual gifts.

How Is This Passage Used in the Cessationist Non-Cessationist Debate?

This passage has been crucial in the debate between cessationists and non-cessationists over the issue of the duration of certain spiritual gifts. Both sides view these verses as proving their case for either the cessation, or the continuance of the gifts of the Spirit.

There have been a number of ways in which this passage has been understood by Bible-believers. They are as follows.

Paul Is Saying That Certain Gifts Are Only Temporary

Some cessationists have understood this passage to refer to the predicted time of the passing away of certain spiritual gifts. Paul wants his readers to know that there will come a time when the sign gifts are no longer necessary. This is when the “perfect” comes. It is understood that the perfect refers to the completed canon of Scripture or the cessation of divine revelation. Either way, these special gifts will only operate until God has completed His revelation. Once completed these temporary sign gifts would no longer be necessary.

Paul Is Saying That All Spiritual Gifts Will Last until Christ Returns

Non-cessationists also see this passage as referring to the time when spiritual gifts will pass away. Since the perfect seems to be an obvious reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and His kingdom the imperfect gifts will be necessary until this time. Thus, the gifts under discussion, prophecy, the word of knowledge, and speaking in tongues, are not to be used exclusively for confirming divine revelation before the Scripture was completed. They have other uses for the church during this present age. Consequently this passage is a clear indication that all the gifts will continue until the perfect, Christ’s kingdom, appears.

The Passage Says Nothing Either Way about the Time Spiritual Gifts Will Cease

There is another perspective that says Paul’s purpose was not to discuss the duration of spiritual gifts. In other words, the time that certain spiritual gifts would be withdrawn was not in his mind. Contrary to the assumptions of many cessationists and non-cessationists, when Paul said we know in part and we prophesy in part he was not comparing ways of acquiring knowledge through spiritual gifts, such as the gift of prophecy and the gift of the word of knowledge. Rather Paul is comparing the states of knowledge that believers now have, imperfect, with the knowledge that all will someday have and perfect, or complete knowledge.

His point is that presently all believers have limited knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, someday our knowledge will be complete though it will not be exhaustive. The subject of the duration of the gifts is not in his mind. Therefore, it is wrong for each side, cessationist or non-cessationist, to use this passage to determine when spiritual gifts are meant to cease. The answer to that question must be determined elsewhere.

There Are Three Important Issues Involved in This Discussion

With these different viewpoints about what Paul is saying in this passage we can simplify the issues to three basic questions that need to be answered. They are as follows.

  1. What are the meanings of the terms imperfect and perfect as Paul is using them here?
  2. What is the nature of the spiritual gifts that are under discussion – are they temporary or permanent?
  3. Is Paul attempting to specify how long certain spiritual gifts will last in this passage or is he saying something else?

Issue 1: The Various Views as to the Meaning of the Perfect and Imperfect

There have been a number of views concerning the meaning of the term “perfect.” They include: the completed canon of Scripture, the completion of divine revelation, the maturity of the body of Christ, and the return of Christ. We will examine each of these options.

Option 1: The Perfect Refers to the Completed Canon of Scripture: Some Gifts Will Then Cease

One view sees the perfect as referring to the completed canon of Scripture. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian (around A.D. 56) there were a number of New Testament books that remained to be written. These include 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, Jude, 1 and 2 Peter and the Book of Revelation. It is also possible that none of the four gospels had been completed at this time. Therefore, New Testament Scripture was just beginning to be written.

Consequently, believers in Jesus Christ had only “part” of the New Testament revelation that God was to give them. When the last book of the New Testament was written, then God’s revelation to humanity was complete. Thus, nothing more needed to be added. Since God has now told humanity everything necessary pertaining to salvation and godly living there is no longer any need for a further word from God. The revelation was then “perfect” or complete.

In addition, we find that the perfect is compared to the imperfect or incomplete. At that particular time, the early church had incomplete or imperfect knowledge of Jesus Christ. It was not until the New Testament was completed did they receive the complete picture of Him. Therefore, the perfect refers to the completed written canon of Holy Scripture; the Old and the New Testament.

While the New Testament was in the process of being written God provided a number of temporary gifts for believers to employ. These sign gifts helped them understand certain New Testament truths. These temporary gifts included the three that Paul mentioned – prophecy, the word of knowledge, and speaking in tongues. Each of these gifts was given for the specific purpose of confirming the New Testament revelation.

This view assumes that these gifts mentioned were for the specific purpose of God giving divine revelation to His people before the New Testament was completed.

The Perfect Cannot Refer to Christ

It is argued that the “perfect” in this context cannot refer to Jesus Christ because the words to telion in the Greek are in the neuter gender. If Paul were referring to a person, he would have not stated it in this way. Therefore, the subject must be something other than Christ.

These reasons have lead many to assume that Paul was referring to the completed canon of Scripture when he said the imperfect would pass away and then the perfect would come. It makes sense of the context and it explains why the Lord gave certain miraculous spiritual gifts for a limited time.

Response to Canon View

There are a number of objections that have been raised against the canon view. They include the following.

How Do We Know What Was in Paul’s Mind?

Those who assert the canon view believe that this is what Paul had in mind when speaking of the “perfect.” However, how is anyone able to know what was in Paul’s mind? Unless he specifically tells us what he was referring to we simply cannot know. It is impossible to know what he was thinking.

Nothing in the Context Indicates He Speaking of Completed Scripture

Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing in the context that would indicate that this is what he was referring to. The Greek words, to telion mean “the end, purpose, or completed.” There is nothing inherent in the meaning of this word that speaks of a concept of written Scripture. This interpretation of the “perfect” meaning the “canon” must be read into the passage.

Paul, Who Received Direct Revelation, Only Had Partial Knowledge

The Apostle Paul received direct revelation from Jesus. He described his doctrine in the following manner.

For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12 HCSB).

While Paul received direct revelation from the Lord he could speak as only having “partial knowledge.” All will admit that the Bible does not tell us everything we would like to know about God. Therefore, even with the completed Scripture our knowledge is still only partial. Therefore would he speak of Scripture as being “perfection” or “completion?” Even with the revelation that God has given us in Scripture our knowledge about Him is anything but complete.

It Assumes These Three Gifts Were Only for Purpose of Giving Revelation

The canon view assumes that the gifts mentioned were given specifically as means to reveal God’s Word to His people before Scripture was completed. This assumption, however, does not seem to be supported by the facts. While these gifts may have been used to reveal God’s truth to His people they certainly had other uses.

For example, the gift of prophecy was used for other purposes. Paul wrote about this to the Corinthians. He said.

On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3 ESV).

In this instance, the gift of prophecy is for upbuilding, encouraging and consoling the believers in Jesus Christ.

The gift of tongues was also used for private prayer. Paul wrote the following to the church at Corinth.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive (1 Corinthians 14:14 NRSV).

There does not seem to be any “sign” value in this use of the gift.

Thus, these gifts may have been randomly selected by Paul to illustrate the superiority of love over all of the gifts. In other words, he merely used these three gifts as representative of all spiritual gifts rather than trying to tell us when they would cease to operate.

This View Is of Recent Origin

The view that the perfect refers to the completed canon of Scripture is of relatively recent origin in the history of the church. While this is not determinative as to whether it is true or false, it is something that should be noted. If the “perfect” was a reference to the canon of Scripture then we should expect a number of commentators in the history of the church to have held this view. However, this is not what we find.

This View Is a Reaction to Abuse of the Gifts

Some feel the canon view was a reaction to the abuse of certain spiritual gifts. Instead of insisting that those who exercised the gifts should simply obey the rules that are given in Scripture, it was stated that these sign-gifts ceased at the end of the first century. Declaring the gifts were no longer operating solved the problem of abuse. This, therefore, is an example of coming up with a new doctrine to deal with a contemporary problem. This is not how doctrine should be developed.

These reasons have lead many to reject the canon view as the proper understanding of the “perfect.” It does not seem to fit the evidence.

Option 2: The Perfect Refers to the End of Divine Revelation: Some Gifts Will Then Cease

There is a similar view to the canon view. The “perfect” that the Apostle Paul had in mind was not the completed canon of Scripture but rather the end of divine revelation. Once God completed the revelation process to humanity these particular gifts, prophecy, knowledge, and tongues, were no longer necessary. Their purpose for these gifts had been completed.

The same basic objections would apply to this view as to the “canon view.” Basically, it assumes that the three gifts mentioned were all for the purpose of giving divine revelation before a written Word from the Lord existed. However, that seems to limit the ways in which these gifts were used in the New Testament.

Option 3: The Perfect Refers to the Maturing of the Body of Christ: Some Gifts May Cease Then

There is also the perspective that the perfect refers to the maturing of the body of Jesus Christ, the church. It is argued that this maturing of the church occurred after the apostolic age but sometime before the Second Coming of Christ. The support for this view is that Paul used the same Greek word elsewhere for Christian maturity.

In addition, the illustration he used of comparing childhood to maturity illustrates the point. The church in its infancy was like a child. When the church grew out of its infancy it no longer needed some of the original gifts; it had reached a stage of maturity.

Problems with the Maturing of the Body of Christ View

While this view has its supporters, it too has some problems. When did the body of Christ become mature? Can anyone say that the church today is in a mature state? If this is the correct understanding of what Paul had in mind, then it seems to argue that all of the spiritual gifts must still be around today for the church is certainly not mature!

Option 4: The Perfect Refers to the Return of Christ: No Gift Will Cease until Then

Another popular view sees the perfect as referring to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The evidence for this view can be summed up as follows.

The Return of Christ Fits the Context

There are a number of reasons why this view makes sense. For one thing, it fits the context of what the Apostle Paul had been writing about. Paul speaks about the return of Christ in this context. He wrote.

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

Paul spoke about seeing Jesus face to face. We will only see Him face to face when He comes again.

John wrote about this wonderful promise. He put it this way.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2 NKJV).

It is only at that time that the limited spiritual gifts will pass away. Until then, everything that God has given to believers is necessary for the church to use.

This is consistent with what Paul had earlier written about the gifts to the Corinthians. At the very beginning of his letter he wrote.

He has enriched your church with the gifts of eloquence and every kind of knowledge. This shows that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:5-7 NLT).

Paul said that the spiritual gifts are necessary while the people wait for the return of Christ. This is another indication that they will continue until He comes back.

Problems with the Return of Christ View

While this is a popular view, objections have been brought forward against it. Some feel that the analogy that Paul gave with seeing through a mirror dimly does not fit with referring to the return of Christ.

Option 5: The Perfect Refers to the Return of Christ: Some Gifts May Cease before Then

There are some who hold that Paul was referring to the return of Jesus Christ when he spoke of the “perfect” yet they think that this does not necessarily mean that all of the gifts will continue until that time. Some argue that this passage says nothing about the time these gifts will cease.

Problems with This View

While this view is possible, there is nothing in the context that would suggest that some of the gifts would cease before the perfect comes. Indeed, it clearly says they will cease when the perfect comes.

How These Views Relate to the Issue of Sign Gifts

Those who hold the views that the perfect refers to the completed canon of Scripture, or the completion of divine revelation, believe that certain gifts, known as the sign gifts, have now ceased.

The view that the perfect refers to the maturing of the body of Christ can hold either position with respect to the so-called sign gifts. In other words, these gifts may or may not have ceased with the maturing of the body of Christ.

Most who hold the view that the perfect refers to the coming of Christ believe the gifts will remain until His return. However there are some who hold this view who contend that this passage does not necessarily say that all the gifts must continue until Christ comes. They contend that some of the gifts may cease before Christ returns.

Others argue that there is nothing in this discussion that directly answers the question as to the permanence or non-permanence of certain spiritual gifts.

Issue 2: What Is the Nature of the Gifts of Prophecy, Knowledge, and Tongues?

In determining what Paul meant by the “perfect” we must also understand what Paul meant these three spiritual gifts he used in this passage – prophecy, knowledge, and tongues. Was he referring to speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge as the supernatural means that God was using to reveal His Word to humanity? Was he limiting their use to only this purpose?

If this is what he had in mind with these gifts, then they have ceased because the New Testament is complete. There is no need for any further revelation from God.

However if he was not thinking of these gifts solely as the means of God completing His revelation to humanity then these gifts have not necessarily ceased. It is possible that they would continue throughout the entire church age.

Issue 3: Is Paul Trying to Tell Us When Spiritual Gifts Will Cease in This Passage?

The final issue we will look at is, in one sense, the most important. Almost all of the arguments surrounding what Paul meant in this passage assume that he is attempting to pinpoint the time when certain spiritual gifts will cease. However, we should ask ourselves, “Is this assumption valid?” It is possible that his discussion has nothing to do with the time that spiritual gifts may, or may not, cease.

When Paul says the perfect will come, he seems to be referring to the time when Christ returns. However, this may be irrelevant to the issue of the duration of spiritual gifts. This is because his emphasis seems to be on our present imperfect knowledge, which he compares with our future knowledge, which will be perfect or complete.

All believers agree that when Christ comes our knowledge will be more complete, or greater, than our present incomplete knowledge. If this is what Paul is stressing, then the time that spiritual gifts will cease is not an issue.

When he said that prophecy, knowledge, and tongues will cease, it was merely illustrating the fact that they will be unnecessary when Christ comes. This is because our knowledge will be more complete.

Therefore, his subject is the state of knowledge we now have with the state of knowledge we will have. He is saying nothing about how that knowledge is acquired or when the methods of acquiring this knowledge will end. Paul is emphasizing that our incomplete state of knowledge will end – not that spiritual gifts will end.

If this is what Paul had in mind, then this passage has nothing about how long spiritual gifts will be used. It is only comparing the imperfect, our present knowledge, with the perfect, our future knowledge when Christ returns.

Simply stated, if Paul is writing in this passage about our present content of knowledge, which is limited, as opposed to what we will have in the future, a more complete knowledge, then he is not addressing the subject of the time when spiritual gifts will stop operating.

Objections to This View

There are those who would argue that Paul is speaking about the act of prophesying, the act of receiving and giving knowledge and the act of speaking in tongues, not the content of such acts. The verbs used in verse 8 assume that something takes place that makes these things cease. It is the act that ceases, not the content that ceases. The content of a message can be either complete, or incomplete, but it cannot stop operating.

Therefore Paul is speaking about the various acts of prophesying, giving and receiving knowledge and speaking in tongues, spiritual gifts, when he refers to the imperfect. Consequently this passage does have in mind the subject of when spiritual gifts will cease.

It is interesting to note that both cessationists and non-cessationists argue this way. In other words, each of them says this passage answers the question as to whether or not these spiritual gifts will stop operating. However, they come to the exact opposite conclusion as to what Paul meant!

All of These Views Are Held by Good Bible-believing Christians

Our last point is to emphasize that there are good Bible-believing Christians that hold each of these viewpoints. The issues are complex. Consequently, any position we hold on this issue should be held with humility and grace.

Thus, we must realize that there will be always be many good people who differ from our point of view; no matter what it might be. This should be understood and appreciated.

Summary – Question 5
What Did Paul Mean by the Statement, “When the Perfect Has Come the Imperfect Will Be Done Away?” (1 Corinthians 13:10)

In First Corinthians 13:10 Paul mentions three spiritual gifts; prophecy, knowledge, and speaking in tongues. He stated there will come a time when these gifts will no longer exist. Paul said that when the perfect comes then these partial things will be done away with.

This passage has been viewed to have important implications regarding the subject of spiritual gifts. Indeed, those who believe the gift of tongues still operates, as well as those who believe that it has ceased, appeal to this verse for support. The issues can be simply stated as follows.

First, it is the meaning of the word perfect. To what does it refer?

Some feel it is a reference to the completed canon of Scripture. When the written Scripture is complete then these temporary gifts were withdrawn. In response to this, there is nothing in the context to indicate that Paul had the canon in mind when he spoke of the “perfect.” Others believe Paul was speaking of divine revelation when he wrote of “the perfect. Once God had revealed His last words to humanity that would become Holy Scripture, then there was no more need for certain gifts. This includes the gift of speaking in tongues.

This view has the same problems as the previous one. Nothing in the context seems to refer to divine revelation.

There is the position that Paul was speaking of the maturing of the body of Christ, the church. When the church reached maturity, the Lord would then withdraw certain gifts of the Spirit. Again, there is nothing in the context that indicates this is what He was writing about. Furthermore, when did the New Testament church ever reach maturity? One of the most popular views sees it referring to the coming of Christ. Jesus will bring to completion or perfection everything which He has started to do. Interestingly, there are those on both side of the speaking in tongues issue who believe that this is what Paul had in mind.

One side says all the gifts are necessary until Jesus Christ returns to the earth. They believe this is Paul’s point. These gifts are only to be used until that time because there will be no need for them when Jesus comes back. However, they will not be withdrawn before that time.

In response, the other side says that even if the coming of Christ is in view this does not necessarily mean that every spiritual gift will continue until that time.

There is also the perspective that Paul was not referring to the time when spiritual gifts would cease. What he was doing was using certain spiritual gifts to illustrate the incomplete knowledge we now have. In other words, these gifts were merely for illustration purposes; he was not attempting to teach us when they would cease to exist.

This is a complicated issue with Bible-believing Christians holding each of these views. Thus, since good Christians differ, it is not a test of the spirituality of a person as to how they interpret what Paul means here.

Whatever position one takes on this matter should be held with grace and humility. Indeed, there is still much that each of us can learn about this question.

What Are the Arguments That the Gift of Tongues Has Not Ceased but Is Still to Be Used in the Church Today? ← Prior Section
Is There a Difference between the Gift of Tongues and the Sign of Tongues? Next Section →
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The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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