A Look at 1 Corinthians 13 and Love as a Way of Life (4)1
In vv. 1-3 Paul drew a contrast between love and certain spiritual gifts. He now returns to that emphasis in vv. 8-13. Here is what he says:
“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 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. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
His point is really very simple: whereas all spiritual gifts are for this life only and will at some point in the future terminate, love is permanent, love is eternal, love never ends. That is why love is superior to gifts and why gifts exercised without love are worthless!
Unfortunately, when people read vv. 8-13 they get caught up in debates about what these verses tell us concerning when spiritual gifts will cease. They lose sight of the fact that Paul raises that point only to emphasize that love never will! It will never cease! Everything else may fall by the wayside, all else may pass with time, but not love.
Let me try to simplify what has all too often become a complex and confusing debate about these verses. I want to address two points.
First, people who embrace cessationism point out that Paul says in vv. 8 and 10 that prophecy and knowledge will “pass away” or “be done away with” when the “perfect” comes, while tongues, on the other hand, simply “cease.” They take this to mean that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues simply dies out of its own accord. There is something intrinsic to the character of tongues speech that alone accounts for why it will cease. No one has to take any action against tongues to cause them to cease. They just stop.
I have no desire to get technical with you, and I suspect you are happy about that. Suffice it to say that most NT scholars are in agreement that nothing theologically significant can be found in the differences in voice and mood of the various Greek verbs used here. No theological conclusions can be drawn about the duration or cessation of any of these gifts based on the verbs that are used.
Second, what is of greatest importance is that Paul clearly declares that it is when the “perfect” comes that spiritual gifts such as prophecy and word of knowledge will pass away. I would also include tongues in this; in fact, I would include all spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are wonderful and we need them. But even when they operate at the highest and most effective level, they can only bring us knowledge that is partial. As Paul says, “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (v. 9). Spiritual gifts, for all their value and power, cannot bring us into the experience of knowing God as God knows us. For that we must await the arrival of the “perfect” (v. 10).
So what is the “perfect”? Cessationists typically embrace one of two interpretations, both of which are clearly wrong.
(1) Some argue that the "perfect" refers to the completed canon of Scripture. Tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, among other miraculous gifts, ceased when the book of Revelation was written. Few serious NT scholars hold this view today. Its weaknesses are obvious.
First, there is no evidence that even Paul anticipated the formation of a "canon" of Scripture following the death of the apostles. In fact, Paul seems to have expected that he himself might survive until the coming of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 15:51).
Second, there is no reason to think that Paul could have expected the Corinthians to figure out that he meant the "canon" when he used the term to teleion.
Third, "in any case, the completed canon of Scripture would hardly signify for the Corinthians the passing away of merely 'partial' knowledge (and prophecy and tongues with it), and the arrival of 'full knowledge', for the Corinthians already had the Old Testament, the gospel tradition (presumably), and (almost certainly) more Pauline teaching than finally got into the canon" (Max Turner, Spiritual Gifts Then and Now, 294).
Fourth, in v. 12b Paul says that with the coming of the "perfect" our "partial knowledge" will give way to a depth of knowledge that is only matched by the way we are known by God. That is to say, when the perfect comes we will then see "face to face" and will know even as we are now known by God. Few people any longer dispute that this is language descriptive of our experience in the eternal state, subsequent to the return of Christ. As Turner says, "however much we respect the New Testament canon, Paul can only be accused of the wildest exaggeration in verse 12 if that is what he was talking about" (295).
Fifth, this view rests on the assumption that prophecy was a form of divine revelation designed to serve the church in the interim, until such time as the canon was formed. But a careful examination of the NT reveals that prophecy had a much broader purpose that would not in the least be affected by the completion of the canon.
(2) Others argue that the “perfect” refers to the maturity of the church. When the church has advanced beyond its infancy and is fully established, the need for spiritual gifts like prophecy and tongues will have ended. But in vv. 11-12 Paul isn’t talking about relative degrees of maturity, but of absolute perfection.
Thus, it seems clear to me that by “perfect” Paul is referring to that state of affairs brought about by the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of human history. The “perfect” is not itself the coming of Christ but rather that experience or condition of perfection that we will enjoy in the new heavens and new earth.
Paul’s point is really rather simple: spiritual gifts like prophecy, word of knowledge, and tongues, and all the others as well in my opinion, will pass away at some time future to Paul’s writing, referred to by him as “perfection.” This state of “perfection” again clearly points to the eternal state following Christ’s return. We know this from two things that he says in v. 12.
First, in v. 12b Paul says, “Now I know in part; then [when? when the “perfect” comes] I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Paul doesn’t mean we will be omniscient in the eternal state, as if to say we will know absolutely everything in exhaustive detail. It does mean that we will be free from the misconceptions and distortions associated with this life in a fallen world. Our knowledge in the age to come will in some ways be comparable to the way God knows us now. God’s knowledge of us is immediate and complete. Our knowledge of God will be the same when we enter his presence in the new heavens and new earth.
Second, in v. 12a Paul says, “For now [during the present church age, before the arrival of the “perfect”] we see in mirror dimly, but then [when the “perfect” comes; we will see] face to face.” The words “face to face” is standard biblical language for the appearance of a human in the immediate presence of God, beholding him in an unmediated way. Paul has in mind direct personal communication, such that awaits us in the age to come.
To try to make the “perfect” refer to a time in the present age, before the coming of Christ and the eternal state when all sin will be abolished, is to trivialize and minimize the language of v. 12.
To use the language of v. 11, living now in the present church age is like being a child; we are limited and our knowledge is imperfect. But when the “perfect” comes we will have advanced into adulthood; sin will be abolished, evil and corruption and the limitations of this life will have passed away; we will see God “face to face” and we will then know even as we have been fully known. Then, and not until then, will spiritual gifts cease to operate.
Let me conclude by returning to our definition of love.
Love is a deep affection for, a delight in, and a commitment to act for the welfare of another without regard for their loveliness that often comes at great sacrifice to oneself. Or again, love is the overflow of our delight in God that joyfully cherishes and seeks the best interests of another regardless of the cost to oneself.
Think about God’s love for us. God didn’t send Jesus to die for us because we were lovely. Paul says in Romans 5 we were sinners, ungodly, and at enmity with God. Yet he had a deep affection for, delight in, and was committed to our welfare that came at immeasurable cost to himself, namely, the death of his only-begotten Son.
How does this relate to 1 Corinthians 13 and the broader context of chapters 12 and 14 on spiritual gifts? Simply this: No spiritual gift is an infallible proof of the Spirit’s presence. All spiritual gifts can be counterfeited by Satan and duplicated by pagans. But not this kind of love! This kind or quality of love is the distinguishing mark or characteristic of the Christian. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “that you prophesy and speak in tongues and heal the sick and teach with power and conviction.” No!
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).