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Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a. I have explored the setting and structure of this section in an earlier note. Here is the outline again:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value

      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

  • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai] —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
  • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.

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