Comments on 1 Cor. 13:8-13 in View of the Context

First, notice that this is in the middle of a long section (12:1-14:40) wherein Paul discusses spiritual gifts. At the beginning of this section, Paul writes, "now concerning spiritual gifts..." (12:1). In actuality, the Greek text does not include the word for "gifts" in verse 1, but rather has just a plural form of the adjective "spiritual," perhaps meaning "spiritual ones," or "spiritual things," or anticipating "spiritual gifts" in particular. However, in verse 4, Paul specifically mentions "diversities of gifts" and then recites a litany of them. Among them we see three that we need to remember, "word of knowledge" (12:8), "prophecy" (12:10), and "kinds of tongues" (12:10). We need to remember these because Paul will mention them again in chapter 13.

Before we go any further, let's get in mind the flow of these three chapters. In chapter 12, Paul emphasizes the fact that each of the gifts has its place. Each member of the body of Christ, whatever particular gift he may have, is important. In chapter 13, Paul argues that there is something more important than any of the gifts, namely, love. In chapter 14 Paul discusses the use of the gifts in the assembly, emphasizing the need for understanding so that the assembly might be edified, and showing that the use of the gift of tongues does not accomplish that end unless what has been spoken in a tongue is translated.

chapter 12    each of the gifts has its place
chapter 13    love is more important than any of the gifts
chapter 14    in the assembly, the gifts should be used so
as to edify through understanding

Now let's look carefully at the development of these thoughts and how the section in chapter 13 fits in to them.

In chapter 12, after mentioning many gifts, Paul emphasizes the importance of each one, and uses the human body to illustrate his point. "For as the body is one and hath many members and all the members of the body being many are one body, so also is Christ" (12:12). He emphasizes the unity of the body - we were "all baptized into one body" - and the unity of the Spirit - we "were all made to drink of one Spirit" (12:13). But the physical body has need of all its physical parts, or members. Whether it be the ear, the eye, the nose, the hand, or the feet, each part has a function and is important even though the functions are different (12:14-21). Paul makes his point: "Ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof" (12:27). The implication is obvious - you have various gifts - one has this one, one has that one - but all are important and none should be treated as unimportant. Paul goes on to drive home his point that the saints should not all clamor for the same gift: "Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? have all gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?" (12:29) The answer to each of these questions is "no."

But it appears that some at Corinth had developed a fascination with one gift in particular, and it appears that it is this fascination that calls for an emphasis on the value of each of the gifts, and moreover, some emphasis on the fact that there is something more important than any of the gifts. "Kinds of tongues" is the last of the things mentioned in 12:28 as Paul affirms that God has established various gifts in the church. "Kinds of tongues" and "interpretations of tongues" are the last things mentioned as Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions. One will often ask a rhetorical question, the kind to which the answer is known by the audience, in order to lead the audience to an understanding of the question at issue. Here, Paul asks several questions to which the answer is obvious: "Are all apostles? are all prophets?..." (12:29). But he concludes with the questions at issue: "Do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?" (12:30).  Again, as he argues that love is greater, tongues (along with prophecy, knowing all mysteries, and "faith so as to remove mountains") is prominent. And finally, as he talks practically about the use of spiritual gifts in the assembly, it is tongue speaking that he especially has to warn against. It is tongue speaking that he shows to be of much less value than prophesying in the in the particular context of the assembly.

So then we come to chapter 13. We do well to see the last phrase of chapter 12 as an introduction to chapter 13: "And moreover a most excellent way show I unto you." The spiritual gifts are all important, but there is something most excellent that Paul is about to discuss, and that of course is love. Even if one had one of the gifts in the ultimate imaginable degree - not merely tongues, but tongues of angels; not merely knowledge, but knowing all mysteries; and "faith so as to move mountains" - it would all be pointless without love (13:1-2).

As Paul develops the importance of love, he argues that love will outlast the gifts. In particular, whereas "love never fails," prophecies, tongues and knowledge will come to an end. These three, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge, are among the spiritual gifts listed in 12:4-10. They are inferior to love because, for one thing, they will cease whereas love will not.

They are "in part" (13:9). What does that mean? Consider the nature of the revelation that came by means of these gifts. One prophet might be speaking, but as he speaks, it might be that "a revelation be made to another sitting by" (14:30). What does the first one do? He is to keep silence and let the one who has just received a revelation speak. Did either of these prophets have access to all of God's will for man? Apparently not. Why did the one who just received a revelation suddenly gain the right to the floor? Wasn't the first prophet's revelation also from God? Presumably, the revelation just being made was timely. Thus we get a glimpse of the partial nature of the gift of prophecy. A prophet did not have an open line to the mind of God. Rather he received discrete, and partial, revelations of God's will, presumably on an as needed basis. This would also have been true of the one who had the gift of knowledge, and also of the one who had the gift of tongues, whose utterances would constitute revelation from God when translated so as to be understandable.

When would these gifts cease? "When that which is perfect is come" (13:10). What does that mean? Notice the contrast: "We know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away." There is a contrast between "in part" and "perfect." These are opposites.   It is a shame that English has evolved as it has with very little comprehension of the fact that it has evolved. We use words very differently than they were used even 100 years ago, often even very differently from the manner in which they are defined in our dictionaries, and we do so with no awareness of the fact. So it is with the word "perfect." We have something in mind when we use that word today and are utterly unaware that what we have in mind is not the fundamental meaning of the word even now listed in many of the dictionaries in our homes. In my dictionary, the very first meaning for the word "perfect" is "complete in all respects." That is the meaning of the word so often translated "perfect" in many of our Bibles. And clearly, that is the meaning of the word here in 1 Corinthians 13:10, where "that which is perfect" is contrasted with "that which is in part." That which is partial is not complete. When the complete, or perfect, is come, "the partial will be done away" (13:10).   Well in what respect were "knowledge," prophecy," and "tongues" incomplete? They were incomplete inasmuch as a man having one of these gifts was receiving only partial revelations of God's will. Then what is that which is complete, or perfect, other than the complete revelation of God's will? When would knowledge, prophecy, and tongues cease? When God's will would be completely revealed.

Paul goes on to illustrate his point, first in terms of a child who does things in a childish way until he is grown (13:11). The body of Christ was in its beginning stage of development during the first century. There were things that were necessary in that beginning stage that would not be necessary later on. They didn't have the complete revelation of God's will for man written down and fully accessible. It was still being written. And yet apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers needed to know what to teach. Some of the spiritual gifts provided for this need.

Note also that there was another need. Once they knew what to teach, they needed some means of convincing their audiences that what they were teaching was indeed from God. Others of the spiritual gifts provided for this need.   So, for example, when Philip went to Samaria "preaching the good tidings concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12), the people "gave heed with one accord unto the things that were spoken by Philip when they heard and saw the signs which he did" (Acts 8:6). In this early stage of the church's development, the spiritual gifts provided what the completed revelation, embodied in the scriptures, would later provide. They provided both the knowledge of God's will, though only in parts at a time, and also confirmation that the word being spoken was indeed God's will (cf. Hebrews 2:4).

Then Paul illustrates the advantage of having the complete revelation. It is as great an advantage in understanding God's will as seeing a person face to face is an advantage in knowing his appearance.  The knowledge gained through the partial revelations is likened to seeing someone in the poor reflection of a metal mirror such as was commonly used in Paul's day (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Finally, having mentioned a triad that would cease, knowledge, prophecy, and tongues, Paul now mentions a triad that will persist, or "abide," namely, "faith, hope, and love." And again he mentions the primacy of love.   But note well that whenever knowledge, prophecy, and tongues would cease, "faith, hope and love" would abide, remain, persist. Some have supposed that tongue speaking will not cease until Christ's return. But if that were so, Paul's words would indicate that "hope" will abide, remain, persist, even when Christ returns. But Paul elsewhere said, "hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth?" (Romans 8:24). When Christ returns, hope will have been replaced by realization. Hope will be no more. Paul is not speaking of Christ's return in 1 Corinthians 13. He is speaking of the cessation of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues while hope yet remains.

Jeff Smelser