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.
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
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
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.
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.