Contrary to common myth, not gonna happen for a while yet.
1 Corinthians 13.7-13
I grew up among Christians who loved to use this passage of 1 Corinthians to justify their belief God turned off the miracles. He didn’t, but miracles weirded them out and messed with their End Times theories, so they decided it’d be easiest if he just did. So when Paul and Sosthenes wrote the following, they had their own spin on it. (Here it is, in what they figured was the authoritative King James Version.)
1 Corinthians 13.8-10 KJV
- 8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
“That which is perfect,” they insisted, meant the bible. The New Testament wasn’t complete in Paul’s day; John wouldn’t write Revelation for a few more decades. So while the canon was still open, God had to grant his apostles prophecy and supernatural knowledge, ’cause they couldn’t write bible without it. But once the bible was done, God decided it was perfect, and the supernatural abilities vanished away. No more prophecy, no more supernatural knowledge, and definitely no more tongues.
Funny thing is… a lot of ’em did accept a limited degree of prophecy and supernatural knowledge. Every once in a while, somebody would get it in their head that “God” was leading or directing them to do something or other. And certainly End Times prophecies were getting fulfilled every day by world events, or so their favorite End Times “scholars” insisted. But tongues? Absolutely not. No tongues. No exceptions.
Well, that was their theory about what “that which is perfect” meant. Any other theories out there?
Sure. The predominant interpretation throughout Christendom—one even taught among cessationists!—is the apostles weren’t referring to the bible. They meant the End. ’Cause the single word translated “that which is perfect” is téleion/“finished” or “perfect.” (Or consistent, kinda like when Jesus taught us to treat everyone with grace and without discrimination.)
See, when Jesus is standing on the earth, able to speak to Christians face-to-face, are we gonna need supernatural forms of communication? Gonna need tongues and interpretation? Gonna need words of knowledge? Gonna need prophecy? Gonna need one Christian to confirm to another Christian they really did hear from God? Nah; no point. Just get Jesus on the phone.
But till Jesus returns and selects a wireless carrier, the usual way to hear from him is through tongues, supernatural knowledge, and prophecy. And bible; his supernatural messages aren’t gonna contradict his written word. (Well, unless it’s to get our attention.
Except he didn’t. And never will.
Love lasts forever. In comparison with the gifts.
Speaking of context: Remember the point of this passage?
Firstly, Paul and Sosthenes were instructing the Corinthians about the supernatural. What some of the Holy Spirit’s gifts are, why he distributes them throughout the church, and the love we oughta perform them in. And just in case you’ve got the wrong definition of love (as the Corinthians had), what love itself is.
Love, the apostles pointed out, lasts forever. Whereas miracles—even these very miracles they were teaching the Corinthians how to use—won’t last forever. They’re gonna have an endpoint. And seeing as the time of the first apostles was gonna have an endpoint within a generation, seems kinda ridiculous for the Holy Spirit to inspire or preserve these careful instructions on something so very temporary.
1 Corinthians 13.7-13 KWL
- 7 Love puts up with everything, puts trust in everything,
- puts hope in everything, survives everything. 8 Love never falls down.
- Even after prophecy and knowledge become irrelevant; even after tongues stop:
- 9 We know and prophesy partially— 10 and once the End comes, partial becomes irrelevant.
- 11 When I was a kid, I spoke like a kid, understood like a kid, reasoned like a kid—
- when I became a man, the kid stuff became irrelevant.
- 12 Now, we see through a tarnished mirror. Then, we see face to face.
- Now, I know partially. Then, I’ll see myself as everyone else sees me.
- 13 Now, these three exist: Faith, hope, and love. And love is the greatest of them.
Revelation is partial. God doesn’t give us comprehensive knowledge about every little thing. He’s pragmatic. He tells us what we need to know. He gives it to us gradually. Hence the comparison with the stuff a kid knows, versus the stuff an adult knows. Kids have to learn how to deal with knowledge—whether it’s basic stuff, or “adult stuff.” It’s why kids are just as capable of lighting a fire as an adult, but we still won’t let ’em play with matches.
Humanity is not ready for comprehensive knowledge. Me, I figure it’s ’cause of sin. We can corrupt anything. Just look at what we’ve already done with the book of Revelation—and that’s only representations of the End. Imagine if God had told us in literal detail. Some of us would actually try to do it, just to get Jesus to return faster. Others would try to stop it—are trying to stop it, even though they have no good idea about what they’d need to stop.
So currently we gotta settle for blurry mirrors. Lots of scholars have pointed out mirrors, in the first century, were metal. You know, like mirrors in a public bathroom. They’ll do the job, but they’re not great. And if they’re made of the good stuff, like silver, they’re gonna tarnish—which is what I believe the apostles meant by en ainígmati/“in a dark way.” It was a term Greek poets used for riddles and double meanings, and a tarnished mirror would obscure someone’s face much like a riddle would hide knowledge.
In comparison, at the End it’s gonna be like literally looking at yourself. No more partial information; now it’s comprehensive knowledge. Stuff we can’t be trusted with in this sinful world. Stuff which even mature Christians might struggle with. When the kingdom comes, the struggle’s over.
Any of this stuff sound like it describes our world, now that the first apostles have passed on, and have a complete bible? Not even close.
So yeah, it’s about the End. When there’ll be no need for partial revelation. When faith will still be necessary—we’ll still need to trust God on various things—but faith will come easily. When hope will still be necessary, ’cause God will always have things for us to look forward to, but again it’ll come easily. And where love will be the foundation of all of it.
Meanwhile, we need to practice for that day to come. Love must be the foundation of all the supernatural gifts we practice. Prophesy in love. Share knowledge in love. Speak in tongues in love—a subject the apostles will thoroughly get to in the next chapter. Heal in love. Do everything in love. Because love never falls down.