The Ancient Faith
PAUL’S PROPHECY OF THE END OF THE AGE OF MIRACLES
Spellbound by the beauty and depth of meaning discovered in Paul’s treatise on love, we tend to forget the context of this incomparable passage. In chapter 12, Paul introduces the subject of spiritual gifts: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant” (1 Cor. 12:1). He proceeds to outline the various gifts which he says have all been distributed by “the same spirit” (12:4-11). Then he inveighs against the notion that a Christian’s spiritual value is indicated by the spiritual gift or gifts he possesses. He teaches unequivocally that while gifts vary and consequently the functions of believers vary, the fact is that all believers are individual members of one, and only one, body (12:12-30). Finally, chapter 12 closes with the pregnant statement, “but covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way” (12:31).
It is equally important to correct interpretation that the reader remain cognizant that this discussion of spiritual gifts continues uninterruptedly through chapter 14. In chapter 14, the author reviews the intent of God in distributing these gifts to men—the edification of the church (14:1-22). Then he details the rules under which the church is to function when it is assembled together for worship (14:23-49). These rules cover both the use of gifts while they last and also the method of corporate worship after miraculous powers have ceased.
Chapter 13 cannot be separated from this context and understood aright. The “more excellent way” of chapter 12:31, is the way of love revealed in chapter 13:1-8. It is a more excellent way because it is the way which is going to supersede the way of spiritual gifts. Not surprisingly then, after revealing the importance of love (13:1-3) and defining the meaning and character of Christian love (13:4-8a), Paul launches into a detailed prophecy of the end of the age of miraculous, or spiritual gifts (13:8b-13). Keeping the big picture in view, let us examine these verses more particularly.
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.
The reason that the way of love described in verses 1-7 is the more excellent way is because love is eternal. Love will never “become invalid or come to an end or fail” (Baur, Arndt and Gingrich,
p- 665). Unlike the petals of a flower (Jas. 1:11; 1 Pet. 1:24), love will never fall off (Vincent, p. 795). The way of love will never pass away (Kittel, p. 847). In gigantic contrast, prophecies and knowledge will be “brought to an end” (Bogster, p. 219) or “made inoperative” (Kittel, p. 76). In other words, prophecies and knowledge “will be abolished” (The Zondervan Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, p. 511). In the same contrast, tongues will “stop or cease” (Baur, Arndt, Gingrich, p. 643). That is, they will come to an end.
But what does Paul mean when he speaks of the end of prophecies and knowledge and the cessation of tongues? To answer correctly we must keep the context in view. In that light, he is in fact revealing the approaching end of miraculous power. The brethren at Corinth were to understand that the miraculous ability to teach or prophesy God’s Word was going to be abolished. The miraculous ability to know God’s will was soon to become inoperative. The miraculous ability to speak in a human language never before studied by the speaker was going to stop.
Contextually, these are the interpretations demanded by verse 8.
However, to emphasize this truth, consider for a moment Paul’s meaning if any other interpretation were intended. Will there ever be a time on earth when there are no tongues; when knowledge has ceased; or when prophecy has been abolished? Of course not. As long as time shall endure, men will communicate to one another by the use of language. For that matter, even in heaven the holy inhabitants are pictured in continual verbal worship to God (Rev. 4-5).
By the same token, knowledge will never cease to exist on earth, but to the contrary will continue to increase (2 Pet. 3:18); and in heaven knowledge will be perfected, for our faith will have become sight (2 Cor. 5:7). The same is true of prophecy. Prophecy is telling forth God’s will, and as long as God’s Word lasts men will be telling it forth to others (1 Cor. 1:21). Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Mt. 24:35). Again, even in heaven the Word of God will be present. These considerations make it evident that Paul is contemplating the end of the miraculous ability to prophecy, to know God’s will, and to speak in foreign languages. The way of love will supersede the way of miracles.
It is noteworthy that the apostle, in his anticipation of the end of the miraculous age, identifies the gifts of revelation rather than the gifts of confirmation. Miraculous power in the early Christian society served two closely allied purposes. First, miraculous power was needed in order for men to know and reveal to their fellows God’s will (Jn. 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; 14:1-22). Second, miraculous power was needed to confirm that what was spoken was in truth God’s will (Mk. 16:17-18, 20; Heb. 2:1-4; 1 Cor. 2:4-5; 2 Cor. 12:2). In naming those gifts of the former group, Paul logically includes the latter group. In other words, when men ceased to reveal God’s will miraculously, the need for confirmation would also terminate. Therefore, when Paul mentions the spiritual gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues and their approaching terminus, he prophesies of the cessation of all spiritual gifts.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
During the miraculous age of the church, God’s will was gradually being revealed. No single person was the repository of the entire revelation. Each inspired man in those days received by direct inspiration only that portion of the plan that had been vouchsafed him. Consequently, each of those possessing the gifts of revelation were enabled to know and prophesy only the partial information he had received. In this piece by piece manner the gospel was revealed. The temporary nature of this system was evidenced by the very process of its revelation. No one knew the whole plan, and yet bit by bit the aggregate whole was being realized. Still, not every Christian was blessed with even this limited degree of inspiration.
Furthermore, some of the believers had gifts of confirmation rather than revelation. Some likely had no gift at all. The impermanence of this system should have been readily observable even to those participating in it. The miraculous system which prevailed when Paul wrote to the Corinthians was set in contrast to the new system which would prevail when the perfect had come. What was then known in part and prophesied in part would be superseded by the “more excellent way” (12:31) when “that which is perfect” had come.
The question then arises: what is “that which is perfect”? . . . and its corollary: when did it come? In answer, there have been several false postulates suggested. There are some who espouse the notion that the coming of “that which is perfect” (v. 10) and seeing face to face (v. 12) obviously refers to the second coming of Christ. Others, realizing that the language used does not suggest a person but a state or condition, believe that the perfected state of existence in heaven is the thrust of Paul’s argument. However, both of these erroneous views are easily overthrown by
a careful consideration of two facts: First, the context is the end of the miraculous age. In verse 8, Paul prophesies of the time when the miraculous ability to know God’s will and the miraculous ability to prophesy of God’s will shall be abolished. He references the time when the miraculous ability to speak in tongues (languages the speaker had never studied) would stop. Clearly the subject under consideration is the end of the age of miracles and its replacement by the more excellent way of love.
Second, the time at which this cessation of miraculous power occurred is pinpointed for us by consideration of another passage which necessarily implies when the miraculous age expired. Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (for as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money (Acts 8:14-18).
Contextually, in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, this passage begins to detail the progression of the gospel “unto the uttermost part of the earth.” As Jesus said, the first step outside of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside of Judea in the inexorable march of the gospel was to Samaria. In Acts 8:5-25, Philip, one of the seven chosen as special assistants to the apostle in Acts 6:5, carries the gospel to the Samaritans. To set the scene of the verses above, it would be remembered that Philip himself had miraculous power (8:6,7,13).
Apparently Philip had both the gifts of confirmation and revelation. It should also be remembered that the Samaritans were saved by their obedience to Philip’s preaching (8:12-13). Consequently, they were on praying terms with God.
In verse 14, the apostles at Jerusalem sent to these new Christians the apostles Peter and John, so that Peter and John could impart spiritual gifts unto them. These gifts were essential for their continued growth and development in the church. Philip would soon be leaving them and they needed inspired men who would know and prophesy God’s will to them. These men would be needed to direct the work and worship of the church, to teach the brethren how to live, and to preach the gospel to the lost.
But why was it necessary for Peter and John to come and provide these gifts through the laying on of their hands? Why could Philip not have imparted spiritual gifts to them? For that matter, why could not they have prayed for these gifts? Simon the sorcerer answers all of these questions. He correctly assessed “that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given” (8:18). Miraculous power could only be imparted to men by an apostle. This is the witness of the divine record from Matthew to Revelation. No one but an apostle ever transferred to another man the power to perform miracles. Philip could not give the Samaritans spiritual gifts because, even though he possessed miraculous power himself, he could not transfer that power to others. Furthermore, the people could not pray for these powers because they do not come to men through prayer. There is absolutely no such example in all of God’s Word. The power to perform miracles could come only through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. That is the clear statement of God’s Word (8:18), and it is the example throughout the record.
This being the case, what do you suppose happened when all the apostles died and all the men they had laid their hands on died? The necessary inference from Acts 8:14-18 is that the age of miracles ended, for there was no method for its continuance. In other words, the fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 occurred without doubt when all the apostles died and all the men they had laid their hands on died. In real terms the age of miracles ended at or about the turn of the first century. History confirms to us that the Apostle John died “in the reign of Trajan in 98 A.D.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church; Vol. 1, p. 424). Shortly after this
time, the age of miracles ended.
With Acts 8:14-18 and its necessary inference to frame 1 Corinthians 13:10 we can be very sure that Paul does not have either the second coming of Chirst or the perfected state of existence in heaven in mind when he speaks of the coming of “that which is perfect.” The context of 1 Corinthians 13:10 is the end of the age of miracles and Acts 8:14-18 indicates beyond any shadow of doubt that the end of that age occurred at or about the turn of the first century.
What then does the word “perfect” mean in verse 10? The Greek word teleios, here translated “perfect” means “having attained the end or purpose, complete, perfect” (Baur, Arndt, Gingrich, p. 816). Pickering contributes “brought to its end or term: hence perfect, whole, complete, full-grown” (p. 1287). In agreement with these definitions are Thayer (p. 618-619), Abbott-Smith (p. 442), Bagster (p. 400), Liddell and Scott (p. 1477-1478), Moulton and Milligan (p. 629), Bullinger (p. 579), Vine (Vol 3, p. 173-174), Kittel, Bromley (p. 1164), and Strong (p. 71). In his Synonyms of the New Testament, R. C. Trench says:
The various applications of teleios are all referable to telos, which is its ground. In a natural sense the teleisi are the adults, who, having attained the full limits of stature, strength, and mental power within their reach, have in these respects attained their telos as distinguished from the . . . young men or boys . . . This image of full completed growth as contrasted with infancy and childhood underlies the ethical use of teleioi by St. Paul. (p. 71-72).
The reason for such overwhelming reference to lexical authority is not given in order to play the pedant. The common notion in the minds of men is that the word “perfect” describes a state of sinlessness. Consequently, it represents an unachievable ideal. However, the word does not convey any such idea in the Greek language. Neither is it used in such a sense in the New Testament. Consider these passages:
- Matthew 5:44-47— Jesus teaches us that we are not to be respecters of persons in loving our friends and hating our enemies. Instead he counsels us to be perfect (ie. complete, mature, full-grown) like our heavenly Father (5:48) is in loving friends and enemies alike;
- Matthew 19:21— Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to be perfect and told him how he could be;
- 1 Corinthians 2:6— Paul reveals that his preaching was the impartation of wisdom to those who were perfect.
4.1 Corinthians 14:20— Paul insisted that Corinthians be “men” (teleios—perfect, mature, adult) instead of babes.
- Ephesians 4:13— Paul teaches that the body of Christ is to be built up into a full-grown man (teleios).
- Philippians 3:15—Paul mentions those who were already perfect.
- Colossians 4:12—Epaphras prayed that the Colossians would stand perfect in the will of God.
- Hebrews 5:14—The Hebrews were chided for not having developed to the point of feeding on solid food in the Word of God. Solid food, the writer says, is for full-grown (teleios) men—men who have had their senses exercised to discern good and evil.
- James 1:25—James describes the New Testament as the perfect (teleios—complete) law of liberty.
Every one of these examples apply to conditions that are to prevail on earth. We do not have to wait for the coming of Jesus or the eternal state of heaven to achieve the perfection demanded in such verses as these. In order to understand the word “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10, we must excise from our minds the concept of flawless perfection or sinlessness. The word simply does not mean that.
Now let us consider the meaning of the sentence which comprises verses 9-10 in our KJV Bibles. Verse 9 delineates a system prevailing at the time Paul writes which is partial. In verse 10 the system of revelation which was piece by piece is to be replaced by one characterized by perfection or completeness. “That which is perfect” subsumes all of the individual parts into one perfected whole. It is the absolute completion of that which was in part. This event is the anticipated end of the partial. What, then, was in part? In order to ascertain what was in part, there is no need to begin some futile search for the supposed elusive antecedent of “perfect” or some imaginative interpretation unstated in the immediate context. The answer is simply to look more particularly at verse 9. It is miraculous knowledge and miraculous prophecy which is in part. The discussion does not center on the limitations placed upon man’s mental facility to perceive the complexities of life and eternal destiny. Paul’s message concerns the spiritual gifts of knowing and prophesying God’s will. In other words, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the proclamation of the gospel by divine inspiration.
As Paul was writing to Corinth the gospel was still being proclaimed part by part. The knowing and the prophesying were still in part. However, divine inspiration anticipated a day of completion. A time was approaching when the special revelation of God’s mysteries would cease. No longer would men possess the gifts of inspiration. No more miraculous knowledge would be revealed. No more prophecies would be uttered. God’s intended revelation to man would be finished—completed, ended. The gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 would cease to function, Paul says, when all of God’s will for man had been revealed. The men who possessed the gifts of revelation, who know and prophesied in part would cease to receive information from God. The gifts of the Spirit would then be abolished. Jesus, Himself, had implied that this would be fulfilled during the lifetime of the apostles and the men upon whom they laid their hands. Had He not said that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and guide
them into “all truth” (Jn. 14:26; 16:13)? Before the last apostle died all of the truth God intended for man to have would have been delivered by those who knew and prophesied in part. This revelation of God’s will was “once for all time delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). When John the Revelator laid down his pen, having finished “the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:18), the age of revelation came to an end. The revelation given in part was perfected—completed, brought to an end.
The coming of “that which is perfect” is a reference to neither the second coming of Christ nor the perfect state of existence in heaven. It is a reference to the completed and perfected revelation of God’s will. It is not a reference to any event still future to our day. Rather it came long ago. In fact, it occurred near the end of the first century. This is in exact accord with what is taught by necessary inference in Acts 8:14-18a. In the next two verses, Paul gives two vivid illustrations explaining what he has been writing about.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: But when I became a man, I put away childish things.
In his first illustration explaining the reason why the miraculous age was going to end, Paul makes a play on the concept of perfection. Just as the word teleos (“perfect”) conveys the image of full
completed growth as opposed to infancy and childhood, the age of miracles would end when the church had reached the mature age of completed revelation. The language, the knowledge and the thoughts of a child are critically important to his proper development. However, they are immature expressions which gradually give way to more mature thinking as the child gains more complete knowledge. Consequently, his speech patterns mature as well.
Just so, the age of miracles was of critical importance to the establishment and development of the early church. Nevertheless as the church neared the age of completed revelation the gifts began to cease. As the apostles passed on and the men to whom they had imparted gifts died, the miraculous age was put away. Finally, the church achieved the stature of a full-grown man by virtue of the completion of revelation. The way of spiritual gifts was superseded by the more excellent way of faith, hope and love.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Paul elaborates why it is that spiritual gifts then extant would later be abolished. At the time of his writing [arti, or “now’” is literally “at the present juncture” (Bagster, p. 53)] while the “in part” system
yet remained, they could only “see through a glass darkly.” Later, they would be able to see “face to face.” At that time, revelation was incomplete but “when that which is perfect is come” then
brethren would be able to know God’s will fully.
The phrase “face to face” has given rise to the idea that all of this is in reference to the time when Christ returns and the resultant eternal state in heaven. However, Paul says nothing about seeing God face to face, much less seeing Him in heaven. Now, while that may certainly be a blessing granted to the redeemed in eternity, it is not what this passage is teaching. Paul is writing about the fact that in
the waning years of miraculous power the brethren could still only see dimly in a mirror something that would become crystal clear later.
This verse has as its background God’s method of imparting revelation to the Old Testament prophets as opposed to his clear revelation to Moses. In Numbers 12:6-8 this distinction is presented:
And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you. I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision and will speak to him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all my house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold.
In the Old Testament God revealed, His will to the prophets in “dark speeches” (i.e., “in riddles or proverbs” —Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, p. 109). He spoke to them in visions and dreams. The Hebrew word for “mirror” (Ex. 38:8) is the same word rendered “vision” in Numbers 12:6. To see through a mirror was to receive a revelation from God. The prophets received revelations from God by virtue of visions and dreams. However, their revelations were in riddles. They were obscure or unclear. It was like looking through an imperfect mirror. The image seen was vague or hazy, not sharp and clear. Peter refers to this aspect of Old Testament prophecy (1 Pet. 1:11-12). The revelation given to the Old Testament prophets was unclear because they did not receive the full story. They were not allowed to understand all of the revelation. However, in contrast to the way revelation was made known to the Old Testament prophets Moses spoke to the Lord “mouth to mouth” or face to face. In other words, the Lord spoke directly to Moses. The revelation to him was clear.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul is using the same contrast. While revelation was incomplete, while the men who possessed spiritual gifts were in the process of revealing God’s will, the knowledge of God’s will was unclear. It could be seen only dimly because a part was revealed here by this man and another part was revealed over there by that man. But “when that which is perfect is come”—when the revelation is complete—then believers will be able to know all of God’s will. They will be able to see it as clearly as Moses who spoke to the Lord mouth to mouth. “Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.” Paul said that during the miraculous age when the revelation was being revealed part by part it could be known only in part—or only insofar as it had been revealed. When the revelation was completed, then one would be able to know God’s will as clearly or as completely as others knew him. In other words, the will of God would be complete and open to all. Men would be able to know it as fully as they themselves were known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
In conclusion, Paul speaks of those things which abide and shall continue to abide throughout the Christian age in contrast with the temporary spiritual gifts which were soon to pass away.
Again, the Christian age is characterized by faith (Heb. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:9-11; Heb. 10:38; Rom. 5:1-2; Gal. 3:22, 26; Eph. 3:12, 17; Heb. 11:6). Yet faith also is limited to this life. Here “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). When faith is swallowed up in sight, we will have achieved the object of our faith and hope.
The Christian age was to be marked by hope. Numerous passages speak of the Christian’s heartfelt yearning and expectation of a home in heaven (Acts 23:6; Rom. 5:4-5; 8:24; 15:4, 13; 1 Cor. 15:19; 2 Cor. 1:7; 3:12; Gal. 5:5; Eph. 4:4; Col. 1:5, 23, 27: 1 Thess 1:3; 4:13; 1 Tim. 1:1;
Tit. 2:13; Heb. 6:11, 18-19; 7:19; 1 Pet. 1:3, 21; 3:15). However, hope is limited to this life, because when hope is realized it is no longer hope (Rom. 8:24).
However, love is greater even than faith and hope. It is greater because it not only marks the Christian’s life here, but also in the hereafter for “charity never fails” (1 Cor. 13:4-8; Mt. 22:37; Jn. 15:12, 17; Rom. 8:28; 13:8; Eph. 5:25, 28, 33; 6:24; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Pet. 1:8). The way of love which is “the more excellent way” not only superseded the way of miracles for all of time, but also for all of eternity for “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). In heaven, love will finally reign supreme in the lives of all God’s own. In this section, Paul foretells of the end of the way of spiritual gifts. The miraculous age ended when the revelation of God’s will was perfected or completed. This actually occurred when all of the apostles died and all the men they laid their hands on died, which was at or near the turn of the first century. The way of miracles was replaced by the way of love. As time continues, faith, hope and love abide; but love is greatest of all, for it will continue in heaven.