Paul is in the midst of describing to the Corinthian Christians the way followers of Jesus are to behave. Paul has taught the necessity of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. Without love we are nothing before God and have gained nothing before God. The spiritual gifts these Corinthians possessed were nothing without love. Further, Paul described the character of love in verses 4-7. How we behave toward one another in the body of Christ matters to the Lord. The practice of love is necessary in the body of Christ. Paul continues his teaching on love in the rest of this chapter by describing the permanence of love.
The Permanence of Love (13:8-13)
Paul declares that love never ends. This is what makes love so important also. Love is necessary because spiritual gifts would pass away. In verse 8 Paul makes this point clear. Prophecies would pass away. The speaking in various languages (tongues) would stop. The gifts of knowledge would cease. Love is critical because love is permanent. The various spiritual gifts that they are arguing over and dividing over would eventually disappear. Prophecies, healings, wisdom, knowledge, tongues, and all the rest of these miraculous spiritual gifts given by God would stop. However, love would not disappear.
Verses 9-10 are Paul’s explanation of this truth. Notice that the first word of verse 9 is “for.” These two verses explain why these spiritual gifts will pass away. The reason Paul gives is that, “We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” The question people have is, “What is the perfect?” To answer this question we must consider that this is an answer to the explanation for why spiritual gifts are going to cease. Verse 12 must also be kept in mind because Paul continues to speak of the partial there. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Verse 9 teaches us that “the part” is a reference to spiritual gifts. Paul illustrates that at present there is only partial knowledge of the will of God. The reason is that they were presently still receiving the revelation of God through the miraculous spiritual gifts. Some had the spiritual gift of knowledge. Some had the gift of prophecy. Some had the gift of languages. God is revealing his will to the first century Christians through these miraculous gifts. The Christians are receiving pieces or parts of the will of God. Piece by piece they are receiving God’s knowledge. Verse 10 continues that when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. Whatever the “perfect” is, that will be the time when the partial, that is, these miraculous spiritual gifts, will end.
Misunderstanding the Perfect
A popular understanding of the “perfect” is that this is a reference to return of Jesus. This explanation makes sense. Jesus is perfect and we are waiting for his return. So many teach that Paul is saying that miraculous spiritual gifts will continue until Jesus returns. But there are many problems with this understanding of Paul’s teaching. First, what is the point of saying that the miraculous spiritual gifts will end at the second coming of Christ? Of course those gifts would end! Everything is going to end at the second coming of Christ, according to 1 Corinthians 15:23-24. Second, what is the point of saying that right now we cannot know all of God’s will but when Christ returns we will know fully? Again, this is not helpful, especially to these first century Christians who are arguing over spiritual gifts. Third, Paul says that three things will remain: faith, hope and love. But faith and hope cannot remain after the second coming of Christ. The scriptures are very clear that hope that is seen is not hope (Romans 8:24). No one hopes for what he sees. Hope is necessary until we are joined with Christ. Hope will not remain after the second coming. Further, faith will not remain either. The writer of Hebrews teaches that faith is the evidence of things no seen (Hebrews 11:1). There is no need for faith in Christ when we are gathered home with him. Paul is describing a time after the ending of spiritual gifts when faith, hope, and love will remain. Finally, many jump to verse 12 and state that we have not seen God face to face. Therefore, Paul is talking about the second coming when we will see God face to face. But this is not what Paul says if we carefully read it. The text does not say we will see God face to face. Paul simply says that we will see clearly like being face to face, rather than dimly. I will explain what this means in a moment. But I just want to point out that Paul does not say we will see God. That is not the time frame. These are just a few reasons why “the perfect” is not referring to when Jesus’ second coming. So what does Paul mean?
Understanding the Perfect
Since the partial is referring to the limited knowledge and information the Christians had in the first century through the spiritual gifts, the most natural understand of “the perfect” is a time when that knowledge would be complete and no longer limited. Reread verses 8-13 and consider how this interpretation fits best and makes the most sense of what Paul is teaching. In verse 8 Paul declares that these spiritual gifts that the Corinthians are fighting over will stop. Paul continues in verse 9 that at that time when Paul writes they only had partial knowledge and partial revelation from God, coming to them piece by piece, part by part, through the gifts. But when the full knowledge and revelation of God is given, then these spiritual gifts (the partial) will end (13:10). In verse 11 Paul describes these spiritual gifts as “elementary ways” or “childish ways.” Paul is not being derogatory toward spiritual gifts but is making a point that a more mature way is coming. Paul and the Corinthian Christians were living in a time of limited knowledge and understanding. But the perfect and mature was coming so that these things would be set aside and no longer necessary.
Verse 12 is beautiful. Paul describes their current condition of knowledge as seeing in a mirror dimly. Mirrors in the first century were not like mirrors today. Their mirrors were not made from glass. They could see their reflection clearly like we can today. They saw dimly in the metal they were looking at. But when the perfect arrives, Christians will be able to see so clearly that it will be like seeing face to face. Listen to the rest of verse 12. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” This is a staggering declaration. Knowledge could only be received partially. God’s new covenant was being revealed a piece at a time. Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to write Ephesians. Peter was moved by the Spirit to write his two letters. James was moved by the Spirit to write his letter. John would write his three letters as the Spirit moved him. Living in the first century was a time when God’s will was being revealed a little bit at a time. But Paul pictures a time when that will no longer happen. When the full revelation of God came, Paul says he will know fully.
We are able to see God clearly with the word of God. We are not looking at God dimly. God has revealed all we need to see clearly. The clarity to which we are able to know God now through his word is unparalleled to any time in human history before the revelation of the scriptures. Once God revealed his word and will to his apostles and prophets, these spiritual gifts that Paul is writing about would no longer be necessary. Those gifts were revealing the knowledge of God. But once the apostles and prophets wrote God’s words down, continued revelation would be unnecessary. So only three things would remain once the full revelation of God came: faith, hope, and love. These are the great Christian characteristics that we must cling to. The greatest of these is love.
Consider how this fits exactly what we learned in Acts 8:18 and Romans 1:9-11. Only the apostles could give a Christian a spiritual gift. When the apostles died, the gifts could no longer be given. The apostle Paul confirms this truth in 1 Corinthians 13. Not only does Paul say that the spiritual gifts would end but they would end when God’s revelation were written down as scriptures for all to read and know. It is widely accepted that the scriptures were completed before the end of the first century. The scriptures were completed, the apostles pass away, and the miraculous gifts stopped, all around the end of the first century, just as God said in the scriptures.
Did you know that you can fully know God? God has revealed all that we need to know about him. We do not have to know God vaguely or dimly. With the word of God we can know him as if we are seeing him face to face. This is exactly what John taught in the first chapter. We have seen God when we see Jesus which was recorded for us by the Holy Spirit. Will you dedicate yourself to knowing God fully? Will you spend time his word so that you do not need to be fuzzy in your knowledge of the Lord? Give yourself to the reading of the scriptures. It is so glorious that we can know God. It is amazing. It is a staggering thought. Know God. Read his words. See your God clearly.