Gifts Series: Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13

 

All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

 

This chapter provides further support for the transitory and transitional purpose of the miracle gifts. It’s in total harmony with what we’ve already learned.

 

1 Corinthians 13

1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.

In context of these three chapters (12-14), it would be reasonable that in mentioning tongues here, Paul would name the kind of tongues-speaking that he deals with extensively in the next chapter. Reference to the “tongues of men,” would be the foreign languages from around the world, such as what occurred on the day of Pentecost. However, in chapter 14, Paul makes it clear that the tongues that he talks about in that chapter, was not the kind of tongues that took place on Pentecost.

He then mentions “tongues of angels.” I’ve never really considered the possibility that Paul was actually indicating that tongues of angels was a language that Christians were speaking in those days. However, after studying this subject in detail, I’ve changed my mind. I now believe that this is a real possibility. It would answer the question of what type of [true] tongues-speaking Paul was talking about in chapter 14. I used to think that the idea of speaking in the tongues of angels was a far-fetched idea, that Paul was just throwing that out there as if to say, “if it were possible to speak in such a way.” But what other tongues-language could he be talking about in chapter 14, in regard to the true gift? It would be assumed that it would be a heavenly language of some sort, since it wouldn’t be an earthly language. Therefore, since Angles are heavenly beings, it would make sense that the [true] tongues-speaking Paul refers to in chapter 14, is the same language. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I think it makes sense.

I’ve always had a hard time believing that the gibberish tongues that is practiced today is the same true tongues of chapter 14. The reason I doubt it (besides the fact I believe they’ve ceased), is because there are other religious groups that also speak gibberish (read here). It makes better sense to me that the true gift of tongues would be unlike any other tongues being spoken in the world. We have the truth, therefore true tongues-speaking would be set apart from all others, and would not sound the same as any other. It would be a distinct language, perhaps even heavenly, as Paul suggests in verse one.

Therefore, I think it’s quite possible that the mention of “tongues of angels” was what Paul is referring to in chapter 14. Thus he speaks of both types of tongues of the early Church era. The tongues of Pentecost was real. Therefore when he mentions tongues of angels, we shouldn’t have to scratch our heads trying to figure out what he is talking about in chapter 14. Again, we can’t be certain, but it’s a reasonable conclusion. The absence of a distinct tongues language among Christians today is strong evidence that the gift of tongues have ceased.

 

2 And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

NET – 12 And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

The whole discussion of these three chapters (12-14) is spiritual gifts, so Paul has to be referring to the gifts of prophecy, miraculous knowledge, and faith.

 

3 And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. 4 Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; 6 rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; 7 beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.8 Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away.

NET – 8 Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside.

“Love never faileth”

“love never ends” – (NET, ESV, LEB, NRSV)

“Love never ends,” and the reward for using our gifts out of love never ends, but the gifts themselves are temporary — specifically referring to the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and [word of] knowledge. While all the gifts of the Spirit will end in this life, Paul zeros in on the temporary nature of these three gifts, which we will discuss in a bit.

So Paul’s main concern was that the Corinthian believers had the right motives in using their gifts. He was encouraging them to use their gifts out of love, which of course would result in receiving an eternal reward, but if they were using their gifts with selfish motives, then there would be no reward. At that point all they’re doing is going through the motions. The gifts would end and they would have nothing to show for it in eternity. As Jesus said, “they have their reward” (Matt 6:1-16).

Christianity is a selfless faith, and these Corinthian Christians weren’t getting it. So the whole issue that Paul was addressing was the pride and jealousy they had regarding the gifts of the Spirit. They were not using them out of love for the benefit of others, but for selfish gain. Therefore, Paul instructed them to focus on that which lasts forever – which is love for one another – instead of that which is temporary. Again, the whole focus of these three chapters is on spiritual gifts, therefore, in this verse Paul has to be referring to the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge. It’s the use of these gifts that he’s talking about. Thus better understood, this is what Paul is saying:

“As for the giving of prophecies, they will come to an end.”

“As for speaking in tongues, they will cease.”

“As for miraculous knowledge, it will come to an end.”

Prophecies don’t end, they’re fulfilled — and many prophecies are fulfilled in eternity. So again, Paul can’t be talking about the prophecies themselves. It’s the giving of the prophecies that will come to an end. In other words, he’s saying that the gift itself will end, that it’s only temporary. Likewise, the gifts of tongues and miraculous knowledge are only temporary. The question is, in regard to these three gifts, how temporary are we talking about? That question is answered throughout this study — but in the context of this chapter, it’s answered in the following discussion and throughout the remainder of this chapter.

The gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge all have one thing in common: they all relate to the Word of God. They’re also miraculous gifts. The gifts of prophecy and knowledge, in particular, were given for the purpose of revealing God’s Word — the gift of tongues (with interpretation), to a much lesser degree. Those with any of these gifts were given direct revelation from God. Anytime someone exercised one of these gifts, they were speaking the Word of God — primarily the teachings of Christ and all the teachings now found in the NT Scriptures.

The mission of the Apostles and prophets was primarily to provide the Word of God, which was the gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines of the Christian faith. Accordingly, the central purpose of these gifts was to provide the teaching of the NT until the NT Scriptures were completed. That is so basic, I don’t know how anyone can doubt it. We have 27 books of the NT to prove it! The Church could not be fully established unless and until the Christian message was fully in place. The NT Scriptures are the doctrinal foundation of the Church. All these gifts, therefore, always had the NT Scriptures in view. They always pointed to the writing of, and the completion of, the NT writings.

Knowing the mission of the Apostles and prophets, when was their mission fully accomplished? Obviously it was with the completion of NT Scriptures and the full establishment of the Church. Everything they revealed and taught had its culmination in the 27 books of the NT Scriptures. Again, how can anyone doubt that?

 

9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part;

“We” as in we the Apostles and prophets.

The “partial” knowing and the “partial” prophecies are contained in the NT. The full revelation of the NT Scriptures wasn’t given to the Apostles and prophets all in one prophecy, but were received and given “in parts,” little by little. NT revelation was cumulative, not received all at once. That should be obvious to everyone. The Apostles and prophets gave the Word of God (the Christian message) “in parts” until the the NT was finished. Those parts are now contained within those Scriptures and continues as a single and whole unit of “parts.”

 

10 but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.

“Perfect” (“complete” or “completeness”)

Paraphrase of verses 8-10 :

Love never ends. On the other hand, the giving of prophecies will be set aside; the speaking of tongues will cease; miraculous knowledge will be set aside — the reason is because we now only know in part and only prophesy in part. But when the complete and perfect arrives, what we now prophesy in part and know in part will be set aside, they will come to an end.

Based on everything we’ve learned up to this point, we can easily conclude that Paul was referring to the completion of the NT Scriptures when he mentioned the coming of the “perfect” (Gr. Teleios). This Greek word has the meaning of being “complete,” and signifies having reached its end or finished. Whenever they spoke the Word of God via direct revelation, they were only receiving “parts” of the NT Scriptures, and therefore they only gave “parts” of the NT Scriptures. This process continued until the NT was finally “completed,” as we have it today. Once the Scriptures were completed, combining the Old Testament with the New Testament, there was no longer any need for the revelatory gifts.

Note 1: To be clear, I’m not saying that the Apostles and prophets always heard the NT writings word for word and line for line whenever they spoke, but what they received and delivered to the people of God were the teachings of the NT, the teachings of the Christian faith. In other words, what they received and delivered was the substance of what the NT Scriptures contained. Of course, when the writers were penning the books of the NT, they were, indeed, receiving the Word of God word for word and line for line.

Note 2: All things considered, the idea that there are Apostles and prophets today who are receiving revelations from God in the same manner as the Apostles and prophets of the early Church did, is senseless. They were filling a need that we don’t have today. The situation was completely different then. We are not living in a transitional period of time as they were. Therefore, the idea that things have continued on as they were then, is in opposition to sound reasoning.

It should be understood – and the whole point of this study – is that when the revelatory gifts ceased, so did the confirmatory gifts, for they all worked together. The confirmatory gifts confirmed the message via the revelatory gifts.

Many interpret “the perfect” (“the complete”) as referring to the eternal state. I argue against that idea in the following discussion:

Argument against the “eternal state” viewpoint:

If the gifts of prophecy and miraculous knowledge and tongues all refer to the Word of God being provided in parts, then it makes total logical sense that the “complete” would refer to the completion of God’s written revelation, referring specifically to the NT Scriptures — which contains the full gospel message to the world, and the full Christian message for the Church. What sense does it make for Paul to refer to the partial giving of the NT Scriptures, and then to change course and refer to the completion of something else? Namely, to the complete knowing and understanding that we will have in the eternal state. That would make no sense at all.

The “completion” has to be referring to the parts of the same whole, or it makes no sense. That which is in part will be done away when they all combine to make up the whole — the whole revelation of God’s written word of the NT. The perfect or completion refers directly to the sum total of the parts. What did the parts consist of? Again, it had to be the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Christian faith that we have in full today, in the form of the NT Scriptures. The idea that these “parts” were anything other than the “parts” of the Christian message that we have today in the form of the written NT, is unreasonable and illogical. The mission of the Apostles and prophets was to establish the Church, and that primarily consisted of delivering and confirming the message of Christ and the doctrines of the Christian faith.

The idea that these parts refer to the whole of what is to be known about God in the eternal state, not only does not make sense, but it doesn’t fit what was going on in the beginning years of the Church. While the Church was being established, it was without what we have today. Today we have the completed NT. We have the Holy Scriptures in their entirety. They didn’t have that. Yet, it was necessary for them to know and understand the same truths of Christianity that we do.

Therefore, until the NT Scriptures were finished in what would be regarded as “perfect” or “complete,” they needed people with the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, and to a very minimal degree, tongues (and its interpretation), until the NT was completed. That was primarily the role of the Apostles and prophets. It was their responsibility to give God’s people the teachings of the Christian faith, and to fully establish the Church. Hence, it’s illogical that Paul was comparing the partial revelation of God’s written Word to the full revelation of God in the eternal afterlife. That flatly could not have been what Paul was referring to. He had to be referring to the completion of the NT Scriptures.

Think about it, at the time of this writing (1 Corinthians), there was a time coming when the NT Scriptures would be finally completed. Thus it makes perfect sense that the partial giving of the NT was being given until the NT was finally completed, and the Church fully established. Without the Christian message that we have in the NT, there is no establishment of the Church, for that is the very heart of it. Therefore, this is exactly what the Apostles and prophets were speaking and writing and confirming. Trying to associate the partial Christian messages of the NT prophets with the complete knowledge and understanding of God in the eternal state, is unreasonable. There’s an obvious disconnect.

Those who insist that Paul is referring to the eternal state, don’t consider how significant this transitional period was during the early years of the Church (from OT to NT), or how all-important it was that the Holy Scriptures be completed. We have to realize that the writing of the NT Scriptures was central and key to establishing Christianity. Can you imagine what it would be like today if we didn’t have the NT? Likewise, we have to put ourselves in their place at that particular time in history. The NT Scriptures are the very foundation of the Christian faith. This was the foundation that the Apostles and prophets were laying. Once we understand the significance and absolute necessity of completing the Holy Scriptures, it then becomes very easy to interpret what Paul is talking about in these three verses (8-10).

 

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.

I believe this statement could be interpreted in two primary ways. Paul could either be referring to the immaturity of the Corinthian Christians, or he could be referring to the writing process of the NT. Or perhaps both. The NET translation supports the second option as the primary meaning, as it makes the most sense in the context of Paul’s discussion:

8 Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside.

9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part,

10 but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.

11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways.

It seems clear that Paul is comparing the continuous receiving of God’s Word “in parts” until the full completion (maturity) of the NT Scriptures, to the process of growing up as a child and becoming a fully mature adult. As we grow as children, we’re learning little by little, or “in parts” until we reach adulthood. When we finally do, we “set aside” the things of childhood, for they’re no longer needed, for they served their purpose.

In the same way, Paul is saying that the “partial” receiving and giving of God’s Word would be “set aside” once the NT Scriptures were completed. For once the NT actually did reach full maturity (completion), there was no longer a need for the “partial” receiving and giving of God’s Word, for it served its purpose. That means that the revelatory and confirmatory gifts were no longer needed, for they had served their purpose.

Therefore, I believe the message that Paul is trying to convey to the Corinthian believers is, that since these gifts are only transitory and will cease with the completion of the NT Scriptures, they need to be mature in their attitude about them. In other words, they need to take their focus off the gifts themselves (for personal gain) – which are temporary – and focus on being selfless in the use of them — using them for the benefit of the whole assembly. In other words, out of “love,” which is permanent. For it’s only with the right motives that they will receive a reward for using them.

 

12 For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.

“darkly”:

NASB – “dimly”

NET – “indirectly”

CSB – “reflection”

NLT – “imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror”

I believe the full verse of the New Living Translation (NLT) captures the meaning of Paul’s words the best:

12 Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

At this point, Paul is now looking beyond the completed NT Scriptures, to eternity in the presence of God. In other words, he’s using the phrases of “partial” and “incomplete” and “completely” that he used with the Scriptures, and applying them to eternity. Afterall, that is what we all look forward to in Christ. At the time of this writing, they (Apostles and prophets) were receiving and giving the Word of God in parts, which was the perspective Paul was speaking from. But even with the completed Scriptures, we’re still seeing everything related to God and eternity “imperfectly” or “indirectly” or “as a reflection” or “dimly.” Right now we only get a glimpse of God and what it will be like in Heaven. It won’t be until we’re in the presence of God that everything will become perfectly clear.

Therefore, Paul is revealing three levels of understanding:

One, the partial receiving and giving of God’s Word in the early years of the Church.

Two, the greater understanding received via the completed NT Scriptures.

Three, the final and perfect level of understanding that we’ll have in our eternal state. At that point we’ll “know fully” just as we’re “fully known” by God now. Our learning and understanding is a process, and the full scope of that process is what is in view here. Quite obviously, it was even more of a process for those early Christians than it is for us today.

Getting back to the context in which this verse is written, Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to do what he was doing, and that was to live with eternity in view, to use their gifts unselfishly with their minds set on the permanent rewards of eternity.

Note: When Paul says “we,” I believe he’s primarily referring to himself and the other Apostles and prophets. However, this would also apply to the other Christians of his day as he and the others revealed the truth to them.

 

13 But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The point Paul was making with the Corinthian believers was that “faith, hope, and love” would last throughout our lifetime (Church age; until the return of Christ), but the miracle gifts would not. He knew that once the mission of the Apostles and prophets was finished – with the completion of the NT Scriptures and the full establishment of the Church – then the miracle gifts would be “set aside” (cease). Thus he wanted them to focus on the things that would last beyond those gifts. Again, Paul wanted them to live with eternity in view. However, to be clear, Paul wanted them to have a healthy, selfless perspective regarding all the gifts of the Spirit.

While faith and hope last only throughout this life, love lasts forever. It “never ends.” Furthermore, there is a great eternal reward for those who use their gifts out of love for the benefit of others, rather than for selfish gain. Motives are everything in our service to God and others. That was the big lesson Paul wanted them to learn in this whole discussion.

Don’t Miss This: I think it’s significant that Paul didn’t mention the gifts of miracles or healings (1 Cor 12:28-30) in this chapter. He knew that those gifts didn’t apply to them, but only to the Apostles — as we’ve been learning throughout this series. With a selfish group like the Corinthian Christians, if those two gifts were available to them, then we can be sure – of all spiritual gifts – those two gifts would have been a major source of sinful pride for them — even more so than tongues and prophecy (which were also miraculous, but were not the gift of miracles), which was the biggest issue that Paul had to address, as the next chapter reveals. Accordingly, I think it’s reasonable that Paul would have included the gifts of miracles and healings in this discussion if they were available to the general Christian community.