Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Duration of Miraculous Gifts: a Careful Analysis of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

While the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is often referred to as the Bible’s “love chapter,” it is actually the centerpiece of a three-chapter discourse on the use and abuse of miraculous gifts. Superiority of love is the theme of chapter 13, but superior to what?

At the heart of all the problems of the mid-first-century Corinth church was a lack of love (cf. 8:1-3; 16:14). Because of jealousy, arrogance, and strife over the fact that they all did not have the same miraculous gifts, Paul writes chaps. 12–14. The variety of spiritual gifts came from the same divine source and was intended for the common good of the community (12:1-11). Just as the different body parts function as a unit, so the diversity among the Corinthians should be harmonized for the benefit of the whole body of Christ (12:12-30). A better/more excellent way to overcome discord is the way of love (12:31), so Paul highlights the importance of godly love (13:1-3) and gives a brief description of it (13:4-7). He then affirms that love is superior to miraculous gifts because it will endure long after the gifts have fulfilled their intended purpose (13:8-13).

The Comparative Duration of Love (1 Cor. 13:8-13)

Love never fails (13:8a); it is everlasting (cf. 1 John 4:8). In contrast, miraculous gifts are temporary. Prophecies (cf. 12:10, 28, 29; 14:1-6) will be done away. Tongues (cf. 12:10, 28, 30; 14:2 ff.; Acts 2:4-11) will cease. [Miraculous] Knowledge (cf. 12:8; 14:6) will vanish. Note that all these gifts were means by which God’s message was revealed (cf. 12:8, 10; 14:6).

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (13:9). God’s revelation came part-by-part, piece-by-piece through spiritually-gifted individuals (cf. 12:29-30; 14:26, 31). “But when the perfect [to téleion]1 comes, the partial will be done away” (13:10). The word téleion is the neuter form of téleios, i.e., not necessarily a perfect person but presumably a perfect thing.2  
Téleios means “brought to completion; fully accomplished, fully developed …. complete, entire, as opposed to what is partial and limited” (H. K. Moulton, Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised 400).

Since the miraculous gifts were providing “parts” that would eventually comprise something “whole” or “complete,” and the gifts enumerated here were each used by God to reveal His will, it appears that to téleion is a reference to God’s complete revelation that would ultimately comprise the Christian canon (cf. Rom. 12:2; Jas. 1:25).3 Despite the cessation of the revelatory gifts themselves, the results of these gifts (communication and confirmation of the divine will) would carry on in the written word (cf. John 20:30-31).

Three “before” and “after” illustrations follow (13:11-12). Before to téleion came, spiritual infancy was the norm; but afterwards spiritual maturity would be possible (cf. 2:6; 3:1-2; 14:20; 1 Pet. 2:2). Before, the will of God was not entirely clear; but after, it would be as clear as looking in a clean mirror (cf. Jas. 1:23-25). Before, knowledge was only partial; but after, it would be full and complete (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 3:1-4).

“But now abide [ménō] faith, hope, love, these three …” (13:13). The term ménō means to abide, remain, continue. The miraculous gifts were only temporary and were to cease, be abolished, vanish away (v. 8). In contrast: faith, hope, and love abide, remain, continue. The greatest of these is love because love “never fails” (v. 8), i.e., is everlasting. Faith will continue until the end of time, but will no longer be needed in eternity (cf. Heb. 11:1). Hope will continue until the end of time, but will no longer be needed in eternity (cf. Rom. 8:24-25). God’s complete word stands as the foundation of our faith and proof of his love.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Not “perfection” (NIV). The substantival use of the adjective téleios here does not have an explicit referent: the “perfect” what? This word appears eight times in the Pauline writings: Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:15; Col. 1:28; 4:12.
     2 This assessment is not conclusive, however, since the neuter form may simply convey a general principle (see D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics 295, 333); cp. 1 John 1:1.
     3 This coincides with the death of the apostles through whom miraculous gifts were imparted (Acts 8:18). Alternatively, it has been suggested that to téleion (cp. Eph. 4:13) may refer to the maturation of the church, which could point to the same historical juncture as the completion of the NT. Others interpret to téleion in view of the believer’s eternal state, whether at death or the Lord’s parousia (see F. D. Farnell, “When Will the Gift of Prophecy Cease?” BibSac 150 [1993]: 191-93).

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