Vol. 3, No. 2 Page 13 February, 2001
Some people believe that the gift of tongues and other miraculous signs mentioned in the New Testament are supposed to be present in the church today. "Charismatic," a term based on the Greek word for "gift," is often applied to this movement. First Corinthians 13:8-13 is a key passage in the debate over the tongues phenomenon and related claims of the Charismatic Movement. In this passage, Paul says clearly that the gift of tongues and other miraculous signs would cease "when the perfect comes" (1 Corinthians 13:10, NASB). Other translations say, "when that which is perfect has come" (NKJV) or "when perfection comes" (NIV). Charismatics claim that this text is talking about the second coming of Christ at the end of the present age. Most New Testament scholars say that it is talking about the maturing of the church or the writing of the New Testament.
Scholars have debated for many years over the meaning of this language in the original Greek text, but the results of this debate have not been conclusive. Some critics of the Charismatic Movement, therefore, have been reluctant to use the argument based on this passage. But there is another way to determine when the miraculous gifts were supposed to end. The rhetorical structure of Paul's argument shows clearly that he was not talking about the second coming of Jesus Christ. "When that which is perfect has come" must refer to something that would happen before the return of the Lord.
The contrast in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is between what is permanent and what is temporary. Love is permanent. It never fails. But prophecy would be done away, tongues would cease and the miraculous revelation of knowledge would end. Miracles were a part of the temporary. Miracles were associated with knowing and prophesying in part, the immaturity of a child, and seeing only a dim reflection in a mirror. These contrast with maturity, seeing face-to-face and knowing fully.
In this contrast between the permanent and the temporary, the climax of Paul's argument is in verse 13, "But now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Faith, hope and love are more permanent than miraculous signs. After miraculous signs end, faith, hope and love will still abide. And that structure of Paul's argument proves that miraculous signs will end before the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Faith will not abide after the return of the Lord because faith will then be lost in sight. We now "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). But then we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Faith, of course, includes more than being certain about things that we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). But at least this part of faith will be lost in sight when the Lord returns.
Hope will be lost in realization when Jesus comes back. This is the point Paul makes in Romans 8:24, "[H]ope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?" (NIV).
Love is the only one of these three that will abide unchanged after the return of Jesus Christ and that, at least in part, is why love is the greatest of these three.
What Paul is saying is that there would be a period of time after "that which is perfect is come" and miraculous gifts have ended when faith, hope and love still abide. Whether the language in the original Greek text of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is talking about the writing of the New Testament or the maturing of the church, it is clear from the structure of Paul's argument that he could not have been talking about the second coming of the Lord.
I do not claim that the line of reasoning presented here is original. Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, "[T]here is nothing new under the sun." Originality may just mean, "I forgot where I read it." I do believe, however, that this line of reasoning can be useful, and we should not allow the debate among Greek scholars to keep us from using the text in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 to answer the false claims of the charismatics.