|Volume 25 Number 3 March 2023
Examining Alternative Views
of “That Which Is Perfect”
Brian R. Kenyon
Paul wrote, “Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NKJV). “That which is perfect” must refer to the completed, written revelation of God (James 1:25). This is so because of the following reasons. First, that which is “in part” clearly refers to the miraculous gifts, represented by “prophecies… tongues… knowledge.” Second, since “that which is in part” is compared with “that which is perfect,” then to whatever “that which is in part” refers must be the same subject as “that which is perfect,” only to a lesser, partial degree. Otherwise, the comparison would be senseless (like comparing apples with oranges). Third, the illustrations Paul used to emphasize growing from immaturity to maturity involve intellectual processes (1 Corinthians 13:11) and being able to see something vaguely as opposed to seeing it clearly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Fourth, Paul designated the seeing vaguely time-period as “now” (in Paul’s day of the miraculous) but “then” (a time in Paul’s future) clear vision and knowledge would be available. Twice in 1 Corinthians 13:12 is the “now… but then” construction used.
Thus, when “that which is perfect” (the completed, written revelation of God) came (and it did at the end of the first century), “that which is in part” (the miraculous gifts) was done away. Not only does Scripture affirm this, but objective observation also shows this to be true. To speak in tongues, as per the miraculous gift, one would speak a real foreign language that he never before studied. This was what “tongues” in the New Testament were! The first Day of Pentecost following the Lord’s resurrection is an example of tongue-speaking that nobody today can replicate (Acts 2:6-11). All, however, do not agree “that which is perfect” refers to the completed, written revelation of God. See below the examination of the two most popular alternatives to this view, adapted from Wendell Winkler (226-234).
Does “That Which Is Perfect”
Refer to Jesus and/or Heaven?
Probably the most popular alternate view says “that which is perfect” refers to Jesus at His Second Coming and/or the perfect state of affairs ushered in thereby (i.e., Heaven). Practically all denominational groups, especially those that still think they have miraculous gifts, adhere to this position. There are three reasons why this position cannot be correct. First, the term translated “perfect” (teleion) is neuter gender. While not impossible (1 John 1:1), if the “perfect” were referring to Christ, we would expect the masculine gender (“he which is perfect”), not a neuter pronoun “that” appearing in the phrase “that which is perfect.” Paul was guided by the Holy Spirit to use the neuter gender.
Second, understanding the “perfect” to refer to Jesus or a state of affairs ushered in by Him would be to assign a meaning of “perfect” (teleion) that is not found in the context. Remember, “that which is perfect” stands in contrast (antithesis) with “that which is in part.” Since “that which is in part” is quantitative in character, referring to amount, then “that which is perfect” must also be quantitative for the contrast (antithesis) to be compatible. To understand “that which is perfect” as a state of affairs is to assign a qualitative meaning, referring to perfect quality, to a term that is clearly in context quantitative (referring to the amount of information).
Third, the word “perfect” (teleion) is nowhere used by Paul or any other New Testament writer to refer to the Second Coming or to a state of affairs resulting from it. The Greek word translated “perfect” is found eighteen other times (Matthew 5:48; 19:21; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 3:15; Colossians 1:28; 4:12; Hebrews 5:14; 9:11; James 1:4 [twice], 17, 25; 3:2; 1 John 4:18), and nowhere does it ever refer to a perfection of quality!
Does “That Which Is Perfect”
Refer to the Mature Church?
Some understand “that which is perfect” to refer to the maturity of the body of Christ. One writer says “that which is perfect” refers to maturity in terms of the unification of Jews and Gentiles in one church (McRay 168-183). Another defines it as “the ultimate goal, aim, and end that Paul seeks to accomplish in bringing God’s people to the fullness of spiritual growth and maturity” (Spain 14). This position also cannot be correct for the following three reasons. First, it makes the mistake of understanding “perfect” as qualitative (referring to perfect quality), rather than quantitative (referring to amount). As stated before, the miraculous gifts were perfect quality, even though they were only a partial quantity (amount) of God’s revelation!
Second, the criteria for gauging the maturity of the church are vague. Concerning the “unification of Jews and Gentiles in one church” view, Corinth already had Jews and Gentiles in her membership (1 Corinthians 5:7); thus, why tell them about it? Concerning the “fullness of spiritual growth and maturity” view, how exactly would the church know that she had grown enough spiritually: by numerical growth, geographical spread or what?
Third, if the “perfect” were the maturity of the church, would it not have been possible for a mature church to become immature? This is exactly what happened to several churches in the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-7; Revelation 2-3). If a mature church slipped back to immaturity, this view would require re-opening the door for miraculous gifts to bring that church back to maturity. Indeed, the implications of this view do not harmonize with the context of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 or with the total teaching of the Bible.
Those who think miraculous gifts still exist are deceived. Scripture affirms that the age of miracles ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8-13). The Spirit inspired Word that God gave us is much more valuable than miraculous spiritual gifts. These gifts could only give partial glimpses of God’s will. However, the Bible, God’s completed revelation, gives everything we need to know. The Word of God has been confirmed (Hebrews 2:3-4); it has been “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3); it is able to make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15); and obedience to it results in being “born again” (1 Peter 1:23). Let us follow what God has revealed in His Word and “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
McRay, John R. “To Teleion in I Corinthians 13:10.” Restoration Quarterly 14 (1971): 168-183.
Spain, Carl. “That Which Is Perfect.” That Which Is Perfect. Ed. Ralph Sweet. Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing, 1972.
Winkler, Wendell, ed. What Do You Know About the Holy Spirit? Montgomery, Alabama: Winkler Publications, 1980.