|Volume 25 Number 5 May 2023
The Cessation of Miraculous Gifts
Brian R. Kenyon
Paul’s most comprehensive treatise on miraculous spiritual gifts is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In the midst of this section, the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle to discuss the importance, characteristics and duration of love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Love was a key element in solving their division problems, which, in part, were fueled by wrong attitudes toward miraculous gifts. In pointing out the duration of love, Paul stated the cessation of miraculous gifts.
Overview of the Passage
Three preliminary truths must be understood to help us know the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. First, it begins and ends with “love” (“Love” [“charity” KJV] never fails… the greatest of these is love” [“charity” KJV], 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NKJV). The Corinthians acted as if miraculous gifts were all that mattered, but Paul showed that love is much more important than miraculous gifts. Second, there is an important comparison between “that which is in part” and “that which is perfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). Thus, to whatever aspect the “in part” refers, it must be the same as the “perfect.” Paul was not comparing, as it were, “apples with oranges,” but “‘in part’ apples with ‘perfect’ apples.” Third, there is an important contrast between “now” and “then.” What was “now” (in Paul’s day) “in part” would at a future time (from Paul) be “perfect.” Whenever this “perfect” would come, there would no longer be a need for the “in part.” Again, whatever the “in part” represents must be the same as the “perfect” (just to a lesser degree) or else the comparison is meaningless.
Miraculous Gifts Were to Be Temporary
Although love would never come to an end, Paul said that “prophecies… will fail,” “tongues… will cease” and miraculous “knowledge… will vanish away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The terms “will fail” [“be done away” NAS; “pass away” ESV] and “will vanish away” [“be done away” NAS; “pass away” ESV] come from the same Greek word (katargeo), which means to pass away or cease. Later in this same context, the word is translated “will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:10) and “put away” [“did away” NAS; “gave up” ESV] (1 Corinthians 13:11). The term “will cease” is from a Greek word (pauo), which means to stop, cease or to be done with (Ephesians 1:16; Colossians 1:9). Clearly, these miraculous gifts, and representatively all miraculous gifts, were to cease at some point in Paul’s future. Note that “tongues,” which the Corinthians seemed to value the most highly, were dropped by Paul in the next verse.
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9) indicates that the miraculous gifts are represented by the “in part.” As the illustrations in verses 11-12 will indicate, these miraculous gifts have to do with intellectual understanding of God’s will. Before going further, let us note the way in which the “in part” is partial. As some have pointed out, Paul must have referred to partial quantity rather than partial quality. Every piece of knowledge and prophesying is “perfect” or complete in quality, but the miraculous knowledge and prophesying that came in the first century was not “perfect” or complete in quantity. For example, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is only part of God’s revelation. It is “perfect” or complete in quality. It is inspired and inerrant in what it says. However, it is not “perfect” or complete in quantity because it does not contain everything we need to know concerning Christ, His church and salvation.
“But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:10). The word “perfect” (telios), when referring to things, as in this context, refers to what has attained its goal and is thus complete or perfect. From Paul’s perspective, whenever this “perfect” would come, then the miraculous gifts (the “in part” of 1 Corinthians 13:9) would cease to exist. The question now is to what does the “perfect” refer. The only answer that is consistent with the text and the total teaching of the Bible is that the “perfect” refers to the complete written revelation of God (James 1:25).
Miraculous Gifts Were
Part of the Church’s Infancy
The two illustrations Paul gave show that miraculous gifts were to give way to a more mature and universal way. First, the “in part” and “perfect” states are compared to the difference between childhood and manhood. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Paul was not talking about diapers or sippy cups but about intellectual processes (“spoke… understood… thought”). A child learns to speak in a little-by-little, piecemeal fashion until he develops a full vocabulary and a sense of grammar. So also was the revelation of God given, at first in small bits and pieces of information through miraculous gifts, but now “the faith” has been “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Second, the “in part” and “perfect” states are likened to seeing something obscurely versus seeing it plainly. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is usually assumed that the “face to face” vision is of God or Jesus, but this cannot be correct. Neither the word “see” nor the word “know” has an object. Both are used in an absolute sense so that whatever was to be seen clearly and known fully at a future time from Paul was already being seen obscurely and known partially by Paul and his readers. They did not have an initial vision of God’s person but of God’s will. “Seeing” and “knowing” are used elsewhere to refer to the intellectual grasping of God’s will (Matthew 13:13-17). Thus, the “face to face” viewing refers to a clear and full view of God’s will due to the “perfect” (complete in quantity) revelation of God as opposed to the dim and obscure viewing that the incomplete (in quantity) miraculous gifts provided. Again, these miraculous gifts only gave a small amount of information (“in part”) compared to the full (“perfect” or complete) revelation of the completed New Testament!
Miraculous gifts served their purpose of communicating the Gospel without error (1 Peter 1:11-12), confirming the Gospel as it was being completed (Hebrews 2:3-4; Acts 14:3) and enabling the infant church to perform some of its tasks (1 Corinthians 12:4-30). Today, these purposes are achieved through the written Word of God. The complete Gospel is in our possession (James 1:21-25; 2 Peter 1:3; Jude 3). The written Word of God furnishes us “unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Do we believe and practice this?