What is the ‘Perfect’ in 1 Corinthians 13?

Something Batman doesn't even know

Something Batman doesn’t even know

Today’s post will be a bit longer than normal, and slightly more technical. To frame this article it would help you to know that this text is part of an ongoing debate in Evangelical circles regarding the ‘revelatory gifts’ of the Holy Spirit. There are some called ‘continuationists’ who teach that the revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to function as part of the church today, then there is the historic position of the ceasationists, who teach that these gifts stopped at some point during the apostolic era. For the sake of this discussion I am going to call ceasationists by the name sufficientists, since I think that better grasps their view. I would like there to be some dialogue on this, I am not set on the interpretation I am presenting, and humbly acknowledge that there are far better men than I that don’t agree with me. What is nice about blog’s in the aspect of peer-review that it can bring.

The text I have been thinking about is 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. It reads like this:

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are   tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part;

but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.  (1 Cor 13:8-13).

Just to be clear, I have generally held the position opposite to the one I am putting forward. I don’t think that the ‘sufficientist’ argument hinges at all on this passage. In fact I know very few ‘sufficientists’ who would argue this text differently from a continuationist.


The broader theme of the epistle of 1 Corinthians is unity. Chapter 13 in particular focuses on the theme of love and how it relates to unity. This passage is meant to teach the value of love, over and above other things that the Corinthians were seeing as valuable. However in addition to showing the value and lasting relevance of love Paul does make definitive statements about other ‘things’.

The Other ‘Things’

In v10 Paul writes that when the ‘perfect’ comes, the partial will be done away with; He also tells us what things are partial things, namely knowledge and prophecy. Sandwiched between this explanation and the end of the passage Paul explains why some things are partial using two examples, one of a child maturing, and the other of a man seeing his image in dimly in a

mirror, as opposed to clearly (mirrors in Biblical times gave a dim reflection, more like looking at yourself in a silver pot).

The section ends with Paul saying that now, in light of things which are partial, temporary  and passing, certain things remain, those things are faith, hope and love, the greatest being love. Thus Paul concludes by saying that faith, hope and love outlast the temporary things of tongues, knowledge and prophecy.

The key word to notice is ‘perfect’. It is the Greek word τέλειον. This Word appears 19 times in the New Testament, and three times in the epistle of 1 Corinthians. The other two times we see this word in 1 Corinthians it is translated as ‘mature’[i]. The Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament gives the range of its meaning: “complete, perfect, whole ( ἔργον τ. full effect, successful results Jas 1.4); full-grown, mature (of persons); τελειότερος more perfect (He 9.11)[ii]

The idea that the word ‘perfect’ has in it the idea of maturity should be clear from the context aswell. Paul in the very next verse (v11), describes the maturing process as progressing from a child to an adult and the putting away of childish things; it would seem that that based on the usage of this word in the rest of 1 Corinthians, as well as the immediate context, ‘mature’ is the idea here.

gifts3_0My next thought is that it is only logical that ‘perfect’/’mature’must be similar in nature to the things which it replaces or does away with, namely knowledge and prophecy. For example it would be senseless to say that when the Ipod (example of mature music device) arrives, the couch and chair will be done away with. Those two things are of a different order. To say that the ‘mature’ is Christ or the eternal state means that either of those two things complete knowledge, prophecy and tongues, but we will get back to this later.

Let’s take a look at each of the transitory things mentioned in this passage:


When we are with Christ or when we are in heaven we will have a certain accuracy of knowledge (Eph 5:27), however we do believe in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, so we can know certain things accurately now. So both when we have the completed Bible as well as in glory we can be said to have a degree of accuracy of knowledge. In heaven we will know a lot more than we do now, however we will not be omniscient, so whatever ‘perfect’ means, it doesn’t mean total knowledge. Scripture does teach us that we can have a certain kind of fullness of knowledge (not of everything, but a particular maturity) here on earth, take for example 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where Scripture is said to be given that the man of God may be complete. There is a completeness possible for the believer here, as a result of God’s revelation, knowledge which God gives to man[iii].

Maturation of some process doing away with rudimentary things (prophecy)

In heavens it clear that certain things are done away with in light of the maturing of being glorified (1 Peter 1:4; Eph 5:27), however we can also talk in the same way about the maturing of the revelatory process (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Jude 3).

The Clue of What Remains

Paul makes a statement that love, faith and hope remain after the thing we just discussed pass away. But we also know that faith and hope are not going to last forever, since faith is the evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1), but soon we will see it right? Hope is also something we do, for that which is not seen, but when we see it hope will be no more (Romans 8:24).

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. -Heb 11:1

So in the timeline Paul seems to imply, there is a point at which faith and hope remain while prophecy, tongues and knowledge are abolished/completed/reach their maturity. Now if we can conclude that in the eternal state both hope and faith are absorbed into sight, Paul cannot be talking about the second coming or the eternal state or seeing Christ. Clearly prophecy, knowledge and tongues are done away with during a time in which faith and hope are still operative, namely this age in which we live.

Face 2 Face

The part of the passage which often tripped me up was v12 and the example Paul uses: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” We read the words ‘face to face’ and lift this phrase out of the verse, immediately we attribute it to the idea of seeing Christ face to face. But is Paul talking about seeing Christ face to face? Paul says, “Now we see in a mirror dimly…” What do you see in a mirror? You see your own face. You don’t see someone else’s face, unless you have Snow White’s step-mothers mirror. A mirror reflects your own face.

I think Paul’s point here has to do with the accuracy of seeing. If I look in a mirror I see myself dimly (just like at the time with prophecy, tongues and knowledge people see truth dimly). Remember that Paul has no example of something in which he can see his reflection clearly so he contrasts seeing in the mirror dimly with seeing the thing he wants to see in the mirror more clearly, thus he says ‘face to face’. Furthermore to ensure he is understood he closes the example by saying, “but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known”, in other words if I see myself face to face, I will see myself in the same way as others see me; I can know myself fully, just as others have fully known what I look like. This makes sense since the only person who doesn’t know exactly what Paul looks like out of his audience is Paul himself.

imagesThe Maturing of the Revelatory Process

Knowledge[iv], tongues and prophecy are three spiritual gifts that are connected in the sense that they are revelatory. They are bringing revelation from God to earth in specific contexts. Thus whatever the maturing has to do with, it will be related in nature to the revelatory elements of these three gifts. I propose that the ‘mature’/’perfect’ is the maturing/coming to age of the revelatory process. It is the fully grown form of prophecy, tongues and knowledge, something which would make the man of God complete (2 Tim 3:16-17), it is something to which we have no need to add (Revelation 22:19), it is ‘the perfect law of liberty… making one blessed in what they do”(James 1:25).

These gifts have reached their end, in that the process of giving revelation is complete (Hebrews 1:1-2, Jude 3, etc). We are now able to know fully, what is needed for life and godliness (1 Cor 13:12), we are also able to know accurately what previously was all shrouded in type and shadow (1 Cor 13:11).

So, I take Paul to be saying, “Corinthians, you are all excited about these flashy gifts, but these gifts are only instructing us in part, we are growing and learning as God gives more revelation, but we understand dimly, and we don’t always have the whole picture, but you know what, when this process of revelation matures, these partial things are going to go. But you know what will last, faith, hope and love, those things will still be around, and especially love.


Lastly, if Paul had wanted to talk about heaven or the return of Christ, there are far clearer ways he could have described it, there are way better words that he uses elsewhere. However, you can understand the difficulty in trying to describe the end of a process like ‘the Canon’ or some such thing. In summary, Paul’s use of the word ‘perfect’ is understandable if he is trying to describe an abstract idea that will culminate soon, but it does not make sense for Paul to use this word to describe something that is clear and understandable like he has elsewhere.

VisualTheology_Haag_1Cor13graphThe weight of evidence seems to be clearly on the idea that the ‘mature’ is the ‘maturing of the revelatory process’ seen in the completion of God’s sufficient Word.


What are your thoughts? I’d really like to have some feedback on this topic. I don’t think I have arrived or that this is the final Word on the passage, so feel free to give me some insights or point out some blind spots.



[i] 1 Cor 14:20, and 1 Cor 2:6
[ii]Newman, Barclay Moon: Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. Stuttgart, Germany : Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft; United Bible Societies, 1993, S. 180
[iii] I would like to briefly interact with what I have been told is the major reformed opposition to this passage as teaching cessetionism. Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones in his book “Joy Unspeakable” makes mention of this passage and the cessationist argument on pages 157-160 (1995 edition). His main argument does not actually engage with the text at all and in fact is more of a prima facie argument meant to move one emotionally. Now I have much respect for the late doctor, but I don’t think this was his best work. He contends that it is unthinkable to suggest that people living today with the Scripture can have a more full-orbed knowledge and or accurate knowledge of the Scripture. But this should not be so surprising to him, since Peter admits that he doesn’t understand all the things related in Scripture, particularly Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:16), and if Peter is seen to have some primacy among the apostles that it would be odd that he could express learning things from Paul, when Apostles, as Jones suggests, should have the height of knowledge in the Church. No, the foundation is laid by all the prophets and all the apostles, but not every apostle and every prophet laid the exact same thing, yet always what they did lay were in harmony.
[iv] knowledge: whatever ‘knowledge’ is here, it cannot be merely having knowledge, for i am sure that the non-cessastionist believes that we will know something in heaven, or after we meet Christ, our knowledge will not be abolished. I think it best to understand knowledge in the context of the two other gifts next two it, which are both revelatory in nature, thus it makes sense to assume that ‘knowledge’ was a gift of revelatory nature.

  5 comments for “What is the ‘Perfect’ in 1 Corinthians 13?

  1. David
    August 11, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Actually, though I’m a cessationist, I don’t think the perfect of 1 Cor 13 is either the completed Word of God or the matured state of the church. The research I did on it for a seminary paper led me to believe it simply refers to the perfection and maturing of knowledge which will come at the Second Advent. Paul’s main argument is that the Corinthians, who are puffed up on knowledge, are pursuing knowledge gifts with partial and temporary benefits, as opposed to humbling themselves and giving themselves to enduring love.
    Richard Gaffin has this idea in ‘Perspectives on Pentecost”. I don’t think 1 Cor 13 is the hinge for continuationism/ cessationism. The debate centres around how we understand the book of Acts, and more specifically, the apostolic office.

    Good and thorough work, though. A very supportable thesis.

    • tyrellh
      August 14, 2014 at 2:38 pm

      Hi David

      Thanks for the encouragement. Id be keen to research paper on the subject if you are willing to share. I only ever read Gaffin in his critical question series. How did you deal with the continuation of faith and hope issue? Does your eschatology come to the rescue with a millennium (I could see that working) or .do you define those terms like I think it was Carson does, thereby not needing them to be done away with in the eternal state?

      What do you think of the clarity issue? Why didn’t he just speak clearly about the second coming as he does elsewhere?

      Be keen to hear your thoughts

      • David
        August 15, 2014 at 8:56 am


        The faith and hope issue is for me resolved in Romans 8 – a man does not hope for what he sees, faith becomes sight, etc. My eschatology (which sees the redemption of creation in Romans 8 as partially fulfilled in the Millennium) would see the nature of faith changing in the eternal state; i.e.there will always be trust and commitment, but it will no longer be hoped for or unseen. Love, on the other hand is already what it will be – desiring the good of the beloved.

        The clarity issue is probably more a result of us looking for this text to do more than Paul intended. We need to see the theme of knowledge and pride in the carnal, divisive Corinthians, to really understand why chapter 13 is sandwiched between chapter 12 and 14. Paul more than likely did not expect his words to settle the issue of the permanence of sign gifts.

        The issue if far clearer when we see that the sign gifts are present almost always and only when an apostle was present, or when the church had been founded by an apostle, or when the successor had been appointed by an apostle (no, I don’t hold to successionism as R.C. teaches it.) The sign gifts were not there to confirm the message (otherwise we should still have them and would always need them). They were there to confirm the messengers – the chosen 12 appointed to transition from old covenant to new covenant, to lay the foundation, and write (or oversee) the new covenant Scriptures.

        I’ll email you the paper, but if you get through more than five pages of heavy boring academese, I’ll be impressed 🙂

  2. Wilna
    August 12, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Dear Tyrell,  Thank you for your blog and the trouble you take in writing this. We do appreciate it- even though we do not respond!  We are also blessed by your talk on Radio on Sunday mornings. 

    Many blessings and love in the LORD!  Dawid & Wilna 

    Sent from Samsung Mobi

    • tyrellh
      August 14, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      Dankie Wilna

      Thanks for the encouragement

      Trust you are both well

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