It is written:
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. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 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. 12 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 13:8-12)
In this passage, the Apostle Paul teaches us that there would be a day in the Christian Age when the miraculous gifts would cease. Earlier, he had provided a list of these miraculous gifts:
1 Corinthians 12:7-10-But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
The miraculous gifts could only be conveyed through the baptism of the Holy Spirit which usually required the laying on of the Apostles hands (Acts 8:18). Since the office of Apostle was temporary (Ephesians 2:20-22), the miraculous gifts were also designed to be temporary.
Paul here teaches us that the miraculous gifts would cease when that which is “perfect” had come. The Greek word is teleion. It is a word that is neuter gender and therefore has reference to a thing, not a person.
The contrast in the text shows us what the “perfect” or the “complete” is: the fully revealed Word of God.
Notice how the “complete” takes the part of that which is “in part,” and that Paul refers to that which is in part: “for we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” This has reference to supernatural knowledge from God, i.e., His Word. At that time, the Word of God had not been fully revealed to the Christians, but one day it would be.
So the “complete” would be the completed Word of God, the New Testament. Allowing the text to define our terms helps us to realize this clearly.
Yet there are other facts from the text that lead us to this conclusion.
First, when Paul describes this “complete” coming to mankind, he uses a figure of speech that was found throughout the Old Testament Scriptures: when the “complete” came, it would be like looking in a mirror and seeing “face to face.”
Many believe that this has reference to seeing the Lord in Heaven. Yet that is not what Paul is saying at all. The truth is, Paul is using a phrase that was used throughout the Old Testament Scriptures to refer to God giving His revealed Word to mankind!
Exodus 33:11-So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle.
Numbers 12:8-I speak with him face to face, Even plainly, and not in dark sayings; And he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid To speak against My servant Moses?”
Deuteronomy 5:4-The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire.
Deuteronomy 34:10-But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,
In all of these passages, what is being stressed is the fact of God revealing His Word to mankind.
Please consider: Paul was using a common Old Testament expression in 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 that had reference to God giving His supernatural Word to humanity.
Even more astonishing is the word in verse 12 that is translated “dimly.”
Jack Cottrell writes:
“First, we shall consider this part of the verse: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” Here is the Greek for this: blepomen gar arti di’ esoptrou en ainigmati, tote de prosōpon pros prosōpon. The contrast is usually thought to be between “seeing in a mirror dimly” and “seeing face to face.” The “face to face” seeing is taken to mean seeing Jesus face to face, after the second coming. But this is not the idea at all. The contrast is between “seeing in a mirror DIMLY,” and “seeing in a mirror face to face,” or CLEARLY. The “seeing in a mirror” applies to both sides of the contrast; the difference is that one mirror is of poor quality and the other is bright, shiny, and clear. Thus the point is that both sides are referring to forms of revelation (revealed knowledge), the latter being superior to the former. The former (“ dimly”) represents enigmatic, incomplete revelation; the latter (“ face to face”) represents clear, complete revelation. Both occur within history, prior to the eschaton. The key to this understanding is the Greek phrase en ainigmati, translated “dimly.” Literally it means “in a riddle.” (I seriously recommend that everyone read the article on the word ainigma, “riddle,” in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], I: 178ff.) When we follow the trail of the word ainigma, it leads us to the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (the LXX), in Numbers 12: 8. Here Yahweh is explaining to Aaron and Miriam the difference between the way He usually spoke to Moses, in contrast with the way He spoke to most prophets. “With him [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles.” The phrase “mouth to mouth” is equivalent to “face to face” in 1 Corinthians 13: 12; and “in riddles” is the same as “dimly” in 13: 12. What we see here is that the apostle Paul is using the language of Numbers 12: 8 to contrast the partial and the complete in 1 Corinthians 13. And the contrast in both cases is between two kinds of revelation: the less clear, and the more clear. It has nothing to do with an alleged heavenly form of speaking as distinct from a this-age revelation. Even the idea of “seeing in a mirror” should be understood in terms of the Rabbinic reflections on Numbers 12: 8. First, we must certainly reject the idea that Paul is talking about seeing “through a window” at all, whether dimly or clearly. The reference is to seeing “in a mirror.” According to the article cited above from Kittel’s TDNT, this concept comes from an idea common in Rabbinic literature, i.e., depicting revelation in terms of occultish mirror-gazing or crystal-ball gazing. This is by no means an endorsement of such a practice, but we should note that in reference to Numbers 12: 8 the Rabbis said that Moses saw God in a clear mirror, while other prophets saw Him in a cloudy mirror (TDNT, I: 178). As applied to 1 Corinthians 13: 12, the distinction is not between (1) seeing ONLY in a mirror—all ancient mirrors being cloudy by nature, and (2) seeing IN PERSON. This is not the point. Rather, the distinction is between (1) seeing in a cloudy mirror, and (2) seeing in a clear mirror—which were available in Paul’s day, contrary to a popular myth. See TDNT, I: 179. The point is simply that the present gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge were like looking into the cloudy mirror; whereas using the coming teleion would be like looking into a clear mirror. We should also note that the text does not say that when we look into the clear mirror, we shall “see HIM face to face.” There is no “him,” and no object at all. The expression “see face to face” is not about whom we will see, but how we will be seeing once the teleion comes. The expression refers to the kind of seeing, namely, to the clarity of the revelation. It will be as clear as seeing one’s face in a sharp and clear mirror. (See Numbers 12: 8; Genesis 32: 30; Judges 6: 22; Deuteronomy 34: 10.) Incidentally, the Greek expression for seeing another person “face to face” was kata prosōpon, as in Acts 25: 16; 2 Corinthians 10: 1, 7; Galatians 2: 11, not the expression in our text, prosōpon pros prosōpon. See the article on prosōpon in Kittel, TDNT, VI: 768-779. This is not the only New Testament reference to “looking in a mirror,” and the other such references to “looking in a mirror” and seeing clearly refer to looking into the Word of God in the form of the New Testament. See 2 Corinthians 3: 7ff. (verse 18 specifically) and James 1: 23-25. In 2 Corinthians 3: 18 especially, the comparison is between the Old Covenant Scriptures, the reading of which is like looking through a veil, and the New Covenant Scriptures, the reading of which is like seeing Christ without a veil, i.. e., face to face. The point is that we do not have to wait until the second coming to see Christ, as it were, “face to face.” See TDNT, VI: 776. Also, 2 Corinthians 4: 6 refers to seeing the face of Christ in the gospel. The comparison with 1 Corinthians 13: 12 is obvious. The piece-meal revelations (tongues, prophecy) are to the completed New Testament what the Old Testament is to the New Testament. Here is an extended paraphrase of the first part of 1 Corinthians 13: 12–“For now, while we depend on occasional revelations through prophecy or interpreted tongues, it is like trying to see yourself in a scratched and cloudy mirror. But then, when the completed New Testament has been given, it will be like seeing a sharp, clear image of yourself in a bright new mirror.”” (Jack Cottrell, Spirits: Holy and Unholy (The Collected Writings), 2241-2294 (Kindle Edition); Mason, OH; The Christian Restoration Association)
Paul used language in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to describe the “complete.” The language that he used by inspiration clearly identifies the “complete” as the fully revealed Word of God.
The miraculous gifts have ceased-and we have the completed Word of God through the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.
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