It is written:
1 Corinthians 13:8-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.
Paul concludes his description of love by telling us that “love never fails.” The idea here is of the fact that love is something which is permanent and eternal.
Now, there is a reason why Paul is stressing this fact here.
All through 1 Corinthians 13, Pauli has been talking about the fact that love is the way which exceeds all others (1 Corinthians 12:31). The Corinthian Christians were in a tizzy over their misuse of the miraculous gifts of the first century church. Paul goes through and shows them numerous reasons why love is superior to the miraculous gifts.
And what is one of the main reasons for the superiority of love over the miraculous gifts?
Very simply, the miraculous gifts will cease; but love will continue forever.
Notice the different words that the Apostle uses to describe the temporary limitations of the miraculous gifts:
1 Corinthians 13:8-10-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.
Writing of these words, MacArthur informs us:
“Fails (from piptō) has the basic meaning of falling, especially the idea of final falling, and was used of a flower or leaf that falls to the ground, withers, and decays. Never refers to time, not to frequency, and the idea is that at no time will divine love ever fall, wither, and decay. By nature it is permanent. It is never abolished. Love cannot fail because it shares God’s nature and God’s eternity…Done away is from katargeō, which means “to reduce to inactivity,” or “to abolish.” The gifts of prophecy and knowledge one day will be made inoperative. Both forms of this verb in verse 8, as well as its form in verse 10, are passive; that is, something or someone will cause them to stop. As will be discussed below, that something is the coming of “the perfect” (v. 10). Cease is from pauō, which means “to stop, to come to an end.” Unlike katargeō, this verb is here used in the Greek middle voice, which, when used of persons, indicates intentional, voluntary action upon oneself. Used of inanimate objects it indicates reflexive, self-causing action. The cause comes from within; it is built in. God gave the gift of tongues a built-in stopping place. “That gift will stop by itself,” Paul says. Like a battery, it had a limited energy supply and a limited lifespan. When its limits were reached, its activity automatically ended. Prophecy and knowledge will be stopped by something outside themselves, but the gift of tongues will stop by itself. This distinction in terms is unarguable.” (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians MacArthur New Testament Commentary , 7758-7791 (Kindle Edition); Chicago; Moody Press)
Paul is very emphatic that the miraculous gifts would cease.
The Apostle is also clear about WHEN the miraculous gifts would be done away with: when the “complete” has come.
Now, what does that mean?
Some say this is a reference to Jesus Himself.
Others claim that this is talking about Heaven.
Well, what are the facts of the matter?
First, notice the contrast that Paul sets up in verses 9 and 10: “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.”
You have something which is “in part” (literally, “bit by bit”). This will eventually be following by something which not “in part,” but which is “perfect” (the Greek word used here means something which is complete, and neuter in gender and hence not a person). When the “complete” would manifest, the miraculous gifts (which are “in part”) will be done away with.
So, to understand what the “complete” is, we need to see it will be the fulfillment of that which is “in part.” But what is “in part” is what Paul refers to as to supernaturally revealed Word of God (“for we know in part, and we prophesy in part”). Therefore, the “perfect” or “complete” has reference to the completed Word of God. This completed Word of God was brought to mankind-we know it as the Holy Bible (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Second, Paul that uses an illustration which is drawn from the Old Testament and fully explains what he is trying to communicate.
1 Corinthians 13:11-12-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.
Usually, people look at this passage and say, “Well, this must be a reference to Heaven: so the miraculous gifts will be around till we get to Heaven!”
But they are not taking into account the usage of this phrase “face to face” that was commonly used in the Old Testament Scriptures:
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.
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, the idea of “face to face” had reference God revealing His Word!
Third, look at that word “dimly” that Paul uses to describe the nature and duration of the miraculous gifts.
It was also used in the Greek Old Testament:
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?”
Here, God emphasizes that His revelation to Moses was greater and more plain than that which He used to communicate with other Prophets.
“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)
So these phrases that Paul used to describe the ending of miraculous gifts had reference to God bringing His full revelation to mankind. Thus, the “complete” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 had reference to the completion of God’s Word to mankind. Interestingly enough, James uses the same Greek word used by Paul here and refers to the New Testament system as the “perfect law of liberty.” (James 1:25).
Finally, the early Christians noted that the miraculous gifts had indeed ceased.
Chrysostom-“[Commenting on 1 Corinthians 12:] “This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place.” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians , 36.7. Chrysostom is commenting on 1 Corinthians 12:1–2 and introducing the entire chapter. Cited from Gerald Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians , Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 146)
Chrysostom (Commenting On 2 Thessalonians 2:7)-“One may naturally inquire what is that which restrains the man of lawlessness, and in addition, why Paul expresses it so obscurely. What then is it that holds back, that is, that hinders the revealing of, the Antichrist? Some indeed say, the grace of the Spirit, but others the Roman Empire. I agree with the latter position. Why? Because if Paul meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely but plainly, that even now the grace of the Spirit, that is the gifts, hold back the Antichrist. If not, he should have come by now, if his coming was to occur with the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit; for they have long since ceased….But because Paul said this of the Roman Empire, he merely touched the topic, understandably speaking covertly and darkly. For he had no need to create unnecessary enemies and useless dangers.…(Homilies on 2 Thessalonians 4. [NPNF 1 13:388-89*.])
Augustine-““In the earliest times, the Holy Spirit fell upon them that believe and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there was this betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues to show that the gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a sign, and it passed away.” (Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John , 6.10. Cited from Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers , 1st series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012), 7:497–98)
The Corinthians were seeking so hard after the miraculous gifts-yet the one gift which would last forever and which they were in essence ignoring was what they needed to seek the most: the gift of love!
Friends, love will never fail.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.