WHEN PERFECTION COMES

1 Corinthians 13:10

Jim Gregory

uch of the religious world, including most people with Church of Christ roots, believe that "perfection" as used by Paul in the context (vs. 10) of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, refers to the completed revelation; that is, to the completion of the writing of those essays and letters which we know as the New Testament.

Paul's obvious intent in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 was the continuation of his discourse on "spiritual gifts" which he began in 1 Corinthians 12:1:"now about spiritual gifts brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant." He continued throughout chapter 12 to explain the nature of spiritual gifts and their purpose. He concluded chapter 12 and began 13 with a statement about the importance of love. He pointed out that love is far more essential than any spiritual gift(s). Without love, one is a failure regardless of any gift(s) possessed. In short, love is that which will never fail, never fall. He then pointed out that there would come a time when spiritual gifts would cease, be stilled, or pass away. He specifically mentioned tongues, prophecies and knowledge. He said that "gifts" were "in part" or partial and would be replaced by that which would come - "perfection." The question is: When did Paul think the gifts would cease and "perfection" come? If we can ascertain what he meant by "perfection" and determine when he thought "perfection" would come, this study will be a success.

Since Paul made reference to a change in the status of his own knowledge: "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully..." (vs. 12); it's important that we examine what made up his "in part" (partial) knowledge and how he came to have it. First his knowledge was based on experiences - general knowledge; that which is gained as one matures. Second, he knew the Old Testament and the oral Jewish law, which later became such writings as the Talmud and Gemara. He was a Pharisee, trained and taught by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Third, as an apostle, he had received the Spirit in such a degree as to enable him to know all that Jesus taught (John 14:25,26). Fourth, as a writer of Scripture(s), he received special inspiration of the Spirit (2Tim. 3:16, 17). While 2 Tim. 3:16, 17 refers specifically to the Old Testament, the principle of inspiration carried over to New Testament writers. Fifth , he evidently had the "spiritual gift" of knowledge. Clearly, Paul enjoyed great, varied, wide-ranging knowledge. Yet, despite this vast storehouse of knowledge, Paul considered his knowledge to be only "in part," partial, incomplete, or "imperfect."

Note the contrast he made between this partial knowledge with that which would become "perfection." The word rendered "perfection", in this context, always means completeness in quantity. Therefore, he knew that there was yet more knowledge to come or be gained. It was only when "perfection came" that the "imperfect," partial knowledge would "disappear" (vs. 10). To illustrate this fact, Paul used an analogy. He equated the change in the status of knowledge from partial to complete (in quantity) with the difference between childish actions to those of an adult (vs. 11). He further stressed and reinforced his point by adding: "Now we see but a poor reflection then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (vs. 12).

It's important that we notice three things right here. First, the "when" of verse 10 ("...when perfection comes...") points toward and refers to the "then" of verse 12 ("...then I shall know fully..."). Second, the words translated "know fully" and "fully known" mean to know or to be known with total cognizance, lacking nothing in comprehension or discernment. Third, the change in pronouns from "we" to "I" in verse 12 clearly shows that Paul was looking toward a time when his own personal knowledge would be total, complete in discernment. When "perfection" came, he would then know even as he would then be known.

Consider: Would Paul's knowledge have been any more complete after he finished writing his part of the New Testament than it was even as he wrote his words? Did his "imperfect," "in part" knowledge just suddenly, at that time, become perfect, total in quantity and discernment? I believe the answers are obvious. Who did Paul expect to come at some future time whose knowledge would be total in quantity and discernment? There is but One whose knowledge fits this description. Further, there is but one event to which Paul would have been looking toward. Read these words from the Westcott/Hort translation: "For the word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints and their marrow, and is able to discern thoughts of intentions of the heart. And there is not a creation that is not manifest to his sight, but all things are naked and openly exposed to the eyes of him with whom we have an accounting" (Heb. 4:12, 13). The "word" referred to here is not the written word. Oh, no! This passage refers to the living, risen Christ. It is this One who will come as "perfection" with a knowledge of each of us which will lack nothing in quantity or discernment! The event? His second coming when all will give "an accounting." This is "when" all will "know fully" even as all will be "fully known." This One and this event was what Paul looked toward as he wrote 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. This One, Jesus Christ, is the "perfection" of verse 10. No other conclusion is reasonable. None other makes any real sense!

Again read: "Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our lord Jesus Christ to be revealed, he will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:7,8). Were the Corinthian brethren "eagerly" awaiting the completion of the writing of the New Testament? I think not! Does the "day of our Lord Jesus Christ," refer to the day when John finished writing the Revelation? I think not! Paul did not expect 2000 years to pass before the Lord's coming: rather, he expected it momentarily (I Thess. 4:13-18). Question: Does the fact that almost 2000 years have passed change the validity of Paul's statement that there will be no lack of gifts until the Lord returns? Again, I think not!

If my conclusions be correct, why are spiritual gifts not more prevalent and/or evident in our lives? I believe the answer is simple. We do not allow him to have free rein, or for that matter - free reign, in our lives. Hear him: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me." He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 3:20, 22). Jesus is speaking to the ecclesia, His Body - you and me! He wants us to open unto him the doors of our hearts, our inner-beings, our spirits, so that he may come in and commune and fellowship with us on a personal basis. We've kept him at arm's length, bottled up in a corked bottle. No, that's not correct - rather, we've kept him imprisoned between the covers of a Book! In so doing, we are guilty of quenching the Spirit. We have become like those of Nazareth - where Jesus "could not do any miracles" (Mk. 6:5) due to "their lack of faith." (Mk. 13:58). The Spirit of Christ is just as alive and well today as he was 2000 years ago. He is no less powerful now than then. He still stands at the doors of our spirits - wanting in, so that he may guide us, use us and work through us; giving us such gifts as he sees fit for the edifying and unifying of his Body; that we "might be strong to the end" as we "eagerly" await" the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Notice Paul's concluding words: "Now, however, there remain faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (I Cor. 13:13). I believe Paul was looking forward to the time when faith would be seen, hope realized and there would remain but love. For God is love and when "perfection" (Jesus) comes, there will no longer be any need for faith or hope - for we will ever be in the presence of eternal Love. It is and shall remain my prayer that we cast off the bonds of our traditional teaching and open the doors of our inner-beings, our spirits, to our living, risen Lord. I think we would be amazed at the wonders he would perform through us if we would but let him. I say, with him: "He who has an ear, let him hear..."