Presented to the SCS Faculty Symposium on the Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, July 27, 2015
While not the only passage on the topic, 1 Corinthians 13 is a pivotal context on the issue of whether or not the revelatory gifts continue for the church’s use today or whether they have ceased. The eighth verse catalogs three particular nouns to highlight their temporality in contrast with the enduring nature of love (agape): prophecies (prophetai, nominative plural), tongues (glossai, nominative plural), and knowledge (gnosis, nominative singular).
In this context these three are not explicitly identified as gifts, though 12:4 mentions that there are varieties of gifts (charisma). Paul adds that “to each is given a manifestation (phanerosis) of the Spirit for the common good” (12:7). Following the designation of “manifestation,” Paul refers (in a list that includes other manifestations) to the same three he later addresses in chapter 13. Though his verbiage is slightly different in 12, he mentions word of knowledge (12:8, logos gnoseos), prophecy (12:10, propheteia), and other kinds of tongues (12:10, hetero gene glosson), along with a second category related to tongues, the interpretation of tongues (hermeneia glosson).
These three manifestations share the common trait of communicating aspects of God’s revelation. Prophecy is directly identified as a vehicle for revelation (2 Pet 1:20-21), while word of knowledge would seem at least closely related to revelation, since it was given and not learned (1 Cor 12:8). Tongues, though serving as a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22), was nonetheless also a content-oriented manifestation. The function of tongues was to communicate God’s truth in languages the speaker had not learned (e.g., Acts 2:4-6).
Paul adds two hypothetical functions for tongues, including speaking with the tongues of angels (1 Cor 13:1), and praying in tongues (14:14). But nowhere does he advocate for the actuality of these two, so we have no reason to think they were anything other than hyperbole. Notice in 1 Corinthians 13:3, Paul discusses the giving of all his possessions to feed the poor and the presenting of his body to be burned as hypothetical, and there is no indication that he actually did these two things. So if tongues was not a method of communicating with angels, nor a legitimate means of prayer, then its only demonstrable function is the one evidenced in Acts 2 – the communication of God’s word, specifically relaying the mighty deeds of God (2:11).
While Peter does not describe the Pentecost tongues event as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29, he identified the two contexts as related, in that they both evidenced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and their results included a prophetic component (2:18). In so doing, it seems that Peter recognizes a revelatory aspect to the manifestation of tongues. If this is so, then all three of the gifts Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 are revelatory in nature, and it is appropriate to recognize a contrast between the eternality of love and the temporality of the revelatory manifestations (or gifts). Consequently, revelatory manifestations were never expected to be anything but short lived. The question at issue here is just how short lived they would be. Would they cease at the second coming of Christ, or at the maturing of the church, or at the inauguration of the eternal state, or at the completion of God’s revealed word? There is no question that these revelatory manifestations would cease at some point. The question of timing is addressed here.
The Cessation of the Three Revelatory Functions
Paul describes the conclusion and fulfillment of the revelatory sign gifts in 1 Corinthians 13:10, when he says, “but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” The perfect is τὸ τέλειον, and is translated in different contexts as perfect, genuine, complete, mature, adult, or even initiated. How this word is translated in 13:10 is the most significant lexical issue regarding miraculous sign gifts. If in this context it is best translated mature or adult, then Paul’s implication would be that sign gifts are done away as a maturing (either individual or corporate) occurs. If it is best translated perfect, then it would seem most likely that Paul is referencing some aspect of the eternal state or even the return of Christ (as that which initiates perfection). If the intended meaning of τὸ τέλειον is the complete, or that which is completed, then in this context of sign gifts which are all related to revelation, it would seem a certain reference to God’s complete revelation – a completed Scripture – even if not yet at that point of completion fully recognized as canonical.
In 13:8, there are three revelatory sign gifts or functions (they are not specifically referred to as gifts in this context) mentioned: prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. Prophecy and knowledge both end the same way: they are done away – prophecies, in the plural (καταργηθήσονται) and knowledge, in the singular (καταργηθήσεται). The verb, katergeo (to put an end to or stop to) in both cases is passive voice, meaning that an outside force will end these abruptly. Tongues, on the other hand, will cease (παύσονται). This verb is in the middle voice, meaning that the subject is acting upon itself: tongues will cease themselves. Tongues is the first of these three to go. Remember the contrast: love never fails, but these other three will. Verses 9-10 discuss a specific event that brings the “failing” or limitation of prophecy and knowledge, but by the time that event happens, tongues have already ceased themselves. Tongues are the least significant of these three revelatory sign gifts or functions. Remember that after the mentions of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 tongues is never again mentioned during the remaining forty or so years of New Testament history – not once.
In 13:9, Paul identifies the particular kind of prophecy and knowledge that will be done away: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” Literally translated, ἐκ μέρους, is in or from a part. It is not that prophecy and knowledge will disappear, it is that partial prophecy and knowledge will be done away. Paul says “we know…and prophesy…” – both verbs are present active indicative. The prophesying and knowledge that was presently in effect during Paul’s day was in part. In extolling love’s superiority, Paul identifies in 13:10 the event that will end partial knowledge and partial prophecy: “but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” The NASB, KJV, and ESV all translate τὸ τέλειον as “the perfect.” The NetBible translates the same way, but adds the appropriate note, “Or ‘when completion’.” The word teleios can have any one of several meanings, but when Paul has just established the antonym as partial in the previous verse, the natural reading of the text would be to translate teleios as complete, rather than perfect. Paul is not contrasting imperfect and perfect. He is contrasting partial and complete. That contrast governs the illustrations to follow – they do not govern the contrast.
For example, in 13:11 Paul illustrates that there is a difference between the speech, thoughts, and reasonings of a child and those of a man. From this example, some conclude that Paul’s contrast in 13:9-10 is of immature and mature, but μέρους is never used elsewhere to reference immaturity (especially note Paul’s uses in 1 Cor 12:27 and in Eph 4:16). Paul employs the illustration to show that childish things are partial, and unfitting for an adult. He introduces the idea of logical progression. This doing away of prophecy and knowledge is part of a logical progression, and it is the coming of the complete that brings it about.
Likewise, 13:12 provides another example – this one illustrates clarity of focus or certainty. “For we now see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face…” The term translated mirror (ἐσόπτρου) is used only one other time in the NT. In James 1:23 the term is used in the context of illustrating that one who looks at the word but is not a doer of it is like one who looks in a mirror and forgets his face. In both instances, the near-context referent is the word of God and human response to it. In 1 Cor 13:12, the mirror is engaged ἐν αἰνίγματι – in a dim (or enigmatic) image, but then “face to face.” Because of this latter phrase, some suggest τὸ τέλειον references the eternal state (after all, we will be face to face with Jesus, right?). And I certainly admit that this phrase is difficult to justify with the contrast of partial versus complete. However, even with this difficulty, we must prioritize either a phrase in a secondary illustration or we must prioritize the primary contrast undergirding the entire context: partial versus complete. I prioritize the latter, and consider the former simply one of many Pauline mixed metaphors (e.g., as in 1 Cor 3:1-17).
“Now I know in part.” Again, ἐκ μέρους, from a part. “But then I will know fully…” This phrase is translated in such a way that we might infer the eternal state is in view. For when else will we know fully? But it does not say we will know fully. The word translated know fully is ἐπιγνώσομαι, and it simply means to understand or to have certainty. Romans 3:20 uses the same root word to describe the present knowledge of sin brought by law. The eternal state is not in view here. “Just as I also have been fully known.” This phrase uses the same verb as in the earlier phrase – not fully known, but rather, understood or recognized. Either way, the contrast is to ἐκ μέρους, and that is probably why the verb is translated as fully known.
We should admit that worthy arguments could be mounted for both of these Pauline illustrations (the child/man and mirror/face to face) as portraying the maturing of the church, the eternal state, or the completed Scriptures. It should also be recognized that none of these examples provide conclusive arguments in themselves. But ultimately Paul employs these examples to illustrate his earlier primary contrast – partial versus complete.
In any case, partial prophecy and knowledge will be done away as revelatory vehicles, because the complete will have arrived. The natural reading of this context favors the completed revelation of God as taking the place of the partial, and hence the vehicles for partial knowledge and revelation are simply no longer needed, having fully served their revelatory purpose.
If we would argue that this is not what Paul intended to communicate, then we must address three major resulting difficulties: (1) the exegetical one, in which we must discard ἐκ μέρους and τὸ τέλειον as contrasting ideas altogether, (2) the theological one, in which there is absolutely no need or justification for a completed written revelation at all [if this is the case how can Rev 22:18-19 prohibit additions and subtractions, when theoretically, additions, at least, should be possible?], and (3) the historical one, in which if tongues, prophecy, and knowledge endure, we should expect them to be fairly common if not normative in the church, yet even in the seminal apostolic age of the church, tongues, for example, receives no mention beyond AD 54.
Does Revelation 11 Argue Against Cessationism of Revelatory Functions?
The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 considers three kinds of manifestations of the Spirit (12:7) in the body of Christ: gifts, ministries, and effects. Paul’s larger point is that these are all given for the common good (12:7), and that without love they cannot achieve their purpose (13:1-3). Love and the building up of the body is the point. The listed manifestations of the Spirit are significant means to that end. The key point as it relates to this particular question is that the manifestation of the Spirit is given (hence the loose references to the manifestations as gifts) within and for the body of Christ. The context for spiritual gifts is exclusively the body of Christ. Consequently, the idea that the completed written revelation does away with prophecy needs to be slightly qualified: it does away with prophecy as a partial-revelation spiritual manifestation or gift in the church. Paul is not discussing prophecy outside of that context. What we see in Revelation 11 is a different context altogether.
The two witnesses are indeed prophesying (Rev 11:3), and are even dealing in the realm of signs and miracles (11:6). But it is very notable that their ministry is a testimony (11:7) to the peoples, tribes, and tongues (11:9), and is considered by the people on earth to be torment, not edification (11:10). The church is no longer on earth, not having been specifically referenced after Revelation 3, and the church won’t return to the earth until Christ does in Revelation 19:11. In short, the two witnesses are not church-age believers, they are not ministering to the church, and they are not utilizing spiritual manifestations or gifts as Paul described them. The ministry of the two witnesses is more like the Hebrew prophets of Israel’s monarchy period than anything we see during the church age.
The completed written revelation doesn’t end prophecy as a tool in God’s toolbox for use after the church age, but it does end prophecy as a partial-revelation spiritual manifestation or gift to the church.