When Perfection Comes - Seagoville Church of Christ (2023)

When Perfection Comes - Seagoville Church of Christ (1)Paul told the Corinthians: “Love never fails; as for the prophecy, it will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will perish.” (1 Kor. 13:8). What are "tongues"? The only story in the Bible that describes tongues in detail comes from Luke: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them to say. […] And they were astonished and amazed and said: 'Are not all these that speak Galileans? And how do we hear, each of us in our own native language?'” The apostles spoke in tongues. The apostles spoke native languages ​​that they had never studied or learned. The gift of tongues is the miraculous ability to speak in languages ​​foreign to the speaker but familiar to residents of the region where the language is commonly used.

Based on the instructions in tongues, charismatics define the gift in terms that contradict this simple narrative. But their misinterpretations result from a failure to recognize the context in which Paul's instructions appear. For example, Paul said, "If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have no love, I am like a gong or a cymbal clanging" (1 Kor. 13:1). Does this mean (as some claim) that tongues can preach in a heavenly tongue? NO. That's exaggeration. In the next verse Paul says, "If I have all faith, even if I move mountains, but have no love, I am nothing" (V. 2). Did talented Christians in Corinth literally move mountains? NO. Did they literally speak with angelic tongues? NO. Hyperbole is an exaggeration used for emphasis. To speak "with the tongues of men and angels" means to be gifted and eloquent.

Another misinterpreted text appears in 1 Corinthians 14. Paul said: “He who speaks in tongues speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he speaks mysteries in the Spirit” (v. 2). Supposedly, this means that a person who speaks in tongues is communicating in a language unknown to mankind. Not so. At Corinth, the brothers broke off, talking at the same time, speaking in tongues unfamiliar to the public. If I gave a Chinese sermon in China, the language would be familiar to my audience there. But if I presented the same message in Seagoville, Texas, my audience wouldn't get it. I would speak "not to men, but to God."

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However languages ​​may be defined (such as gibberish or native tongues), the Bible says this gift will “cease” (1 Kor. 13:8). In some respects the gift of tongues is inferior: “For our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will perish" (1 Kor. 13:9-10). That is, the knowledge and prophecy of the nascent Church was incomplete.

When Perfection Comes - Seagoville Church of Christ (2)How was that true? Has the Holy Spirit failed to communicate the truth essential to the salvation and growth of the nascent church? This possibility is unthinkable. Jesus told the apostles, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth" (John 16:13). Certainly it was the type of communication that could be improved. Moffatt's translation is: For we know little by little and prophesy little by little; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect is overcome" (1 Kor. 13:9-10). The Corinthians prided themselves on their spiritual gifts. But the shortcomings of this type of communication were obvious (14:27-40). What the church needed more than anything else was love ("If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have no love, I am a tinkling gong or a tinkling bell. [...] Make love your aim (13:1,14:1).

The prophecy will pass away. Tongues will stop. Supernatural manifestations of knowledge will end. But if? "But when the perfect comes," says the Bible, "the imperfect will pass away" (1 Kor. 13:10).

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But what is "perfect"? The most common explanation is that Paul is referring to the full knowledge that can be enjoyed in heaven. This theory allows the spiritual gifts to continue into modern times. But the last verse of 1 Corinthians 13 poses a serious problem to this view: “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” In this chapter Paul contrasts the temporary nature of spiritual gifts with the permanent nature of these three great Christian virtues. Now here's the problem: faith and hope will not endure in heaven. So long as we are distant from the Lord, "we walk by faith, and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). But if we are at home with the Lord, we shall surely walk by sight, not by faith. And hope? In hope “we were saved. Now the hope you see is no hope. For who waits for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). In heaven we will rejoice, not in the hope, but in the realization of it.

So "the perfect" cannot be the complete knowledge enjoyed in heaven. The revelations “by and by” ended, but faith and hope would endure as long as the earth existed. "The perfect" is coming to replace the partial while the church is still in this world and still experiencing the blessings of faith and hope.

When Perfection Comes - Seagoville Church of Christ (3)What, then, is "the perfect"? "The perfect" (to teleion) can mean "the whole". For this reason, some understand “the perfect one” to mean the completion of the New Testament scriptures. Paul himself speaks of the coming fullness of knowledge: “For now we see faintly in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. Now I partially know; then I will fully understand as I was fully understood" (1 Kor. 13:12). The metal mirrors of Paul's day reflected images poorly. Perhaps he is implying that as the Church completes the scriptures, it will see the bigger picture more clearly.

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It is certainly true that the author of Hebrews speaks of the age of the gifts of the Spirit as if it were about to pass away. "How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" he asked. "In the beginning it was proclaimed by the Lord, and it was testified to us by those who heard it, while God also testified by signs and wonders and divers wonders and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will" (hebr. 2:3-4). Here the Bible speaks of the revelation of the gospel taking place in at least two stages. First the Lord preached it. Then eyewitnesses explained what they had seen and heard. The Holy Spirit confirmed their words by giving them wonderful gifts. Perhaps the past tense verbs in this chapter point to a third phase that was soon to come—the completion of the New Testament Scriptures and the consequent end of the Age of Spiritual Gifts.

So “the perfect one” could be the conclusion of the New Testament scriptures. A possible flaw in this view may be that spiritual gifts almost certainly did not end immediately with the completion of the Bible in AD 96 (the year Revelation was written on Patmos). However, nothing in it1 Corinthians 13calls for an abrupt end to spiritual gifts. The supernatural revelations could easily have gradually stopped.

"The perfect one" (to teleion) can also mean "the mature thing". This idea is also supported by the immediate context in which1 Corinthians 13: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up pettiness” (verse 11). In AD 55 (when 1 Corinthians was written) the Church was still in its infancy. But in time the church would reach a more mature stage of development.

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Does this mean that the church would be free of immature members? Naturally. But with a little history under its belt and a full written revelation of God's will in its hands, the church is better placed to sustain lasting growth and brave the raging winds of false teaching. Paul didn't say that exactlyEpheser 4:7-16, Passage very similar1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40?

When Perfection Comes - Seagoville Church of Christ (4)Both passages written by Paul speak of the church as the body of Christ. Both mention the gifts that equipped the early church for ministry. Both emphasize the need to build up the church. And both point out that the spiritual gifts were for a definite time: "And his gifts were, that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some shepherds and teachers... knowledge of the Son of God, to mankind, to the measure the greatness of the fullness of Christ" (Eff. 4:11, 13). But isn't Paul talking about the perfect state of the church in heaven? He can't be. The maturity Paul had in mind was the protection of the church from corrupt men ("lest we be children tossed and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their cunning by deceitful means become." (Eff. 4:14)). Will the wiles of deceitful men threaten the Church in heaven? NO. The maturity that Paul was thinking of, the maturity that would mean the end of the spiritual gifts, would come while the church was still on earth.

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul does not specify what "the perfect" is. The Corinthians probably heard him speak about it personally and therefore knew a little more about it than the modern Bible reader. However compare1 Corinthians 13comEpheser 4leads to the conclusion that the spiritual gifts were given in the infancy of the church and that they should be withdrawn as the church matured in experience and knowledge. The completion of the New Testament writings at the end of the first century greatly facilitated this maturing.

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