Monday, February 20, 2012

The Gift of Tongues Has Ceased: An Exposition of I Corinthians 13:8-12

I Corinthians 12, 13, and 14 address the use of spiritual gifts in the church. A prominent focus is on the gift of tongues. Especially chapter 13 gives an explanation for why the gift of tongues is no longer necessary or available today. Verse 8 explains that some spiritual gifts are permanent and some are temporary:
“Love never fails.” 
 In other words, love is a permanent gift of God. Verse 13 lists two more permanent gifts—faith and hope. These three “abide” or remain, because they are all permanent. On the other hand, verse 8 also explains that some gifts are not permanent. They are temporary:
“. . . but if there are gifts of [c]prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.”
These three gifts have at least two things in common. They are gifts of revelation and communication. The church of the apostolic era did not possess the complete revelation of God in the form of the NT. This leads to the obvious question, “Without the NT, how did they know what God wanted them to know?” The answer is that God gave certain individuals gifts of revelation and communication—knowledge, prophecy, and tongues.

The gift of knowledge was the provision of divine revelation to individuals directly from God. The later church received its knowledge about God from the Old and New Testaments. The church  of the apostolic era had only the Old Testament, so God gave New Testament era knowledge directly to specific individuals. For instance—Paul the Apostle used this knowledge to produce the epistles. Other prophets and apostles did the same. This gift was no doubt tied to the gift of prophecy. Through this gift, individuals preached what God wanted to have communicated to his people. Tongues was closely related to these two gifts—the ability to preach what God wanted preached directly to people who spoke foreign languages. It was primarily a gift for missionary purposes. Verse 9 continues:
 “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” 
 God gifted the writers of the New Testament to inscripturate the very Words of God so that it could be passed from generation to generation. But in the church of the apostolic era, before the completion of the New Testament Scriptures, God directly revealed knowledge to congregations through people with the gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues-speaking. But God did not reveal everything to any one person. They received “knowledge in part and prophecy in part.” Partial prophecy and partial knowledge. What God gave them to know and preach was exactly what he wanted known and preached at any particular moment.

Verse 8 has already told us that, unlike love, hope and faith, which are permanent, the partial gifts are temporary: 
“. . . but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.”
Knowledge, prophecy, and tongues will come to an end because some gifts are permanent and some are temporary.

This leads to the question, “When will the gifts that are temporary come to an end?” Verse 10 explains:
 “When the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” 
The juxtaposition of the words “perfect” and “partial” provide the answer. Since the word “perfect” is contrasted with the word “partial,” we understand that the word “perfect” refers to something that is complete. An apple pie with one slice missing is not “perfect” or complete.  Another way to say this is that when the goal or purpose (τὸ τέλειον) of the temporary gifts has been achieved, the temporary gifts will end. So “when the perfect comes” means this—when the revelation and communication that comes through knowledge, prophecy, and tongues is complete (i.e., no longer partial) the partial or temporary gifts will cease to be necessary or available. The partial will be done away. 

From where do we get our revelation today? How does God communicate to us today? Obviously, through the Word of God in the complete Old and New Testaments. The perfect came when God stopped communicating in partial ways, and when he completed his communication through the prophets and apostles  in the form of the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, I believe that the temporary gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues passed away when we had complete in our hands everything that God wanted revealed—namely, the complete Word of God.

In verses 11 and 12, Paul provides two often misunderstood illustrations of this transition of the partial to the complete. He speaks first of a child that matures into a man and forsakes childish ways. According to this first illustration, the church is like a child that grows up and no longer needs what it had when it was child. By analogy, the early church would lose the gifts of partial revelation when it eventually had complete revelation.

The second illustration is that of a mirror. Unfortunately this illustration is frequently given an eschatological interpretation that is completely out of line with the context. It should be viewed as supporting the train of thought that the partial will give way to the complete, and it should be viewed as parallel to the previous illustration. To remove it to the distant future and the return of Christ introduces an element that is foreign to Paul’s flow of thought and not parallel to his previous illustration.

Mirrors of the early church era were not like mirrors today. They were usually polished metal or stone surfaces. Regardless, the reflection could not be compared to the crisp, clear reflections that we use today. The reflection was always dimmer than face to face contact with another person. So to see a reflection in a mirror was to see only a dim image. But to see face to face was to see clearly. The analogy is the same as the first illustration—the partial revelation from God was like a dim image. On the other hand, the complete revelation from God was like seeing someone face to face. The sentence “now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known,” is often improperly stretched, along with the phrase “but then face to face,” to refer to a state of being after we have transitioned into glory. This interpretation therefore interprets the word "perfect" as referring to the time of the second advent of Christ. However, this once again reads into the passage an element that is foreign to Paul’s train of thought and not parallel to the previous illustration. To know as we have been fully known is simply a way of saying that knowledge is  full and complete. Before the revelation was complete, the church only knew partially. But after the revelation was complete, the church knew fully what God wanted it to know.

In both of these two illustrations, Paul used prejudicial language. He spoke of childish ways and dim mirrors as if they were far less desirable than maturity and seeing face to face. We are intended to hear a tone in his voice that says, “You don’t want childish ways, do you? You don’t want dim mirrors do you?” The answer that Paul expects through this prejudicial language is “of course not.”  The obvious conclusion is this—God has given to us his complete revelation. Why in the world would we ever want to go back to the days of mere partial knowledge, prophecy and tongues?

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