Author: Ron Graham
The Partial and the Perfect
Special spiritual gifts were given to the early church until the complete revelation from Christ was written down in the inspired writings of the New Testament.
In our lesson below, we take careful note of how Paul speaks of spiritual gifts as being “in part” and looks forward to the revelation being “complete” or “perfect”.
First of all, let's read the passage we are going to talk about.
¶“8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” (1Corinthians 13:8-10 ESV).
¶“11When 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 childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1Corinthians 13:11-12 ESV).
¶“13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1Corinthians 13:8-13 ESV).
1 Things Passing and Things Remaining.
Observe in the passage above that Paul says some things will pass away while some things will abide or stay. He mentions three things that will pass away. These are the spiritual gifts of tongues, knowledge, and prophecy. The purpose of these miraculous gifts was to reveal the word of Christ.
Paul also mentions three things that will remain after the gifts have passed away. These are faith, hope, and love. At the time the gifts pass away, faith and hope continue on. So does love, and love will never end.
We can illustrate this with a graph as follows:
Fulness Comes, Partial Disappears
PTK--->| | FH-----|----->| L------|------|----->∞ (1) | (2) | (3)
(1) indicates the period of "in part" revelation through spiritual gifts in the early church —Prophecy, Tongues, Knowledge, with signs and wonders.
(2) indicates the period after these gifts come to end but Faith and Hope continue —based on the "complete" New Testament scriptures.
(3) indicates eternity in which faith and hope come to fruition, but Love never ends.
2 Things in Part and Things Complete
Paul names things that were "in part" and temporary, and things that would replace them and be permanent.
Comparing Two Things in the Same Realm
It is important to note that the "complete" and abiding things are of the same nature as the "partial" and temporary things. Paul's comparisons are of two things (one partial and the other complete) within one realm.
Paul said, "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully" (1Corinthians 13:12). Earlier he said, "We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away"." (1Corinthians 13:9-10).
The common realm here is knowledge of the gospel. When the gift of knowledge was exercised, it would provide a part of the whole of the gospel. But a better method was to come. As time went by, the inspired books and letters of the New Testament scriptures were written, collected, translated, copied, and distributed, so that people had the complete knowledge all together at once.
Is “the perfect” Jesus?
It is often stated that, in 1Corinthians 13:10, the phrase "when the perfect comes" means when Christ returns. That's a mistake.
- The Greek word for “perfect” is τελειον (teleion) which is neuter —describing a thing, not a person.
- Knowledge is something whilst Jesus is Someone. They are not of the same nature or realm. We have already noticed that Paul's comparisons are of two things within one realm.
- Knowledge provided by the miraculous gifts, and the perfect or complete knowledge in the New Testament scriptures, are two things of the same nature or realm. One is partial knowledge, and the other is full knowledge, but both are the same thing, namely knowledge from God.
The gift of prophecy, like the gift of knowledge, was to reveal the gospel. The gift of tongues did the same, and also served as a sign to confirm the word (Mark 16:15-20).
Prophets did not just reveal the future. They spoke messages from the Holy Spirit that were needed at a given occasion. The need was there because the New Testament scriptures were incomplete. But when people could consult the complete manuscripts, there was no more need for the gift of prophecy or any of the miraculous gifts that revealed or confirmed the word.
Paul uses the analogy of a child who is partly grown compared to a man fully grown. "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 childish ways." (1Corinthians 13:11)
Paul illustrates how the miraculous gifts were for the infant church, but the mature church put them away in favour of the completed revelation in the New Testament writings.
Image in a Mirror
Paul uses another analogy. There is an image of a face reflected in a mirror dimly, compared to the image more clearly seen directly. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully" (1Corinthians 13:12).
Scripture is All We Need
We are most fortunate to be able to read the complete word of Christ in the scriptures he inspired. Thus we can know all that he wants us to know and have at hand all the teaching to make us "perfect, completely furnished for every good work" (2Timothy 3:16-17).
3 Things Repeated, and Things Done Once
The passage we are studying (1Corinthians 13:8-13) has in view a finishing and a completion of the work of revelation. When that was done, it was done once for all and does not need to be repeated.
“Once for All”
Jude says, Contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). The things we must know, believe, and obey, were delivered "once for all", perpetually valid, just as Jesus died "once for all" (Hebrews 10:10, Romans 6:10).
The death of Jesus is sometimes called a "finished work", and rightly so, because his sacrifice never needs to be repeated. He died once; he died for all; now he lives for ever more.
In the same way the inspired writings which teach us the faith are a finished work. The gospel which we believe and follow, was given "once for all" (Jude 1:3). and does not need to be repeatedly delivered by miraculous gifts.
That is why miraculous spiritual gifts eventually ceased. They were revealing nothing new that was not already taught in the New Testament scriptures being copied, authenticated, translated, circulated, and read in the congregations.