This small piece of scripture actually is one of the largest pieces of information that the Bible holds. It will actually form your thinking and split the Christian world right down the middle because if it means one thing then only certain things can happen yet if it means the other thing then it opens up a whole new way of thinking. What are those two sides?
- The "perfect" means the written word of God
- The "perfect" means the second coming of Christ
Why does it matter which is right? If the written word of God is the perfection that Paul was writing about then things like Spiritual Gifts take on a different meaning and purpose for the 21st century Church. Many will say that these were not meant for us. But if it is the second coming of Christ then the 21st century Church needs to be working in all the same ways the 1st century Church was, meaning practicing your gift which may be of the "miraculous" type. Let's look at both sides.
The Written Word Scenario:
The first thing that people of this line of thinking will want to define is the term miracle itself. If we are talking the everyday mundane thing of how the sun rises and the workings of the universe being a work of God then yes it's a miracle. But if we want to use the correct terminology then the everyday events that happen in our lifetimes are not miracles. Yes, a baby being born is a miracle in the first sense, but is not by definition a miracle. It's a process of life. A miracle is something beyond the laws of nature that God uses to influence, authenticate, enhance, and/or edification of a person's mission or service, including personal worship. But here is where the one down this line will say miracles do not happen anymore. The first reason they will say this is because the only ones in their view who were given authority to use miracles was Christ Himself and His Apostles, the 12 men who were part of His ministry and Paul. And since they have long died then authentication is no longer available and the passing of these gifts onto other people by laying on hands would have also no longer been available. John would have been the last one to have this power. John is also the one who penned the last of the scripture as we know it today.
The second reason for this view is that many will say these gifts were only for the 1st century church. They needed them since they were young in existence and needed guidance in special ways to over the adversary and to keep the message of Jesus Christ moving. Such as tongues were needed because people may have been missionaries and would not know the language of the area they were going to. Miracles were needed as a sign for the unbeliever to trust the one with the message. Like an infant needs parental guidance and a helping hand so did the early church. But since we are no longer the infant church but mature then these gifts would not be needed anymore.
The main point is since we have the whole written word of God then we do not need to be authenticated. We do not need to prove the power of God like they did in Biblical times. The need for miracles are not around anymore since we can show them the word of God. Another scripture that will back this up is Hebrews 1:1-2
- 1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,
- 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe
Therefore, since God speaks to us through His Son (the word of God, John 1:1-2) then we do not need things like prophets anymore. And prophecy is one of those miraculous gifts that will have ceased, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. The need for speaking in tongues has passed since we have known languages and interpreters. Laying on hands as a vessel of healing is no longer valid since Apostles were the only ones in the Bible who did it.
The Second Coming Scenario:
When Paul wrote this piece of scripture in 55 AD it was 40 years before the last of scripture was written. At the time he was writing there is no possible way he knew his words were going to be used for scripture. How could he have known when the end of scripture would have been written? He didn't. So how could he have known that some of these gifts would cease when the last piece of scripture would be written? Some would say by the Holy Spirit. But that still leaves holes to be filled. Such as when he mentioned gifts in Romans and Ephesians 2-5 years later, why did he not tell them these would cease?
Why in 1 Corinthians 13 does he only mention three gifts that would cease? Some would say that it's not an all included list and that it is just an example of the type of gifts that would cease, i.e.; miraculous ones. But then we would have to decide which ones are "miraculous" and which ones are not. (For a list of gifts the Bible mentions go to Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. And perhaps there are more that are hinted at but not stated by Paul specifically like celibacy and intercession) Without going into detail the short version of which ones some are either skeptical about or deny being in use today are the ones they haven't seen, the ones they do not use, or the ones that have been abused. Prophecy, Tongues, Interpretation, Apostleship, Miracles, Healing, and for some reason Knowledge (saying it would be close to a revelation) are the ones that have "ceased" in their view. But would they cease due to scripture being perfected?
When was it perfected? Well the last written word we know of was around 90 AD. But was it perfected at that time? No. The last word of scripture wasn't even known it was written by the world for hundreds of years later. So how could they have ceased without the knowledge of the Word being completed? They wouldn't.
Does perfect mean complete? Apparently not. There are some writings that have been lost over time and never found. Paul even mentions one in 1 Corinthians 5:9. How can it be perfect if it is not complete? Keep in mind that does not mean it is fallible! The Word of God is perfect but not the perfect that Paul mentions. Throughout history the Canon has been changed a couple of times. Our scripture is not the same as 1st century Church's scripture. So was it completed by the Council of Nicaea? Probably not. So how could the Word be the perfect in question? It isn't.
Do the promises of Christ for the 1st century Christian only apply to them? No. He said He is preparing a place for us too. He said His grace is sufficient enough for us too. He dying on the cross was for us too. Receiving the Holy Spirit is for us too. So why wouldn't all the gifts be for us as well? They are!
If we only knew in part until the Bible was completed then why do we have so many questions today? Apparently we still know only the partial things we need to know.
And the most compelling reason why this passage is referring to the second coming of Christ is because we have to read the whole context. If you keep reading you will eventually get to 1 Corinthians 15:24 which says:
- Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
Just this verse alone added to the whole context says to us that the previous chapters are geared towards the 'olam hazeh, or the end of this age. The age Paul is referring to is the end of the world which will happen when Christ returns, not when the Bible is completely done being written.
Now in their defense, some of these gifts may have ceased, but not in the way that "Written Word Scenario" believers say. Romans 12:3 says there are measures of faith for each of us. The Holy Spirit gives gifts differently. As an example, not all prophets will be the same kind of prophet. There are major prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, John) who were used for Messianic and/or Apocalyptic prophecies. They were used to fore-tell events and were long-termed visions. There are minor prophets (Jonah, Paul) who were used to warn those around them of their actions. They were used for telling of events (not fore-telling) and were more short-termed visions. Then there are preachers such as Billy Graham who will use the word given to them to be forth telling of events which is used for discipline. They will be used to show people how to live their lives. They have visions that are for the moment. Billy Graham would not be used as a Messianic or Apocalyptic prophet. These perhaps have ceased. These there are no more need for. The Messiah has come and the end will come too, one way or another.
The second coming of the Messiah is the perfect, where all prophecy and the like will have to cease for the Christ will have brought with Him the answers to all of life's questions. We will then know in full what we only knew in part.