Moving Towards Maturity

Love never fails; 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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

There has been no end of debate regarding what is exactly being referred to by \”when the perfect comes.\” Some have asserted that the perfect is Jesus Christ. This argument is used support the necessity of spiritual gifts to this day that others maintain have vanished. The reasoning is that Jesus has not returned and set every thing aright, therefore the gifts are still required. 

But, as others maintain, there may be reasons to believe that the scripture is not referring to the Messiah. Textually, the argument is made that in all other cases, Christ is referred to in the masculine whereas perfect in this instance is in the neuter.

These other people believe that perfect refers to the Bible. This argument is used to support the notion that many of the spiritual gifts have vanished. The crux of the argument is that we have the Bible and that\’s all we need. But since the first century Christians didn\’t have the entire canon of scripture (which could be reasonable debated, given Paul\’s view), they needed miracles, visions, tongues and healings in order to authenticate what the apostles were teaching was the truth. Apparently these people would have us believe, according to their reasoning and logic, that the spoken word is not as effective as the written word.  And even in a culture rich with the tradition of passing down stories from generation to generation with with nary a deviation, the spoken word needed additional proofs. Maybe that\’s why the Prophets of old were not effective in their preaching and Israel refused to repent?

But is there a third option? Of course there is. Someone once told me that scripture without context is pretext. I have to agree, and I call both parties on the carpet for committing a pretext, an eisegesis of scripture.

Let us therefore add some context.

Just prior to the dissertation on love, Paul said, \”But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.\” And that greater, more excellent way is love. Which makes sense, given the context and content of the previous chapters wherein Paul rebukes the Corinthians self centered attitudes regarding their teachers (Paul and Apollos), idolatry, immorality, lawsuits, food and communion. In all of these things, Paul had something to say which generally revolved around selfishness – attending to their own desires rather than attending to the needs of others. What Paul encouraged them to do in all cases was move away from their sinful attitudes and actions and move into position where they could act in accordance with the grace of God. All of this instruction comes to a head in chapters 12, 13 and 14. These chapters contain the culmination of what it looks like to move away from the selfishness of man and into the expression and edification of love focused on others. And indeed, \”love edifies.\” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

What is Perfect?

So, what is this perfect we see in chapter 13? In the Greek, it is \’teleion\’. In it\’s most basic form, it means maturity. It comes from a word which means \”the point aimed at as a limit\” or by implication, \”the conclusion of an act or state.\” If you\’re one who thinks this mature thing is the Bible, then you\’re probably thinking I just confirmed your argument. Not so fast, because there is more. 

What is Subjunctive?

In English, the definition of subjunctive is \”relating to or denoting a mood of verbs expressing what is imagined or wished or possible\”, and \”the mood of the verb that indicates possibility, conditionality or probability.\” According to New Testament Greek, the subjunctive is the same in Greek ans it is in English: it indicates probability or objective possibility. The indication of the verb is an action that will \”possibly happen, depending on certain objective factors or circumstances.\” What we find then in this scripture (\”when the perfect comes\”), is that the word \”comes\” is in the aorist subjunctive mood. Which means the perfect is seen as a possibility that has not started or is a continual process, as opposed to something being set in stone and finished.

So, what does this mean? More than some people are willing to consider or admit.

For if you maintain that \”when the the perfect comes\” refers the return of Christ, then you must also adhere to the possibility that He might not come back at all, rather it\’s just a possibility.

But on the other hand, if you maintain that \”the perfect\” refers to the Bible, then you must also admit that what you hold in your hands may not be the entirety of God\’s word, that it could in fact, be very incomplete. 
In either case, that of the return of Christ or that of the Bible, you just don\’t know with any certainty that either is factually valid because of the \”certain objective factors or circumstances\” which are merely \”possible\” may not have occurred, seeing that they (the return of Christ, the authenticity of the Scripture) are out of your view and out of your control.

You may be thinking, \”well, they\’re not out of God\’s view, nor out of His control.\” And you would be correct. But you still must deal with the uncertainty factor – they may or may not be truths nor started, nor will come to pass – that\’s the mood of the text and there\’s just no getting around it.

Face Value
But what happens when we take scripture at face value, and let \”the perfect\” be \”the maturity?\” Then things begin to make a lot more sense, both in local context and with scripture as a whole.
Just prior to these words Paul says:

 \”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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.\” One of the keys to understanding this scripture is properly applying the phrases \”in part\” and \”partial.\” Notice that the \”in part\” and \”partial\” refers back to knowledge, tongues and prophecy. And don\’t fail to keep these concepts in context with the prior discussions of Paul, regarding the selfishness of the Corinthians.

Consider how the Corinthians were living out their faith. In some aspects, they were doing it quite poorly – like adults who were acting as children. But in other aspects, they were doing it quite well. You could say that they were living out their faith \”in part\” or \”partially.\” But isn\’t that true of everyone? Don\’t we all grow and mature throughout life? Could it not be said of us all that \”when I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.\”

When one considers that Paul generally views the Corinthians as children, then the phrase \”knowledge and prophecy in part\”, and the possibility of maturity coming, begins to make more sense. Previously, Paul told them they were immature:

brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?\” 
But faith hope and love are the abiding actuaries, the abiding truths from which must flow all of our actions towards one another. They are the foundations of the fruit of the Spirit. Anything less is only occurring in part, or part-time, because of immaturity. In Ephesians (which just happens to also be in a context of spiritual gifts) we see Paul\’s similar encouragement:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints {unto} the work of service, {unto} the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Would you be surprised to know that mature (above in bold) is the same word use for perfect (teleion) in Corinthians? This specific tense of the word is used 17 other times in scripture, such as follows:

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory… 

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete {mature}, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”