There has been much discussion on what the word “perfect” means in 1 Corinthians 13:10. A proper interpretation of this passage will answer the question: “are tongues for today?”. The word teleion (teleion) is translated in several English Bibles as “perfect”. It could be better translated as “complete” or“mature”. This conveys the idea of perfect referring to a whole not something without flaw. The real issue in understanding the meaning of a word is the context. Context explains word usage when it is not clear. Does the context support the word teleion to be translated as complete and not perfect?
The context starts with verse one of chapter 13. Paul is explaining differences between tongues as a temporal unimportant gift verse love an eternally important gift. Read verse 9: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” Then verse 10 starts with the word “but”. This is to contrast a previous thought,“But when that which is [teleion] has come”. The contrast is against that which is partial. It is further emphasized in the rest of verse 10: “then that which is in part will be done away.” When something is partial and then later completed there is no more need for the partial. Paul tries to further emphasize his point by using three illustrations.
In verse 11 Paul talks about the level of understanding of a child verses that of a mature adult. He no long thinks as a child. He does not need to think as a child because he has past that level of understanding. Next, in verse 12, Paul compares looking into a mirror dimly as to seeing someone face to face. Remember in those days a mirror was just polished metal. It was not clear as our mirrors today are. It was like looking into a foggy mirror verse a clear mirror. If you can see someone face to face then there is no need to look in a dim mirror. The last illustration is also in verse 12, that is knowing in part compared to knowing as he is known.
These must be understood to be illustrations to understand this passage. Many people try to force this verse to be literal to fit a belief that the perfect is Jesus Christ or the enteral state. However, there is nothing to lead us to believe these are literal and much to explain them as illustrations. Paul through out this passage states the difference between partial and complete, temporal and eternal. In relation to the context of chapters 12 and 14, Paul is attempted to stress the importance of love and the temporality of the revelatory gifts.
Now, with the understanding that the word teleion should be translated as complete we must ask, “What is the perfect or complete?”. The follow is a list of what some people accept this word to be referring:
- The completion of the canon of Scripture.
- The maturity of the church at the close of the apostolic age.
- The death of believers and their immediate presence with the Lord.
- The rapture of the church.
- The return of Christ.
- The eternal state.
- The eschaton (i.e., end time events) as a unified whole
From the list numbers 3 through 7 can be excluded because most who hold this view either interpret the word perfect as a flawless object, such as Christ or understand verses 11 and 12 to be completely or partially literal. Both points are dealt with above. These same views are often held by those who believe in that the revelatory gifts are still in use today. With the exception of number 3, which would state that these gifts cease on an individual basis.
To what does the complete refer? The completion of the canon of Scripture or the maturity of the church at the close of the apostolic age? Both have the idea of something maturing to completeness. Again we must look to the context of the passage to gain an understanding of the meaning. The passage is discussing tongues, prophecies (for telling the future) and knowledge. This is the constant theme from chapter 12 to chapter 14. What are these gifts? How were they used? How did they profit the church? These are unique gifts, which few people had. Their purpose was to reveal God’s Word to man. During the New Testament time period the believers for the most part only had the Old Testament and maybe some of the New Testament that had been written. So these gifts were used to provide the church with God’s Word.
The comparison in the passage is between something partial to being complete. Both things can be considered as complete at the same time. When John wrote the book of Revelation it was shortly before he died. So, which was it that completed the Bible or the church. Because the gifts are revelation gifts there would be no more need of them after the completion of the Bible. The Bible was in part and then completed. As a whole the partial could cease. This is the context of the passage being that the gifts deal with revelation. The maturing of the church supports the idea of something partial being completed, however, the gifts directly relate to revelation and not the maturing of the church. The gifts only relate to the maturing of the church in the sense that the completed Word of God would close the apostolic age.
The word perfect in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to the completion of the cannon of Scripture. And the completion of the cannon brought the close of the apostolic age. This is important in answering the question as to wither tongues are a gift for today or not. Verse 8 states these gifts will cease and vanish away when the Bible is complete. So, the answer is no these gifts are not for today. We have no need for them. We have the completed Word of God and which cannot be added to it if it is complete.