“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-11)
Here’s another important passage that needs to be considered. 1 Corinthians 12-14 is the most extensive discussion of miraculous gifts that we have. In fact, 1 Corinthians is the only epistle that addresses the topic at length; most of the letters don’t even mention miraculous gifts.
This passage talks about a time when miracles would cease (or will cease, depending on your view). This is connected with the coming of “the perfect.” Some connect this with the Second Coming of Christ, arguing that we will have miracles among us until then. That’s not an impossible view, especially in light of the verse that follows the section I quoted, which talks about “then we shall see face to face.” Some object on grammatical grounds, while others point out that the Second Coming is nowhere else described as “the perfect” or “perfection.”
It’s been popular in our brotherhood to connect “the perfect” with “the perfect revelation,” the completion of the New Testament. The fact that the verse that talks about perfection also mentions “knowledge” and “prophecy,” two things that can be connected with the inspiration necessary to write Scripture. However, the Corinthians would have had no idea that a New Testament was being written, so this view makes the passage pretty meaningless to them.
It seems better to me to look for the answer within Corinthians itself. Consider this verse: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.” (1 Corinthians 2:6) This verse is interesting because the word “mature” is the same word translated “perfect” or “perfection” in 1 Corinthians 13. That should be an important consideration, because it’s the only other use of this word in Corinthians. If we read the whole of the letter (always a good idea when studying a passage), we’ll see that the Corinthians had a big problem with maturity. Paul tells them: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2) So it’s not surprising that he tells them that they will have these gifts until they reach maturity. That would also explain why none of the other churches seems to be as fascinated with these gifts, why none of the other letters has a similar discussion. The immature church was focused on the gifts that were meant to be in place at the beginning, not throughout the lifetime of the congregation.
The writings of the Early Church Fathers, the Christians from the first few centuries, speak of miracles in the past tense. This supports the view that the “cessation” came sometime early in the life of the church. If, as we saw last post, the external gifts of the Spirit were only given through the laying on of apostolic hands, it makes sense that the gifts would have died out, would have ceased as Paul says here.
My view is that Paul is saying that, when the church reached maturity, the gifts were no longer necessary.