WHAT IS THE "PERFECT"
IN 1 CORINTHIANS 13:10?
Compare 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 in three respected versions:
"Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part. But when that which perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away."
New King James Version
"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 prophecy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away ."
New American Standard Version
"Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end."
New Revised Standard Version
The Apostle Paul here writes of three of the nine spiritual gifts listed in the previous chapter (1 Cor. 12:8-10). Of those nine manifestations of the Holy Spirit which were given to "each one for the profit of all" (12:7), TONGUES (12:10) were to cease (13:8), and the gifts of KNOWLEDGE (12:8) and of PROPHECY (12:10) were to fail, be done away, come to an end (13:8). When would this happen? When that which is perfect or complete had come (13:10)!
What is "the perfect" of 1 Corinthians 13:10? The Greek phrase so translated in most translations is to teleion--neuter in gender, not masculine. In this context (in 1 Cor. 13:8-10) it is set over against, or contrasted with, ek merous, which most translations correctly translate "in part."
Teleion is the neuter form of teleios, which the Greek lexicons tell us means complete as opposed to incomplete, mature as opposed to immature, final (form), whole, perfect, full as opposed to partly full. Arndt & Gringrich give as the first definition, "complete, bring to an end, finish, accomplish" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1957], p. 816). Just what word or words best translate it in a given place is determined largely by the context. This is important to keep in mind.
CONTRASTED with to teleion in 1 Cor. 13:8-10 is the thrice-used phrase ek merous. That contrast makes it necessary that we keep in mind what the phrase means. Ek merous means partial, in part, in particles, in bits and pieces. Used together in the same context, ek meous and to teleion are opposites.
In 1 Cor. 13:8-13 (especially vv. 9, 10 and 12), the Holy Spirit through Paul draws a contrast between ek merous and to teleion. Knowledge from the gift of knowledge (see 12:8 and 13:8), prophecies from the gift of prophecy (see 12:10 and 13:8), and tongues from the gift of tongues (see 12:10, 28-30 and 13:8) were promised to pass away and cease (13:8) because they were "in PART." This was written by Paul to the church of God in Corinth in approximately A.D. 56. The things which he said were in PART were to pass away and cease when "that which is TELEION" would have come. Until the TELEION came, the things in PART were to continue.
Many people read the common translation of to teleion ("that which is perfect") and fixate on this word PERFECT. Immediately they ask themselves, "Who or what is perfect? (usually thinking "WHO is perfect" more than "WHAT is perfect?"). And they think of "perfect" in the sense of absolutely flawless, or totally without sin, perfect as Jesus or God are perfect, perfect as Heaven is perfect. Now, considered apart from the context that thinking might be okay. But we have to consider 1 Cor. 13:10 in the light of two things: 1) the context, and 2) the common or core meaning of to teleion. Considered in that light "the teleion" of 1 Cor. 13:10 probably does not refer to Christ, the second coming of Christ, or Heaven.
SO WHAT IS "THE TELEION" OF 1 COR. 13:10?
Probably the best way to grasp the proper sense of teleion is to examine its use in other places in the New Testament where one of its several forms is used. Where the context helps, we will call attention to how it helps. As we do so, let us keep in mind that in 1 Cor. 13:10 to teleion is in the NEUTER gender, not the masculine, so it can not properly be understood as referring to the teleion person, but to the teleion thing. Unless we specify otherwise, we shall quote from the New King James Version. So examine its uses in:
John 4:34. "Jesus said to them, 'My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.'" Given Jesus' statement, "to finish His work" seems to fit better than something like "to perfect His work." The NRSV translates teleioso here as "...and to complete His work."
John 5:36. "...the works that the Father has given Me to finish--the very works that I do--bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me." Again the NRSV translates teleioso as complete.
John 17:4. "I have finished the work which You have given me to do." The NASV translates teleiosas "...having accomplished the work...", and the NIV translates it "...by completing the work..."
John 19:30. Jesus on the cross said, "It is finished. And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit." Obviously, given the setting, it would be awkward to translate it as "It is perfected."
Acts 20:24. "...so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus..." The NIV uses two words to translate the single Greek word teleioso: "...if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me."
1 Corinthians 2:6. "However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature..." "Mature" (teleiois) is here contrasted with "babes in Christ" (3:1). It is this contrast which led the translators to translate teleiois "mature" instead of "finished" or "completed" or "perfected"--ways it could have been translated in some other context.
Ephesians 4:13-15. "...till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we should no longer be children ...... but .... may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ." Study the context! The picture being verbally painted is one of maturing. God wants us to no longer be babes in Christ, or children, but to grow up into Christ who is the head. And so the NASV is probably a little more accurate to translate it "to a mature man" instead of "to a perfect man." The NIV paraphrases this to read, "to grow up..."
Philippians 3:12. "Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me." The NRSV translates teteleiomai here this way: "...or have already reached the goal..."
Philippians 3:15. "Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind..." This continues the thought expressed in v. 12 (above).
Colossians 1:28. "...that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." The NRSV reads. "...present everyone mature in Christ Jesus."
Colossians 4:12. "...that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God." The NIV and the NRSV render this, "...that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured."
2 Timothy 4:7. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
Hebrews 5:13-14. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." The NASV reads, "But solid food is for the mature..." The NIV and the NRSV agree with the NASV. The translators could have rendered teleion here as "perfect," but the context shows that "the mature" or "them that are of full age" is by far the better way to translate it.
James 1:4. Our word is found twice in this verse. "But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing." (That other word here, "complete," is from holokleroi, a synonym of teleion.) It is interesting how the different versions translate this. The NRSV translates it, "And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing." The NIV translates it, "Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
Revelation 10:7. "But in the days of the sounding of the seventh angel, when he is about to sound, the mystery of God would be finished, as He declared to His servants the prophets." The NIV reads, "...the mystery of God will be accomplished..."
Revelation 11:7. "When they finish their testimony..."
Revelation 20:3, 5. "...until the thousand years were finished." The NASV reads, "...until the thousand years were completed." Both the NIV and the NRSV read, "...until the thousand years were ended." The context and sentence structure would make awkward a rendering such as, "...until the thousand years were perfected" or "were matured."
Having now examined these other uses of various forms of teleios, we are ready to more closely examine 1 Corinthians 13:10 in its context. Here we return to our key verse in this discussion. Because of an apparent bias that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 refers to the end of time and to Christ in His return, most translators ignore the contrast of to teleion and ek merous. But the context, with this important contrast, is not to be ignored. Most translations render to teleion as "the perfect." However, honoring the context, the NRSV correctly translates it, "...but when the complete comes..."
"The complete (to teleion)" is clearly contrasted with ek merous, literally, out of pieces or parts. That which was "in part"--the knowledge of truth imparted through the gift of knowledge, the revelations of God's will imparted to believers through the gift of prophecy, and the disclosing of His will through the authorized interpretation of the tongues (languages) spoken by one with the gift of tongues--was to pass away and cease when "the teleion" would come. To teleion (usually translated "the perfect" but more properly translated "the complete" in the light of the contrasted terms in this context) was promised to come when that which was in part was to be done away. They would pass away because they were no longer needed. They were vital bits and pieces of God's will and truth being given progressively and incrementally until absorbed in the full deposit of His will and truth (the COMPLETE), and this was in the hands of the church and was widely distributed.
Several gifts or gifted offices were put in place when the church was in its infancy. God had a vital purpose to bring about through the use of these, and that purpose was that the church might be edified and firmly established in THE COMPLETED TRUTH THAT GOD WAS PROGRESSIVELY REVEALING.
1 Cor. 12:8-10 reads (NRSV): "To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance ofknowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues."
Some of these are mentioned again in another setting in 12:28-30 (NRSV): "And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?"
Notice those questions in vv. 29 and 30. These are rhetorical questions and the obvious answer to each of them is NO! Not all were apostles. Not all were prophets. Not all were teachers. Not all worked miracles. Not all had gifts of healing. Not all could speak with tongues. Not all could interpret for the others the message which God gave through those with a gift of tongues. A few had one gift, a few another, given for the common good--but only a few, comparatively speaking, in each category.
Was the gifted office of APOSTLE to remain in the church always? Or, to put it another way, were there to be apostles in the church in every generation throughout church history? Did God continue to give the gift of PROPHECY to Christians in all generations throughout the ongoing centuries of church history? No, we understand correctly that our faith is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 2:20), and that these gifts have passed away because the purpose for which they were given has been fulfilled. There are no apostles or prophets on earth today, for the COMPLETE (teleion) MESSAGE of God, His completely revealed truth, His Word, the Bible, is now in the hands of believers everywhere.
Were those other gifts that the Holy Spirit disseminated in the early church to continue beyond the completion and dissemination of the New Testament? 1 Corinthians 13:10 mentions three of them for illustration--the gifts of knowledge, of prophecy and of tongues--and assured us that when to teleion--THE COMPLETE--would come, those gifts would be done away.
Please pardon me for the failure of the following illustration to adequately help us understand how the perfect will of God incrementally came to its completed form. But visualize a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, one where you don't have the box with the completed picture printed on the top. All you have are the pieces. Some of the key pieces are already together, and from time to time you have divine help in adding some more of the 1,000 pieces to the "puzzle." The details of the picture become increasingly clear as you proceed. When the last piece is in place, you have the complete picture. And the individual pieces? They have "ceased" or were "done away" as they blended into the completed picture. With the picture complete (or perfect, if you will), to continue to manufacture more pieces would be both unneccesary and useless. Admitting that the illustration could be better, we suggest that that is something like the way God progressively and incrementally brought to mankind the complete Bible. Beginning with the apostles and continuing with His prophets, Christ brought the truths of the new covenant along toward the complete picture. Through His servants who had been given the utterance of knowledge and the gifts of prophecy and tongues, essential truths were being given to the churches of Christ, coming to them by word of mouth and in written form (Gospels and epistles) as needed. Eventually the picture was complete.
The gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapters twelve through fourteen were given to REVEAL GOD'S UNFOLDING TRUTH TO THE CHURCH, to EDIFY the church and to GLORIFY GOD, and to CONFIRM the revealed message. See Hebrews 2:2-4; Mark 16:19-20; Acts 14:3; 2 Corinthians 12:12.
The APOSTLES were Christ's special men, those whom God gave Him (John 17:6, 8, 9, 24), whom He trained, and whom He baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 1:26-2:4). Through the baptism in the Holy Spirit He equipped and empowered them to carry on His work after He would ascend, and to do this with power and with inerrancy as promised them in John 14:25-26, 15:26-27 and 16:12-15. (See our related study under DOCTRINE ARTICLES, Who Were Baptized in the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost?)
When the church started in Acts two, and until chapter six, no one but these empowered apostles worked miracles. See Acts 2:43; 3:1-8; 4:33; 5:12-16 (compare 2 Cor. 12:12). But something happened in Acts six which enabled others to do these wonders: the apostles laid their hands on some men, and immediately we read that two of these men, Stephen and Philip, men who were not apostles, could then work miracles. See Acts 6:5-6, 8; 8:5-7, 13. Paul the apostle laid his hands on Timothy and imparted to him some particular spiritual gift. See 2 Tim. 1:6. Paul desired to visit Rome--wanted to go there so as to be physically present there--so he could impart to them some spiritual gift. See Rom. 1:11. In Ephesus, Paul laid his hands on about twelve men who then were able to speak with tongues and prophesy. See Acts 19:6-7.
BUT those on whom the apostles laid their hands to impart some spiritual gift(s) were evidently unable to in turn lay on hands and impart to yet others such gifts. Evidence of this is seen in the case of Philip, mentioned in the paragraph above. Having had the hands of the apostles laid on him in Acts 6:6, Philip confirmed his message of salvation in Samaria with miracles (8:6-7, 13). But Philip was evidently unable to cause the Holy Spirit to fall on his Samaritan converts, so the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John down to Samaria. These apostles, through laying their hands on Samaritan believers as they had laid them on Philip, enabled the Holy Spirit to "fall" on these new Christians. This made something happen which the man Simon could see (8:17-18), and Simon greatly erred by trying to buy with money a power which none but the apostles had.
Those on whom the apostles laid hands and so imparted special spiritual gifts were not able to in turn lay hands on believers and impart such gifts.
By the time all the apostles had died, and all those on whom they had laid their hands had died, the Scriptures now in the New Testament had not only been completed but also had been widely spread throughout the evangelized world. While the cannon of the 27 books was not "officially" settled until the 4th century (see Eusebius, d. A.D. 340), the churches of Christ had, by the mid-200s, the same twenty-seven "books" we have in the New Testament (and of course, they had the Old Testament). The "perfect"--the COMPLETE--had come, and that which was in part had passed away.
[See our related study, Who Were Baptized in the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost?]
[After careful review we are persuaded that the NIV rendering of 1 Cor. 13:10 is misleading: "...but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." In verse nine the NIV correctly translates ek merous both times: "For we know in part and we prophecy in part." But in the tenth verse the translators abruptly change the way they translate ek merous. They don't have "in part"; instead, it becomes "the imperfect." They have done so, evidently, because they chose in v. 10 to translate to teleion with the word "perfection." Given the context, that is a strange choice by which to translate the Greek term! To teleion is clearly set in contrast to ek merous, and so whatever ek merous means, to teleion must mean the opposite. That which was partial or in part was to give place to that which not partial or in part but which was in fact WHOLE or COMPLETE. Since the NIV translators arbitrarily chose to translate to teleion with the word "perfection," they wanted the second half of the verse to go along with this choice. So for ek merous they switched from "in part" (v. 9) to "the imperfect."]