That Which Is Perfect

Chapter 13

This chapter is part of the four chapters (11–14) devoted to assembly order.   Chapter eleven dealt with the truth of Headship and the remembrance of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper.

Chapter 12 teaches about spiritual gifts, or manifestations. The saints were previously “Gentiles carried away unto dumb idols” (v.2), and were led by spirits which were far from Holy. This may have been the cause of their infatuation with the miraculous gifts, or manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Paul stresses the unity of the body, the need for all members, and the variety of gifts sovereignly given by the Holy Spirit. (vs.11, 18) He stresses that all saints do not have the same gift, no doubt in response to their desire for a certain few gifts which perhaps were considered “better” than others, and thus thought to be prestigious. (In contrast to love which “vaunteth not itself.”)

The chapter ends with his command to the assembly to “covet earnestly the best (better) gifts.” (12:31) The word “covet” being in the plural is an indication that this command is directed to the assembly as a whole, as it collectively was to desire the better gifts — the ones that edify the saints. (14:1–3).

He then adds, “And yet show I unto you a more excellent way,” this being “love” as developed in chapter 13. This was apparently a lacking grace among the saints (11:21 for example).

In verses 1–3 Paul shows the value, or preeminence of love, without which tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith and benevolence are of no value, either to the individual exercising them or to the one to whom they were directed.  Verses 4–7 present the qualities or perfections of true love. No doubt these qualities were lacking in the saints at Corinth. Gifts of the Holy Spirit are one aspect of the Christian’s life, the work of the Holy Spirit another.  Verses 8–13 shows the superiority of love. He contrasts the permanence of love to the temporary nature of several gifts.

1 Corinthians 13:8–13

This portion of Scripture has been debated for some time, with the primary issue being, “What is meant by ‘that which is perfect is come’?” (V.10) Many believe this refers to heaven, or the coming of the Lord. Others think of it as the completion of the Scriptures.

When approaching any portion of Scripture it is essential that context be considered. This provides the framework in which words and thoughts are presented. The same original word or root word may be translated differently depending on the context. An example would be the words translated as “trial” and “tempt.” In James 1:1–12 it is translated “trials” as the thought of “temptation,” or a solicitation to do evil, does not fit the context. In verse 13–14 of the same chapter it is translated “tempt,” as “trial” does not fit the context. God does “try” us, but does not “tempt” any man. This same principle is true with many others words and thus the context in which they are found is very important with regard to their meaning.

It should also be noted that a literary style of Paul’s day was that of a “chiasmus.” It was a style in which points were presented and then commented on, or enlarged upon in the reverse order of their presentation. For example, points A, B, C would be made and then commented on or enlarged upon in the order of C, B, A. An example of this can be seen in 1 Timothy 2:12–14.
Paul states two prohibitions with regard to women.           

A.  “I permit not a woman to teach” – v. 12a    
        B.  “nor to usurp authority over the man” – v. 12b
He then states the basis for these prohibitions in reverse order.
        B.  “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” – v. 13
A.  “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

It is helpful in studying the apostle Paul’s writings to look for this literary style.  While not used exclusively, it is used a number of times.  When it comes to verses 8–13 we might first ask, “What is the subject here?” The subject is the endurance and superiority of love.  Paul will stress the abiding nature of love because the saints were enamored and zealously seeking those gifts which were temporary.  Let’s consider the flow of Paul’s argument. Here the chiasmus literary style can be clearly seen.

A.  v.8  Love never faileth.
    B.  v. 9  We know in part and prophesy in part.
        C.  v. 10 When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away with
        C.   v. 11 When I became a man, I put away childish things.
    B.  v. 12  Now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face.
A.  v. 13   Now abideth…

Verse 8

The apostle starts the portion by stating that “love never faileth.” Here the word “faileth” has the meaning of “falling” or “falling off.“ In other words, true love never diminishes. It never falls away or fails.

In contrast to love, which does not diminish, and thus fail, Paul mentions three gifts which would come to an end. These are prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. Prophecies and knowledge shall “fail,” or “vanish away,”  with the latter phrase better translated as “done away.”  The same Greek word translated “fail” with regard to prophecies, and “done away” with regard to knowledge has the meaning of, “to reduce to inactivity,” or “rendered of no effect.” Being in the Passive Voice it means they will not render themselves of no effect, but rather, something or someone other than themselves will render them to be no longer active.

Tongues, on the other hand, are not said to “fail,” but to “cease.” The word “cease” means “to stop,” or “come to an end.” Brother Vine points out that here it is in the Middle Voice which signifies “a willing cessation (in contrast to the Passive Voice which denotes a forced cessation.)” Paul states that while prophecies and knowledge will be “brought” to an end, tongues will “come” to an end, in and of themselves.  They will simply cease to function without an outside force causing them to do so.

We can quickly look to the end of Paul’s teaching in this portion in verse 13 and see that while those things mentioned in verse 8 come to an end, love abideth, or remaineth. It goes on!

Verse 9

Paul will now state the reason why prophecies and knowledge will be brought to an end. Prophecies here being the speaking forth of a message as directly revealed to the prophet by God. (Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; 2 Pet. 2:21) (Prophecies, specific messages from God, are not to be confused with “preaching” today from the Word of God.)  Knowledge here being the direct knowledge of truth by way of revelation, as compared to that received by way of studying Scriptures.

The word “for” at the beginning of verse 9 is an explanation word. For, or because “we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” Tongues are not said to be “in part” because it would not be true of them. Prophecies and knowledge on the other hand are “partial.” (Interestingly tongues are not mentioned in the rest of this passage. They would cease on their own and would not be brought to an end like prophecies and knowledge by “that which is perfect.”

We might pause and ask another question.  “Why did Paul only mention these gifts?” Also, “What do they have in common?” The first question will be addressed later. Concerning the latter question, they were all instruments of revelation. Prophecies being the spoken message of God by direct revelation. Tongues are a means of delivering the message in a tongue not previously known. Knowledge is given by direct revelation of truth from God. It would appear that the Corinthian saints were taken up with these more miraculous, but temporary gifts.

Going back to Paul’s chiasmus, we see in verse 12 an example of that which is partial in verse 9. Paul says, “we see through a glass darkly.” It could be translated, “we see in a mirror darkly.” Corinth was known for its brass mirrors, but these mirrors only gave a vague image of the face, and thus Paul likens this to partial knowledge. Details that others saw when looking at him were not visible, or discernible when looking in the dark mirror.

Verse 10

This verse is at the center of much debate. Having said in verse 9 that “we know in part (partially) and we prophesy in part,” he goes on to say there was something coming which was “perfect,” and which would cause the partial to “be done away with.” The word “perfect” has the meaning of “complete,” or “mature.” The “complete” would do away with the “partial.” What was coming that would cause the partial to be unnecessary?

Again referring to Paul’s chiasmus, we can see in verse 11 that this progression from the partial to the complete is illustrated by a child growing to adulthood and “putting away” the things of childhood. This does not imply that there was a flaw with those early things, but merely that they were no longer necessary. So too with the “partial” spoken of in verse 9. It was not without value, but it was incomplete.

The Perfect

As stated briefly before there are different views regarding the meaning of “that which is perfect.” Some see it as the Lord’s coming, others see it to be heaven itself, and still others believe it speaks of the completion of Scripture.

There are some questions we might ask before proceeding. As asked before, “Why is it that the Holy Spirit leads Paul to mention only the gifts of prophecy and knowledge?” Why not teaching, helps, or governments, etc.?  It is clear that these spiritual gifts relate to direct revelation of truth. “That which is perfect” would therefore have to be that which would render gifts related to direct revelation unnecessary. It appears that teaching and the other gifts would not be “done away” by that which is perfect.

Regarding the Lord’s coming, Paul would not use the neuter word “that” to refer to the Lord Himself. If it is the “event” of the Lord’s coming that is referred to, why not simply say that all gifts would be done away.  If heaven is meant, it seems we go to it, rather than it coming to us. Also all gifts would cease when heaven is reached. Also, it seems from the words used by Paul that progress is implied. If that which is partial is progressing to completion, then that which is perfect would be of the same character. Going from that which is partial to that which is complete instantaneously does not seem to be the thought of progression here.

Many have come to the conclusion that the expression “face to face” could only refer to when we see the Lord. However, this is not the case. Previously in this epistle the apostle spoke of the Lord’s coming and of His day in a straight forward way.
  • “…waiting for the coming of the Lord” (1:7).
  • “…blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:8)
  • “…for the day will declare it.” (2:13) 
  • “saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (5:5). 
If he meant to speak of the Lord’s coming here why would he not state it just as clearly? Why not simply say, “When we are brought into that which is perfect by the coming of our Lord these gifts will be unnecessary.”?

In the first part of verse 12 Paul speaks of looking into a mirror that does not fully reveal one’s face due to its darkness, or unclear image. He then looks forward to when the “perfect” comes and states, “but then face to face.” Given the illustration at hand, Paul is saying that when the perfect comes we would no longer look into a mirror that only gives partial revelation, but rather we would see “face to face,” or clearly and completely? We would see what others have seen all along. Our actual face would look at a clear, sharp, detailed image of itself, or face to face. All would be revealed clearly, perfectly, fully. “Then I shall know even as also I am known” is a similar expression in keeping with the example of the mirror. It ties to “face to face.” When the perfect comes, Paul would see himself fully as in a perfectly clear mirror, just as others have seen him all along. (Prov. 27:19)

Given that Paul speaks of these specific spiritual gifts which relate to direct revelation, and that all gifts would become unnecessary in glory, it would appear that the “perfect” is that which relates specifically to the ceasing and doing away “in time” of those gifts specifically related to the infancy of the church and in particular to those concerning supernatural revelation. (Eph. 2:20)  This is perfectly fulfilled in the completion of Scriptures.

Also since tongues would “cease” on their own without an outside force bringing them to an end, it could not be the coming of the Lord that causes them to cease as that would be an outside force that brought them to an end. Tongues would and did cease of themselves. Nothing brought them to an end, they just ceased, and history records that this, in fact, did happen.

Some, noting Joel 2:28 and Revelation 11:3, would say that prophecy could not have ceased because there will be prophecy in the future. However, the Church will be raptured before this and the Scriptures needed by the Church have been given to it. Prophecy in the kingdom dispensation will primarily be for the good of Israel and the unsaved world. The prophets of the Church were foundational, as were the apostles. (Eph. 2:20) Prophets in the millennium would be unrelated to the Church about which Paul is teaching.

Scriptures teach that Christ’s sacrifice brought an end to the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and yet they also tell us there will be a temple and sacrifices during the millennial reign of Christ. Obviously they will be of a different character being in a different dispensation. This would no doubt be true of prophecy at that time as well.

Verse 13

In contrast to those things that would be “done away,” faith, hope and love abide, or go on. However, the greatest of these is love.

If heaven were meant by the “perfect,” would faith and hope still abide? If, however, Paul was speaking of those things that “continued” on in time, in contrast to that which “fails” or “falls off” during time, it would be proper to say, “Now abideth faith, hope and love….”


1.      Love endures.  It does not fail or fall away.  v. 8a
2.      Tongues would cease without any outside cause.  v. 8b
3.      Prophecy and knowledge which gave partial revelation would be “done away” by the completion of Scripture. v.10
4.      Rather than seeing things partially, as in a mirror darkly, we would see clearly, or fully. v. 12
    a.  Face to face  (Just as others have seen us all along.)
5.      While gifts may either cease, or be done away, love abideth - it goes on. v. 13
    a.  Faith, hope, and love all go on (in time), but love is the greater of these.