Concerning spiritual gifts Paul says that prophecy will pass away, that tongues will cease, that supernatural revelations will end (1 Cor. 13:8). But when? The apostle explains that “when the perfect comes, the imperfect [spiritual gifts] will pass away” (v. 10). But what is “the perfect”?
The Greek phrase translated “the perfect” (to teleion) can mean “the mature thing.” This understanding of the term is supported by the immediate context in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (v. 11). In AD 55 (when 1 Cor. was written), the church was in its infancy. But in time the church would reach a more mature stage of development.
Does this mean that the church would be free of immature members? Of course not. But with some history under its belt and a complete written revelation of God’s will in its hand, the church is in a better position to sustain lasting growth and resist the battering winds of false teaching. Didn’t Paul say this very thing in Ephesians 4:7-16, a passage strikingly similar to 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40?
Both of these passages written by Paul speak of the church as the body of Christ. Both mention the gifts equipping the early church for service. Both emphasize the need for building up the church. And both indicate that spiritual gifts were intended for a designated period: “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers […] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 13). But isn’t Paul speaking of the church’s perfect state in heaven? He can’t be. The maturity Paul had in mind was to protect the church from corrupt people, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Eph. 4:14). Will the cunning of deceitful men threaten the church in heaven? No. The maturity Paul was thinking of, the maturity that would see the end of spiritual gifts, was to appear while the church was still on earth.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul doesn’t specify what “the perfect” is. Probably, the Corinthians had heard him speak of it in person and thus knew a little bit more about the subject than the modern Bible reader does. However, comparing 1 Corinthians 13 with Ephesians 4 leads to the conclusion that spiritual gifts were given in the church’s infancy and were to be withdrawn as the church matured in experience and knowledge. The completion of the NT writings at the end of the first century greatly facilitated this maturation.