"That Which Is Perfect"
In this study, we shall ask and attempt to answer what is, "…that which is perfect." One source of major confusion and division within the religious community is pertaining to miracles and the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit set forth in I Corinthians 12: 8-10. Were these gifts without duration and are they meant for the church today? A critical text relative to the intended time period of these miraculous gifts is I Corinthians 13: 8-10. Paul wrote:
"8: Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9: For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10: But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
Regarding three of the nine gifts, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge, Paul said that they shall "fail" (Greek katargeo), "cease" (pauo), and "vanish away" (argethesetai). (See addendum 1.) One key expression is, "in part" (meros). The antithetical expression is, "…that which is perfect" (to teleion). The "in part" or fragmentary shall be replaced by the whole ("perfect") and at that time, the "in part" shall be "done away" (katargethesetai). Hence, before we can focus on "that which is perfect," we need to establish the "in part."
Paul has dealt extensively with spiritual gifts, both their reality and proper exercise in chapters twelve and fourteen. He wrote:
"Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant" (I Cor. 12: 1).
It is apparent from the Corinthian Epistle that there was much ignorance and improper exercise regarding these gifts, particularly the gifts of tongues and prophecy. Moreover, it is evident that they were fascinated with the gift of tongues to the neglect of the gift of prophecy (I Cor. 14: 1f.). It is also evident that as a rule, some of the early Christians possessed various gifts as opposed to possessing all nine (see I Cor. 14, 12: 28-31). Hence, one would speak in a tongue, another would prophecy, a different one was to interpret, and still another was to "judge," etc. (I Cor. 14). I suggest, then, that the "in part" pertained to the then system of truth being dependant on these various gifts and each one who possessed a gift. At best, the system was incomplete (not perfect) and only temporary, looking to something else ("that which is perfect").
The expression "that which is perfect" is the Greek to teleion. Teleion is in the neuter gender and Marshall in Nestle’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament renders it, "the perfect thing." The Greek teleion simply describes action that is essentially progressive. The action was begun at the point of inception, continues in the proper course, and then it arrives at its destination. This latter state is the idea of teleion. Teleion, then, is the arrived at state, the state to which all anterior action looked, the goal to which all previous forward effort and action was directed. Hence, teleion is complete or the completed as opposed to "in part" or fragmentary.
There are a number of views as to "that which is perfect" or, as seen, "the perfect thing." Some say "the perfect thing" (to teleion) is love. Whatever "the perfect thing" is, when it came the "in part" (nine miraculous gifts of the Spirit) would be "done away," we must remember. I do submit that we can ascertain what is "the perfect thing." One wrote regarding "the perfect thing" as follows:
"It appears to me that ‘that which is perfect,’ that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 is not speaking of anything in particular, but all things in general" (see addendum 2).
Thus, to some "the perfect thing" is nebulous and cannot be established. Regarding love being the "perfect thing," certainly love is in the context and milieu of Paul’s teaching. The Corinthians were misunderstanding the nature and scope of these gifts and lacked love. As a consequence, Paul wrote to them:
"Have all the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way" (I Cor. 12: 30, 31).
The more "excellent way" to which Paul introduces them is love as the impetus and motivation (ch. 13). Love would "abide" and is set forth as exalted (I Cor. 13: 13). However, they could and were to have love as the motivation for the exercise of their gifts (cp. I Cor. 13: 1f.). I do not think it follows, then, that when love was present, the "in part" (gifts) would cease to exist. Love is, I believe, seen as the important basis and impetus for the "perfect thing" and this is, I am convinced, the connection between Paul’s teaching about love and then his injection of the arrival of the "perfect thing" (complete) as opposed to the "in part" or incomplete (cp. Gal. 5: 6). Along this line, some have suggested that the "perfect thing" that Paul anticipates is individual spiritual maturity. How, I ask, can the ceasing of the fragmentary and arrival of the complete be determined based on individual maturation, seeing that all arrive at different times and obtain various levels of maturity, while others remain immature? However, I will say, that "the perfect thing" will be able to produce the desired maturity (see Hebrews 5: 14 where teleios is used to describe the desired spiritual state of Christians).
The view and explanation that is held by many regarding "that which is perfect" is expressed in the following quotation (again, these quotations are taken from an Internet exchange that I had involving a number of preachers associated with various types of "Churches of Christ"):
"The fourth position is the one I have come to believe as the best interpretation of the verse. This interpretation understands to teleion to refer to the Eschaton or the return of the resurrected Lord at the End of Time."
The Second Coming of Christ. If the return of Christ is meant,
why did not Paul write, "but when the Christ is come
(oh Christos)?" Instead, Paul used the neuter gender,
referring to a thing, not a person. Moreover, if the Second Coming of Jesus is
meant, then we are in the "in part" state, seeing Christ has not come. This
presents a serious problem in view of all the scriptures that emphasize the
completeness of revelation and of our present system being complete (2 Tim. 3:
16, 17, 2 Pet. 1: 3). Paul wrote, "And ye are complete in him." (Col. 2: 10, the
illustration of I Corinthians 13: 11-13 can also be understood of the word, see
James 1: 23-25). Also, the stated purpose of Jesus' miracles is that of
producing faith (John. 20: 30, 31). Why the need of ongoing miracles? In
addition, we have the written word and the written word confirms itself; hence,
no need of miracles. We test teachers by their teaching, because we have the
complete, revealed revelation (2 John. 9-11, compare I John. 4: 1, 2: 18-20, see
Some continue to accept the inevitable consequence of the nine miraculous gifts of the Spirit being present today. They must, those who hold the second coming of Jesus is meant by "the perfect thing." One wrote:
"For many years I have had a big problem trying to understand why brethren tend to want to try to show that gifts of the Spirit have ceased in our time…I do not get the slightest hint where the New Testament teaches that…."
In view of the dialectic consequence of the Jesus’coming view demanding the gifts of the Spirit today, another wrote:
"I have known some brethren that I thought had a special gift of the Spirit even though the brother never did claim a special gift that I know of. I knew one elder in the church and you would recognize some very close relatives of his if I should name him, (he has been dead for several years), but his brother in the flesh may have never known what he told me, and discussed with me: He told me, after I got to know him well, that: ‘Seldom does a day pass that I do not speak in tongues,’ Another brother who is a ‘full time’ preacher and is still living told me that he often speaks in tongues."
The completion of revelation explanation as to "the perfect thing." Some are adamant that the completion of revelation cannot be meant by Paul’s "perfect thing." In fact, some will not even consider this view worthy of the required time to discuss it. Hear one preacher who is recognized as a scholar by many:
"The view propounded has nothing on its side. It does not have the text, it does not have the literary context, the historical context, no one ever dreamed that is what Paul was talking about until nearly two thousand years later. This is an interpretation that is rooted in reaction and fear of Pentecostalism ... not the text."
The above author emphatically contended that no scholar ever held the view that to teleion refers to the completed word of God, the New Testament. Notwithstanding, we read the following:
"With the completion of the canon of Scripture prophecy apparently passed away, 1 Cor. 13: 8, 9. In his measure the teacher has taken the place of the prophet, cp. the significant change in 2 Pet. 2:1. The difference is that, whereas the message of the prophet was a direct revelation of the mind of God for the occasion, the message of the teacher is gathered from the completed revelation contained in the Scriptures." [From Notes on Thessalonians by Hogg and Vine, pp. 196,197.] (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, comments found under "prophesy").
I understand I Corinthians
13: 8-10 and Ephesians 4: 8-15 as saying essentially the same thing.
Consider Paul's statement to the Ephesians:
The main thing that
offered what stability there was to the early churches
was the teaching of "inspired men" and the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (I
Cor. 12: 8-10). The New Testament was not in existence, as the
books were then being written, circulated, and
compiled (cp. Col. 4: 16, cp. I John 2: 1). As a result of the compilation
of the New Testament books, we can learn about what to do to be saved, how to
live, the church, heaven and hell, and all other necessary subjects. The
scriptures being God-breathed, thoroughly furnish as to "doctrine," "reproof,"
"correction," and "instruction in righteousness," and
result in, "...the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good
works" (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17). I understand that the Hebrew scriptures
constitute the immediate frame of reference; however, they looked to Jesus and
his word for completion (cp. 2 Tim. 3: 15). Christians can reach maturity
through a study and application of the revealed word (I Pet. 2: 1f., Heb. 5:
I kindly submit that with the completion of the New Testament, we have all we need relative to personal and spiritual identification, growth, and maturation (Jas. 1: 23-25, 2 Pet. 1: 5-11). I find it interesting that James refers to the teleion nomon (perfect law) and speaks of looking into the looking glass and seeing one's image; the same phraseology and idea Paul used in the text in which he referred to the coming of the to teleion (perfect thing, Jas. 1: 25, I Cor. 13: 12). As we consider the teaching of the New Testament in its totality, we spiritually see ourselves and are transformed to what we should be, at least, this is the way it is designed to work (Jas. 1: 23-25, cp. 2 Cor. 3: 18).
The teleion has arrived, I contend, any imperfection is our fault for not making all the application and exerting the necessary effort. I, therefore, submit that to teleion in I Corinthians 13: 8-10 is the teleion nomon of James 1: 25, the "perfect thing" or "perfect law of liberty." The means, when applied, to make us teleion (Heb. 5: 14). This complete word is the standard of fellowship and determining truth and shall judge us in the last day (2 John 9-11; John 12: 48).
We are not now in the "in part" or fragmentary, but the recipients of God’s full and final will, "the faith once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3, ASV). As to the nine miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit seen in the infant church, the "in part," they have been "done away." Notwithstanding, there continues to be "lying wonders" (2 Thes. 2: 9). The "perfect thing" is so complete that all change and alteration is absolutely forbidden (Gal. 1: 6-9, Rev. 22: 18, 19). (For a detailed study of the gifts of the Spirit, click on "The Gifts of the Holy Spirit".)
Addendum 1: The gift of prophecy was the ability to miraculously foretell the future and provide attendant teaching; the gift of tongues enabled the possessor to speak in a language with which he was not conversant; and the gift of knowledge involved knowing without exercising the natural means of acquisition (Acts 11: 27-30; Acts 2: 1-8; cp. I Cor. 13: 2). The three mentioned gifts stand for the nine of I Corinthians 12: 8-10 and for the "in part" system.
Addendum 2: All the quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from an Internet exchange that I had involving numerous preachers and an audience of about one thousand. I quote them to show the different views and attitudes that exist regarding spiritual gifts.
Addendum 3: In all fairness, the neuter gender is used in I John 1: 1-3. It is contended by the proponents of "miracles" today that certainly John is referring to Christ in this passage. Their conclusion is I John 1: 1-3 proves "that which is perfect" in I Corinthians 13: 10 is referring to Christ. If such were the case, we are now in the "in part" state. Allow me to offer another explanation: John is not simply referring to Christ, but to Christ and to all that appertained to Christ (the gospel system, etc.). Such constitutes the grounds of fellowship (I John. 1: 3). You see, just the person of Christ alone is not sufficient grounds for fellowship, Jesus' teaching must also be accepted (2 John. 9-11, 2 John. 6). Hence, "that which" is comprehensive and is grammatically correct. It is grammatically possible, I concede, that Paul is referring to "the event" of Jesus’ coming in using the neuter gender and not to the person of Jesus. However, one is still faced with having to say that the "in part," that fragmentary and incomplete system remains. The consequence of the Jesus’ coming position are such as to preclude the view.
To explain the contention
that the neuter gender ("perfect thing") in I Corinthians 13: 10 applies to
Christ, some introduce Matthew 1: 20, a reference to the unborn Jesus. The
Greeks used the neuter gender in referring to the unborn child much as we do in
English. Greek grammarian Henry Alford wrote regarding "that which" (to
gar) in Matthew 1: 20 as follows:
"The gender here is not to be pressed as involving any doctrinal consequence, but to be regarded as the usual way of speaking of the unborn fetus..." (An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, Vol. 1, pg. 7).
Addendum 4: Paul mentions five specific gifts or functions. Two of these, apostles and prophets, solely depended on miraculous assistance and without the miraculous, they ceased to exist. Three involved miraculous impetus in the first century, but continued without the extraordinary. I refer to the functions of "evangelists," "pastors," and "teachers" (Eph. 4: 8-12). "Until" (mechri) shows that the miraculous that Christ was time limited (Eph. 4: 13). "The faith" is now in tack and as a consequence, Christians are commanded to be united (Eph. 4: 3-6).