When the Perfect Comes

October 18, 2013
Author Article Doctrine Pentecostalism

I am not trying to state that the whole of cessationist theology rests on their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:10. Nevertheless, as this verse is a clear dividing line between the charismatic (or continuance) and cessationist positions, it is worth concentrating a little thought and prayer on the interpretation of this verse.

Bible in a circleBut when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 1Co 13:10 ESV.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 1Co 13:10 KJV.

But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 1Co 13:10 NKJV.

But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless. 1Co 13:10 NLT.

Remember that the NLT is a dynamic equivalence translation, compared to the formal equivalence of the first three. Nevertheless, for reasons stated below, I am comfortable with its translation.

The continualist/cessationist divide is even sharper than simply a debate over one verse. It is actually a debate over one word – the word perfect. In Greek, this is teleios (τελειος). The Greek word actually refers to completeness, and seems to suggest that at some point in time prophecies and tongues will no longer occur. So, what is that point in time? The cessationist says that the perfect refers to the closing of the canon of Scripture. However, the continualist says that the perfect refers to death and / or the end of the age.

Notes from MacArthur's Masters Seminary translate teleios as the mature.(1) Although this is a possbility, it does not seem to be the most obvious translation of the word, and is not one of those given by Strong. These notes spend a lot of time referring to the cessation of the gifts of tongues, prophecies and words of knowledge in verse 8. However, this issue is not in doubt. All commentators agree, surprisingly, that the passage means that the gifts will cease. Even Pentecostals are cessationists! The question is not if they cease, but when they cease. Calvin notes that the gifts will cease, but claims that the time when they will cease is when Jesus returns. And this, clearly, is the position taken by Pentecostals, who might be surprised to note that they are on the same side as Calvin. In general, quoting too many other commentaries will be oof little value. It will surprise few of my readers to note that Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, also agrees that perfect means when Jesus returns. And it surprises no one that John Macarthur believes that perfect means when the Bible was completed.

All I can say on the subject is that, if perfect means the closing of the canon of Scripture, then not a clear way of saying it. The context and flow of the passage seem to make more sense, if we assume that the word perfect refers to the emd of the age. Look at 1 Corinthians 13:12. Do I know Jesus now as I am known? Of course not. I cannot expect this until He returns. And in the same way, tongues, prophecies and words of knowledge will cease only when Jesus returns.


1 The Master's Seminary Journal, p187, < http://www.tms.edu/tmsj/tmsj14g.pdf >

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