By Hoyt Houchen
Question: What is “that which is perfect” in I Corinthians 13:10? Please remember that when James wrote “the perfect law of liberty” in James 1:25, some of the books of the New Testament had still not been written.
Reply: First, we need to examine the context of the phrase “that which is perfect.” Nine spiritual gifts are enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. They were distributed among some of the Christians, each one possessing one of these gifts. These gifts were miraculous in nature. Some at Corinth were coveting the gift of speaking in tongues more than other gifts. So, this is the setting for the beautiful treatise on love in I Corinthians thirteen ‘ It was more important to have love than to “speak with the tongues of men or angels” (I Cor. 13:1), and Paul urged his readers to “follow after love” (1 Cor. 14: 1). This is the 46most excellent way,” referred to in the last verse of chapter twelve. There was an abuse of spiritual gifts among those at Corinth and Paul, in chapter fourteen, is giving instruction as to their proper use. While his readers were to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, they were to have love and would do better to prophesy. With this gift they would not only be able to foretell future events but would also be qualified to teach the word of God. In other words, while seeking these gifts they were to place proper priority on them; and, they were not to be used for a mere display.
Next, Paul shows that those miraculous gifts which some of the Corinthians were so desirously seeking were to cease. After emphasizing the quality and nature of love and its importance, he then stated, “Love never faileth but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away” (1 Cor. 13:8). Remember that, since these gifts were miraculous in their nature, it was the miraculous manifestation of them that was to cease. These supernatural gifts were to cease, but in contrast, love would continue.
Then Paul foretold when these gifts would cease: “For we know in part, and we prophecy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Cor. 13:9,10). Here Paul is contrasting the incomplete with the complete – the part with the whole. “In part” (v. 9) (ek merous) is contrasted with “perfect” (to teleion) (v. 10). The point that Paul is making here is that revelation by means of these spiritual gifts was incomplete. The meaning of “that which is perfect” in verse ten must be understood in the same realm as “in part” in verse nine. Ek merous (in part) was the partial revelation of God’s will to men, whereas to teleion (the perfect) is the completed will of God. It is the difference of the part and the whole and refers to revelation.
Paul used childhood verses manhood and the mirror darkly versus face to face as illustrations of the incomplete (partial) revelation with the complete (perfect) revelation (vv. 11,12). The things “in part” (miraculous gifts) were in the childhood stage of revelation: “when I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child . . . ” (v. 11a). “That which is perfect” refers to the manhood stage of revelation: “now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things” (v. 11 b). The second illustration is that of the mirror “darkly” and “face to face.” Paul continues: “For now we see in a mirror, darkly . . .” (v. 12a). This is an example again of partial or incomplete revelation during the use of miraculous gifts. The word “darkly” (Gr. ainigma) means “an obscure saying, an enigma. An obscure thing” (Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 16). Ancient mirrors did not reflect an image clearly. They were usually made of polished brass. We have seen one of these brass mirrors on several of our visits to the museum in Corinth. Such was revelation through these gifts. In contrast, Paul states: “but then face to face” (v. 12b). This is the “perfect” or complete revelation. What was obscure will be made clear. “Now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known” (v. 12c). Incidentally, this verse does not refer to heaven as some brethren have interpreted it. The context is revelation, not heaven.,
The fact that James mentions “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25) but some of the books of the New Testament had not yet been written poses no problem. The word “perfect” is used in different ways. Its meaning must be determined by the context. In the verses we have considered above, the term “perfect” (teleion) means completion, as we have seen. The term “perfect” may also refer to “moral and spiritual perfection” (see Thayer, p. 618 on teleios). God is perfect in character (Matt. 5:48). Even of the old law the psalmist declared, “The law of Jehovah is perfect . . .” (Ps. 19:7). The idea of the law being “perfect” in James 1:25 is that it is complete in moral excellence – it is without moral defect. Also, consider that the gospel is the “perfect” law because it is superior to the law of Moses. It is a higher law. J.13. Mayor makes an appropriate comment: “The law of liberty is called perfect as the heavenly tabernacle in Heb. 9:11, because it carries out, completes, realizes the object and meaning of the Mosaic law which it replaces (Matt. 5:17)” (The Epistle of James, p. 74). The “perfect law” in James 1:25 is equivalent to the “word of truth” (v. 18), “the implanted word” (v. 21) and “the word” (v. 22). This is the fight in which the word “perfect” is used in James. It does not mean that revelation was completed and there would be no more to follow. Revelation was completed when the last book of the New Testament was written.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 20, p. 613
October 20, 1983