1 Corinthians 13:8-13 - Eschatology or Canon?
Scripture does not speak about the gift of the Holy Spirit as a second baptism which we should still expect today. This suggests that whether or not prophecy and tongues continue today, they are not restricted to a certain segment in the congregation which has been baptized with the Holy Spirit. This conclusion as such does not yet prove that tongues and prophecy no longer function today. Our views about the cessation or continuation of these gifts will have to be based on other Scriptural evidence.
Both charismatics and non-charismatics appeal to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. In verse 8, the apostle comments that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will all pass away. He then states that he has put childish ways behind him. (v. 11) Therefore, when the apostle speaks about the coming of “perfection” (v. 10) when he “shall know fully” (v. 12), does he perhaps refer to the completion of the New Testament canon?1If so, this would mean that during the infancy stage of the church, tongues-speaking was still an acceptable phenomenon, but once the canon was completed, tongues were out of the picture. Such an interpretation would be a real support for the Reformed position that tongues have, in fact, ceased. Another view is that in referring to the coming of “perfection” Paul speaks about Christ’s second coming, the eschaton. This keeps open the possibility that tongues and prophecy continue until that time and, therefore, still function today. Fee, for example, rejects the former interpretation with the stroke of a brush.2He is convinced that Paul does not speak about the closing of the canon, but of the eschaton.
The context of the letter pleads for an eschatological interpretation. Already in chapter 1:7 the apostle hints at the Corinthians’ erroneous understanding of the eschaton, when he writes:
Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
The “revelation” of Christ, His second coming, is something which has not been realized yet. It is something which will take place at a later date. The Corinthians were wrongly of the opinion that they had made it already, that they had arrived (cf. 4:8, 10).
This is the theological framework in which the apostle Paul addresses the question of glossolalia, of speaking in tongues. The Corinthians were speaking in “tongues of angels” (13:1), possibly a reference to glossolalia. Just as in connection with other questions, however, they also here drew the wrong conclusion that they were so “spiritual” that the present life no longer counted. The result of their wrong-headed spirituality was a phenomenal list of ethical problems in the congregation: incest, prostitution, sexual abstinence, use of secular courts to resolve congregational problems, eating of sacrificial food in idol temples, and individualism at the communal celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
One of the problems arising from this sense of: “already having arrived” in the kingdom of glory was an overemphasis on speaking in tongues. In the eyes of the Corinthians, this was truly the mode of communication for this spiritual age. Paul addresses this erroneous view in chapters 12-14. Throughout these chapters, he has tongues-speaking in view.3First he gives some basic teaching about spiritual gifts, and in particular about the need for diversity. It is the character of the church which is at stake. The church is not a group of people who all have the same gifts, but there is a wide variety of gifts in the one body.
Paul concludes chapter 12 with a number of rhetorical questions, emphasizing the wide variety of gifts:
Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret” (12:30)?
He then concludes with the exhortation: “But eagerly desire the greater gifts.”
He comes back to this at the very beginning of chapter 14, when he writes: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts.”
Both at the end of chapter 12, and at the beginning of chapter 14, the apostle encourages his readers to eagerly desire spiritual gifts. This is an indication that chapter 13 is an interlude.4Paul has had such interludes or digressions on earlier occasions.5Also here, while this passage about love (chapter 13) may seem out of place, it actually is a very fitting digression, which in a certain way is foundational to the entire argument.
Why is this so? What does love have to do with speaking in tongues? Perhaps not much, in the eyes of the Corinthians. But Paul makes clear that tongues are useless if love is not the guiding principle in all of one’s actions. This most beautiful passage on love is at the same time one of the sharpest possible criticism. The wonderful descriptions of love (13:4-7) form in many ways a sharp contrast to the dealings of the Corinthians. Love is patient. The Corinthians were not. Love is kind. The Corinthians were not. Love does not envy. The Corinthians did. Love is not rude. The Corinthians were. Love is not self-seeking. The Corinthians were. Love is not easily angered. The Corinthians were. Love keeps no record of wrongs. The Corinthians did. Love does not delight in evil. The Corinthians did. In many ways the ethical dealings of the Corinthians were diametrically opposed to the “way of love” as Paul outlines it here. This means that the Corinthians at least ran the danger of being like “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” of being “nothing,” and of gaining “nothing” (13:1-3).
After this sharp, antithetical characterization of love, Paul comes with the verses 8-13:
(8) Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
(9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
(10) but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
(11) When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
(12) Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
(13) And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
“Knowledge” is a key term in this passage. First, it occurs together with prophecies and tongues in verse 8. Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will all come to an end. All three are ways of revelation. They will all come to an end. Paul uses a verb here which he uses more often when he refers to the end of the world.6This is an indication that Paul probably has in mind the end of time. In verse 9 the apostle drops his reference to tongues and continues to speak only about knowledge and prophecy, of which he says that we only have them “in part.” Finally, in verse 12 Paul no longer speaks of prophecy, but only mentions “knowledge.” While I now “know in part,” then I shall “know fully, even as I am fully known.” This emphasis on “knowledge” is too prominent to be ignored.7The Corinthians boast of their knowledge. It is one of the gifts of which they are most proud. Just as in chapter 8 in connection with sacrificial food, so also here the apostle corrects the Corinthians’ boasting of their knowledge. While they may be of the opinion that they know a great deal, Paul puts them in their place already in chapter 8: As long as they boast of their knowledge, they still do not know the way they ought to know. Only if they love God, are they indeed known by him (1 Corinthians 8:2-3).8
In chapter 13 the apostle, in a sense, reiterates this: Their knowledge is still only very limited. What is the reason for this limited knowledge? Is it because the canon is not yet complete? Or is it because they have not yet arrived in the kingdom of glory? Verse 12 plays a key role in determining this question. What does Paul mean when he says that now we see “but a poor reflection as in a mirror”?9
What does he mean, when he says that then we shall see “face to face”? Much of the discussion on this text has focused on the meaning of looking through a mirror. Some are of the opinion that mirrors only produced vague images in Paul’s days. After all, they were made of bronze. Paul would then contrast the blurred vision in a bronze mirror with the sharp vision which one has apart from the use of a mirror. Others think that it is not at all proven that the mirrors of those days were of such poor quality. In their view Paul is not speaking of blurred or indistinct vision, but more likely of indirect vision. Standing beside someone and looking in a mirror, one does not see the person himself but only a picture or an image of him.10
Most likely, the latter interpretation is correct. But this discussion does not yet answer the question: What does the apostle mean with this verse? To find out we must turn to the well-known account of Numbers 12, to which Paul refers. It tells the story of Miriam and Aaron’s opposition to Moses. They felt that the LORD had spoken through them just as well as through Moses (v. 2). The LORD then summoned Aaron and Miriam and said to them:
(6) When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.
(7) But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.
(8) With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
There are a number of striking parallels between Numbers 12 and 1 Corinthians 13. Both chapters deal with situations of boastful arrogance in connection with revelation. Miriam and Aaron felt that the LORD had also spoken through them. They had “prophetic” qualifications just as well as Moses. Similarly, the Corinthians were proud of their “knowledge,” of the “prophetic” qualifications by which they gained insight into the “mysteries” of the Christian religion.
The LORD made clear to Miriam and Aaron, however, that they were mistaken. There was a difference between Moses and the other prophets. The LORD came to other prophets in “visions.” The Hebrew word for “vision” can also be translated with “mirror.” This ambiguity in the Hebrew set off a discussion among Jewish rabbis about how God revealed himself to the Old Testament prophets. Some speculated that Moses only needed one mirror to see God, while the other prophets needed nine mirrors to see him.11
This Jewish explanation is rather fantastic: Moses did not need a mirror at all to see God. He spoke to God “face to face.” 12 Moses’ interaction with the Lord was a direct one. It was an interaction like one has with a friend (Exodus 33:11). Moses’ contact with the Lord was so direct that the very glory of the LORD reflected from Moses’ face after meeting with the LORD in the tabernacle. It was a glory that the Israelites were only able to observe in an entirely indirect fashion: only by looking at the face of Moses (Exodus 34:35). While Moses saw the LORD face to face, the Israelites only had an indirect look at this glory of the LORD. The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians of this episode in his second letter (2 Corinthians 3:7-18).
Whereas God would speak to other prophets only in a vision or a dream, he spoke to Moses “face to face.” This difference between the other prophets and Moses is similar to that between the believers “now” and “then.” Now the Corinthians only saw through a mirror, indirectly.13 Then they would see “face to face,” just as God spoke to Moses “face to face,” just as Moses saw the “form of the LORD” (cf. Exodus 33:22).14
This “face to face” contact between God and the believers is something the Corinthians were still missing. At the moment they saw “but a poor reflection” as in a mirror. Literally translated, they saw as through a mirror “in obscurity” (en ainigmati).15For a proper understanding of this phrase, we again have to go back to Numbers 12. There the LORD says that He did not speak to Moses “in riddles.” The Hebrew word used refers to an enigmatic saying, to something which is spoken indirectly and needs interpretation.16Paul is saying that it is no different with the New Testament prophets in the congregation of Corinth. Just as the Old Testament prophets came with obscure sayings, with riddles that needed interpretation, so also those who prophesy and speak in tongues in the New Testament still need some sort of evaluation (12:10; 14:29). 17This will only change when we “know fully.”18
This interpretation sheds light on Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “in part” as opposed to “perfection.” Just as the mode of revelation to the Old Testament prophets was indirect, so also the revelation to the New Testament prophets was indirect. Just as the LORD “made himself known” to the Old Testament prophets indirectly, by means of visions and dreams, so also his prophetic revelation to the Corinthian prophets yielded an indirect knowledge of God. For a full understanding of these prophecies, the Corinthians would have to wait until they would see the Lord “face to face.” Then their knowledge would include a full understanding of the prophecies. In other words, only then would their knowledge be complete.
The conclusion must be that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is a passage about eschatology rather than about the closing of the canon. It may, therefore, seem logical to conclude that prophecy and tongues did not cease with the closing of the canon, but that they will continue until Christ’s second coming. After all, it is at that time that our poor vision and our partial knowledge will disappear. This would be too hasty a conclusion, however. The Reformed theologian Richard B. Gaffin acknowledges that this passage does not speak about the closing of the New Testament canon. He draws attention, however, to Paul’s comment about seeing “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” According to Gaffin, Scripture is just as much a mirror as any other kind of special revelation, such as tongues and prophecy. Concludes Gaffin:
But inscripturation has ceased. And if that be granted, then it is gratuitous to insist that this passage teaches that the modes of revelation mentioned, prophecy and tongues, are to continue functioning in the church until Christ’s return.19
In other words, we must have an eye for the revelatory function of tongues and prophecy. The passage not only speaks about eschatology, but it speaks about our present knowledge as this relates to eschatology. Paul is simply asserting the partial character of the knowledge which we have in this present dispensation. The Corinthians, who felt that they had already arrived, lost sight of the partial, imperfect character of our present knowledge. Therefore, what Paul is saying about prophecy and tongues can also be said about God’s revelation in Scripture: Also with Scripture, we still only know in part. This will change when Christ returns. This means that despite the eschatological emphasis of this passage the “time of the cessation of prophecy and tongues is an open question so far as this passage is concerned...” 20