Coming from atheism to Christianity was a wonderful experience, but it was also a bit of a culture shock. I quickly learned that Christians have many sub-cultures that often divide believers from fellowshipping with each other. I had been a Christian for only a short time when I started hearing that some Christians spoke in “tongues” and others didn’t. Those who spoke in tongues questioned the spirituality, even the salvation, of those who did not speak in tongues. Those who did not speak in tongues questioned the spirituality, even the salvation, of those who did speak in tongues. It seemed strange to me given the simple facts about salvation from Scripture (e.g. Acts 16:31; Romans 10:8-10) and Christ’s call to unity within His Body (e.g. John 17:20-23; Ephesians 4:1-6). I wondered why there wasn’t more clarity about something that had become so divisive, then I learned that tongues was divisive as early as the Apostle Paul’s ministry.
It was obvious from my early reading of the Book of Acts and 1 Corinthians that the gift of “tongues” changed dramatically in a short period of time (less than 30 years), so I wondered why. The Apostle Paul wrote that he spoke in tongues, but would rather prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:18-19). Paul explained that tongues were for a sign to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:20-23). I saw that statement consistent with what Jesus said (e.g. Mark 16:17) and what Luke wrote in Acts (e.g. Acts 2:11; 10:45-46).
Our current study is about the spiritual gift of prophesy, so what does that have to do with tongues? Paul groups prophesy, tongues and knowledge together as three charismata that will “stop” in the future.
“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.” 1 Corinthians 13:8
We saw in our previous study that prophecies will fail and knowledge will vanish away. Both words come from the Greek word katargeo, which means “to reduce to inactivity, render idle, abolish, be done away.” The grammatical structure for both is that something else would act on prophecies and knowledge at a future time to reduce them to inactivity. Tongues would “cease,” which means to “stop, to make an end.” The grammatical structure is that tongues (glossa) would stop on their own at a future time.
Prophesy, knowledge and tongues are the only charismata Paul specifically says will “stop” at a future time. Why is that? Why not mention the word of wisdom, faith, gifts of healings, working of miracles, discerning of spirits, and interpretation of tongues? Will they not stop in the future? Or does Paul not mention those gifts for another reason?
The process of discovering God’s Truth (rightly dividing the Word) is carefully observing the text with the help of the Holy Spirit, asking questions from those observations with the help of the Holy Spirit, answering those questions with the help of the Holy Spirit, and interpreting the answers with the help of the Holy Spirit. I emphasize the Holy Spirit in every step of Bible study because the Spirit of God “inspired” the human writing of Holy Scripture. We must depend on His Guidance to rightly divide His Word.
The purpose of Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians is not difficult to discern. Paul was clear at the beginning of the letter about the main reason. Look at the wording of Paul’s theme carefully. What do you see?
“I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you.” 1 Corinthians 1:4-11
Paul thanked God that they were “enriched” (ploutizo – to make wealthy) in everything in Him in all “utterance” (logos – speech, discourse) and “knowledge” (gnosei – seeking to know, investigation, enquiry). He said that they had “come short” (hustereisthai – come late, suffer want, left behind, be inferior in power) in “no gift” (medeni charismati), even as they were “eagerly waiting” (apekdechomenous – to wait or expect with eagerness) for the “revelation” (apokalupsin – uncovering) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who would also “confirm” (bebaiosei – make firm, establish, make secure) them to the “end” (telous – the limit at which something ceases to be, the purpose, end-goal, reaching the aim, reaching the finish), that they might be “blameless” (anenkletos – that which cannot be called to account, nothing laid to one’s charge, free from accusation, guiltless) in the “day” (hemera – day, period of time, opportunity) of the Lord Jesus Christ (used in New Testament for the time when members of the Body of Christ meet Him face to Face – e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; Philippians 1:6, 10; 2:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:2). Paul followed that statement by pleading with the Corinthians to be united in the same mind (noi – seat of reflection, consciousness, frame or state of mind, faculty of perception and understanding) and same judgment (gnome – purpose, opinion, sentiment, means of knowing).
The theme of 1 Corinthians is overcoming divisions within the Church through spiritual knowledge and purpose for the goal of being unified so that Christ would be glorified in His Body, the Church. Paul addressed both “utterance” and “knowledge” and emphasized that the Corinthian believers were not short in any spiritual gift as they early awaited the “uncovering” of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This thematic statement by Paul is important to our understanding of everything in his letter and it comes full force in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. The division that existed in the Corinthian church concerning spiritual gifts was intense. Some thought so highly of their giftedness that they made other brothers and sisters think that they had “come short” in the area of spiritual gifts. The most vocal members of the church were those with “utterance” and “knowledge” gifts. Paul told them that their gifts of prophesy (spiritual telling and foretelling), tongues (unintelligible spiritual language unless interpreted), and knowledge (spiritual recognition and understanding) were one day going to “stop.”
Can you imagine what the Christians in Corinth thought when they read that for the first time? It’s the kind of language that puts people in their place. Any Christian who reads 1 Corinthians chapters 12, 13 and 14 should never again think proudly of their spirituality. All our gifts are from God. May God be glorified in everything!
Paul’s thematic statement in 1 Corinthians 1 also gives us a clue about when the charismata of prophesy, tongues and knowledge will stop.
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” 1 Corinthians 13:9-12
Paul told the Corinthians that we “know” (ginoskomen) “in part” (merous) and we “prophesy” (propheteuomen) “in part” (merous). Then Paul added that when “that which is perfect” (teleion) “is come, then that which is in part” (merous) “will be done away” (katargethesetai). That refers back to verse 8 about something or someone doing away with (katartethesetai) those gifts.
Paul told the Corinthians they “know” in part and “prophesy” in part. The Greek word merous means “a portion of the whole.” What the Corinthians were experiencing with their charismata of knowledge and prophesy was not the whole, not the completed portion. It was just a “portion” of the whole. Paul went on to say that when “that which is perfect has come,” then that which is in part (merous) would be abolished (katargethesetai). Now we’re getting somewhere! Paul tells us when the charismata of prophesy and knowledge would be abolished – “when that which is perfect is come.”
The Greek word for “perfect” is teleion. It means “finished, having reached its end, complete.” Remember Paul’s theme statement in 1 Corinthians 1? What did he point to as the completion of a believer’s life and ministry? “…. that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”(1 Corinthians 1:5-8) Our lives are complete at the “revelation” (apokalupsis) of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who, Paul added, will also confirm us to the end, that we may be “blameless” in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul continued to help the Corinthians understand his point about the specific charismata by sharing concepts they would understand – childhood and mirrors. They had all been children and many were parents of children. They understood Paul when he wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). He used the terms “spoke, understood, thought” in the context of the spiritual gifts of prophesy and knowledge. The Corinthians who had those charismata were speaking, knowing and thinking like children who had not yet grown up and reached maturity, but when they became adults they would put away (katergeka – from same root as katargethesetai) childish things. When do Christians come to full maturity? At the “revelation” of Jesus Christ.
Ancient Corinth was famous for the quality of its polished metal mirrors. Though they were well-made, the mirrors of the 1st century AD did not have the clarity of modern mirrors. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.” The Greek word for “dimly” is ainigmati and is transliterated as “enigma.” It meant that the reflection people saw of themselves in mirrors was an obscure hint of the reality. It was like a riddle that was hard to understand. Paul compared that obscure hint of reality to what will happen when “that which is perfect has come” with “but then face to face.”
The phrase “face to face” hearkens back to Paul’s theme where he tells the Corinthians they were “eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why so eager for the apokalupsis of Christ? Because that’s when we will see Jesus “face to face.” What a day of rejoicing that will be when we see Jesus in person! That’s when our journey will be finished. That’s when we will be complete.
Paul added that “Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” At this time, Paul wrote, we “know” (ginosko) “in part” (en merous), but then “I shall know” (epignosomai – fully perceive, recognize) just as I “also am known” (kai epegnosthen – exact or full recognition). Epignosomai is future tense, indicative mood, middle voice. Epegnosthen is aorist tense, indicative mood, passive voice. Paul said that in the future he would have a full recognition of himself even as he had been fully recognized by someone else at a past time that included the present. When would that happen to Paul? At the “revelation” of Jesus Christ. That’s when all Christians will fully recognize themselves in the same way Jesus has known us from the beginning (e.g. Ephesians 1:3-6).
If you have the spiritual gift of prophecy, tongues or knowledge, know this – your gift will end one day and it’s not about you. The Spirit of God gave us spiritual gifts so we would use them in service to God, that Jesus Christ would be glorified, souls would be saved, and believers built up in their faith. If you feel a bit puffed up at times because you speak and others listen, remember that what you have is temporary. What is important is faith, hope and love, “these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Does Paul have anything else to say about how the gift of prophesy works in the Church? He does and we’ll look at that in the next part of our study.
[Note: since the charismata of tongues will stop on its own and the Apostle Paul made a special addition not to “forbid” speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39), tongues may have already ceased or will cease before the return of Christ. If tongues continues to this day, the regulation of tongues also continues and church prophets should speak clearly to any misuse – “Let all things be done decently and in order.”]
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
Building Confidence Through Evidence
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”