When the perfect comes
O.K., to borrow a phrase that evokes a less than positive kind of imagery, this blog entry might "open up a can of worms" (By the way, can anyone tell me if this expression "can of worms" was born out of reference to the historical controversy stirred at Martin Luther's infamous "Diet of Worms" in Germany?)..
In quoting the following (below) from a sermon from Dr. John Piper, I seek only to address the issue Dr. Piper addresses, and that is what is being refered to as passing away "when the perfect comes" in the text of 1 Corinthians 13. As those who believe the Bible, here's what I know we agree on: we agree that prophecies will pass away when the perfect comes. We believe that for the simple reason that scripture says just that. Where there might be some disagreement concerns the question of when exactly this is.
I am very much prepared to believe that you as a reader here desire to follow what scripture says just as deeply as I do. Can we believe that about each other? Can we make this assumption? I truly hope so. I am John Samson. I write as a brother in Christ. I genuinely and wholeheartedly affirm all the reformation solas (including sola scriptura)... and I just happen to agree with Dr. John Piper when he states (in this lengthy quotation):
"In 1 Corinthians 13:8 Paul says, "Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away." So the question I want to try to answer today is: What time is referred to when Paul says, "Prophecies . . . will pass away." Has it already passed away or will it pass away at some future time?
The next two verses (9-10) give the reason for why prophecies and knowledge will pass away: "For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect (literally: For we know in part and we prophesy in part); but when the perfect (or: mature, complete) comes, the imperfect (or: partial) will pass away." So the reason prophecies will pass away is that a time is coming when the partiality and incompleteness of the gift of prophecy will be replaced by perfection and completeness and wholeness.
When is that time?
One respected tradition says that the coming of perfection or completeness refers to the coming of the day when Scripture is complete, that is, when the last inspired writings are gathered into the Bible and the canon of Scripture is closed. Let me quote from one of these writers whom I highly respect:
When Scripture is completed, then the church will have revelation thoroughly suited to her condition on earth. Our completed Bible is perfect in the sense that it is utterly sufficient revelation for all our needs. Paul is saying, "When the sufficient comes, the inadequate and partial will be done away. Tongues will vanish away, knowledge [and prophecies] will cease at the time that the New Testament is finished."
So when verse 10 says, "When the perfect comes," they say it means, "When the perfect New Testament comes." Is that what Paul means by perfect?
The other view says that the coming of the perfect refers to the experience of perfection at the return of Christ.
So you see what is at stake in these two interpretations. If the coming of the perfect in verse 10 refers to the finishing of the New Testament, then the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge have all passed away because that time came 1900 years ago. But if the coming of the perfect in verse 10 refers to the second coming of Christ then the natural understanding of the text is that the gifts will continue until Jesus comes.
Let's test these two suggestions by the rest of the passage.
In the next verse (11) Paul says, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways." Paul compares the experience of partial prophecy and knowledge to the experience of childhood, and he compares the passing away of these gifts to the experience of adulthood. That comparison doesn't seem to decide the issue for us.
Let's go to the next verse. Verse 12: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." Now this is really helpful in making our decision! Here in verse 12 Paul is describing what verse 10 refers to, namely, "when the perfect comes."
I want to make sure that you see this. Notice the contrast in verses 9 and 10 between "our knowledge is imperfect" (v. 9) and "when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away" (v. 10). Then drop down to verse 12 and notice the same contrast in the second part of the verse: "Now I know in part" contrasts with "then I shall understand fully." So verse 12 is clearly describing the coming of "the perfect" referred to in verse 10.
Now does the description of the coming of the perfect in verse 12 fit with the second coming or with the completing of the New Testament?
Let's take the two halves of the verse one at a time. First it says, "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face." Is it more likely that Paul is saying, "Now before the New Testament is written we see in a mirror dimly, but then when the New Testament is written we shall see face to face"? Or is it more likely that he is saying, "Now in this age we see in a mirror dimly, but then when the Lord returns we shall see face to face"? In the Old Testament there are half a dozen references to seeing God "face to face". Revelation 22:4 says that in heaven we shall see God's face. 1 John 3:2 says that when Jesus appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.
My conclusion is that the contrast between seeing fuzzily in an old mirror made out of metal and seeing face to face is not a contrast between first century spiritual knowledge and the knowledge we have from the New Testament today, but rather it's a contrast between the imperfect knowledge we have today in this age and the awesome personal knowledge of God we will have when the Lord returns.
The second half of verse 12 points in the same direction. It says, "Now I know in part (the very same words used at the beginning of verse 9); then I shall be understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." Now is this a contrast between before and after the New Testament or before and after the second coming?
It's hard for me to imagine Paul or any of us saying that after the New Testament was written we now in this age understand fully, even as we have been fully understood. This surely refers to knowing in some sense the way God knows usâ€”not omniscience; it doesn't say we will know everything. But we will "be freed from the misconceptions and inabilities to understand (especially to understand God and his work) which are part of this present life . . . [Our knowledge] will contain no false impressions and will not be limited to what is able to be perceived in this age."
So my conclusion on this question is this: Paul is saying that prophecies will pass away not when the New Testament is completed but when this age is completed at the second coming of the Lord from heaven. That's when "the perfect comes" (v. 10). That's when all speaking and thinking and reasoning like a child will be put away (v. 11). That's when we will see "face to face" (v. 12a). That's when we will "know fully even as we have been fully known" (v. 12b).
Now what difference does this make for us? It means that the spiritual gift of prophecy has not passed away, but is meant for the good of the church until Jesus comes. Which leads us to the question: What is it? Is it what I do on Sunday morningâ€”preaching? Is it a premonition that something terrible is happening in Guinea so that we can pray earnestly even before we get word from the missionaries? Is it a word of Scripture that God brings to your mind in such a way that it has tremendous effect in bringing someone to Christ? Is it God-given guidance for the leaders this afternoon as to which of the contractors would build the best building?
That's what we will dig into next week. But to keep you from feeling like this is not quite relevant for you, look in closing at 1 Corinthians 14:1. "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." If we are on the right track this morning, that command is still binding on all believers. You should earnestly desire the spiritual gift of prophecy. Do you? And if you say, "I don't even know what it means," do you want to know what it means? Do you think that when you ask God for bread he will give you a stone? Or do you trust Him enough to say: If this gift would help me build up people and honor You, show me what it is and give it to me please."
From the sermon: When the perfect comes, March 18, 1990 - By John Piper. Â© Desiring God. Website: www.desiringGod.org. Email: mail@desiringGod.org. Toll Free: 1.888.346.4700.