Pieces Parts (Again)
Gaining knowledge is often like putting together a picture puzzle. Pick up a piece here, a piece there, and see how they fit together. Slowly but surely the overall picture takes shape. There is a tendency sometimes for people to misunderstand the importance of a given piece. They find a new piece and suddenly they are running around waving their piece as if it was the whole puzzle. Someone else has another piece and they run around waving it like it's the whole puzzle. Then, of course, they have to start arguing over who has the "correct" piece. Why not put the pieces together and make a bigger picture? Ego, I suppose. Everyone seems to want to have the most important piece.
That's the kind of problem Paul encountered with the Corinthians. Apparently they were arguing over spiritual gifts and who had what and what purpose it was. So, Paul has to set them straight. All the pieces are important, is what he tells them. True, some are bigger, more central, contain more detail, but all are important. The body of Christ is made of all of these things and not just some. Having set them straight on this, Paul says he will show them "a more excellent way." Although the gifts of the spirit are a great blessing, they are nothing compared to love. Paul then explains why:
"Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away." (1 Co. 13:8 )
Hopefully, you know that "charity" is a translation of "agape" which is used by Christians to express the type of love that God has for us. When Paul says it "never faileth" he uses a word that means to "throw away." Love is never discarded. This is in contrast to the other spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and words of knowledge. The translation here is a little confusing, unfortunately. When Paul says that prophecies "shall fail" he doesn't mean they are false prophecies. He is using a word (katargeo) that means to render idle or unemployed. The same word is used in respect to knowledge and translated here as "vanish away." This is just a statement of what should be obvious. A word of prophecy or a word of knowledge is given to someone for a definite purpose. The prophecy may be a warning or it may be a promise, but in either case it has a end point. When the prophecy is fulfilled, it becomes idle, no longer at work. The same is true of knowledge. It is given to help a person increase in maturity and has then served its purpose. As Paul says in verse eleven, when we reach maturity we put away childish things. So, prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc., reach their end purpose and cease to do work.
I have to digress for a moment. Most of the commentators and translators have taken verse eight to indicate that prophecy and other spiritual gifts came to an end after the so-called apostolic era. I can't find any support for that claim here. So, I pondered this a bit and came to the realization of what I think happened. As the Church became more of an organized institution, especially after Constantine, it began to rely more and more on councils and clergy to determine doctrine. There were all manner of arguments over the nature of salvation, Christology, end-times, etc., and to try and stop the arguing they denied that there was any more revelatory, inspired knowledge. So, I think they read their dogma back into what Paul said. Maybe it's true that there will be an end to prophesying, but I don't think you can justify it from this verse. Whatever the reason, the Church turned to ecumenical councils, seminaries, and canonical scripture, and turned away from direct operation of spiritual gifts.
During the twentieth century all that changed. With the Azusa street revival and similar happenings, there was a resurgence of spiritual gifts including prophecy and speaking in tongues. I won't get into an argument as to whether this outpouring in its origin was authentic, because for what I have to say here it is irrelevant. Whether the original revival was authentic or not, over the past century we have seen the surge of Pentecostal and Charismatic groups who depend largely on the spiritual gifts. And, we see the same thing today that was going on in Paul's time with the Corinthians. Instead of the gifts being used to build up the body of Christ, they have been twisted into a three-ring circus. I don't doubt there are some valid prophecies and healings going on, but mostly what it looks like is that people are obsessed with the spiritual gifts instead of the spiritual growth that should come from them. So, we need to hear Paul's words again.
"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." (1 Co. 13:9-10,13 )
Part of what Paul said in these verses is difficult to translate. Literally, he said that knowledge comes out of a portion and prophecy comes out of a portion. Possibly he meant partial understanding, but since he has just been talking about the diversity of gifts and the way they are apportioned among the body of Christ, I tend to think he means also that these things come out of a portion of the body of Christ. In other words, some may prophecy and some may speak wisdom and knowledge. For "perfect" Paul uses the same word (telios) in 1 Cor. 14:20 and also in Ephesians 4:12 to refer to the mature saint, and I think he means the same thing here. It isn't the final perfection of all things, just the maturity of the saints. When that maturity is in place, then the other gifts have served their purpose. Prophecy serves its purpose by increasing our faith, and then is set aside. Likewise, when knowledge has brought us to a greater knowledge of God's ways it has served its purpose. Thus, prophecy, knowledge, etc., reach the end of their usefulness, but the resulting faith, hope and love remain.
All the gifts of the spirit are valuable and have their place in the life of the saints to this day. But we must always remember that they are only pieces and parts that are secondary. When we put all the pieces and parts together in their proper order (1 Co. 14:40) we end up with the big picture: a mature understanding of God's love. Out of that love all things become possible and as we grow into spiritual maturity our ability to express that love from God grows with us. The other spiritual gifts are secondary to that, and no matter what gifts one has, this love is really the centerpiece of it all.
"Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Matt. 22:37-39)