In the previous article, the Biblical definition of "the gift of tongues" was given as: a supernatural, spontaneous, giving of a known language used in the same way as that of Acts chapter two (Greek ‘glossa’ “tongue,” used metaphorically as “language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations”). Now that the background of 1 Corinthians has been explained, it is now time to look at the text of 13:8-10. Paul uses a great literary mechanism in this section as he uses the three terms: tongues, prophecy and knowledge. He now moves with poetic style, interjecting love into the equation.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10:
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.
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.
As you can see, the term prophecies, tongues and knowledge are now placed in their proper order – God’s word comes first, then the individual speaks God’s word in one’s own tongue which brings knowledge, but all this is superintended by the Holy Spirit.
Notice, Paul places love in contrast to the three. First, love will never fail (present tense), if there be prophecies, they will cease (Greek ‘katargeo’ Future Passive, “to cause to cease, render idle”). Prophecies will, in the future, be stopped as the passive means an external agent will perform the action.
Second, tongues will cease (Greek ‘pauo’ Future Middle, “to make to cease, to leave off, to stop”). Tongues will in the future, itself stop to be the only form of spreading the Gospel of Christ. That is to say, before the written word, the gospel was spread mouth to mouth or in the Greek language – tongue-to-tongue. Again, the Holy Spirit is superintending the word of mouth spread of the gospel. It will be spread by word of mouth from Jesus until the book of Revelation sometime in the AD 90s. Here the action of ceasing is in the middle voice meaning that “itself” will cease, a willing cessation in contrast to the passive voice which denotes a forced cessation (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).
The last item is knowledge, and it too will cease (Greek ‘katargeo’ Future Passive, “to cause to cease, render idle”). Knowledge will also be rendered idle. Again, the action will occur in the future and will be accomplished by an external agent – the Holy Spirit. What does it mean that knowledge will cease? This is the same supernatural knowledge that is superintended by the Holy Spirit and spoken of earlier “for one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit” (12:8). That is to say, the knowledge here is supernatural spontaneous knowledge gifted to an individual for the purpose of understanding the word and applying God’s word to an occasion. This knowledge is different from the knowledge that associates with the work of the Holy Spirit today.
In fact, Chapter 12 is where all this starts and where these gifts are defined. Notice what Paul writes:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. (1 Cor. 12:1-10)
It is clear from the text that 'tongues' are normal known human languages that are used as instruments to clearly communicate the word of God to the world.
The next thing to identify is what is it that "we know in part?"
“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.” What in the world is Paul saying? The Greek really points out what this thing is that is known “in part.”
The “we” is Paul and the Church who currently know and prophesy part of the whole which is yet to come. They know some, but not all of what God has to bring to them. In verse 10, Paul adds that in some point in time (the Greek aorist describes action at a point in time) the whole will come and their partial knowledge will no longer be needed, and in fact, will cease (Greek ‘katargeo’ Future Passive, “to cause to cease, render idle”).
The word for perfect is a neuter adjective (Greek ‘teleios’ “brought to its end, finished, perfect”) and points not to the Church, or the kingdom, or to Jesus’ return, but to the message, the thing that is known in part (Greek ‘meros’ neuter). When will that prophecy which is partial be complete? It is complete when the last book of the Bible is written. Context demands that this wonderful three part poem correspond with the word of God that is to be used throughout the world in one’s own language to be clearly spread.
Dr. Couch writes, “the prophets were important, as emphasized by Paul when he placed them in second position after the apostles (Eph. 4:11). But then the office of prophet ceased after the completion of the New Testament, like the office of apostle. The same thing happened with the Old Testament. Those ancient prophets disappeared when that testament was finished about four hundred years before Christ. (Mal Couch, gen. ed., A Biblical Theology of the Church, AMG, p. 59)
Much confusion has been spread concerning tongues especially with the great growth of the charismatic Church. While there are different interpretations within the charismatic church concerning tongues and their use, it needs to be pointed out that their use in the Corinthian church was in error and it involved pagan worship. Unknown 'secret' knowledge and the desire to be a special spokesman for God that only you know, is pagan! We have the plain Word of God. We would all do well to place that same excitement and enthusiasm into reading His written Word and use our individual gifts to build up the Church today.
John Pappas, ThD, is the author of BibleGreekVpod, a website dedicated to the teaching of the original Bible languages for those who want to learn them.