The Perfect

What is "the perfect" in 1 Corinthians 13:10? One explanation I've heard that causes me some confusion is that "the perfect" is the completed Canon.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul stated rather directly that the imperfect understandings Christians gain through gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge would disappear at the coming of "the perfect" or "perfection." Significantly, even though he alluded to the gifts of prophecy and message of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:9, he specifically avoided speaking directly about them. Instead, he spoke of the benefit Christians derive from them. The gifts don't disappear - imperfect understanding disappears. Christians will put the gifts behind them when their need for the gifts is gone (13:12).

Some interpreters have understood Paul to be speaking in this passage of the closure of the Canon of Scripture. They argue that the closure of the Canon is the "perfection" to which Paul referred, and therefore that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and the word of knowledge have ceased. As common as this interpretation may be, there is no basis in the text for understanding Paul in this way. Nothing in the text suggests that Paul spoke of Scripture itself, and nowhere does the Bible refer to itself as "perfection."

Moreover, Paul normally used the word perfection (teleios) to refer to "maturity" (1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:15; Col. 1:28). This was almost surely his meaning here, proven by the fact that in 1 Corinthians 13:11 he used the metaphor of human maturity. His point was that the church has imperfect understanding because it is not yet mature. Its understanding will not be perfect until it reaches maturity.

The closure of the Canon of Scripture did not bring the church to instant maturity. In fact, God has given Scripture in order that by it the church might be better equipped to reach maturity. The church uses Scripture to instruct, inspire, correct, and train God's people (Exod. 24:12; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16) so that they might render due praise to him (Ps. 102:18) and be equipped "for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:17). Scripture is not the perfection Paul looked forward to, but only a means to that perfection.

Further, Paul said that when perfection came he would see "face to face" (13:12), strongly implying that "perfection" somehow included his meeting a person. Moreover, he absolutely indicated that he would meet a person when "perfection" came by saying that he would know in the same way that he was known (13:12). For this latter point to be true, Paul would need to attain a personal knowledge of someone that already had such knowledge of him. When perfection came, Paul would gain a greater personal knowledge of someone - someone of whom he already was learning through prophecy, tongues, and messages of knowledge. Of course, that person could only be Christ. The coming of perfection coincides with meeting Christ in person, therefore, for the church as a whole, it must take place at Christ's second coming, at the consummation of all things in him (Eph. 1:10). Since this did not happen when the Canon was closed, "perfection" cannot refer to the Canon.

When Christ returns and brings an end to sin and death, Christians will enter a new world of perfection. The gifts of the Spirit which are so limited now will be replaced by something much more glorious. In eternity, there will be no need for prophecy, tongues, or the severely limited knowledge the church gains in this world. All these gifts only provide glimpses and foreshadows of the perfection that will come. Just as the shadows of the Old Testament sacrificial system no longer continue now that Christ to whom they pointed has come (Heb. 10:1-14), the shadowy, imperfect gifts of the Spirit will disappear when perfection comes.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.