When looking in the Scripture to learn about the gift of tongues, we will find only a few passages that refer to this gift: Mark 16:17 (one time) which is a prophetic account - Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 19 which are the historical accounts, and 1 Corinthians 12, 13, 14 where we read of the doctrinal account. In the passages in 1 Corinthians Paul addresses all the gifts but he narrows down the list to specifically three problematic gifts – tongues, knowledge, and prophecy. These are the gifts that the Corinthians were having the most difficulty with. The gift of tongues was the gift that Paul spent the most time addressing. In fact an entire portion of these passages are devoted to this one gift in chapters thirteen and fourteen. 1 Corinthians 13 is where we get one of clearest revelations that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased.
1 Corinthians 13
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 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.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
11 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.
12 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.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (NKJV)
This portion of Scripture is often referred to as the “love” chapter. While love is a big part of the context, it is not the main reason that Paul wrote what he did. The subject of love is intertwined with the context of the spiritual gifts. His objective is to explain the proper way in which we should use these gifts. In verse one he states, “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” (See our page on Angelic Tongues) His point is clear; if he speaks in the tongues of men or even angels and does not have love his tongue is merely a noise without purpose. Growing up in my household, whenever my sister and I made a lot of noise, we were scolded by my mother. I can still hear her say, “Quit making unnecessary noise!” As an adult, I can understand this, especially when my wife and I are around our two nieces. Unnecessary noise is not beneficial and tends to be distracting to those who are around it. Paul said that if love was not the motive for speaking in tongues (or even if it were absent altogether) then all they were doing was making unnecessary noise.
Paul goes on to make the same point about the other gifts; without love they mean absolutely nothing. He then explains exactly what the qualities of love are. This is certainly one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, but the context is still focusing on spiritual gifts and their proper use. In verse eight he picks up his focal point again by making a very clear statement. He says, “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.” We cannot escape this statement by Paul. It means what it says. Prophecies will fail, tongues will cease and knowledge will vanish away. It is important to again understand that the context of this passage of Scripture started back at the beginning of First Corinthians 12. The context is Spiritual gifts. It explains to whom they were given, what they were for, and then gives important instructions about one gift in particular in chapter 14.
Making this distinction is important because it helps us to understand that Paul was not saying that prophecies and knowledge would cease, but that the gifts of prophecy and knowledge would come to an end. The gifts would fail. We still have prophecy and knowledge through the Word of God. We we do not have is the gift of prophecy or the gift of knowledge. Everyone can obtain the same knowledge through study of the Bible, and everyone can see the prophecies of Scripture by reading it.
1 Cor 13:8 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.
The Bible says in the above passage that 1. Prophecies will fail 2. Tongues will cease. 3. Knowledge will vanish away. So the next question that must be examined is - when? When will prophecies fail, when will tongues cease, and when will knowledge vanish away? Let us remember the reason Paul made this statement. These Corinthians were using their gifts without the express written permission of Love. He reminds them that the motivation for using these gifts should be based upon love. They should be motivated by patience and kindness, they should not be envious, boastful, prideful, rude, self-seeking, easily angered, or think evil. Paul reminds them here that not only are these gifts not to be used for selfish gain, but that the gifts were not going to last much longer! While they were misusing and misunderstanding these gifts, they were about to see the fulfillment of the purpose for which they were given. Reading further in the text Paul gives us some answers as to when these gifts would end:
1 Cor 13:9-12 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.
Paul gives us the answer by using three parables. Let us analyze these parables.
“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.” The gifts were given only in part. There was a reason for that. They knew only in part, because they did not have the complete revelation of God. They prophesied in part because they did not have the complete revelation of God. But when that which is perfect is come, then the in part will disappear. There will be completeness. But what is “that which is perfect” that is yet to come? The text shows that it could only refer to the Revelation of God, the Bible.
It must be addressed here that some people think when Paul said, “that which is perfect” he was referring to Jesus. They believe that the perfection to come is the return of Jesus Himself. But Jesus is not in the context here. Paul is addressing the spiritual gifts. We can also see that the term “that which” could not be referring to a person, especially the person of Jesus Christ. Paul has never referred to Jesus in such a manner, instead Paul would have used the term "And He who is to come,” not "that which is to come". The Greek word translated "perfect" is teleios meaning "perfect" in the sense of "nothing lacking" or "complete." The Greek word is neuter, so it cannot possibly refer to Jesus, who is masculine. This is not the type of language one uses to speak about Christ. Furthermore, this could not be Jesus because Jesus is going to come back in different stages, first in the rapture then in His actual second coming. Which stage would make these gifts end? At which stage would there not be a need for these three gifts? Paul does not specifically say because the "perfect (thing)" is not Christ, but the completed Word of God.
Paul makes it very clear that the gift of tongues would die out: “whether there be tongues, they shall cease." Obviously there has to be a time when the gift of tongues would cease. Paul is making this point to be clear. Remember his words at the beginning of this passage, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant” (1Cor 12:1). If Paul did not want us to be ignorant then he would not leave us in the dark about when this would happen. Indeed he tells us when it will happen. The Greek word translated "cease" is a future tense, middle deponent voice, indicative mood verb meaning "to cease in and of themselves" or to "die away of themselves." So this verb tell us that these gifts were already in the process of ceasing. Paul was actually writing part of the Bible as he wrote this letter and as he penned these words the gifts were already passing away. The Bible is the perfect thing. Every single word being written in the New Testament was leading to an end of the gifts. Their purpose, need, and existence would be coming to an end. Soon, these gifts of the Spirit will have vanished away, but until the Bible was completed they still served a purpose.
This parable shows a time frame as to when “that which is perfect” will come. He says, “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.” Paul is using the illustration of a life-span to show the time frame in which these gifts would end. I have attempted to make a chart that would better explain this:
Paul uses a lifespan. It was his lifespan, and he is teaching that he is putting away childish things. When Paul was a child, he spoke as a child. This is a reference to tongues. He understood as a Child is a reference to knowledge, and he thought as a Child is a reference to prophecy. But when he became a Man those things disappeared. This was to happen in an observable period of time. Since Paul is using the development of a man as an illustration, then we can draw some conclusions from that. The Church is likewise referred to as a body. Paul refers to the Church as the body of Christ. Again we can look directly at the context to see this:
1 Cor 12:13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. NIV
Look back at the entire context of chapter twelve. Paul is using the symbol of the body again. In his illustration here in the thirteenth chapter, he is teaching that as a baby (early Church), it did childish things. As a boy (as the Church progressed), it started to put away childish things (the gifts were already beginning to cease at this point). Then, as a man, these gifts would disappear, no longer to be used or needed. Some argue that we are nowhere near the point in time when the Church has reached maturity. But consider what Paul is trying to say. He is telling these Corinthians that as he is writing this letter the gifts were already ceasing. They were using gifts (without love) that were going to end soon anyway. The Greek tense of the word testifies that they are beginning to cease.
Paul was using a lifespan as an illustration and we must realize that we can look at any lifespan and see when that person reaches adulthood. It is something completely observable by all of us. First there is a baby, where we see a new life totally dependent upon others. Then we see their childhood and watch them grow up into adulthood. If we can physically see this happen, then there should be no difference in our observation of the body of Christ, the Church. We can read of its infancy (Acts 2-19). We can read of its childhood (as we are doing right here in this passage). We can then see when it reaches adulthood. If the church were not going to reach adulthood until Jesus comes back Paul's point would have been completely irrelevant. If the gifts were not going to cease until Christ’s return, then there was no need for Paul to warn us of their departure. He could have easily said, "These gifts are going to end when Jesus returns so continue using them. This would have been quite obvious and would not have needed to be mentioned. Paul, however, warned us that they were going to end and he did so in the context of correcting how the Corinthians were using them. He said to use them with the proper motive and remember that they were soon going to end anyway once we have "that which is perfect."
Let us get back to the “that which is perfect” again. We read in verse 12; “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.” We have already shown that the phrase “that which is perfect” could not be the Church or the return of Jesus. This is reference to the completed Word of God. Paul is telling the Corinthian church that, when the completed Bible is in their hands, they will no longer only have a partial knowledge, but they will know just as they are known. They will see the word of God just as well as they see their own face in a mirror. When we look into the perfect law of liberty (the Bible) it shows us ourselves as we really are. The Word of God is “that which is perfect.” When the Word is complete then that which is in part shall be done away. Scripture will interpret Scripture. We do not have to guess what the “glass” means. The glass is the Word of God.
James helps us shed light on Paul’s metaphor:
James 1:22-25 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be blessed in what he does. NIV
The phrase “that which is perfect” is a reference to the perfect law that gives freedom, which is the glass in which we see ourselves. This is confirmed by Paul’s words that when these gifts cease, we will have a perfect thing. Notice what else the Bible says about the God’s Word:
2 Tim 3:16-17 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. KJV
It is the Scripture in which God gives doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness, not spiritual gifts. Furthermore, the Scriptures are able to make us perfect (complete, adequate) unto all good works.
Peter also wrote of the greatest prophecy. He tells us about an experience his eyes saw, and ears heard. The experience he had was on the mount of transfiguration. Even after having this experience he said, we have a greater prophecy. He was speaking of the Word of God (2 Peter 1). So Paul’s words here in chapter 13 makes even more sense in light of what Peter had said. The partial understanding of prophecy is made complete in the full revelation of God. We can trust the Word of God; we cannot always trust a human agent. The Bible is above all human experiences and emotions. People who profess that the gifts are still useful for today always use experiential arguments.
The Bible is powerful. It does more for a person than any experience, gift, what eyes may see, what ears may hear, or what the body may feel. The gifts of the Spirit were communicated through fallible people but the Word of God is infallible. (See our page Apostleship to learn more about uniqueness of those who were given the spiritual gifts.) The Bible gives overwhelming evidence as to why Scripture must always be our sole authority for faith. The Word of God is pure, perfect, inerrant, infallible, living, truth, light, holy, eternal, and forever settled in heaven. It illuminates, cleanses, saves, frees, guides, converts, heals, quickens, judges, and sanctifies. It also brings conviction, gives knowledge, gives wisdom, produces faith, refutes error, searches the heart, equips for every good work, and is used as a weapon. We could not ask for more than that!
Heb 4:12-13 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. NIV
When we realize that the Holy Scriptures are God-breathed, living and powerful, we begin to realize that there is no gift, no sign that is greater than that. It is at this point we should meditate on the Bible, one of the absolute greatest gifts we have, and be thankful for this gift. Thank You Jesus, for the written revelation of your precious word.
For an in depth study on this topic please read our page titled "Spiritual Gifts."