In this passage, Paul explains to the Corinthians the temporary nature of gifts. Gifts, discussed more fully in 1 Corinthians 12, are not permanent works but rather seasonal abilities granted by God.
The debate begins when the preacher or commentator decides to describe the “season of gifts” more specifically. When would these gifts cease and what is “the perfect” that indicates their cessation? Commonly suggested options include:
- When perfect love is developed, gifts cease.
- When the mature church is formed, gifts cease.
- When the perfect Savior returns in Judgment and Resurrection, gifts cease.
- When the canon of Scriptures is completed, gifts cease.
The problem with each of these interpretations is in their insistence that Paul had one particular termination point in mind. The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is not favorable to any of these suggestions. Neither the mature church, the second coming of Christ, nor the canon of Scriptures is under discussion in this passage. Love is discussed of course, but it is the least helpful of all interpretations. What is “perfect love” and when does it arrive? Why does the arrival of perfect love demand the cessation of the gift of knowledge?
The passage is overdue for a more moderate interpretation. What if Paul was intentionally vague?
After all, if Paul had intended to reference the church, the second coming, or the canon, he had much more direct language at his disposal to do so. Why not just say it that way?
Instead, the Spirit works in Paul to arrive at this beautifully obscure phrase: “when the perfect comes.” The examples that follow are equally nonspecific. A child grows into an adult. Vision through a glass or mirror is less perfect than vision face to face. In neither analogy is the intended target made clear. Rather than trying to outsmart the text, the better interpretive position is to view its obscurity as intentional.
Paul claims every gift from God is an incomplete part of God’s great and perfect whole. God is working to do a great thing, and no single contribution he allows us to make is the same as his complete project. Falling in love with a gift and prizing it above all else is equivalent to a carpenter loving his hammer more than what is built by it. Every tool has a season of usefulness, but when the work is complete, the tools are set down.
In Christian life, many times we are tempted to value the tools above the task set by God. This is true of all of the possible interpretive positions often forced on this text. The tools creating love in a congregation are not greater than the love God creates. The tools shaping a church into maturity are not greater than the church. The gifts supporting the development of Canon are not greater than the Canon. The work we do in the Lord in anticipation of God’s Resurrection is not greater than what God will do in the Resurrection. Paul is not referring to one of these. He is referring to any and all of these. Contextually, Paul is not making an argument about the historical cessation of miraculous gifts. Paul is rebuking the human temptation to value how God works rather than what God is working. Love is Paul’s response to this temptation because it does not allow for such selfishness or shortsightedness.
Disciples must learn to apply this at the personal level. In the individual Christian life, the activities we can do will come and go with age and circumstance. A young singer may find his voice weaker in old age. A family may find itself able to contribute more financially in some years than others. Church programs sometimes outlive their usefulness. Love, however, is not seasonal. Regardless of how much or how little God has given you to work with at this moment in time, love allows us and drives us to use it for the good of God’s purpose. Love reminds us that these gifts are tools placed into our hands, not the end goal itself.