It is noteworthy, as a launching point, that the term most often rendered “the perfect” (το τελειον) may be rendered with equal accuracy “the end.” In fact, a simple look at the regular use of the term in 1 Corinthians will recommend this translation. Consider the following passages in which I have put the corresponding word in bold:
1 Cor. 1:4-9
4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Cor 15:20-25
20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Both are extraordinarily telling for a number of reasons. In chapter one, Paul makes certain to define what he means by “the end” (the same term used in chapter thirteen): “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There can be no doubt that when Paul talks about the “telos” here he is referencing the eschatological coming of Christ. More interesting still is the connection between this final end and the spiritual gifts which are granted by God for Christians as they wait to that end. The parallel to the teaching in chapter thirteen is perfect (not to mention so glaringly obvious that it ought to put people to shame who believe that the New Testament is being referenced in the latter): spiritual gifts exist to sustain Christians as they wait for the end, the coming of Jesus Christ. Paul even references, in addition to God granting spiritual gifts for this purpose, knowledge which, in chapter thirteen, he adds to prophecies and tongues as realities which will pass away when the end comes.
The second passage is equally strong in its corroboration of an eschatological rendering of the term in chapter 13. Once again word in question is explicitly elaborated on by Paul. “The end” (or “the perfect”) is the time when Christ destroys every temporal authority and power (including death) and beings his eternal reign. What the reader is left with is two partial descriptions of a single event (which Paul uses the same term to describe). On the one hand, when the end comes prophecies will cease. At the same time, when the end comes so too will Christ come to conquer every foe, to resurrect the dead, and to reign eternally. They are parallel events.
With the addition of 13:10, these are the only unqualified uses of the term in 1 Corinthians. (In the rest of Paul’s letters, the only additional use of the term in this unqualified way as merely “the end” is in 2 Corinthians 1:13-14 which once again has an eschatological overtone.) It seems odd, if not willfully ignorant, to translate a term which Paul uses consistently in various ways depending on our polemical needs.
Even without those other references, however, the context of 1 Cor. 13 would still strongly indicate that an eschatological future is in mind with the term “the end”/“the perfect.” In fact, it is difficult to interpret it any other way. Paul, still speaking of the end when prophecies cease, speaks of a time when we will see God “face to face.” Surely no one would suggest that the fulfillment of this promise came to pass in the completion of the New Testament. More telling still is the self-referential comments at the close of verse twelve: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Paul is undeniably speaking here of a time in the future that he will experience. To suggest that this is anything other than an eschatological moment is to suggest that Paul’s own knowledge was imperfect but that it was magically perfected in the cessation of prophecy at some point during or after his life. (Even transmillennialists--who aim to collapse all eschatology into the events of AD 70--are still left with the pressing question: was Paul languishing in ignorance in heaven in the years between the time of his death and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple?) The only interpretation consistent with Paul’s personal hope here and his position on final resurrection, which he is about to defend so rigorously in chapter fifteen, is that Paul is imagining the promised eschatological completion of all things in which he, like all Christians, will know God with an intimacy that is impossible in the present. Then will knowledge and tongues and prophecy and hope and faith all become obsolete, not because they have been superseded by a better means of mediating knowledge but because they have completed their purpose, to bring us before the Father with only Christ as our mediator.
This view stands up to exegetical scrutiny in a way that puts the others to shame. Additionally, however, it also coincides with the usage of 1 Cor. 13 in the early church. Consider the small selection of examples which follow in which the earliest church fathers all understand prophecies, tongues, and knowledge not to have ceased but rather look forward to an eschatological future in which they will see God face to face.
Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28.20:
If it had been permitted to Paul to utter what the Third Heaven contained, and his own advance, or ascension, or assumption thither, perhaps we should know something more about God’s Nature, if this was the mystery of the rapture. But since it was ineffable, we too will honour it by silence. Thus much we will hear Paul say about it, that we know in part and we prophesy in part. This and the like to this are the confessions of one who is not rude in knowledge, who threatens to give proof of Christ speaking in him, the great doctor and champion of the truth. Wherefore he estimates all knowledge on earth only as through a glass as taking its stand upon little images of the truth. Now, unless I appear to anyone too careful, and over anxious about the examination of this matter, perhaps it was of this and nothing else that the Word Himself intimated that there were things which could not now be borne, but which should be borne and cleared up hereafter, and which John the Forerunner of the Word and great Voice of the Truth declared even the whole world could not contain.
Basil, Concerning Faith:
Even though more knowledge is always being acquired by everyone, it will ever fall short in all things of its rightful completeness until the time when that which is perfect being comes, that which is in part will be done away.
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XVI.12:
Thus also the Holy Ghost, being one, and of one nature, and indivisible, divides to each His grace, according as He will: and as the dry tree, after partaking of water, puts forth shoots, so also the soul in sin, when it has been through repentance made worthy of the Holy Ghost, brings forth clusters of righteousness. And though He is One in nature, yet many are the virtues which by the will of God and in the Name of Christ He works. For He employs the tongue of one man for wisdom; the soul of another He enlightens by Prophecy; to another He gives power to drive away devils; to another He gives to interpret the divine Scriptures. He strengthens one man’s self-command; He teaches another the way to give alms; another He teaches to fast and discipline himself; another He teaches to despise the things of the body; another He trains for martyrdom: diverse in different men, yet not diverse from Himself, as it is written, But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healing, in the same Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; and to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh that one and the same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will.
If thou believe, thou shalt not only receive remission of sins, but also do things which pass man’s power. And mayest thou be worthy of the gift of prophecy also! For thou shalt receive grace according to the measure of thy capacity and not of my words; for I may possibly speak of but small things, yet thou mayest receive greater; since faith is a large affair2238. All thy life long will thy guardian the Comforter abide with thee; He will care for thee, as for his own soldier; for thy goings out, and thy comings in, and thy plotting foes. And He will give thee gifts of grace of every kind, if thou grieve Him not by sin; for it is written, And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye were sealed unto the day of redemption. What then, beloved, is it to preserve grace? Be ye ready to receive grace, and when ye have received it, cast it not away.
And may the very God of All, who spake by the Holy Ghost through the prophets, who sent Him forth upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost in this place, Himself send Him forth at this time also upon you; and by Him keep us also, imparting His benefit in common to us all, that we may ever render up the fruits of the Holy Ghost, love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, in Christ Jesus our Lord:—By whom and with whom, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory to the Father, both now, and ever, and for ever and ever. Amen.
Ambrose, On His Brother Satyrus, 2.32:
For now we know in part and understand I part. But then we shall be able to comprehend what is perfect, when not the shadow but the reality of the majesty and eternity of God shall begin to shine and to reveal itself unveiled before our eyes.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.9 (see also Against Heresies, II. 28 and V.2):
For one and the same Lord, who is greater than the temple, greater than Solomon, and greater than Jonah, confers gifts upon men, that is, His own presence, and the resurrection from the dead…And as their love towards God increases, He bestows more and greater [gifts]; as also the Lord said to His disciples: “Ye shall see greater things than these.” And Paul declares: “Not that I have already attained, or that I am justified, or already have been made perfect. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect has come, the things which are in part shall be done away.” As, therefore, when that which is perfect is come, we shall not see another Father, but Him whom we now desire to see…neither shall we look for another Christ and Son of God, but Him who [was born] of the Virgin Mary, who also suffered, in whom too we trust, and whom we love…neither do we receive another Holy Spirit, besides Him who is with us, and who cries, “Abba, Father;” and we shall make increase in the very same things [as now], and shall make progress, so that no longer through a glass, or by means of enigmas, but face to face, we shall enjoy the gifts of God.
Others could of course be added. Tertullian with his spirited embrace of the Montanus, the “incarnate Holy Spirit,” springs to mind immediately as one champion of the ongoing role of spiritual gifts in the church. The above should suffice, however, to establish the point that early Christians believed strongly in the ongoing role of spiritual gifts in the church. This leaves us with an understanding of 1 Cor. 13 that stands up not only exegetically and logically but historically.
This result opens the door for a number of difficult questions about the nature of spiritual gifts, the basis for Scriptural authority, and the legitimacy of Pentecostal interpretations of the charismatic early church. That these questions might be more easily dismissed with a different interpretation of 1 Cor. 13 is irrelevant. The meaning of the Scripture is readily available to anyone open to see it and it is corroborated by the early church. What questions arise must be answered while admitting this truth not in an attempt to revise it for our own comforts sake.