First Corinthians: The Greatest Gift

January 26, 2008

Love is the greatest spiritual gift, because it will remain after the others have passed away.

1Co 13:8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Gifts of tongues, prophecies, and knowledge appeared for a limited period of time. They would come to an end. But when? Let’s take a look at the two key Greek words that answer the question.

1 Cor 13:10 but when that which is τελειον comes, then that which is μερους will be caused to cease.

τελειον – Thayer’s Greek Definitions
1) brought to its end, finished
2) wanting nothing necessary to completeness
3) perfect
4) that which is perfect
4a) consummate human integrity and virtue
4b) of men
4b1) full grown, adult, of full age, mature

Note that the primary meaning of τελειον was not moral perfection, as is generally assumed in our English translations today. Rather, the predominant meaning of the word was “something finished or completed.” That meaning is also more consistent in the context of 1 Cor 13:10, where τελειον is being contrasted to μερους:

μερους – Thayer’s Greek Definitions
1) a part
1a) a part due or assigned to one
1b) lot, destiny
2) one of the constituent parts of a whole
2a) in part, partly, in a measure, to some degree, as respects a part, severally, individually
2b) any particular, in regard to this, in this respect

Paul was saying that, when the (finished, complete) thing comes, the (partial, parts) would end. The revelations received through the spiritual gifts were only partial. Each revelation was only a small part of God’s message. The early church did not have access to the completed message. They only had the separate revelations whenever a prophet received a piece of the message. But God’s plan was for the complete message to be provided to the church. When the complete message had been delivered, then the gifts of prophecies, tongues, and knowledge would pass away.

1Co 13:11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

The gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge were provided during the early childhood of the church, to meet a temporary need until the scriptures were completed. Once the church possessed the completed scriptures, the partial revelations were no longer necessary, and were put away.

1Co 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

We have a hard time imagining what it was like to be a Christian during an era when the New Testament was not available. Compared to what we can see today, they saw only dimly. We should have a greater appreciation for the privilege we enjoy of reading the scriptures for ourselves.

1Co 13:13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Paul indicated that there would be a time when faith, hope, and love would remain, but tongues, prophecies, and knowledge would have passed away. When could that be? When Christ returns, we will no longer be hoping for something not yet received; we will have receive it! And we will no longer be living by faith, but by sight, since we will actually see God for ourselves. So faith and hope will remain until Jesus returns. Love will endure forever.

Therefore, the time Paul referred to, when we would have faith, hope, and love — but not gifts of tongues, prophecies, and knowledge — began with the cessation of the gifts, after the New Testament scriptures were delivered and established. And that era continues until the return of Jesus.

So faith, hope, and love are greater than the other gifts, because they did not pass away after the New Testament scriptures were established. And because love will endure after all the other gifts have passed away, it is the greatest of the gifts.


  1. This is another place where I find the logic somehow lacking. That this passage refers to scripture when speaking of perfection seems like a leap in there somewhere.Once again, I can’t find fault, but once again I have this nagging feeling that we’re chasing the rabbit too far down the hole.In this case, unlike the head covering post, I’m inclined to agree. It seems to button up the tongues, miraculous gifts and charasmata thing so nicely. But it’s almost too nice, that’s what bugs me a bit. It seems a bit too convenient a way to put that issue to bed.Patrick Mead has been doing a series of Q&A, answering questions from readers that they would ask God if they could. He touched on this passage, briefly, in a recent post. He had a different take on it, that the perfect was Christ, not scripture, and the closer we are to Jesus, the less we need these gifts.I have to say, I’m more attracted to the scripture interpretation, but I’m interested in your take. He indicates that there are some linguistic challenges with the scripture argument (although he doesn’t elaborate on what they are).

  2. I think the reason people have a fixation on perfection is that the English language has changed since KJV days. Everyone is accustomed to this verse saying “perfect.” When people read it, it is only natural to interpret that to mean moral perfection, since that is often what is meant by the word today. But in the KJV, “perfect” is used to refer to a lot of things that are not perfect in the divine sense. And I think the context demands “complete” rather than “perfect.” I think if you could find a translator who didn’t have a theological bias (maybe a Jewish or agnostic translator) they would render it “complete”.The passage in question is talking about the revealed word of God (prophecy, tongues, knowledge…) so the discussion of the completed scriptures fits nicely. A veiled reference to the second coming of Jesus wouldn’t fit nearly so well.BTW the link you left for Patrick’s blog post takes me back to my blog’s comments. I think this one is the one you meant.

  3. Oops. Yeah, that was the one. Wonder what happened there …I have a problem with the reasoning that Patrick gives. If Jesus is the perfection to come, why did the non-perfect gifts appear at all? After all, Jesus had come first. Patrick seems to speak to an individual’s need for the miraculous gifts, rather than some kind of unversal need for them. The closer to Jesus we are, the less we need them, individually.My discomfort in proclaiming that the Bible is the complete revelation, thus nulifying the validity of the gifts, is the way is shuts out those who believe in them.Perhaps there’s room for both interpretations. The Bible certainly is the completion of God’s revelation to man, but clearly, some still feel that they need the gifts as a witness. Romans 14 certainly applies here.Thanks for entertaining my objections. 😀

  4. > Patrick seems to speak to an > individual’s need for the miraculous > gifts, rather than some kind of unversal> need for them. That’s a good observation. The gifts weren’t given to edify the individual but to edify the church. That’s what Paul was correcting them about in chapter 14.> Perhaps there’s room for both > interpretationsI don’t necessarily think this is a salvation issue (and therefore not an issue preventing fellowship), but the two views are mutually exclusive. They can’t both be correct, as far as I can tell.

  5. Alan,

    I have always agreed with your explanation of perfect in the aforementioned text. However, now I see it differently. That which is perfect could be Christ, or upon His return. It is only then that we will see clearly and more so know fully as He knows. This concept is reinforced in Ch. 14 when Paul takes time to explain to the church that these gifts are for edification. I dare say that we are not in need of that simply because we have His Word. Keep up the good work!

    • Matt, lots of people see it as you do. To me it doesn’t seem to fit the context. One day we will all understand better!

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