Are spiritual gifts still operational in the church today? Greetings and welcome. Thanks for making Let the Bible Speak a part of your day. This is a half-hour study of the bible. It is not a television church nor is it a replacement for the public worship of the church. It is an outreach of the church of Christ to preach the word of God. We’re so glad you’re in the audience today and I want to emphasize that we want nothing from you except your kind attention to the bible as we open and study it. We have been on the air for over 25 years and have never asked our viewers for money nor do we sell products. This program is brought to you each week by the church of Christ in your area to preach the truth of God’s word. So, we’re so thankful you’re here.
Our scripture reading today will come from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 13. This is often thought of as the chapter which defines and extols the kind of love we should show to others. That’s true but there is a broader context to Paul’s admonition and that is the conditions that existed at Corinth at that time. Corinth was a divided church and some of their quarrelling revolved around the possession and use of spiritual gifts. In verses 8 through 13, these words: “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. 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.  And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Paul says the gifts of the Spirit (over which the Corinthian church was so divided) were not lasting; they were only temporary. They would be manifest until “that which is perfect has come.” What was Paul referring to? What is the perfect thing that would one day come? This is an important question that we need to answer if we are to understand the purpose and scope of miraculous gifts of the Spirit.
One of the marked features of the first century church was the use of supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Some of the early Christians could, for example, miraculously speak in languages they had never learned. This was called “speaking in tongues.” Such was not gibberish or speaking in some mystical, unknown dialect, but rather, by the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking in other human languages unknown to the one speaking. There were gifts of prophecy. Those who possessed this gift would speak forth the things that the Spirit miraculously gave them to speak. There was the gift of healing and the gift of performing miracles. Paul lists several of these in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
These gifts played an essential role in the revelation and early development of the Christian faith. For example, the Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 2:3-4 that the apostle (or those who personally heard Christ) possessed such gifts in order that they might bear witness to the truth the apostles were being inspired to speak. The bible also teaches that those same apostles exclusively had the power to lay hands on people and impart those gifts. Acts 8:14-20 shows us that when converts were made and a new congregation was established, the apostles would then at some point visit that place and lay hands upon certain ones and those people would receive various gifts of the Spirit. Those gifts would allow the church to function and be guided in the truth in the absence of the apostles.
Well, the Corinthian church was begun when Paul went to that city on his second missionary journey. Paul spent a considerable amount of time here and when he left them, he had left them with these spiritual gifts to aid them in their development and work. However, when we read his first letter to them, we learn that this church was misconstruing and misusing these supernatural abilities. Instead of using them to God’s glory, they were bringing glory to the ones who possessed them. They became jealous of one another because one possessed some gift that another did not have, and their pride and pettiness led to a power struggle within the church. Corinth was a worldly-minded, bickering, and quarrelsome congregation. So, when Paul writes to them, he spends much of the letter correcting their abuses and rebuking their carnal attitudes and their misguided ideas. They had missed the point concerning spiritual gifts and were essentially making them an end-all instead of recognizing their purpose. So, in chapters twelve through fourteen, Paul deals extensively with this issue and corrects their error. Now, chapter 13 is considered the go-to chapter in the bible concerning the meaning of love. In beautiful, inspired eloquence, Paul extols the properties and virtues of godly love. Why is that sandwiched in between his explanation of spiritual gifts in chapter 12 and then his instructions about how these gifts were to be used in their assemblies in chapter 14? The key is found in the last verse of chapter 12. In verse 31, Paul says “But earnestly desire the best gifts”, (in other words these gifts were good things not bad) but he goes on to say, “And yet I show you a more excellent way.”
When Paul says they are to earnestly desire the BEST gifts, he is not telling them to covet the most spectacular gifts but rather to desire to see gifts used in the way they were intended and that is to the edification and benefit of the body. This could only happen if they kept these gifts in perspective and realized that their use needed to be governed by the greatest principle and aim of all and that is love. And so, in verses 1-7, he shows them in poetic and beautiful terms what love looks like and how love should cause them to behave toward one another. Then, in verse 8, he points to something else about spiritual gifts in relation to the love they should show to one another and that is that one was permanent, and one was only temporary. One was a means to an end and the other was a permanent principle. 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.”
Notice the contrast between love and spiritual gifts. He says love NEVER fails but prophecies (words spoken by inspiration of the Holy Spirit), they WILL fail. He says, likewise, that miraculously speaking in tongues will cease, and the spiritual gift of knowledge will vanish away. He plainly shows that these spiritual gifts would not last forever. They were only temporary. Let’s look at these words: fail and vanish away. He says prophecies will fail. That doesn’t mean that prophecies would fail to come to pass or that those prophecies would be shown to not be true. He says knowledge miraculously imparted would vanish away. Both words come from the same Greek word ‘katargeo’. According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, that word means “to remove from the sphere of activity” or “to make completely inoperative.” Thayer says it means “to render idle, unemployed, inactivate, and inoperative.” In other words, these gifts would eventually become idle, inactive, and removed from the sphere of activity. This is an interesting word that’s used in several places. For example, Paul used it in Romans 7:6 when he said of New Testament Christians in relation to the Old Testament “But now we have been DELIVERED (katargeo) from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” In a similar reference, he wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:14 that the veil that covered peoples’ eyes in reading the Old Testament is TAKEN AWAY (katargeo) in Christ. So, we can see that Paul used that word, he meant that something was being removed or would no longer be active or of force. He says that such would be the case with spiritual gifts.
He also the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues would “cease”. The word Paul used here is “pauo” and it simply means to stop or to pause. The writer of Hebrews uses the same word in Hebrews 10:2 sa0ying that if the animal sacrifices under the Old Testament could have taken away sin, ten “would they not have CEASED (pauo) to be offered?….” Those sacrifices came to an end when they were fulfilled in Christ. In the same way, Paul says that just as a speaker pauses and falls silent, so tongues would lapse into silence.
Spiritual gifts, therefore, were given for a specific duration of time and the time would come, Paul says those gifts would cease to be distributed and exercised by the church. When? Let’s read 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. 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. 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.” Now, not only has Paul told us that gifts of the Spirit would be taken away and would stop, but he also now tells us when! He says when THAT which is perfect is come, then that which is in PART will be done away. This brings us to the core question in our study today? Has “that which is perfect” come or are we still waiting for it and thus spiritual gifts (those things which are in part) still operational among us today? Well, what is Paul referring to when he says “that which is perfect?”
Some have contended that Paul is referring to Jesus and thus he would be saying that spiritual gifts will remain with the church until Jesus comes again. There are several problems with that view though. For one thing, Paul doesn’t say ‘when HE WHO IS perfect has come’. Instead, he says, “when THAT WHICH IS perfect is come.” He is not referring to a person but to a thing. The key here is the word “perfect” especially as it is contrasted with that which is “in part”. We know what he means we he refers to that which is in part. He said in verse 9 “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 we hear the English word ‘perfect’, we often thing of flawlessness. But that’s not exactly the meaning of the Greek word that Paul used here. The word Paul used is “teleios” and it means complete or mature. It means “wanting nothing necessary to completeness.” Imperfect means incomplete or still wanting. Perfect means complete or mature or fully developed. Notice how the same word is used in other passages.
In the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul said “Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature (teleios). The New King James has ‘mature’; the King James says ‘men’; The NIV says ‘be adults’. In Hebrews 5:14, the bible says, “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age (teleios), that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” Well, obviously, the meaning is those who are spiritually mature. In Ephesians 4:13 we read that the body of Christ is to grow up into a perfect (teleios – or full-grown) man.” In Philippians 3:15, Paul said that some of the Christians there were “mature” (teleios). The King James says some of them were “perfect”. Well, that obviously doesn’t mean that they were flawless or never were guilty of sin. It means they were spiritually mature. So, we get the idea of Paul is talking about here in 1 Corinthians 13:10, “When THAT which is PERFECT (teleios – mature, full-grown, complete) has come then that which is IN PART will be done away.”
So, if we know the word ‘perfect’ means complete or mature then the phrase ‘in part’ is used in contradistinction to that. The context will show us what contrast Paul is making. Read on in verses 11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” You see, Paul is likening the church during the time of spiritual gifts to a child that is growing toward adulthood. He says, when one becomes a man, he puts away childish things. Now, some have suggested that “the perfect” thing that Paul speaks of is talking about when they reach a state of perfect love or when they each personally reach spiritual maturity. But the context shows that Paul is rather talking about the mature or completed revelation of the faith. Look in verse 12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” What is he talking about? Someone may say, “well, it sounds like he’s talking about heaven because he says we’ll see God face to face.” But friend, he doesn’t say we’ll see God face-to-face much less does he say that it would take place in heaven. He says they would see face-to-face whatever they at that time only saw a dim reflection of.
This phrase ‘face-to-face’ appears in other places in scripture. For example, Exodus 33:11 says that Jehovah “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” But then notice what he says on down in verse 20: God told Moses, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” The same wording is used in Genesis 32:30 when Jacob wrestled with the angel and said, “I have seen God face to face.” But the beloved apostle John later wrote “that NO man has seen God at any time.” (John 1:18) So, face-to-face doesn’t mean seeing God literally in heaven. It simply means that a revelation from God has become clear to us. Now, my dear friend, I contend that God HAS revealed to the church all that we may know of Him and His will this side of glory. Jude said in Jude 3 that we are “to earnestly contend for the faith ONCE for all delivered to the saints.” When was that revelation complete or mature? When the apostles completed their work on earth. You see, during the time of the apostles, the revelation of Christ was not yet complete. God has always unfolded His revelation to man over time. Even the apostles did not have perfect knowledge of all things at any given time. The faith was revealed through them over the course of their ministry. As Isaiah said of the people of old in Isaiah 28:9-10, “Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little.” That’s how God has developed and revealed His will to man through the ages and the same was true in the system of faith He revealed through Christ’s apostles.
Not only that, but the apostles couldn’t be in all places at all times, and so they were given the authority and power by Christ to impart spiritual gifts to people in those various congregations to guide them in the meantime and to allow them to come to mature in the faith. Today, the apostles can be in all places at all times, spiritually speaking. We have the completed canon of their writings. We have the New Testament. During their work on earth, the church was first an infant on the Day of Pentecost. It was a growing child as the apostles circulated among them and wrote their letters to them and it was destined for manhood when the faith had been once and FOR ALL delivered unto the saints to believe, practice, and contend for. Thus, Paul says: “When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part will be done away with.”
Now then, look at verse 13: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Paul is saying that you will need love long after the temporary spiritual gifts have fulfilled their purpose and have been taken away. Faith, hope, and love will abide whereas those things that were “in part” would not. Is that talking about heaven? Well, why will we need faith in heaven when we, as glorified beings, WILL have seen God? Why will we need hope in heaven when our hope will have become realized in heaven? You see, Paul’s not talking about heaven. He is not saying that spiritual gifts would remain with the church all throughout the ages. He says they were temporary until the revelation of Christ was completed and all Christians would have the New Testament committed to their keeping.
Why should we desire a return to immaturity when we have something far better today and that is the revelation that the miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit in the beginning produced for the church to have throughout all ages? We no longer look into a glass darkly but now we can stand in the sunlight of the full revelation of Jesus Christ and His glorious plan for mankind.
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