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.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10
Last week’s column studied miraculous spiritual gifts given to some of the early Christians during biblical times and how they received these miraculous gifts whenever an apostle laid their hands upon them (Acts 19:5-6; Romans 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:6; Acts 6:1-6). We examined a specific case in which Philip, an evangelist on whom the apostles had earlier laid their hands and was then given miraculous power, went to Samaria and preached the gospel, performing miracles and baptizing many Samaritans into Christ (Acts 8:5-13). Yet none of those whom he converted performed miracles with him. Two apostles, Peter and John, traveled to Samaria specifically to lay their hands on these new converts and give them a spiritual gift (Acts 8:14-18).
The fact that only the apostles could bestow miraculous spiritual gifts upon certain Christians is very significant when determining how the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives today. Many are not aware that the New Testament teaches that miracles would cease. In the middle of his discourse to Corinth about miraculous spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14), Paul prophesied in the passage cited above that these gifts would cease (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).
“Prophecy,” “tongues,” and “knowledge” all refer to miraculous spiritual gifts mentioned earlier in the letter (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Read that passage and you’ll see a variety of spiritual gifts mentioned. “Wisdom” and “knowledge” (v. 8), referring to being given wisdom and knowledge miraculously and directly from God. “Faith,” referring to the kind of faith needed to perform miracles (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:2; Matthew 17:20). “Gifts of healings” (v. 9), referring to being able to miraculously heal people. “The working of miracles” (v. 10), referring to being able to do anything that would violate the laws of nature like being bit by a poisonous snake without harm (cf. Mark 16:18; Acts 28:3-6). “Prophecy” (v. 10), referring to miraculously being given a message directly from God to speak to others on His behalf. “Discerning of spirits” (v. 10), meaning that one could know what’s in another’s mind and heart (cf. John 2:24-25; Acts 5:1-11). “Different kinds of tongues” and “the interpretation of tongues” (v. 10), talking about being able to miraculously speak in another actual language and interpret it without having naturally been instructed in it (cf. Acts 2:4-11).
Paul says that these miracles are “in part,” or “the partial,” and foretold that they would be done away with when “that which is perfect has come.” Understandably, some believe “that which is perfect” refers to Jesus and His second coming. Yet the Greek word translated “perfect” – “teleios” – refers to something which is fully complete or mature. This word is used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to God’s Word (Romans 12:2; James 1:25). God’s Word was not yet complete at the time Paul wrote his letter to Corinth, but it would become complete with the writing of Revelation just a few years later.
Therefore, Paul was prophesying that when God’s Word became “complete/perfect” (“teleios”), miraculous spiritual gifts would cease. This makes even more sense when one remembers that the purpose of miraculous spiritual gifts in the first place was to confirm the Word of God that was initially being preached during that time (Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:3-4).
History tells us that by the time God’s Word was complete at the close of the first century AD, all of the apostles had either been martyred or were about to pass away. This is relevant to the question of when miracles ceased because a Christian could only receive miraculous spiritual gifts if an apostle laid his hands upon them. Philip, one of those whom the apostles gave miraculous spiritual gifts in this manner (Acts 6:1-6; 8:5-7), could not impart the same to those whom he converted, which is why two apostles came to Samaria (Acts 8:14-19). Only the apostles could bestow miraculous spiritual gifts to others. Thus, where all of the apostles passed away, and all those on whom they laid their hands to give miraculous gifts also passed away, miracles ceased. This all happened around the time Paul said it would: “when that which is perfect has come,” when God’s Word became complete.