Question: "What is the meaning of "perfect" in 1 Corinthians 13:10?"
Answer: First Corinthians 13:10 says: “But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” “That which is in part” refers to the gifts of prophecy, knowledge and tongues (vs. 8-9). What Paul is saying is that there will be a time when these sign gifts will cease because something better (the “perfect”) will replace them. There is some debate as to what the word “perfect” refers to. The two most common views are the completion of the Bible and the glorification of believers in heaven.
There is a difference between how prophecy and knowledge come to an end, and how the gift of languages (tongues) does, as indicated by the Greek verb forms used. (Prophecy does not mean forecasting or telling the future. The gift of prophecy in its true biblical definition means simply “speaking forth,” or “proclaiming publicly” to which the connotation of prediction was added sometime in the Middle Ages. Since the completion of Scripture, prophecy has not been a means of new revelation, but is limited to proclaiming what has already been revealed in the written Word.)
Prophecy and knowledge are both said to “be abolished,” the verb indicating that something will put an end to those two functions. What will abolish knowledge and prophecy, according to verses 9 and 10, is “that which is perfect.” When that occurs, those gifts will be rendered inoperative. The “perfect” is not the completion of Scripture, since there is still the operation of those two gifts and will be in the future kingdom (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17; Revelation 11:3). The Scriptures do not allow us to see “face to face” or have perfect knowledge as God does (v. 12). The “perfect” is not the rapture of the church or the second coming of Christ, since the kingdom to follow these events will have an abundance of preachers and teachers (Isaiah 29:18; 32:3, 4; Joel 2:28; Revelation 11:3). The perfect, therefore, must be the eternal state, when we in glory see God face to face (Revelation 22:4) and have full knowledge in the eternal new heavens and new earth. Just as a child grows to full understanding, believers will come to perfect knowledge and no such gifts will be necessary.
On the other hand, Paul uses a different word for the end of the gift of languages, thus indicating it will “cease” by itself, rather than being abolished by something, as it did at the end of the apostolic age. It will not end by the coming of the “perfect,” for it will already have ceased. The uniqueness of the gift of languages and its interpretations was, as all sign gifts, to authenticate the message and messages of the gospel before the NT was completed (Hebrews 2:3, 4). “Tongues” was also limited by being a judicial sign from God of Israel’s judgment (Isaiah 28:11, 12). Tongues was also not a sign to believers, but unbelievers, specifically the unbelieving Jews. Tongues also ceased because there was no need to verify the true messages from God once the Scripture was given. The Bible, not the sign gifts, became the standard by which messages all are to be verified. Tongues was a means of edification in a way far inferior to preaching and teaching. In fact, chap. 14 was designed to show the Corinthians, so preoccupied with tongues, that it was an inferior means of communication (vv. 1–12), an inferior means of praise (vv. 13–19), and an inferior means of evangelism (vv. 20–25). Prophecy was and is, far superior (vv. 1, 3–6, 24, 29, 31, 39).
First Corinthians 13:10-12 declares, “but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 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. 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.”
When shall we see face to face? When shall we know fully, even as we are fully known? This will occur when we pass from this life and enter God’s glorious presence in Heaven. First John 3:2 tells us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” It is when we are glorified in Heaven that we will truly have put childish ways behind us.