When do prophecies cease?

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“Visiting the Poor”, from “Le Magasin Pittoresque”, Karl Girardet, 1844.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
For Sunday, February 3, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Is the Holy Spirit supposed to work today the same way he did in the first century church?  1 Corinthians 3:8 bears on the question: “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”  So, at some point there is to be a cessation of what are often referred to as the sign gifts, but has it already happened, and if not, when is it intended to happen?

The writer of this letter, the Apostle Paul, answers the question in the next verse.  Prophecies will cease “when the perfect comes“.  Okay, somewhat helpful,but … the question now becomes, “What ‘perfect’ does Paul have in mind?”

Various options have been offered (1).  Some think this refers to the end of the apostolic period.  Others think it refers to the completion of the biblical canon at the end of the first century A.D.  However, a problem with both of these options is that they are appealing to unlikely meanings of the Greek word being used here.

In a number of other passages this same Greek word more clearly refers to the second coming of Christ (e.g. James 5:11, Rev. 20:5,7; 1 Cor. 15:24).  The second coming is therefore a more likely meaning for “perfect” here than either the end of the apostolic age or the completion of the canon.

What this would mean is that there are two errors to be avoided in the contemporary church.  The first error would be to repeat the error of the Corinthian Church and get so caught up in the spectacular nature of sign gifts that we lose sight of the love of God to which the sign gifts themselves are intended to point.  The second error would be to refuse to allow the Spirit to manifest himself today through signs such as prophecies, tongues (languages), or special knowledge.

The real problem for many of us both individually and corporately is that we don’t really listen to either the Bible or the Spirit.  We’re more concerned about being attractive than challenging and about being relevant than prophetic.  What secular people need is not more entertainment and spectacle but rather some truly good news in the form of both diagnosis and treatment for our current predicaments.  Here is to churches who will speak purpose to the purposeless and freedom to the captives of personal peace and affluence.

Points to ponder

  • How does your local church encourage you to dive deeper into Scripture and to cultivate an ear for the Spirit?
  • What is the Spirit himself saying to you about these matters?
  • What are you going to do about it?

(1)  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (1984), 1 Cor. 13:8-12.

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