1 Corinthians 13:9-10 reads: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” (ESV)
a. Does “the perfect” refer to the Bible here? No.
b. Does “the perfect” refer to the Second Coming of Christ? No, but (b) is closer than (a).
Think about it. Why would Paul refer to either of these in this enigmatic way? Yes, you can find reasons, excuses, to understand either one of those, and surely other things, by the title “the perfect.” But we don’t have to scour distant contexts to discover what is motivating this choice of words here.
“The perfect” isn’t any one thing; it is a class of things. Or rather it is a state in which many different things can be: whole, as opposed to partial. We know that is what “the perfect” is, because that is what “the partial” is. Paul states in verse 9 two things that we do “in part”: know and prophecy. The phrase for “in part,” ek merous, is the most prominent part of each clause in verse 9. It’s what he is talking about. Reading it in the Greek order: “In part we know, and in part we prophesy.”
Then he takes this prepositional phrase and nominalizes it by adding the article: “the in part,” to ek merous. This is what the ESV translates as “the partial.” Another way of saying this would be “that which is only in part,” not referring to a specific thing, but anything which is partial.
The contrast Paul is making between “the partial” and “the perfect” tells us what specific meaning he has in mind for “perfect,” teleion. It means the state in which something has reached its fullness or completeness. The phrase he uses parallels “the perfect” to teleion with “the partial,” to ek merous.
The point he makes about these two states of being is not so much a prediction as a principle, a proverb, something that is true across the board: when the full and complete version of something arrives, the preliminary, partial version of it loses its value.
He provides an analogy and two examples to illustrate. First, he states that at one time his thoughts and words were those of a child, but as a grown man, of full age, his education complete, the ideas he had while still under age were not worth holding on to.
So then “partial” and “complete” also correlate with “now” and “then,” in comparison with minority and majority. This is equivalent to “not yet” and “already,” and at this point we see that “the perfect” is not itself a reference to the Second Coming but the state of things that will only occur at the second coming.
Now we see some things but much remains unseen (v.12a) . For these we have “faith” and “hope” (v. 13). Then, at the consummation of all things, our partial sight yields to completeness of sight, as faith becomes sight.
The same is true for our knowledge (v. 12b), which is partial now, but will in that day be complete. The two phrases are unmistakably descriptions of conditions only available beyond this age; we will “see face to face,” and we will “know as we are known.”
Faith is the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Who hopes for what he sees (Rom. 8:24)? So even faith and hope, which remain “now,” will give way “then” to sight and fullness of knowledge. Love, however, is greater because as it reaches completeness it has all the more reason to continue.
This is the reason Paul commends it above all that it “in part.” The examples he gives are prophecy, knowledge, and tongues. These are things that are in a state of “in part.”
Prophecy entails revelation in bits and pieces, riddles and puzzles (Num. 12:8). It reaches its fulness, obviously, when it is fulfilled. So even the prophecies of Revelation, of the completed Canon, are partial until all is fulfilled.
Knowledge too can only ever be partial in this age, but one day the knowledge of God will cover the earth as water covers the sea (Hab. 2:14).
If tongues is a “sign to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22a), then it has value while there are still unbelievers. The contrast of faith and lack of faith exists only in this age when sight is partial. So tongues reaches its fullness when every knees bows and every tongue confesses (Phil. 2:10).
Love alone surpasses this age. The rest, even faith, even hope are for the present age, where knowledge and sight are partial. If Paul is telling us anything about the gifts he mentions, it is that they correspond to the age of the partial, they are coterminous with faith and hope. They come to an end, yes, they cease, yes, but only when they reach the state of their fulness.
It is odd that this passage is so often used to teach the previous cessation of these gifts, when it is such a very strong argument for their enduring until the end of this age.