“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.”
But whether there are prophecies, they will fail;
One day there will be no need for prophecies because we will hear the Word of God directly in heaven. Although love will never fall, the three gifts of prophecies, tongues, and knowledge closed early in the church age. The gifts of prophecies and knowledge were foundational to establishing the canon (Ep 2:20), but the gift of tongues was confirmatory to the canon (2 Co 12:12; He 2:4).
The verbs “fail” and “vanish away” are the same Greek word (katargeo), whereas the word “cease” is a far different word (pauo). The dynamic of prophecies and knowledge is different from tongues. The word for “fail” and “vanish away” (katargeo) means to be rendered inoperative. The Greek used this term for cutting the hamstring of a horse. The horse was still alive but hamstrung so that he could not jump the fence. The word “cease” means to be terminated. The difference in these terms shows that the original gifts of prophecies and knowledge would change in a different way than tongues. The gifts of prophecies and knowledge would still exist, but the nature of them would change from receiving divine revelation directly to simply knowledge of and exposition of revelation. Tongues would come to an absolute cessation at the completion of the canon (writing the New Testament).
The words “fail” and “vanish away” are in the passive voice in the Greek, indicating that God changed the nature of those gifts at the close of the canon (as we will see later). These two gifts would stop by something outside; God would do the stopping. The word “cease” is in the middle voice in the Greek, indicating that tongues would come to an absolute stop (termination) of its own accord (there is debate on this point). Often there is no distinction between passive and middle voices, but when the author uses them in parallel, as here, they have distinct meanings.
Paul drops tongues in the ensuring verses from his discussion and pursues what would happen to prophecy and knowledge (vv. 9-13). Knowledge and prophecy would not be the same after the completion of the canon but would have a different nature and more limited function.
The idea of prophecies both in the Old and New Testament contain two ideas: (1) divinely and supernaturally originated immediate revelation and (2) communication of that revelation. Note Revelation 1:3 and 22:7.
whether there are tongues, they will cease;
Tongues would cease at some point, but love will not cease. The word “cease” means stop. Note that the following verses (9-13) drop tongues but develop further points about the gifts of prophecies and knowledge. The later two gifts continued after the close of the canon but in modified form. The gift of prophecies has the component of communication of revelation but not the miraculous element of immediate revelation.
whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
The original gift of knowledge was direct knowledge of special revelation before the completion of the canon, as well as the capacity to know and understanding large segments of revelation. The gift of knowledge was a rational gift dealing with the ability to grasp the logic of the Word of God. The direct aspect of the gift of knowledge was “rendered inoperative” or, as our translation says, “will vanish away” after completing the canon.
God modified sign gifts after the completion of the canon.
Prophecy is miraculous in nature. Any understanding of the gift of prophecy without understanding its miraculous nature will result in a distortion of its function. It bestowed revelation directly from God. This gift functioned with full authority and complete accuracy in revealing God’s truth to individuals, but this aspect of the gift is no longer extant. Prophecy played a vital role in the foundation of the canon of Scripture and the church itself. This is the same as the gift of knowledge.
Most miraculous phenomena relate to epoch events in special revelation. There are almost no miracles in the Bible without association to special revelation. There were three periods of miracles in the Bible:
- Moses and Joshua,
- Elijah and Elisha, and
- Jesus and the apostles.
Each period lasted around 70 years. No miracle occurred after A.D. 58 (Ac 28:8). The book of Hebrews (A.D. 67, 68) specifies that confirmation of the authenticity of apostles was a past event (He 2:3, 4, aorist, passive, indicative). Jesus and the apostles are the cornerstone and foundation of Christianity, so the New Testament connects miracles to the New Testament period and to attestation of the apostles and their associates to write Scripture. God gave “signs, wonders, and miracles” to authenticate apostles as sources of special revelation. As miracles attested Jesus’ authority (Ac 2:22), so miraculous signs of the apostles attested their authority to write Scripture (2 Co 12:12). God bore witness to His revelation through those who were sources of His specially revealed Word (He 2:3, 4). Temporal gifts faded after completing the canon because the church no longer needed them for revelation purposes.