We will see later that ordinary Christian prophecy is fragmentary, time-oriented, specific and local. For all those reasons it is “in part,” and it will cease “when perfection comes.” Then we shall “see face to face” and “know fully” even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:8-12). Some believers think this text refers to the time when the last New Testament book was written and the Bible was completed. However, we have seen that “perfection” here refers to the fullness of God’s saving purpose and the complete maturity of Christ’s people when Jesus returns. Even if we did not know that, there are numerous other reasons why “perfection” here does not refer to the completion of the New Testament books.
First, no one living then could have pinpointed such a date, for our Bible of 66 books was not identified until much later. Second, ordinary Christian prophecy has nothing to do with writing Scripture, as we will see later. Third, Paul is not discussing the completion of the New Testament in this passage or in this epistle. Fourth, Paul’s point in this text makes no sense if “perfection” means the writing of our 27 New Testament books. Revelation, the last of those books, was penned within 35 years after Paul wrote First Corinthians 13. It is not saying much to say that love is greater than prophecy because love will endure more than 35 additional years.
Fifth, “perfection” here contrasts with something that earlier was “in part.” Christian teaching was complete in Paul’s day and believers already possessed “everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). The purpose of Christian prophecy and knowledge is not to gradually reveal Scripture or the contents of what we now recognize as Scripture. It is to strengthen, encourage and comfort the people of God (1 Cor. 14:3). Sixth, if “perfection” here means the finished New Testament, the most immature Christian now would know more than Paul did when he wrote First Corinthians, for he then knew only “in part” and we would now know fully “even as we are fully known.”
The early church fathers uniformly understood “perfection” in this passage to refer to the time of Jesus’ final return. They also reported the ongoing exercise of ordinary Christian prophecy for hundreds of years after the last Apostle had died and the New Testament was fully written. The notion that spiritual gifts (or miracles) would end with the first century seems to have begun after the Reformation when certain Catholics asked why Protestants did not have miracles such as the Catholic Church had always claimed. Instead of giving the biblical answer that such matters are in God’s sovereign hands to do as he sees fit, some beleaguered Protestants replied that such supernatural activity ceased with the infancy of the earliest church. We should now discard that notion once for all. It is against Scripture, history, experience and common sense.