In 1 Corinthians 13, we discover one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible. This chapter sets the standard for love. However, contained within the chapter are many sections that are scholars have found difficult to interpret. These issues have produced various amounts of disagreement between commentators. Many of the disagreements that center around spiritual gifts. The debate that most frequently arises is whether or not there is an ultimate cessation of the gifts, particularly the gift of tongues. While much ink has been spilt about these topics, a careful hermeneutical pondering of the passage can generate reasonable resolutions to these debates.
Context and Theme of the Chapter
The book of 1 Corinthians contains answers to questions that the Corinthian church asked of Paul. Sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14, chapter 13 is written to answer their question about spiritual gifts. Recognizing the Corinthians rich benefaction of spiritual gifts (chapter 12), Paul establishes how these gifts must be ruled by love (chapter 13). Paul kicks off this chapter by speaking of the gift of tongues in verse one. The Corinthian church has become infatuated with spiritual gifts and particularly the gift of tongues. Paul writes chapter 13 to correct this wrongful thinking of the Corinthians. Paul makes it very clear – the very greatest gifts are nothing without love.
“Tongues . . . of Angles”
The key question is what glwssiaj refers to in this passage. This could refer to either speaking in languages or it could refer to the actual tongue itself. Some scholars have interpreted this verse as speaking merely of eloquent language. John Calvin was one such scholar. Other scholars state that Paul was referring to the languages that the angles use. Charles Hodge is an example of a scholar who adhered to this position. Still other scholars, such as John MacArthur, merely try to consent to both interpretations. Clearly, however, Paul is referring to the gift of tongues. The gift of tongues is mentioned first because it was the prominent topic in this entire dialogue. The last spiritual gifts mentioned in chapter 12 are tongues and the interpretation of them. Those same gifts are the focus of the conversation in chapter 14. It is very consistent, then, to surmise that the middle chapter is also discussing tongues.
“Believeth all things; Hopeth all things”
Like the previous interpretational issue we just addressed this issue has two primary interpretive options. The first option is to say that love is continuously prepared to permit for mitigating situations, to provide the other individual the benefit of the doubt, to suppose the best about people. The second option is to God as the object of this constant faith – love believes God always. This position interprets Paul as saying love believes God will be successful in the lives of others. The problem with this option is that it places faith and hope as equals rather than hope being a step beyond faith. It would be better to interpret hope as being something that happens when the situation is so difficult that faith is not possible. Hope is the kind of love that kicks in when you would gladly give the benefit of the doubt but there is none to give. Furthermore, this passage deals with our horizontal love as it relates to each other and not our vertical love as it relates to God. All of the preceding attributes of love are ascribed to a human recipient. It would be a sudden shift in topics for Paul to now address God as the recipient of this love.
“Prophecies shall fail . . . Tongues shall cease”
The key issue in this phrase is the translation of the verb katarghqhsontai The King James Version translates the verb “to fail,” the Contemporary English Version translates it “ to stop,” and the New Living Translation translates it “to disappear.” These translations have chosen to interpret this word actively. This verb, however, is clearly a passive verb. The verb “will pass away” (or “shall cease”) is the same Greek word as the one used in verse 10 where it also reads “will pass away.” These two words mean that the gifts being discussed are temporary. Most commentators agree that this action of cessation is one carried out by God. The reason that these prophecies will cease is because they are partial or imperfect. Therefore, they are only suited for an imperfect state of existence.
The phrase, “tongues shall cease” is a more hotly debated topic. The big question that is posed to the charismatic movement is this: if tongues cease, has that happened already, or are we still waiting for that to happen? It is essential to note here that 1 Corinthians 13:8 does not explicitly state when tongues are going to cease. Verses 9-10 do teach that prophecy and knowledge will both cease when the “perfect” is come. The language used in the passage suggests that tongues should be put in a category apart from these other gifts. The reason we can say that is because of the middle voice of the Greek verb translated “will cease.” Paul writes and says that while prophecy and knowledge will be “done away” (passive voice) when the “perfect” comes, tongues “will cease” (middle voice) prior to the time the “perfect” comes. So, when exactly did the cessation of the gift of tongues take place? Paul seems to be indicating that the gift of tongues ended with the apostolic age. It should be noted, however, that this position is weakly held when based solely on this text alone. But when you factor in the Scriptural data from other passages and the historical record they both indicate that tongues ceased in the apostolic age.
 John Calvin. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Translated by John Pringle. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 419.
 Charles Hodge. An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), 266.
 John McArthur, 1 Corinthians (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1984), 331.
 Hodge, 266
 Christian Friedrich Kling. Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 270
 Paul Ellingworth and Howard A. Hatton. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1994), 297.
 Ronald Trail, An Exegetical Summary of 1 Corinthians 10-16 (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008), 183.
 Ellingworth and Hatton, 298-299.
 Hodge, 272.
 John MacArthur. “The Gift of Tongues.” Grace to You. 2001. http://www.gty.org/resources/distinctives/dd06/the-gift-of-tongues (accessed March 6, 2014)
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