Thursday, October 27, 2011

When the perfect comes

Theology is what we know of and about God. The theology about our belief in God in Christ Jesus is sometimes influenced and shaped in America by what I call bumper sticker theology. We have seen this bumper sticker message: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. These make great sound bites and have just enough of a faint biblical ring to be embraced as sound doctrine by some. However, they do little to create a bold confidence in the believer.

The truth is despite the call of Jesus to be perfect much is said to dilute and downgrade that call to something less than an attainable perfection. Similarly, Paul’s numerous and seemingly casual references to the saints being perfect instill little confidence in the saints in Christ. Perfection is viewed as unattainable in this life primarily because it is mistakenly seen as the attainment of a sinless state; a notion complete foreign to the scriptures. Perfection is viewed as something that awaits the saints when we reach heaven. Perfection is definitely neither bland nor unexciting.

These different views of perfection and being perfect affect our interpretation of scripture. One such example is the teleion of first Corinthians 13:10 passage, “but when the perfect (teleion) comes.” The views presented here, as these are perceived by different people, range from the daily to the hopeful to the unexciting of human response to scripture.

There is a need to understand this passage is as vital and important as all scripture. Any neglect or refusal to examine it for an understanding leaves the believer exposed and susceptible to the belief, acceptance and practice of things which have little to do with love and less with scripture.

1. The perfect is agape, love.

2. The perfect is the second coming of Jesus, the eschaton.

3. The perfect is the completed canon New Testament scripture.

The perfect is agape, love.

The first view of the perfect as being love may be primarily due to the heavy influence of the subject of love in chapter 13. Love seems such a natural, daily expression it just seems like no better fit for the passage. The key problem with this view is that the love of which Paul speaks was present (verse 4ff) already and he states that love remains (verse 13) after the perfect comes. With or without gifts the Corinthians, Paul reminds them, they have love.

This is not to negate or belittle the power and love of God towards us or in our daily lives, but as an explanation for the perfect it does not appear to offer the best response to the question of the perfect.

The second coming of Jesus, the eschaton.

The second view draws on the numerous undisputable references by Paul to the eschaton, the (second) coming of Jesus in the Corinthian letter. A few of these references include 1.8f; 2.6; 3.13, 15, 17, 22; 4.4f; 4.8f; 4.19; 5.5; 6.2f; 6.9f; 6.14; 7.17-24, 26, 29, 31; 9.24f; 10.11; 11.26, 29, 32; 15.12ff; 16.22. The problem with this view is it seems to inject the second coming of Jesus as a solution to the problems (which span the context of chapters 12 thru 14) of selfish speakers and their disregard for the edification of the disciples in the chaotic worship assembly in Corinth.

The anticipation in the first century of the return of Jesus was a source of much excitement. It is good that we can look forward excitedly to his coming as we live our daily lives for his glory, but as an explanation for the perfect this does not appear to be the best response.

The perfect is the completed canon New Testament scripture.

The third view for the perfect acknowledges, understands and accepts the need and power of love in the assembly of the saints, but sees the passage as concerning the complete canon of scripture. It also acknowledges, understands and accepts the promise of the second coming of Jesus. These matters are undeniable and true.

However, the context, again spanning from chapters 12 thru 14, concerns knowledge and understanding in the context of the worship assembly. Paul introduces this idea as the direction he will follow in 12:1-3 contrasting the way of pagans who are led astray by dumb idols with the disciples in Christ who are led and speak in the Spirit of God.

Tracking backwards from verse 10 the connectors “for” and “but” in verses 9 and 10 respectively suggest the content of the verse is related to the “know” of verse 9 and the “knowledge” of verse 8. As many gifts of knowledge, tongues, prophecy as the disciples at Corinth had in the church they knew only bits and pieces.

Paul’s use of a phrase which has been overlooked in much of this discussion may be the important element towards clarification and understanding this passage. His use of the phrase face to face rings familiar back to the time when God in Numbers 12 spelled out for all time the definition of a prophet. God, in so doing, distinguished Moses from the prophet category.

Paul and the saints in Christ in the first century, like Moses, received the knowledge of the will of God “face to face.” This expression in itself needs to be understood and is outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say since Moses was not granted his request (Exodus 33) to see the glory (face) of God it should be understood the expression does not necessarily translate to a face to face encounter. Rather it is the clarity with which God spoke to Moses. The Christians at Corinth were seeing things “in a mirror dimly.” They were looking, albeit dimly, directly into the revelation of the will of God and it was not as though the revelation was not clear or not understandable. The idea of the mirror imagery is that what they were seeing was becoming clearer. There was no need to look elsewhere or trust anyone other then the Spirit for the revelation of the will of God.

The analogy of a child by the apostle Paul is the final word in chapter 13 which further strengthens the conclusion of the perfect as being the complete canon of scripture. A child does not merely put away childish things. He becomes a man and takes on the things of a man so as to carry on the work of God. Scripture is not just so many bits and pieces of thoughts from the mind of God for us. These words are themselves, Jesus said, life and they are spirit. These are the words which flow from the innermost of the believer which are spirit and give life to all who hear the believer.

This view lacks what some perceive as the emotion of love. However, inasmuch as this concerns the communication of God for his people it is not without love. This view lacks, as is perceived by some, the excitement of the glorious event such as the return of Jesus for his church. Yet, this view of the perfect as the complete canon of scripture reflects what it also reveals: A love of believers for the word of God even as every day draws us one day closer to the coming of Jesus.