Sunday Morning Greek Blog

October 2, 2011

1 Corinthians 13:8–13: When Will Tongues Be Stilled?

Filed under: 1 Corinthians,Biblical Studies,New Testament,Tongues — Scott Stocking @ 4:15 pm

My previous post on Tongues prompted a discussion between me and a colleague of mine from Illinois in the comments on that post. I have a great deal of respect for Mark; he has served faithfully as a pastor in his current congregation for well over 10 years, and he is actively involved in promoting our church camp out there as well. We’ve had our disagreements from time to time, but he is a diligent student of Scripture, so like E. F. Hutton, when he talks, I listen.

If you’ve read the comments, you know that he and I are not on the same page when it comes to the operation of the gifts of the Spirit in the modern world. He makes mention more than once of tongues “ceasing.” Paul actually uses two different words for “cease” in this passage, and the one that refers to tongues is different from the other four occurrences of “ceasing.” I will address two more issues in this post: what is meant by what most translations render “the perfect” (τέλειος teleios, \TELL ay awss\); and how should we understand “in part” (ἐκ μέρους ek merous, \ek MEHR ooss\, from μέρος meros, ‘part’). Of course, the immediate context of chapters 12–14 will figure into this discussion, but also the bigger picture of the entire first epistle to the Corinthians. The overarching theme of 1 Corinthians is unity, and that will factor significantly into the conclusions I make in this post.


It is important to note, first of all, that in describing the diminished operation of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, Paul uses the word καταργέω (katargeō, \kaht ar GEH oh\ ‘to cease’, ‘to put an end to’, ‘to invalidate’) four times: twice in verse 8 of “prophecies” and “knowledge,” once in verse 10 of “the partial” (more on that below), and once in verse 11 about “childish ways.” The first three uses in this passage are future passive (“will be ceased”), while the occurrence in verse 11 is perfect active (“I have ceased”; for now, I’ll use the word “ceased” to translate καταργέω, for ease of reference). However, Paul does not use this word to speak of tongues “ceasing.” Instead, the word Paul chooses is παύω (pauō, \POW oh\ ‘cease’). Given the frequency of καταργέω versus παύω, I would suggest that if Paul wanted to say the same thing about all three phenomena (tongues, knowledge, prophecies), he would have used the same word. Consequently, I think Paul is saying something different about the operation of tongues in the kingdom of God.

The word καταργέω derives from the preposition κατά (kata, ‘down from’, ‘against’, ‘according to’) and ἀργέω (argeō, ‘useless’, ‘lazy’), which itself is made up of the negative particle in Greek plus the word for “work” (α + ἔργον a + ergon). Oftentimes, a preposition prefixed to a verb has the purpose of specifying the direction of the action of the verb, but other times, the prefixed preposition functions more as an intensifier to the action of the root verb, as it does here. The word has some fluid usage in its 27 uses in the NT, being translated on a continuum from “destroy” to “fade” (at least in the TNIV). In 1 and 2 Corinthians, where we find nearly half the occurrences of the word, the word is used several times: “destroy” three times (1 Cor 6:13; 15:24, 26); “nullify” (1 Cor 1:28); “fading” three times, of the glory on Moses’s face, and to the veil that is “taken away” in Christ in the same pericope (2 Cor 3:7, 11, 13, 14; the latter is probably a play on words); “coming to nothing” (1 Cor 2:6); and the four occurrences in 1 Corinthians 13:8 (2x), 10, 11, which I will address momentarily.

The word καταργέω, then, would seem to support a translation that indicates knowledge and prophecies both face some ultimate demise in Paul’s future, but is it a vanishing act of those concepts altogether? At the very least, even if such things do not disappear completely (it is hard for me to imagine how knowledge can disappear at all, unless this refers to the products of knowledge), they become ineffective in obtaining God’s purposes, especially compared to faith, hope, and love. Notice the structure of vv. 8–10 (deliberately leaving some terms untranslated at this point):

8 Love never fails.

    If there are prophecies, καταργηθήσονται;

        If there are tongues, παύσονται

    If there is knowledge, καταργηθήσεται.

9    For we know ἐκ μέρους

    And we prophesy ἐκ μέρους

10 Whenever the τέλειος comes (the verb is subjunctive, reflecting possibility, not finite, reflecting certainty)

    The ἐκ μέρους
(καταργηθήσεται) will become ineffective/be ceased.

The first thing that sticks out in this structure is that tongues is never mentioned again in the rest of the chapter, nor is it said to be ἐκ μέρους. Because Paul deals with tongues and prophecy as two different issues in 1 Corinthians 14, I don’t think it’s possible to lump tongues into prophecy in this section. “Knowledge” and “prophecy” are identified as ἐκ μέρους in vs. 9, and in vs. 10, those are the things that become ineffective or cease, just as it says in vs. 8.

Backtracking for Context

At this point, I must back track to the end of chapter 12 and beginning of chapter 13 to bring more of the context into the picture. After spending the better part of chapter 12 demonstrating that unity doesn’t mean we are clones when it comes to spiritual gifts, but that each one of us is uniquely gifted by the Spirit to fulfill our respective roles in God’s economy, Paul ends the chapter saying, “And yet I will show you a way that surpasses all others” (1 Cor 12:31b, TNIV). My first questions here are, “A way to what?” “A way to do what?” “What are the other ways?” Paul is making a comparison here, and the placement of this statement reveals what the comparison is: He is comparing “unity in diversity” (chapter 12) to “unity in love” (chapter 13). Note how chapter 13 opens:

1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,

    but do not have love,

        I become a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

2 If I have prophetic utterances and

If I know all mysteries and all knowledge and

If I have all faith such that I can remove mountains,

    but do not have love,

        I am nothing.

3 If I parcel out all my possessions and

If I give my body in order that I may boast [NOTE: a widely attested variant, different by one letter, suggests this could be “burn”]

    but do not have love,

        I benefit nothing.

Perfect Love

The next three paragraphs begin with love (1 Corinthians 13:4, 8; 14:1). In 14:1, Paul says “pursue love.” Let me now answer the questions I raised regarding 12:31: Love is the way that surpasses all others; this is confirmed by Paul’s final statement in chapter 13: “The greatest of these [faith, hope, and love] is love.” His statement 14:1 prefaces and undergirds that entire chapter as well. What is love the way to? Why pursue love? Love is the way to unity! Let me say it again: Love is the best way to obtain and maintain unity in the body of Christ. The entire letter of 1 Corinthians deals with the problems of disunity among Corinthian Christ-followers. Chapter 13 is the climax of the entire letter and Paul’s solution to the Corinthian problem. Sure, Paul uses the analogy of a body to demonstrate “unity through diversity” in the spiritual gifts, but chapters 12 and 14 are minor or moot discussions if Christ-followers aren’t making love a priority.

I refer you back now to the first outline above on vv. 8–10. Notice this section begins with the statement “Love never fails.” In my outline, I parallel that with the statement “Whenever the τέλειος comes.” This is where I have a point of departure with my colleague Mark and thousands of other biblical scholars through the ages. The standard line that I was taught, and the one that Mark purports in his comments, is that the τέλειος represents the Scriptures. Now I do believe the Word of God is infallible in doctrine, but I don’t think the context of 1 Corinthians supports interpreting or understanding τέλειος as “Scriptures.” “Perfect” is the most common translation of τέλειος’s 19 uses in the NT, but a close second is “mature.” Given the context of 1 Corinthians, with Paul’s discussion about maturity (see also 1 Corinthians 2:6) and unity in using the spiritual gifts, I would argue that τέλειος would be better translated here as “maturity,” a direct reference to “love” with an implication of unity as the most excellent way, in contrast to the ἐκ μέρους of knowledge and prophecy, and as an implied conclusion from 13:1–3.

Verse 11 brings the point home: “When I was a child (νήπιος nēpios, \NAY pee awss\), I was speaking as an infant, I was thinking as an infant, I was reasoning as an infant. Since I have become a man, I have discarded as useless (κατήργηκα perfect tense of καταργέω) the things of infancy.” Both the verbs in the last part of this verse (“I have become” and “I have discarded as useless”) are in the perfect tense. In Greek, the general implication of the perfect tense is that it is an action completed in past time with results that continue into the present time of the speaker/writer. Paul already considers himself to be mature (“a man”), and has already cast off childish things. Paul says essentially the same thing in the next chapter, 14:20: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children (παιδίον paidion, ‘child’). In regard to evil be infants (νηπιάζω nēpiazō), but in your thinking be adults (τέλειος)” (TNIV). In other words, what most translations render as “perfect” in vs. 10 refers to the maturity of a life grounded in love. But there are still a couple more concepts that need to be understood to shed any shadow of doubt about this translation.

ἐκ μέρους

Before bringing this all together into a translation and final explanation, one more phrase and one more word need clarification. What most translations render “in part” or “partially” is ἐκ μέρους in Greek. The phrase is found only five times, all in 1 Corinthians. The first occurrence of the phrase is in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “You are the body of Christ and members ἐκ μέρους.” In this verse, it doesn’t make sense to say that you are “members partially” or “members in part.” Some translations (e.g., ESV) render the phrase in this verse “individually.” The proximity of this phrase to the other four occurrences in chapter 13 should cause us at least to consider if the concept of individuality, as opposed to an idea of “partial” is intended in chapter 13. “We know individually” and “We prophesy individually” could imply the selfishness that Paul goes on to address in chapter 14. When a Christ-follower realizes the maturity of unifying love, individual, selfish desires are set aside. That is the message of vs. 10.


I have given much attention here to καταργέω, because that is one of the more prominent words in the passage. But it was all necessary to get to the discussion of how the word παύω applies to tongues in vs. 8. The word is found 15 times in the NT; almost half of those occurrences are in the negative: “not stopped” or “never stopped.” With the possible exception of 1 Peter 4:1, the word never refers to the absolute cessation of anything. It is used to describe someone “finishing” praying or speaking and of a storm subsiding (it is assumed that the people prayed or spoke again, and surely more storms occurred). Peter cautions about keeping one’s tongue from evil (1 Peter 3:10), which is the only time the word is used with “tongue” other than 1 Corinthians 13:8. So I don’t believe that Paul intended to say that tongues would absolutely disappear at the close of the apostolic age. Otherwise, why would he spend so much time talking about it in chapter 14? Consequently, I still believe tongues are in operation today, but should only be used (as with any gift) in love and to promote unity, not for selfish purposes. At some point in Paul’s future, they may stop; or perhaps they will come and go as the Holy Spirit determines the need for that particular gift. But I don’t believe the text supports the absolute cessation of tongues for all eternity.


So to bring this all together, let me provide a translation of 1 Corinthians 13:8–11:

8 Love never fails.

    If there are prophecies, they will fade [in comparison to love];

        If there are tongues, they will eventually die out [i.e., languages will die out as the people who speak them do] (παύσονται);

    If there is knowledge, it will fade [in comparison to love].

9    For we know individually (ἐκ μέρους) and

    We prophesy individually(ἐκ μέρους).

10 Whenever the unifying love (τέλειος) comes (the verb is subjunctive, reflecting possibility, not finite, reflecting certainty)

    The individuality (ἐκ μέρους) is set aside (καταργηθήσεται).

11 When I was a toddler (νήπιος), I was speaking as a toddler (νήπιος), I was thinking as a toddler (νήπιος), I was reasoning as a toddler (νήπιος). Since I have become a man, I have discarded as useless
(καταργέω) the things of infancy.

I do not believe any of the gifts of the Spirit have ceased operating in the kingdom of God. With due respect to my colleague in Illinois, I don’t see anything in Scripture that indicates only certain gifts were subject to cessation. Any attempt to purport this would seem to me to be the product of human reasoning and not biblical precedence. What would the qualifications be for cessation? They are not present in Scripture. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was fulfilled and brought to completion in Christ. The spiritual gifts find their fullest expression in love. First Corinthians 13 suggests that if we’re loving one another as we should, we won’t worry about who has what gifts. If we’re loving one another, the gifts at best serve a secondary or supportive role to loving one another, but they still to this day serve that role. And not to neglect 1 Corinthians 13:13, the gifts also support our faith and hope in Christ, but the greatest is love.


Scott Stocking

Edited by author 10/6/2011; substantive edits were in both occurrences of the verse 8 translation. Minor rewording in the transition to the ἐκ μέρους section.


  1. I Have to admit that was really deep, I jumped to the “summary”…..thanks for teaching, see you tommorow :)

    Comment by steve goldapp — October 4, 2011 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, it did get a little involved, but then, I was reaching out to a preacher of 30+ years who knows the Bible well. The original post was “Tongues Lite,” if you will. :-)

      Comment by Scott Stocking — October 4, 2011 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

  2. Came across this tonight as we were going over a word study of οἰκοδομέω in HUB class. It relates directly to my conclusion that 1 Corinthians 13 is about love’s superiority and the fading importance, rather than the cessation, of knowledge: 1 Corinthians 8:1-3: “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.”

    The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 1 Co 8:1–3.

    Comment by Scott Stocking — October 5, 2011 @ 10:21 pm | Reply

  3. I think this strengthens the point of the post.

    12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which is the unifying bond of perfection (σύνδεσμος τῆς τελειότητος syndesmos tēs teleiotētos \SOON-dess-moss tayss teh-lay-AW-tay-toss\).

    The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Col 3:12–14 (through the middle of v. 14; the last part of v. 14 is my own translation)

    Comment by Scott Stocking — October 20, 2011 @ 6:12 am | Reply

  4. […] blog. But it is equally important that we not force one view upon another. As I discussed in the 1 Corinthians post on tongues, love must come first in any doctrinal discussion. Teaching without love and compassion is little […]

    Pingback by Qualifications of Male and Female Leaders in the Church (1 Timothy) « Sunday Morning Greek Blog — November 3, 2011 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

  5. […] judgment. These strike me as pretty important doctrines, but do you notice what is missing? Think 1 Corinthians 13 here, especially where Paul makes the connection between maturity (τελείος) and love. […]

    Pingback by “Falling Away” (παραπίπτω parapiptō) in Hebrews 6:6 « Sunday Morning Greek Blog — November 18, 2011 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

  6. […] 1 Corinthians 13:8–13: When Will Tongues Be Stilled? | Sunday Morning Greek Blog […]

    Pingback by SMGB Indices | Sunday Morning Greek Blog — December 11, 2022 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

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