This passage has long been controversial and variously interpreted…
1 Cor. 13:8 “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away”
But is it really such a mystery?
The context of the entire passage this verse is taken from seems very clear, so were the problems in the Corinthian church that the apostle was addressing. If the meaning of “perfect” was so far afield from a practical understanding, why wouldn’t Paul have a major discourse to explain it? Why should we suspect him of speaking cryptically to people who needed simple, straight forward counsel on daily life in the body of Christ? To say nothing of the fact that Paul and the other apostles speak consistently on the same subject of the importance of love? Since the subject of Paul’s communication in this passage was love, why do some theologians take their explanations so far afield in saying the “perfect” came at 70 AD or when the New Testament canon was agreed upon, and the gifts have since then ceased?
Since the gifts are for the perfecting of the saints through ministering one to another, it seems most likely we will have the gifts to get the job done until it is done. As long as there are members of Christ’s body who need perfecting in love, and also those being drawn into fellowship with the Beloved from the domain of darkness, the work of Jesus to destroy those works of darkness will be in effect by Him through His saints—casting out demons, healing the sick, and all the ministry gifts and offices to build up and equip the saints.
Keeping in mind that God is love. There is nothing more perfect. His purpose is for the manifestation and glory of His love to be present in His creation. From my perspective, Paul is very clear in the 1 Corinthians passage and other ones in his letters that love is the goal of perfection. The goal is the body of Christ perfected in love—Heb. 11:40 “since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” There is nothing ever spoken about a “solely individual” perfection. We will never each be a “perfected” island unto ourselves, for God Himself is the fellowship of the Beloved we have been adopted into.
To understand what Paul is saying doesn’t seem to be a mystery when keeping in the context of the passage. Seems to me he is emphasizing the supreme value of love and that it comes by revelation of Christ, by Christ formed in us, by His life even to preempting His gifts (the partial) by His fullness in us unto a mature man—for the Greek word for “perfect” is “teleios” which means “brought to completion,” “fully developed.”
Moreover, if we are to look outside this passage for harmony of what Paul preaches, in Colossians he says this: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). The Greek word for “perfect harmony” is “teleiotes” which means “completeness,” or “perfectness.” The one thing Paul labored for was that Christ would be formed IN the saints, that they would come to fullness and completion. In light of the heart of Paul’s teaching, “when the perfect comes” is perhaps not such a mystery—although, of course it is the marvelous mystery of Christ in us.
Christ in us is perfect, and we have a perfect new creation spirit and we are made the righteousness of Christ. But we are also “being perfected” as our minds are renewed (Rom. 12:1) and as the Spirit of grace teaches us to renounce all ungodliness (Titus 2:11,12). And this transformation from glory to glory of each one of us does not happen in isolation. It happens in the love of God, in the community of believers, in the fellowship of the Beloved, as God makes His appeal through us to unbelievers—and as we love others just as Christ loved us. We are being built together into a perfect dwelling place for God (Eph. 2:22). When each stone and the whole dwelling is complete there will be no more need for the gifts used to “build up.”