Question: "What is the meaning of 'perfect' in 1 Corinthians 13:10?"
Answer: First Corinthians 13:10 says, “When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (KJV). The ESV puts it this way: “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” The “in part” or “partial” things are the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and tongues (verses 8–9). There will be a time when these gifts will cease because something better (“that which is perfect”) will replace them. Perfect means “complete”—the incomplete will be replaced by the complete. There is some debate as to what the coming of the “perfect” thing is. The two most common views are the completion of the Bible and the glorification of believers in heaven.
It is our view that the “perfect” thing to come is the glorification of believers in heaven, or, more properly, the eternal state. The completion of the Bible did not put an end to the gift of prophecy (“forth-telling” or preaching) or knowledge (understanding of Scripture). The church is continually being edified today by Spirit-filled preachers and teachers who exercise these gifts. But, for the time being, we are limited in our understanding: “We know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). When we get to heaven, the “partial” things will give way to the “perfect,” and preaching and teaching will no longer be needed.
What about the gift of tongues, which is mentioned alongside prophecy and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8 (but not in verse 9)? The precise wording of verse 8 may hold a clue: the prophecies are said to “cease”; knowledge is said to “pass away”; and tongues are said to “be stilled” (in contrast to love, which “never fails”). Paul uses one Greek verb in reference to the completion of prophecy and knowledge, and a completely different Greek verb in reference to the completion of tongues. The implication is that prophecy and knowledge will be “rendered inoperative or abolished” by an external force, but the gift of tongues will cease on its own. So, when the perfect comes, prophecy and knowledge are actively ended, but tongues will already have ended.
First Corinthians 13:11–12 says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” When shall we see face to face? When shall we know fully, even as we are fully known? This will occur when we pass from this life and enter God’s glorious presence in heaven (see 1 John 3:2). When we are glorified in heaven, the perfect will have come, and we will truly have put childish ways behind us.