LCN Article

Do Prophecies Fail?

January / February 2019

Dexter B. Wakefield

Sometimes when we read the Bible, we come across a verse in one place that seems to contradict a verse in another.

For instance, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Paul seems to be telling us that at least some prophecies are not going to be fulfilled as predicted. However, Matthew recorded Jesus as saying, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17–18). Jesus said that all that God has said will come to pass, even to the smallest details. He also said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). Jesus clearly expects us to believe everything the prophets have spoken.

So who is right, Paul or Jesus?

Paul himself said that he believed all that the prophets wrote: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14).

But didn’t Paul write that prophecies can fail? How then could he believe all of them? Is the Apostle Paul contradicting himself? Is this a contradiction within the Bible?

Biblical skeptics believe such verses to be proof that the Bible is merely human literature, written by men, and not the inerrant word of a deity. To them, “One man wrote one thing and another wrote something else.” People have different points of view, the skeptics say, especially if they lived and wrote at different times, so contradictions are inevitable—disproving the divine inspiration of the Bible. Could you explain these verses if someone brought them up as a contradiction in God’s word?

Well, we can be sure that there is no contradiction anywhere in God’s word. It would be good to understand what Paul is saying so we can “give a defense” (1 Peter 3:15) and always be confident of the veracity of God’s word.

A Simple Answer

The explanation is actually quite simple. These verses appear contradictory because of a translation issue in the King James and New King James versions of the Bible. In many modern versions, these verses are translated more clearly and do not give the appearance of contradiction. The verses are not contradictory in the original Greek text. It is important to remember that a sentence construction can appear contradictory in English, when it was not contradictory in the original language.

The books of the New Testament were written in ancient Greek, because that was the international language, the lingua franca, of the day. Many Greek words do not have exact counterparts in English, so sometimes sentences that are not contradictory in Greek (or Hebrew, in the case of the Old Testament) may seem to be so in English, depending on how they have been translated. This is the case with Paul’s comments in the King James and New King James versions of 1 Corinthians 13:8.

God does not make mistakes, but there are no inerrant translators. This accounts for many supposed contradictions in the Bible. For the Bible to contain a genuine, logical contradiction of itself, there must be two contradictory statements in the original text, for which there is no explanation or reconciliation—a standard that the Bible’s skeptics find very difficult to meet.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8–13, the word “fail” in verse 8 is translated from the Greek word katargeo (Strong’s 2673), which is used four times in these verses, but translated differently each time. Where katargeo appears in the original text, it is shown in bold type below.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail [2673]; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away [2673]. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away [2673]. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away [2673] childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8–13, NKJV).

Here is the definition of katargeo from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. It carries one of two meanings, depending on context.

  1. to render idle, unemployed, inactive, inoperative:

  2. to cause to cease, put an end to, do away with, annul, abolish:

Other translations render katargeo (the word translated “fail” in the KJV) as “cease.” For instance, in the New International Version, 1 Corinthians 13:8 is translated, “But where there are prophecies, they will cease.” Katargeo does sometimes mean “cease” in the New Testament, but it has other meanings as well, such as “abolish.” While similar in some respects, the words “cease” and “abolish” have different applications. For instance, when a government annuls or abolishes a law, that law ceases to exist, but when a man ceases to speak, he does not abolish his voice. He has simply completed what he was saying.

What Was Paul Actually Saying?

In the original Greek of the New Testament, the verse is clearly saying that prophecies cease in the same sense that knowledge and other things that are immature and “in part” pass away in favor of the mature and complete. Each time the Greek word katargeo is used in these verses, it means basically the same thing. Here is how the New International Version renders this passage of Scripture. The multiple translations of katargeo are noted in bold type.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 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 (1 Corinthians 13:8–11, NIV).

Note that in most cases, the translators needed extra words as they tried to capture in English the meaning of this particular Greek word.

We should also note that some prophecies are conditional—“If this, then that”—and a conditional prophecy might not be completed if conditions are not met. Jonah prophesied the destruction of Ninevah if they did not repent, but the people did repent and were spared (Jonah 3).

The Larger Lesson

Paul begins this portion of his letter to the church in Corinth with an inspiring and profound statement on the subject of love. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1–2).

 The love that Paul writes about here is God’s quality of love, agape, and that is the word used throughout this chapter. Agape is selfless, outgoing concern for others, and is usually expressed in actions. The subject of Paul’s discourse is love, not prophecy, and it is important to remember that as we read the rest of this chapter, particularly the part about prophecies.

Paul completes this lesson by writing, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:12–13).

So—when does a prophecy cease to be a prophecy? When it is fulfilled or completed. It ceases in the same sense that childhood ceases when it is completed. When the imperfect is perfected, it ceases to be imperfect and is completed. Paul is presenting this rationale in order to make a profound point. Notice that he both begins and ends 1 Corinthians 13:8–13 by contrasting various parts of the human experience with agape love: “Love never fails…. the greatest of these is love.”

Many things may loom large in our lives. Our teenage years are a huge experience as we transition from childhood to adulthood, but they have a beginning and an end. The great events of history, even those that are prophesied by God, all have a beginning and an end. Our trials have a beginning and an end. Paul points out that for now, we can only “see in a mirror, dimly,” but that will cease, for the time is coming when we will know just as we are known (v. 12)! The day will come when our faith and hope will be fulfilled and completed in the eternal love and glory of the Kingdom of God.

Paul wants us to understand that while faith and hope are crucial to us on our journey through life, God is love, agape love, and His “love never fails.” Love is the greatest of these things, because God and His love never cease or fail!