How can prophecies "fail" since they are God's word?
In 1 Corinthians 13:8 the apostle Paul wrote: "Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away."
Stepping back to look at the broader context helps us to get the perspective Paul had in mind. This section on the subject of bringing order to the Corinthian church begins with chapter 12 and continues through chapter 14. Chaos reigned as many misused their spiritual gifts. Paul wanted them to see their special abilities in the proper perspective, which is that they should always serve others, rather than simply show off their abilities (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 25, 27).
Paul was encouraging everyone to work together for their mutual benefit, which leads us to the 13th chapter about the character of love. It opens with several analogies, all of which demonstrate that love is more important than any gift or ability. That is, Christians should have the internal motivation of outflowing concern for others. This reflects God's nature, as opposed to the selfish nature of human beings.
Now, we come to verses 4-8 of chapter 13, which amplify love in a beautiful and poetic manner. Verse 8 concludes and summarizes the definition. "Prophecies" can mean either inspired preaching or foretelling the future. How will prophecies "fail"? The word "fail" can be misleading; as it might give the impression that some of God's prophecies will not occur. The Greek for "fail," katargeo , is defined as, "1. to render idle... 2. to cause to cease" ( Thayer's Greek Lexicon ). Notice the following renderings—"they will cease" (NIV), "they will be caused to cease" (Literal Translation Version), "they shall pass away" (English Standard Version).
The need to speak under God's inspiration will never cease. We cannot understand God's Word, written over thousands of years, without inspired speaking or teaching. On the other hand, in the sense of future events, prophecies are time-sensitive. Consequently, once the prophecy is accomplished, it ceases in that there's no longer a need to wait for the event. For example, prophecies about events preceding the return of Christ will cease, or become idle, after His return. Said another way, prophecies are helpful for a limited time, in contrast to the eternal benefit of love.
The analogy continues with languages. They are only meaningful as long as there are people who speak them. When there is only one language, the need to speak other languages ceases. And knowledge about a specific matter is temporary. For example, knowing how to operate a typewriter is no longer a useful skill. Love, however, never becomes obsolete.