Paul offers a fascinating Greek construction in his famous chapter on the enduring character of love as contrasted with the temporary character of spiritual gifts (1 Co. 13:8). He says, But where there are prophecies, they will be abolished. Where there are tongues, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be abolished.
To fully appreciate what Paul is doing in this text, one needs to know something of Greek vocabulary and grammar. In the passage, Paul uses two verbs:
καταργέω (katargeo = “to destroy, to abolish, to set aside”)
παύωπαύω (pauo = “to stop, to cause to stop”)
For the gift of “prophecies”, Paul puts the verb in the 3rd person plural future indicative passive voice form: katargethesontai = “they will be abolished”.
For the gift of “knowledge”, Paul puts the same verb in the 3rd person singular future indicative passive voice form: katargethesetai = “it will be abolished”.
Both uses of the verb “to destroy” are identical except for the number (plural vs. singular). However, for the gift of tongues, Paul does something different, something that is not discernible from an English translation but is quite plain in Greek. Here, he puts the verb in the 3rd person plural future indicative middle voice and says that “tongues”: pausontai = “will cease [of themselves]”.
It is this change from passive voice to middle voice that is curious. Why does Paul do this? For English speakers, middle voice is virtually non-existent as a distinct form, but it is very much a distinct form in NT Greek, and in the future tense (which is the case here), it has a specific inflected spelling that is unmistakable (stem + sigma + future middle suffix ending). The middle voice verb in NT Greek expresses action performed by the subject in its own interest or of itself. For instance, when Judas hanged himself, Matthew uses a middle voice verb (this action he performed on himself, which is to say, no one hanged him, but he hanged himself). When Paul tells the Corinthians, “But you washed yourselves…” he uses a middle voice verb.
There are two basic interpretive options as to why Paul uses this distinct middle voice form with regard to the gift of tongues. One is that he intends that the gift of tongues will eventually die out of its own accord. Unlike the gifts of prophecies and knowledge, which ultimately will be abolished “when that which is perfect is come” (here, an oblique reference to the eschaton, 1 Co. 13:9-10), the gift of tongues will cease [of itself]. Hence, some exegetes offer translation possibilities, such as, “they shall make themselves cease” or “automatically cease of themselves” (A. T. Robertson and others). It is on this basis that some interpreters suggest that the lessening use of tongues in the post-apostolic church showed a gradual process of dying out.
The other interpretive option is that Paul varies his verbs for rhetorical reasons rather than didactic ones. Here, Paul simply uses the two different voices to provide linguistic variety. To say that he intends to teach that tongues will cease [of themselves], according to this view, puts too much weight on a brief statement without a larger context to support it (Gordon Fee and others).
In the end, a rather large gate turns on this tiny hinge of a single middle voice verb. Did Paul think that the gift of tongues was in any way time limited—that it would (or should) eventually die out in the future Christian church? Or is he simply varying his verb structure so as not to be unduly repetitive? That is the 64-dollar question. I suspect that most exegetes lean in the direction of their experience, Greek grammar notwithstanding.