For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (I Cor. 13:12)
Some passages of scripture are more often misinterpreted than others. I Cor. 13:12 must surely fall into this category. Many interpret this passage to mean that we cannot understand all the abstruseness of this life, that all is an unknowable mystery to us in this present state and that it will only become clear to us in some future aeon after we have crossed through the veil. For instance, John Gill states in his commentary that the word “now” is referring to “in this life” and the word “then” refers to “in the other world or state.” But such an interpretation does an injustice to the Text.
The passage in question occurs in the context of the duration and utility of miraculous gifts. Paul began the chapter with the observation that miraculous gifts, without the guiding principle of charity, are nothing and profits nothing (vv. 1-3). In the previous chapter the apostle illustrated how that there were various gifts given by the Spirit, but that there is but one Spirit of God (12:1-31). In the succeeding chapter the apostle described the divine etiquette of the miraculous gifts in the first century church (14:1-40). This passage, then, is sandwiched between two descriptions of the miraculous.
The more immediate context concerns not only the miraculous but specifically contrasts the abiding nature of faith, hope and love with the temporary nature of the miraculous gifts (13:8-13). Tongues, prophecy and knowledge will cease (V. 8) but faith, hope and charity will continue (V. 13). The miracles were a constant source of conflict and jealousies; what was needed was love. Paul described tongues, prophecy, and knowledge as mere parts of the whole (“perfect’). The word “perfect” is the Greek “telos” and means “completeness.” The “complete” or “perfect” is contrasted with the “parts.” The parts are identified as tongues, prophecy and knowledge, all miraculous gifts given to reveal and confirm the word of God (Mark 16:20; John 13:16; 14:26; 20:30,31; Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:1-4). When the word of God was completely revealed and that word confirmed, then there was no longer any need for the miraculous.
Paul then gives two examples illustrating the provisional nature of the miraculous. The first is of a child turning into a man. As a child, he spoke, understood and thought as a child, but when he became a man, he put away those childish things. Because he was demonstrating the point previously made, he associated miracles with childish things, proper in their own time and order, but to be put away when maturity–in this case, completed revelation–was reached.
The second illustration given is our text. It is but another illustration of the point already made, i.e., miraculous gifts were temporary. Seeing through a glass darkly, then, is the equivalent to using childish things. Seeing face to face is equivalent to being mature. This maturity was identified previously with completed revelation. Therefore, seeing face to face is equivalent to completed revelation.
What this text is saying, then, is this: We see now (during the early part of the first century, during the age of the miraculous) through a glass darkly (because we do not yet have all that God wants revealed) but then (when revelation shall be completed) we shall see face to face (because we have the completed revelation, all things that pertain to life and godliness – II Pet. 1:3). Now (during the early part of the first century, during the age of the miraculous) we know in part (because we do not yet have all that God wants revealed) but then (when revelation shall be completed) shall I know (because we have all things that pertain to life and godliness – II Pet. 1:3) even as also I am known (i.e., I can know myself as God sees me and wants me to be).
James also portrays looking into the word of God as looking into a mirror. “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:23-25). God’s word is a mirror that reflects both what God wants us to be and what we are. Now that we have all things that pertain to life and godliness (II Pet. 1:3), we no longer need miracles, which belonged to an age of immaturity, to an age in which we had incomplete knowledge. That is no longer is our state!
The time in which we see face to face and in which we know as we are known is now! It is not in some future state beyond this earthly realm, but in the Christian dispensation! We have God’s revealed will which lightens our life (I John 1:7). We now have God’s complete word-revelation to man and “hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (I John 2:3).
Eric L. Padgett