The Glass Darkly
Full Knowledge of the Mystery
A charismatic preacher stands before his congregation and announces that the Lord spoke to him and revealed that the church needs a new bus. A friend tells you that he recently attended a revival meeting where he received the baptism of the Holy Ghost and spoke in tongues. A religious television host bows his head in prayer and tells millions of viewers that he is receiving a word of knowledge regarding a middle aged housewife in Tampa, Florida who is being healed that very moment. What is going on? Are such things Biblical? If so, why are not all the churches practicing them? These are important questions to sincere Christians wishing to understand what is taking place in today's religious world.
The purpose of the present article is not to answer the teachings and abuses of the Charismatic Movement but to deal with one passage of scripture which, if properly understood, will remove all doubt as to whether the spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, knowledge, healing, interpretation of tongues, etc. are part of God's will for the present Dispensation of the Grace of God. Before we begin, I encourage you to prayerfully study the following passage.
"Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail, whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 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. "And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three: but the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
This passage is one which has perplexed many Bible students and has often been avoided by Christians because much of its content contains elements which seem to be both dark and inexplicable. Even among students who claim to know its meaning, there is a wide divergence of opinion. However, knowing that all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable, and that an understanding of difficult passages often yield the greatest blessing, we wish to examine this passage more carefully within its contextual and dispensational setting.
First of all, let us recognize that our text is not an isolated one but forms a whole with chapters 12 and 14. The subject is spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1, 8-11, 28). The problem was that although this Corinthian church possessed the spiritual gifts above measure, they were abusing this provision of the Spirits power for personal glorification. They were carnal, proud and self-centered (1 Corinthians 3:1-3, 5:2, 6:8) and thus were circumventing the one Christian grace which would have given meaning and beauty to their gifts - Love. So Paul takes a brief but beautiful diversion to explain to them what Christian love is and how it functions among us.
With this in mind, we can see how Paul's introduction to chapter 13 underscores the one essential element which was lacking in their assembly. "But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31). Some of the gifts were better than others and were to be coveted by them. Apostles, prophets and teachers head the list in importance while miracles, healings, tongues, etc. follow as less important (1 Corinthians 12:28). All were necessary for the time then present, yet the apostle wants to show them a more excellent way. What could possibly be more excellent than these? The Holy Spirit's answer: Love. Chapter 13 has rightly been called Paul's love chapter for in it he describes in human terms what love is B not human affection only but divine, self-sacrificing love which wills to value and esteem that which God values and esteems. How tempting it would be to examine this great theme here but because of space limitations we forbear and leave this most noble task for the enjoyment and benefit of the reader.
Having taken the necessary time to look at the background of our text, we can now look at it with keener insight. Paul concludes his short discourse on love with this final statement:
"Love never faileth"
Like the Creator - Redeemer who personifies it, love never fails. It will never become obsolete or be rendered null and void. But this implies that many other things will. Could these things possibly be the very things in which the Corinthian believers (as well as believers today) were putting their confidence? The verse continues:
"But whether there be prophesies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away." In contrast to love which is eternal, prophecy, tongues (languages) and knowledge shall fail, cease and vanish away.
This does not mean that the Word of God given through the holy prophets will fail to come to pass, or that people will stop speaking or that knowledge will go out of vogue, but rather that the supernatural gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge will cease to be a part of God's program. That this is the sense here is certain from the context where these three gifts are mentioned (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2, 12:8-10). These were the three with which the Corinthians were particularly taken. As such they represented all of the spiritual gifts.
The question which the earnest inquirer asks is, "When will these spiritual gifts cease to be a part of God's will?" An understanding of verse 10 is crucial to answer accurately.
"But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away."
The ninth verse identifies that which is in part and shall be done away as the spiritual gifts.
"For we know (gift of knowledge) in part, and we prophesy (gift of prophecy) in part." So, we may conclude that the spiritual gifts will be done away when that which is perfect is come. This leads in turn to another important question. What is "that which is perfect?" The word which is translated perfect is the Greek word "teleiotes" which signifies having reached its end (telos), finished, complete, mature, perfect. Some have thought that love is the perfect thing of which Paul speaks. But love had already come (Romans 5:5, 8) and the spiritual gifts were still very much functioning among them. Others have matched up the phrase "face to face" in verse 12 with the popular hymn of the same name and concluded that it must refer to Christ's coming for us. This view would fit in well with the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement's claim that the spiritual gifts continue even to this day and will not be discontinued by God until Christ returns to receive His Church to Himself.
Although I am looking forward to seeing my Savior "face to face" someday (perhaps today), I do not believe this is what Paul is talking about in this context. First of all, verse 10 does not speak of "He" (Christ) which is perfect but "that" which is perfect. Prophecy, tongues and knowledge were revelatory gifts, that is, they were designed by God to impart revelation to the church for its growth and edification. These revelations were confirming the truth which Paul had received up to that time but did not go beyond it. At the time he wrote this letter to the Corinthian church, the revelation was partial and incomplete but Paul spoke of a future time when the Word of God will be complete, finished, mature. That is what is referred to by him as "that which is perfect." cf. (Colossians 1:25)
Secondly, Paul makes clear in many other passages that spiritual maturity should be the goal of every believer in this life, not just in the life to come (Ephesians 4:12-14, Colossians 1:28, 29). Love is the very essence of spiritual maturity. Yet we cannot love that which we do not know, hence the need for revelation knowledge (Philippians 1:9, 10). When we realize that Paul is contrasting a time in his early ministry (when divine revelation to the Body of Christ was in its infancy) with a future time in his later ministry (when the full - orbed revelation of God's Word would be fulfilled) we will see the mind of the Lord in the matter. (Colossians 1:25). See chart at the end of this article.
The epistles of Paul which were written during his early ministry are: 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, Galatians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians and Romans. The others which were written by Paul during his later ministry include: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The first group was written during the period which covers the book of Acts, while the rest were written afterward. Acts 28:25-28 is the great dispensational boundary which divides Paul's early and later writings.
Why was this boundary so important in the revelation of God's purpose and why did God make Paul (and the Church) wait for the full revelation? We must remember the nation Israel's place in the divine plan. They were not given up by God at the cross as is commonly supposed because our Lord interceded on their behalf by praying, "Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). At Pentecost and afterwards, he continued to address them as a nation and commanded them to repent and recognize the fact that the man whom they had crucified was indeed the promised Messiah (Acts 2:14, 22-24, 36-38, 3:12-20, 4:8-12, 5:29-31, 7:1, 51-53). However, Israel continued in their rebellion and unbelief until they were ultimately cast away (Romans 11:7, 11, 12, 15, 20, 25) until a future day.
During the interim, God has saved Paul as the flaming leader of Israel's rebellion and commissioned him to be His mouthpiece to dispense the riches of His grace to a lost and dying world. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9) and the commissioning of him as Paul the apostle of the Gentiles (Acts 13) marked a turning away from Israel as the favored nation and a new beginning with an alienated world out of which he would form a new creation, the Church which is His Body. However, from Acts chapter 9 to 28, there was a transition period in which God continued to appeal to Israel and to extend his hand to a disobedient and gainsaying people (Acts 9:20-25, 13:5, 44-47, 14:1, 17:1-3, 10, 11, 18:4-6, 19:8, 22:1, 2, 17-22, 23:1, 6, 28:17-23).
Finally, Paul reached Rome, the center of Judaism for Jews outside the land of Israel. It was there that he called the chief of the Jews together to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening (Acts 28:17, 23). "And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, "Well spake the Holy Ghost by Isaias the prophet unto our fathers, saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: for the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; least they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it" (Acts 28:25-28).
With this final pronouncement from Paul (and the Holy Spirit), the nation of Israel became "Lo - Ammi - not my people" (Hosea 1:9). Although individual Israelites continue to be saved, the rebirth of the nation awaits a future day after the blessed hope of the Church is realized and we meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).
In the meantime, the full complement of the Word of God has been revealed to Paul in the capstone of divine revelation called the Mystery (Ephesians 3:1-9, Colossians 1:25-27). This is not to say that the mystery was not taught by him during his early ministry for it most assuredly was (Romans 16:25, 1 Corinthians 2:7, 8, 15:51-53, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Galatians 3:28, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). But the complete revelation of it was not given to him until after the setting aside of Israel and his arrival in Rome as the prisoner of Jesus Christ for us Gentiles (Ephesians 3:1). After this crisis, we do not read of the sign gifts of Mark 16:17-20 because Israel the sign people (1 Corinthians (1:22) were no longer God's people. When the last words in 2 Timothy were written (Paul's last letter before his death), the Word of God concerning the program of the mystery was finished and even the revelatory gifts became obsolete. We must not try to add to that which is perfect. That can only mar it and turn our hearts from the Word of God which matures us and thoroughly furnishes us unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
In order to illustrate the "in part" and "perfect" aspects of the transition period, Paul uses three figures of speech which show the progressive nature of his revelations.
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child" This is where he found himself when he penned 1 Corinthians; "but when I became a man" This was where the Lord was leading him in the revelations. "I put away childish things." We can all understand this. As children we cuddled with teddy bears, played with our tinker toys and played cops and robbers. But as we grew and matured we became interested in grown-up things and put away the childish things. Those who seek the sign gifts and miraculous demonstrations of the infancy period should seriously consider this for they cannot avoid marking themselves as immature. As "men" we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). As another has asked before, "Is it the Spirit of God or Satan, who turns the eyes of Christians back to Pentecost and away from the goal placed before them in Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians?" Tongues, Signs and Visions by A. E. Bishop.
The next verse is a further illustration of the teaching of verses 9 and 10:
"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."
Notice the repetition of the words "now...but then" These are time words which again point back to the "partial, childish" stage of revelation in contrast with the "perfect, mature" stage. The problem is when Christians misplace the time elements as referring to "now" this life on earth with "but then" the future life in heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth of this scripture and we must take care not to read into it thoughts which the Spirit of God did not intend.
The glass here is not a window but a looking-glass i.e. a mirror. The mirrors in biblical times were usually made of polished brass and reflected a rather dark and blurry image. You could see enough to adjust your hat or your hair but you could not see your complexion. In fact, the word translated "darkly" is the Greek word "ainigmati" from which we get the word "enigma" - a riddle. Paul is saying that now (during his early ministry) God's program for the Church, which is His Body, is dim and enigmatic, like a person looking into a dark and wavy mirror. But when the perfect comes (Gods completed Word), it will be so clear as to be like viewing a person face to face.
If this is true, why the many differences in beliefs among true Christians? The revelation of the mystery has been completed for almost 2,000 years yet it seems as though the "glass darkly" aspect is a better description of the present than that of "face to face." We need to be reminded that Paul speaks here of revelation not illumination. As far as revelation is concerned, we now see face to face as the Word of God in the mystery has been fulfilled. But in our understanding (illumination) of the complete revelation, it could be said by means of application that we still see in a glass darkly. Those who use it thus must make clear that this is a spiritual application only and not an interpretation of Paul's original intent. Even the "glass darkly" aspect of our present understanding of God and His Purpose can be turned to a "face to face" experience as we diligently leave behind the traditions of men, emotionalism and fanaticism and seek the Spirit's teaching in his holy Word.
"Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
In the previous illustration the looking-glass is symbolic of the Word of God as in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and James 1:22-25. In this final one, Paul uses two forms of the Greek word "know." The first is "ginosko" and is the common word for knowledge. The latter two are "epiginosko / epignosis" which is a strengthened form of "ginosko" meaning full or complete knowledge. It is instructive to note the number of times this word is used by the Spirit led apostle as he penned the truths he received in prison concerning the full knowledge of the Mystery of God (Ephesians 1:17, 3:16-19, Philippians 1:9, Colossians 1:10, 2:2). This only confirms the above explanation.
"And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
There has been much discussion as to whether faith and hope will continue in heaven along with love or whether they are confined to this side of eternity. "Believeth all things" and "hopeth all things" are described in verse 7 as aspects of love and in this sense may continue in the life to come. However, it seems to me that faith and hope in their most common usage are to be terminated at Christ's appearing for us. Both involve that which is not seen (Hebrews 11:1, Romans 8:24, 25). When our Redeemer comes, faith will give way to sight and our blessed hope will be realized in the Person of the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. Love is permanent and is the mark of spiritual maturity in us.
Let us now seek to develop this greatest of Christian virtues knowing that "we love Him because He first loved us." and that "if a man say, I love God and hate his brother, he is a liar" (1 John 4:19, 20). We no longer view the revelation of the mystery through dim shadows which obscure the view of God and His Plan, rather the full knowledge of the mystery of God has been unveiled for our benefit to develop in us the fruit of the Spirit which best expresses the perfection of God Himself, and the image into which even now he wishes to conform us (Galatians 5:22, 23, Romans 8:29).
NOW" (A.D. 55)
"THEN" (after Acts period)
They shall fail
v. 9 In part (partial, incomplete)
v. 10 Perfect (finished, complete)
v. 11 Spake as a child
v. 12 See through a glass darkly
Face to Face
(Paul's early writings)
(Paul's later writings)