In this message we consider verse 12 of I Corinthians 13: “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.”
It is interesting, as we read through this chapter, that Jesus Christ Himself is never mentioned. We have alluded to Him, and I did suggest that His name could be substituted for charity, so that the love that is described we understand as the perfect love of the Savior. He bears all things and believes all things and hopes all things, and so on. We have in our verse another striking reference to Christ without His name being mentioned in the words “then face to face.” Whom will we see then face to face? The Savior. There is no mistaking that this is speaking about heaven and about seeing Christ face to face and the glory of heaven. Then all the blinders and the blind spots will be removed and a clarity will be there. That is put in the text in a double contrast: now through a glass darkly, then face to face; now a partial knowledge, but then knowing as we are known. So, let us consider: Now and then.
First, now. Now we see through a glass darkly and now, says the apostle, I know in part.
To understand what Paul is saying here, you have to realize that he is using a figure or an illustration. “I see through a glass darkly.” That glass should not be understood as a murky window that you kind of look through and you see somebody through that murky window, or just the outside outlines of their person. But the idea here is literally of a mirror. The other time this word is used in the New Testament it is translated that way, so that in James we read of the law as the perfect law of liberty being a mirror in which we see our sinfulness, as we do not measure up to the glory and the holiness of God.
But now, in this mirror, as the apostle speaks of it here, we are not looking and seeing an image or reflection of ourselves, but we are seeing in this mirror a reflection of someone else. Now, he says, I see through a glass darkly. We are looking into this mirror and we are looking at a reflection of someone else. And that reflection, we realize, is just that. It is not actually a person. If you see someone else in a mirror, there is a difference, is there not? The image is reversed. And if the mouth of that image starts moving, the sound comes from behind you, not from the mirror. The one whom you see in the mirror cannot speak, cannot hear, cannot see. It is just a reflection. In fact, the mirror will sometimes distort the image. Paul is not talking here about a glass mirror with crisp lines, but a piece of brass that was heated up and beaten flat with a hammer, then smoothed out and polished. You would hang it on a stand and look into it and you kind of saw a distorted image of yourself. And if someone was behind you, his image would be even further away and smaller so it would be even more distorted—a dim, hardly discernable image because of divots and scratches. You see an outline—broad outlines.
That is the figure here. Literally, as we look at this text, it would say this: “Now we see by means of a mirror in an enigma.” That is the word there in the Greek. The idea of an enigma is something that is a riddle. All the details are not there. You look at it and you kind of have to figure it out. That is the illustration here. You can imagine seeing a reflection of someone else in a mirror. You are standing in the bathroom, perhaps the mirror is fogged up, you are brushing your teeth by the sink and somebody comes in the doorway behind you, and you see his reflection in the mirror in front of you. Or you can think, for example, of a cold morning, taking a car out and checking your mirrors as you are going down the road and you see a bright light in your mirror, but you cannot see the car because your mirrors are all fogged up. That is something like the figure here.
Now, he says, we see through a glass darkly. The question is, what do we see in this mirror? Or, better, whom do we see in this mirror? The answer, from the text, is, very plainly, God. This is whom we see in the mirror because the apostle goes on to compare this vision in the mirror to knowledge: “Now we see through a glass, darkly…now I know in part.” And the knowledge that he is talking about is the knowledge of God. He is saying that his knowledge of God in the present is not full. God does know him. Then he says, “I shall know even as also I am known.” Who is it that knows us so well? It is God that knows us so well. So the One that he is talking about and the reflection that he is seeing here in the mirror is God. And that vision, that image, of God that we see is, of course, the face of Jesus Christ. You think, for example, of what Philip said to Jesus on the night of His trial and crucifixion. He said, “Show us the Father.” And Jesus says, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me? He who hath seen Me hath seen the Father.” Jesus is the face of God. He is the revelation of God. As we see Jesus Christ, we see the glory and the mercy and all the virtues of God Himself. He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His person (Heb. 1:3). And John says that “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” So we can say here that the face that we see is the face of Jesus Christ. And it is not just face, is it? It is all His teaching, all His words, all His work, the whole revelation of God.
Our text says “now.” The apostle means now, on this side of heaven. Now, before the grave, now we see only a dim reflection of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And we see only a dim reflection, even, of who Jesus Christ is. Yes, it is He. If I look in a mirror and see a reflection of someone behind me, I know that he is there, he is real. So it is here. This is actually Jesus Christ that I see. But it is an enigma. It is as though there are pieces of information and clues, but I do not have the full picture. I can put the clues together and discern something, but I do not see the details.
We do not see Jesus Christ as the disciples did—face to face—but we see the image of Him, the revelation of Him in the Scriptures. That is the way for us to think of the Scriptures. This Book is the revelation of Jesus Christ, and it is something like a mirror. We look into it, and it is as though Christ is behind and we see His reflection coming forth in bits and pieces that we put together to discern Jesus Christ Himself from the Scriptures.
That teaches us some important things about the Scriptures. First, this. All of Scripture is the revelation of Jesus Christ from the beginning to the end. When Jesus walked the Emmaus road with the two on the day of His resurrection and they had questions about the suffering of the Mediator, then, the Scriptures tell us, that, beginning with Moses, “he opened to them from all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” All the Scriptures. He says, “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life. And they are they which testify of me.”
We see Him in all the Scriptures, from the beginning to the end, as the Redeemer and the Mediator who ransoms His people from their sins, pays the price, and reconciles them to the Father. We see Him as the Creator. In John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We see Him as divine—the One who made all things and by Whom and for Whom all things were made. We see Him in His work and ministry, His cross and His suffering, His resurrection and His ascension, His kingship and exaltation, in the works of His providence. We see Him as the One who, today, in the gospel, rides forth conquering and to conquer. We see so much more than that about Jesus Christ.
And the point is this, that without all this mirror, without the Scriptures, we would not see those things. We would not know that the sun, for example, the morning Star, teaches us about the Savior who comes with healing in His wings. Though its vision and what we see in it is not always so clear, that mirror is valuable.
The image in this mirror is dim. Sometimes, as we seek to see this Savior or understand the mystery of God, it is like we are looking through a telescope, searching for something distant. That is not the fault of God, and that is not the fault of the Scriptures. That is not the fault of the Savior. Our sins are like blinders that keep us from seeing into the Scriptures. That is what Paul means in the previous verse when he says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” You see, what stands in the way of our seeing with clarity who Christ is and the mystery and the depth and the infinity of who God is, is very often our own sin.
But, it is more than that. The Scriptures reveal to us a God who is beyond our comprehension. The infinite mercy of this God and the unfailing grace of this God—the more we look into this mirror, the deeper it all appears. We can read the Scriptures, and we can read them again, and every time we read them there is something new that we see and observe about God and about Jesus Christ. Christ reveals all the fullness of the godhead. The knowledge of Jesus Christ and the revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture is deep and infinite. And we are finite. We have not only a finite understanding, but also a finite language and finite ideas. We are so creature-bound and so earth-bound, and God transcends all these things. The wonder of Scripture is that He even adapts Himself to our language, to our children-talk. He stoops down to us. That is what God has done in all of the Scriptures. He comes to us in the simplest terms, we could say, to explain things in our way, in our language.
Just think of the progress of revelation in Scripture. Yes, God’s purpose in all things was always to send His Son into this world as a Redeemer from sin, but what does He do for thousands of years? He sends them not His Son but sacrifices and types and promises so that we, when the Savior would come, could understand who He was and what He was doing and what the cross meant. We would not understand that so well without all those pictures. That is what the Bible is. It is a picture-book, as it were, for finite creatures. What we see and what we know from the Scriptures concerning God barely scratches the surface of the knowledge of God. When we speak of salvation; when we speak of heaven and of angels and of the exaltation and glory of Jesus Christ; when we speak of the character and the virtues of God and His perfections; when we speak of our own sin and sinfulness—all of that is just a little beginning.
That is not to say that the Bible is insufficient. No, in the Bible there is a sufficiency. Jesus said, “They have Moses and the prophets.” The Scriptures are sufficient. In fact, what is in the Scriptures is in a sense more than we can handle. It is all that we can handle. As God condescends in His revelation to us and to give us knowledge, He gives us just a little glimpse that we can handle. You remember when Moses wanted to see the glory of God, and God hid him in the cleft of the rock and put His hand over him until He had passed by and Moses saw just that tantalizing glimpse of the glory of God from behind. That is what God does as He reveals Himself to us. You cannot look into the sun without going blind. So it is with God and His glory. So God gives us just this indistinct, as it were, reflection.
That is the now, now through a glass, darkly. What is true of our knowledge and our sight of God and of our Savior is also true of our knowledge of the work and the ways of God, is it not? Now, through a glass, darkly. We cannot understand what God is doing. We cannot always see what God is doing. We sing in Psalm 77: “Thy way is in the sea; to man Thy footsteps were unknown.” The Scriptures tell us that God’s ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our ways. So, sometimes when we look into this mirror, we cannot explain God’s providences except in broad outlines. In our pain we cling to the truth that God loves us. We cling to the truth that God is good, that He is all-wise, that He is all-powerful, that He always has a good, saving purpose for us, and that nothing can separate us from His love. We see these broad outlines, but we cannot always connect those broad outlines to the details of our lives. It is something like a handful of puzzle pieces. We know their value but we cannot put them all together.
Then, at other times, through blurred, teary vision, we look into this mirror and it seems that all we can see from the Word of God is our own sin. We see the cross, yes. But the sins are so stark and so clear that we are sometimes tempted to wonder, can the cross be for my sins. Then we cling to what we see of the cross, we cling to the Savior. We say, “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.”
There is a dark seeing—now we see through a glass, darkly. Then what we have to do is spend more time looking into this mirror, writing down the things that we do see in these broad outlines concerning the Savior. Write down the things that are true. Meditate on those things that are true concerning Him. Pray over those things that are true, and let the Word of God dwell in our hearts so that we might grow in our hope. But still we have only a partial knowledge. Now we see through a glass, darkly.
But then, He says, face to face.
The idea is that this mirror will some day be taken away, that the Savior will, as it were, come behind us and put His hands on our shoulders and turn us around so that we can look into His face. And He will say, “Look at Me. Don’t look anymore at the reflection. Look at Me.”
I do not know really what to say about that except to tell you that when Moses saw God, his face shone. When Joshua saw the angel of the Lord, he fell down. When Paul saw the exalted Christ, he was blinded. When John saw Him, he fell at His feet as one dead. When the twenty-four elders and the multitude without number saw Him, they cast their crowns at His feet and they cried out, “Blessing and honor and glory and power to Him that sits on the throne and unto the Lamb.” And the Scriptures tell us that when we see Him, we will be like Him. We will be transformed in a moment. Then all of the things that are the now and that are in part will be finished and done away. The things that are so important to us right now, the things that were in Corinth (the gifts in the church), will be done away.
The apostle says (and we will get to this in our next message) that charity will outlive and outshine faith and hope. Then faith will become sight and our hope will be fulfilled. Prophecies will cease, Scripture will be closed. Preaching and teaching will be done. All the questions we have, this enigma, all the riddles will become clear. Paul says, “then face to face…then shall I know.” He is speaking here in contrast: Now I know in part. Then…a new height of knowledge. The apostle does not mean that when we come into heaven, we will be omniscient and that we will know everything. But he speaks here (with this figure of a mirror) of a clarity of vision and a clarity of understanding of the things into which we now inquire and about which we seek or about which we have questions. We will be in the presence of those things, we will know them. We will have a personal acquaintance with God and with the divine perfections and plans, the things that are now, as it were, far off from us in a museum cabinet behind glass, and we will be able to take them up in our hands and look at them and see them. We will have permission.
“Then,”he says, “I’ll know, even as also I am known.” He does not mean that we will know God as fully as He knows us. Again, he is not talking about the extent of our knowledge but the clarity of it. There will not be confusion anymore. We will be able to look back and see the wisdom and sovereignty and goodness of God in everything that has happened to us in the days of our earthly pilgrimage. We will have a complete understanding not only of our sin, but of the fulness of the mercy of God and the price of the atonement and the death of the Savior. We will understand God’s wisdom in history and providence, in the Fall and the curse that has come to man through which we live now; God’s wisdom in suffering and disease and sickness and grief; God’s wisdom in the persecution of the church; God’s wisdom in all the hard things we must go through now. The mist and the fog will pass and we will look into the face of Jesus. That is heaven—to be with Him.
Each of us will see Him. It is not as though there will be such a great multitude that He will be far off in the distance, but each of us will see Him face to face. What a day that will be. Psalter 16 describes it this way: “When I in righteousness at last Thy glorious face shall see; when all the weary night is past and I awake with Thee to view the glories that abide; then, then I shall be satisfied.”
There is a story in the Old Testament that really, in another picture, alludes to what this will be like. I Kings 10:6-9. Here came the queen of Sheba with her convoy and her gifts and her wealth to see and to hear Solomon. She came to Jerusalem, and as she began to take it all in, her spirit grew faint within her. Listen to what she says to Solomon. “She said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard. Happy are thy men, happy are these thy servants, which stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom. Blessed be the Lord thy God, which delighted in thee, to set thee on the throne of Israel.” You see, when we get to heaven, what we know about and what we have said about it here is going to be just a small fraction of what it will actually be.
Now, through a glass darkly; then…. And that means that it will be so much more than what we have just touched on in this message. Then I will be like Him. Then I will be delivered from the body of this death. Then I will be delivered from the power of sin. Then I will forever dwell with Christ. Then I will be there with all of God’s people. Then all that stands in the way of my fellowship now with any of God’s people will gone. Then we will sing (do we not love to sing?) and will hear songs and singing that we have never heard before. Then we will enjoy perfect harmony with the creation—the creation that is now under the curse and in many ways is against us. Then we will have a new home in the house of many mansions. Then we will live there forever in that home. And then whatever it is that God asks me to do, it will be my delight to do, and I will do it in gratitude and in praise to Him.
Though my sight and knowledge will be clear, then I will forever be plumbing the depths of the infinite, perfect love. Now in part; then face to face. Amen.