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by Al Maxey

Issue #756 ------- October 4, 2018
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended
inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows
which futurity casts upon the present.

Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792-1822]
A Defense of Poetry

The Enigma of the Murky Mirror
A Reflective Study of 1 Corinthians 13:12

Approximately a decade before his martyrdom, the apostle Paul, who was completing a three year stay in the city of Ephesus, penned the first of his preserved epistles to the church in the city of Corinth. Most scholars agree the date of this letter was during the winter of 56-57 A.D. The message of God's grace had been shared here by Paul near the end of his second missionary journey in 53 A.D. The biblical account of this founding may be read in Acts 18:1-18. After Paul departed, Apollos came to the city of Corinth and continued to work with the believers. Paul had planted the seed and had seen it take root, then Apollos came to nurture and nourish this new growth with the watering of the Word. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6). "According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it" (1 Corinthians 3:10). "In Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). This epistle can be classed as an "occasional letter," which means that it was occasioned by a series of circumstances which Paul, as an apostle of Christ, felt compelled to confront and address as their spiritual founder and guide. It is probably the most practical of all his epistles, dealing with real problems and issues in the local congregation. It has been characterized: "the doctrine of the cross in its social application."

One of the most beloved, and perhaps one of the least appreciated (and applied), chapters in this lengthy epistle is the thirteenth. It has been often labeled "the love chapter" of the New Covenant writings. It most certainly is a powerful tribute to this aspect of the divine nature, and a clear challenge for us all to rise above the tendencies of our own human natures, especially with respect to our interactions with those around us. For an in-depth look at these qualities, I would refer the reader to my articles "How Love Behaves: Attributes of Agape in 1 Corinthians 13" (Reflections #167) and "Body Building 101: A NT Perspective of Edification" (Reflections #177). This chapter also contains a phrase that has led to considerable theological confusion and speculation: "When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away" (1 Corinthians 13:10). You wouldn't believe the heated debates that have been generated by the endless theories put forth to try and explain Paul's meaning here, the most familiar of which is that the "perfect" refers to the Bible, and thus the gist of the passage is that miraculous gifts would then cease. Most scholars now reject both interpretations. I've examined all of this in quite some depth in my study: "When the Perfect Comes: A Reflective Study of 1 Corinthians 13:10" (Reflections #327). I would especially urge the reader to take some time to examine this article, as one's understanding of this difficult text has a definite impact on one's approach to and understanding of the statement by Paul that we will be examining in this current issue of Reflections. Notice verses 9-12 (in the King James Version):

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then
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."

The specific statement within this passage that I want to examine in this study is found at the beginning of verse 12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly." This is the wording of the King James Version, which seems to suggest that we are peering through a glass (like a window, for example), and that the image we are seeing through that glass is somehow indistinct or not fully visible (perhaps due to insufficient lighting). Very few translations of the passage since the KJV have opted for this understanding of the text. Not even the New King James Version or the American Standard Version. The former reads, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly" and the latter reads, "For now we see in a mirror, darkly." Almost all translations agree that it is a mirror to which Paul is referring, not a looking-glass or some glass/window through which one looks. "The metaphor is that of the imperfect reflection seen in one of the polished metal mirrors of the ancient world" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 270]. The Greek word used is "esoptron," which is the Greek word for "mirror," which W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, says "is used of any surface sufficiently smooth and regular to reflect rays of light uniformly" [p. 76]. "The ancient mirrors were made of polished metal, which reflected an image but faintly, without sharp and distinct outlines" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 2, p. 153].

When one polishes metal or stone, one can discern an image on the surface, which is a reflection of the reality in front of it. These images, however, were nowhere near the quality that we are used to from mirrors today. "Ancient mirrors made of burnished metal - a specialty of the city of Corinth at that time - were poor reflectors; the art of silvering glass was not discovered until the 13th century" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 901]. "Corinthian mirrors were considered the best" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 42]. The people of the city to whom Paul was writing would have been very familiar with mirrors, and also aware of the fact that the images reflected by these mirrors were certainly far from perfect. One could see what the image was, in most cases, but there was much that was left unseen for the observer. Thus, the image reflected by the mirror was to some degree rather puzzling and enigmatic, which is most likely the meaning of the word "darkly," which is used by the KJV. The Greek word used by Paul is "ainigma" (from which we get our word "enigma"), which "refers to a blurred outline" [Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 40]. Dr. Albert Barnes writes, "The word means a riddle; an enigma; an obscure intimation. Hence, it means obscurely, darkly, imperfectly; little is known, much is left to conjecture" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "The thought of imperfect seeing is emphasized by the character of the ancient mirror, which was of polished metal" [Dr. Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 3, p. 266].

So what is Paul saying here? How does this metaphor relate to the context in which it appears? The point Paul is making to the Corinthian disciples, and to us as well, is that our view of eternal realities is incomplete and imperfect. The wisest and most perceptive of us have only seen these realities partially, and thus what we do see is, in many ways, enigmatic. The glimpses we get not only leave us longing for more, but they quite often leave us a bit puzzled, for we don't have a perfect, full, complete view/understanding of those realities. John Wesley (1703-1791) wrote, with respect to the ultimate truths and realities of the eternal realm, "a mirror reflects only their imperfect forms, in a dim, faint, obscure manner; so that our thoughts about them are puzzling and intricate, and everything is a kind of riddle to us" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Paul's metaphor, therefore, "brings home to the imagination the limitations of human knowledge" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 42]. "The indistinct image one sees in a mirror represents the incomplete knowledge in the present life" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 905]. "The general drift of the verse is clear: it brings out the inadequacy of man's present knowledge of God" [Dr. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 307].

Paul is contrasting for us our present understanding of God, His Kingdom, His Word, etc. with the more complete future understanding that will be ours when we, as promised, will behold Him "face-to-face." THEN, and not before, will we see things clearly and fully. Paul summed it up nicely in his second preserved letter to the Corinthian disciples, saying, "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). A day is coming when our faith will become sight; when we will no longer see a faint reflection of the Reality, but the Reality itself. "Then I shall know fully" (1 Corinthians 13:12). The apostle John put it this way, "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is" (1 John 3:2). There is so much that we simply don't know; so many questions, so few answers. We have been given what we need to know, but not all of what we might like to know. This leaves us somewhat puzzled at times. That's just the nature of our humanity, especially as it relates to our attempts to understand more of Him and His Kingdom. "The contrast is between the inadequate knowledge of an object gained by seeing it reflected in a dim mirror (such as ancient mirrors were), compared with the perfect idea we have of it by seeing itself directly" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1217].

Understanding of divine realities is an ongoing process. It is a journey of faith and discovery that takes a lifetime, and even at the end of our lives, we only have achieved a glimpse of those realities. No one completes this journey with complete knowledge and full understanding. Our limitations when seeking to grasp eternal realities are in no way an indictment on our integrity or love for the Lord or His Word, but simply an admission that we are mere mortals (flesh and blood) seeking to the best of our abilities to grasp eternal truths. Even the best among us will fall far short of perfect perception of these truths. We are flawed, finite humans seeking to help other flawed, finite humans perceive the intricacies of the Infinite. We will always come up short. Why? Because none of us has arrived (and never will) at perfect perception of all Truth (although some apparently think they have). Since the reality of ultimate, eternal Truth will always be far above our own faulty perception of it, the challenge ever before us is to grow in our understanding and appreciation and application of Truth: a growth that will always be ongoing and, frankly, incomplete. We will never actually arrive at the point of perfect understanding of all Truth. Thus, not a single one of us can ever lay claim to being 100% correct in our grasp of God's will, His grace, His love, His Truth, His Word, etc. As Paul points out in our text for this study, we only know in part (vs. 9) and we only see indistinctly (vs. 12). Ours is a journey of discovery, and we are all at different points along this continuum. This fact should cause each of us to be less arrogant and more humble; it should cause us to be more accepting and gracious toward others who may have understandings that differ with ours. No person or group is the standard for all things spiritual ... not even the disciples of the first century!! They are not our "pattern." Our pattern is the Lord Jesus!

Let me close with a few other renderings of 1 Corinthians 13:12, as I believe they convey the above thoughts quite well: "We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then" [The Message] ... "We can see and understand only a little about God now, as if we were peering at His reflection in a poor mirror; but someday we are going to see Him in His completeness, face-to-face. Now all that I know is hazy and blurred, but then I will see everything clearly" [The Living Bible] ... "At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face-to-face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it fully" [J. B. Phillips' New Testament in Modern English] ... "Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely" [New Living Translation] ... "Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a foggy mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face-to-face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely" [New International Reader's Version]. Paul was writing to disciples divided over their differing understandings. He is also writing to each of us. His message: you do not know it all, so stop acting like a "know-it-all." Imagine the peace that could be ours if each of us would acknowledge this principle and apply it to our lives!!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Idaho:

Dear Al, It has been a while since we last corresponded, but I still read your Reflections. I LOVE THEM!! I was excited to learn of your book "From Ruin to Resurrection." My check is enclosed for a signed copy. I have Edward Fudge's book "The Fire that Consumes," but I'm thinking yours would be a little easier to follow. Love you, brother. God bless. [PS: You may remember that we came to visit you from Alaska (where we were living at the time) in the early 2000's, and we brought you the fresh canned salmon.]

From a Minister in California:

Hey Al, I just finished reading your book "From Ruin to Resurrection." Thanks for all the hard work and dedication in putting it together. It was a good read!

From a Reader in Arizona:

Hey, Al, your latest, "Scribes Skilled in the Scriptures: Does God Use Mere Men to Help Facilitate Our Greater Understanding of His Word?" (Reflections #755), was another great Reflections; one that challenged me, inspired me, and encouraged me. I've come to the realization that our current tradition of a man standing on a podium behind a pulpit is not as effective as a dialogue like we see in Acts 20:7-11. By the way, I recently led a Wednesday night class using this passage as a guide, encouraging the brethren to feel free to "dialegomai" with me as I presented some points on challenges faced in living the Christian life. I was hoping to elicit some sharing of mutual struggles, victories and defeats whereby we could help each other in overcoming these challenges, and was especially hoping to hear the insights of our more mature brothers and sisters. Sadly, only one sister seemed eager to participate. I guess we're just not ready to "...confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16). Great study, as usual, brother. God bless you and your family.

From a Reader in Florida:

I am blessed by your writings (your Reflections). Please note that I have changed my email address; so would you please make the change in your mailing list. I would like very much to continue getting your writings. Thank you.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Your article "Scribes Skilled in the Scriptures" is excellent. We do need teachers! I have learned much from your writings; often times they challenge my perceptions! But, at the same time, just because a congregation wishes to have a preacher does not necessarily make the person in that position a good teacher. "Not many should be teachers" seems to be a caution to the listeners as much as it is to those who would attempt to teach what they don't understand. Keep up the good work, Al. By the way, what is your best article on CENI?

From a Minister in New Zealand:

I have just read your article regarding Ezra and the reading of the Law. I like the idea of "collective preaching and explanation." It can provide good synergy and credibility. I also was very touched by Nehemiah 8:9 - the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law. In fact, they had to be told not to weep. I wonder how many times today we would find this same attitude if deprived of God's Word for a long period of time?! I have also recently been reflecting on Acts 17 and Paul's sermon. It is interesting that Paul's message was: all need to repent (vs. 30), and there were some who believed (vs. 34). The question is: was this all that was sufficient? In a Gentile environment (he was in Athens, Greece), the practice of Jewish baptism in water may not have even entered their minds. And Paul didn't mention it. Similarly, in Acts 20:18ff, where Paul is in Asia, the emphasis of Paul's preaching, to both Jews and Greeks, was "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (vs. 21).

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, would you please send me by email the article by Dwight Haas ("A Paradigm Shift on Salvation") that you mentioned in one of your recent Reflections? I, too, spent many, many years putting my trust more in baptism, the "pattern," and the CofC church than I did in Jesus. Thank you.

From a Minister/Author in Kentucky:

Please send me a copy of the brother's article "A Paradigm Shift on Salvation." I have been doing some thinking on Acts 2 recently. I am convinced that we have not really understood the point Peter makes there. We are in such a rush to get people into the water that we almost completely bypass Jesus as King, which I believe is the real point Peter makes in his sermon on Pentecost. I believe this paints baptism and salvation in a far different light than the way we usually preach it. In the words of the brother who wrote the article, "It is about Jesus!"

From a Reader in Virginia:

May I please have a copy of the article about baptism ("A Paradigm Shift on Salvation") which you mentioned in your Reflections? I read all that you write, although it doesn't all soak into this old brain! I'll forward your article "Scribes Skilled in the Scriptures" to a young man who is just beginning to prepare to preach. That will lead him to all the other resources on your Web Site, which are a wealth of help. Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

I just caught up with your study titled "Scribes Skilled in the Scriptures" and it brought so many things to mind as I read it. First, I was reminded how I have mentioned that, right or wrong, I consider writers like yourself as being led by the Spirit in exactly the same way as the writers of our Bible. To me, your writings, like those of the writers of the Bible, are inspired by God. Even those who received the Scriptures for the first time were told to test those writings to see if they really were of God. So, while we agree that we men are prone to mistakes, it does not change the source. Another thing I was reminded of is how Menno Simmons refused to read the Bible as he was being trained as a priest because he didn't want to be influenced. I think he later realized this to be "dumb," but it leads to the point of having a guide to explain God and His will for us. I would say that all of us need someone to go back-and-forth with in discussion so that learning can take place. It has nothing to do with one or the other being perfect, but rather the power of the Holy Spirit operating through other men to open our minds to the will of God.

From an Elder in Alabama:

Al, great article ("Scribes Skilled in the Scriptures"), but I would like to add some points. Here they are! The problem, to me, is not about which humans, prone to error and relying on their own study and interpretations, we are to listen to and read. Rather, the problem, to me, is our lack of balance in reading and listening to all different types of scholars and their opinions, even if we don't agree with them. In our "church-business, professional-preacher system" we have set up, we give way too much time and control of thinking to just one scholar (the local paid preacher). That man is just an uninspired human teacher (by my definition, an "inspired" speaker or writer is error free in all of his preaching and writing, like the apostles). His opinion and interpretation is not better, and often worse, than mine, if I am a real student of the Word. I sit through such uninspired sermons every Sunday now that I am no longer doing the local preaching! In the first century, mutual edification assemblies (1 Corinthians 14) seemed to be the norm, with no one gift dominating the time or emphasis in the assembly. Even then, a prophet who was speaking by the Spirit was to sit down if the Spirit moved another prophet to give a prophecy. So the Spirit is telling His own Spirit-led prophet to shut up and sit down? Yes, because apparently the first prophet had gone past his Spirit-given message and was probably rambling with his own non-Spirit-given opinions. At least, that's how I see it. Again, the point being: the Spirit did not want one prophet dominating most of the assembly: not even a Spirit-inspired prophet. How much more should that apply today?!

Yet, this is exactly what we do. We have a one hour assembly, and an uninspired preacher takes up half of the assembly with his speech and opinions. And it might actually be a good sermon, with good points (most churches pay a lot for preachers who can do that), but we are squelching all other scholars in the audience/assembly (although they might get to voice their opinions briefly in the Bible class). Sometimes I think, "Preacher, your sermon could have been done in 10 minutes, and then another "prophet" could have given a different perspective (maybe even a better one: which usually means mine). I am tempted to say, "Hey, preacher, the Spirit just told me to tell you to shut up and sit down and let me speak!" But, I don't, because someone might tell ME the same thing once I got up and started speaking!! Maybe we should do our "assembly things" a whole lot differently; maybe we should quit letting one scholar dominate. Balance. Give the flock a bigger, more balanced range of scholars. Frankly, the way things are, I can get a whole lot better range by staying at home and going on the Internet than I can by listening to most local preachers. But, of course, I am an elder at our church, and so I still keep coming to edify others. Anyway, I doubt you will want to use my long, wordy email, but that is just the way I feel.

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