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Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12,
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.
This is the second half of the passage that began in the previous verses, where Paul talked about the partial knowledge of children. Verse 12 implies that full spiritual maturity is a state where we “know fully,” rather than “in part.” Inherent in this is understanding, which was prized by Solomon in Prov. 4:7,
7 The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding.
Without understanding, there is no wisdom, because understanding is a large part of wisdom. One cannot truly understand something, apart from knowing it fully.
Paul relates this to our spiritual growth. We start out as children in our knowledge and understanding, and as we gain experience, we learn more and more. Our “in part” knowledge compartment shrinks gradually. By the time Paul wrote this, he had been a believer for many years and had received a great amount of revelation—first from the Mount in Arabia and later through experience from beatings, shipwrecks, and opposition to the gospel. Yet he recognized that even he had not reached the goal of full knowledge. “Now I know in part,” he said. Recall that in 1 Cor. 8:1, 2 he wrote,
1 … Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. 2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.
There are many things that we know, but we should always recognize that our knowledge is partial. Such partial knowledge is universal, Paul says, regardless of our education and regardless even of our present level of spiritual maturity. To think otherwise is “arrogant” and is not a function of truth-based love.
When he says, “then I shall know fully,” what time frame was he contemplating? When did Paul expect to “know fully?” He does not tell us in this chapter. But we read in 1 John 3:2, 3,
2 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. 3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
The appearing of Christ is the point where “we shall be like Him.” I believe that this is “then” in Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 13:12, where he says, “then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.” In other words, full knowledge of Christ and full understanding of truth will be known at the appearance of Christ, when we are changed into His image (1 Cor. 15:51; 2 Cor. 3:18).
This is the point in time where the corporate body is changed, or transformed. We are all expected to change and grow toward that point throughout our time of life, but in the end, individuals are subject to the corporate body and to the historic timing in the divine plan. It is yet the object of our “hope.” We may have early experiences of certain manifestations of future blessings and glory, like Moses when his face glowed, but trying to hold on to such things is another matter. Even Moses experienced a “fading” glory (2 Cor. 3:7), for the time had not yet arrived for such things to be experienced fully.
So also is it with the full knowledge that is promised to us. In July 1986 I once was caught up for three days and entered into a place where I seemed to approach something like a state of full knowledge. Of course, only a few occasions arose where this knowledge was tested, so I have no way of knowing just how far I might take this. It is not that I knew everything consciously, but that when unanswerable questions arose, somehow I instinctively knew the answer. Answers were available and accessible for three days.
Yet my flesh was not ready for such an experience, and so after three days I begged for this to be lifted from me. It was like being in a state where I did not know if I were dead or alive. I now understand that my flesh (i.e., fleshly mind) was dead, or near dead, and it was not pleasant to whatever remaining flesh I still had.
On the evening of Sept. 2, 1986, I again entered that state for about three hours, a state of revelation where it seemed that I knew all things. Again, it was not pleasant. We all desire to be in such a state of being, not realizing that we are not ready to pay the price for such a condition. Like children, we want the blessings, but not the experience that is required to pay for those blessings.
This brief taste of full knowledge made it clear to me that I was not nearly as ready for this as I thought I was. Even so, it showed me the necessity of dying to the flesh in order to walk fully in that which has been promised to us.
Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:12, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” In those days, mirrors were not as clear as they are today. To see “face to face” refers to seeing clearly and with full knowledge of what a person looks like.
Paul uses this imagery in a different way in 2 Cor. 3:18 in regard to the transformational change now taking place in us even before the full change at the appearing of Christ. But here he contrasts the mirror with the veil in the previous verses.
28 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
The veil is the Old Covenant, which allows the glory of God to be only partially visible. By contrast, those who adhere to the New Covenant—believing the promises of God, rather than the promises/vows of men—see the glory of God as He speaks directly to us face to face. Speaking face to face is like looking into a mirror, where we begin to look like Jesus. We are transformed into His image until there is no difference. We become mirror images of Christ.
This passage does not speak of the time in which we become the perfect mirror image of Christ. Instead, Paul focuses on the transformational process that is going on even today. He makes it clear that this is done through the New Covenant, not the Old. Those who retain an Old Covenant perspective remain as their predecessors in Israel, when Moses hid the glory of God with a veil over his face.
It is obvious that those who do not accept the Mediator of the New Covenant are not going to follow His example, nor do they have any desire to be conformed to His image. Hence, they remain veiled and locked into the fleshly image of their earthly fathers, who begat them with corruptible seed.
Paul implies that to be conformed to the image of Christ is to take on the character of agape. No one can fully reach the goal of perfect agape love without removing the veil, for it is only by beholding His glory and (seeing Him as He really is) that we may be fully transformed in our character. Only then can we truly be like the God of Love.