An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:2: Knowing As I Am Known

By Max E. Tice

Since charismatic zealotry has been the rage of the last three decades, the need to grasp and defend God’s truth on issues related to the movement should be apparent to all disciples of Christ. Not only must we answer staunch devotees of the glossolalia (tongues-speaking) fad, we must also aid the unsettled querist as well. A quick and decisive response to arguments advocating the perpetuation of charismatic gifts may cool the fervor of some pseudo-gifted enthusiast or deter some honest inquisitor (possibly a brother in Christ) from falling prey to this mania.

Obviously, a complete expose of Neo-Pentecostal apologetics exceeds the bounds of the present study. Nonetheless, an inspection of one small portion of the charismatic dispute is a realistic objective. Attention will be centered upon one of the most debated passages in the controversy.

As most readers are aware, many brethren consider 1 Corinthians 13:8 one of the strongest proof texts attesting to the current cessation of supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Ironically, the charismatic camp considers it the opposite. Exponents of the latter movement see it as irrefutable evidence that these gifts are still operative among Christians today. Differences in perception of this crucial text result from disagreements over the identity of “that which is perfect” (v. 10). While many see it as a reference to completed revelation, others scoff at this position as ludicrous. They see it as a clear reference to Christ (the perfect one) or to the perfect age which he will usher in at his return.

As the two opposing sides meet, the conflict begins. A zealous brother may argue that the expression “that which” is not “he who” and, therefore, cannot be applied to Jesus. If he knows a little Greek, he may point out that this expression (to teleion) is also neuter in the original language. This may be met with the response that Matthew 1:20 and 1 John 1:1 plainly apply the neuter gender to Jesus [to and ho (nominative, singular, neuter of hos) respectively].

From here the battle may move to contextual considerations, The argument is made that the “perfect” does not necessarily refer to one’s character. It may be rendered as “the whole” or “complete.” Since it stands as the antithesis of partial knowledge and partial prophecy (v. 9), it is urged that Paul must have had complete revelation of knowledge and prophecy in mind. At this point, the opposing side rallies with what appears to be a powerful counterattack. It is time for the “unanswerable” passage. Verse 12 is brought into the discussion. The KJV renders the latter as follows:

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 ASV, NASV, and NIV may seem to make this counterpunch even more devastating by rendering epignosomai as “I shall know fully.”

From this text the Neo-Pentecostal apologist now forges the following argument: “We do not yet see Jesus face to face. Neither do we fully know anything, much less know ourselves as God knows us. Therefore, the perfect has not yet come, and this means that miraculous gifts have not ceased.”

Well, is this the knockout punch? What can be said about verse 12? Although it has perplexed many Bible students, it is not the validation of present-day charismatic gifts which some think it is. The truth is that such arguments made off the verse demonstrate shallow analysis. First of all, Paul does not say one word about seeing Jesus or God face to face. The key to understanding the meaning is to take a closer look at the term “glass.” What kind of glass does Paul have in mind? The answer is – none at all. The Greek word for glass is esoptrou and means “mirror.” Since silvered glass was not invented until the 13th century, a modern-day mirror is not in view at all. The ancients used polished metal for mirrors. These gave imperfect reflections of objects, which is conveyed here in the term “darkly” (Greek: ainigmati). Thus, Paul has introduced an analogy which pictures early Christians looking into an imperfect mirror and seeing an imperfect reflection. Whose face would be in the mirror in this analogy? God’s? Christ’s? Of course not. Yet, the popular Pentecostal explanation has Paul and others looking into a mirror in order to see the literal face of Jesus or God? Incredible! The true meaning will be evident shortly.

Before saying more about the mirror, something should be said about the expression “know fully” which is used in many translations. This is an accurate representation of the Greek word. However, people often draw the wrong conclusion from it. It is often argued that nobody can know anything fully in this life. Thus, Paul must refer to a time after Christ’s return. This may sound impressive. However, it is inaccurate. The fact is that the Bible repeatedly uses this same Greek word translated “know fully” for knowledge we can have in this life. In Romans 1:32 Paul uses the word to describe the knowledge that the Gentiles had possessed of God’s moral law. In 1 Timothy 4:3 he uses it for the knowledge of truth which enables a person to give thanks for his food. Colossians 1:6 applies it to the knowledge of God’s grace which the Colossians already had. Peter uses it in 2 Peter 2:21 for knowledge of the way of righteousness which apostates possessed, but ignored in turning back to the world. Many other examples could be cited. However, this should suffice to demonstrate that the “know fully” argument is fallacious.

Finally, what is meant by knowing “even as I am known”? Many people assume that this refers to knowing God or to knowing ourselves as well as God knows us. Yet, the text says nothing about such an idea. An alternative explanation which better fits the context is to see this expression as the culmination of the mirror analogy. Other explanations render Paul’s statement as nonsensical. They have Paul introducing an analogy and then dropping it without ever making a point. On the other hand, if the words in question are seen as the completion of Paul’s picture, they make a great deal of sense. Consider the position of someone who had never seen his own face, except as reflected by a piece of polished brass. He would not know himself as well as everyone else who saw his face directly. If he could somehow get a clearer picture (as with our mirrors), he would see himself (externally) as others saw him. He would know that part of himself as he was known by other people. It would be a face-to-face meeting with self.

Someone may ask, “What is Paul’s point in such an analogy?” It is not that he will one day get to know himself better. What would this have to do with a context that is discussing the cessation of revelations, prophecies, and tongues? The point is that Paul would one day know something better than he knew it at the time 1 Corinthians was written. That something certainly could be completed revelation, no matter how much modern charismatic advocates scoff at the idea. This means that verse 12 does not prove that the “perfect” is yet to come.

Guardian of Truth XXXV; 5, pp. 147-148
March 7, 1991