Verse 12 – For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Paul now moves to explain further the point he is making (γὰρ, “For”). To do this he takes us from an illustration of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, from immaturity to maturity (v.11), to an illustration regarding seeing one’s own reflection (v.12). Once again there is a contrast, this time it is repeated twice, once in illustration (v.12a) and once in explanation (v.12b). The first time Paul sets forth the illustration; the second sets forth the point being illustrated. The contrast involves the difference between “now” (ἄρτι) and “then” (τότε). The difference is as simple as it appears. The first indicates the present time; the second a future time.

The previous illustration contrasted “a child” (νήπιος) and “a man” (ἀνήρ). Here the first line of comparison is between seeing one’s reflection “in a mirror dimly” (δι᾽ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι) and seeing “face to face” (πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον). Let’s consider the former. The noun for “mirror” (ἔσοπτρον) is used in the NT only here and in James 1:23. James uses it to speak of the temporary nature of the knowledge gained by looking into a mirror (i.e., he goes away “and at once forgets what he was like,” v.24b). But here the point is not the temporary nature of the knowledge, but the imperfect nature of the image seen in the mirror. The technology of mirrors was not then what it is today. In Paul’s day mirrors were generally made of flattened, polished metal (like bronze) and the result was that one’s reflected image was less that crisp and exact. Corinth was renowned for its manufacture of such mirrors.

We generally think of seeing ourselves “in” a mirror, but the preposition here (διά) more literally means “through.” It could perhaps carry the idea of seeing “through” the medium of reflection in a mirror. The NET Bible suggests that the preposition should be read as “through [= using].”

The perception presently under consideration is expressed further through a prepositional phrase (ἐν αἰνίγματι, “dimly”). The noun (αἴνιγμα) most literally refers to “that which requires special acumen to understand because it is expressed in puzzling fashion” and thus might be considered a “riddle.”[1] Such an image is an enigma that needs to be decoded and a riddle that needs to be solved. The preposition ἐν ought to be rendered “in.” Thus the perception provided in the imperfect reflection of the metal mirrors of the time was of oneself “in a riddle” (cf. NLT: “puzzling reflections in a mirror”). That is to say, one could only see oneself “indirectly.”[2] And this “because one sees not the thing itself, but its mirror-image.”[3] That image in the mirror does not constitute looking myself in the face, but only looking at a reflection of my face.

In contrast (δὲ, “but”) to such imperfect representation in a mirror, Paul that at a later time (τότε, “then”) we will see “face to face” (πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον). Now instead of representative knowledge by reflection in a mirror, we have immediacy of personal knowledge through “face to face” encounter.

Paul may be alluding to Numbers 12:8 where God confronts Miriam and Aaron for speaking ill of Moses. He says, “With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles [οὐ δι᾽ αἰνιγμάτων, LXX], and he beholds the form of the LORD.” Paul may have had something of this kind of “face to face” knowledge in mind when he later wrote to the Corinthians: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Having set forth the illustration of the mirror in the first half of the verse, Paul now proceeds to the explanation in the latter half of the verse. Paul makes two definitive statements, one about present experience and another about a kind of experience to come later. He says, “Now I know in part” (ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους). The temporal adverb (ἄρτι, “Now”) and the prepositional phrase (ἐκ μέρους, “in part”) are identical to those just used in the illustration. The verb is repeated from verse 9 where he said, “we know in part.” As noted above, the verb tends to stress the personal and experiential nature of the knowledge. The form here is identical to that in verse 9, except for one subtle change. Tellingly, as Paul begins his explanation, he transitions from the first-person plural (“we”) of the illustration to the first person singular (“I”) for the explanation. Paul, the great apostle, admits that the knowledge he possesses is only partial. He is the very one who will later disclose to the Corinthians—though in an indirect way—that he had experienced “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1) and had been “caught up to the third heaven” (v.2a) and “paradise (v.3a). But even in these exalted experiences, he admits, there were things about them that eluded his knowledge (vv.2b, 3b). Despite an ecstatic experience that could dwarf the ecstatic experiences the Corinthians so valued, Paul admitted here and again later that it left him with only knowledge “in part.” This is an amazing concession made by a man who had as intimate an access to God’s presence as any human being in history, yet he admitted that his ability to comprehend it was limited in some sense.

To this Paul added a conclusion: “then I shall know fully” (τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι). There is a contrast (δὲ) here that the ESV avoids rendering in the English. But some translations preserve it (“but,” e.g., KJV, NKJV, NLT). The temporal adverb is repeated (τότε, “then”) from the first part of the verse. The verb is a compound (and thus intensified) form of the verb used in the first statement of explanation (γινώσκω, “to know”). The compound word is comprised of ἐπί (“upon”) and γινώσκω (“to know”). It points to a knowledge which is full, deep, and complete.[4] Present knowledge through God’s revelation of Himself in Christ and the written Word of God is true knowledge, though it is partial. It will be found to be in accord with all that is ultimately true but is presently unknown. When this promised fullness of knowledge arrives it will show that what had been previously revealed was all along in accord with that fuller reality which for a time lay behind a veil of secrecy, available only to God Himself. But the promise is that we shall one day come into possession of this fullness of knowledge.

Paul then expands upon and explains more completely this full knowledge. It will be, the apostle says, “as I have been fully known” (καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην). The further insight is set forth by way of a comparison (καθὼς, “as”). In origin it served as a compound of the simpler comparative (“as”), being originally a compound of κατά (“down”) and ὥς (“as”).[5] The result was an intensified sense of a deeper or more emphatic comparison. It indicates a comparison “in accordance with a degree as specified by the context.”[6] The ESV renders the conjunction καὶ as an intensive (“even,” cf. NIV, NRSV). The NASB renders it as an addition (“also,” cf. NKJV). The NLT renders it in a temporal sense (“now”). Some scholars believe it an unnecessary overuse of verbiage to make the point.[7] The verb is a repeat of the first line, the compounded ἐπί (“upon”) and γινώσκω (“to know”). The change in form is significant, however. The first was a future tense, speaking of a knowledge that is beyond and before us as believers, a knowledge that will only be ours in our fully redeemed and glorified state. The verb here is in the aorist tense, pointing to knowledge that is a settled fact in the present. This belongs to God alone. The former verb is in the middle voice, specifying the inward and personal nature of the knowledge God’s people will one day possess by His grace. The present verb is passive, pointing to the fact that God is the one who does the knowing, and that the believer is the object of that knowledge.

In the present God deals with me according to full and perfect knowledge, but for now I trust Him with divinely given and reliable, though limited, knowledge of Him and His ways in the world He has created. But one day I will know Him as He now fully knows me.

But this raises questions! Does this erase my finitude? For how can a finite creature, even a fully redeemed and glorified one, fully know a being who is infinite?  Is it a cop-out to reply, “I don’t know, I’ll have to get back to you on that from the position of eternity”?

[1] BDAG, 196.1.

[2] Ibid., 3156.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Briberg, 163; cf. BDAG, 2935.1a.

[5] Friberg, 14592.

[6] Louw-Nida, 78.53.

[7] BDAG, 3845.2.c.