Through a Glass Darkly


"Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  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.  And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." (I Cor. 13:8-13)

I Corinthians 13 is among the most famous chapters in the Bible.  Its use is so common in wedding announcements  and bulletins that it is known even among those that never read the Bible or attend church.  The lessons of the chapter concerning the qualities of charity, compassion and love are clear enough.  But what about the rest of the chapter?  What about those verses referring to the passing away of miraculous gifts and seeing through a "glass darkly" versus "face to face"?  To what does this language refer?  Some have taken Paul's language of seeing through a "glass darkly" as referring to our lives upon the face of this dark and sinful globe, and that his use of the phrase "face to face" refers to when, in Heaven, we shall see God.  Does this interpretation bear scrutiny?  Probably not.  As we shall see, the better view is that Paul is referring to the Mosaic versus Christian age.

 The Two Covenants

If we would understand I Cor. 13:8-13, we must first understand its companion text, II Cor. 3:12-18: 

"Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: and not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.  But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.  Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.  Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.  But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."

Even a cursory glance at these verses will reveal their relationship with I Cor. 13:8-13.  They were written by the same apostle, to the same church and use the same images.  In both texts, Paul refers to a mirror or "glass."  In I Cor. 13:12, he says they see through a glass "darkly."  In II Cor. 3:18, he says they behold as in a glass with "open face."   That Paul is referring to the same things in both texts is almost beyond dispute. Although his language seems furtive, the context shows that Paul is making allusion to the Old and New Testaments.

The Corinthian church was being troubled by false teachers from the Judaizers.  The church at Corinth had given these Jews a forum to teach and they were subverting the gospel and seeking to turn the Corinthians away from Paul. (II Cor. 2:17; 10:10,11; 11:4,13-15) The Judaizers were preaching "another Jesus." (I Cor. 11:4)  The Judaizers were gainsaying Paul's apostleship, twisting the fact Paul did not accept money to preach, saying it was an insult the Corinthians. They also called his credentials as an apostle into question, saying he was not an eloquent speaker. (II Cor. 11:5-12;12:12,13; cf. I Cor. 2:1-4)  Thus, one of Paul's purposes in his second letter to the Corinthians was to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian system and its complete incompatibility with the Old Law.  Paul wants the Corinthians to separate themselves from the Judaizers  (II Cor. 6:14-18), his thorn in the flesh (II Cor. 12:7), and be reconciled to him and, through his ministry, be reconciled to Christ and God.  (II Cor. 5:19,20;7:2)  

It is against this background of the Judaizers troubling the church that Paul wrote II Corinthians, chapter three, comparing the ministry of Old and New Covenants.  In the course of the chapter, Paul moves back and forth from one covenant to the other, comparing the attributes of each: The Old Law Paul says was of the "letter" (i.e., "fleshly ink"); the New is written with the Spirit of God.  (vv. 3,6)  The Old was written and engraven in stone; the New upon the believer's heart.  (v. 3)  The Old, Paul called the "ministration of death" (v. 7); the New, the "ministration of righteousness."  (v. 9) The one system gendered death, the other life.  (v. 6) The glory attending the giving of the Old was fading (vv. 7,13;  cf. Heb. 8:13); the glory of the New surpassing.  Paul concludes, saying, Moses put a "veil upon his face" so the children of Israel could not see clearly the end or purpose of law (v. 13), but that he (Paul) used "great plainness of speech" in declaring the gospel of Christ. (v.12) In the gospel, believers behold the glory of the Lord with "open" (i.e., "unveiled") face (v. 18), but the mind of the Jews remained veiled and blinded in reading the Old Law. (vv. 14, 15)

The Old Testament Concealed

A familiar saying has it that the "Old Testament is the  New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed."  If this saying is attributable to any particular passage of scripture it is to II Cor. 3:13, above.  In saying Moses put a "veil upon his face," Paul avers to the fact that there lay concealed with in the types and shadows of the Mosaic law prophetic images of the substitutionary death of Christ.  "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect...For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins."  (Heb.10:1,4) Because the mystery of the gospel was concealed and not openly declared, the Jews could not "steadfastly look to the end" of the law:  They could not see that the law was merely transitional, to lead men to Christ, but mistook it as an end in itself.  "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.  For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law to all that believe."  (Rom. 10:1-4; cf. Gal. 3:24)  The Jews mistook the law as an end in itself; a perfect and complete system of righteousness and not the shadow that it was.  Hence, they did not submit to the righteousness of God in Christ.  


From what has been said, it is plain that the apostle's reference to Moses putting a veil upon his face is merely a metaphor for the types and shadows of the law; the prophetic aspect of the temple service and other Old Testament laws pointing to Christ. But if Moses put a veil upon his face, Paul used "great plainness of speech" (vv. 12,18), depicting plainly the glory of God in the "open" (i.e., "unveiled") face of Christ.  In other words, the apostles did not use types and shadows to convey the message of Christ's redeeming blood. Their job was not to conceal the mystery of the gospel, but to reveal it.  Thus, when Paul says that they behold the glory of the Lord as in a mirror clearly, with open face, we understand that he is simply averring to the fact that the gospel is not veiled beneath types and shadows like the Mosaic law. With this explanation of II Cor. 3:12-18 in mind, we are prepared to look at I Cor. 13:8-13.

New Testament Revealed

The context of I Corinthians, chapters 12-14 revolves around the purpose and use of spiritual gifts.  In Cor.13:8-13 Paul explains the purpose and duration of miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, likening them to the stuff of childhood, saying that upon attaining maturity they would be done away.  The time of childhood reasoning and understanding Paul describes in terms of seeing through a "glass darkly;" but upon maturity, "face to face."  (vv. 11,12)  Based upon his comparison of the two covenants in II Cor. 3:12-18, it seems clear that Paul is referring to them again here.

God's people were in their infancy under the law, but would come to maturity in Christ.  "Now I say, that the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.  Even so we, when we were children were in bondage under the elements of the world."  (Gal. 3:24; 4:1-3) The period of infancy that obtained under the law corresponds to the childhood Paul mentions in I Cor. 13:11.  The spiritual gifts associated with the early church were given for the very purpose of equipping God's people with the doctrine and ethical teaching necessary to bring them to majority; to an understanding of man’s need of a Savior and that that Savior is Christ.  These gifts were distributed in the beginning of the Christian era during the final days of the Mosaic age. "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy."  (Acts 2:17,18; cf. Joel 2:28-32)  The "latter days" of the Mosaic age was the beginning of the Christian era.  The two overlapped by approximately 40 years, or from Pentecost to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  During this period, the infancy that attended bondage of the law was being brought to maturity in Christ:

"And he gave some apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Till we all come to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. That we henceforth be no more children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine...but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him that is the head, even Christ."  (Eph. 4:11-15)

Note that the Christian era did not mark the beginning of spiritual gifts, but their end. The gift of prophecy and power of the Holy Ghost had existed under the Mosaic law, as evidenced by the powerful works of the prophets, but came to completion and ceased in Christ.  This is an important fact often overlooked.  The infancy Paul refers to in Ephesians is often assumed to belong solely to the church, and somehow different from the infancy under the Mosaic law. But this is incorrect.  The infancy that characterized the early church was the same infancy that obtained under the law. It is the doctrine of the gospel that brings those who were children under the law to the "measure and stature" of Christ. Hence when Paul characterizes spiritual gifts as belonging to childhood in I Cor. 13:11, he is saying that they were associated with the era belonging to the Old Law which was about to "vanish away."  (Heb. 8:13) If this is correct, then Paul's language in I Cor. 13:12 about seeing through a glass "darkly" may be clearly seen to refer to the indistinct image and shadows cast by divine revelation during the pendency of the Mosaic age.

 Through a Glass Darkly Versus Face-to-Face

The term "darkly" in I Cor. 13:12 in the Greek is enigma (i.e., "in a riddle").  Opposite of seeing through a glass darkly, is seeing "face to face."  (v.12) These correspond to the "veiled" speech of Moses, and the "great plainness of speech" and "open face" characteristic of the gospel in II Cor. 3:12-18. The Hebrew writer says substantially the same thing: "God, who a sundry times and in divers manners spake in past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son."  (Heb 1:1) That is, God spoke to the father in types and metaphors, but now speaks to us openly and clearly (i.e.,"face to face") through Christ.  That this is the correct meaning of the phrase "face to face" is easily demonstrated.

In Numbers chapter twelve the story is recorded how Miriam and Aaron reproached Moses for having married an Ethiopian woman.  This displeased the Lord, who rebuked the two with the following words:

"And he said, Hear now my words:  If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.  My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house.  With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold. How then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?"  (Num. 12:6-8)

Notice that the phrase "mouth to mouth" and speech that is plain or "apparent" is set in opposition to "dark speeches."  This language corresponds with I Cor. 13:12.  The phrase "mouth to mouth" is equated with seeing "face to face," and "dark speeches" equates with "seeing through a glass darkly."  Similar usage occurs in Exodus 33:11, where it is said that the Lord spoke unto Moses "face to face" as a man speaks to his friend.  This does not mean that Moses saw the face of God, for "there shall no man see me, and live."  (Ex. 33:20)  Rather, use of the phrase "face to face" and "mouth to mouth" signify that the Lord communed openly with Moses, perhaps telling him plainly of the coming substitutionary death of Christ, whereas God communicated the plan of salvation to other prophets through more obscure, indirect means.  Jesus himself made a similar remark to the apostles shortly before his crucifixion, saying that he had concealed nothing from them.  (Jn. 15:15; 16:29) 

Although God spoke "mouth to mouth" and "face to face" with Moses, Moses put a veil on his face when speaking to the sons of Israel.  (Ex. 32,34; Deut. 9:7-21;10:1-5)  But the veil woven from the law of Moses is taken away in the gospel, and we behold the glory of God’s salvation openly in the face of Christ. "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  (II Cor. 4:6)  The "shining" in the hearts of the apostles was the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; the glory of God in the face of Jesus is the redemption he wrought in his death, burial and resurrection. 

That Which is Perfect

Some will ask, Why does Paul say in I Cor. 13:12 that they saw "darkly," but in II Cor. 3:18 he says we see with "open face?"  Doesn't Paul contradict himself?  This can be explained in two ways.  First, Paul's use of "darkly" in I Cor. 13:12 versus "open face" in II Cor. 3:18 reflects the different emphasis of the two passages. In I Cor. 13:8-13, Paul is emphasizing the temporary nature of spiritual gifts and their identification with the age that was passing away.  In II Cor. 3:8-18, the emphasis is upon the surpassing glory of the gospel of Christ.  The age to which spiritual gifts belonged was a time of types and shadows wherein man saw only darkly the mystery of the gospel and the glory of the age to come.  On the other hand, in the gospel, God causes the radiance of his glory to shine openly in the face of Christ.  Jesus has brought his blood within the veil (Heb. 9:12,24); the glory of God's presence has illuminated his skin, which now shines openly in the face of Jesus, our High Priest, as he blesses the people.  (Ex. 34:29-35)

Second, Paul's use of "darkly" versus "face to face" reflects the "already but not yet" character of the first century A.D.  It must be borne in mind that the church was in a period of transition.  That which is perfect was indeed come; however, the withdrawal of the spiritual gifts was gradual. They could not be taken away until the full revelation of the gospel was given.  The apostles needed the gifts to finish up the sacred canon.  Moreover, the gifts were God's testimony that they were his messengers.  Thus, while God's plan of redemption was perfect from the cross, the gifts, like the moon, would gradually wane and vanish away. 


During the pendency of the Mosaic age, man saw through a glass darkly.  The mystery of the gospel was veiled in Moses, but is done away in Christ.  The gifts of the Spirit belonged to the latter days of the world-age identified with the types and shadows of the Mosaic law. Their existence testified to the fact that that which was complete had not yet fully come. "For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did."  (Heb. 7:19; cf. 7:11; 8:7) Just as the types and shadows of the law found fulfillment in Jesus, so the gifts of the Spirit found completion in Christ also.  Their utility ceased when the body of believers was come to majority; the age set by the Father for inheritance in the kingdom of Christ.  (Gal. 4:1-4; Eph. 4:11-13)  Childhood has yielded to maturity; and Christians now behold the glory of God "face to face" in the open, unveiled face of Jesus.

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