The Meaning of ‘For Now We See Through a Glass, Darkly; But Then Face To Face’

Literature



By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ is a famous quotation from the Bible. But where in the Bible does it appear, in what context, and what does it mean? Let’s take a closer look at the origins of this well-known quotation and discover precisely what it means.

This quotation is from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, in the New Testament. The two Books of Corinthians form part of a suite of books from the New Testament known as the Pauline epistles: those letters written by St Paul (or attributed to him, at least) to various churches and early Christians. In this case, St Paul – and his co-author of the epistle, Sosthenes – are addressing the early church at Corinth, in southern Greece.

St Paul is thought to have founded a church at Corinth in around AD 51, during his second missionary voyage. He is thought to have written 1 Corinthians some time between AD 55 and 57, while he was staying at Ephesus.

Specifically, it’s chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians which is relevant for the ‘through a glass darkly’ quotation. This single chapter alone gave us several of the most famous quotations from the Bible: the first verse of chapter 13 begins, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’, while later in the same chapter we get a reference to faith removing (not moving) mountains.

Indeed, the whole of this chapter is regarded by many Bible commentators as being important in conceptualising the idea of agape or divine love (love of God as distinct from erotic or romantic love; perhaps the nearest common English word is charity).

But it’s verses 9-12 of chapter 13 that are relevant to us here, for these contextualise the ‘for now we see through a glass darkly’ quotation:

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.

13 Corinthians 13:12 reads: ‘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 original Koine Greek text reads βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, blepomen gar arti di esoptrou en ainigmati, with esoptrou often being translated as ‘glass’, as in ‘looking-glass’ or mirror. This seems more a likely meaning of esoptrou than ‘lens’, since the mirror-interpretation echoes earlier Jewish rabbinical writings on the אספקלריה (or aspaklaria), rendered into Latin as specularia.

In any case, the meaning of St Paul’s words is fairly clear. In this famous statement, St Paul reminds Christ’s followers that they will only understand God fully when they die and go to heaven. The image is at once vivid and memorable: if we try to see through an obscure piece of glass, our vision will be clouded and imperfect. But no glass, no barrier of any kind, will be necessary when we die and come before God ‘face to face’.

The ‘face to face’ reference suggests that ‘mirror’ is the correct sense of ‘glass’ which St Paul meant. If someone is behind us as we gaze into a mirror, and we are attempting to see them, a cloudy or obscure mirror is going to hinder our vision. But when we are able to turn and face them, we have no need of the mirror, obscure or otherwise.

With this in mind, the verse which precedes the ‘through a glass darkly’ quotation provides another analogy for this experience of knowing God only after death:

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.

In spiritual terms, dying and going to heaven is the soul’s equivalent of ‘growing up’: we attain spiritual maturity only when we leave behind our earthly existence and see God face to face in the afterlife.

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ doesn’t quite conclude chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The next – and final – verse of the chapter gives us yet another classic and oft-quoted line from the New Testament: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’

But that’s a quotation for another time.

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