“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
In this most famous of Biblical chapters, often confusingly used in celebrations of romantic love at weddings, the writer, early Christian church planter Paul, is considering spiritual gifts, not wedding gifts. A little context: in the previous chapter, Paul wrote of various spiritual gifts as ways of revealing the person and work of Jesus. In that light, the Christian love described in chapter thirteen is praised and valued because it serves the same purpose. When Jesus’ followers show love, they’re not just showing virtue, they’re showing God.
But how well does God get shown off, really?
God being revealed is a tricky thing outside of paradise. Here below, there always remains a hidden-ness to God, and even when we experience His presence, it’s often indirect, vulnerable to doubts, or not perfectly clear if it’s the Spirit’s voice or our personal conscience or the remembered motherly voice speaking annoyingly-sound moral advice. Indeed, we see God only as “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV).
I used to understand this passage as if human beings were trying to catch a glimpse of God through a dirty window. We could kind of see God, if our brains filled in the parts blocked out by the cobwebs and smears of sin. Given the challenges, the best we could do is gain a piecemeal and distorted picture of God.
Or, if we’re thinking in terms of mirrors, maybe this passage means that we see God indirectly, by looking in a reflection, because God is a kind of holy Medusa and we sinners may be turned to pillars of salt if we dare look directly into His blazing-coal eyes.
Or we could recall that, in Genesis, human beings are made in God’s image, and so there is something about humans that fairly represents the being of God. If humans just look in a mirror, they are looking at someone who shares certain characteristics with God. Then 1 Corinthians says the practice of Christian love is an exercise that reveals the image of God in us, and therefore God. However, given that the image of God in humans is corroded by sin, we see only a “poor reflection.”
But how do the above interpretative options fit with what Paul says about how practicing love will outrun and outlast all other forms of revealing God? Is even Christian love only a distorted or marred reflection of the love and being of God? Should we then accept such love because it’s as good as it gets for now?
I’d like to give more credit to Christian love than that, so let’s do a little digging about mirrors and their use in the ancient near east.
Easy pickings: The NIV text note states that the mirror referred to was probably a polished bronze mirror, and the NET Bible note adds that Corinth was known for high-quality bronze mirrors. So Paul is using a contextually-fitting metaphor.
Add a convenient coincidence: The week I was studying this passage for a sermon, I also happened to be reading a book about the cultural history of mirrors (Mirror, Mirror, by Pendergrast). There was an entire chapter devoted to the use of mirrors as mystical objects. For example, some ancient philosophers thought mirrors revealed the soul. Mirrors were also used for divination by “scrying,” which was widely practiced in the Mediterranean region and Greco-Roman times by temple priests and other religious functionaries. Scrying involved putting oneself into a trance and focusing attention for hours into a reflective surface like a bowl of water or a mirror. Want to know if the rival general was preparing to make war? Find a good scryer and give them a few hours and the right motivation. Desire to peek into next year? Visit the temple priest and arrange a viewing. And most relevant to 1 Corinthians 13, if one wanted to see spiritual beings, consult an accomplished scryer or even learn to scry and you might catch glimpses of angels or even God.
If scrying is what’s behind 1 Corinthians 13:12, the basic message is still the same (that Christian love reveals God), but the reliability and authenticity of Christian love in increased. Paul could be suggesting that Christian love is a stronger and clearer revelation of God than all the ancient secrets, soothsayers, and magicians can do to scry the divine. Who needs to scry for hidden knowledge of God when the most accurate knowledge of God is available to the public through the way that Christians love?
But wait, if Christian love is really so revealing of God, and if the mirrors of Corinth were so highly-regarded, why write of a “poor reflection”? If you say Christian love is better revelation of God then other gifts like a Tesla in “insane mode” is better than a limping college-kid 1999 Corolla, why then finish up saying that the Tesla actually is only sort-of cool? It’s a good thing, then, that “poor reflection” is actually a poor translation. What Paul writes is, literally, “through a mirror in a riddle.”
This word “riddle” was frequently used in the ancient world to describe the way the gods’ would reveal themselves to humans. “Riddles” from God could include oracles, visions, and prophetic messages (Biblically, see Numbers 12:8).[i]
Given this, it’s not that Christian love is a poor, good-as-it-gets, view of God. It’s a way God has chosen to reveal Himself to the world through His new band of prophets. That’s an inspiring mission! When you love with God’s love, you are genuinely making God known. Christian love, of course, remains secondary to God’s love and only partially reveals Him, but it’s true to the original, enough so that when God is one day fully revealed, what has already been divinely revealed in this world through the love of His people will match up with the real thing in the next.
But you know what? The Bible already said all this elsewhere:
I John 4:11-12 “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
[i] From the entry on the Greek word “ainigma” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
Image credit: “Cloud Gate Self-Portrait,” David J LaPorte, CC 2010.