[Note: I've blogged about First Corinthians 13.1-3 and 13.4-7. This post is the third (and final) in that series.]
I've spent the last week or so meditating on this particular portion of Scripture, 1Co 13.8-13. I'm still in awe when I read it or look at it.
I think there are a few different parts within the larger section of 1Co 13.8-13. I'll discuss each of these sections. Recall the end of the previous section, though: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Most translations place a paragraph break here. And the following text is:
Ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει·
εἴτε δὲ προφητεῖαι, καταργηθήσονται·
εἴτε γλῶσσαι, παύσονται·
εἴτε γνῶσις, καταργηθήσεται.
Paul sets up a contrast here between love, which never ends/fails, and things that "pass away" or are destroyed:
Love never ends
as for prophecies, they will pass away
as for tongues, they will cease
as for knowledge, it will pass away
Love endures, while the other things Paul has been discussing do not. Then Paul continues:
ἐκ μέρους γὰρ γινώσκομεν
καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν·
ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον,
τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται.
I love the alliteration in the ESV's translation here:
For we know in part
and we prophesy in part;
but when the perfect comes,
the partial will pass away.
A few things to notice. First, the reiteration of "know in part" (knowledge will pass away) and "prophesy in part" (prophecies will pass away) and the repetition of this "partial" stuff passing away. Also interesting to me is the "perfect" (completion, fulfilment) replacing the "partial". The natural contrast would be "whole" to "partial", I'd think. But that's not the case here.
Now, I haven't read any commentaries on this passage, I'm just considering the words, phrases and larger connections and working through the text, making conclusions that seem appropriate to me based on the current context. I need to make sure you know this before I get to the next section. I don't think I'm "off the reservation" but I don't know how others approach this passage. So I don't know how novel this next bit will be.
I think the next two "sections" (as I call them) are attempts at examples of how the stuff of the now — the partial — will be superceded by the perfect. I also think that the perfect refers to when Christ returns and sets all things right in the world. Until that blessed and glorious day arrives, love (as described in 1Co 13.4-7) is to be the primary motive for our actions as Christians. Now, before you decide that I'm wacky (or that I'm onto something) consider the next section:
ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος,
ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος,
ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος,
ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος·
ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ,
κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.
And, in the ESV:
When I was a child
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
When I became a man
I gave up childish ways.
Consider that in light of the partial/perfect theme from before. The child (partial) has his own ways. Ways of speaking, thinking and reasoning. When the child becomes an adult, those former ways of speaking, thinking and reasoning are outmoded. The adult is the completion/fulfilment of the child, thus the adult — while the childish ways served him well as a child — has moved on to the ways of the adult.
I think a similar contrast occurs in the first part of the next section; and a restatement of the partial/perfect theme occurs in the second part of the section. Paul is really doing his best to drive this point home.
βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι᾽ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι,
τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον·
ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους,
τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι
καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.
And again, the ESV:
For now we see in a mirror dimly,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part;
but then I shall know fully
even as I have been fully known.
What we see in a mirror, when we look into it, is only a two-dimensional reflection of what is three-dimensional reality. That's the difference between what we can see now, and what we will see then. We have foreshadowing, to be sure, but it is at best a smudged mirror compared to the clarity with which we will witness whatever it is that is in store for us on that great and blessed day.
Then Paul sums it up, restating vv. 9-10. What he knows now is only partial, what he will know then (when the partial has been made perfect, or completed) will be full — in much the same way that the perfect God now knows us fully.
Finally, Paul ends the section with:
Νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη,
τὰ τρία ταῦτα·
μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη.
Again, in the ESV:
So now faith, hope and love abide,
but the greatest of these is love.
How is love greater than faith and hope? I think faith and hope are necessary to us today because our knowledge and understanding are only partial. If our knowledge was made complete, if our understanding was such that we knew the very mind of God; faith and hope wouldn't be necessary. We need faith and hope now until we see the fulfilment/completion/perfection of those last days, of Christ's return. We need them strongly, and thanks be to God for giving them to us through the Holy Spirit.
We have, however, been shown the fulfilment of love. Christ died for us. He underwent the ultimate penalty of death and seperation from the Father so that we might be forgiven and saved. He did this of his own will, of his own accord, because he loved (and loves) us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Ro 5.6-8)
This is love. This is the greatest thing. And it is the more excellent way—by far. (cf. 1Co 12.27-31)
Update (2005-08-22): Stephen C. Carlson (Hypotyposeis) writes in the comments responding to my 3D vs 2D mirror analogy:
That's definitely true, but not, I think, Paul's reason for the analogy. Think of mirror technology in antiquity, especially how most mirrors were made of highly polished disks of bronze amd how dim your reflection looks in those...
I read something similar in the NIGTC volume on First Corinthians (read the commentary after I wrote the post). Apparently Corinth was also somewhat reknowned for their bronze mirrors (Thiselton, NIGTC 1Cor p. 1068). And that does account for the use of 'dimly', and more probably reflects (pun intended) what Paul was thinking when he wrote the lines. I was thinking more on how to make sense of the mirror image looking at the same words from the 20th century. And the underlying contrast is still the same — the mirror in some manner reflects what is real, but it is most certainly not real. Some aspects of the real (or complete, or 'perfect') are revealed, but other aspects are concealed and even obscured. When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. We'll have no need of mirrors or reflections or reconstructions based on partially known things.