In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul describes how the miraculous gifts of partial revelation given by the Holy Spirit were temporary in nature. He says gifts of prophecy “will be done away.” Paul specifies this will occur “when the perfect comes.” People disagree on what is this “perfect” thing Paul describes. It helps us to notice that Paul contrasts the perfect (or perhaps, “the complete”) with the partial revelation offered by three miraculous gifts—prophecy, tongues, and knowledge.
So, in the Corinthian church, gifted Christians could provide a message addressing some current situation, could teach a tidbit of God’s will on some topic, could utter a sentence or two adding to God’s revelation. These were helpful, but they were by nature only partial. They were a glimpse into the will of God.
The completed revelation of the New Testament Scriptures to the apostles and prophets (John 16:13, Ephesians 3:4) brings us the fullness of God’s instructions to mankind. Simply put, now that we live in an age when we have access to the books of the New Testament, we have answers to all our questions, we have direction for every decision, we have knowledge of everything God wishes to share with us.
OK, now to mirrors. Paul takes the difference between partial revelation spoken in the Corinthians’ assembly versus the complete revelation of God in the Scriptures, and illustrates it with the difference between looking at a face in a mirror versus looking at the face of a real person. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”
We have difficulty understanding the reference to seeing “in a mirror dimly.” After all, my bathroom mirror offers an all-too-clear view of every hair and pore. For a long Paul’s illustration made no sense to me, and I thought of it as perhaps peering into a fortune-teller’s crystal ball.
But in New Testament times, mirrors were sheets of metal (Exodus 38:8) polished as finely as they could manage, and subject to pitting and fogging from corrosion. The technology of silvered glass was not invented until later.
So, if you can imagine squinting to gain some clarity from the dimly reflected form in a crudely polished sheet of metal (like your reflection in a pond) you understand the limited, grainy view afforded. Now Paul’s metaphor makes sense! Partial miraculous revelation gave a limited view of God’s nature. Most of the features were too dark to see. Thanks be to God that now we see Him and His will clearly in the completed revelation. Stop waiting for God to speak to you in dreams and memos; start reading the book!
Here’s another passage where the Bible uses mirrors imagery. James 1:22-25 says,
Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
James is not speaking of an inadequate method of looking in a mirror, but the inherent inadequacy of looking in mirrors in his day, which were not only crude, but fairly rare. In our modern age, we see mirrors constantly—upon rising, throughout the day, before bed. Thanks to mirrors on every wall (and selfies) I have an extremely clear mental picture of my own ugly mug. I see my own face more frequently than I see many other people. I do not look at my face in a mirror and immediately forget what I look like.
A person in James’s impoverished audience might go months or years without seeing his own face in a mirror. Such infrequent glimpses would create no lasting mental picture.
Thus, if you are a hearer of the word but not a doer, you are a person looking into a mirror occasionally. What you see makes no impression. It is immediately forgotten. But if you obey God’s word, if you act on the instructions that you read, the image of God is firmly stamped upon your own life. You bear God’s nature with you every place you go. An obedient Christian beholds the face of God in actuality, and even reflects it upon others (2 Corinthians 3:18). –John Guzzetta