1 Corinthians 13:12
Chapter 13 (12:31b-14:1a) in 1 Corinthians contains several occurrences of the verb ginw/skw (“know”) and the related noun gnw=si$ (“knowledge”), and is instructive for demonstrating a distinctly Christian orientation regarding knowledge which, especially as found in Paul’s letters to believers, serves to counteract certain gnostic (or Gnostic) tendencies. It follows upon the discussion in chapters 8-12, and serves as a fitting climax, with poetic and hymnic qualities, beauty and power, which have made it justly famous. Indeed, it is a veritable hymn to Love—that is, love according to the Christian ideal and teaching—which has as its basic theme the superiority of love over all spiritual gifts (including knowledge) and other Christian actions or virtues. Spiritual gifts are dealt with comprehensively in chapter 12, while knowledge is addressed in the discussion of chaps. 8-10 (on the question of food that had been consecrated in a pagan religious setting). Verses 1-3 of chapter 8 formulate the basic instruction which Paul restates in chapter 13:
“And about the (food)s slaughtered (as offering)s to images, we have seen [i.e. known] that ‘we all hold knowledge’. Knowledge blows up [i.e. inflates], but love builds up—if any(one) considers (himself) to have known any(thing), he does not (yet) know as it is necessary (for him) to know; but if any(one) loves God, this (person) is known under [i.e. by] Him.”
The priority (and superiority) of love is clearly stated, and is expressed, in practical terms, through the remainder of chaps. 8-10 and on into 11-12. The importance of love as a guiding principle for Christian thought and behavior takes on special significance in Paul’s letters in light of his teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). For believers in Christ, the Law no longer has the same binding authority it previously had for Israelites and Jews; in its place, Christians are now to be guided primarily by two different sources: (1) the presence of the Holy Spirit, and (2) the example (and teaching) of Jesus. It was Jesus himself who first formulated the so-called “love command” or love-principle (Mark 12:28-34 par; John 13:34-35, etc) and gave it prominence for the Christian community. Paul builds upon this in his letters—Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; Phil 1:9; Col 2:2; 3:14; 1 Thess 3:12; 4:9; cf. also Eph 4:15-16; 5:2; 1 Tim 1:5; and is likewise found elsewhere throughout the New Testament and early Christian writings (e.g., James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 2:7-11, etc).
Before preceding to an examination of 1 Cor 13:12 itself, it will be helpful to view it within in the structure of 12:31b-14:1a:
- 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
- 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
—Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value
- 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
- 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
—All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
- 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love
The references to knowledge are found in the two sections (13:1-3, 8-13) which describe the contrast between love and the other gifts. Indeed, there are two parallel points of contrast between love and knowledge (cf. 8:1-3):
- 13:2—”if…I (can) see [i.e. know] all the secrets and (hold) all knowledge…but I do not hold love, (then) I am nothing”
- 13:8b-9ff: “…and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working. For we know (only) out of a part…but when th(at which is) complete [te/leio$] comes, th(at which is only) out of a part will cease working…”
It is important to note that Paul does not refer here to profane or ‘ordinary’ human knowledge, nor to some kind of false or ‘pseudo’ knowledge. The context clearly indicates that he is referring to special knowledge granted to believers through the presence and work of the Spirit (i.e. as a spiritual gift). In both references knowledge (gw=nsi$) is connected closely with prophecy—that is, a message communicated to believers by God through the Spirit. Even this sort of special (prophetic) knowledge must be guided by love, and, eventually, will cease working. There is considerable interpretive debate as to just when, or in what circumstances, Paul envisions such knowledge to cease. Those who believe that the spiritual gifts experienced by the Pauline churches, along with the miracles performed by the apostles, etc., were a temporary phenomenon limited to the early Church, might claim that they have already ceased. However, this is not what Paul has in mind; almost certainly his thinking is eschatological—prophetic knowledge and revelation will cease with the end of the present Age. From the early Christian standpoint, the end of this Age is marked by the sudden return of Christ to earth and the final Judgment by God, along with the resurrection/transformation of believers (ch. 15) and their entry into eternal life. Along with this, however, Christians also held a “realized” eschatology—believers in the present, through the Spirit, experience something of the reality of what waits for us in the end. This mode of belief informs Christian (ethical) instruction—we are to live and act according to the ideals which will be realized fully in the Age to Come.
This brings us to verse 12, and the reference to knowledge in 12b, which follows two brief illustrations given by Paul that expound upon his declaration in vv. 8-10:
- The growth and development of a human being (v. 11)—the adult ceases to think and act the way he/she did as a child; partly this takes place by conscious choice (“I ceased working [i.e. doing] the infant[ile] things”), which serves as a implicit exhortation to believers.
- The mirror (v. 12a)—ancient mirrors were normally made of metal, tending to be not nearly so clear as modern day glass-mirrors; moreover, they required polishing, which again suggests the ethical/spiritual intent and ‘work’ required by believers.
The first illustration emphasizes the temporary nature of knowledge, that it passes away; the second emphasizes it limitation, i.e. it is only partial and incomplete. The limitation is intrinsic to the created, material human nature. Even the believer who possesses the Spirit cannot always see clearly, all the more when one is still under the influence of sin and the flesh. Only at the end, the completion (te/lo$) of things, will we be able to see things clearly. Here sight and knowledge are joined as metaphors, as they often are in the Greek of the New Testament; this is expressed neatly in verse 12:
“For now we look through a (glass one) gazes into [i.e. a mirror], in(to) (an) obscure (image), but then (clearly,) face toward face; now I know (only) out of a part, but then I will know (completely), even as I was known (completely).”
There is here a dual contrast between now (a&rti) and then (to/te):
—We look into an obscure (i.e. cloudy, unclear) mirror
—I know only incompletely, in part
—We see clearly, as if seeing another person face-to-face
—I know completely
The same expression e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”, i.e. partly, in part) to indicate the (human, natural) limitations for believers in the present Age, was used previously in vv. 9-10. The main difference in verse 12, in my view, is that Paul has moved from the work of the Spirit (the spiritual ‘gifts’), to the presence of the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that one is able to see and know God, but in the present time our experience of the Spirit, is, due to our very nature, necessarily imperfectly realized and often mysterious. Note how, in the language Paul uses, the verse itself seems to gain greater clarity: “we look…I know”. Even more striking is the symmetry of what is to come (note the alliteration):
pro/swpon pro\$ pro/swpon
prosœpon pros prosœpon
“face toward face”
lit. “toward-the-eye toward toward-the-eye”
i.e., “eye to eye”
In terms of the mirror illustration, we would be seeing our own face clearly; but Paul’s application assumes something deeper—it is God’s face we see, our own ‘face’ being transformed into His likeness (that of Christ), as he expresses memorably in 2 Cor 3:18. And so we come to the beautiful and simple symmetry of language that closes the verse:
e)pignw/somai kaqw\$ kai/ e)pegnw/sqhn
epignœsomai kathœs kai epegnœsth¢n
“I will know even as I was (also) known”
Again the phrase is highly alliterative, with symmetry marked at two levels:
- I will know (e)pignw/somai)
—even as (kaqw$)
- I was known (e)pegnw/sqhn)
Two forms of the same verb separated by two particles in tandem, create a comparative join. The sense of “knowledge” here has changed slightly—instead of knowledge as a prophetic/revelatory gift from God (through the Spirit), it now refers more directly to knowledge of God Himself. It is a different verb as well; instead of ginw/skw (“know”) it is the compound verb e)piginw/skw (with the prefixed preposition/particle e)pi). This verb generally refers to gaining knowledge about something (or someone), but often carries the nuance of recognition, acknowledgement, understanding. It can also have an intensive meaning, i.e. to know something (or someone) thoroughly, completely, intimately, etc.; and this latter sense is in view here—”I will know (completely)”. The passive form (“I was [completely] known”) should be read as a so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied subject. Believers as “known” by God assumes the basic idea of election—of our being chosen beforehand, according to the will and consideration of God. This will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming article. It is possible, though not certain (or even necessary), that the aorist form of the verb used here specifically indicates election or predestination—i.e., as action which took place at a specific time in the past (before our coming to faith). At any rate, we have here in 13:12b, two fundamental aspects of knowledge in the New Testament—believers’ knowledge of God and His knowledge of us. This dual aspect will be explored further in the remaining article of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.