For now we see in a mirror dimly. But then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 NASB
In a mirror – Following his famous summary of the power of love, Paul comments on the human condition of partial understanding. He compares our present situation with that of a child who inevitably increases comprehension with age. His imagery of the mirror has inspired many sermons about the wonders of heaven when we will know in full. But perhaps there is a more immediate application that will assist us in exegesis.
The first thing we need to know about the Greek word esoptron is that it is an idiom. That means a word-for-word translation probably won’t capture the author’s intention. In this case, the idea of a “mirror” isn’t like our mercury-backed glass but rather about the imperfection of the image. The use of a related word (katotrizomai) in 2 Corinthians 3:18 demonstrates that this “glass” makes visible what was otherwise invisible. The emphasis is not on the reflected image but rather on the clarity or lack thereof.
With this in mind, we may notice that historical perspective operates in precisely the same way. Paul might have said, “For now, as a result of our limited historical insight, we don’t apprehend clearly.” Paul’s “mirror” is the lack of 20-20 hindsight. In other words, what we really want is a looking-back glass, a way of seeing the meaning of things as if we had true historical perspective in the present moment. But, of course, we don’t. And that’s the important caution. If our exegesis depends on having a looking-back glass, then it probably isn’t an exegesis that fits the time and place of the author simply because human beings don’t understand what events mean as they happen (see Ecclesiastes 8:7). http://skipmoen.com/2011/11/23/the-cutting-edge/
This implies that answering the question, “What did this mean to the audience that first heard it?” cannot begin with our insights, hindsight or foresight. We can add these factors after we examine the time and place of the author, but we must be aware that these factors are additions to the text. It is an unfortunate fact that most sermons treat the Scriptures as if our context is the right context. No matter how spiritual or uplifting the message, if it relies on understanding that comes after the event, it imports meaning. By the way, this is exactly what the New Testament authors do with citations from the Tanakh. They add meaning to the words of the prophets because, from their perspective, they see with a “looking-back” glass. It is perfectly legitimate for them to do so, but it is not legitimate to claim that this was the original meaning of the prophets’ words. We face exactly the same situation today. We “see” more than Paul saw. When we interpret Paul’s words in terms of our historical hindsight, we add to his understanding, and that is not the same as saying, “This is what Paul meant.” Exegesis requires examination of the present circumstances of the author, not the reader.
So, how do you read your Bible? Are you using a “looking-back” glass?
Topical Index: mirror, esoptron, exegesis, 1 Corinthians 13:12