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I heard that in the following verse:

1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly

Paul was in fact using an illustration of a mirror. Can anyone, please, explain this? Is it true that he meant a mirror as an example here? If yes, why "darkly" then?

Is this verse somehow related to this one:

2 Corinthians 3:18: But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, [even] as by the Spirit of the Lord.

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To prime the pump... silvered mirrors as we know them today are a 19th century innovation. In the 1st century, metal-coated mirrors were groundbreaking technology. Anyone still using the older technology at the time would have most likely had a polished-metal mirror instead. – Ray Jul 19 '12 at 10:30
@Ray - So did he in fact use the word "mirror" there? – brilliant Jul 19 '12 at 10:49
I don't know... that's why I didn't write an answer :) The beauty of comments is that I can say whatever I want and not have to do the work of a real answer! – Ray Jul 19 '12 at 16:07

4 Answers 4

Here is the Greek phrase in question:

δι' (through) ἐσόπτρου (a mirror) ἐν (in) αἰνίγματι (obscurity)

When we look this it seems to lend to the idea of a glass window that has an opaque view, but the actual meaning of ἐσόπτρου seems to be a mirror as shown in the other occurrence of this word by James, who says:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror (ἐσόπτρου) and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

So the idea is that those old metal polished mirrors were so terrible that looking at the thin-fat-big-lipped mirrors at the circus were probably of better quality. It means our theology is necessarily warped so long as we live on this earth. In heaven we will be free from this limitation.

The reason why the word ‘darkly or obscurely’ is used is that the original Greek actually means a riddle, or an enigma. In fact we see the meaning directly from the phonetic spelling [ah'-ee-nig-ma]. This seems to describe the mirrors at the fun-house in a circus pretty well.

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Thank you mike, but can you please explain what thin-fat-big-lipped mirrors are? If you can give a link to an image of such a mirror that will be great. – brilliant Jul 19 '12 at 13:49
@Brilliant - Oh I guess if you have never been to a 'house of mirrors' at a circus or carnival you might not get it. One mirror makes you look short and fat, anothre mirror makes you look tall and thin, another makes you head fat and big fat lips, etc. Its juts a crazy warped mirror thing at carnivals in the US and other places where you get cotton candy, popcorn etc. – Mike Jul 19 '12 at 14:01
Aaaah! I got it! Thank you. – brilliant Jul 19 '12 at 14:07

Here's an excerpt from a post I made on Mi Yoedya. I figured it applied here as well.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12, the apostle Paul wrote,

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι᾽ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην

I would like for you to notice a couple of words: ἐσόπτρου, αἰνίγματι, πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον.

ἐσόπτρου (esoptrou) is the genitive inflection of ἔσοπτρον (esoptron). The Vulgate translates it into Latin as speculum. ἔσοπτρον is sometimes translated as "mirror" or "glass" (see A.V. in 1 Cor. 13:12; Jam. 1:23), but the ancients didn't have glass mirrors as we have today.

Rather, they used a polished piece of metal in order to see themselves (e.g., Pliny, Natural Histories, Book 33, §45). In time, a polished piece of metal will dull and oxidize, causing the appearance of the object in the mirror to become obscured. Thus, while the person looking into the mirror is looking at himself, the obscurity precludes him from actually seeing a reality.

Therefore, Paul writes that "we now see by a 'mirror' ἐν αἰνίγματι." The A.V. translates ἐν αἰνίγματι (en ainigmati) as "darkly." We find an inflection of the same word in Num. 12:8, which Paul is likely alluding to intentionally.

Regarding Moshe, G-d states,

I will speak with him mouth-to-mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches (LXX: αἰνιγμάτων), and he will behold the similitude of G-d...

The idea is that Moshe understood G-d directly, since G-d spoke to him "mouth-to-mouth." On the other hand, others understood G-d incompletely due to "dark speeches" (αἰνιγμάτων), or "obscurities."

In the Babylonian Talmud, we find an expression similar to Paul's. The rabbis were attempting to resolve the supposed contradiction between Isa. 6:2 ("I saw G-d") and Exo. 33:20 ("no man can see Me and live").

In tractate Yevamot 49b, it is written,

"I saw G-d" is [understood] in accordance with what was taught: All the prophets looked into a 'mirror' (אספקלריא) that is not clear, but Moshe looked into a clear 'mirror' (אספקלריא).

ואראה את ה' כדתניא כל הנביאים נסתכלו ב שאינה מאירה משה רבינו נסתכל באספקלריא המאירה

The word אספקלריא is a loan word derived from the Latin word "speculum," the same word found in the Vulgate for the Greek word ἔσοπτρον, the same Greek word found in 1 Cor. 13:12.

Again, this is an excerpt, but I thought it could be of some benefit.

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Interesting. Thank you. – brilliant Feb 23 '13 at 6:37

The reference is to sacred architecture. The passage works its way through the Tabernacle, which also corresponds to the sevenfold pattern of sacrifice and to Israel's journey from Egypt to Canaan.

Step 6 is the Jordan Crossing, the Laver of Cleansing and the opening of the Veil (which ties in to the full revelation by the Spirit.) The bronze laver, which pictured the crystal sea (Exodus 24:10), was made from the mirrors of the women of Israel (Exodus 38:8).

What is really cool is that the description of love corresponds to the Lampstand, a holy fire upon the altar.

Since the ministry of Christ and the firstfruits church (AD30-70) follows the same pattern (with Pentecost as the holy fire), it seems Paul is speaking of the first resurrection, the ascension of all the OT saints into heaven as the body of the sacrifice. Those saints were enthroned upon the crystal sea.

One more comment: this approach of the Bride was prefigured in Esther. Look at the description of the emperor's court in Esther 1. It is a pavement of crystals in a Tabernacle of glorious curtains.

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This is an awesome question, and actually has a very simple answer.

We see our identification in Christ through the reflection of the Word of God. James plays on this imagery (no pun intended) when he mentions the believer who forgets what he sees in the mirror (James 1:23-25). We are members of the Body of Christ, and therefore our identities are reflected in Christ, who is the Word of God.

Now to put this answer in the context at hand in 1 Corinthians 13, we as believers must rely on the spiritual gifts of knowledge and prophecy (which is not just foretelling but includes forthtelling [preaching] as well). Thus we understand our identity in the Word of God through the exercise of these spiritual gifts of communicating. Or to put it another way: our faith and hope are dependent on understanding our identity in Christ in the Word of God.

BUT when we are in heaven, the spiritual gifts of knowledge and prophecy will be superfluous and redundant (1 Cor 13:9-10). Hope too at that time will not have any significance, since "who hopes for what he already sees?" (Romans 8:24). Faith is the same: it is "the evidence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). When we are heaven and face-to-face with the Lord, faith and hope will be superfluous and so too will be the spiritual gifts of knowledge and prophecy.

So what is left?

The reflection of our identity in Christ is love (Romans 8:39). This love is defined as the control of the Holy Spirit over the life of the believer. This control comes through the renewal of the mind in the Word of God (Colossians 3:10), and thus we return back to the mirror, which reflects our identity in Christ. Our identity in Christ is permanent, unlike faith, hope, knowledge, and prophecy, which are but transitory phenomena in the present time, and thus we see dimly at the moment.

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