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An Exposition of I Corinthians 13:8-13

An Examination of the Biblical Basis
of the Charismatic Movement

by B. L. Turner

Mirrors were well-known and widely used in the ancient world. The prophet Isaiah mentions their use in Isaiah 3:23 and they were frequently depicted in many Greek vase paintings. Numerous actual mirrors have survived. In the National Museum of Athens, for example, are mirrors dating from 600 B.C., while in the Art Institute of Chicago is a Greek mirror dating from about 450 B.C. Learning a bit about ancient mirrors will help us understand the metaphorical reference the apostle Paul made to two mirrors in I Corinthians 13:12.1

The image discs of ancient mirrors were made of bronze and polished to a high sheen. Of course the ancient specimens in museums show the ravages of time. Thus, many of them have tarnished and pitted reflective surfaces. Even when they were new they were optically very inferior to today’s ordinary glass bathroom mirrors or hand-held vanity mirrors. One can judge the notable difference by comparing a modern polished-chrome metal mirror with a modern silvered-glass mirror. The reflected image of the metal mirror is frustratingly inferior if one wishes to see fine detail precisely.

Though we can rarely be satisfied with today’s polished-metal mirrors, the bronze mirror surface which Paul mentions metaphorically had much less precise optical clarity than our present-day metal mirrors. With this in mind we can more easily understand Paul’s inspired acknowledgment of the limitations under which the early church worked. He acknowledged that, “ we see in a mirror dimly.” (I Corinthians 13:12 NAS).

The tale of the two mirrors shows the progress of refinement in God’s revelation to man.

To begin with, we see this in the utility of the two mirrors. Both of the mirrors were practical and utilitarian. The first mirror mentioned metaphorically in I Corinthians 13:12 illustrates that group of nine spiritual endowments or gifts mentioned in I Corinthians 12:4-11. It was entirely appropriate to refer to those gifts under the figure of a mirror because those gifts helped people to “see” for Paul said, “ we see in a mirror darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). Thus, the first contribution of the two mirrors was to help people to see.

Paul tells us the scope of the first mirror’s reflection. For example, the “word of wisdom” (I Corinthians 12:8) helped people “see” values and priorities. The “word of knowledge” (I Corinthians 12:8) helped people “see” existing reality. “Faith”2 (I Corinthians 12:9) helped people “see” the certainty of the invisible, as well as the power of God. (See also Hebrews 11:1 and Romans 4:20-21.) Those “gifts of healings” (I Corinthians 12:9) helped people “see” the goodness and mercy of God. The gift of "workings of miracles” (I Corinthians 12:10) helped people “see” dimensions of reality beyond our usual time-bound and space-bound environment. The gift of “prophecy” (1 Corinthians 12:10) helped people “see” into the future. The gift of “discernings of spirits” (I Corinthians 12:10) helped men “see” the thoughts and intents of the hearts of others. (I Sam. 16:7). The gift of “Diverse kinds of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:10) helped people “see” beyond their own cultural limitations, while the gift of “interpretation of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:10) helped people “see” the meaning of diverse and strange cultures and languages.

In spite of the positive contribution made by that first mirror, it had frustrating defects and limitations. Though one could “see” by its help, he could only “see” in that “mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12 NAS). Frustration was further increased because no one person had the whole mirror and thus every user of that mirror received only a partial reflection of the total picture.

The complete mirror consisted of a mosaic of nine pieces, that is, the nine gifts. Paul asked a series of rhetorical questions which make it quite certain that no one person had all the segments of that first mirror. He asked, “Are all workers of miracles? Have all gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (I Corinthians 12:29-30). If the advocates of today’s Tongues Movement could impose their will, all Christians would indeed speak with tongues even though that was never the divine intention. Because no one person had all the segments of that mosaic mirror, sometimes Christians in New Testament times could not use that part of the mirror which they did possess. Paul’s command about that issue makes the point clear. He charged, “If any man speaketh in a tongue...let one interpret: but if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church.” (I Corinthians 14:27-28) Obviously, had every recipient of those special gifts received all the parts of the mirror, that is, all the gifts, an interpreter would always have been present.

To have used one isolated part of that mirror would simply not have given a complete enough reflected image to have been spiritually beneficial or useful. Therefore, it would only have been a novelty or a curiosity. It would have qualified, perhaps, at least, for a short while, as an amusement to the idly curious, such as the Athenians who sought only to hear or tell some novel thing. (Acts 17:20-21) The use of one isolated part of the mirror would not have contributed to the edifying of the church. Since that was the purpose for which the gifts had been given (I Corinthians 14:5), such a perverted use of those gifts was understandably prohibited.

Paul had been endowed with more parts of that mirror than anyone else. (Please see I Corinthians 14:18.) He also had the authority from God to give segments of that mirror to others. (See Romans 1:11 and II Timothy 1:6 for confirmation.) Notwithstanding this, Paul felt keenly the limitations of that first mirror. He frankly acknowledged that by the aid of that mirror he only knew “in part.” (I Corinthians 13:12) That mirror did give aid but it was partial aid, in this case, partial knowledge. Of course, there were areas where it gave no reflection at all and, thus, it gave no aid at all. It is therefore clear that what the first mirror did reflect it reflected only partially and dimly. Thus that primitive mirror, though it was real and helpful, was inadequate over the long term.

To understand the scope of the second mirror’s reflection we first must understand what that mirror is. Christians used that imperfect mirror as long as it was in existence. At the beginning of the church, it was all they had unless one of the apostles was present from whom they could get further insight. Paul’s reminder to the church in Thessalonica makes it clear that apostles did give such help. He said, “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” (II Thessalonians 2:5) When nothing better than that first mirror existed Paul, by divine revelation, looked toward a time when it would be replaced by a perfect mirror. He said, “For now we see in a mirror darkly; but then face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12) The word “then” refers to the time, “when that which is perfect is come.” (I Corinthians 13:10) He tells us that then Christians would see “face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12) Since that which was to come would make it possible to see “face to face” it is certain that Paul is speaking of another mirror, “that which is perfect.” The phrase, “but then face to face” is an elliptical statement the full form of which is: "when that perfect mirror is come we shall see face to face." (Please see I Corinthians 13:12.) It is obvious that Paul looked forward to a time when he and other Christians would have a mirror by which they would get a perfect reflection. The face seen in the new mirror would be exactly like the face which it reflected. Paul expresses the idea by the words, “face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12) Whether it is our own condition or whether it is the insight we gain into values and priorities, into present reality, into the certainty of the unseen and the power of God, into dimensions of reality beyond our time-bound and space-bound environment, into the future, into the condition of the human heart, into multi-cultural awareness or into the meaning of diverse cultures, all would be reflected with perfect clarity in the new mirror.

What was the “perfect” mirror which was to come? One of the best known similes which the Scripture uses for itself is the simile of the mirror.3 James made, perhaps, the best known use of the mirror simile in reference to Scripture. He said, “For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But he that looketh into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:23-25).

From James’ statement it is clear that it is the word of God, not the temporary spiritual gifts which shows the entire image as it truly is and gives complete insight into spiritual reality. If there is any lack of perception where the Scripture is available, it is not because the reflected image is defective. It is because people make a habit of going away (The verb form “goeth” in the older English translations of James 1:24 expresses the habitual or continuous present tense of the verb) and do not habitually continue to look into the word. Similarly, the eth ending of the verbs “looketh” and “continueth” in James 1:25 express the continuous present tense of each verb.

In James 1:23 the phrase, “The word” is called, “the perfect law” in verse 25. In discussing that imperfect “mirror” with its frustratingly incomplete image (I Corinthians 13:9-10), Paul made it clear in I Corinthians 13:10 and 12, as we have previously noted, that a perfect mirror was coming which would give a complete and satisfying image. James identifies that perfect mirror beyond any doubt, in verses 23 through 25 of the first chapter of his epistle. That perfect mirror is, “the word,” “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” His incisive description can only refer to the written form of the new covenant given by Christ. It certainly could not refer to the old covenant, the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses had certainly come long before. In New Testament times one, obviously, therefore, did not have to anticipate its coming as one looked forward to the coming of “that which is perfect.” Also, it should be noted, the Law of Moses, was not and is not the “law of liberty” but, “the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2) It was so named because it convicted men of sin and condemned them to death. In stark contrast, it is through the covenant of Christ that we who are bruised are “set at liberty.” (See Luke 4:17-21) Thus, the new covenant is the perfect law, the law of liberty, the new and perfect mirror.

The refinement of God’s revelation to man is also seen in the contrast in the longevity of the nine gifts and the three virtues which are mentioned in I Corinthians chapter thirteen.

The Tongues Movement is usually called The Charismatic Movement. The adjective charismatic comes from the Greek word for “gift” in I Corinthians 12:4 which is   It is transliterated in English Charisma as in Charismatic. The leaders of that movement usually affirm that, “that which is perfect” (I Corinthians 13:10) refers to the second coming of Christ. It is a forced explanation which totally subverts the obvious meaning of the metaphor of the two mirrors. More evidence that the position which the Tongues Movement advocates is completely contrary to the meaning of the Scripture comes from an understanding of the logic used in I Corinthians chapter thirteen. First, as we have seen, there is a contrast between the clarity and the completeness of the image reflected by the two mirrors. Furthermore, there is a contrast between the longevity of the first mirror (which was composed of the group of nine gifts of The Spirit) on the one hand and the longevity of a group of three Christian virtues, on the other. Through this contrast we are also provided with a precise time reference by which to date the coming of the perfect mirror, as we shall soon see.

The mirror which consisted of the group of nine gifts was temporary. Those gifts are contrasted with a group of three virtues which, in sharp contrast, are abiding. The temporary quality of three of the nine gifts is specifically mentioned and then all the gifts, taken together, are alleged to be temporary. With reference to the three, Scripture explains, “whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away.” (I Corinthians 13:8-9) All the gifts are included when the apostle Paul says, “...but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.” (I Corinthians 13:10) We have already seen that all the gifts were “in part.” No one believing the Bible can assert that those gifts were not to be “done away.” The only question remaining is, when? The Scripture says, “When that which is perfect is come.” (I Corinthians 13:10) Leaders of the Tongues Movement, as already mentioned, usually tell us that this refers to the time when Jesus will come again. If that were so, the temporary gifts, then, would last just as long as the three abiding virtues! The Scripture says, “But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13) Thus, if one accepts the position of the Tongues Movement he is forced to disregard the obvious difference between the two diverse qualities of passing away and abiding which characterize the two mirrors!

Faith is, “. . . a conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). We have faith in Jesus that he is the Christ. This is a conviction about one whom we have never seen. However, one day, “...we shall see him even as he is.” (I John 3:2) On that day faith, by its very definition, will cease. One day the faithful Christians’ hopes will be realized and then hope will cease, “...for who hopeth for that which he seeth?” (Romans 8:24) The New International Version renders this passage with great clarity. It says, “Who hopes for what he already has?” Thus, it is obvious that two of the abiding virtues will only abide till Jesus comes. (This is one reason love is the greatest of these three virtues. It will not be terminated at the coming of Jesus but will go right on and even become more intense after Jesus comes.)

In contrast to faith and hope the gifts of tongues, knowledge and prophecy as well as the other six gifts are temporary. They shall be done away. But in spite of such clear testimony, the Tongues-Movement advocates contend that the nine gifts will last as long as faith and hope, that is, throughout the entire Christian age! That position would make utter and ridiculous nonsense of the Scripture because it would completely destroy the contrast in longevity which Paul makes. This shows the tragic error of their position. Clearly, the gifts will have passed away long before the coming of Christ. They were to cease when “that which is perfect is come.” (I Corinthians 13:10) Note also that it was to be when that which was perfect had come, not when he who is perfect had come. That which is perfect is “the perfect law of liberty.” (James 1:25).

In our time, only one mirror remains in existence, not two. The perfect has replaced the imperfect. The complete has replaced the partiaL The abiding has replaced the temporary. It is the same direction in which everything else is progressing in God’s scheme of things. For example, "This corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15:53) Also, this sin-stained world shall be replaced by one in which dwells righteousness. (See2 Peter 3:13) It is strange that Tongues-Movement enthusiasts want to reverse that direction! It would seem they want the church to go from perfection to imperfection and from that which is complete to that which is incomplete!

However, Paul goes even further to save us from the mistake of the Tongues-Movement position. He makes it very clear that the nine special gifts of the Holy Spirit, which constituted the first mirror, belonged to the infancy of the church. Paul said, using his own childhood as an illustration, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.” (I Corinthians 13:11) At its inception the church had no written form of the New Testament. It came into existence gradually, a portion at a time, as need dictated and as the church matured. There was less and less necessity for the nine spiritual gifts, upon which the church had relied heavily during its early infancy, as the New Testament Scriptures came into existence. The leaders of the Charismatic Movement would have the church in its maturity go back to the dependency which it had during its infancy! Again, they would take the church in the wrong direction! Let us seek for the Mirror which gives the mature, not the juvenile image. (I Corinthians 13:11)

A Tale of Two Mirrors, then, becomes a story of one beautiful, complete and perfect mirror which exists and is available to anyone who wishes to know the truth. It is the written form of the perfect law of liberty, that is, the New Testament. The other mirror used to exist, but even then it was partial and inadequate. Therefore we should not regret its removal nor seek to have it restored, especially since no one can restore it anyway. The alleged restorations are totally anti-scriptural and are, therefore, fraudulent with no more reality than a mirage.

Every sincere seeker who uses the Perfect Mirror will be able to see the whole picture, the true picture, the past picture and the future picture. Let us, therefore, press on unto perfection! Let us not try to become heirs of those gifts which have passed away, but heirs of “the gift” (Acts 2:38-39) which will abide as long as God is calling sinners to himself, the gift without which, according to Rornans 8:9, no one is a true Christian.

1. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language a metaphor is, “a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, different thing by being spoken of as if it were that other;...”

2. There seem to have been at least three types of faith, two of which still exist. Two types of faith are clearly defined by C.S. Lewis in his God in the Dock, pp. 172-173. The first category of faith which he defines could be called mental assent. This is the kind of conviction which would cause one to argue that the world is round though he has never beheld It from a distant enough vantage point to see that it Is globular. Much in the same way people have concluded that God “must” exist. A second level or form of faith is the confidence level when one is fully persuaded of the existence and presence of God. This in its full form is the “faith unto the saving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:39) In addition to these two levels of faith which Lewis calls, “Faith-A” and “Faith-B” there is also Faith-C, that is, miraculous faith. (Luke 17:6) It is this third type of faith, it seems certain, to which reference is made in I Corinthians 12:9 as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is obviously distinguished from the abiding form of faith stressed in I Corinthians 13:13. The first two types of faith are also gifts of God (Ephesians 2:8) just as our “natural” abilities are God’s gifts. Please see, I Corinthians 4:7 and Ephesians 2:8.

3. A simile is, according to Webster’s dictionary, “a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, dissimilar thing by the use of like, as, etc. for example, " . . . her tears flowed like wine.”

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