[W]hen the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13.10-12.
Our next-door neighbour, an 86-year-old widow called Renée, died suddenly on Saturday afternoon. She was a Christian but a very immature one, having made a commitment to Christ only in her mid-seventies (after the death of her husband) and never having shown any desire to inform her faith by reading or meeting with other Christians. So where is she now?
Well … she is with Christ. I have no doubt about it. Now she is seeing him face to face. Now she knows him fully even as he has always known her fully. I am sure that, for Renée, the perfect has come.
“Perfect” is teleion and is from telos (“end”) and teleo (“to bring to and end”) and thus refers to the completion of something. But what? Telos and teleo are both used in connection with the Second Coming of Christ (1 Corinthians 1.8; 15.24; James 5.11; Revelation 20.5, 7; 21.6; 22.13) so that is a possible reference here; but the difficulty is that Paul is talking with the certainty that he will still be on earth when the teleion comes. Did he really expect the Second Coming in a matter of weeks or months? Probably not, and his language seems to speak of a much more certain event for Paul, namely his departure “to be with Christ” (Philippians 1.23).
Perhaps I can take it that, for those who are alive on earth when Jesus comes again, that is when for them the “perfect” will come, and for those who die in Christ before then, the “perfect” comes as they enter his presence. Either way it will be marked by three things.
First, I will discover that many of my thoughts about spiritual things and much of my present understanding about God and his ways will be seen to be as immature and inadequate and wide of the mark as the thoughts and understanding of a child compared to those of an adult. There will probably be little difference between me (for all my studying and thinking) and poor old Renée on that day.
Second, I will discover that the things I thought I saw clearly were but a distorted image of the reality that will then face me. Paul uses the metaphor of a mirror — aptly, for Corinth was famous for their manufacture — but the metaphor has not really worked since the thirteenth century when the kinds of mirror we use today were invented. Nowadays, we don’t see in mirrors “dimly”; the reflection is always accurate. But the mirrors in Paul’s day were of beaten and polished metal and rarely gave a completely true reflection. The image was always distorted, and that is how I presently see God. But one day that will change. One day I shall see him in all his beauty and perfection, as I meet Jesus and speak with him, face to face.
And thirdly, then I will “know” everything there is to know — to the full extent of my capacity as a redeemed human being for knowing and understanding. All the puzzles will be solved, all the mysteries will be revealed. “Ah,” I’ll say, “now I see why that was allowed … Now I understand what that was for …” And all my knowing then will be in the presence and company of one who has always fully known me and who loves me and gave his life for me so that I can and will one day enjoy (as Renée is enjoying now) “the perfect” that awaits me.