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“But Then Face to Face”

By Kyle Pope

I

n Paul’s First epistle to the church in Corinth he devotes three chapters to the issue of “spiritual gifts” spanning from chapter twelve through chapter fourteen.  In the middle of this discussion, after demonstrating the superiority of love to such “spiritual gifts,” he describes their nature as something which was “in part” (13:9).  He then declares, “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (13:10).  The context of this statement and other Scriptural factors, make it clear that Paul is contrasting partial revelation with the time when revelation will be complete (or “perfect.”)  When the revelation of New Testament Scripture was finally complete, then “that which is perfect” had come.

            A common objection to this interpretation stems from a statement Paul makes two verses after these words.  He writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (13:12).  If we had this verse alone with no other context of Paul’s meaning, we might conclude that it is talking about heaven, and describing the age to come as the time when the Christian will behold the Lord “face to face.”  However, there is a very significant history behind this phrase. Five times in the Law of Moses, it is used of the relationship between God, Moses, and Israel.  Exodus 33:11 says, “the LORD spoke to Moses face to face.”  In Numbers 12:8 God says of Moses, “I will speak with him face to face.”  Then, in Numbers 14:14, the Holy Spirit tells us, “You, LORD, are among these people; …You, LORD, are seen face to face.”  In the same way Moses tells the people, “The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:4).  Finally, Deuteronomy ends, declaring of Moses, “But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

            It is evident that none of these statements suggest that Moses (or Israel collectively) saw the full glory of the face of God.  John tells us, “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12).  Nor is this saying that Moses and Israel were in the presence of God in heaven.  Rather, it is describing a fullness, and complete measure of revelation which was unequalled before that time.  God in giving the Law of Moses, of which the Psalmist said, “the Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7), established a relationship with Israel (and Moses specifically) which was described as one that was “face to face.”  

            In light of this background, it seems very likely that Paul uses the same figure speaking of the time in which the New Covenant would be fully revealed as a time when “that which is perfect” would come.  This is a time in which Christians, in their relationship with God (just like Moses and Israel) would see the will of God “face to face” as they beheld the gospel—“the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25).

Pope, Kyle. "But Then Face to Face" Biblical Insights 10.8 (August 2010): 23  

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