The text for the sermon is the Epistle, 1 Corinthians 13, especially verse 12: "For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know just as I have been known."
There is a common misunderstanding about this passage. This is often reflected in the English translations. The NIV reads, "Now we see a POOR REFLECTION as in a mirror." King James says, "Now we see through a glass, DARKLY." These translations are based on the idea that ancient mirrors could only give a dim, blurry reflection.
But is that true? Actually, the idea that ancient mirrors were of inferior quality is a modern notion, no doubt based upon modern man's arrogant thought that everything today is of the finest quality, and no one in the past has ever been as smart as we are.
Such foolish thoughts aside, the facts are these: The city of Corinth was particularly known as a maker of bronze articles and utensils, including mirrors. These mirrors were known in the ancient world for their fine quality.
So Paul is not saying that looking in a mirror gave you a dark, dim, distorted image. Instead, he is saying that looking in a mirror is indirect, or as he puts it literally, "we see in a riddle." When we look at a reflection, we are not looking at the real thing, but an image of the real thing. We can see ourselves in the mirror, yet it is not really ourselves, but a reflection.
It is not that looking in a mirror is dark or distorted. The reflection is perfectly fine in itself. To say that there is something wrong with the image in the mirror changes the meaning of the text considerably. Worse, it changes our confidence as Christians into uncertainty.
The meaning of the passage is that we do not know God directly. He comes to us indirectly, in His Word. Now, we should never say that there is something wrong with the Word of God. It is not dim, dark, or distorted. Rather, it is bright, illuminating, and clear. If it is not, then we Christians have no certainty of knowledge nor of salvation.
We Christians must affirm that the Bible is clear. Many people will try to tell us that the Bible is confusing and impossible to understand. In a way, that is true. To the sinful nature, the Holy Scriptures will forever remain a dark and closed book. The flesh apart from the Spirit knows nothing of the hidden things of God. But that is not because the Bible itself is unclear. It is only because the sinful nature in each of us cannot believe or understand. The fault is in us and our sin-muddled minds.
We must maintain that the Bible is clear because it is precisely here in the Holy Scriptures that we find God's truth for us sinners. Would God send us the knowledge of salvation, but make it unclear? Would He send us the Light of the world, but make it a dim and distorted light? Would God set down for us the great Rock of our salvation as the foundation of our faith, yet make that Rock as uncertain as shifting sand? By no means! Our God is not a God of confusion. We can count on the firm and trustworthy truth He has given us.
It is true that there are many different interpretations of many different parts of Scripture. We do not agree with other Christian denominations on many important parts of the faith. One tempting solution to this dilemma is to say that there is no truth. Scripture is a dark and mysterious document, it is said, so it does not matter if there are different interpretations.
But God gave us His revelation so that we would not have to fumble around in the dark. He has given us a lamp to our feet and a light to our path so that we would clearly see the truth.
The real reason why there are disagreements among Christian denominations is that the sinful human nature does not want to accept what Scripture says. The flesh always wants to change or twist it.
But if we allow Scripture to simply speak for itself, then God's voice is clear. We may not immediately comprehend everything that it says. Yet if we set our hearts upon the wisdom and knowledge of God, He will give them to us in His time.
Now, there are parts of Scripture that are more difficult. But even that does not make it unclear. Scripture interprets Scripture, so if we come upon a difficulty, we know that it must harmonize with the rest of God's Word. When we are confronted with a difficult passage, we can resolve the difficulty by letting clear passages explain the unclear one.
In fact, it is not that any part of the Holy Bible is actually unclear. It is only that our understanding is limited. If we call the Bible unclear because of our own limited minds, is that not the greatest arrogance, as if our foolishness makes God foolish?
Doctor Martin Luther put it this way, when he gave suggestions on how to read passages of Scripture. He said, "Where one does not understand it, pass that by and glorify God." In other words, do not struggle and beat your head against the brick wall of a difficult passage. Do not let it worry you. The effectiveness and power of Scripture does not rest upon your mental understanding of each and every passage.
When we look into the mirror of God's Word, we first see God's Law. The Law shows us our sinfulness and the terrible punishments we deserve, no less than the flames of hell. In the mirror, God shows us ourselves, not as we seem to our own senses and feelings, but as His Law declares us: condemned sinners.
Yet in the mirror, we also see the gracious God, even our Lord Jesus Christ. It seems odd to see someone else when we look in the mirror. We ought to see our own reflection. But in the Gospel, you see what God sees - not yourself and your sins, but instead Jesus and His holiness. God has placed the image of Christ upon all His baptized saints. So we are worthy of eternal life and the resurrection and heaven itself; not worthy in ourselves (poor sinners that we are) but worthy through Christ our Savior.
In the mirror of Scripture, we know God. We do not understand Him fully. Yet everything that God desires for us to know, He has set out for us clearly. He has revealed much about Himself to us unworthy fools who deserve to know nothing.
The truth of God is grace and life. The truth of God is that He knows us far greater than we know Him. But a time is coming when we will not see in this indirect mirror of His Word and Sacraments. A time comes, and is swiftly approaching, when the curtain of this reality will be pulled back, and we will discover that it was this life on earth that is dim and dark and distorted, and we will enter into the eternal life filled with light and joy and love. This is the life that Christ has earned for us.
For that is what Paul is saying most of all. This present life is only our brief childhood. Here we toddle about like infants. When we enter the adulthood of the resurrection, then we will be fully mature. When all things are revealed, then we will no longer see God indirectly, as through a mirror. We will see Him face to face, and know Him directly. We will stand in the presence of God who is love, and we will bathe and bask in His glory. That great vision is also what Christ has earned for us.
In that glorious place, we will no longer need faith or hope, because those things look to what cannot be seen directly. But then everything before our eyes will be absolutely perfect. Love will shine out as the greatest of all things, because when our old lives of faith and hope fade away, love remains forever - not the frail, feeble love we have in this life, but a love purified in the image of Christ's love. For the failures and stumbles of this life will be behind us, and only perfect love will be left. This, too, Christ has earned for us by His death and resurrection and ascension.
So do not be caught up in this life as if we are complete. We are not. We have not reached what we ought to be. Instead, keep your eyes on the future. Then, in the great Day of all days, we will live with Him and talk with Him face to face. That will be the greatest joy of all.
To that end preserve us, dear Lord Jesus. Amen.
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