Question: "What does it mean to see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12)?"
Answer: First Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is often referred to as the “Love Chapter” because it illustrates a biblical understanding of love. It’s in this chapter that Paul speaks of a time when “we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In 1 Corinthians 13:1–3, Paul argues that love surpasses all spiritual gifts. Even the greatest spiritual gift is worthless without love.
In 1 Corinthians 13:4–7, Paul describes the characteristics of love. These characteristics emphasize the importance of putting the interests of others above our own (cf. John 15:13; Philippians 2:14).
In 1 Corinthians 13:8–12, Paul speaks to the temporary nature of spiritual gifts and the hope that Christians have for a full, complete, and intimate knowledge of God in the future. This section reminds us that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophesying are not eternal. Love, however, is eternal and will never fail (verse 8 and verse 13). Therefore, love is what truly matters.
This section also speaks to the limitations of human understanding. Because of sin and human finitude, we can only know and prophesy in part (1 Corinthians 13:9). Currently, we cannot understand God’s ways (Romans 11:33), nor can we fathom the depths of His love (Ephesians 3:17–19). But when Christ returns, sin will disappear and we will finally see God face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The expression face to face appears in 1 Corinthians 13:12. The full verse reads, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The event described in this verse is often referred to as the “Beatific Vision” (to see God as He is), promised to Christians when Christ returns: “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In our present state, however, we only have an indirect and imperfect knowledge of God’s infinite wisdom, glory, and love. Thus, we cannot see God as He is.
Paul compares our present knowledge of divine things to a dark reflection in a mirror. In New Testament times, a mirror was formed from polished metal, which could only reflect a dim and imperfect image. Yet Paul promises that God will exchange our dim images for a face-to-face encounter with Himself. On that glorious day, the light of God will shine upon us, and we will be free from all darkness. imperfection, and error. We will know Him fully, even as we are fully known by Him. This mutual recognition and understanding is the epitome of a deeply intimate relationship.
The beatific vision has roots in the Old Testament (Genesis 32:20; Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10). In Exodus 33:18–23, Moses asks to see God’s glory, but God tells Moses that no one can see His glory and live. However, God allows Moses to see His back, but not in His entirety (that is, in His full glory).
In Matthew 5:8, Jesus promises that the pure in heart will see God. Jesus can make this promise because He is the only one who has seen the Father (John 1:18), and whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being” (Hebrews 1:3). And when He returns, we will behold the fullness of God’s glory. On that day, we will see God as He truly is.
This hope for a face-to-face encounter with God gives Christians peace and comfort, even in difficult circumstances. When this life comes to an end, we will see and be seen by the One who loved us enough to die for us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8).