Who was the most knowledgeable follower of Christ who ever lived? I’m not referring to knowledge of math or physics, but knowledge of the Christian faith. I think a good case can be made for the apostle Paul. After all, Paul wrote about half of the books in the New Testament.
And yet with all of his knowledge Paul writes, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9) and a few verses later, “Now I know in part” (v. 12). According to Paul, he only had partial knowledge.
There are three things to note about Paul’s assertion. First, we do know certain things—”we know in part”—and for that we should be grateful. We don’t have to be agnostic about everything. Second, we don’t know everything—”we know in part.” There are people, including Christians, who act like they know it all, but they don’t. Third, at some point in the future, partial knowledge will give way to complete knowledge. Paul continues, “but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (v. 10) and “then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12). Partial knowledge is good, but it’s destined to be swallowed up by complete knowledge. We now hold the key of knowledge which we should cherish. But after settling in to the house of knowledge, we’ll throw away the key.
But what did Paul mean when he said, “when the perfect comes”? The future state of perfection that Paul was anticipating wasn’t a point in time as we know it. The Bible promises that when Jesus returns, his followers will receive new, imperishable bodies (Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Cor. 15:53) making their home with God in his new creation without tears, pain, or death (Rev. 21:1–4). Human history doesn’t end with this world as we know it. God is taking his people to an eternal destination of rest and enjoyment.
An Illustration: From Childhood to Adulthood
Paul uses an illustration to explain his point. Our journey from partial to perfect knowledge is like a child maturing into adulthood. The speaking, thinking and reasoning abilities of the child are left in childhood. Think of yourself at five years old: how you talked, played, laughed and cried. Does that five-year-old person seem anything like the person you are today? When you were a child what sorts of things did you think about and how did you think about them?
I remember staring at the fish in an aquarium and wanting to be one because they didn’t have homework. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t a fish. I also failed to understand how to pay someone a compliment. After carefully preparing a compliment for my Aunt, I told her, “You looked better in the picture than you do now.” She tearfully left the room.
So here’s the crazy part. Compared to what we will be and what we will know, we’re like children now. Let me say that in a different way. When we are enjoying the bliss of God’s kingdom, we will consider ourselves now—our current knowledge and reasoning ability—to be children in comparison with what we are then. Paul’s view of knowledge is exciting and humbling. If one of the most knowledgeable Christians who ever lived said “Now I know in part” what should the rest of us say?