Date: 29 Jan 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:7-18
As we continued our studies in 2 Corinthians we last week took a dry and dusty look at Paul’s explanation for changing his plans to make a second visit to Corinth; a change caused by his wish not to upset the Corinthians any further. This week I want to move on a few verses to look at the second half of 2 Corinthians 3 where Paul talks of the everlasting glory of God.
In the second half of 2 Corinthians 2 Paul advises the Corinthians on how to handle the disruptive members of the church whilst in the first half of 2 Corinthians 3 he describes his approach to being a minister of God’s new covenant. However, this morning I want to skip over those verses and move on to consider 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, a passage where Paul makes comparisons between the Old and New Covenants and describes the different aspects of the glory of God that are associated with them. In particular Paul highlights the difference between the glory of Moses and the Old Covenant and the glory of Jesus and the New Covenant.
Paul starts this passage with a long opening sentence in 3:7-8 and in those two verses he describes the transitory glory of the Old Covenant as illustrated by Moses by comparing it unfavourably with the greater and lasting glory of the New Covenant as illustrated in Jesus; there is simply no comparison! If he had looked at the glory of the Old Covenant, the late President Reagan would have said “you ain’t see nuthin’ yet”! The Old Covenant brought the recognition of sin and with it condemnation and death whilst the New Covenant brings righteousness and eternal life. In 3:10b Paul describes the new Covenant glory as “surpassing glory”.
Whilst God made His original Covenant with Abraham, it was only when Moses came along that the Law was given as part of that Covenant. Moses was God’s faithful servant even if he doubted his own abilities and made excuses to avoid speaking for God! Whenever Moses wanted to talk to God he went up Mount Sinai. God’s glory on one such occasion is explained in graphic terms in Exodus 19:16-25; there was “thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast ... Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.” That must have been quite a scene and as all this happened, Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. When Moses eventually came down the mountain he had the two tablets of stone containing the Covenant Law in his hands but, “he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.” So radiant was his face that Aaron and the people couldn’t look at him and so after he had finished speaking to the people, Moses covered his face with a veil; he wanted to hide or conceal the glory of God that was shining from his face. The Greek version of the Old Testament translates the word that Moses used for “glory” as referring to the wonderful awe-inspiring, indescribable presence of God Himself. Such is the glory of God, something that in itself is almost indescribable. After that particular occasion, whenever he spoke to God on Mount Sinai he took the veil off then put it back on when he came down the mountain. Each time he had been in God’s presence his face glowed and shone so greatly that the people couldn’t look at him; just think of trying to look at someone and being dazzled by the sun shining off a mirror at the same time. By putting on the veil the people could look at him and Moses could talk to them. Whilst the Old Testament doesn’t actually say as much, Paul interpreted Moses’ actions as meaning that Moses was actually concealing this fading glory with the veil; as far as Paul was concerned it was a passing glory, or as 3:11 says, “it was transitory”.
These stone tablets that Moses was given contained the Ten Commandments, the Old Covenant, meaning God’s Law and these are listed in Exodus 20. As we may remember, they mainly lay down what the people should not do. When the people saw Moses holding these tablets, “they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance...” (Exodus 20:18). They told Moses to speak to God because they felt that if God spoke to them they would die. Moses pointed out that “God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Exodus 20:20). That strikes me as meaning that sin and death were inextricably linked, the Law was saying that if they sinned then they would die. Whilst the Law condemned sinners to death it provided no lasting means of forgiveness or lasting righteousness. Once the Law was given that never ending cycle began; the cycle of sin, sacrifice and forgiveness rolling round and round seemingly without end. As Asaph the Psalmist makes clear in Psalm 79:10-11, the people “did not keep God's covenant and refused to live by his law. They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them”. It didn’t take long for the people to forget their original feelings for God and carry on sinning. Asaph continues in Psalm 79:32-34, “In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again.” When God did vent His anger against them they made feeble attempts to change their ways even though their hearts weren’t really in it and God was, as ever, merciful and forgave them, holding back His anger and not harming them in any way.
The Old Covenant didn’t achieve what God had intended in that it didn’t lead the people to obedience; it didn’t prevent them from sinning; it didn’t bring about any form of lasting forgiveness. We saw from Exodus 19 and Exodus 34 that the Covenant also brought a different kind of glory, a glory that was concealed and a glory that faded quickly. Each time Moses came down the mountain his put the veil over his face to conceal the glory of God that shone from him, thus concealing God’s glory from the people. The veil represented a dividing point, cutting God off from the ordinary people. I don’t believe that that is what God wanted or wants; He wants to be with His people, in their daily lives, not some abstract figure Who is cut off from anyone’s day to day life.
In his opening words Paul talked of the glory of God that shone from Moses’ face after he had been in God’s presence. Whilst suggesting that that glory was transitory Paul went on to suggest in 3:8 that the ministry of the Holy Spirit will be even more glorious. Moses put a veil over his face to not only conceal the glory that shone from him but also to hide the fact that that glory was fading. Paul’s argument now is that if the ministry of the Old Covenant, graphically displayed by Moses, brought glory then how much more glorious will be the ministry of the New Covenant when it is brought by the Holy Spirit, a glory that brings with it righteousness. When comparing the glory brought by the Old Covenant with that brought by the New Covenant Paul is adamant that there is no comparison since the glory that lasts, that is the glory brought by the Spirit, will be even more glorious because it will last; and whilst he doesn’t say it, Paul clearly means that it will last for all eternity.
The key issue in 3:13-18 is the veil. It is the veil that cuts people off from God and His glory. Because the people couldn’t look at Moses’ glory-filled face, he covered his face with a veil. The Message translation says that “the people of Israel could no more look right at him than stare into the sun” (3:7b); that’s how bright Moses’ face was. The veil though hid that shining glory and dulled it. Not only did the veil dull the brightness of the glory of God but it also dulled the minds of the Israelites. Bearing in mind that Paul wrote these words in 55 AD or thereabouts, we need to look carefully at his words in 3:14 where he says, “their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the Old Covenant is read”. This mental veil dulled their minds to hearing the message of the good news of Jesus Christ, and just as it was when Paul wrote this letter so it still is today. People’s minds are dulled against hearing about God and His Son Jesus Christ; they don’t want to hear about the good news of eternal life in and through Jesus. The people in Corinth to whom Paul was writing didn’t want to know then and nor do people living in this country, and indeed this community, want to know in 2017. Paul added that not only were their minds dulled but so were their hearts when Moses was read; presumably meaning the Old Testament or the Pentateuch. The same applies today since many people would never dream of opening or even reading the Bible; in fact many homes today don’t even possess a Bible. I was amazed to read a very worrying report recently that said that thousands of homes across the UK don’t even own a book! When hearts and minds are so badly dulled we face an uphill struggle to convince them of their need for a new life in Jesus!
For me the key verse, indeed the turning point, comes in 3:16 where Paul says, “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away”. It’s that word “but” again signifying once more a significant change. It is Jesus, and only Him, Who causes this change. Up to now Paul has been talking about the Spirit being the One to show the glory of God. Now Paul identifies the Lord; that is Jesus, with the Spirit. Not only does the Spirit display God’s glory but where He is, so is the Lord, and so is freedom. There are numerous passages in the Bible that talk of our being slaves to sin, that is, before we come to faith in Jesus. Now Paul is telling us, or perhaps reminding us, that the Spirit brings freedom. Our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour brings freedom from sin, not freedom to do whatever we want to do, but freedom to follow Him, be with Him and eventually join Him in paradise for all eternity.
Now, because of Jesus, our faces, hearts and minds are no longer covered by a veil, the glory of God is no longer concealed in any way and as a result we are able to contemplate God’s glory very clearly. Not only that but we “are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory” (3:18b). Paul also talks of our being transformed in his Epistle to the Romans. He says in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” That is quite some transformation but it is one that can be achieved with Jesus and His glory in our lives. This transformation includes our being able to see God clearly; there is no longer a veil between us, a veil that dulled our hearts and our minds.
At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry and for all too many years before that, a veil existed in the temple that cut off the main body of the temple from the holy of holies, the place where God was said to reside. This may not have been a veil covering the face but it was certainly a veil that concealed the glory of God from the ordinary people. As Jesus hung dying on the cross of Calvary, Matthew tells us in Matthew 27:50-51 that, “...when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” The King James Version actually refers to it as the “veil of the temple”. The veil causing the division between God and His people was removed once and for all, and people could now see the glory of God. This was impossible under the Old Covenant but was brought about in the New Covenant by Jesus dying on the cross.
God made a Covenant with Abraham which He confirmed with Moses by giving him the Law on two tablets of stone. We know this Law as the Ten Commandments and it formed the basis of the law that God’s chosen people were expected to adhere to. The law told them what not to do and it was fairly obvious that failure to adhere to it would lead to death. Failure to follow the law meant of course that the people sinned against God and the law served to highlight that fact. Whilst the law did shine a spotlight on the sins of the people, it didn’t provide any lasting means of forgiveness. Yes, they could make sacrifices to God, repent and seek His forgiveness and God, in His mercy, always forgave them. However, the repentance was neither genuine nor long lasting and so they kept on sinning. When Moses spoke with God on Mount Sinai and was given the Law; when he came back down the mountain he had to cover his face with a veil to hide the glory of God that shone from him. It didn’t take long though for that glory to fade; and just as God’s glory that shone out of Moses’ face was dulled so were the hearts and minds of the people.
God sent His Son, Jesus, to be the New Covenant, a Covenant with God’s people that would provide lasting forgiveness to all who repented and at the same time bring them into a right relationship with God. The glory of God shone out of Jesus and nothing could dull that shining glory. Those who came to faith in Jesus no longer had dulled hearts and minds because the veil that caused them to be dulled was removed once and for all. All those who come to faith in Jesus are, as Paul says, “being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (3:18).
What a wonderful thing to happen to all who believe in Jesus; to be transformed into the likeness of our glorious God. Such a transformation is on offer to all who believe that Jesus died for them on Calvary’s cross. If you aren’t already being transformed by Jesus, think about it and ask Him into your life so that you too will be transformed.