Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Once again, Paul pulls the curtain back.
At several moments in his letters, Paul takes a moment to pause and counter a potential argument by his interlocutors in order to keep his readers from reaching the wrong conclusion. These caveats also provide us a valuable glimpse into the theological foundations undergirding the gospel for Paul.
One such theological foundation which Paul returns to regularly in his letters is the source of his call as a minister. His was not a minister born of effort, ambition, or any other human motives; instead, he will consistently note that his authority springs only from God’s call. The gospel Paul preaches is not of his own creation but a gift from God.
In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul works through this contrast, noting the qualitative difference between “tablets of stone” and “tablets of human hearts.” The living quality of the latter proves superior to the rigidity of the former. Starting in 3:7, Paul will then link this contrast between tablets to the veil Moses wore at his descent from Mount Sinai (see Exodus 34:29-35) and the metaphorical veil that precludes some from hearing the gospel proclaimed through the words of Moses in Paul’s own time. This metaphorical veil cannot be lifted by us but only by Christ (3:14).
Our temptation here is to interpret that Paul is here primarily addressing those who have a veil over their hearts, that human destinies are primarily what is at stake for him. However, throughout 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is primarily concerned with the character of God and the source of the gospel. Here, Paul isn’t talking about us so much as he is wondering who God is and what does God achieve for us. As Paul concludes, “We are being transformed [notice the passive language!] into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. “This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB; italics added)
Thus, as we approach our verses, Paul remains steadfast in trusting the God of Jesus Christ, the very source of the mercy which has saved us. In contrast to the veiling present in some lives, the gospel is a public matter available to all: “but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3). Thus, the question before us is not primarily about why some have heard the good news and others have not. Instead, Paul here is arguing for the consistency of God’s working in our midst. God works not in secret but in public, in clarity not obscurity, in light not darkness. Why then have some still not heard?
To respond, Paul returns to the image of the veil in 4:3. What is unclear is who Paul imagines are “those who are perishing.” Similarly, then, there is some ambiguity about whom he describes as “unbelievers” in verse 4. One possibility is that he means, just that, unbelievers, individuals and communities who have not embraced the gospel. But another option is that Paul here is referring not to outsiders but purported insiders. He may be pointing to individuals within the Christian community who misinterpret and misunderstand the gospel. Are these people who claim to believe but have missed what the gospel is all about? That is, is Paul directing his sights primarily outside of the bounds of Christian community or within it? However, in the end, this may not make much of a difference to Paul. The identity of these unnamed “unbelievers” is not as important as the character of God and God’s gospel.
As we found during the last two weeks reading 1 Corinthians, Paul’s sights are generally set inside Christian communities. To be sure, the world around us certainly influences these communities as the darkness which characterizes it presses in on faithful followers of Christ brought together by God. But even when he points outside the confines of Christian communities, he does in service of the exhortation and building up of the faithful who are gathered. Unlike so many of us today, Paul does not identify and deride the failures of those outside the church in order to inflate our sense of accomplishment as the truly righteous; instead, he reminds Christians of their former lives and yearns for them not to return to this previous state of darkness.
Yet the question remains. Why do some persist in unbelief? Does not their unbelief reflect poorly on God? What are the implications for the gospel when a publicly proclaimed word is brushed off by those walking in darkness?
Paul’s explanation here is cosmic and overarching. Opposing but unequal forces are at work in the world. Paul draws a sharp contrast between “the god of this world” (verse 4) who trades in the spreading of darkness and the God who calls light into existence at the dawn of time (verse 6). The former “god” has sought to keep the lost in a maze of lies. In contrast, the God who created the universe is also at work today in our hearts, transforming our lives.
One of the challenges in preaching Paul is missing his intended target. That is, we often tend to read Paul’s letters as theological treatises on discrete theological topics like salvation or justification. Certainly, Paul’s letter touches on these topics in important ways. But Paul’s vision is often wider than ours. Even more than individuals, Paul addresses communities of Christians living within God’s long story of good news for a lost world. In these verses, we might lose sight of these larger dynamics by focusing too narrowly on what these verses might mean for any particular individual’s salvation. Instead, I would encourage keeping our focus on the kind of God Paul confesses in these verses.
This is a God who traffics in light not darkness. This is a God who can bring light to every dark corner of the world and our lives. This is God who spoke light into existence and God’s glory into our lives. In the end, no veil can cover this powerful light.