Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
The epistle reading for today reminds us that the revelation of Jesus’ glory is so spectacular that it initiates the transfiguration of all who are in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul claims that even the Corinthian church is being transformed to reflect God’s glory.
Given what is revealed about the Corinthians in this letter, this is a preposterous claim. Has the Corinthian church really been transformed by God’s glory? These believers have caused great heartache to the apostle and to one another. Paul admits to a previous painful visit and a tearful letter. Yet, the apostle is certain that the church’s continued existence, in spite of itself, is a sign that God is at work within it.
As preposterous as it may seem, God has called the Corinthians to be God’s church, and God is actively at work transforming the believers from one degree of glory to another (3:18). Paul has faith — not in the church’s abilities to change itself — but in the Spirit’s work within it.
The text is saturated with hope that is firmly planted in God. At the beginning of 2 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to the church as his letter of recommendation (3:2). The believers themselves are the evidence that the Spirit of the living God is active in Corinth (3:3). All that they have and all that they are comes from God (3:4-5). It is Paul’s confidence in God’s work through Christ that undergirds verse 12: “since we have such a hope, we are very bold.”
Not Like Moses
Moses’s response to hide the fading glory stands in contrast to Paul’s argument. If a reader begins reading at 2 Corinthians 3:12, then the reference to Moses’s veiled face might seem like an act of deception.
According to verse 13, the intent of the veil is to disguise the fading splendor. The veil prevents the people from seeing glory, however fleeting, and that veil retains its function whenever the old covenant is read (3:14). Therefore, Moses himself becomes something of a mystery, and “reading Moses” is no different (3:15).
Taken out of context, this passage has unfortunately been used to portray Moses and the old covenant in a completely negative light. Paul’s argument, however, assumes a reverence for the written code. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul does not dispute that the written code was from God and conveyed God’s glory, but that glory was fleeting. The written code, written on tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3, 7), has its limitations. Paul preaches to the Gentiles that following the written code cannot guarantee life (cf. Galatians 3:21-22).
Paul’s argument follows the general pattern of qal wahomer — an argument that moves from the light to the heavy, from the lesser to the greater. If it were true in a lesser matter, how much more would it be true for a greater matter? If what was fading produced glory, it is certainly the case that what is permanent will have splendor. If the written code, which brought death, could transform Moses’s face for a time, it is certainly the case that the Holy Spirit — which brings life — will exceed that transformation. The Spirit is written not on stone tablets but on our hearts.
In 2 Corinthians 3:7, the written code is tantamount to the “dispensation of death.” Though Paul is not developing an extended argument concerning the law in 2 Corinthians 3, there are plenty of clues in his other letters to help interpret this passage. In Romans 7, Paul argues that the law is holy, just, and good, and in Galatians 3 the law has a purpose as a guide or tutor. The problem with the law is that it cannot produce life (Galatians 3:21-22). It cannot adequately deal with sin’s hold over all creation. The law, too, is subject to sin and cannot rescue from death. Hence, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Thus, if the law which cannot rescue one from death has the power to transform Moses’s face for a little while, how much more is it true that this new covenant that brings life through God’s Holy Spirit also produces a glory that does not fade. Rather than tablets of stone, this spiritual ink inscribes our very hearts. If something as holy as the law could lead to a fleeting transformation of Moses’ face, then surely God’s work through Christ can lead to permanent transformation.
Unlike Moses’ fleeting glory, encountering the transfigured and glorified Christ produces a growing glory — glory that becomes more and more like Christ (3:18).
Christ has removed the veil that conceals God’s transformative glory. The veil is a huge obstacle. It is a barrier for those who are reading the old covenant (3:14) and a hindrance for those who do not believe (4:3-4). For Paul, Christ’s removal of the veil cannot help but be a transformative experience. Seeing the glory of the Lord changes everything. God’s glory is exposed, but so are the depths of God’s mercy.
In 2 Corinthians 4:1, Paul uses the term “therefore,” a term that reaches back to what has come before and supports the point that he is about to make. Paul says that he and his coworkers, as recipients of God’s mercy, have the ministry to shine in the darkness and “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:8). Paul sees himself as one whose motives have been laid bare in the light of God’s glory. How could he do anything other than reflect the marvelous grace that God has granted him?
God’s grace is changing him, as he believes it is also changing the Corinthians from glory unto glory. They are being transformed by the glory of the Lord. The Corinthians may not be the perfect image of God’s glory, but Paul knows that God has not abandoned them. God’s Spirit is at work within him and within this struggling church.
On this day that the community of saints celebrates the Lord’s transfiguration, perhaps we should pray that we see the transfigured Lord in all his glory. Seeing the glory of the Lord initiates a transfiguration for all who dare to look on the splendor of Christ.