Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
This passage is all about hope. But when Paul speaks about hope, he has something very specific in mind—the hope linked with the new age that the Messiah Jesus’ suffering and death has ushered in. So, what is this hope that he associates with Jesus? And what does it mean for us—today—especially when so much of the world within and around us seems to contradict it?
Hope, Parrhesia, and Moses’ Veil
Paul begins by associating hope with “parrhesia” (3:12). The Greek word parrēsia is usually translated as “boldness,” but in ancient Greece it actually had to do with the kind of free and open truth-speaking that only takes place among equals (in other words, in a democracy).1 In a somewhat similar vein, the Septuagint associates parrhesia not only with the biblical events of Exodus and Sinai (Leviticus 26:13), but also with the personified figure of Wisdom, who cries out in the public square (Proverbs 1:20).
Paul contrasts such parrhesia with Moses’ “veil” (3:13). As the story goes, after Moses had received the tablets with the commandments, his face shone so brightly that he frightened the people. Thus, he put a veil on his face, to protect them from its dazzling brightness. However, we should note, he would take the veil off whenever he would go before the Lord to hear the Lord speak and then tell the people what he had heard. One could say that “unveiled” he spoke with the parrhesia that only comes from hearing the Lord speak (Exodus 34:29-35).
Hardened Minds and the Spirit of the Lord
This vignette about Moses and the veil in Exodus occurs right after the story of the Golden Calf, which describes how the people built an idol to worship while Moses was away receiving the tablets with the commandments (Exodus 32-34). Thus, when Paul says that the people’s “minds were hardened” (3:14), he is alluding to the way their desire for a god they could fabricate, and bend to their wishes, had become a kind of hardened “veil” for them, which kept them from hearing what God was saying through Moses (or the Scripture). Only the Messiah could “set aside” this veil (3:14). Only in this way could a “new covenant” be written on their hearts, where everyone—from the least to the greatest—would know the Lord (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
We must note, especially given Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries, that at the time Paul wrote this letter, the messianic movement around Jesus was still a sect within Judaism. Further, Paul was not addressing “Jewish legalism” in this letter, but the misuse of spiritual power related to false claims rival apostles within this messianic movement were making about Jesus, the Spirit, and the gospel (11:4) and what it means to an “apostle of the Messiah” (11:13) in the service of “righteousness” (3:9; 11:5).
In fact, these “super-apostles,” and those they seduced within the Corinthian congregation, may have more in common with contemporary Christians than we might think. We too would often prefer to keep our “veils” intact rather than take responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors by coming to grips with the shame and resentment we often project onto others.
The Lord Is the Spirit
Paul goes on to say, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17). I think we best interpret this verse by holding together—while also distinguishing—Paul’s various allusions. Given the Exodus passages Paul has been interpreting, “the Lord” in 3:17 obviously refers to the Lord at Sinai. Nonetheless, it is precisely this “Lord” (of Sinai) that he is equating with “Spirit” (of the messianic age), who would write the law on the people’s hearts (3:3).2 At the same time, we need to keep in mind that Paul usually refers to the Messiah Jesus as “Lord” and that he, at times, appears to equate the “Messiah,” raised from the dead, with the “Spirit” (for example, Romans 8:9-10), even as he also distinguishes “Messiah” from “Spirit” in most other contexts.
Reflecting and Beholding the Glory of the Lord
With all these allusions, Paul seeks to communicate to his readers that through the Messiah’s sufferings and consolations “all of us” now can, indeed, enjoy the freedom of being “unveiled.” All of us now can both “see” and “reflect” (as the verb katoptrizesthai in the middle voice indicates) the glory of the Lord in our own and one another’s faces (3:18; 4:4). In this way, the Spirit writes the law—the Torah—on our hearts, conforming us together to the image of the Messiah, who as God’s Wisdom becomes within and among us “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of God’s goodness” (Wisdom 7:26).
Of course, Moses directly mirrored the Lord’s glory in its “transcendent blindingness,” but we whose hope lies in Messiah only “transmit the subtle and subsumed splendor of God’s abasement.”3 Through a slow, and at times painful transfiguration, we are literally “metamorphosized” (metamorphoumetha) as we see and reflect God’s image in Jesus—carrying around in our bodies his death so that his life might be manifest in those very bodies (4:10-11).
Renouncing Shame and Manifesting Truth
This now is why we have hope, and why we need not lose heart. Amidst whatever is taking place in our lives, God’s mercy is at work. Thus, we can boldly renounce the shame we would rather hide and the pernicious things it would make us do. We no longer need to be cunning or calculating; we can face up to the ways we deceitfully use God’s word to buttress our interests. Instead, we can embody parrhesia, commending our very selves to everyone’s conscience before God with sincerity and an open manifestation of truth (4:1-2).
- Michel Foucault, “Discourse and Truth” and “Parresia” (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2019).
- See also Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26.
- Samuel Terrein, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 458.