This snippet from Paul’s letter presents numerous challenges to the preacher. Is it worth reading at all in worship without comment and interpretation? These four verses by themselves can create several problems for the listeners. Who are those who are “perishing” mentioned in the text? Is the “god of this world” Satan, and if so, how can Paul refer to Satan as a “god”? Isn’t that a kind of dualism which runs counter to the overall Christian worldview? What does it mean for Paul to call himself and his co-workers “slaves” to the Corinthian Christians “for Jesus’ sake”?
If we are to preach on this text, shall we add verses to the reading? I think the answer is yes, but the question is, which verses? I would begin reading at 2 Corinthians 3:17 to access more of the structure of Paul’s argument here. I would be tempted to continue through 2 Corinthians 4:12, but that presents the temptation to offer a Bible study during worship in the place of a sermon. So, I think I would stick with 3:17 through 4:6, bookended by our “unveiled faces” on the one end and “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” on the other end.
So, I have established what I think is a manageable preaching text. Now, what is Paul saying in that text? Carla Works gives a helpful synopsis in her workingpreacher.org commentary. It’s worth quoting one of her paragraphs here.
“For Paul’s argument to make sense, one must imagine the argument backwards. With Christ, Paul sees God’s glory as he has never seen it before. It is as though the law turned on a flashlight in the darkness, but Christ has shone daylight. After seeing the world with the light of the sun, the limitations of the flashlight, though a wonderful tool, are obvious. The law — though a gift of God — could only provide fleeting light of glory. If the law, with all its limitations, brought glory that was fleeting, how much more glory will abound by seeing Christ (2 Corinthians 3:9-11)! While the law produced glory that fades, seeing Christ results in glory that grows as the witnesses are being transformed into Christ’s likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18).”
Paul is once again at pains to establish his apostolic bona fides with the Corinthian Christians. Paul and the Corinthians have had a sort of running epistolary gun battle which seems to climax in what we have as 2 Corinthians. Paul gets about as close to an apology as he ever gets in letters in 2 Corinthians 2:4 – “For I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”
He goes on to note the struggles he and his co-workers endured in dealing with the Corinthians in the midst of other ministry challenges. Even as he describes the challenges, he worries that his account is sounding like boasting. So, he reassures them that the authority and competence he and his colleagues have comes completely from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. That authority and competence are not limited to pronouncing judgment on the recalcitrant. Rather, Paul’s vocation is to show forth the glory of God which is the ministry of the Spirit among the Corinthians.
That brings us to the extended metaphor of the veil over Moses’ face that takes us from 2 Corinthians 3:7 through the end of chapter 4. Paul refers to the report of Moses’ face when he returned from the forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, where he received the stone tablets carrying “the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exodus 34:28). Moses was unaware that the skin of his face glowed with divine light “because he had been talking with God” (34:29). This divine glow frightened Aaron and the other Israelites, and they kept their distance. To reassure the terrified people, Moses wore a veil over his face when he spoke to them. But he took off the veil when he spoke face to face with the LORD.
Paul uses a “how much more then” argument in this section of the letter. If the Divine glory can be revealed in the giving of the Law, how much more does the Divine glory shine forth in the proclamation of the Gospel? Paul knows that the light on Moses’ face faded with time and was renewed only in additional encounters with the LORD. The glory that shines forth in Christ does not fade but rather is “permanent” (2 Corinthians 3:11).
“Our clue for interpreting this text is found in the preceding verses,” writes Lois Malcolm in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul speaks about how — through the Spirit of the Lord — all of us, with ‘unveiled faces,’ can ‘behold’ and ‘reflect’ the glory of the Lord as in a mirror.” She notes that the Greek verb can mean both “to behold” and “to reflect.” She concludes, “As this happens, we are ‘transformed’ into that image, from one degree of glory to another.”
This description of both receiving (as in, seeing) and reflecting the glory of Christ is what it means to be the image of God. N. T. Wright often describes human beings as “angled mirrors.” Our vocation as bearers of the Divine Image is to reflect that Image into Creation and to reflect that Creation to the Creator. When we receive and reflect the glory of Christ, we are becoming more and more fully human – “being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory into another” (3:18).
Malcolm notes that “what this text says about Jesus also says something about who we become in him. Since the light of the gospel always entails both seeing and shining, we not only ‘behold’ the image of God in the Messiah’s face, but also ‘reflect’ its glory and in this way, likewise, mirror that shining as we encounter others’ faces. This is how we are transformed — indeed are ‘transfigured,’” she writes, “by the light of God shining in our hearts in the ‘face’ of Jesus the Messiah.”
There is a large theological land mine resting in this text, and we must be careful not to detonate it for our listeners. This is why I probably would not read the text in worship without preaching on it. Paul uses the image of the veil to point to the hardness of heart on the part of those who don’t “get it.” It’s clear that he means his Jewish contemporaries, as we can see in 2 Corinthians 3:15-16. The land mine is an ugly sort of supersessionism that blames Jews for “unbelief” and leads on a straight line to the casual Antisemitism found in so many Christian sermons.
I think we must say explicitly several things here. First, our causal Antisemitism has been part of much more virulent Antisemitism historically and in our own time. That prejudice has cost millions of lives and must be acknowledged and denounced at every opportunity. Second, Paul’s method of argument may have worked for him, but it doesn’t work for us. Third, his real target audience is not Jews outside of the Corinthian congregation but rather the hardhearted recalcitrants in that predominantly Gentile congregation.
Therefore, Paul is engaged in a first-century intra-Jewish debate in this passage. That debate must be read in light of his extended discussion, for example, in Romans 9-11. We twenty-first century Gentiles cannot take part in that debate, especially in a post-Holocaust world. Instead, we need to take the outlines of Paul’s argument here and turn it toward ourselves and our own faith communities.
“As we teach and preach from 2 Corinthians in honor of our Lord’s transfiguration, perhaps we should ask ourselves in what ways we might be complicit in the veiling of God’s light in our world,” Carla Works suggests in her workingpreacher.org comments. “Fortunately, God chose us — the weak and fragile vessels that we are (2 Corinthians 4:7) — to display God’s glory. That glory is transforming us and molding us into Christ’s image. The good news,” she concludes, “is that God’s light will not be overcome by darkness.”
If we focus on our own communities, where might we be “complicit in the veiling of God’s light in our world?” If we adopt Paul’s rhetorical strategy rather than all the specifics of his situation, we might note that his argument in Corinth continues to be with those who think their worldly privilege gets them preference in God’s reign.
“The irony is that not all people accept this good news of God manifested through Jesus because some of them cannot give up what they have: wealth, power, or fame,” writes Yung Suk Kim in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “This gospel is veiled to some,” he suggests, “not because God’s mercy is short but because they seek other things and do not follow the way of Jesus.”
In this regard, I might refer readers to my post from this past Sunday on dealing with demons. As Kim writes. “’the god of this world’ prevents some people from following the way of Christ; they follow the god of this world, which means they live with all kinds of human-centered ideologies and practices that do not seek God’s righteousness. They do not see the light that comes from the gospel of Christ,” he concludes, “because they are blinded by worldly desires.”
One role of this text in our preaching, then, is to confront us with the Law, exposing our own “worldly desires” that blind us to the light of Christ and keep that light from shining through us. Another role of this text in our preaching may be to proclaim the good news that we can be, in fact, those angled mirrors reflecting the light of Christ into a world of darkness. More on that in the next post.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.