2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Paul was well acquainted with the Corinthian church. He visited Corinth three times. On his first visit, he lived in Corinth 18 months (Acts 18:1-17). Later, he enjoyed visits by Corinthian Christians while ministering in Ephesus, and wrote several letters to Corinth.
In 3:1-11, Paul contrasts:
• “Tablets of stone” (the commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai) with “tablets that are hearts of flesh” (the hearts of the Corinthian Christians) (3:3).
• And the letter that kills (the Mosaic Law) with the Spirit that gives life (3:6).
• And “the service of death, written on stones, (which) came with glory” with the glory of the Spirit (3:7-8).
• And “the service of condemnation (which) has glory” with the greater glory of “the service of righteousness” (3:9).
His point is that people found it impossible to comply fully with the Mosaic Law, just as we find it impossible to comply fully with Jesus’ teachings—but Jesus brought to us the saving grace of the cross—a saving grace that was not fully present in the Old Testament.
In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul said that God intended the law to be a “tutor (Greek:paidagogos—tutor, schoolmaster, guardian) to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24), so the law was intended to be temporary—until the Messiah came. The law required recurring animal sacrifices, but “it (was) impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). God wanted a once-for-all sacrifice, his Son, whose death and resurrection would be truly effective for people irrespective of their links to Judaism.
Paul concludes these verses, “For if that which passes away (the Mosaic Law) was with glory, much more that which remains (Jesus’ death and resurrection) is in glory” (3:11).
The following is the Old Testament story to which Paul alludes in the last half of 2 Corinthians 3:13-15:
EXODUS 33:18. MOSES SAID, “PLEASE SHOW ME YOUR GLORY.”
19 Yahweh said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” 20 He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” 21 Yahweh also said, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. 22 It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
34:28 Moses was (on Mt. Sinai) with Yahweh forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread, nor drank water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
29 It happened, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mountain, that Moses didn’t know that the skin of his face shone by reason of his speaking with Yahweh. 30 When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come near him.
31 Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the children of Israel came near, and he gave them all of the commandments that Yahweh had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses was done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. 34 But when Moses went in before Yahweh to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and he came out, and spoke to the children of Israel that which he was commanded. 35 The children of Israel saw Moses’ face, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with Yahweh (Exodus 33:18-23; 34:28-35).
GLORY: The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things, but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17).
When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). But God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23). The point was that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to experience it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We can’t deal with it.
As we might expect, “the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34) and the temple (1 Kings 8:11). God also promises that the day will come when his glory will fill all the earth (Numbers 14:21).
Christ shares God’s glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, were privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ’s cross was necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
The apostle Paul notes that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but then says, “We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
2 CORINTHIANS 3:12-15. MOSES’ VEIL
12 Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, 13 and not as Moses, who put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away. 14 But their minds were hardened, for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains, because in Christ it passes away. 15 But to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.
“Having therefore such a hope“ (v. 12a). The hope that Paul mentions here is found in 3:11, “For if that which passes away (the old covenant—Moses) was with glory, much more that which remains (the new covenant—Jesus) is in glory” (3:11). The glory of the new covenant is our hope.
“we use great boldness of speech“ (v. 12b). Confidence—especially confidence founded on positive personal experiences—inspires boldness of speech. When we find a doctor or plumber or restaurant that we really like, we tend to tell others—boldly.
Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), which inspired his “great boldness of speech.” He not only saw Jesus on that occasion, but has walked with him ever since. He knows Jesus to be the Messiah—the one for whom Israel had waited for centuries—and the one who had come to save the world (John 3:16-17).
“and not as Moses, who put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away“ (v. 13). For many years, I misread the Exodus story. I had thought of Moses as wearing the veil as he addressed people, because they were afraid when they saw his shining face (Exodus 34:30). However, I later realized that Moses donned the veil only after he had concluded reporting to the assembled crowd (Exodus 34:33). When he entered the presence of God, he removed the veil “until he came out” (Exodus 34:34). “The children of Israel saw Moses’ face, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with (God)” (Exodus 34:35).
Paul says that Moses wore the veil, not because of the people’s fear of his shining face, but “that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away.” It makes sense, according to this understanding, that Moses removed the veil when in the presence of God, because his additional exposure to God might rejuvenate the fading glory in his face.
“But their minds were hardened“ (Greek: poroo—hardened, calloused) (v. 14a). For the most part, the Old Testament doesn’t accuse the Israelites of hardening their hearts against God.
• An exception is Psalm 95:8-9, when God says, “Don’t harden your heart, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tempted me, tested me, and saw my work.” The story of Meribah and Massah is found in Exodus 17:1-7, where the Israelites, having insufficient water, quarreled with God and tested him.
• Another exception is King Zedekiah, an evil Israelite king, who hardened his heart against God (2 Chronicles 36:13).
In his appeal to God to turn back from his wrath against Israel, the prophet Isaiah accuses God of hardening the hearts of the Israelites (Isaiah 63:17).
More usual is the comment that God hardened the heart of an opponent of Israel—especially Pharaoh:
• Pharaoh (Exodus 4:21; 7:3-22; 9:12, 34-35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10;14:4, 17).
• King Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:30).
• King Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:20).
In the New Testament:
• Jesus said that Moses allowed divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew19:8; Mark 10:5).
• Jesus grieved at the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, who were unconcerned with the plight of the man with a withered hand (Mark 3:5).
• Paul warns about the judgment that the hard of heart will face “in the day of wrath” (Romans 2:5). In that instance, he is talking about those who judge/condemn others (Romans 2:1-4)—as well as those “who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25; see also 1:26-32).
• The author of the book of Ephesians warns Christians not to walk in the ways of Gentiles who are alienated from God “because of the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:17-18).
• The author of the book of Hebrews says “don’t harden your hearts, as in the rebellion,
as in the day of the trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested me by proving me (Hebrews 3:8-9; see also 4:7).
“for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains, because in Christ it passes away“ (katargeo—becomes inactive or idle or void) (v. 14b). “The old covenant” is another term for the Old Testament.
There is nothing inherently wrong with reading the Old Testament, which details the workings of God, in particular with regard to the Israelites, until the coming of the Messiah. The Old Testament forms a portion of the foundation of our faith, and our understanding of the New Testament would be profoundly impaired without an understanding of the Old Testament.
But Paul, particularly concerned here with Jews who have hardened their hearts against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, uses Moses’ veil as a way of describing the way that they have put on blinders that prevent them from seeing anything beyond the Jewish law—that prevent them from acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah.
But this impaired vision is clarified once a person accepts Christ as Lord. I was born with profound nearsightedness, but my vision is correctable with eyeglasses. I remember when I first got glasses—and first saw leaves on trees as objects distinct unto themselves instead of being a part of a green mass. That serves as a metaphor for the transformation that Christ works in our lives when we make him Lord of our lives.
“But to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart” (v. 15). Paul’s wording in this verse is based on Exodus 34:34, which says that Moses took off his veil when in the presence of God, but put it back on his face after leaving God’s presence.
2 CORINTHIANS 3:16-18. THE LORD TAKES THE VEIL AWAY
16 But whenever one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.
“But whenever one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away“ (v. 16). In verse 14b, Paul said that “in Christ (the veil) passes away.” Here he restates that idea in somewhat different words.
“The Lord” is ambiguous. It could mean God the Father or God the Son (Jesus). Some scholars believe that “the Lord” in this verse refers to God the Father rather than to Jesus. Frankly, I have tried to understand their reasoning, and have failed.
Earlier Paul said, “because in Christ (the veil) passes away” (v. 14b). In verse 16 (this verse), he says, “whenever one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” The similarity of these two verses convinces me that Paul meant “the Lord” to refer to Jesus here.
“Now the Lord (Greek: ho kurios) is the Spirit“ (v. 17a). However, if this verse intends to equate Jesus with the Holy Spirit, it is out of sync with the rest of the New Testament.
Jesus is the incarnate (in the flesh) manifestation of God, and the Spirit is the presence of God that is experienced rather than seen. Jesus was the visible presence of God in our midst. The things that the Spirit does can be seen, but not the Spirit itself.
So in this verse, I equate “the Lord” with God the Father.
“and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty“ (v. 17b). In this verse, I equate “the Lord” with God the Father, because it is God’s Spirit rather than Jesus’ Spirit. However, “the Lord” in verses 16-17 has been debated by people whose scholarship is superior to mine. Read their commentaries and see what you think.
Paul’s point here is that the Spirit brings liberty—freedom from the hundreds of commandments of the Jewish law. While the Jewish law was given by God, he intended it as a tutor or schoolmaster (Greek:paidagogos)—a temporary guide for the immature (Galatians 3:24).
“But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed (Greek: metamorphoomai) into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit“ (v. 18).
The Greek word for “transformed” is metamorphoomai from which we get our word metamorphosis. Metamorphoomai is present tense, which in the Greek suggests an ongoing process.
This process happens differently with different people. We have seen instances where a thorough reprobate is suddenly transformed into a sterling citizen upon meeting the risen Christ. That doesn’t mean that his/her transformation is complete, but rather that the initial change is dramatic—with more to come. For most of us, the initial transformation is less dramatic—but again, there is more to come. Metamorphoomai is a lifelong process. God is intent on helping us to become better day by day until the day we die—the day that God prepares us for another metamorphosis—our resurrection and being ushered into our heavenly home.
We use the word metamorphosis to describe the change that occurs when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Paul says that, when we become Christians, we begin to view the glory of the Lord with unveiled face.
We aren’t exposed to the full measure of God’s glory, but view it “as in a mirror”—protected from the lethal force of God’s glory, just as Moses was protected on the mountain as he waited in the cleft of a rock, shielded by God’s hand as God’s glory passed by.
When we behold the glory of the Lord, God transforms us into as new kind of person—a change as dramatic as when a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly.
2 CORINTHIANS 4:1-2. WE HAVE RENOUNCED THE HIDDEN THINGS
1 Therefore seeing we have this ministry, even as we obtained mercy, we don’t faint. 2 But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by the manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
“Therefore seeing we have this ministry, even as we obtained mercy, we don’t faint“ (Greek: ekkakeo) (v. 1). The verb ekkakeo means to become fainthearted, to become a coward, or to lose heart.
Having a ministry that results in changed lives energizes Paul and his colleagues. They don’t become fainthearted (ekkakeo) in the face of hardships, because their purpose is greater than their pain. Also, as the song says, “(they) know who holds the future, and (they) know who holds (their) hand.”
When Paul speaks of having obtained mercy, we need to remember that he had been a persecutor of the church. He “ravaged the (church), entering into every house, and dragged both men and women off to prison” (Acts 8:3). But soon thereafter, he was encountered by the risen Christ on the Damascus road, and experienced personally the transformation that Christ can bring about (Acts 9:1ff). At that point, he became a believer—a believer fully incorporated into the church and fully forgiven for all that he had done.
“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully“ (v. 2a). Paul’s opponents in Corinth have made various charges against Paul. They have claimed that he has practiced guile with regard to money (11:7-15; 12:11-18). They have also claimed that he has handled the word of God deceitfully by failing to require believers to submit to the strictures of the Jewish law—circumcision in particular.
But Paul denies these charges categorically. Except for his accusers, the Corinthian Christians know his rock-solid integrity. He refused to take money from them, preferring to provide his own support by making tents for sale (Acts 18:3). That should have removed all doubt concerning his motives, but his opponents persisted in their accusations. They, not Paul, were guilty of embracing “hidden things of shame” and “walking in craftiness.”
Paul’s conflict with those who insisted on imposing circumcision and other elements of the Jewish law on Christian believers was present, not only in Corinth, but also in the Galatian church (see Galatians 2:3; 5:2-12; 6:12, 15) and elsewhere. That issue was fundamental to the Christian faith, which makes Christians wholly reliant on the salvation work of Christ rather than the keeping of the law.
“but by the manifestation (Greek: phanerosis) of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God“ (v. 2b). Instead of shameful or crafty behavior, Paul and his colleagues have manifested (phanerosis—to make visible) the truth. They have embodied the truth—have made it visible and obvious to all who have eyes to see. Those with good consciences will know this and will credit Paul with proper motives.
But the real judge of Paul’s character is not the Corinthians, but God. Everything Paul has done has been “in the sight of God.” Paul stated that clearly in his first letter to the Corinthian church, saying, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you, or by man’s judgment. Yes, I don’t judge my own self. For I know nothing against myself. Yet I am not justified by this, but he who judges me is the Lord” (4:3-4).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Corinthians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Barrett, C.K., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)
Barnett, Paul, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997)
Best, Ernest, Interpretation: Second Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987)
Brown, William P., in Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Cousar, Charles B., in Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., McCann, J. Clinton, and Newsome, James D., Texts for Teaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Furnish, Victor Paul, The Anchor Bible: II Corinthians (New York: Doubleday, 1984)
Garland, David E., The New American Commentary: 2 Corinthians, Vol. 29 (Broadman Press, 1999)
Harris, Murray J., The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)
Holladay, Carl R. in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Kruse, Colin, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 2 Corinthians, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 2004)
Martin, Ralph P., Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians, Vol. 40 (Dallas: Word Books, 1986)
Minor, Mitzi L., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2009
Radner, Ephraim, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Roetzel, Calvin J., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 2 Corinthians (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2007)
Sampley, J. Paul, The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Scott, James M., New International Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998)
Shillington, V. George, Believers Church Bible Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998)
Copyright 2016, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan