II Corinthians 3:12-18
Moses is the undisputed hero of the Old Testament. He is nothing less than God’s mediator of salvation for the Hebrew people. Moses is revered by Jews and followers of Jesus alike. Moses is, of course, the often reluctant prophet who led his people out of captivity and slavery in Egypt, into the Promised Land. But in addition to being an amazing prophet and an incredible servant of God, Moses is also known and revered as someone who enjoyed an extra special and extra personal relationship with God. In his obituary we learn that Moses and God were friends, and that they spoke to one another face to face. And in the Old Testament, that kind of relationship between God and a human being, is practically unheard of. People did not have God for a friend. It was not even the expectation that one could be friends with God. It just wasn’t done. God was completely other, God was to be revered and honored and obeyed and worshiped. But it was never imagined that one could be friends with God. And that’s why Moses stands apart in all of Hebrew history, and that is why he is so highly revered. Like no other human being of the Old Testament, Moses was friends with God.
And it is this friendship with God that the Apostle Paul is referring to in our passage this morning. Whenever Moses went to speak with God, or to commune with God, or just to be present with God, Moses took on a holy glow. In the Scriptures this is particularly evident when Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the law. He was, in a very real sense, transfigured. We know about the word “transfiguration” from the gospels. We know that one day Jesus took Peter and James and John to the top of a high mountain, and there, suddenly, Jesus’ appearance changed completely. He became so dazzling bright that the writers of the gospels are hard pressed even to begin to describe how bright it was. And who should appear there with Jesus, but Moses and Elijah! Moses, of course, was no stranger to this transfiguration thing, and Elijah, who had the distinction of not having to die, was also there appearing in glory. Elijah got whisked away to heaven in a chariot of fire, remember? It’s very tempting to talk about the significance of these two fellows showing up on the mountain with Jesus, but I’ve got to refrain, because I’m not preaching on the transfiguration, per se this morning. I’ve got to stick with Moses’ transfiguration, and our own gradual transfigurations. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
And so when Moses went up on top of the mountain to commune with God, his whole persona was altered. And this, really, should come as no surprise to us. While he was up there on the mountain, he really wasn’t on this earth anymore. He was in the very presence of God. And nobody stays the same when they are in the very presence of God. And the visible manifestation of that transformation was that Moses took on a holy glow, because the glory of God totally infused his whole being. The Scriptures speak of his face glowing with the glory of God, but we’ve got to believe that it was his whole body that glowed. It was just his face that everybody could see. Like the Rabbis said, Moses was shooting forth beams of light.
As Moses came down from the mountain, though, that glory would begin to fade. The holy glow would become less pronounced. Just the same though, when the people saw Moses, they became afraid of him, and so Moses learned to put a veil over his face until the glory had completely faded away. At least that’s how it’s reported in Exodus chapter 34. But Paul, being the consummate thinker, has done some pondering about this. And he’s pretty much reinterpreted the whole thing. Here we read in Second Corinthians that Paul says that Moses used the veil to hide his glowing face not so much to keep God’s people from being afraid of him, but rather so that they would not see the glory that was being set aside. In other words, Moses used the veil to keep the people from seeing the glory as it diminished and faded away.
And then Paul takes another huge leap of interpretation and strongly implies that the “fading glory” is actually the very laws and commandments that Moses was newly and freshly delivering to his people. Now this is very interesting. The law and commandments that Moses is delivering are brand, spanking new. They are the words of God for the people of God. Technically, there is nothing wrong with them. The laws and commandments reflect the glory of God, and they are designed to encourage the people to obey them so that the people will also reflect the glory of God; pretty good stuff, actually.
But as far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, even on the very day that Moses delivered the laws and the commandments, fresh as fresh, they were already fading away, already losing their significance, already, as Paul says, being set aside.
And that is because a critical element of Paul’s theology is that everything looks forward and ahead to the coming of Jesus Christ. And so far Paul, even as the old covenant was being established and delivered, Jesus Christ was standing in the wings, ready to usher in the new covenant.
But it is here that the Apostle gets a little sneaky. Paul was a Jew. He was a Jew by birth and he was a Jew by chosen vocation. He calls himself a Hebrew of Hebrews, born of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the most prestigious and faithful of all of the tribes of Israel. He loved the law and the commandments and was a very serious student of them. His chosen vocation was that of Pharisee. And because he was so committed to his faith, he was absolutely repulsed by the followers of Jesus. He knew that the followers of Jesus had created a dangerous and heretical cult, and that that terrible cult needed to be destroyed. And so he mounted a huge campaign to do just that. And sadly, for a while, Saul, as he was then called, was quite successful. Successful, that is, until he met Jesus face to face, and the veil of his own disbelief was removed. On the first day of his conversion, he saw the glory of God, and ironically, it blinded him. But when the veil of blindness was removed, Saul realized that the glory of God was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It was a dramatic conversion to say the least. It even changed his name from Saul to Paul.
And so being a Jew, Paul at first, felt called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with his fellow Jews. His heart was with his own people and he wanted them to experience the love and the glory of Jesus Christ. But very quickly he ran into a thick wall of personal frustration. He quickly realized that the veil of disbelief and hardness of heart that had kept him from seeing the glory of Jesus Christ, was also keeping his fellow Jews from seeing it. And he realized that there was very little that he could do to change that. And so he made a career adjustment. He started preaching the good news of the gospel to Gentiles, and the Gentiles responded.
And at first, the Gentiles in Corinth responded. They gave their lives to Jesus Christ, they were baptized, they established a church, and they got on with the work of the ministry. But due to a series of circumstances that we don’t really have time to go into this morning, the followers of Jesus in Corinth eventually hardened their hearts toward Paul. They concluded that Paul wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be, and they stopped listening to him.
And we know from his writings that this rejection was a deep source of grief for him. He has been rejected by his own people, and now he has been rejected by his brothers and sisters in Christ. And so, in our passage this morning, when Paul is talking about the veil of stubbornness and hardness of heart that is so powerfully present in his fellow Jews, he’s really talking about the followers of Jesus in Corinth, who are also afflicted with a veil of stubbornness and hardness of heart that keeps them from seeing the glory of God.
And, of course, this ought not to be. The followers of Jesus ought to be reveling in the glory of God. The glory of God is shining bright in the work and ministry of Jesus Christ. There is no veil that covers the glory of Jesus. It is shooting forth great beams of light.
The point that Paul is making is two-fold: the glory of Jesus Christ is there for all to see. Followers of Jesus then, ought to be reflecting that glory. Followers of Jesus ought to have a face that glows with holy glory. Too often, however, we wear a veil, just as Moses did, to hide and cover that holy glory. This, of course, ought not to be. All followers of Jesus ought to be busy at peeling off our veils. The problem is, though, that like the folks in Corinth, we become satisfied with just a little twinkling of a holy glow. Now, a bit of a disclaimer here: please don’t intuit that I am encouraging us to remove our covid masks. That’s not at all what I’m saying. In fact, the covid mask makes it all that more critical that we remove the veil of stubbornness and hardheartedness so that the glory of Jesus can shine through the covid mask. No covid mask has the ability to hide the glory of Jesus. Only a veil of stubbornness and hardheartedness can do that.
Paul is saying, that like Moses, and like Jesus Christ himself, we’ve got to be transfigured. We’ve got to be on the path, especially in these dark times, of reflecting more and more of the glory of our Lord. Paul puts it into these words: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Among the followers of Jesus, there is no place for stubbornness, or hardness of heart, and especially, no place for veiled glory. All of us are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, step by step, and glory added to glory, until we all light up this dark world with great shooting beams of light as the sun does every single morning.