Being Changed by God’s Glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-18)
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Paul has just introduced a contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, between the letter of the Mosaic law and the leadership of the dynamic Spirit of God.
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant “� not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (3:6)
Now Paul continues this contrast in 3:7-18 by showing the basis of the Old Covenant as the work of the Spirit through Moses, the Spirit that “� under the New Covenant “� works through all believers.
But why is Paul explaining such things to an overwhelmingly Gentile church? Probably because his opponents in Corinth had Jewish connections and were trying to “out-Hebrew” Paul himself. Later in this letter, Paul argues against these false apostles:
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.” (11:22)
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul offers a similar defense, for the same reason “� to counteract the Jewish or Jewish-Christian opponents there:
“… Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee….” (Philippians 3:5)
Paul, the trained Pharisee, corrects these Jewish-Christian opponents with a typical Rabbinic argument from the lesser to the greater.
- Ministry of Spirit is more splendid than ministry of death (3:7-8)
- Ministry of righteousness is more splendid than the ministry of condemnation (3:9-10)
- Permanent ministry is more splendid than that which passes away (3:11).
You’ll see these themes in the text:
“7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (3:7-11)
Paul agrees that the Old Covenant, characterized by the Ten Commandments (“engraved with letters on stone”�) was glorious. He refers to Moses’ experience of encountering God on Mount Sinai and his practice of talking to God in his tent of meeting and then emerging with the glow of God’s glory on his face.
“29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiantbecause he had spoken with the LORD. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him….
“33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the LORD’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.” (Exodus 34:29-30, 33-35)
I envy Moses! He had prayed, “Show me your glory,” and God had answered in this unique expression of God’s glory on Moses’ face. That’s how the law was given. That’s how Israel was led through the desert “� by a man who sought God and spoke with him face to face.
But, Paul argues, that however glorious its origins, the law didn’t bring life to God’s people as the Spirit does. In Paul’s analogy, the glory of the law fades or passes away, while the Spirit of God continues with us to this day.
Q1. (2 Corinthians 3:7-11) Why did Moses’ face glow? Why did he cover it when he was out with the people? Why didn’t more people’s face glow in Moses’ time? What’s the difference between the spread of God’s glory in Moses’ time when compared to our own time?
– “Why can’t we sing more of the songs that I like?”
– “I don’t think the preacher should talk about this or that!”
– “I can’t believe so-and-so didn’t talk to me today!”
– “No one ever notices what I do in the church.”
Here’s the problem: Worship isn’t about getting anything; it’s about giving everything to God! The above attitudes make us idle judges of activity rather than active participants in adoration toward a holy God. Christian consumerism defines the quality of our worship by the number of ministries for people, the size and quality of our buildings, the popularity of our pastors, the style of our music and an obvious determination to make people happy. One concern emerges as primary: “What have you done for me lately?”
Unfortunately, we still fall short of making everyone happy, and God is disgusted with our obvious worship of and preoccupation with ourselves. Our efforts to be seeker-sensitive and self-sensitive have made us insensitive to the Divine Presence who is to be the focus of our worship. Or, as the apostle Paul said, we have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
Personal struggles, selfish ambitions, bickering among God’s people and worship wars are all indications that we desperately need to return to the heart of worship. Doing so requires recognizing who we are in light of who God is and seeking to exalt Him to His rightful place in our lives, our families and our church. Paul gives us three realities that point us to the heart of worship. First, you have to realize . . .
Our Life’s Privilege Is to Receive Christ
Notice how 2 Corinthians 3:18 begins: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord.” Notice two phrases here: “with unveiled face, beholding” and then “the glory of the Lord.” Through Christ, the veil, which covers the glory of the God, is removed. How? John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In the person of Jesus Christ, we behold the glory of God continually.
The background of this statement is found in Exodus 33, where Moses meets with the Lord on Mount Sinai after the people of Israel committed idolatry. In doing so, he saw the glory of God. Why does Paul use the imagery of an “unveiled face” beholding the Lord here in 2 Corinthians 3:18? After seeing the glory of God, Exodus 34:29-30 reveals: “It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai . . . that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” Thus, the Bible says in Exodus 34:33, “When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.”
Throughout 2 Corinthians 3, Paul offers his commentary on this incident. Notice 2 Corinthians 3:7: “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was” (emphasis mine). 2 Corinthians 3:13 says that we “are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away” (emphasis mine).
Moses was in the presence of God for a limited time, thus the glory of God faded. Christians, however, abide in the presence of God forever; and the glory never fades. Verse 18 proclaims “with unveiled face” we are beholding “the glory of the Lord.” It is a privilege to receive Christ because in Him we behold the glory of God continually.
Moses understood that leading the people on their journey was impossible without the presence of God. Thus, in Exodus 33:15 he says, “If Your presence does not go [with us,] do not lead us up from here.” The lesson is powerful: Having God is better than having what God gives. Seeing God in all His glory is the primary goal of worship. It’s not about how we do or don’t feel. The privilege of Christianity is God Himself. Beholding His glory must be our agenda.
Our tendency to make worship about ourselves is not new. 2 Corinthians 3:15 describes the religious leaders of Jesus’ day this way: “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart.” In other words, you can’t see the glory of God and worship yourself at the same time. 2 Corinthians 3:16 presents a better alternative: “whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”
2 Corinthians 3:18 ~ But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
The greatest person in the universe is God. He is transcendent, eternal, infinite, self-sufficient, sovereign, just… He is the all-knowing and all-wise being to whom the angels cry out day and night, “Holy, holy, holy!” These holy angels who’ve never sinned and have remained in their perfect created state need to shield their faces from the brilliant radiance of His glory (cf. Isa 6:2). If He were to unleash the fullness of His splendor upon us right now, we would all fall dead instantly (cf. Exo 33:20). So when Paul states in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that believers are able to behold God’s glory, we scratch our heads and wonder what he means. Is it possible for saved sinners to actually see the glory of God?
This verse has transformed my life. I’ve probably read it hundreds of times. But it was only when I studied it and took the time to ponder it, that by God’s grace, the amazing truths packed into this one verse changed everything – truths of God’s glory, faith, sanctification, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray it will grip your heart and light a passion in you for the glory of Christ! Look with me at three profound truths from this single verse.
The first truth is that all believers have access to the glory of God. Paul states, “But we all, with unveiled face.” Earlier in verses 14-16, Paul says that believers have had the veil of their hearts taken away through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the very moment we are saved, the veil has been lifted from our eyes so that we can see the glory of God for the first time. And this access to see Him is never impeded, but always available to us as His children (cf. Heb 4:16).
This ought to give our hearts great hope! No matter where we are at, no matter how “stuck” we feel spiritually, no matter if we haven’t seen His glory in a long time, if we belong to Him, we have had the veil removed from our hearts and we can behold His glory once more!
The second truth is that the glory of God is the supernatural source for our spiritual transformation. The grammar of this verse proves this point (Let’s go back to grade school grammar, shall we?). The subject and main verb of this sentence is: “We all… are being transformed.” Then there is a participial phrase that shows how this happens: by “beholding the glory of the Lord.” So how are believers transformed? By beholding the glory of the Lord. But how can we behold it without dying? And where can we go to see it today?
A few verses later in 4:6, Paul describes where the glory of God is revealed… “in the face of Christ.” In other words, the glory of God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and specifically, according to 4:4, “the gospel of the glory of Christ.” The Gospel encompasses the great work of Christ in His death and resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4). So according to Paul, the glory of God can be clearly seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But why is this so? Why does the death and resurrection of Christ reveal God’s glory most clearly? It’s because no other event in human history reveals the love, grace, and mercy of God more than the Cross work of Jesus. John Piper writes…
“All things are created and guided and sustained for the glory of God, which reaches its apex in the glory of His grace, which shines most brightly in the glory of Christ, which comes to focus most clearly in the glory of the Cross.”
Therefore, seeing the beauty and wonder of God’s love and grace for sinners like us through the excruciating, agonizing, shocking death of His beloved Son is the means for our spiritual transformation. Paul says we “behold” it, which simply means we believe it (cf. John 6:40). We trust in it. We walk by faith in “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). And when we do, the supernatural power of God through the Holy Spirit changes everything about us – our motives, our desires, our attitudes, our affections, our thoughts, our words and our works (cf. Gal 5:22-23).
This leads us to the third truth… true spiritual transformation takes place from the inside out. The word “transformed” is where we get our English word “metamorphosis.” It speaks of a total and complete change in a person’s fundamental character. It’s change at the deepest level of our being, at the heart. And this internal transformation will inevitably and joyfully lead to obedience to the will of God. There is no room for “cheap grace” or licentious living when we’re dealing with God’s powerful grace.
When we continue to behold the glory of God in the gospel work of Jesus Christ, our hearts are transformed with a profound love for Christ! And this love motivates us to joyfully live for Him, no matter what the cost may be. Just as the forgiven woman in Luke 7 endured the public shame and ridicule at the home of Simon the Pharisee so that she could demonstrate her loving devotion to Jesus Christ (v. 38), our hearts will be willing and longing to do anything in order to please and glorify Jesus!
So there you have it. Yes, we can behold God’s glory today. Not visibly with our eyes, but with the eyes of our hearts. We can see the amazing, everlasting glory of God in the truth of the Cross-work of Jesus Christ. Maybe your Christian life has been on “cruise control” and you’re not sure how to get out of the lukewarm rut you’re in. Maybe you’re suffering under a heavy trial and you’re responses aren’t very godly. Maybe you’re battling a recurring temptation to sin… again. Maybe you’re doubting God’s great love for you because of the weight of sin’s guilt. Whatever the struggle may be, know this truth, that Jesus Christ can bring instant and powerful change to your heart and life.
So run quickly to the resurrected Christ. Gaze into the depths of His sufferings. And think of what He did in order to demonstrate the infinite depths of His love for great sinners like us!