Authentic Ministry 7/Second Corinthians
We have now come to what might be called the crescendo of the great new covenant symphony. The overture was glorious, but it nevertheless fades in our memory as we listen to the portion of the performance that God has brought us to now.
“But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished . . .” (2 Cor. 3:7–18).
A Quick Correction
Before summarizing the text, we need to begin with a correction of a common misconception about this passage. That misconception is that Moses put a veil on his face in order that the Israelites would not realize how transient his radiance was. This is thought because of a mistranslation of a verb that occurs three times here (vv. 7, 11, 13). In this understanding, the radiance of Moses’ countenance drained, like a battery drains, and he would then go into the tabernacle to meet with God, and to recharge his face. This is not correct; the verb used here (katargeo) does not actually have the meaning of “to fade away.” Rather, the children of Israel could not look at the glory of the ministry of death, a ministry that was going to be rendered inoperative, or be made obsolete.
Summary of the Text
The law was a ministry of death. Graven in stones, external to the heart, all it could do was kill you. Nevertheless, this killing law was still glorious, and the Israelites couldn’t even look at it (v. 7). This glory, the glory of the law, was to be done away. How much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit have to be then (v. 8)? If the ministry of condemnation was glorious, how much surpassing glory would the ministry of imputed righteousness need to have (v. 9)? Like a bright moon that fades when the sun rises, the former glory pales in comparison (v. 10). If the temporary ministry of condemnation was glorious, why would the permanent ministry of imputed righteousness not be much more glorious (v. 11)? All of this is the basis of Paul’s plain speaking (v. 12). Paul could do what Moses couldn’t, which was to administer the glory which both ministries had (v. 13). Israel couldn’t even look at their glory. The reason was that their minds were blinded, down to Paul’s day. For them the veil remained in the reading of the law, but the veil is removed in Christ (v. 14). He repeats the point—down to his day, when Moses is read, the veil is on their hearts (v. 15). When they turn to Christ, the veil is lifted (v. 16). The Lord is the Spirit who brings the liberty of being able to handle glory (v. 17). But we, like Moses in the tabernacle, worship the Lord with unveiled faces, and are ourselves transformed by the work of the Spirit (v. 18).
A Glory That Kills
The common reading that I rejected a moment ago has the problem of making Moses a manipulator and deceiver. He didn’t want the people to realize that his glory was not permanent, and so he would hide the fading of that glory away. Or worse, Moses was not the deceiver, but Paul interpreted that episode in such a way as made Moses out to be a liar.
But here is the original narrative.
“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them. And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in mount Sinai. And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face. But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”
Exodus 34:29–35 (KJV)
The passage in Exodus doesn’t have any hint of Moses trying to hide the fact that his radiance would fade. He wore the veil because his radiance was frightening to the children of Israel, and it was hard for them to come near. This is the ministry of death, remember, according to Paul. He did it, not to encourage their hopes, but to allay their fears. The law is not sin, but the law is death to sinners. Recall that two chapters earlier, in the aftermath of the golden calf fiasco, three thousand Israelites were killed (Ex. 32:26-28). And God had told them in just the previous chapter that He would not go with them, lest He wind up having to consume them in the way (Ex. 33:3, 5). So Moses was veiling them from a glory that was lethal, a glory that kills.
What is Paul’s Illustration About Then?
Moses was not being deceptive about the glory that would fade, but some of his ostensible heirs most certainly were being deceptive about it. Whenever the law was read, the unbelieving Jews could not see the condition of their Ichabod-hearts. The veil covers the face, and in his illustration here, the heart is the face (v. 15). They cannot see the true condition of their heart. When the law was being read, a veil of unbelief was over their heart, preventing them from seeing what the law was saying about their heart.
But we, with open face (that is to say, open heart), are looking straight at the glory of the Lord in the gospel. We are in the same position that Moses was in during his visits to the tabernacle. This is why we are being transformed from glory to glory. And why? Because you become like what you worship—which means we should look ahead a few verses. God is giving us the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).