It is Transfiguration Sunday for those following the Three-Year Lectionary (observed three weeks earlier in the One-Year Lectionary). The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is celebrated each year in the Western Church prior to Lent. The feast commemorates the transfiguration or metamorphosis of Jesus on Mount Tabor, when He appeared in glory before three of His disciples: Peter, James, and John. Significantly, Jesus is flanked by Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the witness of the Prophets). Both point to and find their culmination in the Incarnate One, Jesus the Son. It is a stunning, double revelation, an unveiling of Jesus as the Son of God and the perfect human Messiah.
The idea of viewing the glory of God with your naked eye is the point at play here in our passage. It is a good fit for Transfiguration because of the imagery related to unveiling. The Apostle Paul is saying that his ministry, his apostolic work, is not like that of Moses, who had to veil the glory of God. No, when Paul is working with the Covenant of Grace, everyone must see the glory. The glory of this covenant cannot be veiled because it is the very unveiling of Moses’ veiled glory. To veil it would be utterly antithetical to the ministry to which he had been ordained. Gospel ministry is the ministry of the unveiled glory of God in Christ Jesus. He who was veiled in the Old, is unveiled in the New. There is a sermon, says Paul, go and preach likewise.
N.T. Wright encapsulates the thought above and sets the trajectory of this segmented pericope in his commentary by saying, “What Paul wants to stress in particular is that, because of the difference between his New Testament work and Moses’ [Old Testament] work, he must use great “freedom” or, better, “boldness” when he preaches God’s New Covenant in the blood of Christ.” Wright aims to describe how Paul cannot hide the real message of God’s saving promises fulfilled and applied through Jesus the Messiah. Moses hid it upon the insistence of his fellow Jews, and it cost them dearly. Paul, on the other hand, is under divine obligation to speak it out boldly and clearly. He is “bold in the Spirit” to go about declaring the unveiled glory of God, which is Christ crucified and resurrected for the Jew first, but also the Gentile.
This is something the Church needs to hear today, namely a boldness of Gospel proclamation in all its raw power, in the naked force of the Holy Spirit. This also means proclaiming God’s Law in a permissive, relativistic society. It demands saying the only antidote to divine judgment is to be found in Christ Jesus. It implies Christians differentiating between the United States Government and the Christian Church, and not preaching “One Nation Under God” but “One Covenant in Christ’s Blood.” The Gospel must be free from the machinery of politics and the stupidity of misinformed pundits. And when its glorious light is graffitied by the likes of compromisers and syncretists, we must be bold to speak the truth and to do so out of love for their souls imperiled by anything and everything which would divert from saving faith in Jesus.
This is something the Church needs to hear today, namely a boldness of Gospel proclamation in all its raw power, in the naked force of the Holy Spirit.
A bold Gospel proclamation also means addressing false religions, not with kid-gloves of political correctness and unintelligent notions of “celebrating our differences” (whatever that is supposed to mean), but with theological forthrightness about the only true God. It also requires affirming our Lord is not a stark singularity, but rather a dynamic trinity of persons, the “Second Person,” of whom broke into this world clothed in our flesh.
Instead of this Pauline boldness and freedom, what we frequently find today are deceivers quick to throw a veil over the Gospel of the virgin birth, the blood atonement, Messiah’s vicarious death, His masculinity, His imputed righteousness, the propitiation of divine wrath, and His bodily resurrection and ascension. I contend they veil this glorious revelation, shrouding these very words with a veneer of vacuous, contemporary idioms, throwaway video images, pantomime skits, and inane appeals for “community.” It is a masking of the pure Gospel by translating it out of its Four-Gospels form and phraseology, and smothering it beneath a glossy finish, rendering it altogether unrecognizable as, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” or, “God accepts you just the way you are.”
I maintain that this preaching is not the Good News of Christ, but the celebration of self. Worse still, the Gospel is veiled by practical tips for living (techniques in self-entrepreneurship), but especially by the scandalous omission of absolution (the free declaration of the forgiveness of sins), the very thing Jesus ordains true ministers to say to His people. I have observed the Gospel being veiled by too many self-styled, unvetted, non-credentialed “pastors” who withhold the Sacraments of God’s grace or who render show-and-tell “ordinances” for people to “do” as works of obedience, thereby transforming what God gave as Gospel into Law and, in so doing, making the Law the Gospel. The Gospel is veiled today when we are told, “God looks upon the heart,” as if that were a good thing! Instead of this gospel reductionism which fits nicely onto a T-shirt, Paul exhorts faithful preachers to gospel boldness. Boldness means a lack of fear from cancel-culture and a disregard for worldly retribution. Boldly preach! Christ has overcome the world.
The Corinthians had criticized Paul for his blunt, clear, no-nonsense gospel teaching and preaching. They would have preferred something more fashionable, something prepackaged and less inescapable, possibly with a “Forty Days” program, slick PowerPoint presentation, and practical tips for victorious Christian living. They were eager for the fireside chats, personal vignettes, and impromptu humor of their “super-apostles.” No, Paul declares. Because we have this hope and calling, we must speak boldly and plainly; no veil, no shiny veneer, just the truth about God nailed to a tree. The reason for this is because of the work of the Holy Spirit: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is boldness” (verse 17)!
The ministry of the Spirit of Christ, which comes through ministers like Paul, brings a greater splendor, greater than even Moses’ Old Covenant ministry. It brings us into a new relation with God based not on the Law of Sinai, as it was for the Jews (where the Lord was “hidden” by the cloud and dark smoke), nor with the Covenant of Works made with Adam which still binds and condemns every human being, but rather based on a covenant of salvation from the condemnation of the Law committed to Adam, as well as Moses and the Jews. This God of grace is revealed, totally revealed. In fact, He hangs naked for all the world to see His true glory, the glory of the Son crucified for the sins of the world, beat to death so that death may be beaten to death.
He hangs naked for all the world to see His true glory, the glory of the Son crucified for the sins of the world, beat to death so that death may be beaten to death.
Wright gives us one more interesting reflection:
“But how Paul gets to that point is really the interesting bit. We can easily assume, as we read this passage, that Paul is simply drawing a contrast between Moses and himself. We might even guess, in advance of what he says, that he might be going to say Moses has a rather second-rate ministry, whereas he, Paul, has a better one. But wait a minute: The whole point was Moses did have the glory!”
Moses had gazed upon God, and now his face was shining because of having glimpsed the divine glory, the back side, the things that lay in the back of God’s progressive revelation, and Moses walked away glowing. What lay behind the making of a national covenant with Israel based on the Law was the glorious covenant promises of God made to Abraham.
The problem was not with Moses, but with everyone else who told him to veil the divine glory, to hide it from them. Romans 7 declares the issue was not the Law, also known as the “Law of Moses.” No, the Law is good. The problem was with the hearts of the people who refused to look beyond their ethnic and national identity to the real substance of God’s people, namely faith in His covenant keeping promises to Abraham to graciously provide for their salvation and even that of the Gentiles. This is the point of 2 Corinthians 14: “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when the read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.”
The veil still lies over the Sinaitic Law, the “Old Covenant,” even to this day, not appreciating how it, along with the contents of the Torah, terminates in a Covenant of Grace. Yes, the same one given to Abraham. The Law must take them to grace or else the Law (which was violated and broken before Moses even came down the mountain and graphically demonstrated to have been broken from the start when Moses smashed the tablets on the ground) would only administer just punishment for sin. It could only provide condemnation and death. That Covenant, the Old Covenant made with the Jewish people, could never give life because their incessant violation of it ensured nothing but death, but it could and did point them to the gracious, life-giving Covenant. Paul is saying the same veil of unbelief prevents the Jews of his day from understanding the real significance of the revelation, which was given to them through Moses to drive them in faith to the promises of God in the Abrahamic Covenant. The promises declared how the Lord would provide a Savior which would come through Israel.
The promises declared how the Lord would provide a Savior which would come through Israel.
Paul says this to the Corinthians because he fears the practical Christian preaching of the heretical “super-apostles” are keeping the Jewish Law too much in the center of their “Do this, don’t do that” kind of religion. Additionally, their only holy book was the Hebrew Scriptures, and these teachers failed to read it unveiled by finding Messiah in it, just as Jesus Himself taught in John 5:39. He said to the Jews of His day, “Search the Scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life, and these are they that testify of Me.” Again, in Luke 24:27, 44, He teaches not only the Jews but all the world how we are to read the Hebrew Scriptures:
“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself... And He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning Me.”
Paul wants them to pay less attention to the Sinaitic Law, which he here and only here calls the “old covenant.” That covenant, he says, is “old,” outdated, outmoded, redundant, non-binding because the fulfilled Covenant of Grace initiated with Abraham and accomplished by Jesus has eclipsed it and rendered it defunct. Its penalty has been exercised on national Israel. They lost the monarchy, the land, the Temple, the ten tribes, and the promises of God. They are all gone from them and fulfilled in Christ the Lord. If Jews, any Jew then or now, desires the promises of God concerning national Israel, they must believe the Gospel of God and be baptized into the Messiah, in whom they become joint heirs of the global Kingdom of God with Gentiles. Paul refutes the teachers of Corinth with the very same Scriptures they were abusing and wrongly interpreting and criticizing him for talking too much about grace. So, he coins the designation “old covenant,” not about the Covenant made with Abraham, but concerning the covenant made with national Israel at Sinai based upon the Law and their obedience to it. That covenant is old because it has been used up, usurped, fulfilled in the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, the One who bore the final penalty for national Israel and brought all of the benefits the nation foreshadowed. It took boldness to say this because it was not what certain communities wanted to hear. But it was the truth and this truth needed to be boldly proclaimed and defended.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!