An expanded version of some thoughts shared with a few friends on Friday, 31 March, 2017.
First, consider three versions of a single verse of Scripture – 2 Corinthians 3:18 – noting particularly the words in bold.
1. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (NIV)
2. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though 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. (NRSV)
3. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (TNIV)
Okay … I’ll come back to those very soon. But before I do may I suggest you now read the whole of 2 Corinthians 3 in any version you choose.
Done that? Great! Don’t you just love to watch the workings of Paul’s mind as he writes his letters and the Spirit within him triggers thoughts, makes connections and gives him revelation. I particular enjoy seeing all this happening in the chapter of 2 Corinthians I’ve just asked you to read. But the climax of that chapter – which comes in verse 18 – has always been something of a puzzle; or at least the first bit of it has. Paul’s assertion that we are all being progressively transformed into the glorious likeness of the Lord Jesus is clear enough, but what he means by the Greek of his first bit is not clear at all. And that is because he uses the word katoptrizomenoi which has three possible meanings – to reflect like a mirror, to behold as in a mirror, or simply to behold directly without any mirror being involved. You can see from the head of this piece that the NIV goes for the first option while the NRSV goes for the second, while, interestingly, Today’s NIV goes for the third option. So which should it be?
Let’s begin at the beginning. At the start of the chapter, Paul is talking about his credentials as an apostle. ‘Why believe me and my companions?’ he is asking. ‘Just because we commend ourselves? No, certainly not! Well, because we have letters of commendation from Jerusalem, then? Dear me, no! The fact is that you Corinthian Christians are all the ‘letters of commendation’ that we need. Your lives proclaim the very gospel I’m preaching. If people want to know about the new covenant, they have only to look at you and see the message that the Spirit has written on your hearts. Whereas if people wanted to know about the old covenant they had to go to where it was written on tablets of stone.’
New covenant, old covenant … this is what Paul now finds himself talking about. And he finds that the ‘tablets of stone’ reference that he’s just committed to parchment has provided him with the foundation for everything that he wants to say. The tablets of stone were, of course, the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and the story as it is playing in Paul’s mind is recorded in Exodus 34:29-35 …
‘Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.’
As Paul recalls all this, the first thing that strikes him is the effulgent glory that accompanied the giving of the old covenant. It dominates the passage. But the truth about that old covenant (Paul reminds himself) is that it brought death! It exposed sin. It showed us our ruin. Yes, indeed … but it was, thank God, a temporary covenant. It was to be surpassed by the new and permanent covenant that Paul now knows all about. A covenant that gives life. So how much more glory would accompany that! In the darkness of the past, the Old Covenant had shone as brightly as the moon, but since the sun of the New Covenant has arisen in the sky, the moon of the Old Covenant has became a pale and insubstantial disc. Its glory has faded – just like the glory once faded from Moses’s face.
We shall, of course, look in vain for a reference in Exodus 34 to the glory fading from the face of Moses, but Paul clearly believes that that was the reason for his putting on a veil. It wasn’t there to prevent the Israelites being dazzled, he suggests; it was there to teach them that the glory of what they had been given wasn’t permanent. But, Paul continues, his visual aid didn’t work. The Israelites didn’t get the message, and their inability to recognise the temporary nature of the Old Covenant meant that a ‘veil’ had then fallen over their faces and had, right down to Paul’s own day, continued to prevent most of them from seeing the glory of the unending New Covenant which had now been established through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most, but not all. For some, says Paul … indeed, for all who turn to the Lord Jesus, the veil is lifted; and, he says, ‘you Corinthian Christians are among them.’
But what happens when the veil is lifted? This is where we encounter the puzzle of verse 18. Do we, with unveiled faces, reflect the Lord’s glory as the NIV would have it, or do we see the Lord’s glory as reflected in a mirror as the NRSV suggests, or do we simply contemplate the Lord’s glory as the TNIV puts it?
Surely the answer is … all three. Paul knew full well the multiple meanings of the verb katoptrizomenoi and, I believe, used that verb precisely in order to embrace them all. For is it not the truth (as we all know experientially) that it is only as we spend time contemplating the Lord’s glory (which is, after all, the glory of the Father reflected in the face of Jesus Christ) that we are changed by the Spirit and begin, in turn, to reflect to the world around us the very glory that we are beholding in the Lord Jesus? We might graphically depict the dynamics of it thus …
But if that is so, should we not all be making far more time, for more space in our lives (however busy they might be) for far more contemplation, far more ‘beholding’ of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Reading scripture is fine – essential, even – and so, of course, is petitionary prayer, intercession and vocal worship; but if we wish to be ‘transformed into the likeness of Jesus with ever-increasing glory’ we simply cannot and must not dismiss the need to spend time every day just ‘turning our eyes upon Jesus’. Graham Kendrick sums it all up beautifully for us in Shine, Jesus, Shine …
As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me.