2 Corinthians 3.7-18:
Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory! Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; or if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 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.
When we as Protestants read Paul’s words that speak against the insufficiency and condemnation that comes under the Torah, God’s instruction through Moses, we have a tendency to assume the reason it cannot save and leave one condemned is because the Torah was an incomplete system of salvation. It lacked an important element, faith, whereas works were regarded as the source of salvation.
This way of understanding Paul’s critique of Torah creates a set of blinders when we read various parts of Paul’s understanding of Torah, such as in 2 Corinthians 3.7-18. Here, Paul makes no mention of works. Instead, when talking about the Torah, Paul gives particular emphasis to the medium by which the Torah is communicated: as letters chiseled in stones (v. 7) and as something that is read (v. 14-15). By contrast, Paul does not talk about having “faith” in God or Christ, but rather uses spatial language of turning and location (v. 16-17) to describe how one removes the veil that comes when one reads the Torah. As Protestants, we are often to overlook such communicative and locative language as second as somehow secondary to the “real” issue of self-salvation through works, but I would put forward that the contrast between modes of communication and the locative language provides a fundamental insight into why Paul regards the Torah as the ministry of Moses to ultimately be a ministry of condemnation.
The logic of Paul discourse works as follow: when one is listening to Torah, one cannot see glory, that is one has a veil in one’s mind. However, when one turns to the Lord Jesus, the veil is taken away, which is to be able to comprehend what one could not comprehend. That is, to see and know Jesus is to know a glory that was much greater than the hidden, passing glory of Moses. When one is focused on the communication of the Torah as standing at the center of one’s life lived before God, one could not receive and accept this greater, eternal glory. Only by focusing on Jesus does one begin to see God’s glory, because the Lord is the Spirit, who is spoken of as bringing glory (v. 8). In short, to receive and participate in the glorious ministry of righteousness, one must look to and behold Jesus through whom the glory of the Spirit who makes visible the glory the Lord. Only the Spirit can provide such a vision of Jesus’ glory, not the hearing of the Torah, which was spoken with a veiled glory.
That the Spirit is the agent who makes glory of Jesus comprehended and known suggests something about Paul’s locative language: it is understood metaphorically as it pertains to the person’s own thinking in response to the Lord Jesus, not a literal physical turning and seeing. As such, turning to Jesus would entail hearing the Gospel preached, the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return as the judge. It is a hearing and believing the proclamation of a crucified-and-resurrected Messiah.
So, what we have in Paul’s discourse is an implicit contrast of two different sources of communication: communication about what was written in the Torah that is read in the synagogues, particularly the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone, and communication about the person of Jesus Christ. The former is a communication about what had been previously communicated to and through Moses, the latter a communication about what happened to Jesus Christ. The concern for Paul isn’t that the communication through Moses is somehow false or wrong, but that it simply was incapable of bringing righteousness: it only brought about condemnation. The Torah is still of great use as Paul’s usage of it throughout his letters makes evident. But yet, it paled in comparison to comprehending and mentally beholding the glory of Jesus.
Israel’s Scriptures were important, but yet they were not the communicative medium by which people came to righteousness. It was by hearing and believing in the resurrected Lord that the Spirit would bring about the glory of righteousness. People’s hearts and minds were attentively focused on the Gospel story of Jesus Christ as where glory is the be known and received that leads people to be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
This relationship between Israel’s Scriptures and the glory of Christ can serve as a useful analogy for us today understanding the relationship between Gospel and our Scriptures, Israel’s Scriptures plus the New Testament. Even though the New Testament does testify to Jesus, it is a mixture of recounting the story of Christ, moral exhortations and warnings, encouragement to faith, intellectual and philosophical reflections on the nature of the Gospel, etc. Much as Israel’s Scriptures are useful but do not provide the glory of Jesus Christ, so the New Testament itself does not provide this glory of the risen Lord either. It testifies to it through testifying to the life of Christ, but it is only when we turn to life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the Spirit of the Lord brings about a comprehension and transformation of God’s glory in our life. Simply reading and hearing the Scriptures does not itself provide glory.
Much like the reading and hearing of Torah produced a ministry of condemnation, the usage of the Scriptures has often been used with the act of producing condemnation. People find the Bible a source of texts that justifies their own moral sense of outrage and judgment that they appeal to declare the sins of others, a ministry of condemnation. Certainly, there is a place for such declarative rhetoric as there is evil and wickedness in the world that should be spoken. Yet, at the same time, if one’s focus on the Christian life is pronouncing what is good and evil, what is righteous and sin, one’s mind and heart is consumed by the ministry of condemnation. Like those who heard Moses read, one has a veil over one’s eyes. The glory of the Lord, the glory of the Spirit is not beheld and comprehended when one’s heart is focused on a ministry of condemnation. Unfortunately, so much of what has stood behind the proclamation of evangelicals has been this ministry of condemnation. The Scriptures are “mined” for texts about righteousness and sin without regard for how our thinking and usage of the Scriptures fit into the whole.
Yet, according to this pattern, once one recognizes how much one is condemned as a sinner, then one can believe in Jesus and have one’s sins forgiven. However, what is beheld in the second move is not primarily the glory of Jesus Christ, but one’s own ‘glory’ in being forgiveness, going to heaven, etc. At no point is Jesus Christ really understood as the visible, knowable showing of God’s glory that is becoming our own, but rather Jesus is simply a means to an end, that is an “atonement,” of whatever other types of glory we wish and dream of. The ministry of condemnation is combined with the ministry of one’s own glory that the New Testament is regularly used to justify, leaving people overconfident that they have comprehended the real truth of the Gospel. Here, the ministry of condemnation does not lead to the glorious ministry of God’s righteousness, but only to human glory in its various forms.
Consequently, the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New Testament, are not being principally used with an eye towards the glory of Jesus Christ and the Spirit, but they are used for all sorts of other purposes. Insofar as Jesus is mentioned, talked about, and understood, he is an instrument for other types of glories. Certainly, people may “believe” and know the story about Jesus, that he was crucified and resurrected, but this story is simply a means to other glories.
Put this in more practical terms: just because you read the Scriptures, just because you study them, just because you use them to help you in being a Christian doesn’t mean you are participating in the glorious ministry of righteousness that Paul talks about. The Scriptures by themselves are not vehicles of the glory of God in Jesus Christ and from the Spirit. The Scriptures themselves can become a veil, much like Moses, when the glory of the one crucified-and-resurrected Jesus Christ is not front and center in our hearts and minds as the glory that we are coming to share in through the Holy Spirit in our own offering ourselves as a living sacrifices in taking up our cross. Instead, the Scriptures are used to focus on other glories than the cross of Christ is thought to give us, without concerns for our own crosses that we comprehend and understand through the cross of Jesus Christ. As my friend Laura last week preached from this text, she mentioned that it would entail us living into risk. Indeed, the call to take up our crosses always entails us having to face things that threaten us as obstacles away from God’s purposes for our lives, but it is through facing those things that we can also receive the blessing that comes through the cross.
Yet, so much of the preaching about the cross of Christ is used with various forms of avoidance in mind so that we can have what we want instead, such as Christ taking our condemnation so that we can have our own dreams of eternal life. Such is the ministry of condemnation combined with the ministry of human glory: it avoids the cross so that one can imagine one’s own exaltation. As a consequence, the cross of Christ does not become beheld primarily as a place where Jesus’ glory is visibly demonstrated in the Lord, but is instead primarily understood as functioning as part of the ministry of condemnation where Jesus is accursed so that we can have our own glory. Yet, the one who speaks by the Spirit can not say “Jesus is accursed,” but instead the Spirit provides comprehend that Jesus’ own death is the place where Jesus comes to be glorified as Lord (1 Cor. 12.3; note that 1 Cor. 12.1-3 falls after Paul’s discussion on the Lord’s Supper, suggesting that most likely 1 Cor 12.3 is about how people taught the significance of Jesus’ death symbolized in the Lord’s Supper).
The Gospel, that is the historical narrative of Jesus Christ’s appearing, glorious vindication, and future appearing, does not direct us to first try to use the Bible to rationalize our own glory and people’s condemnation, but it directs our hearts, our minds, our imaginations, our hopes to become tied up with our participation through the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ in His cross and suffering and in His resurrection of vindication and glory. This comprehension, this understanding, this transformation of the heart shifts the center of our lives so that we can then come to learn to rightly read the rest of the Scriptures with the person of Jesus as the gravitational center that makes sense of the rest of the Scriptures. Similarly, our theological understanding rejects taking Jesus as primarily an instrument for human glory, but that everything we hope for in our lives comes through our Spirit-led imitation and sharing with the story of Jesus Christ. As Jesus’ glory becomes more and more a part of us through believing and attentively focusing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Spirit transforms us so that we can then read and understand the Scriptures and theology differently. In this, a ministry of condemnation is not denied, but it gets moved to the periphery, only selectively critical when sin is rampant and not used as a tool for the arrogant to protect their interests and egos, and the ministries of avoidance and the ministries of our own glory that have veiled our behold the glory of Christ are denied and routed around.
So, simply reading and believing the Scriptures as a Christian doesn’t give us a real basis to hope and boast in sharing in God’s glory. The story of Jesus Christ doesn’t give us glory apart from our own crosses that our theologies are often used to legitimate avoiding. Only when the glory beheld in the face of Jesus Christ is becoming ours through the transformation of the Holy Spirit can we make use of the Scriptures and have a theological understanding that is consistent with God’s will and purposes. If you seek to avoid the cross yourself, however, you have no glory from God but one perpetually falls short through one’s sins, leaving only an imagining of God’s will that deviates far from God’s actual will and purposes that one has become unable to discern. The good news is, though, through faithfully participating in Jesus’ cross, we also participate in Jesus’ resurrection, where those things that seem to plague us and threaten to overwhelm us are come to be rendered powerless and of no control over our hearts and lives, where the troubles of this world are overcome through Jesus (John 16.33).