Tuesday, February 01, 2022

My Christian Face

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

My father had a knack for identifying Christians in the wild. I don’t mean in the obvious places, like in church or at conferences, but on the street, in the malls, or wherever. He was pretty good at it. He may have made the occasional mistake over the years, but I didn’t catch any. So he would quite confidently go up to random strangers and say things like “Excuse me, but are you a follower of the Lord Jesus?” Almost invariably they were.

He said there was something distinctive about a Christian face.

Talking With God

Paul makes a remarkable claim about resemblance transformation in his second letter to the Corinthians. His reference to an unveiled face takes the attentive reader back to a few verses at the end of Exodus 34, which describe what happened to Moses when he would interact with the God of Israel.

What happened was that the face of Moses would shine because he had been talking with God. Initially Moses was unaware of it, but even his brother was cautious about approaching him in that state. Aaron and the other Israelites recognized something supernatural was going on, and it made them fearful. Bear in mind that Aaron was the high priest, and was used to being in the presence of God. This, however, was something else.

The glory of God reflected in the face of Moses would eventually fade, and Moses would put a veil over his face. The “why” of this is not explained in Exodus, but we can infer it. It was not that Moses was accommodating the fear of the supernatural. When he went into the tent of meeting to speak with God, he would come out and tell the people what God had said. He did this with face unveiled. The veil went on afterward, when he was finished speaking. The glory reflected in Moses’ face spoke to the reality of God’s presence with his people and also to the authority which Moses had to speak as God’s representative. The veil, Paul says, was “so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end”.

Diminishing Glory

So then, it was not that Moses wanted to hide the fact that he sometimes reflected God’s glory; it was that he did not want the world to see the reflected glory diminished in any way. That glory faded over time partly because Moses was merely a human being, and his capacity to mirror God’s glory was limited, but it was also because Moses was the minister of an inferior covenant. Paul was a minister of a better one, one in which it is possible for the reflected radiance of God’s glory to last and last.

At any rate, this story is taken up in Corinthians in typical Pauline fashion, with the apostle’s usual rabbit trails and perplexing switches of imagery. He starts with the brightness of the glory of the ministry of righteousness (also called the “ministry of the Spirit”), and how it exceeds that of the “ministry of condemnation” (or “ministry of death”) embodied in the Law of Moses. He is contrasting Old and New Covenants with respect to (i) the nature of their glory, (ii) the scope of their glory, and (iii) the permanence of their glory, and in every case the New exceeds the Old. The “digression” in this case comes in verses 14 through 17, where suddenly the veil is not over the face of Moses, but over the Jewish heart. But in verse 18, Paul returns to the unveiled face, and here (to me at least) is where it gets interesting.

A Minister of a Better Covenant

There’s no kind way to put it: Moses was the minister of an inferior covenant. It was useful in its day, and demonstrated what God wanted to demonstrate by it, but it was nonetheless a shadow of what God wanted to do for his people rather than the full experience. Paul was a minister of a better covenant, though not the only one. We might call him the Moses of the New Testament, though he would probably shrink from such comparisons. Like Moses, Paul received revelations from God that nobody else did. Peter puts Paul’s writings on a level with the Tanach. It wasn’t just that Paul was a trained Jewish rabbi able to expertly interpret the Old Testament in light of the coming of Messiah. It was that, like Moses, Paul interacted directly with God. He makes reference to this in Galatians where he says of his gospel, “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” The authority in Paul’s teaching about the New Covenant was that, like Moses, he received his understanding directly from the mouth of God himself.

This is not a reference to Paul’s salvation experience on the road to Damascus, but to some more substantive later revelation, possibly during Paul’s time in Arabia. The apostle was told things he couldn’t possibly have inferred from the Old Testament. For example, in 1 Thessalonians, we find him saying, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” You are not going to find that fact in the Psalms, or anywhere in the Old Testament. And there are many more statements like it in Paul’s writings.

Paul’s Use of “We”

So Paul taught Christians a better hope than Moses taught Israel, based on better promises, but with the same divine authority behind it. It is the authority of this ministry which Paul is at pains to defend all through the second letter to the Corinthians, but especially in chapters 10-12, because it was being challenged by some in Corinth, false apostles who proclaimed “another Jesus” and “a different spirit”. It is with this in mind that Paul used the word “we” a little differently in 2 Corinthians than elsewhere in his writings.

In Greek, the word “we” in the verse quoted above is hēmeis. When Paul uses it in Romans, he is usually referring to all Christians. “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, that we [hēmeis] too might walk in newness of life.” Or again, “We [hēmeis] ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” In other cases he uses it to refer to a subset of believers: “We [hēmeis] who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak.” Most of the time when the word appears in Galatians, Ephesians, Thessalonians or Titus, it carries this same broad, general meaning.

In Corinthians, and especially in the second letter, Paul’s usage is a little different. The word hēmeis appears 16 times, and in all but three cases “we” is contrasted with “you”, the recipients of the letter; it refers specifically to the apostle and those who shared his mission.

From Personal to Universal

But what do we notice in verse 18? The remarkable assurance that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Given the way in which he has been using hēmeis up until this point in the letter, it would seem the apostle wants to be sure there is no confusion about what he is saying. So he adds the word pas, or “all”, to make it clear that not only he, in his remarkable and unique ministry, but every believer who by the Spirit of God beholds the glory of Christ is subject to this transformation into his likeness. Up until now, we might be forgiven for thinking the experience of transformative glory uniquely the privilege of the few: Paul, Peter, the other apostles ... maybe even the New Testament prophets more generally.

You and me? Not so much.

But Paul is directing us away from that rather clerical misunderstanding. Yes, with respect to their authority, the writings of Paul are on another level. We cannot claim to utter unadulterated truth today, except perhaps when we quote the scripture verbatim (properly applied, of course) and sit down promptly without introducing our own inferior ideas into the mix. However, every believer who enjoys fellowship with the Lord through his Spirit has the privilege of ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ. It is “we all” who move from one degree of glory to another as God does his work in our lives.

Exposure to Glory

Now of course that raises a rather difficult question: How often do you and I expose ourselves to the glory of the Lord? Where the transformation of Moses was a temporary thing, the transformation of Christians into the likeness of Christ is an ongoing process. We become more like him the longer and closer we walk with him. Nevertheless, it is still only through exposure to the wonders of his person that God’s intended purposes for his children are effected and the likeness of Christ put on public display.

It should be obvious that Christians who are slow to get into the word of God, into prayer, or into fellowship with God’s people, will have less of the radiance about them that characterized the apostle Paul; the traces of glory that would provoke my father to ask random strangers if they were members of the family of God. Their transformation will be slower and less obvious to the world, their testimony correspondingly weaker, and their authority when they quote scripture less pronounced.

How distinctive is my Christian face? How recognizably supernatural? I’m probably the worst judge of that. Moses couldn’t see the glory of God reflected in his, and I can’t see it in mine. I’m betting you can’t see it in yours.

But we all are being transformed into Christ’s image. Let’s just not hinder that process.

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