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Surpassing Glory

Date: Oct. 18, 2020

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

2 Corinthians 3:7-18

Key Verse: 2 Corinthians 3:10

For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.

Last year, before all this COVID stuff, my family was able to go on a trip to Italy. Now, early on in my marriage, my wife told me that she really wanted to visit Italy and I promised that we would do so by our tenth anniversary. Last year, 2019, was our tenth anniversary and events aligned so that we could visit. My wife had an idea of where she would like to see. She had seen pictures and heard from other people who have visited. Based on all the information, we decided to visit Positano on the Amalfi Coast. The Amalfi Coast is in central Italy on the western coast. Positano is about a half-an-hour drive south of Naples and you go right by Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius on the way there. Now, in the pictures that we saw beforehand, Positano is situated on a mountain. There are only two streets in the town, the main highway and the lower one-way street about half-way down to the coast. The rest is all walking and tons of stairs. The buildings just go up the mountain and it is beautiful in pictures. However, those pictures couldn’t really prepare us for its true beauty. Pictures don’t do the place justice. Our hotel room had a view down the mountain through the heart of the town all the way to the sea to the boats anchored offshore. Being among the streets and amid the color of the town was something that photos could never reproduce. The atmosphere added to the beauty of the Amalfi Coast. Even during these days of Photoshop, there are things in real life that surpass the glory of what we see in an image. Our eyes are far better calibrated to this world than any camera and no imitation is greater than the real thing. Likewise, there are things in this world that we think are great and glorious, and they have some glory and splendor, but their glory only scratches the surface and there is a glory that surpasses that of the world. The glory that comes from God. Likewise, in today’s passage, Paul explains the difference between the old and new covenants. They both come from God, but only one is greater by far.

Our passage, today, begins, “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (7-8) This passage is on the heels of the last one. Near the end of the last passage, Paul wrote, “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (3:3) and “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (3:8) In the first of those verses from the last passage, Paul is referring to letters and tablets. He is comparing his ministry among the Corinthians to the ministry of the Jews based on the Ten Commandments which were inscribed on stone tablets. He refers to these tablets as the letter or the law, which he says kills. The law only said what was right and wrong. It gave no way to become right again and the punishment for sin is death. According to the law, if you broke even one rule, then you were deserving death. Unfortunately, there is nobody that could keep the entire law all the time, except for Jesus. Since it is impossible for us to do so, according to the law, we are all dead. The law, which shows God’s goodness, also shows us how far away we are from God and brings death. The ministry that followed this law is the ministry that brought death, which is what Paul is talking about in the beginning of this passage.

This ministry began when Moses brought the stone tablets down from Mount Sinai. From that point on, the Israelites knew what God’s perfection looked like. It may have been an instrument that told them that they were never good enough, but it still came from God, and, with it, glory. When Moses came down from the mountain, his face glowed with God’s glory. When the other Israelites saw it, they were unsettled by it and could not look steadily in his face. They were afraid of the glow and it made them feel worse by looking at it, like they were unworthy to see the glory. It didn’t last forever and faded over time. Once it faded, Moses looked like the same old Moses. The glory only lasted for a little while. This is what Paul refers to here, about being transitory. The Jews revered God’s law, but the glory that came with it didn’t last forever. It was on stone, but ministry of the Spirit would surpass even that.

Paul continues, “If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!” The law has its purpose. Without it, you would never know what is right and what is wrong, but the law is just rules. It cannot tell you how to get back into the right. Think about this, if there was a rule that said it’s wrong to eat after 8pm, then, as soon as you had a late-night snack, you would have broken the rule and there would be no way to undo that rule breaking. Just like if you drop a glass or coffee cup on the ground. It breaks and there is no way to undo that breakage. You can glue it back together, but that glass or cup still wouldn’t be the same. I doubt it would be able to hold a liquid. If you break the rule, the rules don’t give you a way to unbreak them. Once a rule breaker, always a rule breaker. Once that happens, you are condemned. Now, remember, the law that Paul is referring to, the ministry of the law, was given by God. It has glory, the same glory that was shining on Moses’ face when he came down the mountain. So, the very thing that makes us feel like we are not worthy is filled with glory. If that is true, then the ministry the brings righteousness should bring even greater glory, one that far surpasses the glory of the law.

As Paul wrote, “For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.” (10) Not only does the glory of the ministry that brings righteousness bring greater glory than the ministry of the law. It outshines it so much that the previous glory is essentially nothing. Have you ever seen plots where you see the variation in values? It goes up and down and maybe the values are in the low hundreds, one hundred to two hundred. Then there is one value that shows up that is a million and, suddenly, all those variations in the hundreds look insignificant. At the beginning of the lockdown, one newspaper had a chart of unemployment for the past few years. There were some trends in the numbers in a plot that filled the bottom portion of the front page, then the pandemic came, and the unemployment rate shot up and value took the entire right side of the page. It made all the other numbers insignificant. The glory from the righteous ministry is like that.

As we mentioned before, the ministry of the law brought death because it gave no way to become right again, but that is what the ministry of righteousness does. What Paul is referring to is the gospel message. The gospel is all about the message of how to be saved from the death that the law demands. It is the message of how to regain righteousness. What the law could not do, Jesus could do. He came to bring the forgiveness of our sins. Because we broke the law, even in small ways, we are sinners, and our punishment is death. But Jesus came so that we could have life. There is that famous verse, John 3:16, that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loves us and doesn’t abandon us to our sin. The same person who wrote that verse also wrote, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) God sent Jesus as a sin offering to keep us from our fate, which was death. Jesus died a horrific death on the cross, so that our sins could be forgiven, and we could be given a new life. It is a stark difference from the stone tablets, which said this is wrong and that is right. Instead, Jesus said, “I make you right.” Isn’t that much greater than those tablets with their inscribed words? Of course, it is! Then, the glory that comes from Jesus’ message is far greater than the message from the tablets.

The passage continues, “And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (11) As was mentioned earlier, the glory that came with Moses coming down the mountain, didn’t last. He glowed with a heavenly glory, but that glow wore off over time. It is like when your car is shiny after a wash, but it gets dirty again after the next rain. I find it interesting that law was written on stone tablets, which we consider to be permanent, but the glory that came with it is transitory. While the gospel writes on our hearts, which we deem soft and fleshy and doesn’t last, comes with a glory that lasts. It is a wonderful inversion of expectations that God loves to do. He wants for us not to look at the stone tablets, but to the one who wrote them. It is easier to understand when we know that God’s strength is holding up our weaknesses. We can have hope because we are not stuck in death but have an avenue to eternal life.

That hope can enable us to be bold because we have certainty on what is going to happen. As believers, we see things clearly. Paul wrote, “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.” (13-15) Because the people were unsettled by the glory on Moses’ face, he wore a veil while he was glowing. Their sinful lives made them afraid of the glory of God, so they needed a divider to prevent them from freaking out. Without that veil, the Israelites would have just run away. Paul equates that veil with what happens to Jews when the law was read. He says their minds are dull. They can’t see the glory because of the veil. The law makes people feel uncomfortable because we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. It’s like living in the dark and suddenly the light comes on. It starts to hurt your eyes and you have to shield yourselves from the light. The law makes us want to shield ourselves from God and his glory and the only thing that can take that shield away is Christ. Without Christ we would be blinded, but with Jesus, we can see.

I find it interesting that without Jesus, everyone is behind a veil. If you are religious, then you are trying to keep the law and you miss the glory. You can become tired and weary trying to keep all the rules. It can feel futile to do so and miss the point of God in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, if you hate God, it is usually because you view him as a tyrant with all the rules. You might want the freedom to make your own decisions and do what you want, seeing God’s law as restrictive. Without Jesus, our primary view of God is based on the law, but that is a veiled view. When you meet Jesus and believe in him, that veil is lifted and a new life with a new glory is shown to us. We don’t feel inadequate anymore because Jesus makes us more than adequate. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are deemed righteous and can see God’s glory without a veil. We can see God for who he is, in all his goodness and glory. “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (16)

Here the passage takes an interesting turn, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (17) Here, Paul is talking about freedom in the Lord. On its own, it can seem confusing, but connecting it with the veil mentioned in the verses before it, we can see that the veil is restricting. The veil is impairing our view and we are confined by it. It is like being trapped in a net. Everywhere we look, there is only veil and a blurred view of everything. I normally wear contact and without the corrective lenses, I can see things clearly only for close things. Past a certain point, everything is blurry. Living like that, you are uncertain of what is out there, and you act differently that when you can see clearly. With the veil removed, you can see clearly, and you are no longer restricted. Nothing is blurry and nothing is diminished. The full glory of everything around you can be seen. And the most important thing we are free to see is God. It frees us to become more than we are. We are like a goldfish. In a standard aquarium, a goldfish grows to about 4 inches long. If it is a bigger tank that is not crowded, then it can grow to about 6 inches. If the goldfish is put in a pond with ample room to grow, if it is free, then it can grow to about 12 or even 18 inches in length. Their growth is limited to the size of their environment. Our spirits are the same way. If we are veiled, then we are limited and can only grow so far, but when we are freed, we have so much more potential and can grow more than three or four times.

Our passage concludes, “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.” (18) With those unveiled faces, we don’t contemplate the Lord’s goodness, we contemplate his glory. As we do so, we are being changed into his image and we begin to shine with that glory of God ourselves. When we bask in God’s glory, it fills us up with his glory and we become glorious. It is like the heat from the sun. There are three forms of heat transfer, conduction, convection and radiation. Conduction and convection each require a medium for heat transfer, but radiation can travel through a vacuum. So infrared radiation from the sun travels through space to earth. When it hits the earth, it doesn’t heat up the air and the air heats up everything else. The infrared radiation heats up everything in its path. The sun is directly heating up the ground, the trees, the buildings, the cars and the people. Think about it, have you ever been outside and it so different in the sun versus in the shade. Perhaps it is a hot day, but it feels cooler in the shade. It’s not that the air in the shade is cooler, but the sun is no longer heating you up. The same holds on a cool day. In the shade it can be chilly, but in the sun, it feels warm. It is especially noticeable on a winter day with snow. In the shade, it can be bitter cold, but in the sun, it can feel tolerable. You see the heat from the sun is directly heating you and not just the air around you. The same holds for God’s glory. When we are no longer in the shade behind a veil, the fullness of God’s glory can shine on us and change us and give us glory as well.

I find it very interesting that God saving us through Jesus is far more glorious than the law, but there is an even greater glory. It is not the goal of Christianity to be saved from our sins, which does happen, but to be transformed fully into the image of God. The fact that the Lord can take broken, worthless people and turn them into something glorious is amazing. There is nothing in the whole world that is transformative as the gospel, as Jesus. The hardest thing to do is change a person, to change their hearts and minds. You can change circumstances, you can change so many things, but completely changing who a person is nearly impossible. You might be able to change a little bit, but complete transformation is impossible outside of Christ. Only Christ can lift the veil and give us freedom from sin. Sin confines us and holds us back. It causes us to live in fear, but Jesus gives us hope and helps us to live boldly.

We might think that when we get our degree, life is going to be better. Our life will be transformed, but it might change for a little bit, but not really. Maybe the right job or the right person in our lives will change us. Maybe, when we become parents will alter us and make us better. The reality is these things can’t change us for the better. They are just one veil after another. There may be some glory in them, but they pass. The glory that is there is insignificant compared to what Jesus can do. Jesus can change us into better people. He can draw us to perfection, making us more like him and less susceptible to sin. Through God’s glory, we can be made glorious, and that, in itself, is even more glorious.

When we were studying the book of Philippians, in chapter 4, we learned something profound. The author, Paul, wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) In times of anxiety and uncertainty, we need to bring everything to God, and the verse says that God will give us his peace to guard our hearts and minds. God helps us by changing us. We are in a very anxious and uncertain time. The pandemic is still raging, with places in the world starting to see a second wave. We are all wondering when it will end, and life can return to some normalcy. We are also two weeks away from an election that seems contentious and uncertain. We don’t know what is going to happen, and we can want for something to change all of it, but the Bible promises, not to change the situation, but to change us. In God, we don’t have to be emotionally tossed about by the things of this world. We can be rooted in God, knowing that he is in charge and that he is good. We don’t have to be fearful, but we can be bold in the Lord. That change is glorious.

Paul was comparing the old covenant with the new covenant. The old was about keeping the law. If we kept the law, he would be our God. Unfortunately, that meant that we would die because we could never keep the law. The new covenant was a promise to God to forgive us and change us to become worthy. The old had glory, but it was insignificant to the glory that comes from salvation and transformation which is in the new. There is nothing more glorious than what God has done through the gospel. There is nothing on this earth that compares. Nothing in our lives because everything here is transitory, but God’s glory shines on us and fills us with his glory, so that we too are glorious.

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