4. Being Changed by God's Glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-18)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (20:34)

Rembrandt, detail of 'Two Old Men Disputing' (St. Peter and St. Paul in Conversation) (1628), oil on wood, 72.4 x 59.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Rembrandt, detail of "Two Old Men Disputing" (St. Peter and St. Paul in Conversation) (1628), oil on wood, 72.4 x 59.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Paul has just introduced a contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, between the letter of the Mosaic law and the leadership of the dynamic Spirit of God.

"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." (3:6)

Now Paul continues this contrast in 3:7-18 by showing the basis of the Old Covenant as the work of the Spirit through Moses, the Spirit that "“ under the New Covenant "“ works through all believers.

But why is Paul explaining such things to an overwhelmingly Gentile church? Probably because his opponents in Corinth had Jewish connections and were trying to "out-Hebrew" Paul himself. Later in this letter, Paul argues against these false apostles:

"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendΒ­ants? So am I." (11:22)

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul offers a similar defense, for the same reason "“ to counteract the Jewish or Jewish-Christian opponents there:

"... Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee...." (Philippians 3:5)

The Greater Glory of the Spirit (3:7-11)

Paul, the trained Pharisee, corrects these Jewish-Christian opponents with a typical Rabbinic argument from the lesser to the greater.

  1. Ministry of Spirit is more splendid than ministry of death (3:7-8)
  2. Ministry of righteousness is more splendid than the ministry of condemnation (3:9-10)
  3. Permanent ministry is more splendid than that which passes away (3:11).[93]

You'll see these themes in the text:

"7 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[94] at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading[95] though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing[96] glory. 11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts![97]" (3:7-11)

The Glory of God on Moses' Face (Exodus 34)

Paul agrees that the Old Covenant, characterized by the Ten Commandments ("engraved with letters on stone") was glorious. He refers to Moses' experience of encountering God on Mount Sinai and his practice of talking to God in his tent of meeting and then emerging with the glow of God's glory on his face.

"29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him....

"33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD." (Exodus 34:29-30, 33-35)

I envy Moses! He had prayed, "Show me your glory," and God had answered in this unique expression of God's glory on Moses' face. That's how the law was given. That's how Israel was led through the desert "“ by a man who sought God and spoke with him face to face.

But, Paul argues, that however glorious its origins, the law didn't bring life to God's people as the Spirit does.  In Paul's analogy, the glory of the law fades or passes away, while the Spirit of God continues with us to this day.

Q1. (2 Corinthians 3:7-11) Why did Moses' face glow? Why did he cover it when he was out with the people? Why didn't more people's face glow in Moses' time? What's the difference between the spread of God's glory in Moses' time when compared to our own time?

Boldness in Our Hope of Glory (3:12)

Having such great promises and expectation in the Spirit encourage us. Paul says,

"Therefore, since we have such a[98] hope,[99] we are very bold.[100]" (3:12)

Moses' ministry in bringing the Old Covenant was indeed glorious. But the era of the Spirit and the New Covenant is even more glorious, and because of it we have a great expectation for the future.

The Veil of the Old Covenant (3:13-15)

Paul has made his main point, that the New Covenant was more glorious than the Old. Now he takes this concept of the veil over Moses' face to symbolize the darkness of the Jews who can't grasp the New Covenant.

"13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil[101] over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. 14 But their minds were made dull[102], 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.[103] 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts." (3:13-15)

How sad! The Israelites are dull to the truth. Who has made their minds dull? God? No. Read what Paul says a bit later in this letter "“ still with the imagery of the veil:

"3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (4:3-4)

Satan has blinded the eyes of the Israelites.

Spiritual Freedom from the Holy Spirit (3:16-17)

The Spirit of God is the One who takes away this blindness.

"16 But whenever anyone turns to[104] the Lord, the veil is taken away.[105] 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (3:16-17)

It is clear that the Holy Spirit is the bringer of spiritual light, revelation, and freedom from the Law. But verse 16 confuses us.

We're used to a stricter differentiation between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So Paul, at least verbally, offends our Trinitarian doctrine here. What does Paul mean, "Now the Lord is the Spirit"?

This gets a little confusing, but the clearest answer seems to come from the passage quoted above about Moses' radiant face and the veil he used to wear.

"But whenever he entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out." (Exodus 34:34a)

Paul seems to be saying: Now the Lord in this passage refers to or corresponds to the Spirit of God.[106] Bruce comments that usually Paul is careful to distinguish between the Lord (Christ) and the Spirit, "but dynamically they are one, since it is by the Spirit that the life of the risen Christ is imparted to believers and maintained within them."[107] Kruze has it right when he says:

"So when under the new covenant they turn to the Lord, they experience him as the Spirit. The expression β€˜the Lord is the Spirit,' is not a one-to-one identification, but rather a way of saying that under the new covenant the Lord is to us the Spirit."[108]

Today's English Version captures the idea well:

"But [the veil] is removed, as the Scripture says, β€˜Moses' veil was removed when he turned to the Lord.' Now β€˜the Lord' in this passage is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom.[109]" (3:16-17, TEV)

What kind of freedom is this? It is freedom from the letter of the law that comes when a person begins to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In his discussion of flesh vs. Spirit in Galatians 5, Paul observes:

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)

"But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." (Galatians 5:18)

Q2. (2 Corinthians 3:16-17) Why is the Holy Spirit essential to help people see truth clearly and be able to grasp it? What enables people to come to Christ at all? What kind of freedom does the Spirit give us when we become Christians?

Beholding the Glory of God (3:18)

Paul concludes this section with a wonderful verse that describes Christian sanctification, the process of Christ's character being formed in us.

"18 But we all, with unveiled[110] face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." (3:18, NASB)

The Greek verb is katoptrizō, formed from the noun katoptron, "mirror." Three possible renderings have been suggested:

  1. "to behold as in a mirror" (NRSV, NASB, KJV),
  2. "to reflect like a mirror" (NIV, NJB), or
  3. "to behold or gaze," with no association with a mirror (RSV). [111]

Of these three, "look at something as in a mirror, contemplate something,"[112] seems to fit both the derivation of the word and the understanding of early translations of the Bible. The idea of reflecting God's glory doesn't appear before Chrysostom.[113]

So how do we behold God's glory? We might ask: How did Moses behold God's glory? Yes, he had some experiences of great glory on the mountain when he saw God's form while sheltered in the cleft of the rock (Exodus 33:18-23). But as we saw above, Moses' practice of speaking to the Lord both in the pre-tabernacle tent of meeting and later in the tabernacle left a mark on both his face and his character.

"[Moses'] face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD." (Exodus 34:29b)

"But whenever he entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD." (Exodus 34:34-35)

Why did Moses face glow? I guess because it absorbed just a little bit of God during these times of speaking with him.

Q3. (2 Corinthians 3:18) Moses glowed by spending time with God on Mt. Sinai, in his tent of meeting, and in the Tabernacle. How can we get a similar glow of the Spirit in our lives? In what way is meditating on Scripture beholding God? Is the low plane of Christianity in our day related to the time we spend in communion with the Lord? What is God leading you to do to increase your glow?

Being Changed into Christ's Likeness (3:18)

Yes, Moses' glow had to be renewed by repeated sessions, but it had the effect of altering him. This is the idea that Paul is focusing on here.

I like the simple way the Revised Standard Version puts it:

"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (3:18, RSV)

As a result of beholding God in communing with him, we are "being transformed" (NIV, NRSV), "being changed" (KJV, RSV). The verb is metamorphoō, "to change inwardly in fundamental character or condition, be changed, be transformed."[114] It is a compound verb, formed from meta-, "exchange, transfer, transmutation" + morphoō, "to form, shape." From this we get our English word "metamorphosis."

This process of change morphs us into God's "likeness" (NIV, RSV), "image" (NRSV, KJV). The noun eikōn here means "that which represents something else in terms of basic form and features, form, appearance."[115] 

For our character to be changed into God's image is our destiny. Paul taught,

"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness (eikōn) of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." (Romans 8:29)

The word "conformed" in this verse is the adjective symmorphos, "pertaining to having a similar form, nature, or style, similar in form,"[116] from syn-, "participation, together, completely" + morphē, "form."

This is sanctification, the gradual process of becoming holy and godly in our character to match our holy standing, which was brought about instantly through Christ's gift of salvation on the cross.

"Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.... The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (Galatians 5:16, 22-23)

"If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up." (Galatians 6:8-9, NRSV)

My dear friend, going to church will not transform you. What changes you is worship before the Lord, meditating on him, singing to him, speaking to him, drinking him in through the Word and the Spirit. Just like Moses spent time before the Lord and was transformed by it, so as you spend time with the Lord it will change you.

This transformation is a gradual process, literally "from glory to glory" (KJV). This means, as the NRSV puts it, "from one degree of glory to another."[117]

The agent of change, according to our verse, "comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (3:18). In other words, this is the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit of God, the fruit of the Holy Spirit gradually filling our character, replacing the common and unclean with the holiness and glory of the Lord.

Decades ago when I was in college, I attended a small gospel church in the MacArthur Park area of downtown Los Angeles. There I learned a song, based on the King James Version of this verse, that indelibly impressed the meaning of this verse on my soul.

"From glory to glory He's changing me,
Changing me, changing me.
His likeness and image to perfect in me,
The love of God shown to the world.
For He's changing, changing me,
From earthly things to the heavenly.
His likeness and image to perfect in me,
The love of God shown to the world."[118]

Q4. (2 Corinthians 3:18) Why is character change directly related to time deliberately spent in God's presence? What is the theological word for the process of maturing in Christ? Have you noticed a change in the "degree of glory" you're experiencing now compared to a few years ago? Why or why not?

2 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Also available in e-book and paperback

Dear friend, my prayer for you is that you will indeed so live your life in his presence that his Spirit of Holiness will transform your life. That when people see you, they will not see your imperfections, but the glow of Jesus, so that people might recognize that "these men had been with Jesus." (Acts 4:13)


O Lord, grant in me and in my brothers and sisters the acquired glow of your glory. Let us bask in your presence that we might know you, learn to love you more, and become like you! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen!

Key Verses

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV)

"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." (2 Corinthians 3:18, NRSV)

End Notes

[93] Following Kruse, p. 94.

[94] "Look steadily" (NIV), "steadfastly behold" (KJV), "gaze" (NRSV) is atenizō, "look intently at, stare at something or someone" (BDAG 148), also found in verse 13.

[95] "Fading" (NIV), "set aside" (NRSV), "done away" (KJV) is katargeō, "to cause something to come to an end or to be no longer in existence, abolish, wipe out, set aside." (BDAG 526, 3). This word is used twice more in verses 11 and 13 to refer to the fading of the glory on Moses' face. In verse 14 it is used in the sense "take a way, remove," of the removal of the veil.

[96] "Surpassing" (NIV), "greater" (NRSV), "that excelleth" (KJV) is hyperballō, "to attain a degree that extraordinarily exceeds a point on a scale of extent, go beyond, surpass, outdo" (BDAG 1032).

[97] "That which lasts" (NIV), "the permanent" (NRSV), "that which remaineth" (KJV) is the common verb menō, "abide, continue," here, "to continue to exist, remain, last, persist, continue to live" (BDAG 632, 2b).

[98] "Such/such a" is toioutos, a correlative adjective "pertaining to being like some person or thing mentioned in a context, of such a kind, such as this, like such" (BDAG 1012, bα bet).

[99] "Hope" is elpis, "the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment, hope, expectation" (BDAG 319, 1bβ).

[100] "Be very bold" (NIV), "plainness of speech" (KJV) is parrēsia, "a use of speech that conceals nothing and passes over nothing, outspokenness, frankness, plainness" (BDAG 783, 1).

[101] "Veil" in verses 13, 14, 15, and 16 is kalymma, "head-covering, veil," literally, of the veil with which Moses covered his face, then, figuratively, "veil, covering that prevents right understanding" (BDAG 505).

[102] "Made dull" (NIV), "hardened" (NRSV), "blinded" (KJV) is pōroō, primarily, "harden, petrify," in the New Testament only figuratively, "to cause someone to have difficulty in understanding or comprehending ... make dull, obtuse, blind, close the mind" (BDAG 900).

[103] "Taken away" (NIV), "set aside" (NRSV), "done away" (KJV) is katargeō, which we saw with reference to "fading" in verses 7, 11, and 13.

[104] "Turn to" is epistrephō, "return," here, "to change one's mind or course of action," for better or worse, "turn, return" (BDAG 382, 4a).

[105] In verse 16, "taken away" (NIV, KJV), "removed" (NRSV) is periaireō, "take away from around something, take away, remove" (BDAG 799, 1), from peri-, "around" + aireō, "take."

[106] Barnett (pp. 200-201) notes that verse 17 has been understood in two ways: (1) the "pneumatological," which neatly identifies "Lord" = "Spirit" or (2) the "associational," in which "the Spirit" identifies the "Lord," to whom one turns under the New Covenant, as "Spirit" or "spiritual."

[107] Bruce, p. 193.

[108] Kruze, p. 99. Similarly, Barrett, pp. 122-123.

[109] "Freedom" (NIV, NRSV), "liberty" (KJV) is eleutheria, "the state of being free, freedom, liberty." It is used especially of freedom that stands in contrast to constraint of the Mosaic law, looked upon as slavery (Gal 2:4; 5:1) (BDAG 316).

[110] "Unveiled faces" (NIV, NRSV), "open faces" (KJV) is anakalyptō, above. In verse 18 we see the opposite to veiling: "unveiled" (NIV, NRSV), "with open face" (KJV) is anakalyptō, "uncover, unveil" (BDAG 65), from ana-, "back, backward" (in the sense of reversal) + kalyptō, "cover."

[111] Barnett, p. 205, fn 38.

[112] Katoptrizō, BDAG 535. So Barrett, p. 125, and Barnett, pp. 204-206. Barnett sees Philo's phrase (Allegorical Interpretation 3.101), "see ... as in a looking glass," as an apt parallel.

[113] Tasker, p. 68.

[114] Metamorphoō, BDAG 639, 2.

[115] Eikōn, BDAG 282, 3.

[116] Symmorphos, BDAG 958.

[117] There's a similar construction in 4:17, literally "from excess to (eis) excess." Eis can carry the idea of a marker of degree, "up to," as well as marker of goals involving affective / abstract / suitability aspects, "into, to," here, of change from one state to another with verbs of changing (Eis, BDAG 289, 3 and 4b).

[118] I found reference to a 1978 song with this title by Evelyn Marie Montgomery (1926- ) and Eddie Montgomery (1926- ), but I first heard the song about 1966.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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