THE TRANSFIGURING SPIRIT
2 Corinthians 3:12-18 (R.V)
THE "hope" which here explains the Apostle’s freedom of speech is to all intents and purposes the same as the "confidence" in 2 Corinthians 3:4. It is much easier to suppose that the word is thus used with a certain latitude, as it might be in English, than to force upon it a reference to the glory to be revealed when Christ comes again, and to give the same future reference to "glory" all through this passage. The new covenant is present, and present in its glory; and though it has a future, with which the Apostle’s hope is bound up, it is not in view of its future only, it is because of what it is even now, that he is so grandly confident, and uses such boldness of speech. It is quite fair to infer from 2 Corinthians 4:3 -"if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those that are perishing"-that Paul’s opponents at Corinth had charged him with behavior of another kind. They had accused him of making a mystery of his Gospel-preaching it in such a fashion that no one could really see it, or understand what he meant. If there is any charge which the true preacher will feel keenly, and resent vehemently, it is this. It is his first duty to deliver his message with a plainness that defies misunderstanding. He is sent to all men on an errand of life or death; and to leave any man wondering, after the message has been delivered, what it is about, is the worst sort of treachery. It belies the Gospel, and God who is its author. It may be due to pride, or to a misguided intention to commend the Gospel to the wisdom or the prejudices of men; but it is never anything else than a fatal mistake.
Paul not only resents the charge; he feels it so acutely that he finds an ingenious way of retorting it. "We," he says, "the ministers of the new covenant, we who preach life, righteousness, and everlasting glory, have nothing to hide; we wish every one to know everything about the dispensation which we serve. It is the representatives of the old who are really open to the charge of using concealment; the first and the greatest of them all, Moses himself, put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel should not look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away. The glory on his face was a fading glory, because it was the glory of a temporary dispensation; but he did not wish the Israelites to see clearly that it was destined to disappear; so he veiled his face, and left them to think the law a permanent divine institution."
Perhaps the best thing to do with this singular interpretation is not to take it too seriously. Even sober expositors like Chrysostom and Calvin have thought it necessary to argue gravely that the Apostle is not accusing the law, or saying anything insulting of Moses; while Schmiedel, on the other hand, insists that a grave moral charge is made against Moses, and that Paul most unjustly uses the Old Testament, in its own despite, to prove its own transitoriness. I believe it would be far truer to say that the character of Moses never crossed Paul’s mind in the whole passage, for better or worse; he only remembered, as he smarted under the accusation of veiling his Gospel of the new covenant, a certain transaction under the old covenant in which a veil did figure-a transaction which a Rabbinical interpretation, whimsical indeed to us, but provoking if not convincing to his adversaries, enabled him to turn against them. As for proving the transitoriness of the Old Testament by a forced and illegitimate argument, that transitoriness was abundantly established to Paul, as it is to us, on real grounds; nothing whatever depends on what is here said of Moses and the veil. It is not necessary, if we take this view, to go into the historical interpretation of the passage in Exodus 34:29-35. The comparison of the Apostle with the Old Testament writer has been made more difficult for the English reader by the serious error in the Authorized Version of Exodus 34:33. Instead of "till Moses had done speaking with them," we ought to read, as in the Revised Version, "when Moses had done speaking." This exactly reverses the meaning. Moses spoke to the people with face bare and radiant; the glory was to be visible at least in his official intercourse with them, or whenever he spoke for God. At other times he wore the veil, putting it off, however, when he went into the tabernacle-that is, whenever he spoke with God. In all divine relations, then, we should naturally infer, there was to be the open and shining face; in other words, so far as he acted as mediator of the old covenant, Moses really acted in the spirit of Paul. It would therefore have been unjust in the Apostle to charge him with hiding anything, if the charge had really meant more than this-that Paul saw in his use of the veil a symbol of the fact that the children of Israel did not see that the old covenant was-transitory, and that its glory was to be lost in that of the new. No one can deny that this was the fact, and no one therefore need be exercised if Paul pictured it in the manner of his own time and race, and not in the manner of ours. To suppose that he means to charge Moses with a deliberate act of dishonesty is to suppose what no sensible person will ever credit; and we may return, without more ado, to the painful situation which he contemplates.
Their minds were hardened. This is stated historically, and seems to refer in the first instance to those who watched Moses put on the veil, and became insensible, as he did so, to the nature of the old covenant. But it is applicable to the Jewish race at all periods of their history; they never discovered the secret which Moses hid from their forefathers beneath the veil. The only result that followed the labors even of great prophets like Isaiah had been tile deepening of the darkness: having eyes the people saw not, having ears they heard not; their heart was fat and heavy, so that they did not apprehend the ways of God nor turn to Him. All around him the Apostle saw the melancholy evidence that there had been no change for the better. Until this day the same veil remains, when the Old Testament is read, not taken away; for it is only undone in Christ, and of Christ they will know nothing. He repeats the sad statement, varying it slightly to indicate that the responsibility for a condition so blind and dreary rests not with the old covenant itself, but with those who live under it. "Until this day, I say, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lies upon their heart."
This witness, we must acknowledge, is almost as true in the nineteenth century as in the first. The Jews still exist as a race and a sect, acknowledging the Old Testament as a revelation from God, basing their religion upon it, keeping their ancient law so far as circumstances enable them to keep it, not convinced that as a religious constitution it has been superseded by a new one. Many of them, indeed, have abandoned it without becoming Christians. But in so doing they have become secularists; they have not appreciated the old covenant to the full, and then outgrown it; they have been led for various reasons to deny that there ever was anything divine in it, and have renounced together its discipline and its hopes. Only where the knowledge of the Christ has been received is the veil which lies upon their hearts taken away; they can then appreciate both all the virtues of the ancient dispensation and all its defects; they can glorify God for what it was and for what it shut them up to; they can see that in all its parts it had a reference to something lying beyond itself-to a "new thing" that God would do for His people; and in welcoming the new covenant, and its Mediator Jesus Christ, they can feel that they are not making void, but establishing, the law.
This is their hope, and to this the Apostle looks in 2 Corinthians 3:16 : "But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away." The Greek expression of this passage is so closely modelled on that of Exodus 34:34, that Westcott and Hort print it as a quotation. Moses evidently is still in the Apostle’s mind. The veiling of his face symbolized the nation’s blindness; the nation’s hope is to be seen in that action in which Moses was unveiled. He uncovered his face when he turned from the people to speak to God. "Even so," says the Apostle, "when they turn to the Lord, the veil of which we have been speaking is taken away, and they see clearly." One can hardly avoid feeling in this a reminiscence of the Apostle’s own conversion. He is thinking not only of the unveiling of Moses, but of the scales which fell from his own eyes when he was baptized in the name of Jesus, and was filled with the Holy Ghost, and saw the old covenant and its glory lost and fulfilled in the new. He knew how stupendous was the change involved here; it meant a revolution in the whole constitution of the Jews’ spiritual world as vast as that which was wrought in the natural world when the sun supplanted the earth as the center of our system. But the gain was corresponding. The soul was delivered from an impasse. Under the old covenant, as bitter experience had shown him, the religious life had come to a dead-lock; the conscience was confronted with a torturing, and in its very nature insoluble, problem: man, burdened and enslaved by sin, was required to attain to a righteousness which should please God. The contradictions of this position were solved, its mystery was abolished, when the soul turned to the Lord, and appropriated by faith the righteousness and life of God in him. The old covenant found its place, an intelligible and worthy though subordinate place, in the grand program of redemption; the strife between the soul and God, between the soul and the conditions of existence, ceased; life opened out again; there was a large room to move in, an inspiring power within; in one word, there was spiritual life and liberty, and Christ was the author of it all.
This is the force of the seventeenth verse: "Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." The Lord, of course, is Christ, and the Spirit is that of which Paul has already spoken in the sixth verse. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life under the new covenant. He who turns to Christ receives this Spirit; it is through it that Christ dwells in His people; what are called "fruits of the Spirit" are traits of Christ’s own character which the Spirit produces in the saints; practically, therefore, the two may be identified, and hence the expression "the Lord is the Spirit," though startling at first sight, is not improper, and ought not to mislead. It is a mistake to connect it with such passages as Romans 1:4, and to draw inferences from it as to Paul’s conception of the person of Christ. He does not say "the Lord is spirit," but "the Lord is the Spirit"; what is in view is not the person of Christ so much as His power. To identify the Lord and the Spirit without qualification, in the face of the benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14, is out of the question. The truth of the passage is the same as that of Romans 8:9 ff.: "If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of His. And if Christ is in you"; etc. Here, so far as the practical experience of Christians goes, no distinction is made between the Spirit of Christ and Christ Himself; Christ dwells in Christians through His Spirit. The very same truth, as is well known, pervades the chapters in the Fourth Gospel in which Christ consoles His disciples for his departure from this world; He will not leave them orphans-He will come to them, and remain with them in the other Comforter. To turn to Christ, the Apostle wishes to assert with the utmost emphasis, is not to do a thing which has no virtue and no consequences; it is to turn to one who has received of the Father the gift of the Holy Ghost, and who immediately sets up the new spiritual life, which is nothing less than His own life, by that Spirit, in the believing soul. And summing up in one word the grand characteristic and distinction of the new covenant, as realized by this indwelling of Christ through His Spirit, he concludes: "And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
In the interpretation of the last word, we must have respect to the context; liberty has its meaning in contrast with that state to which the old covenant had reduced those who adhered to it. It means freedom from the law; freedom, fundamentally, from its condemnation, thanks to the gift of righteousness in Christ; freedom, also, from its letter, as something simply without us and over against us. No written word, as such, can ever be pleaded against the voice of the Spirit within. Even the words we call in an eminent sense "inspired," words of the Spirit, are subject to this law: they do not put a limit to the liberty of the spiritual man. He can overrule the letter of them when the literal interpretation or application would contravene the spirit which is common both to them and him. This principle is capable of being abused, no doubt, and by bad men and fanatics has been abused; but its worst abuses can hardly have done more harm than the pedantic word-worship which has often lost the soul even of the New Testament, and read the words of the Lord and His Apostles with a veil upon its face through which nothing could be seen. There is such a thing as an unspiritual scrupulosity in dealing with the New Testament, now that we have it in documentary form, just as there used to be in dealing with the Old; and we ought to remind ourselves continually that the documentary form is an accident, not an essential, of the new covenant. That covenant existed, and men lived under it and enjoyed its blessings, before it had any written documents at all; and we shall not appreciate its characteristics, and especially this one of its spiritual freedom, unless we put ourselves occasionally, in imagination, in their place. It is far easier to make Paul mean too little than too much; and the liberty of the Spirit in which he exults here covers, we may be sure, not only liberty from condemnation, and liberty from the unspiritual yoke of the ritual law, but liberty from all that is in its nature statutory, liberty to organize the new life, and to legislate for it, from within.
The bearing of this passage on the religious blindness of the Jews ought not to hide from us its permanent application. The religious insensibility of his countrymen will cease, Paul says; their religious perplexities will be solved, when they turn to Christ. This is the beginning of all intelligence, of all freedom, of all hope, in things spiritual. Much of the religious doubt and confusion of our own times is due to the preoccupation of men’s minds with religion at points from which Christ is invisible. But it is He who is the key to all human experiences as well as to the Old Testament; it is He who answers the questions of the world as well as the questions of the Jews; it is He who takes our feet out of the net, opens the gate of righteousness before us, and gives us spiritual freedom. It is like finding a pearl of great price when the soul discovers this, and to point it out to others is to do them a priceless service. Disregard everything else in the meantime, if you are bewildered, baffled, in bonds which you cannot break; turn to Jesus Christ, as Moses turned to God, with face uncovered; put down prejudice, preconceptions, pride, the disposition to make demands; only look steadfastly till you see what He is, and all that perplexes you will pass away, or appear in a new light, and serve a new and spiritual purpose.
Something like this larger application of his words passed, we may suppose, before the Apostle’s mind when he wrote the eighteenth verse. In the grandeur of the truth which rises upon him he forgets his controversy and becomes a poet. We breathe the ampler ether, the diviner air, as we read: "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit." I have kept here for κατοπτριζομενοι the rendering of the Authorized Version, which in the Revised has been relegated to the margin, and replaced by "reflecting as a mirror." There do not seem to be sufficient grounds for the change, and the old translation is defended in Grimm’s Lexicon, in Winer’s Grammar, and by Meyer, Heinrici, and Beet. The active voice of the verb κατοπτριζω means "to exhibit in a mirror"; and the middle, "to mirror oneself"-i.e., "to look at oneself in a mirror." This, at least, is the sense of most of the examples of the middle which are found in Greek writers; but as it is quite inapplicable here, the question of interpretation becomes rather difficult. It is, however, in accordance with analogy to say that if the active means "to show in a mirror," the middle means "to get shown to one in a mirror," or, as the Authorized Version puts it, "to behold in a mirror." I cannot make out that any analogy favors the new rendering, "reflecting as a mirror"; and the authority of Chrysostom, which would otherwise be considerable on this side, is lessened by the fact that he seems never to have raised the question, and in point of fact combines both renderings. His illustration of the polished silver lying in the sunshine, and sending back the rays which strike it, is in favor of the change; but when he writes, "We not only look upon the glory of God, but also catch thence a kind of radiance," he may fairly be claimed for the other side. There are two reasons also which seem to me to have great weight in favor of the old rendering: first, the expression with unveiled face, which, as Meyer remarks, is naturally of a piece with "beholding"; and, second, an unequivocal example of the middle voice of κατοπτριζομαι in the sense of "seeing," while no unequivocal example can be produced for "reflecting." This example is found in Philo 1:107 ("Leg. Alleg.," 3:33), where Moses prays to God: "Show not Thyself to me through heaven or earth, or water or air, or anything at all that comes into being; nor let me see Thy form mirrored in any other thing than in Thee, even in God." ( ΄ηδὲ κατοπτρισαίμην έν ἄλλῳ τινί τήν σήν ἰδέαν ἢ έν σοὶ τῷ θεῷ) This seems to me decisive, and there is the less reason to reject it on other than linguistic grounds, when we consider that the idea of "reflecting," if it is given up in κατοπτριζομενοι is conserved in μεταμορφουμεθα. The transformation has the reflection of Christ’s glory for its effect, not for its cause; but the reflection, eventually, is there.
Assuming, then, that "beholding as in a glass" is the right interpretation of this hard word, let us go on to what the Apostle says. "We all" probably means "all Christians," and not only "all Christian teachers." If there is a comparison implied, it is between the two dispensations, and the experiences open to those who lived under them, not between the mediator of the old and the heralds of the new. Under the old covenant one only saw the glory; now the beatific vision is open to all. We all behold it "with unveiled face." There is nothing on Christ’s part that leads to disguise, and nothing on ours that comes between us and Him. The darkness is past, the true light already shines, and Christian souls cannot look on it too fixedly, or drink it in to excess. But what is meant by "the glory of the Lord" on which we gaze with face unveiled?
It will not be questioned, by those who are at home in St. Paul’s thoughts, that "the Lord" means the exalted Savior, and that the glory must be something which belongs to Him. Indeed, if we remember that in the First Epistle, 1 Corinthians 2:8, He is characteristically described by the Apostle as "the Lord of glory," we shall not feel it too much to say that the glory is everything which belongs to Him. There is not any aspect of the exalted Christ, there is not any representation of Him in the Gospel, there is not any function which He exercises, that does not come under this head. "In His temple everything saith Glory!" There is a glory even in the mode of His existence: St. Paul’s conception of Him is dominated always by that appearance on the way to Damascus, when he saw the Christ through a light above the brightness of the sun. It is His glory that He shares the Father’s throne, that He is head of the Church, possessor and bestower of all the fullness of divine grace, the coming Judge of the world, conqueror of every hostile power, intercessor for His own, and, in short, bearer of all the majesty which belongs to His kingly office, The essential thing in all this-essential to the understanding of the Apostle, and to the existence of the apostolic "Gospel of the glory of Christ" [2 Corinthians 4:4] -is that the glory in question is the glory of a Living Person. When Paul thinks of it, he does not look back, he looks up; he does not remember, he beholds in a glass; the glory of the Lord has no meaning for him apart from the present exaltation of the Risen Christ. "The Lord reigneth; He is appareled with majesty"-that is the anthem of His praise.
I have insisted on this, because, in a certain reaction from what was perhaps an exaggerated Paulinism, there is a tendency to misapply even the most characteristic and vital passages in St. Paul’s Gospel, and preeminently to misapply passages like this. Nothing could be more misleading than to substitute here for the glory of the exalted Christ as mirrored in the apostolic Gospel that moral beauty which was seen in Jesus of Nazareth. Of course I do not mean to deny that the moral loveliness of Jesus is glorious; nor do I question that in the contemplation of it in the pages of our Gospels-subject to one grand condition-a transforming power is exercised through it; but I do deny that any such thing was in the mind of St. Paul. The subject of the Apostle’s Gospel was not Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, but Christ the Lord of glory; men, as he understood the matter, were saved, not by dwelling on the wonderful words and deeds of One who had lived some time ago, and reviving these in their imagination, but by receiving the almighty, emancipating, quickening Spirit of One who lived and reigned for evermore. The transformation here spoken of is not the work of a powerful imagination, which can make the figure in the pages of the Gospels live again, and suffuse the soul with feeling as it gazes upon it; preach this as gospel who will, it was never preached by an apostle of Jesus Christ. It is the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is given, not to the memory or imagination which can vivify the past, but to the faith which sees Christ upon His throne. And it is subject to the condition of faith in the living Christ that contemplation of Jesus in the Gospels changes us into the same image. There can be no doubt that at the present time many are falling back upon this contemplation in a despairing rather than a believing mood; what they seek and find in it is rather a poetic consolation than religious inspiration; their faith in the living Christ is gone, or is so uncertain as to be practically of no saving power, and they have recourse to the memory of what Jesus was as at least something to cling to. "We thought that it had been He which should have delivered Israel." But surely it is as clear as day that in religion-in the matter of redemption-we must deal, not with the dead, but with the living. Paul may have known less or more of the contents of our first three Gospels; he may have valued them more or less adequately; but just because he had been saved by Christ, and was preaching Christ as a Savior, the center of his thoughts and affections was not Galilee, but "the heavenlies." There the Lord of glory reigned; and from that world He sent the Spirit which changed His people into His image. And so it must always be, if Christianity is to be a living religion. Leave out this, and not only is the Pauline Gospel lost, but everything is lost which could be called Gospel in the New Testament.
The Lord of glory, Paul teaches here, is the pattern and prophecy of a glory to be revealed in us; and as we contemplate Him in the mirror of the Gospel, we are gradually transformed into the same image, even as by the Lord the Spirit. The transformation, these last words again teach, is not accomplished by beholding, but while we behold; it does not depend on the vividness with which we can imagine the past, but on the present power of Christ working in us. The result is such as befits the operation of such a power. We are changed into the image of Him from whom it proceeds. We are made like Himself. It may seem far more natural to say that the believer is made like Jesus of Nazareth, than that he is made like the Lord of glory; but that does not entitle us to shift the center of gravity in the Apostle’s teaching, and it only tempts us to ignore one of the most prominent and enviable characteristics of the New Testament religious life. Christ is on His throne, and His people are exalted and victorious in Him. When we forget Christ’s exaltation in our study of His earthly life-when we are so pre-occupied, it may even be so fascinated, with what He was, that. we forget what He is-when, in other words, a pious historical imagination takes the place of a living religious faith - that victorious consciousness is lost, and in a most essential point the image of the Lord is not reproduced in the believer. This is why the Pauline point of view-if indeed it is to be called Pauline, and not simply Christian-is essential. Christianity is a religion, not merely a history, though it should be the history told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke; and the chance of having the history itself appreciated for religion is that He who is its subject shall be contemplated, not in the dim distance of the past, but in the glory of His heavenly reign, and that He shall be recognized, not merely as one who lived a perfect life in His own generation, but as the Giver of life eternal by His Spirit to all who turn to Him. The Church will always be justified, while recognizing that Christianity is a historical religion, in giving prominence, not to its historicity, but to what makes it a religion at all-namely, the present exaltation of Christ. This involves everything, and determines, as St. Paul tells us here, the very form and spirit of her own life.