Transfiguration of Jesus: 19 February 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Once again we drop in on a conversation that is in full flight and we are hearing just a snippet from Paul's side of it. Paul is on the defensive. People are trying to discredit him. In the process, however, he makes some statements which carry their value way beyond his context and into ours. But let us first sense the tension of his context.
Notice that Paul asserts in 4:1 he is not despondent - why should he be? Ask his accusers! Paul repeats the same assertion in 4:16. His opponents appear to be of the view that Paul is inadequate, lacks authority, displays weakness and is vulnerable to failure. At least he does not impress in the way that others do. So he is forced to say what makes him tick and what makes his ministry tick. In 3:4 he asserts his confidence, but not on the basis of self sufficiency, only on the basis of love. In 4:1 he has stated that ministry is a gift of God's mercy and goodness. He continues by distancing himself (as he does already in 2:17) from people whose ministry depends on trickery and deceit. This is quite extraordinary. There appear to have been preachers who in self interest commended themselves and 'played games' to win their status and influence. It happened then, too.
So Paul is responding to this in 4:3 when he states that if there is any hiddenness it consists not in manipulations of that sort, but in the stark reality that some people are blinded to the good news. The image of blinding and hardening of hearts has already occurred in the closing verses of the previous chapter where Paul describes fellow Jews who refuse to accept the teaching of Christ. Playing with the image of Moses veiling his eyes from the brightness of God's glory on Sinai, Paul implies that a veil still prevents such people from seeing the glory of God now revealed in Christ. There he was speaking about fellow Jews. Here in 4:4 he is speaking more generally. Equating unbelieving Jews with unbelieving non Jews is something Paul also does in Galatians 3-4. It will have been very offensive, especially to those Christian Jews whom Paul sees as never really having turned the corner to new life. They are probably among his opponents at Corinth. This may be why he stresses that his is a message of the Spirit and freedom, not one of the Law (the 'letter'; see 3:3,6).
The notion of blinding or hardening was relatively widespread as a means of explaining why people rejected God. It belongs to the notion that ultimately God is in control of all responses. The idea is handled, however, in a way that makes it less dangerous than it may seem. Carried to its logical conclusion it produces a doctrine according to which all our responses are predetermined - it's all God's fault! Where such notions occur, we usually find the opposite assertion: that people can change their mind! The deterministic theism shows itself to be more like poetry than doctrine. Its positive posture comes out in such statements as the claim that we were chosen before the foundation of the world, a little like the lover's claim that 'you are the only one for me from all eternity'. It is a kind of doxological celebratory language. In its negative form it functions as a way of coming to terms with failure of one's mission. Many will want to read more into it than that and they may be right. I would opt for treating such language as performing a particular function, but whose substance I may need to view critically.
In 4:5 Paul returns to the main issue. Despite what his opponents are saying, he is not in ministry for the purposes of self promotion. Rather his ministry derives from God's own being and creativity. Notice how he links the creation of light with the shining, now, of Christ. Struck by the glory of Christ, Paul is motivated to do what he does. He unpacks it even further in 4:6 in a somewhat overloaded phrase. In 4:4 he describes Christ as the image of God. That recalls the creation story (Gen 1:26-27). Elsewhere it connects to the idea of Jesus as the true human being, the new Adam. Here, in 4:4 and 6, it connects also with the figure of wisdom, who is the image and reflection of God. It is all imagery deriving from light. Light, glory, glow - these are ways of expressing God's being. It becomes a way of doing christology. Christ reflects the light and so shows us God's glory. The transfiguration story also plays with such light imagery (see also John 1:14-18). When Paul uses other language to express the impact of divine being, he speaks of the spirit and he speaks of love. Paul has had a vision of divine love, crystalised for him in the person of Jesus (ie. the image he has been given of Jesus through the tradition, possibly not a lot in detail, but a lot in depth!).
On this basis Paul will go on to acknowledge that this wonderful treasure is something potted up in earthen vessels like himself, which have all the frailties one would expect (4:7). It leads to a wonderful passage in which Paul celebrates the life of God (generating ministry) in the midst of human frailty (4:8-12). In a way he is rubbing his opponents' noses in the normality of human frailty to confront their notion of super-duper ministers. Paul plants himself firmly on the cross side of life; the resurrection is to come (4:13-15). Cruciform ministry constitutes his self understanding as an apostle and invites us to see our ministries in the same light.
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