First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary


William Loader

Transfiguration  3 March  2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2

Paul's comments about Christ's glory come within the context of a letter in which he is concerned, among other things, to ward off criticism of his own ministry. At stake is not only his reputation, but also the integrity of the Christian message, itself, as he understands it. We see this personal agenda in the opening and closing verses of our passage. Paul is explaining his confidence in 3:12. In 4:1-2 he goes even further. He does not lose heart and he does not manipulate. He had said the same in 2:17. People don't write like this unless there really are such people. From elsewhere in both letters to Corinth we know that Paul was plagued with difficulties at Corinth because there were rival Christian preachers who sought to discredit Paul and to run him down.

In these chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul is making his defence, but it is much more than turf warfare. Paul's competition appears to espouse an understanding of Christianity which he sees as destructive and leading people back into a form of Judaism which he curtly dismisses as unenlightened. These disputes shimmer in the background. He sets his ministry of the Spirit against theirs, which despite their probable claims to the contrary, is bound by the letter (3:6). Paul rejects his opponents posturing as the properly authorised ones. Later he will parody their claims as false. They are false apostles, false brothers (11:1-5, 12-15). We are hearing only one side of the story. Those associated with Peter and, even more so, James, would probably have looked much more kindly on such preachers; they, in any case, appear to have appealed to them as their authority.

Paul gets personal, using the usual rhetorical techniques of the day to discredit his opponents, but, unlike many whose standard accusation against opponents was that they were treacherous sinners, usually in sexual terms, Paul give substance to his argument. We pick up his argument midstream in 3:12. In the previous section, 3:7-11, he had been careful not to give impression that he was attacking the old covenant, let alone the scriptures. He does not deny that it had its divine glory, but, he argues, it pales into insignificance compared with the glory which has now come in Christ. The language of "glory" was visual imagery for divine presence, best pictured as a glow of light. This was a common image for representing closeness to God or heaven and is reflected in the transfiguration story where Jesus shines, as, according to Daniel 12, the righteous will all shine on the day of resurrection.

Confidence is a big issue. If you were not confident, it indicated that there was something amiss in what you preached. These were widely held values in the world of the time. Shame is blame. Paul uses this set of values to take the old covenant down a peg or two, so to speak, at least compared with where his opponents were putting it. So he picks up the detail from Exodus 34 that Moses put a veil over his face when he was among the people (after he had spoken to them), because they were afraid (Exod 34:30-35). It was a scene which stimulated much reflection. It lies at the back of the transfiguration story. It inspired some to see in Moses the ideal of the person who sees God, which all should seek to emulate. The claims that Moses really did see God created controversy. John's gospel rejects these claims about Moses (1:14-18). Only Jesus has seen God. But Moses had at least a partial glimpse. Paul is not denying that. It was enough to make his face glow. But the glow did not last and it scared the people. None of this makes it bad or inappropriate, but it offers Paul the opportunity of arguing that it was a fading glow (or glory), and one the people could not really see because of the veil.

Paul then turns these observations to his purpose. Just as they could not really see God's glow on Moses then, so they still cannot see God's glow in Paul's own time when they hear Moses read. The person who carries the permanent and visible glow of God is Jesus according to Paul. When you look at Jesus, the veil falls away. You can then really see what the scriptures are about and you can really see God's glory, because it is permanently shining in the person of Jesus. Playing with the detail that Moses removed the veil when he went back to speak to Yahweh, Paul implies that when you turn to the Lord Jesus, you get an unobscured view of God. That sets you free. From what? From the rules and regulations which Paul declares are the letter that kills in 3:6 and which he explains further in Romans 7.

This would be a red rag to Paul's opponents who would doubtless seize on these comments to declare: you see, Paul is abandoning the biblical commandments. He will have people go off the rails in no time. They wouldn't have far to go to prove their point if they lived in Corinth. Such freedom Spirit filled Christians had been doing outrageous things, as Paul's own rebukes in 1 Corinthians show! But Paul refuses to retreat to rules and instead argues that he is talking about the kind of freedom which entails transformation of people's lives, so that they will not only match the ethical standards of those who promulgate keeping the Law, but will far outstrip them (as he argues again in Romans 8:1-4). Here he puts the argument in visual imagery. The more you look at the divine glow in Jesus (which is God's), the more your life will carry that same glow. Paul naturally understands that glow not in terms of ecstatic experiences but in terms of love and compassion (thus 1 Corinthians 13!). Where these fruits of the Spirit abound we have gone far beyond what can be achieved by keeping rules, even biblical commands. That is Paul's consistent view. 4:3-6 spell this out eloquently.

Paul pits his transforming gospel against the one espoused by those who appeal to the biblical authority of laws and commandments and who see Jesus as primarily promoting a new version of Moses. The issues being fought out with odd imagery and peculiar arguments go right to the heart of the question: how do people change? There is truth on both sides, perhaps one side being more relevant at stages of human development than the other. Paul's is doubtless further up the growth hierarchy. It shifts change from the largely behavioural level to the transformation of attitudes based on new kinds of relationship. The vivid language of light, glow, and glory, are just another way of expressing God's being and the notion of reflection is another way of speaking of connection and relationship with God at the most profound level.

Paul was prepared to go out on a limb to defend this approach. I'm so glad he did. We still need it in a day when people want to go back to what they sense is a short-cut to change: re-declaring the rules.

Gospel: Transfiguration: 3 March Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

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