Consider with me 2 Corinthians 3:18:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
This verse is usually interpreted to mean that we are all in a process of sanctification from one degree to the next. But is this really what the verse means? I’d like to take a closer look the verse in its context, and what we will find is surprising.
First, look at the kernel of the verse: We are all changed. Everything else relates to that phrase. So, what about this change? Well, to answer that, we will look at five points taken right out this passage. The points are:
Who Experiences This Change?
Answer: Those with an unveiled face.
What does it mean to have an unveiled face? To understand this, we must ask two very important questions: what is the veil and how do I become unveiled? Let’s identify the veil first. In this passage, Paul refers to the veil in two different ways. First, he refers to it literally, as found in verses 12-13 earlier in the passage:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.
Here Paul is using the veil in a literal sense. The event here is when Moses was receiving the Old Covenant from God. You can find this story in Exodus 34:27-35. For sake of time, we can’t read this passage. But there are three things about this context that you need to know: 1) the Old Covenant was read to the Jews; 2) Moses’s face shown with glory so that he had to cover his face with a veil; and 3) the Israelites hardened their minds as seen in the Golden Calf incident a few chapters later.
However, Paul isn’t just referring to a literal veil. He uses Moses’ veil as an illustration to explain the hardness of unbelievers. Look at verse 15: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.” Note the same three things: 1) the Old Covenant is still read to them; 2) but they cannot see the glory of it because a veil lies over their hearts; and 3) because of the veil, their minds are hardened. Thus, the veil metaphorically means hardness of the mind.
So, if hardness of mind is the veil, how then is this veil removed? How have we come to the place that we see the glory of God? First, Christ is the person who removes the veil. Verse 14: “only through Christ is it taken away.” And Christ removes that veil when a sinner repents and turns to the Lord. Verse 16: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” In other words, to understand scripture and the glory of God, you must be saved.
Why Are We Changed?
Answer: because we behold the glory of the Lord.
Well, what is the glory of the Lord? And what about the word beholding? Why does the KJV insert the phrase: “as in a glass” while other good translations do not? Let’s first address the question about glory: what glory are we talking about?
In this chapter, Paul refers to two different types of glories repeatedly. One glory came with the OT law. The other glory comes with the Spirit of God in the NT. We will compare the two glories here in a minute. But in context, the glory which Paul refers to here is the glory reveled in the ministry of the Spirit which is the New Covenant. We are changed because we are seeing the glory of the Lord reveled in the NT.
So, what about the word “beholding.” Literally, the word does mean to stare intently as in a mirror. And so, the KJV is more accurate here in this verse. How does this translate into everyday life? How many of you skype? You know, whenever you skype the picture is just clear and the audio is like the person is sitting right there in the room with you, right? Of course not. As nice as skype is, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the time, the pictures are blurry and sound is garbled a little bit. Sometimes, you’re lucky if the picture is in sync with the sound.
When Paul uses this word, I kind of picture skype in my head. Because, yes, we see the glory of the Lord, which is the New Covenant. But because we are still fallen creatures, we don’t clearly see all of this glory. Here is the good part though, because we do see some of this glory, we are change! This phrase is the reason that we are changed: because we are gazing upon the glory of God!
What Are We Changed Into?
Answer: Into the same image.
First question here: to what image is he referring? We actually just talked about it. What are we beholding? The glory of God. What part of God’s glory is he talking about? The New Testament glory. And who is the summation of the Glory of the New Covenant? That is Christ. And we are changed into that same glorious image that Christ bears. To the best of my understanding, this image into which we are transformed is the same image which we well be turned into when Jesus returns. I know that John says in his letter:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
What will we be like exactly? We don’t know. But someday, we will be like him! And I can’t wait for that day! And it will be glorious!
Where Are We Change To?
Answer: From glory to glory.
Now, here is a phrase that has always confused me. And I’ll be honest, I struggled a long time to understand it. Most people interpret this phrase to mean that we are changed from one level of glory to the next level of glory (i.e. progressive sanctification). But that interpretation has never sat well with me and here is why: one word, context.
Paul says nothing about sanctification in this context. There is nothing here about growing in Christ. Instead, this whole context is talking about salvation. It talks about the veil: those who are unsaved; and it talks about the removal of the veil: the saved. It talks about condemnation and righteousness. But not spiritual warfare and growing in Christ.
So then, if this may not be talking about sanctification, what is it talking about? What does it mean from glory to glory? Like I mentioned earlier, this passage does talk about two glories: the glory of the Old Testament and the glory of the New Testament. These two glories are contrasted three times, with three different conclusions. 1) If the Ministry of Death was incredibly glorious, the Ministry of the Spirit (Life) is much more glorious (vv. 7-8). 2) The glory of the Ministry of Righteousness completely nullifies the glory of the Ministry of Condemnation (vv. 9-10). 3) If the Ending Ministry of Death was glorious, the Remaining Ministry of the Spirit is much more glorious (v. 11).
This glory, that glory. A glory that kills, a glory that gives life! A glory that condemns, a glory that justifies! A glory that ends, a glory that is eternal! He is saying that we are changed, failing glory of the OT, to the eternal glory of the NT. We are not restricted to looking at the glory that shown from Moses’ face. We all gaze at the glory of the Spirit of God! And so, in context I think that Paul isn’t talking about sanctification, but justification. When we are justified, we are made to gaze upon the glory of the New Covenant.
How Are We Changed?
Answer: For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Here again is another confusing phrase. Many good interpreters differ on it. Literally, this phrase says, “Just as from Lord of Spirit.” What does it mean? There are many different ways to translate this:
- Just as from the Lord who sends the Spirit
- Just as from the Lord who is the Spirit.
- Just as by the Lord the Spirit.
- (KJV) Just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
- (ESV) For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
What is the right interpretation? This phrase teaches us that the Holy Spirit is the agent who does the work in us. When you are saved, your face is unveiled and you see the glory of the Lord, you are changed by that Spirit into that same image. The Spirit is the one who changes you to be like Christ! So, I think the ESV comes the closest: For this [change] comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Ok, so what? How does this passage effect your life? We see the change. We know who, why, what, where, and how. But what difference does it make? Remember, this ministry of the Spirit. This change that is brought about in Paul’s life is why he keeps going.
Now, let me draw your attention to the first three words: and we all. This change didn’t just happen to Paul. This change didn’t just happen to Paul’s team. He says: AND WE ALL! We all are changed! It’s not just one man on a mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. It’s every last one of us!
And as result of this change, we do not lose heart (2 Cor. 4:1)! We can press on in our ministry! Do you get discouraged serving meals? Do you get discouraged coming to church and talking with believers? Do you get tired of trying to make it to VBS? Do you struggle to find time to help people? We all do. BUT WE DON’T LOSE HEART! BECAUSE WE SEE THE GLORY OF GOD AND HOW IT CHANGES PEOPLE! That is why we keep on keeping on. Because we are changed and we see other people changed and we want more people to be changed by the glory of God!