Comments and Observations
How fitting that the season of Epiphany ends with a celebration of Christ’s Transfiguration, that bright and shining moment near the end of his ministry when his true glory burst through the veil of his humility! And what a fitting text this reading from II Corinthians 4 is! It fits so perfectly with the other readings for this day, summarizing what happened on that mountain (Mark 9) where the glory of God shone (Psalm 50) in the face of Christ as he talked with Moses and Elijah (II Kings 2). As I meditated on these few verses, I kept hearing that soaring refrain from Handel’s Messiah—”and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed….”
But this is not just a text that helps us soar; it is also very earthy. It helps us grapple with two very important and knotty questions. Why don’t some people respond to the preaching of the gospel of the glory of Christ? And how can human beings come to know God in all God’s glory? These issues arise in the context of Paul’s ongoing defense of himself and his gospel against the attacks of false teachers who have invaded the church at Corinth. They claimed that Paul wasn’t really an apostle, that his gospel was a perversion of the truth, and that his methods were manipulative and self serving. “On the contrary,” says Paul in verse 2, “by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Why then don’t people respond in faith to this plain preaching of the truth? How do we account for unbelief? This is a very practical problem for every preacher. Every year in my ministry I had to give an accounting of how many people had been converted under the influence of my preaching. Many years there weren’t very many, and I felt bad about it. Was it my fault? Was my preaching deficient? Did I need to make it a little less plain, a little more nuanced, a bit more eloquent, a lot more technologically sophisticated, just a tad more market driven? Perhaps all of that was true, but that’s not the answer the plain spoken Paul gave.
He says, I speak plainly, but “even if our gospel is veiled,” the problem is not in the preaching. It is in those who don’t believe. Earlier (in 3:13-18) Paul has said that when the Jews hear Torah read, “a veil covers their hearts,” so that they can’t hear its testimony to the Christ who is Jesus. Now he says that the Gospel itself is veiled, but only to those who are perishing. That’s because “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.” In other words, the unbelieving response of some listeners cannot be traced to the way Paul preached, as his detractors claimed. Rather the blame for unbelief lay in the hearts and minds of the unbelievers and, ultimately, we can attribute their unbelief to “the god of this age.”
That explanation of those who don’t “get it” when we preach is problematic in at least three ways. First, who is “the god of this age?” Most scholars think it is the Devil, but we don’t hear that expression applied to him anywhere else in the New Testament. Yes, Paul speaks of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” (Eph. 2:2) I John 4:3 and 4 alludes to the work of the spirit of the anti-Christ who is already at work in the world. Both of those references can be traced back to Jesus in John 12:31 and 14:30 and 16:11, where he speaks of “the prince of this world.” But only here in II Corinthians 4 is the Devil called “the god of this age.” This cannot mean that the Evil One actually has the same power and majesty as the true God. The Bible knows nothing of such dualism. It must mean that he pretends to the Throne and is at work everywhere in the world, as God is. The Devil functions as god for many people and wields an enormous influence in their lives.
That raises the second issue with this verse. If the Devil is behind the unbelief of those who don’t get the Gospel, then how can they be blamed? If they cannot be see the light of the Gospel because someone else has blinded them, what fault is that of theirs? They are unwitting victims of the devil, not villains who choose to disbelieve. They can’t help it. They cannot do otherwise. And if that is true, then how can God judge them?
The fact that God does judge unbelief (John 3:18) indicates that they aren’t unwilling victims. Here we encounter the dark side of the traditional problem of divine sovereignty versus human responsibility. As Paul put it in Ephesians 2, “the ruler of the kingdom of the air… is at work in those who are disobedient.” Which came first—the work of that ruler or the disobedience of those on whom he works? Does this mean that God holds sinners responsible even though they have been influenced (even blinded) by the Devil, because they actively chose disobedience quite apart from his work.
That theological problem leads to the third issue with this text, a very practical one. If unbelievers cannot see the truth because they are willfully blind, then what is the point of preaching to them? It’s like waving a warning flag in front of a blind man about to step off a cliff. What possible good can it do? That is precisely Paul’s point. The Gospel is the only thing that can do any good for unbelievers, because the “God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Only God could bring light out of darkness at the beginning of creation (Gen. 1:2-4). Only God can bring light into the darkness of unbelief. And he does.
He did that for Paul as he was on his way to wipe out the Church, utterly convinced that Jesus and his followers were an evil influence in the world, worthy only of death. Then a light broke through his darkness and a voice spoke into his deafness. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus….” From then on, Paul spoke only of Jesus, because in Jesus the darkness was dispelled, the unbelief was shattered, and the Devil was defeated. So, says Paul, we preach “Jesus Christ as Lord.” Unbelievers cannot see the light of the glory of Christ, so what I do is preach “Jesus Christ as Lord.” That is the only thing that can open their minds and hearts.
In those three words, Paul summarizes his gospel. He preaches “Jesus,” the very human Jew who lived and died and rose. He preaches that he is “the Christ,” the Messiah who fulfilled all of God’s redeeming promises by becoming the prophet, priest and king everyone needs. And he preaches that Jesus Christ is now Lord of all, sovereign in the Empire and sovereign in each self. That is the message that can give sight to the blind and bring light into the darkness ruled by “the god of this age.”
How can that be? Here again we meet that sovereignty/responsibility paradox. Unbelievers cannot see, but our sovereign God can make them see. Paul knew it from experience. So did Augustine, and C.S. Lewis, and every one of us who has ever come to faith kicking and screaming. The creator who simply spoke light into the universe can “make his light (the Gospel of Christ) shine (through the illuminating power of the Spirit of Christ) in our (sin darkened) hearts.” Where we could not know, now we can know “the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
That last phrase gets us into the second big issue this text addresses. How can we know God in all God’s glory? The world is full of answers. Use your reason. Examine your experience. Follow your feelings. Experiment with drugs. Do your science. Practice your disciplines. Observe your rituals. Obey the rules. At the risk of oversimplifying the vastness and complexity of the human search for God, perhaps we can boil them all down to these two—Moses and Elijah, the way of law and the way of prophecy, the way of ritual and the way of ecstasy, the way of living within the bounds of some rule and the way of stepping outside of yourself in some supernatural experience.
On the Mount of Transfiguration we see God’s answer to the endless human search for God. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah, but it was Jesus who was filled with glory. The law and the prophets bear witness to Jesus Christ our Lord, but only the face of Christ can show us the glory of God. Any attempt to know God apart from Christ is ephemeral and useless, however well intended and rigorous it may be. John Calvin warned that we should not try to know God “in his secret essence or in his inscrutable majesty, but only as he appears to us in his Son.” In other words, the only way to know God is through an epiphany. The Gospel says that the Epiphany of the invisible God is in the face of Christ who is the image of God. “No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:18)
Sermons on this text should address those two issues. First, the only way to break through human unbelief is not through market research or through technological inventiveness or through advanced training in rhetoric or through a re-imaging of the truth, but through the clear preaching of Jesus Christ as Lord. Only the Gospel of the glory of Christ can dispel the darkness and make the blind see. Only the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16) and the Gospel is always about Jesus Christ as Lord. We cannot say enough about him. Second, the only way people can know God in all his glory is through Christ. This is a crucial message in a world filled with “nones” who pursue all varieties of spirituality and “others” who pursue all varieties of religion. It takes courage to say it in this cultural setting, but all of these ways up the mountain to God are “blind alleys.” Only through the face of Christ can we find “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.”
Ancient Greek mythology tells the dramatic story of the Trojan Wars. They were started because Helen, wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, was kidnapped by Paris, son of the king of Troy. Helen was the most beautiful woman of her day. Writing about Helen’s legendary beauty centuries later, Christopher Marlowe asks this memorable question in his Doctor Faustus. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” The thousand ships refer to the immense armada that set out from Greece to reclaim Helen from the Trojans. Her beauty launched a thousand ships. Our text in II Corinthians refers to “The Face That Launched a Thousand Lives,” and more.
In her wildly popular book, Eat. Pray. Love., Elizabeth Gilbert describes her threefold attempt to find happiness. In the second section, Pray, she says that she was passionate to attain a personal knowledge of God. However, she absolutely refused to follow the way of orthodox Christianity, because the idea of Christ as a single historical person was too narrow and bigoted. So, she looked for God within herself by following the more inclusive practices of eastern mysticism in India. The face of God ended up being her own face, as she discovered that “God is you and you are God.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 Commentary