Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 3, 2019
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Commentary
Sometimes the lessons the Lectionary appoints for a particular Sunday seem about as loosely tied as some teenagers’ tennis shoes. On this Transfiguration Sunday, however, that’s not the case. It doesn’t take much work to recognize the themes that run through the Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel and Epistolary lessons. Each in its own way reflects God’s glory.
In his fine February 1, 2016 Sermon Commentary on this text, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes that if we didn’t believe the Spirit had inspired Paul write this, we might be tempted to accuse him of questionable exegesis of the Exodus 34 passage that he seems to riff on here. Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 3 & 4 will do well to consult Hoezee’s piece for a further exploration of that.
I suggest that this passage’s preachers and teachers consider exploring its grief at some readers’ hardheartedness and joy at others’ faithful reception of God’s amazing grace. The Spirit might use such an approach to help bolster this passage as a “stand-alone” text rather than just as an “appendix” to this Sunday’s more commonly used and familiar Gospel (as well as Old Testament) lesson.
We can almost feel Paul’s grief at the failure of many of his fellow Israelites’ to grasp just who Jesus is. “Their hearts were made dull,” he grieves in verse 14. The Greek word the NIV translates as “dull” is eporothe. It suggests that many Israelites hearts, the very center of their emotional and spiritual as well as physical beings, were as hard – and inanimate – as petrified wood.
Yet what the apostle says in Romans 11:7-8 may deepen both his and our grief at that assertion. There, after all, as Ernest Best notes (2 Corinthians: John Knox Press, 1987, p. 32), Paul says it’s God who hardened the hearts of those who refuse to faithfully accept Christ. 2 Corinthians 3’s similar language at least suggests that Paul also intends our text’s readers to understand that it’s God who somehow hardened unbelievers’ hearts. So the apostle refuses to lay all the blame for unbelief at unbelievers’ doorsteps. 2 Corinthians 3 suggests that God somehow also shares some of the blame for it.
Those who proclaim this passage will do our hearers no favors if we simply brush over this assertion as if it causes neither questions nor pain. God’s relationship to unbelief has long puzzled even those most committed to the Scriptures’ reliability.
The stakes are in some ways even higher for those for whom God’s role in unbelief is not just a theological mystery, but also a source of personal, familial or relational heartache. Those who teach and preach 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 will want to be perhaps even more pastorally sensitive than usual as we handle the very painful part of its message.
Yet as Best notes, God’s responsibility for some Israelites’ hardness of hearts doesn’t free them from responsibility for rejecting Christ. The apostle doesn’t excuse his fellow Jews for refusing to receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. After all, when, as Best notes, Paul deals with this painful problem in Romans 9 and 10, he insists Israel remains morally responsible for its failure.
So what might those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 say about this vexing mystery? We might say that unbelief of any sort brings God deep grief rather than any kind of satisfaction. We might also gently remind our hearers that none of us would receive God’s grace with our faith without the convicting work of the Holy Spirit within us. That is to say, God’s hardening of unbelievers doesn’t impose on them something they haven’t already naturally chosen for themselves.
However, perhaps rather than causing believers to argue about something like the percentage of blame we might assign God for people’s lack of faith, the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday should stimulate believers to bring that gospel to those who don’t yet believe it. “How,” after all as Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “can [unbelievers] believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 will do well to remind our hearers that while we may at least suspect we know whose heart God has hardened, we can’t know how permanent God intends that “dullness” to be. We can’t know whom God has chosen for eternal life. So God’s adopted sons and daughters relentlessly, indiscriminately and lovingly share the gospel by what we both say and do with the people over whom the “veil of unbelief” still hangs.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18a suggests that even those who have received God’s grace with our faith in Jesus Christ naturally have hearts that are veiled against that faith. That is to say, all of us naturally choose to see in Jesus something far less than the Son of God given for our lives.
Yet, Paul insists, God has graciously given us, the “hope” (12) of a glory that God’s beloved people can only begin to imagine. For God’s own reasons in Jesus Christ, God has “unveiled” our “faces” (18) so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the fulfillment of all hopes.
Now, Paul adds, “we, who with unveiled (anakekalymmeno) faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (metamorphumetha) into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (18). This is a startling assertion! Paul’s word for “transformation” is, as Karl Jacobson notes, the same Matthew use to describe Jesus’ transfiguration. He was transformed, transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. Jesus’ transfiguration, according to Matthew, removed the veil from his disciples’ eyes so that they could see Jesus more clearly.
Now the apostle insists that it’s not just that God’s beloved sons and daughters reflect the Lord’s glory, that the Spirit has transformed us to somehow resemble Jesus Christ. It’s not just that God so somehow fills us that when others glimpse us, they see something of our glorious God.
It’s also that God is making God’s people more and more glorious. That God is, by God’s Spirit, graciously making Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters somehow more and more like our glorious “big brother,” Jesus.
In fact, as Carla Works notes, this transformation is so radical that Paul claims it’s affecting even his Corinthian audience.
Imagine that! The Spirit is transforming the Corinthian church that Paul’s letters show has inflicted so much misery on both the apostle and its own members. The Spirit has somehow convinced Paul that the Spirit is working even in those miserable Corinthians.
This perspective may encourage those who dare to somehow proclaim the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Preachers and teachers, after all, sometimes feel skeptical about the Spirit’s work in both those who hear us and us. We may wonder how on earth the Spirit can make the hardhearted people whom we teach and to whom we preach know more and more like Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 offers hope. After all, as Hoezee writes in his Sermon Commentary on it: “When you embrace Christ as the Lord of all, you are flooded with goodness and light and life and glory. And then everything God has done from the beginning – including the place the Law occupies in our lives and in salvation history – falls into place. It all makes sense. No more veils. No more confusion. What remains is … glorious!”
Commenting on John Baille’s book, Our Knowledge of God, Neal Plantinga asks, “Do our doubts have moral roots?” Are our souls, as Plato suggests in his Laws, 886 a and b, “Urged toward an irreligious life by a lack of self-control in the matter of pleasures and desires?”
Baille comments, “Part of the reason why I could not find God was that there is that in God which I did not wish to find. Part of the reason why I could not (or thought I could not) hear him speak was that He was saying some things to me which I did not want to hear . . . When we do not relish God’s commandments we are tempted to deny his being.”
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