Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 14, 2021
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 Commentary
This text has taken on a very personal character for members of my church, its food pantry ministry and me, especially in the past ten months. After all, 2 Corinthians 4’s description of the “veiled” nature of the gospel wasn’t, at least originally, alluding to all non-Christians.
Chapter 3 makes it quite clear that Paul is speaking of Jewish people as those to whom the gospel is “veiled.” In verses 14 and following the apostle writes, “Their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It is not removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.”
The people whose minds were made dull and hearts veiled are the spiritual ancestors of many of our church’s neighbors whose startling generosity helps our church’s food pantry feed more than 3,000 of our neighbors who are hungry every week. In fact, Paul at least implies that the minds and hearts of many of dear friends and partners in this ministry without whom our food pantry would be stingier are dull and veiled.
Yet it isn’t just Jewish people whose hearts seem dulled and minds veiled (and who are also very generous with our food pantry). Paul might say the same thing about our loved ones who don’t (yet) share our love for Jesus. He might say the minds and hearts of our neighbors and co-workers who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith are dulled and veiled.
2 Corinthians 4’s proclaimers will want to wrestle with these painful realities. We can be sure, after all, that at least someone who hears us loves people whose minds seemed dulled and hearts appear veiled to the gospel. Even some of our hearers may quietly (or publicly) live in this spiritual darkness.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might begin by lamenting that some people are, as Paul grieves, “perishing.” Those who hearts are veiled and minds are dulled are spiritually dying. They are, quite simply, endangering their eternal well-being. So it isn’t like those whose minds are dulled and hearts are veiled are choosing, for example, Corn Flakes over Wheaties or the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Montreal Canadians. They’re choosing to endanger their eternal well-being.
Yet Paul is quick to add that they haven’t blinded themselves. In verse 4 he insists, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Eugene Peterson’s Message, however, seems to highlight unbelievers’ culpability. He paraphrases verse 4 as “It’s because these people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention.”
One challenge 2 Corinthians 4’s proclaimers face is identifying theous tou aionos (“the god of this age”). It’s literally the “god” of this era and world. It’s often understood to at least allude to the devil and his allies. But might we think of the god of this age, as well, as greed, materialism, racism or some other sinful attitude that plagues so much of our society?
In either case, a traditional interpretation of 2 Corinthians 4 is that unbelievers haven’t actively chosen spiritual blindness. The god of this age has spiritually blinded them. It’s as if some evil force has thrown acid into their eyes so that they can’t recognize God’s glory as God has revealed it through Jesus Christ.
So it’s very appropriate for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s to publicly grieve not just people’s unbelief, but also the danger it puts them in and the insidious forces that conspire to spiritually blind them. We can voice the pain that causes those who love people who are spiritually blind to God’s glory in Jesus Christ. The RCL’s proclaimers might also find ways to publicly pray for spiritually veiled and dulled people, as well as those who love them and share the gospel with them.
Paul, however, quickly shifts from the pain caused by unbelief to the joy of proclaiming the gospel’s light into the darkness of unbelief. “What we preach is not ourselves,” he writes in verse 5, “but Jesus Christ as Lord.” In doing so, the apostle continues his practice of relentlessly pointing away from himself and toward Jesus Christ. It’s as if he says people’s hearts aren’t dulled and minds are veiled toward his ministry and him, but toward God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ.
Yet Paul, in language that echoes last week’s Epistolary Lesson but actually literarily follows this week’s, speaks of himself as the Corinthians’ “slave” for Jesus’ sake. This might lead its proclaimers to ask us what this says not only about Paul, but also those who follow him in proclaiming the gospel of God’s glory. We aren’t, as it were, just Jesus’ slaves. We’re also, in a sense, “slaves” of those to whom we proclaim the gospel.
In verse 6 Paul circles back to chapter 3’s light imagery. Echoing the Scriptures’ first verses, he speaks of the “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness’.” Clearly the apostle sees that darkness into which God speaks as not just physical, but also spiritual.
God has “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” This again seems to allude to chapter 3:15’s “veil” that Paul says covers unbelieving Jews when Torah is read. So it’s as if the apostle says God has graciously lifted that veil of unbelief so that we can God’s glory in Jesus’ face.
So what are some themes that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might develop? One might be the humility that the Spirit longs to cause to flow from it. God has graciously lifted the veil from our hearts when the Scriptures are read not because we’re especially smart or good people. The quickening of our hearts toward Jesus Christ is a gift of grace alone that we can only receive with our faith.
A second theme that runs through 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 is that of deep mystery. We can and should admit that veiling of some hearts while others are unveiled remains something that we don’t understand. It’s resistant to the kind of explanation that some proclaimers like to offer and hearers wish to hear.
Things like our unbelieving neighbors’ sometimes-startling generosity raise a third theme. Some of our neighbors whose hearts are veiled and minds are dulled to the gospel’s glory are, in fact, more generous with our neighbors who are hungry than Christians than some of Jesus’ followers.
This might lead to a fourth theme that this Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might explore. What, or more properly, who causes our unbelieving neighbors to sometimes act in such godly ways? And, in addition, what causes some whom God has shone God glory in their hearts to act in decidedly ungodly ways?
John Murray was a 20th century Scottish-born prolific theologian and writer. In The Collected Writings of John Murray, he asks (in admittedly dated gender language): “How is it that [people] who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that [people] who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others?
“How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”
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