Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 27, 2022
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Commentary
Some biblical texts hit so close to home that their proclaimers find them hard to proclaim. 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 is one of those texts. I can’t read this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson without seeing in my mind’s eye dear people like Bill and Carl, as well as Sharon, Ashley*, and countless others. I, honestly, tremble to think of how they might respond to anything I could say about this text. (*not their real names)
After all, not all the people to whom Paul at least originally refers in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as those whose “minds are dull” (2:14), hearts are “veiled” (2:15) and “are perishing” (3:3) were gentile non-Christians. 2 Corinthians 3 strongly implies that perhaps most of those “unbelievers” are Jews.
After all, in 2 Corinthians 3:13-15 the apostle writes, “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. 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.”
This implies that those whose minds Paul calls “dull” are the ancestors of some of our church and my family’s dearest neighbors. People whose hearts the apostle implies are “veiled” include some of the people whose generosity helps our church’s food pantry feed nearly 3,000 of our neighbors who are hungry twice a month.
Yet it isn’t just Jewish people whose minds Paul suggests are “dull” — and are also loving neighbors. The apostle might say the same thing about all of our loved ones who don’t (yet) share our love in Jesus. He implies that the hearts of our neighbors and co-workers who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith are veiled.
So what do God’s dearly beloved people do with this mysterious claim that’s not just theological, but also deeply personal for many of us? Where is there gospel in Paul’s description of people who don’t yet profess Jesus to be Lord and Savior?
Christian proclaimers begin to answer those questions with compassion rather than contempt, and with humility rather than haughtiness. We don’t consider ourselves smarter or better than those whose minds remain dulled to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. God’s dearly beloved people remember that those whose faith doesn’t reflect ours’ are our fellow-image bearers of God whom God deeply loves.
What’s more, Christians never forget that our minds are naturally as dull as anyone’s who doesn’t yet share our faith in Jesus Christ. By nature we declare ourselves to be not Jesus’ followers, but his enemies. Jesus Christ’s friends naturally consider others not to be to our neighbors, but our enemies.
While God has graciously lifted the veil from our hearts, it’s not because we’re virtuous people. The quickening of our minds toward Jesus Christ is a gift of grace alone that we can’t produce in ourselves, but can only receive with our faith.
When we remember that, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s might begin consideration of it by lamenting that anyone is, as Paul grieves, “perishing.” That those who hearts are veiled are spiritually dying. They are, after all, quite simply, endangering their eternal well-being.
So it isn’t like those whose minds Paul calls dull are choosing, for example, Corn Flakes over Wheaties, or the Montreal Canadiens over the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’re choosing to follow a path that Paul suggests leads to destruction over one that leads to life.
Yet the apostle is quick to add that those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ haven’t blinded themselves. After all, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 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.”
Of course, Eugene Peterson’s Message’s paraphrase of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson seems to emphasize unbelievers’ culpability in their lack of faith. He, after all, paraphrases 2 Corinthians 4:4 as meaning unbelievers “are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention.”
Part of scholars’ disagreement may stem from Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s reference to the “god of this age.” It’s literally the “god” of this era and world. So the “god of this age” is sometimes understood to be at least alluding 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? After all, those gods naturally blind even Christians to some of the greatest beauty of the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul displays the depth of the evil one and his allies’ hatred for what God creates and cares. We might infer from it and other Scripture texts that Satan recognized that he lost the fight for God’s creation and its creatures when Jesus conquered Satan, sin, and death at the cross and empty grave.
But the devil refuses to go down without a desperate fight. He’s doing all that he can to drag as many people as he can with him into the eternal destruction that is separation from God. It’s as if that god of this age throws acid into unbelievers’ eyes so that they can’t recognize God’s glory as God has revealed it through Jesus Christ.
So it’s appropriate for Christians to grieve not just people’s unbelief, but also the treacherous forces that conspire to spiritually blind them. God’s dearly beloved people recognize the pain those gods’ success causes those who love people who are still spiritually blind to God’s glory in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ’s friends also look for ways to publicly pray for spiritually veiled people, as well as those who love them and share the gospel with them.
Paul, however, quickly shifts his attention from the pain caused by unbelief to the joy of proclaiming the gospel’s light into the darkness of that unbelief. “We do not preach ourselves,” he writes in verse 5, “but Jesus Christ as Lord.” In doing so, the apostle continues to relentlessly point his readers away from himself and toward Jesus Christ. It’s as if he says people’s hearts aren’t dulled and minds aren’t veiled toward his ministry and him, but toward God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul circles back to chapter 3’s light imagery. Echoing the Scriptures’ very 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 2 Corinthians’ 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 of Jesus’ followers so that we can God’s glory in Jesus’ face.
Yet this text remains deeply mysterious. Christians can and should admit that the dullness of some people’s minds and “quickening” of others’ remains something that we don’t fully understand. 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 descriptions of veiled and unveiled hearts are resistant to the kind of explanation that some proclaimers prefer to offer and hearers wish to hear.
Part of that mystery involves so many of our neighbors’ sometimes-startling generosity. Some of those whose minds Paul calls “dulled” to the gospel’s glory are, in fact, more generous with our neighbors who are hungry than some of Jesus’ followers.
A number of our Jewish neighbors have a charity box that has a prominent place in their home. The money they place into that tzedakah box is designated for charity. Some Orthodox Jews put money in their charity boxes just before their Sabbath begins. Some of them have told us that their donations to our church’s food pantry come from those boxes.
My wife and I whose hearts God has graciously unveiled don’t have anything like that in our home. While we try to be good stewards of God’s countless graces to us, we don’t have a box whose very presence reminds us to imitate God in being generous with our neighbors who are needy.
Of course, some Christians try to shrink some of Jews’ generosity’s kindness by saying that unbelievers have to be so generous because they see it as their only hope for any kind of eternal survival. Yet none of my Jewish friends with whom I’ve talked about their generosity even hint that they’re generous with their neighbors who are needy because they’re trying to get or stay on God’s “good side.”
So I’d suggest that Jews’ charity boxes remind Christians that God’s grace is so amazing that it sometimes quickens even the hearts of those who don’t see Jesus as God’s Messiah. But the great generosity of some who aren’t yet Jesus’ friends is also a cause for repentance for Jesus’ friends. It encourages us to confess and repent of our failure to imitate God’s generosity as fully as we might and as others do.
Note: this commentary extends beyond the RCL text to give context to the verses. For another commentary that focuses on the RCL verses, see this one.
As I write this commentary, 12 people are standing outside our church packing boxes of produce in sub-freezing temperatures. Only one of them, my wife, is a Christian. The rest are Jewish people who have come to our Christian church to concretely support an explicitly Christian ministry to our neighbors who are hungry.
John Murray was a 20th century Scottish-born prolific theologian and writer. In The Collected Writings of John Murray, he asks: “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?”
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