Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2024
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 Commentary
At one level, Christians recognize the seasonal timeliness of 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. After all, this Sunday marks the transition from Epiphany, with its emphasis on light, to Lent, with its emphasis on darkness. It’s also Transfiguration Sunday, the day on which much of the Church focuses on “the glory of God in face of Christ” (6).
Yet much about this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is, candidly, also mysterious and, as a result, challenging to preach. It, after all, makes Christians wonder how God’s glorious gospel can ever be “veiled” (3). 2 Corinthians 4 also uses the phrase “the god of this age” (4) that’s used nowhere else in the Scriptures.
So where might preachers who try to attend to the Spirit’s promptings “go with” this passage? There is good reason to use 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 as an encouragement to all of Jesus’ friends who in some way try preach “Jesus Christ as Lord” (5).
In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul seems to be grappling with the gospel’s failure to find fertile soil in the hearts of some Corinthians. The apostle strongly implies that the great news of Jesus Christ isn’t finding much traction with Paul’s contemporaries in Corinth. After all, The Message paraphrases Paul as saying in verse 1, “We’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times.”
Yet why don’t Jesus’ friends have to “lose heart [enkakoumen]*” (1) in the face of those hard times? How can Christians remain faithful in sharing the gospel despite the sometimes overwhelming rejection of it? Paul begins to answer those questions by insisting, “Even if our gospel is veiled [kekalymmenon], it is veiled to those who are perishing [apollymenois]” (3). He then adds, in verse 4, “The god of this age [theos tou aionos] has blinded [etyphlosen] the minds of unbelievers [apiston], so that they cannot see the light of gospel [photismon tou euangeliou] of the glory of Christ [doxes tou Christou] who is the image of God [eikon tou Theou].”
The apostle, in other words, insists that rejection of the gospel is not the fault of either the gospel or those who proclaim it. The “god of the age” is, instead, to blame for convincing some people to reject it. That god has somehow covered up the good news to people who are literally “being destroyed.”
This language of veiling or, literally “concealing” echoes 2 Corinthians 3’s. In its verse 13 Paul says, “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.” In verse 14 the apostle goes on to grieve how the Israelites’ “minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read.” So while in chapter 3 Paul does not identify the god of this as the culprit of people’s “veiling,” he does say that the veil somehow “remains” in place.
This may not, however, as the New Testament scholar Eric Barreto notes, be just an issue for those outside of the Corinthian church. After all, the concerns Paul addresses in his letters generally focus on those of the Christian community. So Barreto suggests that the apostle may actually be talking about the spiritual welfare of “people who claim to be Jesus’ followers but have missed what the gospel is all about.”
Of course, as we’ve noted, the assertion of “the god of this age” as what keeps that veil in place leaves some hard questions unanswered. Among them is the identity of this malevolent “god of the age.” While some Christians have traditionally thought of it as Satan, the New Testament doesn’t attach that label to him anywhere else. In fact, the phrase “god of this age” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Scriptures. So preachers might simply note that Paul recognizes that someone or thing prevents people from seeing the gospel’s good news.
But how can the gospel’s good news to be somehow concealed? It’s a hard question to answer, perhaps especially for Christians whose eyes the Spirit has opened to the gospel and Christ’s glory. But Paul’s assertion of that concealment does serve to remind Jesus’ friends that Christian faith is not something we can muster on our own. The gospel’s glory is not obvious to everyone. To some of our contemporaries Christ seems perfectly mundane, if not the figment of an overactive. Imagination.
How, then, can anyone believe what is not perfectly obvious to everyone? In verse 6 Paul says, “God who said, ‘Let light [phos] shine [lampsei] out of the darkness [ek skotous] made his light shine [elampsen] in our hearts [en tais kardiais] to give us the light [photismon] of the knowledge [genoseos] of the glory of God [tes doxes tou Theou] in the face [prosopo] of Christ.” This too echoes 2 Corinthians 3’s language. In verse 14, after all, Paul says that “only in Christ is” the veil that conceals Christ’s glory “taken away.”
Paul gives all the glory and credit for any faithful recognition of the gospel to God. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 he seems to paraphrase Genesis 1:3 when he refers to the “God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’.” God’s creative word, the apostle celebrates, graciously shatters our spiritual darkness.
That dazzling light is powerful enough even to lift the veil that the god of this age lowers over our faces. God’s light shines in our hearts, piercing the darkness that naturally shrouds them. We might even say that God’s Spirit creates the light that is faith in Jesus Christ in the deep darkness of the human heart.
That light, adds Paul, “gives us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The Spirit helps Jesus’ friends to see Jesus’ face not just as that of a nice person or good teacher but also as the glory of God. When we look at Jesus, we, quite simply, see God himself.
This offers anyone who would preach “Jesus Christ as Lord” (5) both comfort and a challenge. The comfort lies in the fact that not even the best gospel messenger can lift the veil of unbelief that the god of the age has draped over some people. Jesus’ friends can stay faithful even in the face of the rejection of the gospel. Faith is, after all, not the gift of people to people, but of God to people.
But this profession at least implies a challenge. While only God can graciously lift the veil of unbelief, some Christians have proven to be quite adept at making that veil in some ways heavier. We’ve lived, talked and even thought in ways that reflected poorly on the God we claim to serve. So Jesus’ followers always ask the Spirit to show us how we’ve been more intent on bringing glory to our causes or “ourselves” (5) than to God.
God can use such repentance and sanctification to help open the way for those who proclaim the gospel to “preach [keryssomen]” not ourselves, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as “servants [doulos] for Jesus’ sake” (5). Anyone who would proclaim the gospel understands that we’re not people’s lords, but servants. So by what we do and say we relentlessly shift the focus from ourselves onto the God who shines in our spiritual darkness.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In his outstanding book, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief, the American religious scholar George Marsden reflects on the settled place that the veil of unbelief has in American academia.
He writes: “Persons concerned about the place of religion in American life might be particularly concerned that the largely voluntary and commendable disestablishment of religion [on campus] has led to the virtual establishment of nonbelief, or the near exclusion of religious perspectives from dominant academic life. While American universities today allow individuals free exercise of religion in parts of their lives that do not touch the heart of the university they tend to exclude or discriminate against relating explicit religious perspectives to intellectual life.
“In other words, the free exercise of religion does not extend to the dominant intellectual centers of our culture. So much are these exclusions taken for granted, as simply part of the definition of academic life, that many people do not even view them as strange. Nor do they think it odd that such exclusion is typically justified in the names of academic freedom and free inquiry.”
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