Of Veils, Mirrors and Glory

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18

In this week’s epistle reading, Paul uses two related figures of speech: veils and mirrors. It strikes me that both have a similar effect. Each partially reveals and each partially obscures. To be sure, a veil mostly obscures – intentionally – and a mirror mostly reveals – again intentionally – but both lie on the continuum between blindness and clarity.

Not all translations reveal the mirror in the verse 18. The verb is katoptrizo, and it is built on the word katoptron (“mirror”). It occurs only once in the New Testament. Some translations just render it as “gaze” or “behold.” The NRSV follows the KJV tradition in understanding the “mirror” root as having significance.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uses a similar word esoptron. In 1 Corinthians, the mirror emphasizes imperfection: we see as in a mirror, dimly. In 2 Corinthians, the mirror emphasizes relative clarity. It’s better than looking through the gauze of a veil.

The people of Israel who don’t see in Jesus the promised messiah are looking at Moses’ words through a veil. They understand in part, but they don’t see the truest and best meaning of Moses’ words. When people turn to the Lord, the veil over the words of Moses are lifted. Until then, their truest and best meaning is substantially obscured.

Even those who turn to the Lord, however, still see the glory of God “as though reflected in a mirror.” The difference between the veil and the mirror, according to Paul, is this. Without Jesus, even the sacred scriptures of the paleo-covenant lead to death (v. 7) and condemnation (v. 9). Those for whom the scriptures are veiled are not merely wrong about some aspects of God’s self-revelation, but disastrously so. Those looking in the mirror (i.e., looking at God’s revelation through the lens of Jesus) still don’t see everything clearly or perfectly, but their “looking” leads to life (v. 6) instead of death, righteousness (v. 7) instead of condemnation, liberty (v. 17) instead of bondage and transformation (v. 18) instead of ossification.

Jesus is the key to understanding God’s self-revelation as told in the scriptures. He brings God’s salvation that began with Abraham to its completion. He brings the story of Israel to its climax.

I know that has been true for me over these past several decades. The Old Testament has started to make sense. The Old and the New form one story of God’s promised salvation, of his covenants with Israel and his reign as the redeemer king.

But if Jesus is the key to understanding the entire story of God’s self-revelation, then what Paul says about God’s glory needs some unpacking. Paul asks, if the establishment of the paleo-covenant came with such glorious signs and wonders – God carving tablets of stone, Moses’ face shining (and Paul doesn’t even mention the miracle of the plagues, the deliverance at the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, the giving of water and manna) – shouldn’t the coming of the new covenant even be more glorious? Shouldn’t it come with more fireworks?

That’s what the Corinthians wanted: more spiritual fireworks. More power. More prestige. More glory. More shiny, happy people.

But what does Paul give the Corinthians? A savior crucified in weakness and shame. An apostle with a thorn in the flesh, an unpolished speaker, without fame or an imposing presence. Treasures in jars of clay. Affliction. Disappointment. Beatings. Imprisonment. Sleepless nights. Hunger. Weakness of every sort. What kind of glory is this?

Seeing the crucified one as the focal point of Israel’s story lifts the veil. This is capstone that keeps holds the structure of God’s self-revelation together. This is the blessed vision that transforms us. This is the glory of the Lord that calls for our continual attention and adoration.

Who would believe such a thing? No wonder the powers of this world strive to obscure the glorious truth, and no wonder we need the power of the Holy Spirit to remove the veil.