27The LORD said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. 28He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
29Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
2 Corinthians 3:4-4:2
4Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! 10Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!
12Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not 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. 14But 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. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And 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.
1Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel carved into stone tablets. These commandments form the basis for the covenant God made with Israel, a powerful agreement to be their God as they would be God’s people. Really, the basis for the covenant is God’s love reaching out to people, but the commandments provided a structure to respond to God’s love faithfully.
Moses spent 40 days and nights on the mountain with God carving the commandments into the stone and listening to God explaining how people should live. Moses was close to God and being close to God leaves a mark. He came back to the people with stone tablets in his hands and his face glowing with the presence of God.
We often think of commandments in a negative way, and we sometimes think of the Old Testament as a whole as full of law and full of condemnation. But at their root the commandments spell out a covenant that is an amazing word of love. God chose Israel to be his special people. To carry them out of slavery on eagles’ wings and to establish them in a land safe from harm. God gave Israel commandments to help them create a society governed by faithfulness to God and justice for all the people. God was present in the commandments and that is an amazing blessing.
Paul spent most of his life as a strict Jew. He was a Pharisee, which means he took the Law’s commandments very seriously. For the Pharisees the commandments were not only important to keeping covenant with God, they protected Jews from being assimilated by the wider pagan culture that surrounded them. The Law protected the people from harmful influences and gave them a way to seek righteousness. Law was a matter of faith and identity and the Pharisees clung to it for dear life.
That’s why Jesus was so challenging to the Pharisees. He seemed full of God’s presence, but he also seemed to disregard the commandments completely. They put their faith in the idea that God gave them a law to be followed to the letter and here was this guy just doing whatever he felt like doing.
Paul felt the same way about Jesus at first too. That’s why he persecuted the church: to a Pharisee the church was a group of people trying to throw out the Law that was supposed to be the foundation of life. When Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus everything changed. He had to rethink everything he believed about the Law and about obedience to God. It’s hard to imagine what a complete transformation that must have been for Paul. But now here’s Paul, giving his life to the belief that Jesus was not a threat to God’s law, but the way to come to God.
Now Paul sees everything in a different way; the Law of Moses was a first covenant, a covenant written in stone to show us what to do and what we’re doing wrong. But Christ brings us a new covenant, a covenant written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Paul sees himself and other teachers and evangelists as ministers of this new covenant, like Moses was the minister of the old covenant. The old covenant of the Law was from God, but it is set aside, fulfilled in Christ.
Paul knows that the first covenant, the covenant of Moses, was full of glory. He looks back to Moses bringing the Law down the mountain, so touched by God’s glory that the people of Israel were scared to look at him. That’s a powerful thing, Paul says, but it’s nothing compared with the glory of what God is doing now in Christ.
For Paul, the old covenant was one of laws and restrictions, limited and limiting. He says that just as Moses put a veil over his face to shield the glory of God, those limited to the old covenant still have a veil over their hearts and minds when they read God’s word. Christ cuts through that veil, like the veil of the temple was torn when Jesus died on the cross and the veil of the heavens was ripped when the Spirit came down on Jesus at his baptism. Christ cuts through the veil and shows us the glory of God undimmed and unstoppable.
We aren’t trapped in laws and regulations any more, because wherever God’s Spirit is, there is freedom. That doesn’t mean the Old Testament is worthless; it doesn’t mean the Law is false. What it means is that the Law is a guide, a springboard for an open and courageous life of faith. That’s not only true of the Law, it’s true of all the traditions and habits and expectations we’ve gotten used to. Everything we’ve been taught, everything we’ve heard and thought is useful for showing us some of the truth God’s got for us, but nothing of it is supposed to trap or limit our imagination of how God can act in the future. God is bigger than the law, bigger than our beliefs, bigger than our fears.
Sometimes we still get trapped by our expectations about faith and our understanding of what church is. We get stuck in “we’ve always done it that way,” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” And sometimes we get stuck in the idea that church is mostly an obligation, a job, one more thing we have to do. It’s almost like we’ve taken the gospel and made a new law out of it.
But where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. God sets us free to worship and follow in new ways. Think for a moment about whatever makes you most excited, most passionate. Imagine how you could make that passion part of your faith journey, how you could unleash that joy in your ministry.
We believe in a God who breaks boundaries and sets us free from whatever it is that traps us. If we’re trapped by fear, God can free us with courage. If we’re trapped by routine, God can free us with change. If we’re trapped by self-doubt, God can fill us with the confidence of his power. If we’re trapped by greed, God can free us through sacrifice. There are many veils that separate us from God’s love. Christ tears the veils off our faces so the glory of God can transform us bit by bit into his image.
Don’t let that phrase skip past you. We are transformed by God’s glory into the image of Christ. In other words, God is making us more like Jesus all the time. People say God loves us just as we are, and he also loves us too much to leave us that way. God has bigger plans for us and he’s not just going to let us stay the way we are.
That can mean transformation like the thief seeking Christ’s kingdom on the cross or a murderer writing children’s books from prison. It can also be a subtle transformation where we simply find ourselves growing closer to God and seeking opportunities to live out our faith in new ways.
While God transforms us, he transforms the world through our love and outreach. The world around us is changing and God is always calling us to reach out in new ways. Sometimes we think that people don’t care about church anymore, that somehow we’re living in a world that doesn’t want to hear the message of faith. The truth is that our neighbors are as hungry for meaning in their lives as ever. Our neighbors are longing for real relationships as much as ever. But people don’t necessarily think to come looking for meaning and relationship in church. Many of our neighbors didn’t grow up in church; others did, but didn’t find what they were looking for in the pews.
The world is still hungry for the good news of God’s love and the challenge of a calling that matters. Our role is to let people know God offers them the love and calling they are looking for. We aren’t simply stewards of a building or a tradition; we are ministers of a new covenant with God in the Spirit. We are ambassadors of Christ, signposts for the adventure we call Christian faith.
That sounds like a big responsibility, and it is. Paul talks in this passage a lot about confidence and boldness, but sometimes we don’t feel confident or bold. Fortunately, our confidence and our skill don’t come from us: it’s God who makes us competent to be ministers of the new covenant. It’s God who give us the confidence to proclaim God’s love to our neighbors. We can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to. God sends us out in the world as messengers and God is with us as we step out in faith.
Thanks be to God.