February 2: 2 Corinthians 3:16

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 14-15; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:16

Verse 16, continues the statement from verse 15 (cf. the previous note):

“…but whenever (anyone) should turn about (back) to (the) Lord, the covering is taken (from) around (him).”

The verb e)pistre/fw, “turn upon/about,” is often used, in the LXX and NT, in the specific ethical-religious sense of a person turning back (i.e., returning) to God, implying repentance and a renewed commitment to following Him; cf. Deut 4:30; Psalm 22:27; Isa 19:22; Luke 1:16; Acts 9:35; 14:15; 15:19; 26:20, etc. There is, of course, a certain ambiguity in an early Christian use of the noun ku/rio$ (“Lord”), since it can refer to both God (YHWH) and Jesus Christ, almost interchangeably. Normally, when he uses ku/rio$, Paul refers to Jesus, but the Old Testament setting of the discourse in vv. 7-18—the Moses tradition(s) in Exodus 34:29-35—increases the likelihood that ku/rio$ here (without the definite article) refers to God (YHWH). Even so, from Paul’s standpoint, turning to God meant accepting the Gospel and turning to Jesus, so both aspects of the term ku/rio$ in early Christianity need to be considered here.

The verb form e)pistre/yh| is subjunctive and singular, and refers to any time that an individual Israelite or Jew turns to God by accepting the Gospel of Jesus. Paul tended to begin his missionary work in a city or region by first speaking to Jews in the synagogue, and many of the churches that were established as a result of the apostolic mission contained a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. This certainly was the case in major urban centers such as Ephesus and Rome, though less so in a thoroughly Greek city like Corinth. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians especially emphasizes the theme of unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

When a person accepts the Gospel, the “covering” (ka/lumma) is taken away from around him. Paul makes use of the relatively rare compound verb periaire/w, with the prefixed prepositional element peri– denoting the removal of something all around. The covering is removed from around the person’s mind and heart (vv. 14-15), allowing them to accept the Gospel and trust in Jesus. The passive of the verb should probably be understood as a divine passive (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor.

The associated tradition of the veil covering Moses’ face, in context, also means that the removal of the covering allows the believing Israelite or Jew to recognize that the old covenant has passed, having coming to its end (and fulfillment) in the person of Jesus. There is now a new covenant, which is no longer governed by the binding authority of the Torah regulations. This goes a step beyond simply recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, and there can be no doubt that Paul’s view of the Law, as expressed in his letters, has proven to be problematic for many Jewish Christians (and even non-Jewish Christians) down to the present day.

In verse 16, Paul may be giving a clever interpretive spin on Exodus 34:34, in which it is narrated how Moses would remove the covering from his face before going into the Tent to communicate with God. In the LXX, the same verb (periaire/w) is used; this verb is rare in the New Testament, and is used nowhere else by Paul, so it is likely that the wording derives from the LXX of Exod 34:34. This is significant, in light of what follows in vv. 17-18, as Paul is clearly drawing upon the similar idea of a direct visionary encounter, between believers and God, in the new covenant. It is to this that we shall turn in our next daily note.

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