February 15: 2 Corinthians 3:18

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verse 17; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:18

“And we all, with uncovered face, the splendor of (the) Lord (behold)ing in a looking-glass, are transformed (into) the same image, from splendor to splendor, even as from (the) Lord (the) Spirit.”

This concluding verse (of the discourse in vv. 7-18) is so rich and profoundly splendid, as a statement on its own, that it is easy to read it out of context. It is important to understand it thoroughly from the standpoint of Paul’s entire line of thought and argument here in chapter 3. This is best done, I believe, by looking closely at each specific word and phrase. Because of the level of detail required by such an approach, it will be necessary for our exegesis of verse 18 to take place over several daily notes.

“And we all”
(h(mei=$ de\ pa/nte$)

The force and scope of the adverb pa=$ (“all”) here could be disputed. Given the focus in chapter 3 on Paul’s role as a minister (of the new covenant), one might be inclined to limit the sense of pa=$ here to “all of us who are ministers.” This, however, would be incorrect, ignoring, among other factors, the central theme in chaps. 1-7 of the relationship between Paul (as apostle) and the Corinthian congregations. The bond of unity between missionary and church is the Spirit—which is the same unifying bond of the new covenant itself.

Thus, when Paul says “all of us,” he means “all of us who are believers, who are united in Christ (through the Spirit)”. Paul tends to use the adverb pa=$ in such a universal, comprehensive sense. In the immediate context of 2 Corinthians, cf. 1:1; 2:3, 5, where he is referring to all believers in Corinth, or to all believers everywhere (3:2).

In terms of the discourse in vv. 7-18, there is also the important parallel between the Israelite people and believers, established in vv. 14-16; this is complementary to the similar parallel between the believer and Moses in vv. 13 and 17. The relationship between Moses and Israel (in the old covenant) is fundamentally different from the relationship between the apostolic minister (e.g., Paul) and the community of believers. It was only Moses who had a direct encounter with God, in a place from which the rest of the people were cut off. The Israelites could only experience the revelatory word and accompanying glory of God through the personal mediation of Moses. By contrast, in the new covenant, apostle and community are united and experience the word and glory of God the same way, through the Spirit, without any distinction.

“with uncovered face”
(a)nakekalumme/nw| prosw/pw|)

This is essentially a prepositional phrase, but with an absent preposition (e)n, cp. 2:10; 4:6; 5:2) implied by the use of the dative case. It is a qualifying phrase, preceding and anticipating the main clause later in the verse. The word translated “uncovered” is a verbal adjective, a passive participle of the verb a)nakalu/ptw (“uncover”), which occurs only here (and earlier in v. 14) in the New Testament. It literally means “take up the cover”, but has virtually the same sense as the more common a)pokalu/ptw (“take the cover [away] from”); both verbs essentially mean “uncover” (rel. to the base verb kalu/ptw, “cover”).

Paul’s use of the verb in verse 14 provides the key point of contrast (cf. the discussion in the earlier note): Israelites and Jews, as a whole, have a “covering” (ka/lumma) over them, since they continue to operate under the old covenant (palaia/ diaqh/kh), not realizing that in Christ the old covenant has ceased to be operative (vb katarge/w), replaced by a new covenant (kainh/ diaqh/kh, v. 6). We should pay attention to Paul’s exact wording:

“…the same covering…[of the old covenant] remains, not being uncovered, that in (the) Anointed {Christ} is made inactive”

The expression “the same covering” is a way for Paul to apply the tradition of the veil over Moses’ face to the Israel/Jewish people as a whole. He places them in a congregational setting, implying worship in the synagogue, when the Torah (= the Scriptures) of the old covenant is read out. The parallel with Christian congregations (of the new covenant) is obvious.

Paul uses the same participle, but the use of the negative particle (mh/) emphasizes the point of contrast between the old and new covenant:

    • “not being uncovered” (mh\ a)nakalupto/menon) [v. 14]
    • “having been uncovered” (a)nakekalumme/nw|) [v. 18]

There are other subtle differences in how Paul uses the verb. Both participles are neuter, but they have different subjects, with distinct points of reference. In verse 14, the subject is the covering (ka/lumma) itself, and the participle has true verbal force. When the covering is taken away, then the person realizes that the old covenant is no longer in effect, and no longer feels compelled to live under its restrictions.

This is the condition that is described in verse 18, where the subject of the participle is the face (pro/swpon) of the believer. The believer now lives in the new covenant of the Spirit and has complete freedom (e)leuqeri/a, v. 17), being freed from the restrictions and limitations of the old covenant. In verse 14, the participle is in the present tense, indicating a situation (the covering remaining) that currently prevails for people (Israelites and Jews); in v. 18, by contrast, the perfect tense is used, indicated an action (removal of the covering) that has already taken place, with the effects of it (i.e., the freedom in the Spirit) continuing for believers in present.

It is the face of believers that is uncovered, referring to the Moses tradition (Exod 34:29-35) that Paul expounds in the discourse (cf. the prior notes, and the recent Saturday Series study on the Exodus passage). Believers—that is, the people as a whole (“all of us,” cf. above)—now fulfill in the new covenant the comparable role that Moses alone held in the old covenant. There are thus two points of difference: (1) there is no longer any covering, and (2) all the people now experience the revelation and glory of God’s presence.

What this means specifically for believers will be considered in the next daily note, as we continue through verse 18.

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