February 17: 2 Corinthians 3:18 (continued)

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note continued the discussion on verse 18; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:18, continued

“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.”

In dealing with Paul’s use of the rare verb katoptri/zw (discussed in the previous note), I mentioned how the verb is typically used (as it is here) in the reflexive middle voice (katoptri/zomai), where it would mean “behold oneself in a mirror”. Thus, the implication is that we, as believers, see ourselves in the mirror. Paul may, indeed, have something of this in mind, in terms of the transformation of believers (cf. below)—that is, we see ourselves being transformed. At the same time, both the syntax of the verse, and the context of the Moses tradition (Exod 34), clearly indicate that Paul is primarily referring to believers seeing God.

It is possible to explain—and essentially harmonize—both aspects of the mirror-motif, once we understand that the mirror (ka/toptron) here is to be identified with the person of Jesus Christ. To see how Paul expresses and develops this idea, let us continue our exegesis of the verse.

“the same image”
(th\n au)th\n ei)ko/na)

Syntactically, the expression “the same image” is the predicate object of the verb that follows (metamorfo/w, discussed below), preceding it in the clause. However, it also relates to the prior verb (katoptri/zomai), indicating what it is that believers see in the mirror. Given the basic idea of looking into a mirror, we might well assume that this “self(-same)” (au)to/$) image refers, indeed, to the reflected image of ourselves—i.e., our own reflection. But, again, in light of the theological context of beholding God—His glory—the situation is clearly more complicated. Paul here only implies what he states more explicitly further on at 4:4—that Christ “is the image [ei)kw/n] of God” (cf. also Col 1:15). Thus, it is Christ’s image that we see, and it only corresponds to our own reflection as we are transformed into his image.

There is no doubt that “the same image” that we are transformed into, is parallel—and essentially synonymous—with the earlier predicate “the splendor [do/ca] of the Lord”. If Christ is the image of God, then it stands to reason that he reflects God’s glory. Again, Paul makes this more explicit at the close of the section, speaking of the “splendor [do/ca] of Christ” in 4:4, and of the “splendor of God” being present “in the face of [Jesus] Christ” (4:6). Cf. also 8:23; 2 Thess 2:14; 1 Cor 2:8; Col 1:27.

“we are (being) transformed”

This is the main verb of the verse, with the central clause thus being: “we are transformed (into) the same image”. The verb is metamorfo/w, a compound of the base verb morfo/w (“form, shape,” derived from morfh/), with a prefixed preposition (meta/, in the sense of “after, across”) implying a change or shift from one form/shape to another. The English word “transform” is a concise and accurate translation.

There are only three other occurrences of the verb in the New Testament, two of which are in the Synoptic Transfiguration episode (Mark 9:2; par Matt 17:2). In that instance, it is a change to the visible/physical appearance and form (morfh/) that is involved. However, as with the verb “transform” in English, metamorfo/w can be used in a more abstract and figurative sense, referring to a change that takes place within a person, that is not visible. One can speak of a moral/ethical transformation, for example, and so philosophers might utilize metamorfo/w (or the related noun metamo/rfwsi$) in this way. This is essentially how Paul uses the verb in Rom 12:2, locating transformation in the mind (nou=$). Interestingly, even though Philo shares with Paul the idea of personal transformation through seeing/beholding God, he does not use the verb metamorfo/w in this noetic and ethical-religious sense (cp. Life of Moses I.57; On the Special Laws IV.147, etc).

Elsewhere in his writings, Paul makes use of the comparable verb summorfo/w (or summorfi/zw), meaning “conform”, to have or share a similar form with another. In Phil 3:10, Paul refers specifically to believers “being conformed” to the death of Jesus, one of several key passages where he expresses the idea of our participation in the death (and resurrection) of Christ. The related adjective su/mmorfo$ is used in Phil 3:21, and also in Rom 8:29; the latter reference is particularly relevant for an understanding of Paul’s thought here in 2 Cor 3:18:

“…for, th(ose) whom He knew beforehand, He also marked out beforehand, (to be) conformed [summo/rfou$] (to) the image of His Son”

The destiny of believers in Christ is to share the same form (morfh/) and image (ei)kw/n) with him, which requires a transformation. The verb metamorfo/w emphasizes the change, while summorfo/w focuses on our likeness to the image (into which we are changed).

An interesting point here is that, though Paul is clearly stressing the spiritual nature of our encounter with God—in this new covenant of the Spirit—he also utilizes the terms morfh/ and ei)kw/n, implying a visible/physical shape, as well as the specific idiom of seeing. We may thus ask what it means for believers to ‘see’ the glory of God through the mirror of Christ. This we will explore in the next daily note, the concluding note on 2 Cor 3:18.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *