The stories of the Old Testament make for good cinematic spectacle. This past year alone brought us big-budget versions of Exodus and Noah. And who can forget Charlton Heston in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic, The Ten Commandments ?
Imagine what it must have been like to see the power of Pharaoh fall to divine intervention, to follow Moses through the sea, to celebrate on the far shore. Wouldn’t such spectacle leave a lasting imprint, call for a lifetime of unwavering allegiance?
You’d think so. But it’s exactly three verses — three — after the end of Miriam’s song of victory that we read, “The people complained” (Exod 15:24).
The ministry of Moses was glorious. Literally. He spoke with God directly, and his face glowed with divine glory. But glory is a dangerous thing to let loose among a sinful people, and they knew it. Moses had to veil his face.
For Paul, that story sets up the contrast between the old covenant and the new:
Won’t the ministry of the Spirit be much more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation has glory, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness? In fact, what was glorious isn’t glorious now, because of the glory that is brighter. If the glory that fades away was glorious, how much more glorious is the one that lasts! (2 Cor 3:8-11, CEB)
The old covenant under Moses is described as bringing death (vs. 7) and condemnation, not because there was a problem with God’s glory, but with the people. Paul, however, is an apostle of the new covenant, a ministry of the Spirit, a ministry that brings life (vs. 6) instead of death, righteousness instead of condemnation.
Again, the glory of God doesn’t change. What God did through Moses was glorious, because it reflected God’s glory. But to Paul, what God did through Jesus was — is! — even more glorious. To some extent, he’s said it already: the Corinthian believers are a letter from Christ, written by the Spirit of the living God (vs. 3). And Paul will say much more in the verses to come.
But think about it. God’s glory is still, well, glorious, as much as it ever was. And God’s people (that’s us) are still stubborn, rebellious, idolatrous…you get the picture. The law of the old covenant had no power in itself to convey righteousness, only to condemn and kill, for God’s glory is fatal to a sinful people.
Yet under the new covenant, inaugurated in the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25), death falls upon the Son of God instead of us. By the blood of Jesus we are justified, made right. Moreover and more astonishingly, by the Spirit of Jesus we are empowered to live in righteousness.
In other words, God’s glory is no longer fatal to the imperfect people of God. Quite the contrary: in an incomprehensible twist, God’s glory is now to be seen in and through the imperfect people of God, by the presence and power of God’s Spirit.
How could Paul even suggest such a thing about a congregation as troubled as the one in Corinth? It’s a legitimate but misguided question, one that can only be answered by a radical shift in perspective, from old covenant thinking to new covenant thinking.
And what it reveals of God’s grace is glorious beyond compare.