Midweek reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski:
For this upcoming Sunday, the OT reading is Exodus 34:29-35 and the epistle reading is 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2 (see http://lectionarypage.net/YearC_RCL/Epiphany/CEpiLast_RCL.html ). In both passages, there’s a bit that might seem odd to us: what is going on with the face veiling?
To make sense of this, we need to understand the old covenant and the new covenant. A covenant is a solemn, binding agreement. Here we are talking about covenants between God and humans. It’s like a contract, only much more personal, more like wedding vows. God is a God who covenants with humans. There are several covenants in the Bible, but two are important here: the old covenant given through Moses and the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
The old covenant was when God established rules for his forgiven, delivered people. Having come out of Egypt, God’s people were to live and work together differently. They were to be a people who reflected God’s character and who were a light to all the peoples of the earth. But even as Moses was up on the mountain with God, receiving instructions from on high, the people were down below trying to capture God in a golden calf they had made. Things did not get off to a good start in this covenant.
The hard-heartedness of God’s people continued on through Israel’s history. Yet God was nonetheless faithful and promised a new covenant, one that would address the main problem: the people’s stone-cold hearts towards God. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of a day when God’s law would be written on his people’s hearts, and they would be spiritually alive for faithful obedience. This new covenant is founded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this new covenant has power because the Spirit of God is now in us, in we who believe.
The law, which was written on stone, is fulfilled in us because the Spirit of God enables us to observe his law. God the Spirit turns our hearts of stone into living hearts of flesh. The problem wasn’t with the Law of Moses itself, of course. The law is perfect; the law expresses the character of God. No, the problem was with the sinful hearts of God’s people. And because of our stone-cold hearts, the law can the kill us. We need the Spirit. In some ways the Law of Moses was like why little kids need training wheels on a bicycle: the problem isn’t with the bike, it’s with the one using it.
This framework about the old and new covenants helps us grasp the NT epistle readings for this Sunday. Paul is talking about the glory of God, comparing how that worked in each covenant. When Moses came down from the mountain, the golden calf idol-makers couldn’t look at the glory of God in Moses’ face. They had the law of God without the Spirit of God—and the absence of the Spirit kills. So as an act of mercy, Moses hid his face with a veil because God’s glory would have brought an end to his spiritually stubborn people.
Things are different in the New Covenant. His glory is more fully present because God’s Spirit has changed our hearts and has brought us life. Moses’ ministry had outward signs of God’s glory but it brought death. The Spirit’s glorious ministry lacks outward signs but it brings life!
This is what Moses’ veil was all about. Because the Spirit is at work in us in the New Covenant, the apostle Paul is bold and free, unlike Moses. Paul’s ministry doesn’t need a veil because now, in the New Covenant, God’s people are by definition under a new disposition, one radically changed by God the Spirit. In the New Covenant anyone who turns to the Lord has their veil removed by the Spirit.
The moral transformation of God’s people is the difference between the old and new covenants. Transformation is big business on TV. Several reality shows are about transformation. There are the home makeover shows that turn an ugly room or a dilapidated house into something on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Then there are the “get fit” reality shows like the Biggest Loser that transform people’s bodies. These make for popular TV, but the problem is that the transformations are external and they usually don’t last once the TV show is done. The transformation in the New Covenant is internal, forever changing us from within.