The glory of God is a major theme in the Bible. To God alone belongs the glory: as Creator, as Ruler of all, as Savior. Only God has such glory; nothing in the world deserves our praise and admiration as much as the glory of God. As God says through Isaiah, “My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:11). Yet in a sense the gospel is about that very thing: God is going to give His glory to another, to many others—in fact, to all of His people. The great hope of the gospel is that we are going to share in the glory of God. We are not just going to see His glory or experience His glory; we are going to be glorious like He is.
Can this be true? What would it even mean to share God’s glory? In biblical terms, glory is what makes something stand out as significant or important in some way. In the physical world, a bright light has glory because it stands out in the darkness; it captures our attention. Our eyes are not drawn to the dark space around the full moon; we are attracted to the light. Similarly, we are attracted to persons who have qualities that make them glorious. A king has glory because he has authority and might and wealth and beautiful surroundings beyond those of ordinary men. A prophet has glory because he has wisdom and understanding and knowledge beyond that of ordinary men. God has glory in every imaginable sense. He has all the power and authority of divinity: He creates, destroys, and rules over everything with a power incapable of being challenged or thwarted. The Bible emphasizes even more strongly, however, that God has glory because of His character. He is merciful, truthful, trustworthy, kind, and absolutely free from the stain of evil. Above everyone and everything else, He is more significant, more worthy of applause, and more important.
Christians are right to be suspicious of the human desire for glory; so often it is a symptom of our desire to be the center of the universe. We want to think of ourselves as more important than anyone else, especially God. This is such a delusion that it can only be classified as a kind of madness. But not every desire for glory is evil. As creatures of God, we have a God-given desire to be significant and worthy of praise. A pot can be a glorious pot without thinking itself greater than the potter who made it. The Bible clearly teaches that a desire for glory can be very right. Paul speaks of those who “by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality.” Peter says that our faith is precious because it will result in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Jesus tells us, “he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus is not saying, “Admit you are lowly and unworthy, and then God will keep you there, you worm.” He is saying, “Admit you are lowly and unworthy, and God will raise you high and honor you.” The desire to be seen by our Creator and our fellow creatures as honorable and praiseworthy is natural and right.
But our desire goes deeper than just wanting to be treated AS IF we had glory. We want to be truly glorious. Nothing would be more bitter than to be praised and honored for something we knew to be a lie. In my one and only year in little league, my team won the district championship; I received a handsome little trophy, a golden figure of a batter in full swing. I hated that trophy, because I knew it was just fake glory. In actual fact, I was the worst player on the team. I never got a hit; I dropped every ball that came to me in right field. The best thing I ever did for the team occurred in the championship game. Down by one run with two outs in the ninth, it was my turn to bat. In my fear and embarrassment I did the only thing I could think of: I lied and said I had a stomachache. The guy who batted instead of me hit a triple and won the game. Not playing was my greatest contribution to the team. The last thing in the world I wanted was a trophy celebrating my successful year in baseball. Forget the trophy; I really wanted my fairy-godmother to give me an eye for the ball and a throwing arm.
God’s people do not need God’s empty praise; we need Him to make us praiseworthy. In other words, we need Him to cure us of the problem of sin and make us good. What is it that brings shame and dishonor on us now? Isn’t it our own selfishness, our own rebellion? What we really need is to become less like ourselves and more like our God. Well, the gospel announces that very thing: God is in the process of imparting His glory to us. Paul says in II Corinthians 3:18:
And we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
It would be hard to find a more explicit and pointed statement about sharing the glory of God. Unfortunately, it would also be hard to find a more difficult passage to interpret and explain. In spite of that, I would like to try my hand at a brief explanation of what Paul is saying in this remarkable passage.
To begin with, we need to know the following things about the context in II Corinthians:
· Paul is (once again) defending his ministry to a faction in Corinth that looks down on him and his message.
· Paul describes himself as a “minister of the new covenant.” Unlike the “old” covenant of the law, the new covenant establishes God’s promise to transform the hearts of men, working in them what they cannot work in themselves. Jeremiah spoke of this “new covenant” as God “writing His law in your hearts,” and Paul echoes this language, speaking of a “letter of Christ” written with the “ink” of the Holy Spirit on “tablets of human hearts.”
· In pursuing this old covenant/new covenant theme, Paul compares his ministry with the ministry of Moses, saying in essence, “My ministry is superior to that of Moses.” To defend such an audacious claim, he develops an elaborate analogy concerning the glory on the face of Moses and the glory imparted through the gospel. This analogy is what informs the meaning of II Corinthians 3:18.
When Moses came down from the mountain with the stone tablets of the law, his face shone from being in the presence of God’s shining glory. This made the people afraid to come near him. So Moses put a veil over his face, and he only removed it when he went into the tent of meeting to talk to God and when he came out to tell the people what God told him. Otherwise, he always wore the veil. The glory on Moses’ face was a constant reminder that Moses had been with God. Israel in the wilderness saw the glory of God as a literal brightness, a searing and unapproachable light. This showed on a physical level the glory of God’s essential nature, His power and holiness and burning goodness. The glory on Moses’ face spoke to all the people of the lofty dignity of the ministry Moses had; Moses, alone among the people, had the privilege of standing before the glory of God, speaking directly to God for the people. The glory was not an intrinsic characteristic of Moses; it was just some leftover glory which would eventually fade away. Still, this light on Moses’ face was awe-inspiring and unnerving. He would veil his face for the sake of the people; even such a diluted and fading piece of God’s glory was too much for them to handle.
Here, I believe, many interpreters go wrong about the point Paul is making. They suggest that Moses was trying to hide the fact that the glory was fading. They see this argument as strengthened by the following verses:
Having therefore such a hope, we use great openness in our speech, and are not as Moses, who used to put a veil over his face that the sons of Israel might not look intently at the end of what was passing away. Nevertheless their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it passes away in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart. (II Corinthians 3:12-15)
According to many interpreters, the transitory nature of the glory was a commentary on the old covenant. Just like the glory, the old covenant would pass away, and Moses did not want the people to see this. According to this interpretation, the Jews of Paul’s day still wore the veil; they could not see that the glory of the law was gone. The glory had faded from the face of Moses, the lawgiver, and the Jews just could not see it. But this seems very unlikely. A straightforward reading of Exodus suggests nothing like this. Exodus seems quite clear; Moses veiled his face because the glory was there, not because it was fading. True, Paul compares the transitory glory on Moses’ face with the abiding glory imparted through the gospel. But the veil was not meant to deceive the people about the glory; it was meant to protect them from it. The veil separates the people from the glory of God; that fact fuels the comparison which Paul is making.
Paul saw the veil on Moses’ face as a metaphor for the inadequacy of the law in comparison to the gospel. The veil on Moses’ face was similar to the veil separating the people from the Holy of Holies; it separated an unholy people from the glorious holiness of God. As a prophet, Moses had free access to God and His glory, but the people did not. Moses could talk to God “face-to-face,” but even the rubbed-off glory on Moses’ face was too much for the people. The people never came face-to-face with God’s glory, nor did they want to. But in the gospel, the holiness of God is not a barrier; in the gospel, the holiness of God is imparted to His people. In the gospel, it is not just Moses, not just the minister, who receives glory; in the gospel, everybody’s face gets shiny.
Now we are in a better position to understand what Paul means in verse 18:
“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (II Corinthians 3:16-18)
These verses are the key to Paul’s entire argument. The veil was that which kept the people separated from the glory of God. Moses himself had no such restriction; when he went before the Lord, he removed the veil. Paul is picturing believers as having the same privilege as Moses: we go before the Lord and lift the veil, confronting His glory directly. And just as it did with Moses, God’s glory rubs off on us. How do we actually come before the Lord? Not literally; we do not walk into a tent and converse with the bright glory of the Lord. The Lord is the Spirit; we have direct, personal access to the glory of God through the Holy Spirit. And our faces are not literally getting shiny. The brightness of God’s glory was a picture of the burning purity of His holiness. That which separated us from the presence of God before was His holiness and our sin, but that is being changed; through the work of the Spirit we are going to share in the glorious, holy character of our Creator. His glory is becoming ours.
The importance of Paul’s argument here is tremendous. This is Paul’s most explicit statement anywhere that believers are not just going to admire and experience the glory of God; we are going to share it. This is also Paul’s most explicit explanation of what it means to share in the glory of God. The connection of ideas is very strong: Paul’s ministry = the new covenant = the Spirit writing God’s law in our hearts = the Spirit imparting God’s glory to us. The glory of God is our great hope. Life is going to be glorious—we are going to be glorious—because the shame and dishonor of sin will be gone from us forever. In its place will be glory, the glory which belongs to anyone who has a heart like God’s.