First Mennonite Church
September 10, 2023
Displaying Christ’s Surpassing Splendor
Text: 2Corinthians 3:1-18
In order to understand Paul’s words in this letter, it will be helpful to see the background story of his argument.
Early in the exodus journey, in fact, on the third month after the Israelites left Egypt, God summoned Moses to go up Mount Sinai. According to Exodus 19, the day God came to meet Moses and the people of Israel to establish his covenant, “there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him (19:16, 18, 19).
After various encounters with God on Mount Sinai, God summoned Moses again for a longer period of time, where God would give his laws to the Israelites. Before Moses went to meet God, he gave charge of leadership to Aaron and Hur. Up in the mountain, Moses stayed 40 days and 40 nights before God (Exodus 24:12, 18).
For the Israelites, 40 days and 40 nights seemed too long of a time for Moses to be away. They were so used to having Moses 24/7 that the Israelites became restless and desperate at his delayed return. Chapter 32 begins: When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Under Aaron’s guidance, the Israelites gathered golden jewelry and melted it to make the golden calf.
When God noticed what the Israelites were up to, he quickly dismissed Moses. “Go down to your people,” God said to Moses. “Leave me alone.” So, Moses came down, bringing with him the stone tablets where God had written his commandments on both sides. But when Moses saw what the people were doing, bowing down before the golden calf and proclaiming it to be their deliverer, in an outburst of rage, he threw the tablet to the ground breaking both of them.
In chapter 34, God asked Moses to chisel out two stone tablets like those God had given Moses the first time and summoned him again to Mount Sinai. In verse 28, we read that Moses stayed there before the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating or drinking.
What Moses did know or realize was that his face had started to glow at being before God’s glorious and luminous presence. Moses got a sort of Divine or holy sunburn, so to speak. Therefore, upon coming back to the Israelite camp, the people found it difficult to look at Moses’ face directly. There was so much glow that the Israelites couldn’t stand. Their discomfort might have stemmed out of their embarrassment because theirs was not or because it simply shows the contrast between them and Moses who remained faithful to God while they had followed their own path. Moses had to wear a veil to cover his face when he was with the people and to remove it when he came to God’s presence.
With this story as Paul’s background for our passage this morning, we will see the great contrast Paul makes between the old covenant God made with the Israelites and the new one God made through Jesus Christ.
Paul brings to memory the scary scene of the day when God came down to Mount Sinai to establish his covenant with Israel. There was fire, thunder, and smoke, and the Mount Sanai was shaking. God revealed himself by highlighting his fearsome presence. It was a momentous occasion, which although caused fear in those who witnessed it, it was simply for that moment.
In the case of Moses, being before God often times caused his face to irradiate. The people of Israel, however, they perceived God’s giving of his laws to them as an intrusion and violation of their freedom. Therefore, instead of obedience to the will of God, Israel rebelled. Instead of relishing the privilege of being God’s chosen people, they found God’s words burdensome. God’s will for his people was written in cold tablets of stone.
Hence, Paul makes the contrast between God’s new covenant through Jesus and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in those who believe. Thus, in verse three he writes: You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
In God’s new binding agreement through Jesus Christ, the believer has a greater advantage over the Israelites in terms of obeying God. First, God’s rules are not written in tablets of stone, but on the pages of our hearts. As Paul says in Romans 10, verse eight: “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” Still, yet, God has also given us his Spirit to dwell in us. In other words, we do not have to witness what the Israelites had to witness on Mount Sanai in order to know God is present. God has made himself permanently present in us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Again, as Paul would say, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us is God’s guarantee—the first installment as a guarantee to us of his salvation.
Therefore, we yearn to obey God. We find joy in serving God. God’s Spirit stirs in us the desire and willingness to obey the Lord, instead of rebelling against him. That is why Paul also says, “For where the Holy Spirit is, there is freedom.” There is freedom to serve one another. We seek first the well-being of others, instead of our own. When the Spirit of God is in us, we walk humbly before men and God. Our righteousness is God-given. We are a people who have been pardoned and made right before God.
By virtue of God’s new modus operandi in the new covenant in Christ, Paul dared say to the Corinthians, “You are Christ’s letter, written not with ink, but with the Spirit and hence read by all men.”
So, let me ask you, how do you see or feel about God’s demands on you? Do you feel that serving the Lord by honoring him with your time, resources, talents, and your entire being too much of a demand?
Listen to what Paul says. I am reading verses 16-18:But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
When someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. When someone turns to the Lord, the problem Israel had with God’s commandments—that is seeing it as an intrusion, a violation of their freedom, a task impossible to carry out, the veil is removed. Only when we turn to Christ is when we are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to serve the Lord with love, joy, hope, and freedom. And, it is only then when the glory of the Lord will begin to radiate through us. It is a glow that will never fade as in the case of Moses.
My dear sisters and brothers, each of us has been given the privilege that neither Moses nor the people of ancient Israel had: the privilege of displaying the glory of the face of Christ in the world. We are given the privilege of bearing the surpassing splendor of Jesus Christ in the world. Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, through the law of Christ written in the pages of our hearts, we can give witness to God’s presence wherever we go. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we as a congregation can give witness to the world of how God’s new people live, serve, and love both God and neighbor.
I leave you with the words of the Prophet Isaiah who said, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” Go and shine Christ’s surpassing splendor. Amen!