What does Paul mean when he says: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18)? Over the last couple of posts I have been tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of exegesis.
Initially I argued:
- By “we all” he means the apostles.
- Transformation into the image means that the apostles are being conformed to the image of Christ, to the pattern of his sufferings, death and resurrection.
- This transformation applies only to a restricted set of believers—those who are “heirs of Christ”, who suffer as Christ suffered, who are conformed to the image of the firstborn from the dead.
I then put forward a revised argument, partly to contest the common opinion that “we all” refers to all believers:
- By “we all” Paul means the Jewish apostles, from whom the veil which represented the hardening of the Jewish mind has been removed, in contrast to the singular Moses.
- As ministers of the new covenant these apostles reflect the glory of Christ.
- Being “transformed into the same image” is another way of saying this. It has to do “not with the apostles’ imitation of Jesus’ suffering and vindication, as in the wider apocalyptic pattern, but with the transition from the old covenant to the new”.
But now I am beginning to think that I was right in the first place.
As ministers of the new covenant, who have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God, the Jewish apostles are being progressively transformed into the image of the Lord who suffered, was crucified, was vindicated and was glorified.
It is only Christlike apostles who are “competent” or “sufficient” (3:5-6) to be servants of the new covenant—not least because they are in a position to renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways”, to refuse to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (4:2).
In effect, Paul anticipates the argument of 4:16-18:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
The Jewish apostles are all being transformed into the same image, which is the image of Christ, through the process of dying with Christ: “always carrying in the body the dying (nekrōsin) of Jesus…” (4:10).
In the midst of this experience—with the guarantee of the Spirit (5:5)—they are confident that they will be vindicated at the parousia and will receive resurrection life.
So I continue to maintain that Paul is consistently speaking about “we” apostles, not about Christians in general, right through this passage. It is the apostles, for example, who “all” must “appear before the judgement seat of Christ” to receive good or evil depending on what they have done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15).
So the argument would now be as follows:
- By “we all” Paul means the Jewish apostles, from whom the veil which represented the hardening of the Jewish mind has been removed, perhaps in contrast to the singular Moses. They were formerly in the position of Israelites whose minds were veiled, but they have been made “sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6).
- As ministers of the new covenant these apostles both behold and reflect the glory of the risen Christ, who is the image of God.
- Transformation into the “image” means that the apostles are being conformed to the “image of Christ”—that is, specifically to the pattern of his sufferings, death and resurrection. This brings the passage back in line with the other texts that I considered in the first piece (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:10-11; 1 Cor. 15:42-49).
- The phrase “from glory to glory” refers not to the transition from the fading glory of the old covenant to the greater glory of the new covenant but to the transition from the present reflected glory of the new covenant to the “eternal weight of glory” that the suffering apostles will attain at the parousia.
- The transformation applies only to a restricted set of believers—those who are “heirs of Christ”, who suffer as Christ suffered, who are conformed to the image of the firstborn from the dead.
- So the argument on 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6 is that the new covenant is being written on the hearts of the Corinthian believers through the ministry of a group of apparently weak, afflicted and humiliated Jewish apostles, who are being transformed through their suffering into the image of the crucified and risen Lord.
- The suffering of the apostles is integral to and instrumental in the eschatological transition from the old age of pagan domination to the age of YHWH’s rule over the nations through his Son.
So I think I’m back where I started. At least for the time being.