2 Corinthians 3:18: back to where I started

Read time: 4 minutes

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:

  1. By “we all” he means the apostles.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. As ministers of the new covenant these apostles reflect the glory of Christ.
  3. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. As ministers of the new covenant these apostles both behold and reflect the glory of the risen Christ, who is the image of God.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Philip Ledgerwood | Thu, 03/02/2017 - 14:38 | Permalink

This is why I’m glad nobody reads my blog. If I am undecided on something, or decide later that I’m wrong, I just shrug my shoulders and forget about it because maybe 3 people in the world saw it. You actually have to write something explaining yourself.

You were right in the first place. The overall flow of the passage and its place in the intention of Paul’s letter makes no sense otherwise. Readers ignore pronouns at their peril.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 03/02/2017 - 18:11 | Permalink

Don’t both arguments illustrate the ditch into which narrative historical criticism takes you? It’s certainly an interesting line of thought that Paul is talking exclusively about himself and certain other apostles, and that the pronoun “we” throughout the letter is limited in this way to himself and a few others. It’s interesting to think that none of his experiences are shared by non-apostles either then or now. Whether that leaves us with literature that had or has value for believers then or today is another matter.

The ditch applies for where n.h.c. takes us with the rest of the N.T. It has no direct relevance to anyone today. The interest is purely historical. I’d have thought at some point, it might usefully be asked whether there isn’t a better way of reading 2 Corinthians, and the N.T. in general. The reaction of the pietists to18th century rationalism might be instructive in this regard. Pietism of course is not to be confused with the self-centred piety criticised in the first stab at 2 Coriinthians 3:18.

@peter wilkinson:

It’s interesting to think that none of his experiences are shared by non-apostles either then or now.

That misses the point of the argument. The reason Paul makes these strong claims about the apostles is that he needs to make it clear how they are ministers of a new covenant.

Through their suffering the apostles are being transformed into the image of Christ, who suffered before them and was vindicated. But their suffering is of benefit to the Corinthians.

The church in Corinth experiences the freedom of the new covenant, written not on tablets of stone but on human hearts, because the apostles are suffering as Christ suffered. Or as he says later:

For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:11–12)

All I am doing is differentiating between the narrow experience of the apostles and the wider experience of the church. The apostles’ story is not the church’s story.

The value of this to Christians today, as I see it, depends on further narrative development, admittedly. We have to take into account the fact that the new covenant people of God, having been established through the ministry of the apostles, went through persecution, was vindicated, became Christendom, and now has to deal with an increasingly secular context.

But it can hardly be claimed that this narrative-historical reading of 2 Corinthians has no relevance for God’s believing people today. It’s our story. It’s made us who we are. That covenant is still written on our hearts.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for the reply. I didn’t miss the point you were making. I was just asking: So what? I don’t think in your presentation of things their story is our story, except in a rather esoteric antiquarian sense. To all practical intents and purposes it might just as well not be our story — twice removed, in fact.

@peter wilkinson:

Well, to be honest, Peter, that sounds like your problem rather than mine.

Interesting discussion — it seems implied to me in this discussion that the “we all” whether they be apostles only or the wider church is for back there (early church) and thus not applicable for the church of 2017. I guess this is something I cannot see. If we the church are “making disciples” where that is defined as per Jesus in Luke 14:25~35 and being built into what is described in Eph 4:13,14 then this is just as real and applicable today as it has been since these words were penned. Just saying.

@Rob Kampen:

Yes, that’s the basic hermeneutical question. We can read the Bible as an instructional manual and disregard its narrative-historical shape, or we can read it as the story of God’s people up to the triumph of the church over paganism, and then ask how we should keep telling that story. I don’t think the latter makes the Bible less relevant to the church today. In fact, I think it makes it more relevant, because it forces us to do the prophetic thing of assessing our place in history.

Hey Andrew -

I want to delve into the details a bit more as time permits because this is an interesting angle, though I’m not convinced on many levels. But a few broader issues I see here are:

1. Why are you limiting this to “apostles”? Isn’t that arbitrary and contradicted by his inclusion of Timothy and Silvanus included in Paul’s “we” at the beginning of the letter (2 Cor 1:19-20)? The ministry of the new covenant, with all the glory Paul speaks of, has all sorts of roles — apostles, teachers, prophets, evangelists, etc. Timothy was an evangelist and Silvanus, if this is the same Silas of Acts, was a prophet. Why are we talking about just “apostles”, even if we accept your argument that “we” is just referring to Jews?

2. It seems the inclusion of Timothy in the “we” of Paul’s suffering “ministers of the new covenant” even creates further problems for limiting this to just Jews. Timothy, though he knew the scriptures since childhood and had a Jewish mother, had a Greek Father, and was not circumcised. See Shaye Cohen’s JBL article which argues that he would not have been seen as Jewish:


There’s also the inclusion of Titus who was a Gentile convert (referred to as an “heir” in Titus 3) and delivered this very letter, in this ministry of the new covenant. It seems very hard to believe that Paul would not think of Titus his “partner” and “fellow worker” in the gospel, as being conformed to the image of Christ as he suffered alongside him, simply because he was not a “Jewish Apostle”.

3. Surely Paul believes many things about himself, and even the other apostles, that would apply to other Christians broadly, many of which he mentions in this letter in reference to himself, such as that God comforts them, Christ died for them, they are justified by faith, recipients of the Spirit, will be resurrected, etc. What reason do we have for believing that being conformed to the image of Christ, even if we accept your limited application and the “we” referent for this passage, doesn’t apply more broadly as well? I think this will become more of an issue as we examine other passages that seem to basically say the same thing.


Alex, thanks for the input.

1. Timothy and Silvanus are not necessarily included in the “we”. They were with Paul in Corinth when Jesus Christ was first proclaimed among them (cf. Acts 18:5). It is unclear who, in Paul’s mind, is included in this apostolic group at the time of writing. The restriction to apostles in 2 Corinthians 3 is determined by the reference to them as ministers of a new covenant who had seen the risen Lord (I think that in some way this must have been a qualification for apostleship); and by this passage from 1 Corinthians:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. (1 Cor. 4:9)

2. In the latest revision I’ve abandoned the “Jewish” limitation. With “unveiled face” sets the “we” in contrast to Moses who covered his face; it does not refer to a group of Jews who no longer have unveiled hearts. Should have been obvious. The “we all” are specifically the ministers of the new covenant in the Spirit. The argument has in view only the particular group of apostles, led by Paul, who were struggling to justify themselves to the Corinthians. It’s what Paul is writing about.

3. This becomes a question of how much weight we put on the controlling apocalyptic-eschatological narrative. We lose sight of it from time to time, partly because it’s not always in the foreground of Paul’s thought, partly because we filter it out as alien to the modern perspective. But my argument is that Paul’s thought is fundamentally and wholly oriented towards a realistic and foreseeable eschatological outcome—the day of the Lord that will bring to an end the persecution of the churches and vindicate their faithful witness to the lordship of Jesus. The question is whether he addresses anything outside of that narrative—a situation more like that of the Constantinian church, for example, or the post-Christendom church in the West. I don’t think he does.