Moses, the apostles, and transformation into the image of Christ (are we there yet?)

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In his excellent essay on mystical transformation in Philo and Paul, Volker Rabens says of 2 Corinthians 3:18: “Many who have tried to grasp the nuances of Paul’s argument in this passage have at times felt that they themselves have a veil over their minds” (297-98). A.T. Hanson called it “the Mount Everest of Pauline texts as far as difficulty is concerned”. I will gladly take that as an excuse for my own vacillation over the interpretation of this passage in the last few posts (see the list below).

Anyway, here is another attempt to recapitulate Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3:14-18, with a further emendation prompted by Volker’s comment on my reading of “we all” in verse 18.

Paul has learnt from bitter experience, through fruitless debates in the synagogues, that the minds of the Jews have been hardened, that a veil lies over their hearts, keeping them from seeing the glory of the risen Lord (3:14). It is the reading of the old covenant that keeps that veil in place (3:15).

But whenever a Jew turns to the Lord, the veil is lifted because the Spirit (of the Lord) gives freedom from the old covenant (3:17).

This is a general statement about Jewish experience. Paul does not say “our hearts were veiled”, or “when we turned to the Lord”.

What Paul says about the “we all” is not that they are with “unveiled heart”, which would classify them with the converted Jews of verse 16. Rather he says: “we all, with unveiled face”. Duh!

What I had then previously argued was that “we all” refers to the Jewish apostles as a subset of those Jews who have turned to the Lord and who are now unveiled.

But that overlooks an important detail. Volker’s comment drew attention to the problem, but really it was staring me in the face all along.

What Paul says about the “we all” is not that they are with “unveiled heart”, which would classify them with the converted Jews of verse 16. Rather he says: “we all, with unveiled face”.


That takes us back not to the veiled Jews but to the veiled Moses, “who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (3:13). We are reminded that the apostles have been made sufficient to be “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (3:6).

So the “we all”, as I have been saying all along, refers to the apostles and is part of Paul’s lengthy apologia for the unconventional character of their ministry. It designates that group of people who have been inscribing the new covenant on the hearts of the Corinthians—in contrast to Moses, who inscribed the old covenant on tablets of stone (cf. 3:3).

It is no longer necessary, however, to insist that he has in mind only Jewish apostles, though I suspect that Paul still saw his mission as essentially a Jewish one to the nations, in which Gentiles increasingly participated.

It is the contrast with Moses as a minister of the old covenant which explicitly restricts “we all” to the apostles. We might also, then, revisit the largely deprecated meaning of katoptrizomenoi as “reflecting as in a mirror”. Barnet argues for “beholding” on the grounds of the contrast with the Israelites who could not see because they were veiled, but that makes the same mistake that I did. The contrast is not with the Israelites but with Moses, who didn’t see but reflected the fading glory of the old covenant.1

The phrase “from glory to glory” is not progressive—as the ESV “from one degree of glory to another” rather implies. It may refer either to the change from the fading glory of the old covenant to the greater and permanent of the glory of the new covenant, or to the difference between the glory reflected on the apostles’ unveiled faces in the present and the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits them after death (4:17).

The force of the “all” may lie in the contrast with the singular Moses, but I think it more likely that Paul is making the same point as in Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Jesus will not be the only “son” to suffer and be raised from the dead; he will simply be firstborn—the eldest—among the many who will suffer and be vindicated with him.

Details aside, this is where I differ from Volker, with his “mystical” reading of the passage. I don’t think the language of Christlikeness is universally applicable. It signifies the experience of those believers, the apostles foremost among them, who have been predestined to suffer as Christ suffered.

I would probably argue that the same applies for participation in Christ: it refers to an eschatological experience—rather than a general mystical experience—that only makes sense in the context of the re-formation of the people of God and the clash with classical paganism. If the church was going to triumph over a violent, idolatrous empire, many would have to participate in the dying and rising of Jesus—quite literally.

The boundaries of that group in the first century context were necessarily vague, but in this passage, where Paul is struggling to regain the trust of the Corinthians, he puts himself and his colleagues forward specifically as ministers of a new covenant who are being transformed quite realistically into the image of the Lord who died and was vindicated.

  • 1P. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (1997), 209.

Hi Andrew,

I appreciate the distinction you are drawing between “apostles/martyrs” and “the rest of us”. It seems evident that Paul makes the distinction, and we often conflate the two. Thus far I’m not sure how on board I am with extent of the distinction you are making — mulling it over.

My question concerns, then, the exclusion of “the rest of us” from some pretty theological profound eschatology.

Specifically, there is the issue of union with Christ — to be “in Christ”. A feature of the Gospel that carries with it some pretty incredible realities (present and future) for all believers — at least that is what most of us think.

So my question is, are you going so far as to fence of union with Christ from “the rest of us” and allocate it only to the “apostles/martyrs”? If not, are you arguing there are different “kinds” of union with Christ? And if you are fencing it off from “the rest of us”, what passages are left to identify the eschatology of “the rest of us”?


@Corby Amos:

Corby, that’s a very pertinent question.

I guess what I would be inclined to say is that for the early church there was a spectrum of Christlikeness, union with Christ, being in Christ, participation in Christ, etc.

At one end of the spectrum there are people such as Paul who expected to follow Christ’s example by suffering, dying and being raised quite literally (cf. Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 1:24). I think that Paul thought of this in very intimate and personal terms.

At the other end, the churches were all taught to expect to face opposition, harassment, persecution, and quite possibly loss of life in the “eschatological” period leading up to the day of the Lord, the parousia, when the churches would be delivered from their enemies, vindicated, judged, and Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

At the parousia some of the dead would be raised to share in the vindication of the churches and to reign with Christ throughout the coming ages.

In that sense, the whole of New Testament ecclesiology and mission is aimed at this critical eschatological transition, for the sake of the glory of God and the future of his people.

We find ourselves outside this transitional period in the “coming ages”—or as John calls it, the thousand years between the overthrow of pagan Rome and the final judgment.

Christlikeness, union with Christ, participation in Christ do not make sense in this context. God’s purposes are not generally being achieved through faithfulness-unto-death—though we might want to allow for some exceptions. God’s purposes are achieved through the righteous living of a people under Christ as Lord.

One might go as far as to argue that for your average modern Christian to claim union with Christ or to be participating in Christ is faintly ridiculous.

In that regard, the Church is formally little different to the Old Testament people of God—a people called to bear witness to the creator amongst the nations, under his king, living by the “law” of the Spirit. It seems to me that there’s plenty in that to be getting on with.

@Andrew Perriman:

So we no longer need to become like Christ to express personally our willingness to be servants of the God-appointed Lord/Messiah, we simply need to “confess” (whatever that means) Jesus as Lord. A confessional statement? Mental agreement? You’ve got some work here to do to flesh this out. That is, the new community does not have to commit to a notion of personal “lordship” or view oneself in a new “lord-master” relationship where one party is servant (confesionee) to a lord (Christ) over them on an individual, personal basis? It sounds like your view is all that God is looking for is a general “confessional” acknowledgment that He has made Christ the Lord of his people (for this time and until such a time as all enemies are…). Just confess this statement and all is good.

Now my problem is: Memorized/mesmerized confessions are just that and often nothing more, but isn’t the content “Jesus is Lord” both confessional/communal and personal? As in “Lord of my life”? As in “his teachings are morally bounding as in a master-servant relationship”? If not, what do you mean by “confessing” Jesus as Lord? This is the key question I have for you and am quite curious by your understanding of the concept of “confession” (for that seems to be all we’re asked of as the renewed people of God living in post-Christian times.


In the New Testament context confessing Jesus as Lord was not trivial. It meant renouncing other ultimate allegiances in a world in which there was no safe distinction between “politics”, on the one hand, and religious and ethical practice, on the other. It entailed, further, asserting the uniqueness of the God of Israel over the gods of the nations, including the “god” Caesar. It mean, fundamentally, declaring the concrete historical reality of the reign of YHWH over the nations of the ancient world.

If you think that in the modern context it is too easily reducible to “mental agreement”, that is precisely why I think it is so important to recover this central aspect of New Testament teaching.

But to affirm the concrete communal and personal demands that come with the confession that Jesus is Lord is not the same as being conformed to the image of Jesus.

Paul gives very personal expression to his desire to be conformed to the image of Jesus—he want to share in his sufferings in order to share in his resurrection. He wants to imitate Christ. He expects to suffer to the extent that Christ suffered (Col. 1:24).

But this should not be confused with the general requirement that the redeemed people of God should serve the living God obediently and in holiness, through the power of the Spirit in place of the Law, and with Christ as their King.

Daniel Hoffman | Sat, 03/04/2017 - 17:20 | Permalink

Andrew, in reading your posts on this topic, I haven’t noticed you comment on a detail which I think helps confirm your position, as I understand it.

The text of the NA27 as well as the ESV cross-reference cites 2 Corinthians 3:16 as a quote of Exodus 34:34, which relates to the fact that when Moses would go in before the Lord he would remove his veil. Now, it’s worth noting that in the Greek there is no explicit subject in v.16 for “turns” (ESV generalizes by translating, “when one turns”), but it may just as well be a reference specifically to Moses himself. Thus, “To this day when Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts. But when he [Moses] turns to the Lord [as Ex. 34:34 tells us], the veil is removed.”

If that is correct, it makes the analogy between Moses and the apostles more explicit in v.18, “We all [apostles], with unveiled face [like Moses] beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.”

@Daniel Hoffman:

Aren’t the tenses in verse 16 a problem for that interpretation? The second part of the verse is in the present: “the veil is removed (periaireitai)”. Earlier the narrative tense used with Moses is the imperfect: “not like Moses, who would put (etithei) a veil over his face” (3:13). The first part of verse 16 has an aorist subjunctive: “whenever [a person] turns (epistrepsēi) to the Lord”. But I assume the aorist is determined by the temporal clause: it is a completed action that precedes the removal of the veil—that needs checking.

So it looks like Paul uses the imperfect for the Moses story and the present for the conversion of Jews in his own time.

I’m not sure it would make sense to read: “Whenever Moses turned to the Lord back then, the veil is removed now.”?

That’s how it looks to me. I’m not sure I’m competent enough to rule out your proposal completely. But in any case, thanks for the moral support.

The phrase “from glory to glory” is not progressive—as the ESV “from one degree of glory to another” rather implies. It may refer either to the change from the fading glory of the old covenant to the greater and permanent of the glory of the new covenant, or…

I would be inclined to leave it right there i.e., from the diminishing old covenant to the burgeoning new covenant, as per Heb 8:13; 2Cor 3:11, 18.

Details aside, this is where I differ from Volker, with his “mystical” reading of the passage. I don’t think the language of Christlikeness is universally applicable. It signifies the experience of those believers, the apostles foremost among them, who have been predestined to suffer as Christ suffered.

I would probably argue that the same applies for participation in Christ: it refers to an eschatological experience—rather than a general mystical experience…

Again yes… as I understand it the firstfruit saints suffered in Christ ON BEHALF OF Israel. They were, in fact, more involved in Israel’s redemption in Christ than is often appreciated, IMO. Take for example where Paul uses texts typically applicable to Israel’s messiah (Isa 42:6; 49:6; Lk 2:32) and ‘in fulfillment’ applies them directly to himself and his fellow apostles…  

Acts 13:47 For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

This then works in with Paul’s words here…

Col 1:24 I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church,

“Lacking” not in redemptive efficacy, but in breadth of reach i.e., to the world beyond Israel. Again Paul’s “through us” demonstrates the work of the first-fruit saints in testifying to the glory of God as finalised in Christ…

2Cor 1:20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.

The writer of Hebrews also says this…

Heb 2:3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,

That the apostles were squarely involved and a vital part of Israel redemption (Mk 10:39) in Christ is to me at least a no brainer.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 03/06/2017 - 09:23 | Permalink

Perhaps the first thing to be said about 2 Cor 3:18 is that it’s a midrash. Moses had “face to face” encounters with God (Deuteronomy 34:10 — which implies his Sinai/tabernacle experiences). Paul interprets the meaning of the veil beyond anything said about it in Exodus 34:33-35, where it seems to be worn only because the Aaron and the Israelites were afraid to come near him, although even that isn’t very clear. So Paul is using an interpretative procedure which would be ruled inadmissible by most modern commentators, including yourself. (Just saying).

As an apostle, Paul not only preached the faith but was its representative and role model — eg Philippians 4:9. So while in 2 Cor 3:18 he is defending his apostolic credentials, he is also distinguishing authentic faith from inauthentic. A regular theme of the letters is that false apostleship was, amongst other things, distinguishable by avoidance of the suffering which Paul describes 2 Corinthians. Suffering is the context for the glory of the new covenant.

Exactly the same could be said about the distinction between authentic and inauthentic faith for all believers. This was true then, but has continued to be true to the present day. Hence the value of 2 Corinthians. It’s not just a history book. 2 Corinthians 3:16 clinches the universality of the argument: the veil is removed “whenever anyone turns to the Lord” — 2 Cor 3:16 — rather cryptically transliterated “when it shall turn to the Lord”, but the meaning is clear enough.

The value of 2 Corinthians, and 3:18 in particular, is that face to face experience of God is available to all believers — through the one who took the veil away (“only in Christ is it taken away” — 3:14). “Face to face” is the concrete Hebrew expression for “presence”, which is provided in particular by the Spirit. Hence: “The Lord is the Spirit” - 3:17.

But what is odd to me is that you should be expending so much energy on restricting the meaning of 2 Cor 3:18, rather than seeking to demonstrate that it has application for all believers then and now. It’s difficult to think of anything more misguided, and easily shown to be wrong.

Andrew, under your schema, it seems Christ’s present reign has little to do with us today. You’ve mentioned several times that his death and resurrection put an end to the old covenant, removing the wall between Jew and Gentile. But as a 21st-century Gentile, would I be just as well off if Jesus stepped down from the throne tomorrow and left everything to Yahweh? Or is Jesus providing a mediating service (or something else) that would be sorely missed if he were to step down tomorrow?


It’s an interesting line of thought to explore.

It’s not really for us to say whether we need the present reign of Christ, is it?

The biblical argument is that because Jesus was obedient unto death, God highly exalted him, seated him at his right hand, etc.

So whatever we may think of the matter, Jesus is seated at the right hand of Power, and on account of that, we deal with God “in the name of Jesus”.

If historically it’s fair to say that Jesus’ reign began in earnest when the nations of the empire confessed him as Lord, it’s also historically the case that the nations of the Western world have long since deposed Jesus as Lord and turned their backs on the creator God.

The reign of Christ is no longer politically embodied in the structures of Christendom.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that Jesus is “king” of God’s people, meaning that he judges them and he defends them against their enemies. That’s probably more than a “mediating service”, but I guess that would roughly be the point.

That is the “apocalyptic” storyline—a theologically enhanced reading of history. Christendom, in any case, preferred the much simpler incarnational-Trinitarian paradigm.

Where we go next, I’m not sure. But it can only help, in my view, to recover a robust and detailed sense of the narrative-historical shape of New Testament thought.