In the previous piece on being transformed into the image of Christ, I included 2 Corinthians 3:18 in a wider pattern in Paul whereby conformity to the image of Christ means specifically sharing in his suffering and resurrection:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding (or reflecting) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as from the Lord, the Spirit.
This view needs modifying (after a fashion).
The theme is certainly in the background. 2 Corinthians 2:12-6:13 is a sustained defence of the scandalous and problematic character of the apostles’ ministry: it is through their weakness and suffering that the church is built up and Christ is glorified; and they will receive a heavenly dwelling if the earthly tent is destroyed (5:1-5).
All the way through “we” refers not to believers in general but to the apostles. So for example, Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 is not that “we believers” have been given the task of reconciling the world to God, but that “we apostles” have been given the task of reconciling the Corinthian church to God.
But when he says “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18 ESV), he would appear to have widened the scope his argument to include the Corinthians. This would lend weight to the traditional view: whatever is meant by “being transformed into the same image” would apply to all Christians.
Volker Rabens pointed this out to me on Facebook and directed me to an essay he has written: “Pneuma and the Beholding of God: Reading Paul in the Context of Philonic Mystical Traditions”. This is what he says about “we all”, though the contrast he makes is with Paul’s conversion experience rather than the ministry of the apostles as a group:
Paul includes all believers as the recipients of the effects of the new covenant ministry (ἡμεῖς δὲ πάντες). (316)
Anyway, having reconsidered the passage at Volker’s prompting, I think I got it wrong—but perhaps not quite in the way that he suggests.
This is how Paul develops his argument:
- The apostles are ministers of a new covenant, “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (3:6).
- The old covenant came with such a glory that the Israelites could not look on Moses’ face.
- The ministry of the Spirit, however, exceeds the glory of the old covenant (3:7-11).
- Therefore the apostles are “very bold, not like 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).
- The minds of the Israelites were hardened. Therefore, there is also a veil over their hearts (3:14-15).
- When Jews turn to Christ, the veil over their hearts is removed (3:16).
So when Paul then says, “we all, with unveiled face…”, he would appear to mean “we Jews who have all turned to the Lord…”.
The statement does not include converts from paganism, who never read the old covenant and whose faces were never veiled (cf. 3:14). It does not, therefore, embrace the whole Corinthian community. It does not apply to all Christians.
From here, however, we can go in two directions.
We could take it that he means all Jews who have turned to the Lord, but it’s difficult to see what the point would be in this context. The general distinction between Jews and Gentiles plays no part in his argument.
The alternative would be to suppose that this is still part of the narrative about the Jewish apostles and the contrast with Moses: Moses was the minister of the old covenant, the apostles have been made “competent to be ministers of a new covenant” (3:6).
Paul is quite explicit about the contrast: “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face…” (3:12–13). The apostles correspond to Moses.
The force of the “all” would then be that whereas Moses alone reflected the glory of the old covenant, all the Jewish apostles, whose faces are no longer veiled, reflect the glory of the new covenant, which is the glory of Christ—and this is the basis on which they make their appeal to the recalcitrant believers in Corinth.
It is then, specifically, this group that is being transformed (metamorphoumetha) “into the same image, from glory to glory”.
The phrase “from glory to glory” (apo doxēs eis doxan) would refer specifically to this shift from the old covenant to the new. The apostles are being changed from the limited and fading glory of the old covenant to the surpassing and permanent glory of the new covenant. They are progressively—not least through their suffering—reflecting the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The emphasis on the “same” image (tēn autēn eikona) would reinforce the point that the whole group of Jewish apostles now reflects the glory of the new covenant in contrast to Moses.
So the correction is this. Being transformed into the same image in this argument 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.