Before we were interrupted by Covid, we were working our way through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. We studied 1 Corinthians in 2017 and 2018; and when we began to study 2 Corinthians last year, I said that I’m a completionist and when I start something, I like to finish it. When I was young, if I started a jigsaw, I had to finish it. These days, if I start a novel, I have to finish it, even when it’s boring. Back in 2013 I started preaching on Genesis, and having started to preach on the Pentateuch, I had to finish it and so I preached right through Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. After finishing 1 Samuel, I went on to preach on 2 Samuel. And having started Corinthians in 2017 and 2018, I have to finish it. And so, as well as all the other difficulties caused by Covid-19, which we’ve had to put up with this past year, I’ve had the added pressure and the anxiety of knowing that I’ve still to get to the end of 2 Corinthians.
John Calvin, the great reformer, was sent away from Geneva. Even though he was a faithful preacher of God’s word and pastor of God’s people, the ‘powers-that-be’ sent him away because the people did not like the reforms he had introduced to the churches in the city. They didn’t want his changes, even though he wanted to reform the churches according to God’s word. Three years later, they realised their mistake and invited him back. And apparently, on the first Sunday back, he stepped into the pulpit and continued his exposition of the Psalms, picking up at the very place he had left off. Well, on Sunday evening, 15 March 2020 I got as far as verse 6 of chapter 3. And so, this evening I’m going to pick up where we left off and we’re studying verses 7 to 18 of chapter 3 this evening.
But perhaps I should remind you of a couple of things. Firstly, the church in Corinth had been planted by Paul. In the book of Acts, we read that Paul left Athens and travelled to Corinth where he began to preach in the synagogue about Jesus Christ. The Jews began to oppose him, and so he moved next door and continued to preach the good news of the gospel. And while there were many who did not believe, others believed and were baptised and a church was planted.
Secondly, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in order to address a number of problems which had arisen in the church since he left it. So, there were now divisions in the church, with one group boasting about one preacher and another group boasting about another preacher. And there was the problem of sexual immorality in the church: one of the members was doing something shameful, which even the pagans would not do. And to make matters worse, the church was doing nothing to discipline the guilty member. And it also seems the members of the church were taking one another to court instead of settling disputes among themselves. And so, Paul addressed those issues. And then he answered some of their questions. So, he gave them advice on marriage and about eating food which had been sacrificed to idols. And he gave them instructions on the conduct of worship and spiritual gifts. There was that magnificent chapter on the hope of the resurrection; and the letter ended with some instructions about a collection for God’s needy people. So, in the course of 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed some of the problems in Corinth and he answered some of their questions.
And there are things at the beginning of 1 Corinthians and at the end of 1 Corinthians which link it to 2 Corinthians. At the beginning of 1 Corinthians, it seems clear that some people in Corinth were criticising Paul for his style of ministry. He didn’t seem as impressive to them as some of the professional speech-makers who went around the ancient world and who were apparently very popular in Corinth. Paul didn’t use any of their techniques when he preached the message of Christ crucified. And Paul explained that he didn’t use any of their techniques because he was relying on the Holy Spirit to take his plain style of preaching about Christ crucified and to use it to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ. He was not relying on the wisdom of the world, but on the wisdom and power of God. So, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians it was clear that some of the people were criticising Paul’s ministry. And at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul referred to his travel plans and how he hoped to visit Corinth soon.
And what do we find in 2 Corinthians? Well, it’s clear from what we read in 2 Corinthians that some of the members of the church in Corinth were still criticising Paul. Instead of displaying gratitude to the man who had had first told them about Jesus Christ the Saviour, they were ungrateful and critical. They were critical of the way he conducted his ministry and how he didn’t seem very impressive to them, compared to some of the other preachers who had come to Corinth and who tended to boast about themselves. And they were critical of the way Paul changed his travel plans. He changed his travel plans, not once, but twice. And some of them were saying he’s unreliable. He can’t be trusted. He’s always changing his mind. So, they criticised his ministry and they criticised his character. And so, in the course of this letter, Paul has to defend himself and his ministry.
And you see, there are two things that will wreck a church. The first thing that will wreck a church is when the preacher does not preach and teach God’s word. Or when the preacher does not preach and teach the full counsel of God. They might open the Bible and read it, but the message they preach has little to do with God’s word. Or they will only preach the law — what we’re to do — without also preaching the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who died to pay for our sins and who was raised to give us life. One of the things which will wreck a church is when the preacher does not preach and teach God’s word, because God uses the reading and preaching of his word to convince and converts sinners to faith in Christ; and God uses the reading and the preaching of his word to build up believers in comfort and holiness.
But the second thing that will wreck a church is this. The preacher may be preaching and teaching God’s word, but the people stop paying attention to what he’s teaching them from God’s word. So, there’s a preacher who is faithfully preaching and teaching God’s word, but the people are not listening. And instead of relying on God’s word to show us what we’re to believe and do, they rely on the wisdom of the world, which seems impressive, but which will only lead us astray. And that’s what was happening in Corinth. Instead of listening to Paul who had come to them with God’s word, they were no longer interested in listening to Paul; and they were listening to other people who were relying on the wisdom of the world.
So, Paul had to defend himself and his ministry. And in chapters 1 and 2 of 2 Corinthians, Paul explained why he changed his travel plans. And now, in chapter 3, he defends his ministry. And he does so by comparing his ministry to Moses’s ministry. Why does he refer to Moses’s ministry? Well, it’s possible that some of the false teachers who had come to Corinth were Jewish believers who boasted about Moses and the law of God. I say ‘it’s possible’ that’s the case, because we don’t really know what they believed or taught. In any case, in the passage before us this evening, Paul is defending himself and his ministry by comparing his ministry to Moses’s ministry.
Verses 7 to 11
And in verses 7 to 11 he argues from the lesser to the greater. Someone says to you:
If you think x is good, then let me tell you about y which is so much better.
So, if you think Moses’s ministry was good, then let me tell you about my ministry which is so much better. So, he’s arguing from the lesser to the greater. However, we might call what Paul is doing an argument from the great to the greater, because Paul is clear that Moses’s ministry was great. It really was great and glorious. Think about what happened when Moses and the Israelites reached Mount Sinai. Do you remember how God called Moses to come up to meet him on the mountain. And there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud was over the mountain and there was a very loud trumpet blast and there was smoke and there was fire and the whole mountain shook and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. And the Lord descended to the top of the mountain. The Lord had come to enter into a covenant with his people in which he graciously and freely promised to be their God and to take care of them; and they promised to do all that he commanded them: to worship him alone and to obey his laws and commands and to offer the right sacrifices when they sinned. And the terms of the covenant were written on tablets of stone. And do you remember? After Moses had been in the presence of the Lord, his face shone with the glory of God. And the people were afraid to look at it; so Moses used to cover it up. He put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing it. But when he went to speak to the Lord, he took the veil off. And Paul refers to all of that in these verses. He refers to Moses’s ministry in verse 7 which came with glory and which was written on stone. And he refers in the same verse to the glory on Moses’s face and how the people could not look on it. Moses’s ministry was glorious, there’s no doubt about it. No one had ever seen or experienced anything like this.
But Paul compares it to his own ministry to make the point that his own ministry is so much better. Look what he says. Verse 7: he refers to Moses’s ministry as the ministry that brought death. And it was, because when the people gathered at Mount Sinai, the Lord warned the people not to come up the mountain, because whoever touches his holy mountain must be killed. And then the people asked Moses to speak to them on behalf of God, because if God speaks to them, they will only die. And, then, after the people sinned and worshipped the golden calf, many of them were killed because they broke the covenant. And afterwards, whenever they set up the tabernacle, it was clear that none of them could approach the Lord without bringing the right sacrifices, because sinners cannot come into the presence of the Lord and live. And so, though it was a glorious ministry, it was a ministry that brought death.
Back in verse 6, Paul made the point that his ministry was a ministry that brings life, because whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ receives the free gift of eternal life and the hope of living forever in the presence of God one day. Moses’s ministry brought death, but Paul’s ministry brought life.
And Moses’s ministry was written on stone tablets, but Paul’s ministry was a ministry of the Spirit. Do you see that at the beginning of verse 8? And the Spirit of God gives sinners a new heart so that we’re able to love and trust God; and he writes God’s law on our hearts and enables us to keep it like never before.
And according to verse 9, Moses’s ministry was a ministry of condemnation, because the law condemns, doesn’t it? We read the Ten Commandments and we’re convicted because we haven’t done what God has commanded. The law condemns, because it shows us our sins and shortcomings. But Paul’s ministry is the ministry that brings righteousness, because Paul preached the gospel of Jesus Christ with the promise that whoever believes in Christ is pardoned by God and declared right in his sight for the sake of Christ who did everything right.
Moses’s ministry was glorious, because it was accompanied by glory and by signs and wonders and no one had seen or experienced anything like it. And Moses’s face used to shine with the glory of God. But the glory of Moses’s ministry pales in comparison to the glory of Paul’s ministry.
Now you may have noticed that Paul refers to the fading character of Moses’s ministry. Do you see that at the end of verse 7 and in verse 11? Some commentators think Paul is saying that the radiance on Moses’s face faded over time. And, in fact, they say that’s the reason Moses covered his face: he didn’t want the Israelites to see how the glory on his face faded over time. However, other commentators say the word translated ‘fading’ should really be translated ‘brought to an end’. So, the glory on his face was brought to an end because Moses covered it up with a veil. And that symbolises Moses’s whole ministry, because Moses’s whole ministry was always intended to come to an end. It had obsolescence built in. Think of the electrical gadgets we buy and how they’re designed to last only a few years so that we’ll replace them with something better. Well, Moses’s ministry had obsolescence built in, because it was for the time-being only, it was to fill in and to make do until Christ the Saviour came into the world to pay for our sins in full with his life and to rise again to give us eternal life. Moses’s ministry was always meant to be temporary, but Paul’s gospel ministry is designed to be permanent. Or as Paul puts it in verse 11, it lasts. It abides. It will never be replaced with something better.
Paul’s gospel ministry was glorious, because it brought life and not death; and because it is of the Spirit who works in us inwardly in our hearts and not outwardly on stone tablets; and because it brings righteousness and not condemnation; and because it lasts. It lasts; and the message Paul proclaimed is the same message which true preachers still preach today, because God still uses the gospel message of Christ crucified to save sinners from condemnation and to give them the hope of everlasting life in his presence.
Verses 12 to 18
And there’s one other difference between Moses’s ministry and Paul’s ministry. And Paul highlights this difference in verses 12 to 18. And it’s a massive difference. And it’s this: Under Moses’s ministry, only Moses was glorified. It was his face and his face alone which shone with the glory of God. He alone was glorified and his appearance was changed. But under Paul’s ministry, every believer is glorified. God reveals his glory to every believer and he works in every believer to enable us to reflect his glory more and more. And, of course, it’s not that our appearance changes. No, we are changed. Our character, our behaviour, our thoughts, our desires, our mind is changed more and more by his Spirit who works in us.
So, firstly, in verse 12 and 13, Paul says gospel preachers like Paul himself are not like Moses who covered up the glory of God on his face so that no one else could see it or benefit from it. The rest of the Israelites were kept from seeing God’s glory in the face of Moses. Moses’s appearance was changed, but no one else was changed. However gospel preachers are very bold and they proclaim the gospel message boldly and clearly because they want people everywhere to see the glory of God for themselves and to be transformed by it.
And how do they see the glory of God for themselves? How does God reveal his glory? Well, if you jump down to verse 6 of chapter 4 for a moment, where Paul says that they see the glory of God, not in the face of Moses, but in the face of Christ. In other words, whenever the gospel of Christ is preached, whenever the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, God reveals his glory. God reveals his glory in the good news of the gospel, because in the gospel of Jesus Christ we see the glory of God’s justice, because he did not ignore our sins, but he punished them in the person of his Son. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ we see the glory of God’s love, because he did not spare his Son, but he gave them up for us all. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we see the glory of God’s wisdom, because he worked out a way to deliver his people from their sin and misery. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we see the glory of God’s grace, because he gives forgiveness and eternal life to sinners like us who deserve nothing from him but condemnation. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we see the glory of God’s power, because he raised his Son from the dead and overcame the grave. Under Moses’s ministry, only Moses saw the glory of God. But now, every gospel preacher makes known the glory of God whenever they preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we come to church and the gospel is proclaimed, God reveals his glory to us.
People look at our services and they think that nothing much is happening here, because all we’re doing is singing a few songs, saying a few prayers and listening to a sermon. Nothing is happening here and it’s a bit dull. And even God’s people sometimes want to add more to the service, because they don’t understand what’s going on when the gospel is proclaimed. But what is really happening is that God is revealing his glory every time Christ is proclaimed. And those who receive the message with faith and humility are being transformed with every increasing glory by the Holy Spirit who works in us.
In verses 14 and 15, Paul makes the point that the Jews are still prevented from seeing the glory of God, because it’s as if a veil is covering their hearts. And Paul will say more about that in the next chapter.
Nevertheless the veil is taken away from those who are ‘in Christ’. Do you see that in verse 14 where Paul says that in Christ, the veil is taken away? In other words, when a person is in Christ, or when a person is united with Christ by faith, when a person becomes a Christian, the veil is taken away. Or as Paul says in verse 16, when anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. And so, God reveals his glory to them in the good news of the gospel; and he works in their lives by his Spirit to transform them more and more into his likeness. Under Moses’s ministry, only Moses saw the glory of God; and only he was transformed by what he saw; and only his appearance was transformed. But God reveals his glory to every believer whenever the gospel is proclaimed; and God uses the gospel to transform his people more and more; and it’s not our appearance which is changed, but we ourselves are transformed into God’s likeness.
And so, when we meet here on Sundays and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, may God reveal his glory to us more and more and may we all be changed into his likeness more and more; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.