7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! 10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!2 Corinthians 3:7-11
Today we’re going to talk about the word “glory.” In this brief passage, Paul has a lot to say about glory, both past and present. But what does he mean here? What does all this glory have to do with us?
At the heart of Paul’s argument is the conviction that God’s very essence and character has been shown in the Lord Jesus Christ. The good news is that God’s character and essence, often understood as God’s glory, weight, and presence is also a sign of the Spirit’s presence and operation in our own lives.
But to see that, we need to begin by clearing some things up, namely, our vocabulary. When we modern English speakers talk about glory, I think that most of us have the idea of radiant light, sunbeams, and halos. Glory is overwhelming. Glory is blinding. But glory, to Paul’s way of understanding it, is so much more than this. Part of the problem is our language. The word used for glory here is the Greek doxa, and it means “honor, renown, glory, splendor.”
But doxa also conveys a sense of heft, or presence, substance, and essence. Here, the Hebrew term kavod, or heaviness and weight of presence, would also fit within this category of glory. In other words, glory radiates marvel and meaning, and it does so because the glory conveys the essence of what that thing is in itself. In other words, the glory of something is overwhelming to the degree that it accurately points and carries the meaning of the person or the thing being glorified.
Clear definition, right? Well, let’s think about it using an analogy. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a little kid. I’ve probably watched the 1977 film dozens and dozens of times in my life. When I was really young, there probably was not greater thrill for me than those two hours spent watching ships and lightsabers zip around the screen.
However, in my early childhood, I only got to watch the film once a year when it would come on television (yes, I remember a time before the internet and streaming, and even before home video was really popular). About a month or so in advance of that film coming on television, commercials would air, reminding us all to tune in to watch the show. In the 30 seconds of that commercial, I saw clips from the larger film, and I would get really excited. In fact, I’d get so excited, a few days before the movie would actually air, I’d be so worked up I could hardly sleep.
In that way, you might say that the commercial had a glory, so to speak. But its glory, its ability to dazzle me and keep me up at night had power and weight because it pointed to the full movie to come. The commercial had a glory because it pointed to and borrowed weight from the reality of a film that had captured the imagination of a young boy with images of space flight and ancient, lightsword wielding monks. But the commercial was not the film. The reason for my anxiety leading up to the film was that it could only point to the reality, the essence, the presence of the film, it could never fully capture it.
Here’s what all this has to do with Paul’s argument. What was shown in the ministry of death chiseled in letters on stone tablets, as Paul references the Mosaic Law here, was a splendid and glorious thing in itself. They were expressions of God’s will for our lives, and how we might order our hearts, minds, and social relations so as to live in right relationship with God and neighbor. In fact, this was so glorious, so splendid, so weighty, the giving of it caused Moses himself to undergo a minor metamorphosis such that his face radiated with the glory of God that came through the giving of the Law.
Yet, the Law was not the thing in itself; it could never contain God’s redemptive intentions for human life, it could only point to them. The Law had a borrowed glory, a lesser glory awaiting a full unveiling in much the same way that the television commercial could only tease the reality of the film to come, eagerly awaited by my younger self. They go together, the Law and the full glory put on display in Christ Jesus and revealed by the Spirit, but the one, the Law, can only help but point to the greater revelation of the glory of God shown in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. All of this is revealed and seen to be true by the work of the Spirit amongst the people of God, giving sure and certain testimony that the greater glory has come, despite any indications to the contrary.
And here’s where that intersects with our lives. You see, it is very easy to look at our lives or look at the lives of others and read defeat and deficiency. Compared the splendor of a Hollywood star, or the competency of a great person to whom we are constantly measuring ourselves, we might consider ourselves or others as utter failures, or at a minimum, rather unglamorous, and certainly lacking any share of glory. In fact, the only remarkable thing about our lives might be that they seem so unremarkable.
Yet, from a certain perspective, the same argument could be made about Jesus as the Messiah. He died the worst sort of death possible. He suffered every indignity. His followers, like Paul, suffer degradation and torment for the sake of his name. There is no fanfare in the streets for a Jesus who makes his way as a conquering king. When compared the glory of an event like Moses and his glowing face on Mt. Sinai, what is this Jesus and the life he calls us to live as we follow him? Where’s the glory that ought to accompany such a lofty claim as being the Redeemer of the world?
Yet, that is exactly what he is. It is in his humility that the full on glory, weight, presence, and heft of the Most High God is to be found. It is in his lowering of himself, his condescension to us, to our understanding, to our plight that the very essence, the very heart of God is revealed. And what do we see there? It is the glory of unbounded love. It is overwhelming, radiant beauty of a love that will not let us go, housed in the shabby rags of a crucified king.
And you participate in that same glory by the work of the Spirit, rags and all. In fact, I would go so far, because I think that Paul goes this far, that it is in your feeling of relative obscurity that you have an internal witness that the Spirit is operating within, radiating this fuller glory that has been and will be revealed. As we are conformed to Christ in our self-giving love, day in and day out, act of self-giving service and self-effacing sacrifice, there radiates within each of us the true light of the radiant glory of the loving heart of God, waiting to erupt and give life all around us.
We are, to use the earlier idea, forerunners, commercials, living signposts of the glory of God’s love that will wrap all creation up in His redeeming purposes. As he will tell us just a little later in chapter 5, this is what it means to be new creation; everything about us, even the tiniest, most obscure things, are pregnant with the radiant, glowing, glorious love of God in Jesus Christ.