Exodus 34:9-35, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18

Exodus 34:9-35, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18

SERIES: Exodus:  Moses, God’s Man for the Hour

 From Commandments to the Cross

SPEAKER: Brad Harper

Introduction:  As a pastor to young single people through the last few years, I have often talked about dating and marriage.  As I talk to single people about the joys and challenges of marriage, I have frequently told them that one of the best things about marriage is not having to date anymore. Oh, I don’t mean that I didn’t enjoy dating. Dating was fun. Especially when I was attending a Christian college, spending time getting to know a variety of Christian gals was great. But dating also came with a certain number of pressures. Will I like this person? Will she like me? What if I say something stupid? What does it mean if I hold her hand? 

The great thing about marriage is that I know if I call and ask Robin for a date (something most of us husbands don’t do enough, by the way), I know that even if she has to wash her hair, she’ll still go out with me. And I know she likes me, And even if I say something stupid, she’ll still go out with me again. You see, marriage is a progressive step beyond dating. And no one who has a good marriage would ever want to go back to dating again. 

In a somewhat similar way we will see today a contrast between the old covenant under the Law and the new covenant under Christ. As we see these great contrasts today, it’s important to remember that Paul is not contrasting something good with something bad, but rather showing us how the new is so much better than the old. Even though the old was good, we would never want to go back to it.

Please turn in your Bible as we read two passages this morning, first Exodus 34:29-35:  

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

Now let’s turn to 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 to read St. Paul’s commentary on Exodus 34:

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

First, I want to talk about the theological indications I see in this latter passage.

Indications for theology

I must tell you this passage represents one of the greatest theological challenges for preaching I have experienced. Trying to reconcile biblical statements which draw great contrasts between life under the Law and life under Christ with other statements that indicate continuity between the two is no easy task.

One of the questions that rumbles around in my mind continually concerning this issue is, “Do we Christians, with the enduring personal presence of the Holy Spirit, live qualitatively more godly lives than Old Testament believers under the Law?” Because of my inclination to answer that question in the negative, my next question is, “So what difference does it make living under the new covenant of grace in Christ?” I have come to the conclusion that the greatest difference is in the process, of our relationship with God, not so much the product.

As Paul begins to illustrate the progress from the old covenant to the new, he tells us first that it was a progression from letter to Spirit. 

From letter to Spirit.  Notice he does not condemn the old covenant, for he says that it came with glory. And indeed, as pastor Mike showed us two weeks ago, it was glorious. It revealed God’s character, his holy nature, his justice, and his care for his people. And in many practical ways, the old covenant works. God promised his people that if they lived according to his law they would prosper and find the good life. And, indeed, this was so.

So what is this great difference between letter and Spirit that Paul refers to? Certainly one great difference concerns how God relates to believers through the two covenants. Under old covenant God related to believers through law—over 600 conmands which in the very process of exhibiting the glory of God also serve to show Old Testament believers just how far they are from God. The Law presented an uncrossable chasm and thus, an essentially unattainable relationship with God.

But by the covenant of the Spirit God relates to us in a very different way. Where the law showed believers just how far they were away from God, the Holy Spirit, as he takes up residence in the lives of new covenant believers, shows us just how close we are to God.  The Law is still there in its enduring job of demonstrating the character of God which is so far above us, but by the new covenant God has come personally into our lives through his Spirit and whispers into our ear, “Christ has overcome this barrier for you; you no longer have to climb that barrier to get to God. You are loved and accepted just as you are.”

So it is that the Law represented an uncrossable distance between God and humanity. But beyond that, Paul tells us that it also stood as a judgment of guilt upon God’s people. And so it is a covenant of condemnation. 

From condemnation to righteousness.  Every Israelite as he stood in the temple and heard the Law read, realized he was a condemned person. For the law found its way into the most private areas of his life and said, “You have done wrong before God. You do not measure up.”  And the great problem was that the Law provided no final solution to this guilt. Indeed, the Law was never designed to resolve guilt, but to expose it. Oh, it provided the sacrificial system as a way of paying for wrong done, but it was an inadequate system which could never truly remove the guilt of sinners before God. In essence, every Old Testament believer, as he stood before the Law, was given a life sentence whereby he would never be able to make true restitution for his ongoing sin.

Paul tells us that the new covenant relates to believers in a much better way. He tells us that it is a covenant of righteousness.  Now you might ask, “Didn’t the Law bring the righteousness of God to his people?” Yes it did, but primarily by way of demonstration, not effect. When Paul uses the word “righteousness” in this sense it is defined not as a demonstration of God’s ways, but as a right relationship with God provided by God. So Paul tells us that the new covenant is not one based on trying to be righteous, but on being declared righteous by God. It’s a concept that pictures us standing before God, the eternal judge of the universe, condemned because of our personal sin. Then, for no logical reason God stands up, comes down from the bench, takes on the humble clothes of Jesus, the sinless Son of God, and says, “My son, my daughter, you cannot pay this price. I will pay it for you because I love you. You are free to go; your guilt is removed.” No Old Testament believer could experience such a reality. That sense of freedorn was never present in the ministry of the Law.

Finally, Paul contrasts the two covenants by showing us a progression from fading to lasting. 

From fading to lasting. Paul illustrates this truth by his commentary on the face of Moses. Let’s imagine the scene. Moses comes down from the mountain with a replacement copy of the Ten Commandments. As he walks toward the people they notice something very different about him. Light is streaming from his face, a piercing light that causes the people to look away. As he spoke they must have covered their eyes or looked at the ground. But alas, even as Moses spoke, the light began to fade. And as the glory of God began to fade away, Moses covered his face so that the people might not watch the discouraging end of the fading glory.

Here Paul tells us that it was not just the glory of God on the face of Moses which faded, but also “that which came with glory.” By this Paul means to say that the whole ministry of the Law came from God with a glory that was fading from the very beginning. It was a ministry that was never meant to last. Paul reinforces this idea in Galatians chapter three when he asks, “What, then was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” (Galatians 3:19)

From the very beginning the Law was inadequate to fully bring God’s glory to his people. Oh, it could bring some glory, for every time Moses spoke to God his face got recharged. But the glory would never stay. It’s like in any human relationship that is based on a performance standard. There can be moments of glory when you feel great for doing something to please someone and to meet their standards. But the glory soon fades when you realize that you will have to perform again tomorrow to be accepted. Such was the fading glory of the old covenant.

But the new covenant, Paul tells us, was designed to last.  Oh, its glory is still based on a performance standard, but it’s not our performance.  It is based on the performance of Christ, which was and always remains perfect. Paul calls this reality, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27), for it is the presence of Christ in our lives by his Spirit which brings us the unfading glory of God.

Now I must tell you that all of this has been very theological. And it is not only theology, but difficult theology. Passages like this must always be accompanied with the question, “So what?” What does this mean to my life? 

Implications for life

Paul is aware of the need to address the practical issues here. Notice the first word of verse 12 is “therefore.” When Paul uses this word he is about to tell us how theology makes a practical difference. That difference comes in the form of four freedoms implied by the apostle.

Freedom from guilt before God.  In talking about sin and guilt with unbelievers I have found that I generally get one of two responses. The first response waters down the reality of guilt. It says “I’m not such a bad person. As long as I don’t kill anybody I’ll be alright.” It’s kind of an “I ‘m O.K. , You’re O.K.” approach to God. The other response I see in virtually all the cults and even some churches. It’s a response that recognizes God’s grave standards and says, “I’ve got to achieve for God so he will accept me. I have to balance out my sin with good works.” The root problem with both of these response is that they relate to God on the basis of a law that somehow condemns them. The Old Testament believer had a similar problem. Even as he walked away from the sacrifice for his sins, he had to be planning for the next sacrifice, realizing that soon he would again be in violation of God’s law.

It was the Law with its great intimidation that always stood between the Old Testament believer and the even more intimidating God it represented. But the law no longer stands between us and this very intimidating God. Between us and God are no longer towering tablets of stone, but a humble and very unintimidating person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I’ve tried to picture what this means to me in terms of my daily life. So I thought of some people who for one reason or another are intimidating to the general public. I thought of police officers, IRS auditors, the president. Then I thought about professional athletes. As a whole, they are very intimidating to most of us, especially the great ones. So I thought about this guy many of us know named Andy Van Slyke. How do you think his sons introduce him to their little friends when they come over to the house to play? Do you think they say, as they are showing them around the house, “This is Andy Van Slyke, gold glove center fielder for the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Pirates. Isn’t he intimidating?” Of course not. They just say, “This is my dad.”

In the same way Jesus, the Son of God, introduces us to the God of the universe and says, “This is my dad. And you know what? He can be your dad, too. For Paul tells us in Romans chapter 8 that because of this covenant of the Spirit, you and I can turn to God and call him “daddy.” What a difference! We can wake up each day and instead of thinking “Oh, God. Your Law is so heavy. What have I done to distance myself from you? How can I make up for it today?,” we can say, in spite of whatever we have done to displease him, “Daddy, how incredible it is that you love me today in spite of my sin! I just want to please you today.” This reality, I believe, is the most powerful difference between the old covenant and the new. The freedom that comes from the daily experiential realization that God does not let our guilt keep him from us.

There is a second freedom that is related to this one. 

Freedom to be ourselves before one another.  According to the old covenant, it was not only that the people related to God on the basis of the Law, but they also tended to relate to each other the same way. This was clearly evident at the time of Jesus, for he condemned the Pharisees for making social value judgments based on how well people kept the external intricacies of the Law. As the Law could not bring ultimate resolution to the relationship between God and man, so also it could not serve as a great basis for relationship between persons. The external nature of the Law gave people an easy way to cover themselves with external holiness as a way to hide what was really going on inside. John Fisher, one of the “founding fathers” of the contemporary Christian music scene, saw in Moses’ veil an illustration of this reality. Here are the lyrics of his song, “Evangelical Veil Productions” (from the Album, “The New Covenant):

“Evangelical Veil Productions,
Pick one up now at quite a reduction
Got all types of shapes and sizes,

Introductory bonus prizes.

Special quality one-way see through,
You can see them but they can’t see you,
never have to show yourself again.

Just released—a Moses model;
Comes with shine in a plastic bottle,
It makes you look like you’ve just seen the Lord!

Just one daily application,
And you’ll fool the congregation,
Guaranteed to last a whole week through.

Got a Back-from-the-Summer-Camp veil,
With a Mountain-top look that’ll never fail,
As long as you renew it every year.
Plus a special Jesus-freak file,
Every one comes with a permanent smile,
A One-way button and a sticker for your car.”

Law tends to make us relate to each other based on how well we keep it. And that makes it difficult to be ourselves. The new covenant frees us from this need to perform for acceptance. There is no need to hide behind a veil of legalism which makes people think the glory of God must surely be there.  Sad to say, we often don’t relate to each other in the church based in this freedom, but on law. Often, just like the Pharisees, we go way beyond what Scripture clearly teaches about right and wrong and establish our own personal legal systems. We pick out certain activities or lifestyles and sometimes rather arbitrarily set them up as a standard of godliness. 

Oh, we usually don’t make conscious decisions to separate ourselves from people whose standards are different from ours. More often we decide to find people who think like we do and subtly separate ourselves from those with different standards, sometimes even talking together about “those kind of people.” One of the great tragedies of this reality is that we usually end up judging others based solely on external characteristics and completely bypass any investigation of their motivation. The fact is, even under the Law, God was rnore interested in people’s motivation for keeping the Law than he was in legal obedience.

Though I am certainly condemning myself in what I have just said, I must tell you that I have grown most in this area through a relationship with a man in this church who I met when I first came over five years ago.  In our very first conversation I quickly realized that our standards and opinions on many issues were almost diametrically opposed.  I walked away from that man wondering how I could ever get along with him. Yet also from the very beginning, in spire of our radical differences on issues of no small importance, I found a man who was willing not just to listen to what I thought, but to dig deeper to find out why I thought the way I did before writing me off. As a result, he never did write me off. And we developed what has become one of the richest relationships of my life. Oh, we have moved a bit towards each other in our views. But more important than that, we have learned to appreciate each other’ s sincere search for godliness in the midst of our differences. And I would not trade his friendship for ten people who think just like me.

This is the great interpersonal freedom which is made more available by the new covenant. It’s easier to be ourselves before each other if we relate to each other based on a sincere desire to be godly in spite of our struggles rather than on the shallow veil of legalism.

Freedom to behold God’s glory. You’ll notice that I have substituted the word “behold” for the word “reflect.” The original Greek word can mean either. But as we look at the verses following this passage we see Paul saying we receive the glory of God in our hearts as we behold that glory in the face of Christ. For that reason I follow the NASB which says “behold.” This whole illustration of beholding the glory of God is based on the fact that Moses covered up his face so the people could not see the fading glory. I don’t know what his motivation was. Some say he was embarrassed that it was fading. Others say he covered his face because the people were not worthy of seeing God’s glory. 

In any case the veil did two things. It separated the people from the glory of God and it kept them from seeing it fade away. The result, Paul says, is that the Jews, as a whole, never fully understood that the law was never meant to last as a covenant between them and God. So it was that in Paul ‘s day Jews were still unable to see, because of the veil over their hearts, that the glory of the ministry of the Law had faded. They were still trying to relate to God through the Law.

Paul tells us that it is only the good news of Jesus Christ that removes the veil and allows us to see that the glory of God in Jesus is no longer something that fades away, nor is it something that condemns us. Rather it is something that heals us and draws us towards God. Beholding the glory of God no longer a matter of meditating on a glorious but fearsome Law; rather it is a matter of meditating on the cross in wonder that such a fearsome God would humbly pour out his life for us.

Freedom to live transformed lives. This practical reality goes back to the original theological point that the new covenant is a covenant of the Spirit, not of the letter. The covenant of the letter clearly showed the Jews how they should live if they were to walk according to the character of God. And that standard, the Ten Commandments, still stands before us today as a model for how we should live according to God’s character. The problem with the Law was that it never gave people the power to carry out its commands.

On the contrary, Paul tells us that the new covenant gives us the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to provide us with power to live according to Cod’s ways. It transforms us slowly into the likeness of Christ. So what is this power of the Holy Spirit to free us from sin to live like Christ? Is it some cosmic energy force that pervades our bodies? Is it a spiritual power switch that changes our rninds and wills from evil to good? Surely this is a metaphysical question that human minds cannot fully understand or answer, but in light of this passage, let me suggest an idea. 

1 believe that the power of God by his Spirit to transform our lives comes from two very closely related realities. The first reality is truth. Jesus told his disciples that one of the main functions of the Holy Spirit was to communicate truth. And the one truth I believe the Holy Spirit wants to conmunicate to believers more than any other is the truth about who we are in Jesus Christ. In the midst of a Law that brings us only discouragement because of our inability to keep it, in the midst of a world that tells us we are only of real value if we perform according to its standards and where failure is normal, the Holy Spirit reminds us that in Jesus Christ we are loved and accepted right where we are. It tells us that no power, either on the earth or beyond can separate us from the love of God.

The second reality is a person. Under the old covenant God related to his people primarily through a document and through religious practices which displayed God’s character and shouted at the people “YOU’RE NOT WORTHY, YOU’RE NOT WORTHY!” But in the covenant of the Spirit God has not sent a document, but himself to come into our lives personally and whisper, “You ‘re not worthy, but I love you, and I forgive you.”  What reality, when we fully comprehend it, could more powerfully draw us to live God’s way? The internal personal presence of a God who has the highest standards for us but who constantly expresses his unconditional love for us. So it is that the Spirit of God transforms our hearts and gives us a longing to serve him and walk according to his ways. And so it is that we become more like Christ.

Conclusion:  The essence of the difference the new covenant makes is summarized in the words of Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Jesus is this truth in person. As we truly begin to know him, his truth can set us free—free from the traps of guilt, of shame, of bondage to habitual sin, of captivity to performing for love and acceptance, and ultimately from the last trap, death and eternal separation from God.

Do you regularly experience the freedom portrayed in this word from God? If you don’t, maybe you’re a new covenant believer who still lives under the standards of the old covenant. Or maybe you’ve never accepted this gift of freedom through forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Friends, these truths are yours for the taking today. Receive them so that they may change your life and set you free. 

DATE: September 22, 1991