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Paul's train of thought in verses 12-18 has long been considered obscure. In part this is because he is dealing with too different but related criticisms. It appears that he was accused at some point of professional arrogance. Verses 12-13 and 18 address this matter. It also seems that his opponents were pointing out his lack of success among his own people. Verses 14-17 tackle this issue. Interestingly, Paul does not deny either charge.
We are very bold, he tells the Corinthians (v. 12). But it is only because they have such a hope that they act in such a fashion. By we Paul has in mind the minister of the new covenant, as 2:14—3:11 makes clear. The Greek word for bold (parrhrsia) originally referred to the right of a Greek citizen to freedom of speech (pas [full] + rhesis [speech]). In Paul's day it was applied, as well, to behavior befitting this constitutional freedom. Here he has in mind conduct befitting a minister of the new covenant (v. 12). But what kind of conduct would this be? Bold (TEV, NIV, RSV, NEB), "frank and open" (Phillips), "confident" (JB) and "plain" (KJV) have all been suggested. Each has its merits. Paul, however, goes on to draw a contrast with the veiled behavior of Moses (v. 13), suggesting that "open" (that is, "public") is the best option. Unlike Moses, who veiled his face to prevent public scrutiny of the fading character of his ministry, the new covenant minister is very up-front.
Paul, in particular, has made every effort to act with clarity (1:13; 11:6) and openness (3:3; 5:11-12) toward the Corinthians. What allows him to do this is the hope that he possesses. Such a hope (v. 12) looks back to verses 7-11 and the superior character of the new covenant ministry over the old. Paul calls this ministry a hope because its full splendor is yet to be seen. By using this word he is not suggesting that there is any doubt about the outcome. It is not a matter of wishful thinking on his part. This is how secular society understands hope. Seneca called hope "the definition of an uncertain good." For the Christian, however, hope carries an unconditional certainty within itself that God's promises will be realized. For this reason, Paul never loses his enthusiasm for the gospel, even when some labeled his ardor as professional arrogance.
Alfred Plummer has described 2 Corinthians as a "trackless forest" (1915:xiii). At first glance the line of argument in verses 13-17 appears very much so. In part this is because we tend to apply twentieth-century logic to the text. If we think like a first-century exegete, the pattern becomes clearer. It is important to notice that verses 13-17 are a commentary on Exodus 34:29-35. Paul cites from his text and then comments on it phrase by phrase. The reader should beware, though. Paul expands his "text" to include Jewish haggadah (traditions that have wide currency) and his own interpretive comments. As a result, his Old Testament text ends up looking quite paraphrastic—somewhat along the lines of the Living Bible or the Amplified Bible. The passage can be mapped out roughly as follows: (1) verses 12-13a: opening statement, (2) verses 13b-14a: Exodus 34:33, (3) verses 14b-15: commentary, (4) verse 16: Exodus 34:34, (5) verse 17: commentary and (6) verse 18: Exodus 34:35 and commentary intermixed.
Not like Moses at verse 13 introduces Paul's citation of Exodus 34:33, where it is observed that at the point Moses finished speaking to Israel, he would put a veil over his face. Would put translates the habitual action of the imperfect tense (etithei). Moses customarily put on a face veil after communicating God's law to Israel. Why did he do so? A great deal of interpretive energy has been expended trying to answer this question. Some think that Moses wanted to hide the fact that the Mosaic covenant was only temporary. Others suggest personal embarrassment over the dwindling character of his facial splendor. Still others believe that Moses did it out of a righteous concern for exposing God's glory to a sinful people (and justifiably so, after the episode with the golden calf). The difficulty is that the Exodus narrative does not help us one way or another.
The second half of verse 13 does give us a motive of sorts. Paul says that Moses did this to keep the Israelites from gazing at [his face] while the radiance was fading away. The NIV has done quite a bit of interpreting here, but a neutral translation is virtually impossible. The verb atenizw means "to look intently at," "to gaze earnestly at" (see v. 7). It is human nature to stare at a spectacle, whether it be gapers at a traffic accident or kids at a firework display. The Israelites were no different. But what exactly were they staring at? The NIV impies that it was Moses' face. The text merely reads "down to the end of that which was in the process of fading." But the shift from the feminine (v. 7) to the neuter (vv. 11, 13) shows that Paul is thinking more broadly of the Mosaic ministry and not just of Moses' face. The Greek word telos can refer either to a "goal" or an "end" (missing in the NIV). If the former, then Moses sought to prevent Israel from looking at Christ as the "goal" or fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant. If the latter, as seems likely from the context, then Moses covered his face so that Israel could not gaze "right down to the last glimmer," similar to an infant who continues to stare at a windup toy long after it has stopped moving. That Paul can speak of Moses' facial splendor and the glory of the Mosaic covenant in the same breath is not surprising since to the average Jew, Moses and the Torah were virtually interchangeable. Indeed, Paul can easily shift between the too, as "when the old covenant is read" and "when Moses is read" in verses 14-15 show.