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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – A Word of Hope (3:16-17)
A Word of Hope (3:16-17)

Isaiah 6:9-10 attributes Israel's condition to God's command to his spokesperson to "make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes." Paul, himself, does not take this step in this passage (although the NIV does in v. 14), but puts forward the hope that whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil of spiritual darkness is taken away (v. 16). Moses now becomes a model to be emulated rather than shunned; for Paul's hope is based on Exodus 34:34, where Moses, in coming before the Lord to speak with him, removed his veil. The LXX imperfect perihreito ("he used to remove") indicates that this was Moses' habitual practice on entering the tent of meeting.

Although Paul cites Exodus 34:34 almost verbatim, there are four significant modifications. First, he shifts to an indefinite subject, thereby moving the reader beyond the historical setting of the Exodus narrative (whenever anyone turns). Second, the action shifts from past to present (whenever anyone turns, . . . the veil is taken away). This shows that Paul is interested in this narrative primarily for his own situation.

Third, in the Exodus narrative Moses removes his own veil. In Paul's account, it is either God (passive, the veil is taken away) or the individual (middle, "he removes the veil")—or perhaps both. Quite often divine sovereignty and human responsibility work together in Paul's thinking, especially where individual salvation is in view. For instance, Paul can in one breath command the Philippians to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" and in the next say that it is "God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (2:12-13). This is true throughout salvation history. Jeremiah 24:7, for example, attributes "turning" to the human will ("they will return to me with all their heart") and change of heart to God ("I will give them a heart to know me").

Fourth, instead of "to enter" (eisporeuomai), Paul uses "to turn" (epistrephw; whenever anyone turns to the Lord). This term marks the characteristic attitude of the Jew within the covenant relationship. To turn to the Lord in the Old Testament is to turn away from foreign gods (as in Jer 4:1) and to listen to God's voice (Deut 4:30) and commands with all your heart and soul (Deut 30:10). It is also the appropriate response to the gospel under the new covenant, regardless of whether one is a Jew (Acts 3:19; 9:35) or a Gentile (Acts 11:21; 14:15, 15:19; 1 Thess 1:9).

Whenever a person gives his or her thoughts and life a new direction, it always involves a judgment on previous views and behavior. So it comes as no surprise that repentance and turning to the Lord are closely related ideas in the New Testament (Laubach 1975:353). Peter, for instance, calls his Jerusalem audience to "repent and turn to God" (Acts 3:19).

To whom is Paul offering this word of hope? Israel is the most obvious choice, since it is they that have a veil over their heart (v. 15). Yet Paul's shift from the plural "they" (v. 15) to the singular anyone (v. 16) suggests that the individual Israelite, and not the nation, is in view. His point would be that in spite of national blindness—which explains why Israel as a whole is not responding to the gospel—there is still the possibility of a personal response. For, until today, whenever Moses is read a veil covers Israel's heart. Yet, if someone turns to the Lord (as Moses did), the veil is removed (as it was in Moses' case; vv. 15-16). The Lord to whom Moses turned in the Exodus narrative was Yahweh. The Lord to whom a person must now turn is the Spirit (v. 17).

Paul's statement Now the Lord is the Spirit has mystified theologians for centuries. At face value he seems to be equating too members of the Trinity. Which too depends on whether Lord is understood to be Yahweh or Christ. In previous years it was just assumed that Paul meant Christ and discussions focused on the precise relationship between the too. Quite often the Spirit's person or work got lost in the exegetical shuffle. It is common to read statements like "the essence of Christ in his resurrected and ascended state is that of Spirit" or "Christ is experienced and operative in the church through the Spirit." Some tried to get around the theological difficulties by reading pneuma as lower case "spirit" and translating, "Christ is spirit" or even "Christ is the spiritual sense of the Old Testament." This, however, is just plain wrong. For one, Paul uses the article with pneuma toice in the space of too verses (the Spirit). Two, he distinguishes the Spirit from the Lord and treats him as a distinct entity in the second half of verse 17.

Given Paul's dependence in verse 16 on Exodus 34:34 an increasing number of exegetes are identifying Lord in both verses 16 and 17 with Yahweh. On this reading the article is anaphoric, referring the reader back to verse 16: "Now by `Yahweh' is meant the Spirit." But the reader is still left with an equation of Yahweh and the Spirit that has to be finessed in some fashion. Another approach is to think of verse 17 as Paul's commentary on Exodus 34:34 and treat kyrios as a citation. Lord would then be put in quotes and translated: "Now the term `Lord' refers to the Spirit." Paul would be following a method of text interpretation commonly utilized in Jewish literature by which various terms of the biblical text are assigned a more meaningful, often contemporary equivalent. What this means is that Paul need not be construing Lord at the beginning of verse 17 in any personal sense. It is merely a term in his text that finds its meaning and application in the contemporary situation of his day. Nonetheless, in identifying the Spirit with the term Lord, Paul makes a profound theological point. Moses turned to Yahweh for the removal of his veil. With the advent of the new covenant, the Spirit becomes the prime mover in the lives of God's people.

Paul concludes his commentary on Exodus 34:34 with the statement where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (v. 17). The word freedom strikes a particularly resonant chord with those of us who live in a nation that places great importance on the possession of inalienable rights and freedoms. What did this word mean to Paul? Elsewhere it refers to freedom from death (e.g., Rom 8:2), sin (e.g., Rom 6:18, 22), the law (Gal 5:1-3) and condemnation (Rom 8:1-2). Here it means to be free of barriers that would impede spiritual understanding. It is the work of the Spirit to remove such spiritual impediments. Freedom also looks forward to the gospel minister in verse 18, who unlike Moses has the liberty to minister with an "unveiled face." This freedom to be open and public in the exercise of his ministry Paul also attributes to the work of the Spirit (where the Spirit is).

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