Not like Moses
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 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. (2 Corinthians 3:12-13)
This is one of the most surprising teachings in all of scripture. In it, Moses is cited as a bad example, and a truth from the Old Testament is boldly reinterpreted by Paul.
In order to get the full impact of this illustration, we need to return to the story in Exodus to which Paul is referring. Taken together, these two passages reveal one of the most practical aspects of the new covenant: what I would call vulnerable leadership. It also identifies the opposite truth about the old covenant: invulnerable leadership, and why it tends to be the more prevailing model even among Christians today who have the freedom of the new covenant available to them.
First, let’s look at the incident Paul is referring to, and then we will find out more about its significance.
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. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. (Exodus 34:29-33)
Here we clearly have Moses coming down from Mount Sinai where he has been in the presence of God and his face is still glowing from the engagement. The brightness on his face is so bright, it makes Aaron and the people afraid, so after speaking with them about all the the Lord had instructed him on the mountain, he put a veil over his face. We are not told why he put the veil on in the Exodus passage, but the assumption of the context makes it pretty obvious that he was toning down the brightness — making it possible for him to carry on his life among the people without subjecting them to this continual flood of glory from his face.
Continuing on with the Exodus passage, however, we find out something about the ongoing pattern of Moses’ behavior, that, when combined with the new information Paul reveals in 2 Corinthians, shows us why this veil became a symbol of fear and hiding even for Moses.
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, 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. (Exodus 34:34,35)
This is a little different from the former verses. Notice the verbs indicate not just something Moses did once, but that he continued to do. Indeed, it indicates a pattern of his whole life. “Whenever he entered the Lord’s presence,” and “Moses would put the veil back over his face” indicate a way of life for Moses. Based on this, we can conclude that Moses wore the veil all the time, except for two recurring events: when he went in to speak with the Lord (which we know was once a year), and when he spoke to the people immediately after that. We can deduce from this, therefore, that the people saw the face of Moses only when it was radiant — immediately after being with the Lord — all the rest of the time, the face of Moses was veiled to them. Notice, this is not an assumption you have to stretch a little to make. It is very clear from the way the passage is worded that this was the pattern of Moses’ life.
So when we add Paul’s new information here — that instead of protecting the people from the glory on his face, he was actually protecting them from seeing that the glory didn’t last — a somewhat sinister plot emerges. Moses was basically living a lie. Since the people only saw Moses actual face when it was radiant, right after being with God, they would have assumed, quite simply, that it was bright all the time. (That was why he would only let them see his face right after he’d been with God — just to remind them how bright it was.) And yet, for most of that time, the glory had long faded away.
Notice Paul reveals he didn’t want them to see “the end of what was fading away.” Well, what was at the end of what was fading away? Moses. Plain old Moses. No brightness. No glory. Just Moses — an old guy getting older.
Now you don’t have to think too long about this to realize that the glory on the face of Moses gave him a sense of power and authority over the people. If your face was glowing like the sun when you spoke to people, they would probably listen to you. Moses was afraid that if they saw him without the glory, they would lose heart. They would think that God wasn’t with them anymore and he would lose his ability to lead them.
All I’ve had time to do, hopefully, is unpack this for you, today. The implications of this teaching are many, and the ramifications, significant. Please spend time with the questions below and over the next few days. You will see so much you haven’t already seen in your life if you do. Guaranteed. This is where this new covenant teaching starts to pick up steam.
Since the old covenant demands perfection and none of us is perfect, it will always make us cover up our inability to follow it, making us hide fearfully behind a false self we project to people that is no more than a veil over our true selves. And since the new covenant involves not trusting in ourselves anyway, we can be bold about who we are because we know Christ is in us. That is our hope.
Moses pretty much had no choice. He had to leave God on the mountain and do the best he could without Him. We have much better options. We have the Spirit of God in us. We can be unveiled and God will show up in our lives even if we aren’t perfect. This is why Paul says we don’t have to be like Moses.
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Day 9 Challenge:
Boldness is the mark of anyone trusting in the new covenant. We become bold or confident. We are open – right out front with nothing to hide. We are transparent.
Respond to one or all of the questions below:
- The reason for this transparency is:
- Have you ever had the feeling that you are not measuring up to another’s expectations or your own expectations or God’s expectations? Take some time to identify a time when you felt that you had done all that you thought God wanted yet something inside of you said, “It wasn’t enough.”
- Have you ever been a Christian who says, “My Christian life is not very exciting. I find it rather boring, kind of empty”?
- Do you think that bored Christians have spent a great deal of their lives trying to live up to what God demands and that, perhaps, it is the attempting that produces the sense of guilt and emptiness within us?
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