Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. – 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 ESV
In this chapter, Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of condemnation, or the law, and the ministry of righteousness, or that of the Spirit. In doing so he refers back to the occasion when Moses received the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God. Over in the Book of Exodus we read, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30 ESV). As a result of his time spent in the presence of God, Moses walked away physically changed. He literally glowed. And it was so disconcerting that the people were afraid to come near him. So Moses solved the problem by wearing a veil over his face. Every time he met with God, he took the veil off. When he returned to the people, he would put it back on. But Paul tells us the veil became a replacement for the real thing. He kept wearing the veil even long after the glory had faded. “We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away” (2 Corinthians 3:13 NLT). Verse seven says that glory “was being brought to an end.” It was temporary, not permanent. Just as the ministry of the law was meant to be temporary and not permanent. The law couldn’t save. It could only reveal man’s desperate need for a Savior. It could provide a standard by which man was to live, but no means to do so. Which is why Paul wrote, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT).
The writer of Hebrews echoes this same sentiment. “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship” (Hebrews 10:1 NLT). The former glory of the law, revealing the righteousness of God to man, has been surpassed or superseded by the glory of God as revealed through the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for men to live righteously. We are no longer reliant on human effort alone in our attempt to please God. We enjoy the surpassing glory of God’s indwelling Spirit. Ours is not some kind of external glow like Moses had. Long after the glow began to fade from his face, Moses was still putting on the veil. He was wearing a mask. The glory he experienced was impermanent. But ours is lasting. Our salvation is assured. The Holy Spirit’s presence in us is permanent. And none of it is based on works or human effort. It is solely, completely dependent upon faith. “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Romans 1:17 NLT).
The law couldn’t save. It could only condemn. And yet, it was considered glorious. It came directly from the hand of God. And Moses, the one who received it from God, was so impacted by it all, that he glowed. He carried the glory of God in his hands and on his face. But that glory was never meant to last. Referring to laws concerning food, festivals, holy days and Sabbaths, Paul wrote, “For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality” (Colossians 2:17 NLT). He goes on to say, “So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:20-23 NLT). The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is a surpassing glory. It’s internal, not external. It’s permanent, not temporary. It’s a sure thing, not a shadow. God has written His message of righteousness, “not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3 ESV). We have the capacity to live, think, and act like Christ. We aren’t stuck trying to live righteously on our own. We have the Spirit of God empowering us to live like the Son of God. Which is why Paul can say, “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT).