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By Peter Johnson, University of Dallas
Christianity is a beautifully concrete religion. For all the glories and riches bestowed on man in the Christian dispensation, God’s grace is not abstract; it is “ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ,” says St. Paul (2 Cor. 4:6). An Incarnational interplay, therefore, between suffering and glory forms a central focus in Paul’s words about his ministry in 2 Corinthians. This becomes particularly clear when Paul contrasts his ministry with that of Moses in the third chapter of this epistle and the beginning of the fourth. By showing the limitations of the Mosaic revelation, Paul reveals to Christians the glory that has been given to them in Christ, and he sums up his teaching succinctly in the following verse: “ὅτι ὁ θεὸς ὁ εἰπών· Ἐκ σκότους φῶς λάμψει, ὃς ἔλαμψεν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν πρὸς φωτισμὸν τῆς γνώσεως τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6). Paul drives his point home here by showing a Christian amplification and fulfillment of arguably three Old Testament passages—namely, Genesis 1:3, Isaiah 9:1, and Exodus 34:29 (cf. Matera 104). By employing these Old Testament allusions in this verse, Paul tells the Corinthians and us that God recreates man in Christ in order that man might impart this gift of recreation to others precisely by participating in Christ’s suffering and glory.
The most clear Old Testament allusion in this verse is Genesis 1:3 (New American Bible, Revised Edition): “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light,” by which Paul indicates a recreation of man in Christ (5:17). Although this is “not a direct quotation” of the Septuagint’s translation of Genesis, which has “γενηθήτω φῶς” (Matera 104), the reference here to God’s speaking by the participle “εἰπών” and the use of the future verb “λάμψει” to indicate a command that “φῶς” be brought forth makes the connection between 2 Cor. 4:6 and Gen. 1:3 abundantly clear. This connection establishes Paul’s claim here and later on that Christ brings about a recreation of the human person: “εἴ τις ἐν Χριστῷ, καινὴ κτίσις· τὰ ἀρχαῖα παρῆλθεν, ἰδοὺ γέγονεν καινά” (2 Cor. 5:17). God’s act of λάμπων “ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν” in 4:6 is a reenactment of the original act of creation, but it is a reenactment which brings about a newness through Christ (5:17). This renewed act of creation is characterized by light, and precisely by that light which is itself the δόξα “τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6). The “καινὴ κτίσις,” then, is the result of participation “ἐν Χριστῷ” (5:17). To be one with Christ, therefore, is to be recreated, and to be recreated is to be illumined by Christ. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, through the Incarnation, “our nature regained its unbroken character, becoming immortal through the letters written by his finger,” namely by the “Holy Spirit” (111). Christ restores man and simultaneously creates him anew.
But the very imprecision of this Old Testament allusion in 4:6 opens up another avenue of interpretation—that of the prediction of the Messiah in Isaiah 9:1-6, which some consider to be what Paul actually has in mind here (cf. Matera 104; Lambrecht 66, 69). In particular, the phrase “Ἐκ σκότους” stands out, since Genesis 1:3 refers only directly to light and indirectly to darkness, while Isaiah 9:1 contains direct references to both darkness and light: “The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / Upon those who lived in a land of gloom / a light has shone” (cf. Matera 104). Such a contrast between light and darkness also sets up Paul’s contrast between those Christians recreated in the light of Christ and those whom “ὁ θεός τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου ἐτυφλωσεν” (4:4), since the light of “τῆς γνώσεως τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6) is precisely that which separates the Christian from those under the imposed blindness of “ὁ θεός τοῦ αἰῶνος” (4:4; Matera 101-102). In other words, it is because “a child is born to us, a son is given to us” (Isa. 9:5) that the people “in darkness” receive light (9:1). The coming of the Messiah, the Son’s Incarnation, heralds this redemption of those who seemed to be lost.
This reference to the Messiah points towards God’s δόξα “ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (2 Cor. 4:6), whose splendor Paul sets above the glory on Moses’ face (cf. 3:7, 13). The mention of Christ’s face here points back to the preceding chapter, in which Paul contrasts the “ἡ διακονία τοῦ πνεύματος” (3:8), the Christian dispensation, from the “ἡ διακονία τοῦ θανάτου,” the Mosaic one (3:7). For in the Mosaic dispensation, the Israelites could not look on “τὸ πρόσωπον Μωϋσέως διὰ τὴν δόξαν τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ τὴν καταργουμένην” (3:7). Here Paul refers to the scene in Exodus in which Moses returns from Mount Sinai but does “not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he spoke with the LORD” (34:29), and, from then on, he “put[s] a veil over his face” while with the Israelites (34:33), until he returns to “the presence of the LORD to speak with him” (34:34). But, while Moses is obviously given a stupendous gift by his conversation with God, Paul says that this gift “is in the process of being abolished” (Matera 83). Through repeated use of phrases like “πῶς οὐχὶ μᾶλλον” (3:8) and “πολλῷ μᾶλλον” (3:9, 11), he gives a “qal wahomer” (Matera 89, cf. 83) argument, setting the Christian revelation far beyond even Moses’s glory, by showing how it surpasses what was given by Moses. For the δόξα “τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6) remains (3:11), while Moses’ glory passes away (cf. Matera 89).
Yet Paul means not to diminish Moses’ glory, which is real and sublime, but instead to show how marvelous is that glory on Christ’s face (cf. 86). For Paul says the Israelites could not take in the radiance of Moses’ face “διὰ τὴν δόξαν” (3:7), and he calls Moses’ διακονία “τῆς κατακρίσεως δόξα,” a ministry which comes “διὰ δόξης” (3:8, 11, my italics; cf. Matera 86). There is, then, an actual glory from God; it is not anything worthless, and Gregory of Nyssa drives this point home when describing Moses’ face to face conversation with God (Ex. 33:11; cf. Nyssa 111). Nyssa describes the glory Moses experiences as an ascent of desire: “Moses, as he was becoming ever greater [through desire], at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course” (113). Since Moses wants “to enjoy the Beauty” (114), and since Beauty is the infinite God (115), he is “unsatisfied in his desire for more” and “still thirsts for that within which he constantly filled himself to capacity” (114). Moses’ encounter with God does not slake his thirst for God but increases it to such a degree that he wants to experience God’s glory as God experiences himself (116). This glory, eliciting an ever-growing desire for the beauty of God, is the reason why Moses’ face cannot be seen unveiled by the Israelites (3:7). In contrasting the dispensations of the Old and New Covenants, then, Paul does not mean to dismiss the good bestowed on Moses. He intends to amplify the Christian mystery all the more, based on how glorious the Mosaic dispensation was.
According to Paul, even with all the glories had by Moses, his glory is meant to point to the glory of Christ. This becomes clear when Paul says that “Μωϋσῆς ἐτίθει κάλυμμα ἐπὶ τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ, πρὸς τὸ μὴ ἀτενίσαι τοὺς υἱοὺς Ἰσραὴλ εἰς τὸ τέλος τοῦ καταργουμένου” (3:13). By not wanting the Israelites to see the “τὸ τέλος τοῦ καταργουμένου,” Paul suggests that, because “Moses knew that his ministry was to be abolished,” he “seeks to prevent the Israelites from gazing on the ‘end’ (telos) of what is being abolished. Otherwise they will gaze on veiled glory … rather than on the unveiled glory of the gospel….” (Matera 92). In other words, Moses glory passes away, not because of any evil latent within it, but because it is ordered to setting the stage for the Gospel, towards eventual unveiling. The veiled-ness of Moses’ ministry creates a path toward Christ.
For this reason, a primary characteristic of the Christian dispensation is that each Christian has a transforming and unveiled face-to-face encounter with Christ. By faith in Christ, says Paul, “ἡνίκα … ἐὰν ἐπιστρέψῃ πρὸς κύριον, περιαιρεῖται τὸ κάλυμμα” (3:16). There is no veil for him who believes in Christ. Therefore, “ἡμεῖς δὲ πάντες ἀνακεκαλυμμένῳ προσώπῳ τὴν δόξαν κυρίου κατοπτριζόμενοι τὴν αὐτὴν εἰκόνα μεταμορφούμεθα ἀπὸ δόξης εἰς δόξαν, καθάπερ ἀπὸ κυρίου πνεύματος” (3:18). The one who converts to Christ, to the Lord, “sees the glory of the Lord as did Moses when he entered the tent of meeting with his face unveiled” (Matera 95). The Christian follows in the steps of Moses to see God face-to-face, to see the transforming glory of God, since by “‘contemplating’” “τὴν δόξαν κυρίου … μεταμορφούμεθα ἀπὸ δόξης εἰς δόξαν” (3:18; Matera 96). However, the face that the Christian sees is not a purely spiritual vision, but is Christ’s own face. The Christian’s act of seeing God’s glory “ἀνακεκαλυμμένῳ προσώπῳ” (3:18) is an act of seeing the δόξα “τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6, my italics), who transforms him and recreates him ἀπὸ δόξης εἰς δόξαν” (3:18), as argued above (5:17). This is a spelling-out of what it means to be a “καινὴ κτίσις” in Christ (5:17). When the Christian encounters the face of Christ, then, he is lifted up to glory, even beyond that of Moses (cf. Matera 97).
A further explication of this theme lies in the only other direct reference to Christ’s πρόσωπον in the New Testament—the Transfiguration. When Christ takes Peter, James, and John to Mt. Tabor, “μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος” (Mt. 17:2; cf. Lk. 9:29). Here, there is not only a specific reference to the πρόσωπον of Christ, as is found in 2 Cor. 4:6, but also the same verb—ἔλαμψεν—is used to denote the action associated with that πρόσωπον. In Mt. 17:2, it is Christ’s πρόσωπον that shines; in 2 Cor. 4:6, it is God who ἔλαμψεν in the hearts of believers, yet this action is also ordered to seeing the δόξα “τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6). In both cases, Christ’s face is associated with light, particularly a light comparable to the blinding splendor of the “ἥλιος,” and with transformation of some sort (Mt. 17:2). It is particularly beautiful that the only times the New Testament describes Christ’s face hone in on the brilliant light that shines out from him, a light that cannot leave one unchanged. Paul and the Evangelists could not but make it clear to the Church that, truly, Christ is “the most handsome of men” (Ps. 45:2; cf. Ratzinger, “Wounded” 32-33). His radiance cannot but change the Christian “ἀπὸ δόξης εἰς δόξαν, καθάπερ ἀπὸ κυρίου πνεύματος” (3:18).
But this radiance is a light that shines in weakness and misery. For there is one vitally important foreshadowing of Christ’s face in the Old Testament to consider: The Suffering Servant. Deutero-Isaiah writes: “[S]o marred were his features, / beyond that of mortals / his appearance, beyond that of human beings” (52:14). This servant “had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, / no beauty to draw us to him” (53:2). The servant, whom Christians associate with Christ, is described as so disfigured from his sufferings that “we held him in no esteem” (53:3). This must, however, be taken in conjunction with what has been said about the glory of Christ’s face (cf. Ratzinger, “Wounded” 32-33). The implication of this is that the resplendence of Christ’s face is a resplendence that shines by suffering for the people. By taking on our sorrows and sins (cf. Isa 53:4-6), the light of Christ’s face is not extinguished but shines through these, for his “Love is strong as Death” (Song of Songs 8:6). The glory of Christ’s appearance is not divorced from but intimately tied to the pains and woes of the human condition.
This dynamic between light and misery on Christ’s face carries over into Paul’s own ministry. Right before speaking of God’s act of illumining Christian hearts to see the glory on Christ’s face, Paul says, “οὐ γὰρ ἑαυτοὺς κηρύσσομεν ἀλλὰ Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν κύριον, ἑαυτοὺς δὲ δούλους ὑμῶν διὰ Ἰησοῦν” (2 Cor. 4:5). While preaching the glories of Christ, Paul himself enters into suffering, since in Paul’s typical language, “‘Christ’ traditionally refers to Jesus who died and is risen, and ‘Lord’ to Jesus as the exalted one, actually living and reigning” (Lambrecht 66). In short, he preaches Christ by being a servant like him (cf. Phil. 2:7). He sets himself aside as he holds forth the splendor of the risen Lord. This manifests itself concretely in the following verse: “Ἔχομεν δὲ τὸν θησαυρὸν τοῦτον ἐν ὀστρακίνοις σκεύεσιν, ἵνα ἡ ὑπερβολὴ τῆς δυνάμεως ᾖ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ μὴ ἐξ ἡμῶν” (2 Cor. 4:7). The θησαυρός of the δόξα “τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6) is contained in Paul’s own lowliness. This glory permeates his weakness, “ἡ γάρ δύναμις ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ τελεῖται” (12:9)
Consequently, it is by suffering for the Corinthians that Paul brings the glory of Christ to them, and, as it were, becomes the face of Christ for them (cf. Matera 105). After describing all the hardships he has undergone in his ministry, he says “πάντοτε τὴν νέκρωσιν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐν τῷ σώματι περιφέροντες, ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐν τῷ σώματι ἡμῶν φανερωθῇ·… ὥστε ὁ θάνατος ἐν ἡμῖν ἐνεργεῖται, ἡ δὲ ζωὴ ἐν ὑμῖν” (2 Cor. 4:10, 12). In suffering for them, much as the suffering servant does for the people, Paul’s own suffering, even his own “θάνατος” (4:12), becomes a manifestation of “ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ” in the Corinthians (4:10). Paul is, in a sense, an image of Christ for the Corinthians, and in his own σῶμα (4:10) he participates in the dialectic of light and weakness in Christ’s face, inasmuch as “Paul’s sufferings assimilate him to Jesus and enable him to demonstrate the authentic humanity that Christ embodied” (Murphy-O’Connor 50:20). For this reason, Paul can call himself and his fellow companions the “Χριστοῦ εὐωδία … τῷ θεῷ ἐν τοῖς σῳζομένοις καὶ τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις” (2:15). Paul participates in Christ’s own work and is thereby the one who facilitates the Corinthians’ encounter with Christ. Therefore, “Paul is not discouraged, for as people ‘hear’ the gospel of the glory of Christ, they ‘see’ God’s glory on the face of Christ” (Matera 105). There is, then, a real concreteness of the δόξα “τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6) in Paul’s very ministry. By mirroring the action of Christ crucified and risen, he becomes, in a very real sense, Christ for the Corinthians. When they encounter Paul’s suffering and ministry, they can discern the δόξα. For the Corinthians—and, by extension, for every reader of his letter—Paul is himself the face of Christ.
For this reason, Paul can be a source of παράκλησις to the Corinthians, relating back to Paul’s initial theme in this letter of of comfort and encouragement (1:3-7). Paul begins his letter by saying that “ὁ πατὴρ τῶν οἰκτριμῶν καὶ θεὸς πάσης παρακλήσεως” (1:3) comforts us in our distress “εἰς τὸ δύνασθαι ἡμᾶς παρακαλεῖν τοὺς ἐν πάσῃ θλίψει διὰ τῆς παρακλήσεως ἧς παρακαλούμεθα αὐτοὶ ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ” (1:4). The consolation and encouragement that God gives to those in suffering overflows, so that those whom God consoles can share that very consolation with others and thereby become God to them. This, as seen above, is the very structure of Paul’s ministry, as presented in 2 Cor. 4:6. For, as some maintain, this verse is a reflection of Paul’s understanding of his conversion and ministry (Lambrecht 69; Matera 104). For, on the one hand, the “ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν” in 2 Cor. 4:6 parallels God’s act of revealing Christ “ἐν ἐμοὶ” (Gal. 1:16), in Paul, and, on the other, God’s act in 2 Cor. 4:6 is an act of light, just as Paul’s conversion is itself associated with “φῶς” (Acts 9:3; cf. Lambrecht 69; Matera 104). Thus, Paul’s repentance and turn to faith in Christ spills over. Because God has shone in his heart (4:6), he can be one who stands in for God, as it were, by brining Christ to the Corinthians and by imploring “ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάγητε τῷ θεῷ” (5:20). To be the face of Christ means, for Paul, that his own conversion and sufferings and ministry be ordered towards bringing about faith in the Corinthians.
This is in accordance with the implications of the allusions to Genesis and Isaiah discussed earlier. The references to Creation, to the coming of the Messiah, and to contrast with Moses’ veiled face all tie together in 2 Cor 4:6 to yield a beautiful reflection on Paul’s work. For the act of recreation, of God’s calling of light from the darkness to effect a “καινὴ κτίσις” (5:17), is meant to bring this light to those who do not yet believe or who lie in “a land of gloom,” to be an image of Christ to such people (Isa. 9:1). This recreation and illumination “ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν,” in those who have come to faith in Christ (4:6; cf. Lambrecht 69), brings those outside the faith “πρὸς φωτισμὸν τῆς γνώσεως τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ” (4:6). But this transforming light, though unveiled and superior to that found in the Mosaic dispensation, is not a matter of abstract spiritual experience. It is a vision, as shown above, of Christ’s face: radiant and disfigured. The vision of Christ—the Messiah—predicted by Isaiah 9:1 and fulfilling the prophecy of the Suffering Servant, brings about a “καινὴ κτίσις” (5:17) and a glory far beyond that of Moses, by the concrete, mediatory work of men like Paul. Paul, in a sense, enters the “a land of gloom” (Isa. 9:1), imitating Christ, and allows the face of Christ to be seen there.
In one masterful flourish, then, Paul employs three Old Testament allusions to make known the nature of his ministry and of Christian faith. The references to Genesis 1:3, Isaiah 9:1, and Exodus 34:29 all converge ultimately into an understanding of what it means to see Christ’s face. They show that, ever since the Incarnation, “man’s search for the face of God has become more concrete: it consists in the encounter with Christ, in friendship with him who no longer calls us servants but friends (Jn. 15:15)” (Ratzinger, “The Face of Christ” 26). The glory that Moses had in speaking to God face-to-face is surpassed by that of Christians, who become transformed by seeing the face of Christ, the face which becomes discernible through those who participate in and imitate Christ’s own work (cf. Matera 105). This glory, then, though far higher than what could ever be imagined in the Mosaic covenant, is, in a sense, much more concrete. It becomes visible “ἐν ὀστρακίνοις σκεύεσιν,” and not despite them, because this is the dynamic of Christ (2 Cor. 4:7). The disfigured radiance of Christ’s face shines in those who strive to bring this light to others.
Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses. Transl. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. Paulist, 1978.
Lambrecht, Jan. Second Corinthians. Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 8. Ed. Daniel J. Harrington. The Liturgical Press, 1998. pp. 64-71
Matera, Frank J. II Corinthians: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. pp. 76-105.
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Raymond E. Brown, et al. Prentice Hall, 1968. 50:18-20.
Ratzinger, Joseph. “The Face of Christ in Sacred Scripture,” “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty: The Cross and the New ‘Aesthetics’ of Faith,” On the Way to Jesus Christ. Transl. Michael J. Miller. Ignatius, 2005.
New American Bible, Revised Edition. Edited by Carolyn Osiek. Anselm Academic, 2015.
Novum Testamentum Graece. Ed. Nestle-Aland. 28th Revised Edition. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012.