I want to begin with a story about Ayn Rand, or rather, my time as an avid reader of her books. This was mainly when I was a freshman in college.
First of all, let me give you an idea of who she was. Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and moved to America as a young woman. She died in 1982.
She wrote books of fiction primarily. She believed selfishness is a noble virtue. We are not each other’s keeper. It’s true only to the extent it serves our own self-interest. The same can be said of charity. Those receiving charity should be worthy of it.
Government should be as small as possible, for example, there should be no oversight for worker safety, protection of the environment, etc. That is to be left solely in private hands, to business. Also, reason alone gives direction for life. No faith, no poetic insight, no feelings should be used. To say she was no fan of the church is putting it mildly.
That is an admittedly very quick and, no doubt at some points, imprecise picture of her. Having said that, as a semi-disciple of hers, I often found myself thinking, “What would Ayn Rand do?” I was channeling my thoughts along paths she laid out. I had fenced myself in.
To show how ridiculous I had become, one day I was with some friends, eating lunch in the cafeteria. I had my copy of Atlas Shrugged, one of her best-known books. Pushing the book over to one of my companions, I only half-jokingly asked him to “read us some scripture.”
I really wasn’t ascribing some divine origin to Rand’s work (which actually would have driven her nuts), but it does show how straitjacketed my thinking had turned out to be. In a sense, I fell prey to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6). He is referring specifically to the law of Moses (at least, how it was often interpreted), but it can also apply to any rigid, freedom-restricting rules to live by.
(By the way, my infatuation with the writing of Ayn Rand began to fade about a year later. My conscience started bothering me!)
Regarding our scripture text, it’s known that Paul wrote several letters to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians, he mentions a letter he wrote previously (5:9). Then we have the letter we call 1 Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians, he speaks of a painful letter (2:3-4, 9, 7:8, 12). He wanted to address some troublesome issues in the church. The letter had a severe tone; he said he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4). And now, we have the letter known to us as 2 Corinthians.
We pick up Paul’s discussion right after he refers to the parade of “peddlers of God’s word” (2:17), preachers and teachers who have been performing with their dog and pony shows. He asks if the folks in Corinth want him and his companions to present letters of recommendation. Do they need someone to vouch for them? They should have checked out those other characters.
Paul says, “I’ll tell you who vouches for us: the Spirit of God.” He denies that they are “competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (3:5). He says they can’t take credit for anything. Everything is only due to God.
The apostle sets the stage with the glowing face of Moses, who had gone up the mountain to meet the Lord. This was when Moses received the big ten, which were literally engraved in stone. Being in the presence of God had an illuminating effect on Moses. He was beaming!
I’ll wager none of us have had that experience. We speak of someone lighting up a room when they enter. This might be taking it too far.
The people would agree with that. When Moses came down from the mountain, tablets in hand, he could tell by the reaction, the looks on people’s faces, that they were totally freaked out. Moses still didn’t know why. Was there something on his clothes? Did he smell bad?
Eventually, he figured it out. After he finished laying down the law, Moses took a veil and covered his face. When he would go inside his tent, he would remove the veil. If he had a message from the Lord, he would go outside and deliver it, and then to reduce the level of freaking out, he would replace the veil. He would cover up his shining face.
Today is the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Jesus also made a trip up the mountain, and his entire body glowed. Maybe we can see how this story of Moses is the Old Testament scripture for today. Still, Paul speaks of the shining face of Moses as a glory, to be sure, but a glory that is fading.
Scott Hoezee, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, speaks to that point of a glory fading away. “Great though the reception of the Law had been,” he says, “and wonderful though it was that Israel really was now a nation (in fulfillment of what God had promised in Genesis 12 to Abram), the fact is this was not the end of the line. This was not the end-all and be-all of God’s ultimate plans for this fallen creation.”
Paul makes a rather stark statement about the law of Moses. He labels it “the ministry of death” (v. 7). It’s not that he hates the law. It’s not like he’s saying to avoid it, or it will kill you. In another place, he speaks glowingly of it. He says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Ro 7:12).
In fact, the word translated as “law” (תּוֺרׇה, torah) could be easily rendered as “direction” or “instruction.” That fits right in with Paul’s description in Galatians as the law being a tutor or a schoolmaster, guiding us to Christ (Ga 3:24).
He’s exaggerating to point out that the law is powerless to make us righteous. It’s true: the people of Israel couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face because it was so glorious. Yet, the apostle asks, “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (v. 8).
If the term “ministry of death” was stark, we can see Paul apparently piling it on in the next few verses. His analysis, his perspective, of the people of Israel is “their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside” (v. 14). He goes even farther. “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (vv. 15-16).
It sounds like there is a Christian triumphalism going on. Those poor foolish Jews—no, those bad Jews—need to be taken in hand. Certainly, that’s one way this has been interpreted. And when the Jewish people have been taken in hand, it has rarely been a tender hand! So, I would be delinquent if I didn’t address how this passage has been misused through the centuries.
A veil lies over our minds if we fall into an anti-Jewish reading of the text. It’s not unlike the veil I placed on my mind by blindly following the nonsense of Ayn Rand. (With apologies to Ayn Rand fans!)
Back to Paul’s point in bringing this up, he had the perfect example of removing the veil, of having one’s eyes opened—himself! On the road to Damascus, he literally saw the light. His startling and dramatic language (some might say overly dramatic) is meant to highlight the awesomely dramatic difference between the law and Christ.
Our friend Scott Hoezee applies this to us. “The only reason you keep looking to the Law as the source of your salvation is because your heart still has a veil over it—you’re not seeing clearly.” Can we see how we allow Law to govern us? We follow a method. We have some strict and inflexible guidelines as we run through the maze of life, like rats in a lab.
God wants to unlock us.
We are reminded that “far from having to then turn back to our own sorry reflections in the mirror only to be reminded how far short we fall of the glory of God in our own lives—the glory of Christ is contagious!” I want that contagion to infect me. I don’t want my immune system to protect me from that contagious glory.
The apostle encourages us, saying, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 18).
“From one degree of glory to another.” To experience ever-increasing glory: only unlocked and unveiled children of God can enjoy that privilege. Only they can enjoy that grace.
A few moments ago, I said how I would be delinquent if I didn’t acknowledge the ways in which our scripture has been twisted to stir up hostility toward the Jewish people. As I’ve sometimes noted, events happen that just can’t be ignored. The Russian invasion of Ukraine with its sadness and horror is one of those events.
Paul has spoken of minds being veiled, minds being hardened. He has spoken of the ministry of death. I dare say those have been on vivid and terrifying display these past days.
Ultimately, however, what we have seen is a demonstration of cowardice. Vladimir Putin’s choices are not an exhibition of strength of spirit, but rather a weakness of character.
Clearly, he isn’t alone on the world stage in choosing to follow a Law that enslaves, a letter that kills. He isn’t alone in that among the entire human race. I know none of us is plotting the invasion of another country! Still, at some level, as said before, God wants to unlock us. We are in need of that holy contagion; we need to be infected with the glory of Christ. The Lord gives us the ability to be of service to each other, not of laying down oppressive rules, but of turning to Christ, who sets the captives free.
We can take heart, knowing that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (v. 17).