Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36
This morning we are talking about two veils. Moses used one to cover his face, and Paul says that the same veil, or one very much like it, now covers the minds of many. Let me explain.
In Exodus 34, Moses came down from Mount Sinai, and the people of Israel were afraid to come near him, for Moses had been talking with God and his face shone with God’s glory. So, because the people were afraid, Moses covered his face with a veil. Thereafter, in the presence of the glory of the LORD, Moses removed the veil; but in the presence of the people, he put the veil on his face again. The text is clear: Moses covered his face so the people would not be frightened.
In 2nd Corinthians 5, St. Paul says something that the text of Exodus 34 does not. Paul says that Moses put a veil on his face in the presence of the people because he did not want them to see “the fading splendor,” (RSV) meaning the fading splendor of his face, and the fading splendor of the Mosaic dispensation or time. Paul used the story of Moses and the veil to explain why most of the people of Israel continued to reject Jesus. He says that when those who reject Jesus hear the Hebrew Bible read, the same veil that once covered the face of Moses now lies across their minds. Thus, for them, nothing has changed, and they read the Law as they have since the time of Moses. Paul says this will not change until the veil is lifted, and the veil will not be lifted until they turn to the Lord, for it is only the Spirit of the Lord who can remove the veil.
Now, this text is a perfect window into what theologians call Paul’s “Biblical Hermeneutic,” or Paul’s method of reading and interpreting the Scripture of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, which, of course, was the only Bible that Paul ever had. (He often used it in the Greek Translation, The LXX.) So, what is Paul’s Biblical Hermeneutic? Simple, Paul, guided by the Spirit of the Lord, i.e., the Holy Spirit, read the Hebrew Bible in the light of Jesus Christ. In Philippians 3, St. Paul says that he once interpreted the Law as a “Pharisee. “That was only until the Lord Jesus removed the veil from his mind. Thereafter he read and interpreted the Bible as a follower of Jesus whom he regarded as “the Son of God,” i.e., “God’s Messiah,” i.e., “God’s Christ.” Paul’s letters are filled with instances of this.
Nine times in the epistles associated with his name, Paul refers to the power of blood to atone for our sins. Unlike Moses, Paul is not concerned with the blood of sheep and goats but with the blood of Christ. Paul says that God put Christ forward as an atonement (at-one-ment) for our sins. In Christ, we have at-one-ment with God. Why? Because as Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture.”
In Galatians 3, Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.” In saying this, Paul cites Deuteronomy 21. Therein we read, “a hanged man is accursed by God.” Moses meant that any man hanged on a tree was accursed. Paul applies the words of Moses specifically to Jesus. It is he who has born the curse for us all.
In Romans 4, Paul says that Father Abraham was not just the patriarch of Israel but also “the father of all who have faith in Jesus.” This is important to Paul because when Abraham “believed God” and God counted his faith as righteous, it was before Moses gave the Law, not after. Thus, in Paul’s thinking, faith has always been primary and the Law always secondary.
And what about circumcision? In the Hebrew Bible, male circumcision is a big deal. It is the sign and seal of the covenant between God and Israel. According to Exodus 4, circumcision is so important to God that God tried to kill Moses the Lawgiver because he had not circumcised his own son. In that story, Moses is saved only when his wife, Zipporah, circumcises their son. According to Philippians 3, Paul himself was “circumcised on the eighth day.” Yet, now, because he reads the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus Christ, Paul plays down circumcision. In Galatians 3, he says, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation (in Christ) is everything!” And in Romans 2, he says, “…real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.”
And what about the Law itself? Moses taught that the Law was the path of salvation. Paul says in Galatians 3 that the Law was just a schoolmaster (RSV) or custodian (NRSV) until Christ came, that we might be justified, not by works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. And in Romans 7, Paul says that we who follow Jesus in faith are dead to the Law and “serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”
It is clear from all these texts that Paul read the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus Christ. Now, we might ask if the other apostles and disciples of Jesus did likewise?
According to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus which appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they did. Luke tells us that Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up a mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed—it shone (Matthew 17:2), and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, the disciples saw two men talking with Jesus. They somehow recognized the men as Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. The text says that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. In other words, Lawgiver, and the Prophet, both talked to God’s Son, the Messiah, the Christ, about the death he was to die in Jerusalem at the hands of sinful people. And you know the rest of the story, how a cloud covered the Mountain, and out of the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And after the voice had spoken, the cloud dispersed, and the disciples saw Jesus, alone. Thus, the story of the transfiguration introduces a hermeneutic similar to Paul’s, for Jesus is seen to be superior to both the Law and the Prophets. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him?”
Now, what does all this mean to us? It means that we too should read not just the New Testament but also the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, in the light of Jesus Christ. This is important, for both testaments of the Bible contain things that are pre-Christ, meaning that they were temporary and lasted only until Christ came, and sub-Christ, meaning that they do not measure up to him.
Some things in the Hebrew Bible were temporary. They belong to the dispensation of Moses and the Law but not to the dispensation of Jesus and the Gospel of Grace. For example, the laws that governed the sacrifice of animals and other temple rituals were temporary. According to Hebrews 10, Christ put an end to the sacrificial system when he entered the holy of holies, once for all, made “a single sacrifice for sin, and then sat down at the right hand of God.” Likewise, the laws of commandments in ordinances that once set Israel apart from the gentile nations were temporary. In Ephesians 2, we read that Jesus did away with these commandments in ordinances and the barrier they created between Jews and Gentiles:
“(Jesus abolished in his flesh) the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity (the church) in place of the two (Jew and Gentile), thus making peace, as he reconciled both groups to God in one body through the cross.”
Some things in the Hebrew Bible were pre-Christ and they passed away or received new meaning after him coming.
Other things in the Hebrew Bible are sub-Christ, meaning they do not measure up to him, and never will. We might mention the idea of selling our daughters into slavery, of stoning to death those who are caught in adultery and disobedient sons, and of barring children born outside of marriage from participating in worship for ten generations, and dozens of other things besides.
Because of the time-conditioned nature of Scripture, even certain things in the New Testament are sub-Christ. Two obvious and seldom contested (at least by Moravians) examples are the subordination of women and slavery. In 1st Corinthians 14, Paul commands women to keep silent in the churches and remain subordinate to men. With some few exceptions, this command has kept some very capable women in service to some less than capable men for almost 2,000 years, and denied church and society much of our available leadership. And in Ephesians 6, the apostle commands slaves “to be obedient to their earthly masters as to the Lord.” At the very least, the literal interpretation of this text provided the institution of American slavery a Biblical foundation that allowed it to last about 250 years and then gave rise to a racial struggle that continues even today. Paul knew better. In Galatians 3:28, he writes:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek (no race difference), there is neither slave nor free (no economic status and power difference), there is neither male nor female (no sex difference); for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
That single verse is the very foundation of equality among all people. It is a shame that the disciples did not immediately establish this rule. Of course, if they had, the Roman Empire might have crushed the infant church before it got started.
So, where does this hermeneutic leave us today? It leaves us divided. On the one hand, there are those who still try to live by the letter of Scripture and treat all texts as equal. This issues in the fundamentalism of the fearful. On the other hand, there are those, like Paul and the other disciples, who serve not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit. They read the Bible in light of Jesus Christ, and this gives them wonderful freedom and opens up a world of possibilities.
Jesus himself demonstrated this freedom in Matthew 22:40 when he taught that the essential part of all the Law and the Prophets, meaning all the Hebrew Bible, was built upon and could be reduced to just two commandments. He found both in the Law of Moses. He said that the first and greatest commandment was to love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength. He said that a second was like the first, that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The Ancient Moravian Unity demonstrated similar freedom when applying the same kind of “summary” to the New Testament. It summed up the message of all 27 books of the New Testament when it said that the One Essential was “a heart relationship with the Triune God, who has revealed God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that issues in faith, love, and hope.” (Summary my own). The Eight Essentials of the 19th Century Moravian Church and The Ground of the Unity of the 20th Century Moravian Church affirmed the same summary, albeit using more words. Today, The Ground of the Unity applies a logic similar to that of the Ancient Unity when it says, “The Unitas Fratrum recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel.”
Ultimately, the way one interprets Scripture is up to the reader. Do we want to live under the Law or Grace? Do we want to read the Bible like the disciples of Moses? Or do we want to read the Bible like the disciples of Jesus, including Matthew, Mark, Luke, Peter, John, James, and Paul, to name a few? I long ago made my decision. I follow just three rules in reading Scripture.
- I read the Bible in light of Jesus Christ. I don’t believe in Jesus for the sake of the Bible, I believe in the Bible for the sake of Jesus, and that changes everything. By reading the Bible in light of Jesus Christ I am able to trust the Bible, read it critically, as I would any other book, and follow it where it leads, knowing it will always lead back to him.
- I read the Bible, holding the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. Or perhaps I ought to say, I read the Bible in one window of my computer while I keep Google search ready in a second window. Some people say that the Bible is enough. They say that the Bible is the truth and everything else, including all science, is a half-truth or a lie. In saying this, they ignore the witness of the Bible itself. The Bible teaches that we should pay attention not just to the Special Revelation, which reaches its apex in Jesus Christ, but also to the Natural Revelation, which we get at through science as we sit with humility at the feet of the facts. This is the point of Psalm 19, wherein “the heavens are telling the glory of God,” and it is the point of Romans 1, wherein Paul teaches that ever since the beginning of creation God’s invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. That statement is still absolutely true, though we should note that St. Paul read the book of nature with 1st-century eyes and understanding, and we must read the book of nature with 21st-century eyes and understanding. here is a huge difference, for our understanding of the Natural Revelation has been and is constantly growing. This truth is at the heart of the debate about homosexuality.
- I read the Bible in the continuing community of the church. I look to the wisdom of the church in all ages as eagerly as I look to the wisdom of science, and I weigh both with the best understanding I can muster. In doing theology as part of the church, I know that we will not always agree on what the Bible says. Some people and some churches regard themselves as saviors of a disappearing world. They feel that they must hold fast to tradition against an onslaught of change. Other people and churches regard themselves as living from the future that is coming to us in Jesus Christ. They become “early truth-tellers.” I often remind myself that both groups are a part of the church and that both groups should show one another respect, as we do our best to read Scripture together, in light of Jesus Christ, and under the direction of the Spirit of the Lord. For He alone can lift the veil as we approach the Bible and ask: a) What did the original writer say to the original reader? And b) What does God now say to me, to us?
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.