In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul considers the significant and awesome changes that Jesus’ followers experience because of their relationship with the risen Messiah. “We are being transformed (metamorphoumetha)!” Paul exhalts. This present reality enables believers to enjoy in their current situation elements of their future, anticipated total makeover. Paul uses the word “glory” (doxa), i.e. radiant splendour, to describe the essence of God’s character that believers currently exhibit. God reveals his glory in the face of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6). Perhaps borrowing language from the creation account in Genesis 1-2 he indicates that “the same image” (eikona) that God possesses is being revealed in his followers.
The biblical background to Paul’s comments here is the experience of Moses narrated in Exodus 33-34. Because of his direct interaction with God when He inscribed the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets, some of God’s radiant splendour transferred to Moses. He was unaware of this and when he descended from Mount Sinai, the text says that his face shone to such an extent that the Israelites were afraid to approach him. This radiance persisted for so long as Moses “entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him” (Exodus 34:34). In between these occasions Moses veiled his face. Moses’ special relationship with God and his role as God’s spokesperson resulted in this reflection of divine radiance in his face.
Paul’s point in drawing attention to this story in Israel’s history is to argue for the superiority of the new covenant made by the Messiah. Now every follower of the Messiah reflects God’s glory – not just singular individuals such as Moses. The presence of God’s Spirit in the life of the believer generates this remarkable transformation. Contrary to Moses, God expects the Messiah’s followers to give constant expression to this transferred glory so that all might see and be drawn into relationship with Him. It is at this point that Paul used the participle katoptrizomenoi to describe metaphorically how God’s glory is revealed to and by believers.
Let’s consider the meaning of this verb (katoptrizomenoi), which only occurs here in the New Testament. The syntax indicates that in this verse this verbal form defines more carefully some aspect of of the main verb — our current transformation “from glory to glory.” Both the participle and the main verb are in the present tense indicating that “being transformed” is currently happening and the activity expressed through katoptrizomenoi is occurring at the same time as the main verb, with perhaps a sense that it is ongoing. Our personal transformation by God as believers is occurring as this mirror activity, whatever its precise nature, occurs. The transformation may be said to depend upon, be caused by, or result from this mirror activity. The exact nuance will depend upon contextual elements in 2 Corinthians 3.
The verb form katoptrizomenoi is cognate with the noun katoptron, which means “a mirror.” The verb does not occur very frequently. Philo (a contemporary of Paul) used the noun frequently, but the verb only once. In that singular context, he is commenting upon how humans gain knowledge of God from his creative work. However, God did something special through Moses, so that Moses apprehended God directly. He asked God to reveal himself (Exodus 33:13) and God agreed. Moses desired direct knowledge of God and God graciously granted him his desire. Philo observes that Moses wanted to discern the reflection (katoptrisaimēn) of God’s person, not just indirectly in created things, but directly in the Uncreated One.1 He wanted to see the direct mirror image of God, not the image of God reflected indirectly through the mirror of what God had created. Whether Paul was aware of Philo’s commentary or similar Jewish speculation about God’s appearance to Moses is a matter of conjecture, but it is interesting that Philo, and then Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, use this rather rare verb in contexts that discuss Moses’ interaction with God. Both writers used the verb in the sense of seeing a reflection in a mirror.
What believers “see in the mirror” (katoptrizomenoi) is nothing less than “the glory of the Lord” (3:18). But what is the mirror? In the case of Israel, the mirror that reflects God’s glory is the face of Moses. In the case of Christians, the original mirror is Jesus Messiah. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, we see the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Because Jesus is God’s son, God’s glory is mirrored through him more completely, more perfectly, than in the case of Moses. The quality of Jesus’ person, i.e. God in human form, enables God’s glory to be perceived more directly.
The Jewish author of the Wisdom of Solomon, writing in the late second century BC, employed similar language to describe Wisdom.
She is an exhalation from the power of God,
A pure effluence from the glory of the Almighty;
Therefore nothing tainted insinuates itself into her.
She is an effulgence of everlasting light,
An unblemished mirror of the active power of God
And an image of his goodness. (7:25-26)
One his five images defining the relationship of Wisdom to God is that of “an unblemished mirror.” Wisdom is God’s agent of creation and the one who sustains creation. As people discern wisdom, they also discern God. Similar language is used to describe Jesus in Hebrews 1:1-3.
Today people observe God’s glory in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its lively expression in his followers who are empowered by his Spirit. The ability to appreciate fully the knowledge of God in Jesus depends upon heart attitude. Sin places blinders on people and so they do not see God in Jesus. It takes the work of God’s Spirit to remove that veil so that we can respond to God’s personal revelation in Jesus. When this happens and we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Saviour revealed in the mirror of the Gospel, God’s Spirit takes up residence within us. We then have the capacity to mirror the glory of God too, because we are being transformed from our current glory as God’s human creations, into the glory that we will have as God’s re-created, resurrected people.
Paul expresses these dynamics as he describes our transformation into God’s image, all of it dependent upon our discernment of the Lord’s glory in the mirror of the Gospel.
i. what aspects of God’s radiant splendour are you enjoying today in your relationship with Jesus? Is your “knowledge of the glory of God” growing?
ii. when you examine your own life, how well are you mirroring God’s glory, enabling others to discern God’s love, peace, goodness and justice in your words and actions?
iii. consider some of the ways that God has transformed you the last six months. What further transformations should be praying for?
- 1Philo, Legibus III, 101.