In the last post we saw that the Christian life is a life of transformation unto the image/likeness of Christ. In other words, because we are united with Him, we are now called to resemble Him. We partook of His nature when we came to Him through faith for salvation, and so it is only natural to grow unto His character.
From this, we also understood that it is unnatural for a Christian to not grow. There is no stagnant Christian life; it either flows or rots. There can be no lukewarm Christian life; it must be either hot or cold (Rev. 3:15-16).
So here’s the question: HOW are we to grow unto His image? How does this transformation happen? Is it a process or a one-off event? Do we wave some spiritual magic wand or press some metaphysical button and ZAP! we’re like Christ?
But let’s look at our original passage (2 Cor. 3:18). Paul is once again writing to the Corinthian assembly. Now, without making a lecture out of this, keep in mind that what we call 2nd Corinthians is in fact 4th Corinthians (at least), as evidenced from parts of Paul’s two letters to that church. The point is that the apostle had an extensive communication with them (four letters for that period was extensive communication) and not without good reason: the assembly had fallen into some horrible sinful patterns, which Paul, like a loving father and faithful pastor, took time to address point-to-point in 1st Corinthians. But then came another heavy blow: After he wrote that letter, he visited the church. And then someone – maybe one of the false teachers that always infiltrated the Church – accused Paul publicly for being a fake – and no-one defended him.
Remember, this wasn’t just an issue of dignity. Paul was an apostle of Christ (look at 2 Cor. 1:1) and as such, he bore the authority of the Word of God. Any doubt on the genuineness of his character and ministry endangered his entire message – the true Gospel. So, far from being arrogant, Paul was humbly obeying his calling and taking it with the seriousness it warranted. By defending himself he was defending God’s Word.
But now, after some time and tears (2:4), the Corinthians had finally repented and were ready to be reconciled to Paul, who thankfully accepted, in the midst of horrendous trials (probably persecution) (2 Cor. 1:8-10). And yet, he seems cautious throughout the entire letter: Paul knows that even though the man who accused him have been disciplined, excommunicated and now repented (2:5-8), not all the weeds were out yet. There were some small pockets of resistance in there – an “incalcitrant minority” as one preacher put it – waiting for the dust to settle so that they could start their deceptive and destructive work again. They were there then, and they are still here today – maybe not as subtle anymore…
So it looks like Paul – among other things – answers those who still harbour doubts and suspicion about his character and competence in the ministry of the Word. Chapter 3 is a good example of this: Paul begins with pointing out that the Corinthian believers are all the proof of the genuiness of his apostleship (3:1-6). In other words, if they have any doubt as to whether God approved of him and his ministry, the Corinthians needed only look at themselves.
Paul follows this by defending his actual message. He talks about the Gospel being superior to the Law that was given to Moses. The giving of the Law was awesome and magnificent – the LORD’s very presence was manifested in glory in a way that no-one of those who witnessed it would ever forget (Exodus 19:16-20:21). But, Paul says, even so, that Law was “the ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and “passing away” while the “new” – that is, the new covenant – is much more glorious (3:11).
Paul has already described in 3:7 about the transformative effect that Moses’ encounter with God had, when he went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. He came down the mountain with his face reflecting something of the shekhinah (שכינה), the bright cloud in which God’s glory and presence were visibly manifested.
Let’s point two things out here:
You cannot have an encounter with God and remain unchanged. This is why it is so puzzling to meet people who claim to be Christians – that is, children of the living glorious God – while their lives, characters and attitudes seem no different than those of non-Christians (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15)
An encounter with God will transform you in a way that will be OBVIOUS. Christianity is not a “private” thing; your faith, if real, cannot stay hidden (Mat. 5:14-16).
This is something that Paul makes clear: In the Old Testament, the glory of God was a terrifying thing because it contrasted the sinfulness of those who encountered it (read Isaiah 6 to see a good example of this. The things of God were hidden in types, symbols and rituals (3:14-15). His point is to defend the greatness of the Gospel against the legalistic teachings of the Judaisers that had probably infiltrated the Corinthian church. The Law period has passed away, he says, and now the same God whose glory shook Mount Sinai and manifested in thunder and storm has established a new era (dispensation). And in this new covenant, those who belong to God through Christ have the inconceivable privilege of being able to stand without fear in His presence and – note this – see some of His glory (Jer. 31:31-34). Why? Because they are united with Christ and His perfect righteousness is given to them (Rom. 4:23-25). And it is this tremendous blessing that satisfies the demand of perfect holiness and righteousness that enables us to come before the very presence of God:
Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD?
Or who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol,
Nor sworn deceitfully. – Psalm 24:3-4
And what did Jesus promise?
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God. – Mat. 5:8
This is why the writer to the Hebrew can say the shocking words, as a COMMANDMENT:
Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Heb. 4:16
So we see that:
As Christians, we are able by God’s grace to come right into His very presence without fear of condemnation because of Christ’s righteousness, not ours.
As Christians, we are commanded to come into God’s presence as part of our everyday walk with Him.
And now, with all this in mind, we – finally! – come to our original passage (2 Cor. 3:17). And here we find out a great spiritual truth:
YOU BECOME WHAT YOU BEHOLD
We’ve talked about the fact that God’s ultimate and overarching plan for us as His children is for us to be conformed/transformed unto the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). We cannot remain unchanged and unaffected, but we are to grow and mature be resembling our Lord’s character more and more. And here Paul tells us how to do it: By looking unto the glory of God.
I have heard all sorts of interpretations of this passage, and some of them reek of yoga and meditation nonsense. That’s not what Paul is talking about; it’s deeper. How do I know? Because elsewhere he qualifies it:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. – Rom. 12:2
So there is no room in this wonderful verse for mystical practises (in fact, there is no room for that ANYWHERE in Christianity – if you’re a mystic, you’re reading the wrong Bible or you’re reading the Bible wrongly). What we’re told here is that the only way we can start living and experiencing a gradual and progressive transformation unto the image of Christ, is by having our eyes fixed unto the glory of God. The more we know God, the more the Spirit transforms us; it is inevitable.
But what does that mean practically?
Constant study and meditation (the right kind) on the Word of God. Remember Psalm 1:1-3: Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.
Prayer is not just asking for things. Yes, we are called to do that, but that’s not all. Prayer for the Christian (the only one whose prayer has meaning), is an expression of a living relationship with God. That is, perhaps, why the New Testament makes a distinction between prayer and supplication (Phil. 4:6) – supplication is part of prayer (calling all Bible scholars to enrich my understanding on this!).
Control your input. Remember, as humans, we are designed (not evolved) to change – our personalities are fluid, not static. And this is an outside-to-inside process; in other words, what we take in influences what we put out. That is why the Bible is full of exhortations about guarding our eyes (Gen. 3:6), ears (Prov. 23:12) and minds (1 Chr. 28:9; Rom. 12:2; Phil. 4:7). Whether we like it or not, we are affected by our environment and the stimuli it throws at us. So what are you letting in predominantly? Is the Word of God your CONSTANT food and thought, or has it been replaced by TV shows, films, Web surfing, reading novels, trendy philosophies and general everyday “normal” life? If so, you can still expect a transformation, but it won’t even remotely resemble Christ.
As always, there are tonnes more I wish I could say here, but this is a mere humble blog, not a book. And I wouldn’t want to take up anymore time that you could use to get stuck into your Bible, so that we can all grow unto His image:
… having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. – Eph. 2:20-22