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In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Are We “Reflecting” or “Beholding” the Glory of the Lord?

Dore MosesA Crucial Verse

I believe 2 Corinthians 3:18 is a crucial verse for understanding how the Gospel transforms us.  But there are two very different ways to translate this verse.

Here is how the NIV translates it (note the word in italics) –

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.

According to the NIV Paul is not explaining how we are transformed.  He is simply saying that saved people reflect the Lord’s glory to others, and at the same time are being transformed into his likeness.

But the ESV translates it differently –

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

According to the ESV Paul is explaining how we are transformed — by beholding the glory of the Lord.

So which is it?  Reflecting or beholding?

Clues from the Context

The Greek word can be translated either way (Murray Harris, 2 Corinthians, page 314).

So the only way to decide is by seeing if the surrounding context gives us any clues.

In verse 13 we read that a veil kept Moses from reflecting God’s glory to Israel (13).  That could make us think that the removal of our veil in verse 18 is something that enables us to reflect God’s glory to others.

But starting in verse 14 Paul’s emphasis changes, and the veil is something that lies over Israel’s hearts and keeps them from beholding God’s glory —

“… when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only in Christ is it taken away.” (14)

“… a veil lies over their hearts.” (15)

“… when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” (16)

This is even more clear in the following verses of chapter 4 –

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.In their case the God of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (4:3-4)

So from 3:14 through 4:4 the veil does not keep us from reflecting God’s glory; it keeps us from beholding God’s glory.

Because of that, I believe that in 3:18 Paul is talking about how the removal of our veil enables us to behold Christ’s glory.

So in 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul is telling us that when we are saved the veil keeping us from beholding Christ’s glory is removed, and that by beholding Christ’s glory we are transformed.

How Does This Transform Us?

Think of it like this: every one of our feelings and actions is produced by our desire for heart-satisfaction.

The reason some feelings and actions are sinful is that they involve seeking our heart-satisfaction in something other than Christ.

For example, when we are self-righteous we are pursuing the satisfaction of impressing God with our goodness.  When we gossip we pursue the satisfaction of feeling better than others.  And when we are bitter we pursue the satisfaction of being a victim and a martyr.

These are all sinful, because they involve pursuing satisfaction in something other than Jesus Christ.  And they are tragic, because only Christ gives us the satisfaction we crave.

But when we taste the superior satisfaction of Christ’s glory, we will no longer desire the lesser satisfactions of sin.

How Can We Experience This?

At the end of verse 18, Paul says that “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” That means we can only behold Christ’s glory in a soul-satisfying way by the power of the Spirit.

But we are not passive in the process.  Jesus promised that we would experience more of the Spirit’s work by praying earnestly for it (Luke 11:13).  And Jesus said that the Spirit’s work is produced through the word (John 6:63).

So as we prayerfully meditate on verses describing Christ (like Genesis 3:15; Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 53:2-6; John 1:1; Philippians 2:5-11) we will experience the Holy Spirit enabling us to see and feel Christ’s heart-filling glory.

And as our hearts are filled with Christ’s glory, we will be set free from desire for the lesser satisfactions of sin.

That’s how the gospel transforms us.

Questions?  Comments?

I’d love to hear them, although I might not be able to respond.  Leave a reply below —  thanks.

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(Picture is by Gustav Dore and is in the public domain.)


Category: Overcoming Sin and Temptation


8 Responses

  1. Glenn Davis says:

    Right on, Steve. G. Campbell Morgan and J. Vernon McGee agree with you!


  2. K says:

    I feel like my heart is so inclined to beholding self–as I know we all are apart from The Lord! I want a new heart that is inclined toward truth and faith and hope and Jesus! I don’t want to be offended by the Lord’s demands or fail to turn to Jesus because I feel foolishly offended. I feel like my heart grows harder and worse by the day. Could I ask you continue praying for me when you’re able? That Jesus will be my joy and my faith will be indestructible and my pride crushed? And that I won’t believe that I have to be a slave to my thoughts/desires but to righteousness? That the Spirit will continually help me behold and believe Jesus and turn from lies/feelings! That He will fix my heart to delight in Him and be glad for His holiness–to behold it and believe it’s for our good and out of love and certainly not offensive! Thank you!

  3. Ray Stamps says:

    Your presentation was a blessing. Thank you for your diligent blogging and “holding forth the Word!”

  4. Amir Sohail says:

    Praise God. I agree with you.

  5. Robby says:

    This is great. Very simple explanation, using the context for clues. I agree with your conclusion, not that reflecting isn’t part of the Christian life, just not what Paul is emphasizing here. But I still have a question … It seems the most literal translation is “beholding, as in a mirror” … And it is the only appearance of this compound word in the NT if I understand correctly. So what is Paul trying to communicate with this word, in particular the part about the mirror. My thought/question – could it not be saying that we see the glory of the Lord when we look in the mirror? Because Christ is in us? (Col 1:27) Not a new age humanist find the light within idea… But beholding the glory of the Lord, differently than Moses, externally, but we behold him as we see His character in us, since we have “become the righteousness of God” (next chapter!) … Since we have a new identity. THEN we are transformed, not by law, but by surrendering to the Spirit so that the Glory of the Lord in us is revealed in our lives as we let what is on the inside break through to the outside. Preaching on this soon, curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    • Steve Fuller says:

      Hi Robbie –

      I appreciate the seriousness with which you wrestle with the text.

      And you are right that the word Paul uses is unusual.

      One difficulty with taking it as seeing Christ’s glory in us is that the result of this seeing is that we ourselves are transformed into the same image.

      But if our seeing transforms us into the same image, then how can we have been displaying that same image? Or, if we already are displaying that same image, then why do we need to be transformed into that image?

      Maybe Jesus is the mirror which shows us the glory of the Lord, since in 4:6 it is Jesus’ face which shines with the glory of God.

      Those are my best thoughts – and may the Lord power to bless your preaching!

      In Christ,

      Steve Fuller

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