2 Corinthians 3:7–11
I am going to assume this morning that there is a God who is personal and who created all things. There are not many atheists who come to church, and so the only evidence for this assumption that I lay before you is this: if there is no personal God, then the concept of beauty dissolves into personal idiosyncrasy. That is, unless beauty is rooted in God's mind rather than your mind, every time you say, "That is beautiful," all you really mean is, "I like that." Unless there is a God, your praise of beauty can be no more than expressions of your own personal preferences. But I think there is in every one of you a dissatisfaction with the notion that your judgments about beauty have no more validity than your preference for coffee over tea. And I think your dissatisfaction with pure subjectivism and relativism is a remnant of God's image in your soul and evidence of his reality. It is an echo, however faint, of a voice that once called you into being.
Suppose that you were standing by the Grand Canyon at sunset with two other people. You become deeply moved and utter the words, "This is beautiful; this is glorious." The person beside you says, "Beautiful? It's just a big, ugly ditch." And the third person says, "I guess I hear what both of you are saying. And I think those are equally valid statements." And it is true that unless there is a higher aesthetic court of appeal than man, those two judgments are equally valid. But even people who say they believe in such humanistic relativism don't like it when their own judgments about truth and beauty are treated as mere personal idiosyncrasies. The reason for this, I think, is that there is in every person a God-given sense that beauty must have meaning that is larger and more permanent than personal quirks. This urge for ultimate meaning is evidence of our creation in the image of God.
What Is the Beauty of God?
Therefore, I will assume that there is a personal Creator as we try to understand beauty and our hunger for it this morning. If there is a personal God who has created all things and has given everything its form and its purpose, then beauty must be defined in relation to God. Try to picture the impossible: what it was like before the creation of anything. Once there was only God and nothing else. He never had a beginning, and therefore what he is was not shaped or determined by anything outside himself. He simply has always been what he is (Exodus 3:14; Hebrews 13:8).
Therefore, if the beauty we behold on earth has its root and origin in God, there must have been beauty in God from all eternity. What, then, is the beauty of God? In one sense this is a hard question, and in another sense it is very easy. It is hard because there is no pattern of beauty of which we can say, "God is like that, and so God is beautiful." If there were a pattern by which we could measure God, it would be God. No, God himself is the absolutely original pattern of all other beauty. Therefore, the answer is simple: Beauty is what God is. His wisdom is beautiful wisdom, his power is beautiful power, his justice is beautiful justice, and his love is beautiful love.
But what makes each of these attributes beautiful is not merely that they are infinite, unchanging, and eternal. Power, for example, could be infinitely and eternally evil and thus ugly. The attributes of God derive their infinite beauty from their relationship to each other. Just as in paintings it is not the isolated color or shape or texture that is beautiful but rather their relationship with each other, their proportion and interplay; so it is with persons and ultimately with the person of God. It is the peculiar proportionality and interplay and harmony of all God's attributes (together with their infiniteness and eternality) that constitutes God's beauty, and makes him the foundation of all the beauty in the world.
Why Do We All Crave Beauty?
Now how does this infinite divine beauty relate to our longing for beauty? I do believe that deeply rooted in every human heart is a longing for beauty. Why do we go to the Grand Canyon, the Boundary Waters, art exhibits, gardens? Why do we plant trees and flower beds? Why do we paint our inside walls? Why is it man and not the monkeys who decorated cave walls with pictures? Why is it that in every tribe of humans ever known there has always been some form of art and craftsmanship that goes beyond mere utility? Is it not because we long to behold and be a part of beauty? We crave to be moved by some rare glimpse of greatness. We yearn for a vision of glory. The poetry that endures from generation to generation generally does so because it gives expression to our deepest desires. And more than anything else in poetry, "'Tis beauty calls and glory shows the way" (Nathaniel Lee). Emerson speaks for every great poet when he writes ("Beauty"),
He thought it happier to be dead,
To die for Beauty, than live for bread.
Emily Dickinson, too, is fond of connecting death and beauty (No. 1654):
Beauty crowds me 'til I die
Beauty mercy have on me
But if I expire today
Let it be in sight of thee.
And William Butler Yeats expresses his longing for a
Land of Hearts' Desire
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, time and endless song.
There is in the human heart an unquenchable longing for beauty. And I am persuaded that the reason it is there is because God is the ultimately Beautiful One and he made us to long for himself. Even the most perverted desire for beauty—say the desire to watch the excellence of strength and speed and skill as gladiators hack each other to death—even this desire is a distorted remnant of a good yearning which God put within us to lure us to himself. And we can know that our desires are remnants of this urge for God because everything less than God leaves us unsatisfied. He alone is the All-Satisfying Object of Beauty. Only one vision will be sufficient for our insatiable hearts—the glory of God. For that we have been made. And it is for this we long, whether we know it or not.
How Do We Attain Beauty?
But how shall we attain it? Who is worthy to behold the all-holy Maker of the universe? Or as the psalmist asks, "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?"(Psalm 24:3). We have all sinned and fallen short of his glory (Romans 3:23). We have not prized his beauty with anything like the fervor it deserves. And that is evil. But God is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wrong (Habakkuk 1:13). Therefore, the wages of sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23). And unless someone intervenes, we will perish under God's righteous judgment and be cut off forever from every vestige of beauty. The apostle Paul put it like this in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the face of the Lord and from the glory (or the beauty) of his might." The punishment of those who have not seen and loved the beauty of God's holiness in this age will be utter exclusion from his all-satisfying beauty in the age to come.
What then can we do? For not only have we sinned, but in our sin we have become so blind and hard that the reflections of God's beauty in the world and in the Bible scarcely move us. It is as though a dark veil lies over our minds.
The Word of God in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 describes for us our plight and how the pathway to eternal joy and beauty can be opened before us. Follow the thread of Paul's thought with me. Paul says in verse 6 of chapter 3 that he is a minister of a new covenant. The old covenant was a covenant of the law given through Moses on Mount Sinai. This law was holy, just, and good, and pointed to the true way of salvation. But as a written code apart from the gracious enabling work of the Holy Spirit its effect was to make people aware of sin and pronounce condemnation and death. But a new era has come since the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. It is the era of the Spirit which is now being poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17) as the gospel of Christ spreads through all the nations. Paul is a servant of this new covenant, and his mission is to announce the good news that people who trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ will be forgiven all their transgressions of the law and given the Holy Spirit to enable them to fulfill the just requirement of the law (Romans 8:1–4).
The New Covenant Has Greater Glory Than the Old
In 2 Corinthians 3:7–11 Paul contrasts the Beauty of God that was manifested in the old covenant and the beauty manifested in the new covenant. Verse 7: "If the dispensation of death carved in letters on stone came with such splendor (glory or beauty) that the Israelites could not look at Moses' face because of its brightness, fading as it was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with a greater splendor?" The old covenant brought death because the letter kills, as verse 6 says, and only the Spirit gives life. And thus death here in verses 7 and 8 is contrasted with Spirit rather than life because the Spirit gives life. And Paul infers that if the glorious Beauty of God was awesomely evident to those in the old covenant, how much more will it be evident to those who have the Spirit and not just the letter.
This same argument from lesser glory to greater glory is repeated twice, once in verse 9 (the glory of the dispensation of righteousness will surely be greater than the glory of the dispensation of condemnation), and in verse 11 (the glory of what is permanent will surely be greater than the glory of what is fading away). Therefore, Paul is sure that those who become part of the new covenant relationship to God by trusting Christ and receiving the Spirit will behold a divine manifestation of beauty that vastly surpasses the glory of the old covenant.
But in verses 12ff. we meet the barrier to this experience. Paul, for his part, is very bold and forthright in his preaching (verse 12 says); he is not like Moses who veiled his shining face lest the Israelites see the fading glory. Paul sees in this veil covering Moses' face a symbol of the fact that the people of the old covenant by and large could not perceive that the glory of that covenant was temporary, passing away, preparatory for a new and more glorious covenant. As Moses concealed the fading glory of his face, so even to this day Paul says in verse 14, the true significance of the old covenant is veiled. Its true significance was to point beyond itself to a day when Messiah would atone for sin and the law would be written on the heart by the Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31ff.; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26, 27). But whenever the old covenant is read, there seems to be a veil over the reading, or, as verse 15 says, a veil over the mind or heart of the listener.
The Spirit Enables Us to See That Glory
This is not only the problem of Israel; it is our problem too. How can the veil be lifted from our minds so that we can see not only the fading glory of the old covenant but also the surpassing Beauty of God in the new covenant? Exodus 34:34 tells how Moses would remove the veil from his face when he turned to enter the tent and meet the Lord. Paul saw in this a lesson, and he applied it to us in verse 16: "When a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed." Our blindness and hardness to the Beauty of God will be overcome if we turn to the Lord. Then in verse 17 he interprets what he means: "The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." Since at the end of verse 14 Paul had said that only through Christ is the veil done away with, I take it that the Lord to which we turn in verse 16 is the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore the meaning of verse 17 would be: the Lord Jesus is the Spirit, and so to turn to the Lord means to turn to the Spirit, to open yourself to the Spirit, to seek the Spirit and his fullness. For where the Spirit is, there is freedom. If we want freedom from our blindness to the Beauty of God, we must have the Spirit. We are slaves to the worldly substitutes for divine Beauty until the Spirit takes the veil from our minds and grants us to see with joy the Beauty of the Lord.
Verse 18 describes the result if we are freed by the Spirit: "And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." When a person turns to Jesus Christ as Lord and opens himself up to the liberating rule of the Spirit of the Lord, two of his deepest longings begin to be fulfilled. It is granted that the eyes of his heart (Ephesians 1:18) really see a captivating and satisfying divine Beauty. And he begins to be changed by it. We always tend to become like the persons we admire. And when the Spirit grants us to see and admire the Lord of Glory, we inevitably begin to be transformed into his image. And the more we become like him, the more clearly we can see him, and the greater our capacity to delight in his beauty.
What Is This Glory and How Do We See It?
But what is it, more precisely, that we see? And with what organ of sight? 2 Corinthians 4:4 helps us with the answer. At the end it says that what we see when we are not blinded by Satan but freed by the Spirit is "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God." When we turn to the Lord and the Holy Spirit removes the veil from our heart, we see light, without which there can be no beauty, but only darkness and emptiness. It is not the light which we see with our physical eyes. But that's no disadvantage. For we all know that the beauty we crave for our physical eyes is only satisfying if we see it as the outward form of a deeper moral, spiritual, and personal beauty, ultimately God's Beauty. So the light that we are granted by the Spirit to see is the light of the gospel. And the gospel is a story about God and his Son and their conspiracy of love to overthrow the dominion of Satan and save the world. And out of this story shines above all else the glory of the God-man, Jesus Christ. And that glory, that beauty, is an all-satisfying beauty because it is the Beauty of God. It is "the glory of Christ who is the image of God." When we see Jesus in the gospel story, we see God and the very essence of his beauty.
We see the beauty of his power, for what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did; sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3). We see the beauty of his mercy, for God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Corinthians 5:19). We see the beauty of his justice, for God put Christ forward as a propitiation for our sins by his blood, that he might demonstrate his righteousness and prove that he is himself both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25, 26). And we see the beauty of his wisdom, for in the gospel we do impart a wisdom not of this age but of God, which he decreed before the age for our glory, our beauty (1 Corinthians 2:7).
Whether you know it or not, all the longings of your life for beauty are longings for this: the light of the gospel of the beauty of Christ who is the image of God. Turn to Jesus as Lord! Open yourself to the Spirit of Christ. And the veil will be lifted.
O most glorious God,
You are worthy of all trust and obedience and adoration.
Yet I have sinned and see you so dimly.
But I now turn to the living Lord Jesus Christ,
And I invite your Spirit to fill my life.
Remove the veil from my heart
And grant me to behold your glory,
And help me be changed from one degree of glory to another.