Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and are not as Moses, who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away: but their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Corinthians 3:12-16).
It is no secret that humans sometimes have difficulty in understanding abstract concepts. Whenever a concept can be described through some concrete mechanism, we understand the point better. Paul understands this principle, and as he is seeking to describe the vast superiority of the new covenant that God has made with mankind through Jesus over the previous covenant between God and Israel, he uses a story and an image to reinforce his point: Moses and the veil.
The story comes from Exodus 34:29-34. Moses has come down from Mount Sinai after having spent forty days and nights receiving the Law from God. Unbeknownst to him, his face shone since he had been speaking face-to-face with the manifestation of the glory of God on the mountain. When the people of Israel saw Moses with his shining face, they were afraid to come near him. After Moses assuaged the fears of the elders and people of Israel, as a precaution, he would put on a veil whenever he spoke with the Israelites. It was only when he went into the Tent of Meeting to speak again face-to-face with the glory of God that he would take off the veil.
Paul artfully and skillfully takes this story and uses it as a vehicle to communicate the message regarding the two covenants. The old covenant had glory; Paul does not deny this (2 Corinthians 3:7, 13). But could the people of Israel endure this glory? Clearly not– Moses had to put a veil on his face lest they saw the reflection of that glory! Paul indicates that there is a greater meaning to Moses veiling himself: it was not just that the Israelites were too afraid to see Moses’ face as it shone, but also that they could not see the substantive reality of the covenant itself and its end (2 Corinthians 3:13-14).
This expansion is not without merit; the fear of the Israelites at directly hearing God’s voice was the reason Moses had to go up onto the mountain in the first place (cf. Exodus 20:18-21). The Israelites could not handle hearing the voice of God directly or seeing His glory directly; hence Moses went up onto the mountain, veiled his face, and when the Tabernacle and the Temple would be establish, they would feature veils that would hide the Most Holy Place from the rest.
Therefore, as Paul explains, the veil is really over the Israelites (2 Corinthians 3:14-15). They read and hear the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and yet they do not perceive their fulfillment in Jesus. As long as that veil exists– as long as the Israelites hold fast to the way they have always understood the text, as long as they remain afraid of seeing the substantive reality behind the shadows and separate themselves from the voice of God– they will not understand that the glory of the old is swallowed up in the new.
Paul and his associates are not like Moses. They do not need to be veiled before the people in order to communicate the message of God. The message of the new covenant which they are promoting allows the believer to stand directly before God, hear His voice through Jesus, and see the glory of God as manifest in Him, and that glory is exceedingly great (cf. John 1:1, 14-18, 2 Corinthians 3:7-16). Those Israelites who turn to the Lord have the veil taken away, just as the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place was ripped in two at the moment of Jesus’ death (cf. Matthew 27:51).
This is a powerful message. No more veils. No more separations between God and man. In the new covenant man can come to a direct knowledge of the truth as manifest in Jesus, not the shadow, not the type, unveiled (cf. John 14:6).
This is why Paul can use boldness of speech (2 Corinthians 3:12). He lives in hope in the great glory of the new covenant, glory revealed already in Jesus and the hope of the ultimate glorification of the believer in the resurrection on the final day, pictured in such fantastic terms as the bejeweled, golden heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1-22:6. Fear has been cast out; we can stand before God through Christ, and powerfully proclaim the message of salvation in His name. Let us praise God for our new covenant, for the removal of the veil, and let us speak boldly on account of our hope!
Ethan R. Longhenry