Moses has been on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights writing on the two tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments (34:28). The Lord has displayed his name to Moses, that he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. This glorious name of the Lord is displayed in God keeping his covenant with Israel and going with his people to the promised land. The tabernacle project is restored for God is going to live with his people and bring them into the promised land. But now the scriptures want us to know that something unusual had happened to Moses because he had been on the mountain with the Lord. Open your copies of God’s word to Exodus 34:29-35 and we will read about this scene.
Moses’ Shining Face
Verse 29 tells us that after these 40 days on the mountain, the skin of Moses’ face was shining because he had been talking with God. Moses has a radiant face because he spoke with the Lord. So when Moses comes down, everything changes. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, saw that the skin on his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. This is an important point to observe. The people are afraid to come near Moses because of his face shining the way it did. It seems that Moses’ communion with the Lord left an imprint on him in the form of a radiant glow, a reflection of being in the presence of God’s glory. Even though all of Israel was afraid to come near Moses, Moses called for them to come to him and he talked with them. So all of Israel came near and Moses commanded the people with the words the Lord had spoken with him on the mountain. Then Moses put a veil over his face after speaking with the people.
Verses 34-35 set before us the pattern that occurs going forward. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with the Lord, Moses removed the veil from his face. Then Moses would go out before the people and told Israel all that the Lord commanded with his face unveiled so that the people would see the skin of Moses’ face shining. Then Moses would put the veil over his face again until he went back in the tabernacle to speak with the Lord. In short, Moses would speak with God and come out and speak to the people the words of the Lord. Once he was done speaking God’s words, Moses would cover his face.
I want us to see the main message that Exodus is communicating and then we can consider its New Testament implications. The main message is Moses had been with the Lord and it showed. Moses reflected the radiance of being in the Lord’s presence in his shining face to the people every time he spoke with them the commandments of God. But the reaction of Israel was fear. The people did not want to come near him. In fact, it appears that they went away from him because Moses must call for them to come back near to him (34:31-32). This is the main message. So why is this text here? What are we supposed to learn from this? Turn to 2 Corinthians 3.
The New Testament Message (2 Corinthians 3:13-16)
Now what is hard about reading Paul’s explanation of this text is that what he says does not seem to fit what is happening in the Exodus account. Paul says that we are not like Moses who put a veil over his face so that the Israel might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. The confusion comes from a few translations which imply that the glory of Moses’ face was fading away (cf. NASB, NKJV, NIV). The problem is that the Exodus account does not say that the reason Moses put a veil on his face was because the glory was fading away from his face and he did not want Israel to see that. Exodus never implies that he was trying to conceal a fading of the glow. Exodus never indicates that the glory was fading at all. In Exodus the veil is purely a practical measure for dealing with the discomfort the people had in looking at Moses’ shining face. But when Moses spoke God’s word, he made the people uncomfortable and kept his face from being veiled. So is Paul interpreting something for us or have we misunderstood what Paul was saying? I am going to show that I believe we have misunderstood what Paul was teaching.
First, Paul did not say that the shining face of Moses was fading away. If you have other translations you will notice that they do not read that the glory was fading away. Rather, the glory was “being brought to an end” (ESV), “being set aside” (NRSV, CSB), or “made ineffective” (NET). The Greek word means “to make idle or inoperative.” In a legal context the word is used to speak of a law or process being nullified. This is the way Paul uses this word in Romans 6:6, 7:2, and Galatians 3:17. It is not that the law was destroyed but rendered inoperative and nullified. So as we read verse 13 the point Paul is making is that Israel could not see the outcome/result of this glory in Moses’ face. They could not see the outcome because Moses had to veil his face. Why did Moses have to veil his face? Moses veiled his face because their hearts were hardened (3:14). When Moses came out to the people and spoke to them God’s word, they did not behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Moses. Instead, they were uncomfortable. They were afraid and moved away from Moses rather than to him. So to deal with their hardness, Moses put a veil on his face. This is the point Paul is making in verse 13 and this fits what we read in Exodus 34.
Paul continues in verse 14 that the same problem was occurring in Paul’s day. When the old covenant is read, there is still a veil on the hearts of the people just like it was when Moses tried to tell the people God’s word but they people moved away in fear. They did not see the meaning of Moses’ shining face. The people were so focused upon the physical phenomenon of Moses’ glowing face, they could not grasp what it signified, which was the power of an encounter with the grace of God. The veil represents a metaphor for the people’s inability to grasp the point of God’s revelation: to know God. In the same way, the Jews in Paul’s day did not see the meaning or result of the old covenant. Instead, they have a veil on their hearts (3:15). But when one turns to the Lord Jesus, the veil is removed. Because of the veil on their hearts, they cannot see that the new covenant has nullified the old covenant. They cannot see the glory of the Lord when the old covenant is read. This was the point Jesus made in the Gospel of John repeatedly. Listen to what Jesus says:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40 ESV)
What was the problem? They read the scriptures but they did not see Jesus. They read the scriptures but they did not see the glory of the Lord. They read the scriptures and it was just knowledge. It did not draw them to having a relationship with God. Think about how the Gospel of John points out that the people of Israel saw the signs but did not believe in Jesus.
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him. (John 12:37 ESV)
The people did not see the meaning of the sign. They were just impressed by the sign. When Jesus feeds the 5000 in the Gospel of John, the people do not follow him for who he is but to get free breakfast the next day. They did not see the meaning of turning water to wine and healing on the Sabbath. They just saw the surface. They did not see the point. How easy it is for us to do the same with the scriptures! We read it but do not see Jesus. We read it and it is just academic. We read God’s word and we do not see the glory of the Lord. We do not see the result of what the message is. We boil it down to credal statements rather than soaking in the glory of the Lord. This leads to two key points Paul wants us to recognize.
Go back to verse 12. We are bold unlike Moses. What does Paul mean by this? The answer is in verse 18. We all with unveiled faces are beholding the glory of the Lord. Our faces show the world that we have beheld God’s glory. We do not veil our faces like Moses had to after seeing God’s glory. We let the world see that we have beheld the glory of the Lord. How do we do this? Keep reading in verse 18. By beholding the glory of the Lord we all “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Our staring into the revelation of God is to transform us into the same image. The message for us is to not be like Israel who completely missed the point of the shining face of Moses. We were made to reflect the glory of God to the world. This reflection of God’s glory only comes in when we gaze into God’s word so that we can be transformed into his image. We become what God has created us to be looking at his glory, which is through God’s word. Notice that this is the point made in Exodus 34:29. Moses’ face shone “because he had been talking with God.” Together we are looking into the scriptures and seeing the glory of the Lord and being transformed into that image.
This leaves us with a final thought for our consideration. We become what we behold. We become what we gaze at, long for, and value. Jesus made the same point:
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21 ESV)
You become what you treasure. You will transform into what you behold. So we must ask ourselves what are we beholding each day? Are we beholding the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus in the scriptures or are we showing that we value and long for earthly things? We desire to look into God’s word because in it we see our merciful and gracious God who is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, showing love to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin but will by no means clear the guilty. We need more time looking at the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus. In fact, the writer of Hebrews uses this very imagery to encourage that we look at Jesus.
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:3 NRSV)
In the scriptures we are beholding the glory of God in Jesus which will change us if we do not have veiled hearts. What happens to you when you look into the scriptures? Is there a veil so that you do not see how glorious God is? Or is your heart unveiled so that you are being transformed into his image. Finally, do people see the radiance of God in your life or are you like Moses who veiled his face? We must with boldness and confidence show the glory of God to the world.