Unfading Glory (March 3, 2019)
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
How’s your baptism holding up? Still squeaky clean? My child was baptized just minutes ago. And like dishes fresh from the dishwasher, he’s radiant! All his sins have been washed away (Ac 22:16). But what about you? How long has it been for you? A year since you were baptized? A decade? Not trying to make anyone feel old, but… Half a century? What has all transpired since then? How many times have you found yourself in the muck of sin? How many more sins are there to be forgiven?
You know, God had established something for that – a yearly sacrifice that would be made, in addition to all the others, a sacrifice made to atone for all wrongs in the past year. It was the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. On that day, the people would all gather together. The priest would sacrifice a bull first for his own sins, so he could enter the tabernacle, then he would sacrifice a goat for the sins of the people. He would sprinkle the blood upon the ark of the covenant and then upon the people. It was saying, “your sins have been atoned for by blood.” And the eye-opening reality of this whole thing was that every year there were more sins. Every year atonement had to be made. Every year, the same thing, because sins kept piling up. 40 years in the wilderness, sins piled up. 40 annual sacrifices for sin – not to mention all the other daily and situational sacrifices that were made. And, if the Israelites were faithful to this command, a sacrifice would be made year after year – not just for decades, not just for centuries, but for millennia! Because sin kept staining those stubborn sinners.
You’ve probably noticed, that we do not offer a yearly sacrifice of atonement. No blood of bulls or goats are offered here. Why? Have we stopped sinning? You know as well as I do that that’s sadly not the case. Does God no longer demand an accounting for sin? No, that’s not it either. God’s Word stands, “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 6:23). Well, then, maybe we have something else, another ritual that serves the same purpose of atonement. What about the Lord’s Supper? That’s something we do repeatedly for the forgiveness of sins isn’t it? Well…. Yes and no. Yes, it is for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t doubt that. Jesus makes that clear. But no, it isn’t a sacrifice of atonement that we perform again and again to cover our sins every two weeks.
There’s a reason why the Old Testament Israelites sacrificed again and again every year to atone for sin. And there’s a reason why we no longer need to do so. It all goes back to Moses. Moses had the distinct honor and privilege of being able to speak with God face to face. After he had spoken with God for 40 days and 40 nights atop Mt. Sinai, he brought the two tablets of the covenant law down from the mountain to share with the people. But something remarkable had happened! Moses didn’t know it at first, but the dropped jaws and trembling looks from his fellow Israelites alerted him to it. After speaking with God face to face, Moses actually reflected God’s glory in a way. His face was radiant. And the people were awestruck by it! In fact, they were even afraid to come near Moses.
But this glory faded. The radiance of his face died down in between his conversations with God. So, Moses used a veil. And note carefully, it says both in Exodus and is especially clear in 2 Corinthians that the veil was not meant to shield the people from the radiance of his face. When he spoke with God, there was no veil. And when he conveyed what God said to the people, there was no veil. The veil was put on after he spoke with the people. 2 Corinthians gives the reason why. It was “to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away” (2 Cor 3:13) – so that they would not see the fading glory.
Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Sinaitic law. That glory was a fading glory. Glorious, yes, but it wasn’t meant to last. That’s why Moses hid the fading glory from the Israelites. That’s why sacrifices for sin had to be made again and again and again. Because this law-based covenant, the covenant where the people had to make atonement for their own sin, wasn’t the full solution for sin that God had in mind. In fact, Paul calls Moses’ law preaching “the ministry that brought death” (2 Cor 3:7) and “the ministry that condemns men” (2 Cor 3:9). So, these sacrifices weren’t the real solution to sin. Why, then, would God command something that wasn’t the real solution? Because it was their connection to the one who would be the Solution. And it drummed into their hearts and minds and lives that sin is serious, and the solution to sin would be death – a sacrifice. Bulls and goats were not the solution, but they pointed to the One who would be. Anyone seeking to attain God’s glory by the works of the law will ultimately find only condemnation. Because although the law is glorious, it’s glory fades because of our sinfulness. So, God has in mind an even more glorious covenant which never fades!
Allow me to make very real what I mean. If Neziah were not baptized, there would be another way… but only in theory. The other way is keeping the law – but only if he could keep it at every single point. Abstaining from every single thing that God forbids. Delighting in every single thing that God commands. And he would have to do this every single day of his life from the moment he woke up in the morning to the moment he went to bed. Actually, even through the night, while he sleeps and when he dreams. He could go that route. You and I could attempt to go the route of the law. But in reality, it’s already a lost cause. It’s a ministry that only brings condemnation and eternal death for two reasons. First, not one of us in able to keep a spotless record. Every single person sins every single day. And second, every single one of us is born sinful – inherited from our parents. The Bible says, “[sinful] flesh gives birth to [sinful] flesh” (Jn 3:6). It also says that “[the sinful mind] is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rm 8:7). So, since conception, you and I are already a lost cause.
That is why I’m so glad that God preserved him until today. Because I know that God works through baptism. And he’s attached a specific promise to baptism. “He saves… through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit… so that being justified by his grace, we become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Tit 3:5,7). It gives me great hope, and great assurance because it’s something I can lay my finger on. My son’s sins are forgiven because he is baptized. He is an heir of heaven with the sure hope of eternal life because God has saved him through baptism.
God has saved you through your baptism too. And your baptism stands, whether you are still wet with the water or you were baptized decades ago, not one sin clings to you. The glory of this New Covenant does not fade. Because when you were washed, you were also connected to Christ. So that, “[you] no longer live, but Christ lives in [you]” (Gal 2:20). Now you, “who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18). You never have to veil this glory because it never fades!
This glory never fades because the Solution has come. All the Old Testament sacrifices of Moses’ time and following were pointing to the one sacrifice that actually counted. “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:26-27). For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weaknesses; but the new covenant, which came after the law, appointed the Son (Heb 7:28) to be the completion and fulfillment of the Old Covenant. No more sacrifices have to be made. Nothing more needs to be done. And the moment you feel that you aren’t good enough, that your glory has faded, listen to the words he cried out from the cross once again, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).
So how is your baptism holding up now? Like Teflon, your perfect Savior covers you in those waters so that no sin – past, present, or future – sticks to you. That’s what Peter meant when he said, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 3:21). People often hear that phrase, “pledge of a good conscience” and they think, “that’s me. I’m pledging a good conscience.” But look again. You are not in that sentence. “Baptism saves you.” “Baptism is not the removal of dirt but a pledge of a good conscience… by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” So, when God looks at you, it’s as if your baptism raises its hand and declares, “clear conscience by Christ’s sacrifice!” It guarantees the unfading glory that Christ achieved for all people.
If that weren’t enough for us stubborn human beings – stubborn even in believing God’s grace served up to us – he not only declares in his Word that you are forgiven and righteous, he not only washes you clean and saves you through baptism, but he also renews that covenant with you again and again and again in the sacrament of the altar. The Lord’s Supper is not a new sacrifice. It’s not a repeated sacrifice. But it connects you again and again to the covenant of Christ’s sacrifice and the glory that does not fade. Because although the glory of Christ’s redemption never fades, it often fades from our minds. So, Christ reminds us again and again, serves forgiveness to us anew, again and again in bread and wine, body and blood, drumming it into your heart and mind and life, “It is finished.” “You are forgiven.” “You are transformed.” “Your glory in Christ will never fade.”