When I first read Exodus 34, I couldn’t help but wonder why exactly Moses had to cover his face with a veil? He only covered his face when he wasn’t addressing the people with a word from the Lord. When he was speaking as an authoritative mediator, Moses let the glory of the Lord shine brightly from his face. There was probably a practical element to why Moses wore a veil. Think about how strange it would have been for Moses to interact with anyone with a glowing face. So, Moses could have simply covered his face because it would have been a distraction. But surely there is a deeper reason for the veil.
Understanding Old Testament passages like this can be difficult. There is a huge cultural gap between the Israelites roaming around in the desert and people living in 21st century Tupelo. Since it is tough to bridge the gap between the time the Old Testament was written and today, it is easy to interpret much of the Old Testament wrongly. So, when reading, studying, and applying Old Testament teaching, it is important that we be careful. For example, when Moses met with God his face shone bright like the sun. Does this mean that when we truly meet God in his word that our faces should shine like Moses? Should we run to the mirror after Bible study to see if we have that special glow? Or was that something specific to Moses? If so, what does it mean for us?
Questions like these are important to ask, hard to answer, and easy to mess up. The good news is that despite how difficult many Old Testament passages are to interpret and understand, every word in the Old Testament was written for our instruction and for our growth in godliness (Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). And what’s better is that a good number of Old Testament passages were interpreted for us in the New Testament. The first step in interpreting any passage of Scripture is to first see what the Bible says about itself. Do other biblical authors have anything to say about the passage you are studying?
When it comes to Moses’ shining face, the apostle Paul does the work of interpretation for us. All we need to do is listen carefully, apply appropriately, and obey accordingly.
Paul has just argued that the ministry of the Spirit is superior to the ministry of the Law. So, the glory that the Israelites feared in the face of Moses was a mere spark when compared to the eternal light that shines in the face of Christ. Now, Paul says that our hope is in the glorious life-giving work of the Spirit. Because our hope is in him, “we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (2 Cor. 3:12-13). The glory of God in revealing himself through the Law and through Moses was temporary. It would come to an end with the coming of Christ and ultimately the coming of the Spirit.
The physical veil that Moses wore to prevent the Israelites from seeing God’s glory is removed in Christ. Those who have trusted in Christ can boldly look at the glory of God because we have been credited Christ’s righteousness. Moses wore a veil because in their stubbornness and sin, the Israelites would have perished had they stood in God’s presence. In the same way, if we gaze on the glory of God clothed only in our own sin we would perish in its light. But the Lord has set us free from our spiritual blindness and darkness. The Spirit has lifted the veil from our own spiritual eyes. So, we can freely see and reflect the glory of God in Christ.
The gospel is superior to the law and is truly the greatest news in the world because through it we can see God’s glory and shine God’s glory in deep spiritual darkness. We don’t hide our good works from the world and we don’t keep silent about Christ with the fear that our friends and neighbors might run from the light of the gospel. No, we boldly walk in righteousness and proclaim the riches of God’s grace in Christ with the great hope that the Spirit would create light in darkness and bring many more sons to glory. “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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17).
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.