How can we behold God, seeing beyond the temporary to what is eternal?
Paul addresses this question in 2 Corinthians 3–4 as he describes what it means to be a minister of the new covenant in the Spirit (3:6), contrasted with the ‘ministry of condemnation’ in the old covenant (3:8). Paul’s answer traces the unveiling of God’s identity from the first act of his speaking light into creation, through the pivotal moment of revelation in the face of Christ (4:6), to the future eternal glory of heaven (4:17). The idea of a veil is used throughout the passage, first to explain the impermanent glory of the dispensation under Moses (3:13), and then as a metaphor for the spiritual blindness that can only be removed in Christ (3:16).
This intricate lattice screen is an exquisite example of jali (pierced stonework) from Mughal India. It is part of the tomb of the Emperor Humayun, constructed in Delhi between 1565 and 1572. The tomb was commissioned by his son Akbar and was an important architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal. The jali is made of white marble, which was a material closely associated with the purity of divine light in Mughal architecture. Its complex geometry was considered sacred in Islamic art, revealing the underlying mathematical order of creation and thus leading one to the mind of God.
The jali lattice obscures the view outwards. At the same time, it allows the inward flow of sunlight in scattered geometric shapes as though revealing a heavenly light from God. It’s like a veil that defines a boundary between the material world of appearances and the eternal reality of God’s presence. The screen is something concretely visible, but at the same time it ‘dissolves’ itself, enabling us to discern something beyond it; to perceive the creator God ‘who said let light shine…’
Paul sees a similar dynamic in the way the earlier dispensation, represented by Moses, exists to open a way beyond itself, but also in the way Paul himself fulfils his calling by ‘unselving’ himself so that the greater light of Christ can shine through (4:15).
Asher, Catherine Ella Blanshard. 2008. Architecture of Mughal India, The New Cambridge History of India, 4 vols (Cambridge University Press)
12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. 14 But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 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.
4 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.