The dilemma that became apparent after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt was that the sinful nature of mankind made it impossible for the children of Israel to have fellowship with the LORD. God told Moses:
Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” (Exodus 33:3-5)
God described the Israelites as stiff-necked because they disobeyed one the most important of his Ten Commandments shortly after the commandments had been directly communicated to them (Exodus 20:1, 32:1). The Hebrew word that is translated consume, kalah (kaw-law’) “describes the transitory reality of fallen human nature” (H3615). What God was saying was that it was inevitable that he would have to punish the Israelites for their sin. It was only a matter of time before their rebellion against him would bring about disastrous results.
Moses was an exception to the rule in that he wanted to please God and was doing his best to fulfill his mission of bringing the people of Israel to the land that God had promised to give them (Exodus 3:7-11). Exodus 33:9-11 indicates that Moses was experiencing intimate fellowship with God. It states:
When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.
The Hebrew word that is translated friend in this passage, reya (ray’-ah) is translated neighbor in the ninth and tenth commandments which state, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:16-17). When a lawyer asked him the question, “who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) and then asked the lawyer, “‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise'” (Luke 10:36-37).
The lawyer’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments brought him to the conclusion that God wanted the Israelites to show mercy to each other, a characteristic of God that is demonstrated throughout the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. When it says that the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11), it is implied that God was showing Moses mercy when he talked with him face to face. The Hebrew word that is translated face in Exodus 33:11 is translated “presence” in Exodus 33:13-15 where Moses requested that the Lord show him his ways. These verses state:
Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses asked God to show him his ways so that he would know the Lord better and could do what pleased him. Moses realized that God had a different way of doing things than he did and that Moses needed to adapt to God’s way of doing things rather than the other way around. The Hebrew word derek (deh’-rek) means a road and is used figuratively to represent “a course of life or mode of action” (H1870). The basic idea of the Hebrew word derek is that it represents the path that one travels through life. If you think of life as a journey that gets you from point A (birth) to point B (death), then your “ways” are the different twists and turns you take that will ultimately determine the quality and outcome of your life. Moses wanted to find favor in God’s sight which meant that he wanted God to bless his life. The King James Version of the Bible indicates that Moses wanted to find “grace” in God’s sight (Exodus 33:13). Grace or chen (khane) in Hebrew has to do with receiving special attention from God. Chen is derived from the Hebrew word chanan (khaw-nan’) which means “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior…Generally, this word implies the extending of ‘favor’ often when it is neither expected nor deserved” (H2603).
The LORD told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live'” (Exodus 33:19-20). God equated his face with his entire person (H6440) and told Moses that seeing him would result in eternal life (H2425). God couldn’t give Moses eternal life because his New Covenant of grace hadn’t yet been enacted (Matthew 26:27-28) and therefore, Moses’ sins weren’t forgiven (Hebrews 9:19-28). God’s plan for the Israelites was to transform them into a different kind of people, but he planned to do it by a different means that he did after Jesus came to the earth and died for the sins of the world. The Israelites would become a nation, one that would stand out as being devoted to God. The Lord told Moses, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10). Similar to God’s creation of the planet that we live on, his involvement with the people of Israel was expected to result in a product that was different than anything that had ever been seen before. The Hebrew word that is translated created in Exodus 34:10, bara’ (baw-raw’) is only used with God as the subject. “The verb expresses creation out of nothing, an idea seen clearly in passages having to do with creation on a cosmic scale…All other verbs for ‘creating’ allow a much broader range of meaning; they have both divine and human subjects, and are used in contexts where bringing something or someone into existence is not the issue” (H1254).
The work that the LORD planned to do with the Israelites was intended to be a witness to the nations around them that God was worthy of their respect and admiration (H3372). God said that he would do marvels (Exodus 34:10). The Hebrew word pala (paw-law’) means to separate, i.e. distinguish and frequently signifies the wondrous works of God (H6381). A unique sign of God’s transformative power were the rays of light that came from Moses’ face after he talked with God. Exodus 34:29-30 tells us:
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
The fact that the rays of light came from Moses’ face seems to suggests that they were somehow associated with his personality reflecting the image of Jesus Christ. During Jesus’ transfiguration, Matthew’s gospel tells us that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2) indicating that he had been transformed into his glorified state. Moses’ experience of talking face to face with God may have been similar to what happens when Christians die because the separation of our souls from our bodies makes it possible for us to immediately enter into the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). It could be that the last 40 years of Moses’ life was spent in some type of transitory state, somewhere between physical and spiritual life.
Exodus 34:33-35 tells us that when Moses spoke to the people of Israel, he put a veil over his face and “Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.” The interesting thing about Moses covering his face with a veil was that it prevented the people from seeing the end result of his personal communication with God. Moses could have used his shining face as a means of drawing attention to himself, but he chose to keep his own glory covered up so that God’s glory would be the focus of everyone’s attention.
The Apostle Paul talked about the believers in Corinth being letters of recommendation that attested to the authenticity of his ministry. Paul began by asking the Corinthians:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)
The phrase Paul used “tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3) refers to the way God communicates with people today as opposed to the way his Ten Commandments were originally communicated to the Israelites. Paul said God’s commandments are not written with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God.” The Spirit of the living God is “the vital spirit or life, the principle of life residing in man. The breath breathed by God into man and again returning to God” (G4151). In the New Testament of the Bible, the Spirit of God is in as absolute sense the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is described as descending in bodily form upon Jesus after His baptism and “as coming to and acting upon Christians, illuminating and empowering them, and remaining with them, imparting to them spiritual knowledge, aid, consolation, sanctification, and making intercession with and for them.”
Paul went on to explain that the expression of God’s glory is something that comes naturally to believers because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Paul indicated that Moses covered his face with a veil because the rays of light that shone from it revealed the end result of salvation, but weren’t permanent in the same way that the Holy Spirit secures the believer’s salvation in Christ until the day of redemption (2 Corinthians 1:22). Paul stated:
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2 Corinthians 3:7-11)
Paul described Moses’ ministry as a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). What he meant by that was that the Mosaic Law made it possible for God to punish the Israelites because he had given them his Ten Commandments, what he considered to be illegal activities, therefore they were aware of what they weren’t supposed to do and did it anyway. Paul indicated that the ministry of condemnation would be brought to an end and the ministry of the Spirit would far exceed its glory. It’s likely that Jesus’ death on the cross was intended to be the capstone of the Mosaic Law in that it accomplished God’s will with regards to saving mankind. Even though he was falsely condemned under the Mosaic Law, Jesus was able to fulfill its intent because he lived a perfect life according to the standard it established.
The veil that Moses used to cover his face appears to represent at a personal level the veil inside the tabernacle that divided the two areas know as the holy place and the most holy place (Exodus 26:33). After Jesus yielded up his spirit on the cross, Matthew’s gospel tells us, “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51) indicating that the barrier that separated God and man had been permanently eliminated. Paul told the Corinthians:
Since we have such a hope, 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. 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. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. (2 Corinthians 3:12-16)
Paul’s reference to the outcome of what was being brought to an end was intended to let the Corinthians know that the end result of the legal system that God put in place was the death of Israel’s Messiah, an act that made it possible for God and man to be permanently reconciled. This was a much more meaningful outcome than the sanctification that took place through Moses’ direct communication with God. Paul said that the Israelites minds were hardened, meaning they were unable to comprehend God’s intention for giving them the Ten Commandments, because there was a veil over their hearts. Paul used the descriptor of a veil over the heart to illustrate how the process of salvation works. Like the high priest that entered the most holy place once a year on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:13-15), Christ enters the hearts of believers and applies his own blood to the mercy seat of their consciences in order to take away the guilt of their sins (Leviticus 16:20-22). Therefore, Paul said, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Corinthians 3:16). In other words, there is no more need for atonement because Christ’s perfect life has been substituted for our own (Hebrews 10:12).
Paul wrapped up his explanation of how God’s glory is manifested in believers with a concluding statement that eluded to the fact that the end result of a believer’s sanctification is the liberty to do as one pleases. Paul said:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 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 Corinthians 3:17-18)
The Greek word that is translated freedom in 2 Corinthians 3:17, eleutheria (el-yoo-ther-ee’-ah) means freedom from the Mosaic Law and from the yoke of external observances in general, but the primary function of this freedom is to deliver us “from the dominion of sinful appetites and passions” (G1657). Paul said, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). In other words, it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that makes freedom possible and our submission to him that brings about our transformation into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). The unveiled face that Paul referred to could be thought of as intimacy with God. It says in Exodus 33:11 that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” The image of being face to face with God has to do with the essence of who we really are being revealed to another person. When we get to the point where we are being completely transparent with God about our thoughts, feelings, and desires; we connect with him at the core of our being and are transformed into a new person, one that wants to please God more than anything else.