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9. The Work of Christ “Now” in the Unbeliever (2 Corinthians 3:12-17; 4:3-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

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2 Corinthians 3:12-17 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness, 3:13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the result of the glory that was made ineffective. 3:14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 3:15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds, 3:16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 3:17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom. NET

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, 4:4 among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God. 4:5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 4:6 For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ. NET

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1:19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent.” 1:20 Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? 1:21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 1:22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 1:23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 1:24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1:25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 1:26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 1:27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 1:29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 1:30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 1:31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” NET


In his book Scribbling in the Sand, Michael Card relates the story of traveling to China to perform, but at the last minute his concert was unexpectedly cancelled. He was able to pull together an informal gathering of students and began sharing some of his music with them. He sensed the students were more eager to share their stories, so he stopped to listen.

“A young, intelligent woman shared her testimony…and spoke of the spiritual struggle growing up in a place where official doctrine dictated against any belief in God. She told us, however, that since she was a little girl she had found her heart resonated with the beauty in nature. She described a series of epiphanies. First there was a sunset that caused a deep stirring in her soul that she could not put into words. Then there was a time when the simple beauty of the flowers in her mother’s garden spoke to her of a simplicity for which her heart yearned. Simply by observing the beauty in nature she had become convicted of the existence of not simply a benign god but a loving, caring Father. “Imagine the joy I experienced when I learned that he had a name, and that it was Jesus”, she said with tender, moist eyes and a brilliant smile. All at once almost everyone started chiming in with nearly identical stories...1

As Christians, we are often reminded of our responsibility to be a light to non-believers around us in our lifestyle and words. Yet sometimes we seem to forget that God often lays silent building blocks of faith before we arrive. So what is God doing now in the lives of those who will believe? And what is our role in that process? How do our human efforts work together with God’s plans? If God doesn’t need us, then why does He want us to be involved at all?

A Word of Explanation

We are still in the “now” of Christ’s ‘eternity past to eternity future’ history. This lesson is about Christ’s position towards the unbeliever, but in a particular sense. Here it might help to clarify two types of unbelievers: One will come to faith in time, and one will not—only God knows the final outcome! Here, my mind stumbles trying to wrap my hands around what God knows from eternity and how that plays out in time. The New Testament does speak clearly of how Christ works in those coming from death to life in time. So, in this study, we’ll look at the question “What is Christ doing in the process of bringing someone to trust in Him?” These three passages paint a clear picture of this process. This will be the only time our study spans two books. Even though the 1 Corinthians passage comes first chronologically, I have flipped them because this order packs a greater theological punch. 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 answers more of the “how” question, and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 speaks to the “why” question.

Background for 2 Corinthians

Two weeks ago we studied a passage from First Corinthians. Between these two letters of Paul to the church at Corinth, false teachers had been stirring up the people to distrust Paul. They were accusing him of being proud, dishonest and unqualified. Paul had sent Titus to deal with these difficulties, and upon Titus’s return, heard of their change of heart. Thus, this second letter expresses thanks for their repentance and pleads with the remaining factions to accept his authority. This letter is believed to have been written from Macedonia about 6-18 months after First Corinthians. Many believe that there are possibly two letters to the Corinthians (one before First Corinthians, and one after) that have been lost. In this letter, Paul offers the most information about his own life and journey. Chapters 1-7 give a defense of his ministry philosophy; Chapters 8-9 discuss a collection for the saints; and in Chapters 10-13, Paul defends His apostleship2.

Context for 2 Corinthians 3-4

The two selected passages from 2 Corinthians highlight the ‘Christ-focused’ sections of Paul’s discussion about ministry. Both 3:12-18 and 4:3-6 fall into a larger portion explaining the boldness of a minister of the gospel in light of the superiority of Christian ministry to Mosaic ministry.

Suggested study schedule for this week:

Day 1: Read all of 2 Corinthians. What differences do you notice from 1 Corinthians?

Day 2: Read 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, noting the context of this week’s passages.

Day 3: Read 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 asking, “how does Christ work in the unbeliever?”

Day 4: Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 asking, “why does God do it this way?”

Day 5: Answer the “discussion questions”

Day 6: Answer the “application questions”

Day 7: Spend time in prayer and write one application point for this lesson

Other passages which highlight Christ and the unbeliever

2 Corinthians 2:14-17; Ephesians 2:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; 2 Peter 3:8-9

Discussion Questions: Grasping the Meaning

1. Read Exodus 34:29-35 which details the incident referred to in 2 Corinthians 3:13. Why did Moses minister with a veil? What is the veil representing in this passage, and what is the veil covering? What picture is Paul painting here3?

2. Why is meant by “For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read”? What is the comparison being drawn between Moses and Christ? How is (the ministry of) Christ different than (the ministry of) Moses?

3. Why does 2 Corinthians 4:4 say the veil still remains4?

4. In 2 Corinthians 4:6, how is the veil taken away? Notice the parallels in 4:4 and 4:65. (See also 2 Corinthians 3:16-17. Why do you think the Holy Spirit is mentioned here?)

The light of the

glorious gospel of

Christ who is the image of God.

The light of the

glorious knowledge of

God, in the face of Christ

5. What is the means God often uses to bring light? (See 2 Corinthians 3:12; 4:5; also 2 Co 2:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:23; Acts 26:17-18.)

6. Reread 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. What are the obstacles to faith given about the Greek and Jewish cultures mentioned here? How do these obstacles keep them from embracing the gospel?

7. In 1 Co. 1:27, what are the “foolish6“, “weak”, “low and despised” things, and “things that are not”?

8. What can we discern from Isaiah 29:13-16 and Jeremiah 9:23-24 about this passage?

9. What does this passage reveal about Christ’s role in the person coming to faith?

10. WHY does God do it this way? Why is God “pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21)?

Application Questions: Grasping the Heart

  1. Paul’s audience understood his vivid example about the old covenant and the veil over Moses’ face. What images could we paint regarding the ‘veils’ within our own society? Western/Eastern culture? The poor/rich? Post-modern generation? Baby boomers? A particular individual you are sharing with?
  2. These passages do not contain some of the ‘content’ of the gospel we are used to hearing. (There is no specific mention of His death and resurrection.) Rather, the focus here is more the “treasure” of the gospel. What is the gospel’s prize7?
  3. Using the imagery here in 1 and 2 Corinthians, how would you describe the lost person? What is ‘lostness’? And what is ‘conversion’?
  4. Describe a time when you saw this transformation process happen in someone, and you also got to play the role of messenger. Or perhaps in retrospect you see this process in your own conversion. How did these two (the transformation process and the role of the messenger) work together?
  5. These passages bring to light the interplay between the sole, supernatural work of God in conversion, and yet His use of people in the process. We know there is harm in emphasizing one over the other. I can become apathetic—”He does all the work, so why should I do anything?” Or we can be overly fearful—”Their conversion rests on how well I share.” Do you tend to swing in one of these directions? How can these passages encourage you hold these in tension…a deep trust in His sovereignty and yet a healthy sense of responsibility for His cause in the world?
  6. If conversion is God’s work from beginning to end, then why do you think He uses us to make His message known? He certainly doesn’t ‘need’ us, but usually, He uses people. So, since He does all the ‘saving’—why not the ‘sharing’ too?
  7. Sometimes we have been part of declaring the gospel at times when there is no response. We have been faithful to present the message, yet there is still no light. Who comes to mind? How might an understanding of these passages change the way you respond to them, and God on their behalf?
  8. Ponder the ‘foolishness’ and ‘weakness’ of the cross compared with the icons of wisdom and strength in your culture. Why does God purpose to thwart the world’s wisdom? Journal your thoughts.
  9. Share with one another what truths have been most meaningful to you. Spend a moment writing down the insights you have heard from others during this study that have enriched your own perspective.
  10. Christ, the light of the gospel, remover of the veil, the ‘foolish and weak’ wisdom of God. What about this week’s study has made Him appear more beautiful to you? Write a prayer expressing your final thoughts from this lesson and one application point for this week.

Group prayer requests

Lord Jesus,

A weak and crucified Messiah seems foolish to the world, and sometimes we miss the beauty of it too. Open our eyes to see the wonder of your unfathomable work and ways! Make us skilled in making you look beautiful to others, as you truly are! Use our words and lives to remove the veil and shine your light on those in need of your grace.


1 Michael Card, Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 27. 

2 Nelsons Bible Maps and Charts, 395-397.

3The word for “boldness” in 3:12 means ‘openly/publicly.’ You could say “barefaced”—in contrast to Moses’ veil. The same word is used in 1 John 2:28-29: “Little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have great confidence and not shrink away…”

4 We see an interesting thread in the use “minds” throughout 2 Corinthians. Trace this path: 2 Co 2:11; 2 Co 3:14; 2 Co 4:4; 2 Co 10:5; 2 Co 11:3. Here we find a specific involvement of the mind as someone comes to Christ. Yet, in 2 Co 2:15, “heart” is used synonymously with mind. The veil lies over the heart…Satan has blinded the mind. These are two pieces of the same puzzle. 

5For this insight, I am indebted to John Piper who gave a talk during our staff conference in Fort Collins in the summer of 2005.

6See the play on the word “foolishness” in these verses: 1 Co 1:18, 20, 21, 23; 2:14; 3:19.

7“The glory of Christ is the highest and best and final good that makes all the other good things promised in the gospel good. Justification is good news because it makes us stand accepted by the one whose glory we want to see and savor above all things. Forgiveness is good news because it cancels all the sins that keep me from seeing and enjoying the glory of Christ who is the image of God. Removal of wrath and salvation from hell are good news because now in my escape from eternal misery I find eternal pleasure beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ. Eternal life is good news because this is eternal life, Jesus said, that they know me and him who sent me. And freedom from pain and sickness and conflict are good news because, in my freedom from pain, I am no longer distracted from the fullest enjoyment of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” John Piper, What Makes the Good News Good?, Sermon on May 1, 2005 at, accessed March 17, 2007.

Related Topics: Character of God

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