Head Covering: A Revelation of Jesus Christ

He is the head of the body, the church. Col. 1:18

I’ve just finished reading Frank Viola’s Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church: An Open Letter.

As always, Frank makes some good points. And he does it in an extremely readable way. I like what he says, and I would certainly recommend his article to anyone interested in the debate.

Yet there may be more to this issue. As Frank writes in his conclusion: “Perhaps more rounds are needed, but this is all I have time for at the moment. Maybe someday I’ll try to redress the deficiencies. So please accept it in that vein: It’s a stab at something, not a finished product.”

So this led me to write and share what is on my heart.

The Unbelievable Importance of Head Covering

No, that’s not a typo. And please don’t stop reading. Head covering is important. Extremely important. More important, I think, than what we have ever even begun to realise.

And yes, it is in the Bible.

Does this mean that I think the ladies should have scarves handy during times of fellowship? Not necessarily. (Did I hear a sigh of relief?).

Form, Essence, Kisses and Feet

Perhaps an explanation will be in order. When something is important it does not mean that its form is immutable. For instance, brotherly love is an extremely important issue in Scripture. Paul feels so strongly about this that he commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss. Not once, but four times! (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Likewise, Peter tells his readers to greet one another with a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14).

How about that? The Bible speaks more about the necessity of kissing one another than it does about ninety percent of the things most Christians are happy to split churches over. To make matters worse, Augustine and other early Christian primary sources tell us that the holy kiss was a mouth to mouth affair and not, as is oftentimes assumed, mouth to cheek or cheek to cheek.

I once knew an elderly gentleman who took these verses extremely seriously. Before services he guarded the front door of the Pentecostal church I frequented like a lion guarding a fresh carcass. No one made it past him without receiving a sudden forceful kiss.

Imagine being slapped on the mouth with wet sandpaper. That’s what it felt like. Twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays.

The experience was neither holy nor very loving. In his sincere effort to preserve the form of brotherly love the elderly brother lost its essence. His actions had a reverse effect. Ironically, he would have been more faithful to Paul and Peter’s instructions if he hadn’t stuck to their formula. A big old bear hug (holy hug?) would have communicated far more love than one of his kisses.

And then… there is the issue of foot washing. Remember Jesus’ crystal clear command? “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 14-15).

Nothing ambiguous here. Yet there is a broad consensus amongst most Christians that you would probably be a far greater blessing to your neighbor if you washed his car instead of his feet.

The principle is simple. You cannot read the Bible without considering its cultural context. Frank has done a superb job clarifying this in his open letter, so I won’t elaborate on it. Suffice it to say that brotherly kisses and foot washing were as common in Jesus’ time as Google searches are in ours. And so they were ideally suitable as vehicles to communicate certain gospel truths.

Hairless Harlots

Now here’s an interesting point – the myth that the prostitues in Corinth had a habit of shaving their heads and that this had something do with Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians.

I have never heard a single person argue that Jesus commanded foot washing because pimps had dirty feet. Or that Peter and Paul’s obsession with kisses on the mouth sprouted from an earnest attempt to distinguish the early Christians from the cult of Basilius whose members kissed one another in the neck.

Yet the issue of head covering has birthed some of the most outlandish eisegetical acrobatics ever.

Why? Because it is easy to figure out why kissing and foot washing were important to the early Christians. To conclude that there are more preferable methods by which we can greet and serve one another today does not require much thinking either. And so Christians don’t generally see a need to come up with all kinds of reasons to explain their seeming disregard of a Biblical imperative.

On the other hand, the symbolism behind Paul’s instructions regarding head covering has always been a fuzzy for most Christians. Oh, we understand that head covering for women was as much a part of the first century Christian experience as was kissing and foot washing. What we do not understand is the spiritual significance behind it. We get the form of the thing. It is the essence that befuddles us. And so it is very difficult to adapt the form whilst preserving the content.

This means that we are hard pressed to come up with explanations as to why it is no longer necessary to take 1 Corinthians 11 seriously. Our theological confusion prohibits us to find a suitable contemporary alternative or corresponding symbol for whatever the point was that Paul was making, and so we simply wish the whole thing away. But we dare not do so without reason, and so we come up with novel rationalisations that transmogrify themselves into ecclesiastical myths before too long.

You might have heard that Corinth’s ladies of the night had the strange habit of shaving their heads, and that this is the reason why Paul said that a woman without head covering might just as well go ahead and rid herself of her locks.

This information has proven to be a relief for many who have struggled with the issue, and the reason is obvious. If we can prove that the reference to the shaved head was merely a Corinthian issue, then it becomes much easier to suggest that the head covering was as well, for the two are clearly inextricably linked in Paul’s mind: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.”

Yet the historical evidence backing the prostitute theory is flimsy, to say the least. Most contemporary commentaries that take this line simply quote from other (usually slightly less contemporary) commentaries. Understandably so, for real historical evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, a brief survey of the subject in question reveals that there are many versions of this idea (as is the case with most urban legends), with some of them quite contradictory.

Still, it is easier to overlook these facts than to live with the implications of accepting that Paul was perhaps making a deep and spiritually profound point. And so we resort to shoddy exegesis to override our cognitive dissonance. We would rather trivialise Paul than revert to a tradition that would make us the laughing stock of the evangelical world.

But would God really put us in such a predicament? I doubt it.

Why We are Confused

Perhaps this is a good opportunity to allow Paul to speak for himself. (When last have you read this passage attentively?).

Note that I have digressed from the conventional numbering of the verses and divided the passage into six paragraphs. Each is followed by a commentary:

1. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Need I say more?

2. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Here, I believe, lies the key. Note that Paul is expressing a wish. He wants us to realise that there is a divine order. The man stands under the headship of God and Christ. The woman does so too, but she also stands under the headship of the man. She has “two heads” whilst the man only has one (for the purposes of this discussion I shall refer to Christ and God as a single “head”.)

Now here we need to note something. Even though women regularly wore head covering in the world of Jesus and Paul, there was no unanimity as to what exactly was symbolized by it. A quick glance at the literature of the period makes that abundantly clear. Furthermore, men regularly also wore head covering, and they were oftentimes expected to do so when praying. We cannot therefore assume that Paul was reinforcing a well-known and generally accepted understanding of the meaning of head covering in this passage.

Also, take into account that the so-called ”ancient world” might seem like a homogenous society from our point of view, but that it certainly was not. In this regard I highly recommend Josh Spiers online article “A Spontaneous Post About ‘The Bible Days”.” It is a concise but helpful commentary on the glib way in which we use the term, and a profitable read for anyone interested in the debate (or in the Bible, for that matter).

The point is that we find ourselves on very shaky ground when we attempt to explain what Paul “really meant” in this passage by appealing to the cultural peculiarities of one Roman city in 1st century Greece. To make matters worse, in this case we are speaking about a single cultural peculiarity.

Do we really think that a trivial and insignificant temporary measure would have found its way into the majesty of what we know as First Corinthians? Do we really think Paul would have introduced it with the two sentences above and concluded it with the statement in paragraph 6 of our text (verse 16) if that were the case?

Lastly, even if it can be irrefutably proven that some damsels of ill repute shaved their hair in Corinth, how do we know that this was the inspiration behind Paul’s comment? Have we never heard of circumstantial evidence?

Allowing Scripture to Interpret Itself

What would happen if we forget about trying to find some cultural cause behind Paul’s statements and rather look for an explanation in the passage itself? What would happen if we assumed that Paul was in fact interpreting the symbolism behind head covering not from an existing cultural understanding but from a whole new vantage point, namely the hitherto unheard of order of authority above? Does that not make more sense, especially in light of the fact that he starts this sentence with “I want you to know that…”?

I believe it does. I also believe that the passage pretty much interprets itself when we take Paul’s three levels of authority as a paradigm for unlocking the mystery.

But before we consider this, let us look at the third paragraph:

3. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.

The important words in this passage are “just as though”. A woman’s uncovered head during prayer or prophecy is so similar to a shaved head that she might as well go right ahead and shave her hair off.

Now why might that be? If we disregard the prostitute theory, and limit ourselves to the text, the explanation is embarrassingly obvious. It follows in the fourth and fifth paragraphs:

4. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

5. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

Note the last sentence: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” This sentence has proven so befuddling to some commentators that they concluded that the entire covering issue is resolved if a woman has long hair. The long hair is thus seen as the covering spoken of in paragraph 3.

But this is not what the text says. Paul says that the absence of a head covering is “just as though her head were shaved.” He likens the two by saying that they are similar, not that they are one and the same thing. Long hair is not “the” head covering”, but “a” head covering”. And herein lies the key to Paul’s “just as though” statement. If a woman does not honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 3, then neither should she honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 5. Disregarding the one is exactly the same as disregarding the other. That is how great the similarity is!

This raises a question: How is a head covering made of fabric “similar” to the natural head covering of hair? Obviously they both “cover” the head of the woman, but what does this mean?

The answer, as I have pointed out, lies in Paul’s introductory statement regarding God’s order of authority. Let us look at it again:

Do you see that the woman has “two heads”? Now note that Paul defines a head covering as “a sign of authority” in paragraph 4. Authority is a rather abstract concept, and so it needs to be signified, which is what a visible covering is all about. And herein lies the key:

2 Heads = 2 Authorities = 2 Signs of authority = 2 Coverings.

A woman has two heads under whose protection and covering she finds herself, and so two symbols are required to distinguish between the two. The covering of fabric (COF) represents one of these, and the covering of hair (COH) the other. It is, I believe, as simple as that.

Which is Which?

This raises another question: “Which is which?”

One way of answering this is to look at Paul’s instructions regarding the COF. This covering becomes operational when a woman prays or prophesies, that is, when she speaks directly to God or when God speaks directly through her. Clearly she finds herself directly under the authority of God in both cases, and so we can safely assume that the COF is a sign of God’s authority.

On the other hand, Paul forbids the women in Corinth to speak in the assembly and instructs them to “ask their husbands at home” if they desire to learn (1 Cor. 14:34-35). This type of speaking is clearly distinguished from chapter 11’s admissible ministry of prayer and prophesy (assuming that Paul was referring to the assembly of believers in paragraphs 3 to 5 above), and herein the woman is to respect the authority of her husband.

We can thus safely assume that the COH is a sign of the husband’s authority. This is the “natural” state of affairs and explains why women worldwide are generally associated with having long hair. Nature itself has provided the female species with a “sign of authority” on their heads, signifying the universal truth that “the head of the woman is man”. Men need no such sign, and so their hair is designed to thin and fall out. This explains why it is a “disgrace” for a man to have long hair.

These observations are vital. But there is actually a much simpler way to get to the same answer. We merely need to compare Paul’s levels of authority with the physical order in which the coverings appear on the woman to find it:

The answer is the same as the one above, and the message is clear: A woman wearing a head covering is a living, walking, talking representation of God’s order of authority. When she ministers she does so under the covering of one who covers both her and her husband. Her ministry is never an independent one. It is not done apart from her husband, but rather under the authority of one who is greater than both her and her husband.

This is the meaning of the sentence “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (Par 5 of our text). When a woman ministers she remains under her head, but for the duration of her ministry her head is covered by the greater head of God and Christ. As the symbols clearly communicate: She still has her hair, but it is not seen. Rather, God’s authority is seen. And so her ministry is legitimised and sanctioned by the calling and gifting of God. She is “in the Lord”, and yet she is not “independent of man”.

This explains why a woman who does not acknowledge the symbolism of the COF might just as well be consistent and deny the symbolism of the COH. If she does not want to indicate God’s authority during times of prayer or prophecy, then neither should she indicate het husband’s authority during the rest of the time. She might just as well shave her head. Denying one symbol of authority is tantamount to denying the other.

The Mystery of Ephesians 5

The symbolism makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining one of the greatest doctrines of Scripture, namely Paul’s “great mystery” of Ephesians 5.

The picture of the man leaving his father’s house to cleave to his wife is really a picture of Christ and the church, Paul says. So is the ensuing marriage relationship. Wives should submit to their husbands in everything as the church submits to Christ, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. The church is the “wife of the Lamb”, we read in Revelation 19. Similarly, the wife is the body of the husband as the church is the body of Christ. They are “one flesh”. The woman “came from man” and were “created for man” (par 4 of our text). They came from “one flesh” (She is “flesh of my flesh”, Adam said in Genesis 2:23) and were separated with the express purpose of becoming “one flesh” again (They shall “become one flesh”, God said in Genesis 2:24).

Why was the separation necessary? Even though the woman was “in the man” in the beginning, a relationship between them was impossible. He was regarded as being “alone”, which was “not good” (Gen. 2:18). The only suitable helpmeet, it turned out, was one that had not been “formed out of the ground” (2:19) but from Adam’s own bone and flesh. The woman had to come “from man” in order to be suitable “for man”.

In this sense the woman is the “glory” of man. Her existence speaks of her origin, and so glorifies it, just as the man is depicted as being the “glory and image of God” in the same paragraph. She once was covered by man, but then uncovered to be covered again, albeit in a glorious form the second time around. The man is to cover her as Christ covers the church. He is to love and protect her with his very life, just as Christ did.

Throughout all of the above, the mystery is revealed. The church, who was chosen “in Him, before the foundation of the world” in Ephesians’ first chapter, is presented “to Himself glorious” in Ephesians’ fifth chapter.

The refrain of Ephesians, of course, is the term “in Him.” The church is born from the spirit, not the flesh. She has her origin in Jesus Christ Himself. She was taken out of Him, as it were, in order to become one with Him. She is both “from Him” and “for Him”. She was uncovered for the express purpose of being covered “in Him” yet again.

It is for this reason that the issue of “covering” is no small one, as pointed out at the beginning of this article.

Man Born from Woman…

The beauty of this story concluded with an interesting remark. Note again the sentence in paragraph 5: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”

Even though the woman was taken out of the man, the man in his present state cannot exist without the woman. He is “born” from her, even as Jesus Christ was “born from woman” (Gal. 4:4). This reveals the remarkable place of the woman in God’s eternal purpose. It also provides the most probable explanation as to why God has created the hair of a woman as a symbol of the man as her “covering.” Even though she is covered and protected by it, it is something that miraculously traces its origin to her own body, that begins within it, comes out of it and grows to ultimately cover it.

She births her own hair, to put it differently.

Women and Ministry

As mentioned earlier, the symbolism of the two “coverings” makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining that which is symbolised by marriage. The authority of a woman’s husband is never removed during her ministry, but rather subjected to an even higher authority, namely one who “covers” both the woman and the man.

Clearly this is the issue underlying Paul’s statements about women and ministry. In writing to Timothy, he says: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

The order of creation, which has as its purpose the revelation of Christ and the church, must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. That is Paul’s main concern. The mystery of marriage is now revealed, and so the headship of Christ and submission of the church must be consistently modeled in the relationship between men and women throughout the churches. This may explain why the passage is concluded with the following sentence:

6. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

This has nothing to do with sexism, discrimination or cultural peculiarities, but with God’s eternal purpose in Jesus Christ. Just as God has called some to be apostles and others to be evangelists, he has assigned different ministries to the sexes as far as headship and submission are concerned. Women are created as the “weaker partner” (1 Pet. 3:7), a fact that is so evident and indisputable that we do not even need a spiritual voice like Peter’s to inform us of it. The Wimbledon finals can do that. (Note: Some commentators seem to have found this statement offensive. What I meant was that the physical biological differences between the sexes are so obvious that women and men compete in different categories throughout the world of sports.)

The biological peculiarities of a woman’s physical strength and hair, and even the temperamental peculiarities that have given rise to books about the sexes and the planets, all testify to the fact that she has a very specific calling regarding God’s great declaration of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church. The mother of all grand narratives needs to be proclaimed, and for that to happen the actors and the script must be in place. The woman has been given very specific lines in this drama, and it was the scriptwriter’s prerogative to do so.

And so, when it comes to issues of leadership and authority, the woman’s calling is not to lead but to submit “as the church submits to Christ”. This submission is so much a part of her calling that it should even be evident during those times when God uses a woman powerfully in the assembly of the saints. Hence Paul’s extremely practical, albeit it novel interpretation and application of the well-known tradition of head covering.

The principle is clear: A woman’s exclusive calling regarding the above was never intended to inhibit her ministry. Rather, it was to define it according to the overriding message of the Bible. God’s eternal passion is for his bride, and he has chosen the woman as the glorious portrayal of her. This is not to inhibit her ministry, but to expand it beyond anything imaginable.

A Contemporary Corresponding Symbol?

This brings us to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Once we understand the essence portrayed by a now culturally defunct symbol, such as brotherly love communicated through holy kisses, how do we find a contemporary corresponding symbol, such as the “holy hug”?

Is there a present-day symbol that can do for us what head covering did for the early Christians?

To answer this, let us consider some of the practical implications of head covering during a Corinthian church service. The moment a woman covered her head it would have been an indication to men and angels that she was about to minister ”in the Lord”. She was not going against Paul who did not allow women to speak in church and she was not dishonouring her husband. Her head covering was a “sign of authority”, pretty much like a policeman’s uniform that represents the authority of the state. As such she would immediately have an audience, and no one would wonder what she was about to do or why.

Whilst part of this arrangement clearly expresses the timeless symbolism associated with head covering, it would appear that another part does not. In Corinth, it seems, the head covering doubled as a measure to maintain some sort of order during the assembly of the saints, according to first century standards. This included the enforcement of culturally excepted norms regarding the way in which women were expected to behave in public. It may also include Paul’s instruction regarding a specific problematic situation in Corinth.

The obvious way to do this was to apply the principle of head covering as a measure. Paul was not acting outside of his apostolic jurisdiction and he was not using God’s word as some sort of a weapon. Rather, he was merely applying a spiritual principle to regulate a meeting in accordance with culturally accepted norms, or to address a problem specific to the church in Corinth.

But we live in different times, and in our day and age it is not improper for women to speak in public meetings. And so there is no need to regulate their speaking or to inhibit them in the same way that Paul did, and certainly no need to use some or other symbol in doing so.

Yet this does not mean that the symbol of head covering can go the way of the Dinosaurs. This fact has been missed by many expositors of the passage. As we have seen, head covering represents infinitely more than a temporary and circumstantial application to regulate the order of a service according to culturally accepted norms. To reduce it to such a level is to miss Paul’s point altogether and to make the baby part of the bath water.

For example, Jesus’ words “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” contain a timeless principle applied in a specific cultural setting. Christians today need not be concerned with looking for Caesar, but that does not mean that they don’t have to pay their taxes. Similarly, a woman’s ministry is still subject to the high calling of reflecting the church’s position as the bride of the groom, and in this sense the symbolism of head covering remains relevant.

So how do we substitute that? How we transfer the timeless truth of Paul’s teaching to the church of today?

To be honest, I don’t think we can or should. At least not by using some or other material substitute, ritual or ceremony. If we agree that it is not advisable to reinstitute a Corinthian type of head covering, then we are left with the bare essence of Paul’s teaching, and that should be enough. We are to view and accept this matter in faith, and apply the principle without the benefit of its form.

Most of us no longer wash the feet of the saints with water and soap, but we adhere to the timeless principle underlying it through random acts of loving service. In the same way, the picture of Christ and his bride must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. This will do justice to Paul’s teaching.

Of course there is a practical implication here. And certainly some discussion is called for, which is what I hope to stir up with this post. What does “submission” look like when the saints gather in the 21st century? If we believe this to be a timeless, non-negotiable principle that must be modeled at all times for the sake of revealing the mystery of Ephesians 5, how do we do it? How does it impact on the public ministry of the sexes?

Remember that we are not arguing here for or against the principle of submission. My request for comments is based on a very definite hypothesis: The submission of a woman to her husband has absolutely nothing to do with the cultural peculiarities of the “Bible times” or the ungodly suppression of women, the latter being a conclusion that is so obvious in my mind that I do not even wish to touch on it. Rather, God has ordained it for the purpose of revealing the grand narrative of the ages in and though the single institution that pretty much makes the world go around: The relationship between a man and a woman, especially as it culminates in marriage.

If this is really the issue, and if Paul’s instructions on head covering was a vital teaching to illustrate and enforce this, how does it impact on the way we meet today? Does it restrict a woman’s public ministry in any way? If so, how? Is Paul’s practical instructions to Timothy, regarding women and teaching, still valid today? Are their forms of ministry that are incompatible with the calling of reflecting the position of the submissive “bride”?

I have some thoughts on this, such as that the “elders who rule” were men for this very reason, and that they should remain so in our day and age. But mostly, I would like to hear what you think, and I would especially like to hear from my sisters in Christ. I believe the above interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 provides a perspective that calls for a new type of discussion, one that is free from the typical politics that have plagued these debates in the past.

I suspect we have lost sight of the main issue. If so, it would be refreshing to explore this topic yet again with the main issue back in its place.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Ministers of the New Covenant 4: The Effects of the Ministry

The next point that Paul makes flows logically out of everything that has been said thus far: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”

Paul answers the obvious question: “If it is not my affair to interfere with the impact that God’s glory has on people, what about those who do not see the glory and who do not respond? Am I not to go out my way to try and convince them? Surely I cannot just leave them?” His answer could well have been predicted. People who are lost and perishing are so not because they have not had the gospel explained in a fantastic enough way, but because the veil prohibiting them from seeing the glory has not been removed. “It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away” (3:14), Paul reminds us.

Outside of Christ, the minds of unbelievers are blinded by the god of this age. Even religious people, such as the Jews, suffer from this curse: “Even today, when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But when anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (3:15). The solution for spiritual blindness, then, is to turn to Christ the Lord. It can never be anything else. Where this has not happened, no amount of manipulation can remove the veil. To try and do create artificial sight by using all kinds of manipulative tactics, thinking that we are assisting God, is carnal and foolish.

We have already referred to the next verse, but it is fitting to do so once again after having said the above: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Clearly this is the choice facing the preacher of God’s word. Either he can preach Christ, or himself. Preaching Christ involves pointing people to Christ, and it happens where the preacher understands that Christ alone can remove the veil. When a preacher is misled to think he himself can remove the veil, his preaching will not be Christ-focused, but self-focused. The party who is thus seen as the revealing agent of God’s light and glory will of necessity receive the prominent place in the preaching. When we understand that Christ alone can remove the veil, we shall never be tempted to preach ourselves.

Perhaps the best example of such preaching is to be found in the life and ministry of John the Baptist, a man who was born to point people to Christ. His life and reason for being was defined by one powerful sentence: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The next day he saw Jesus passing by and he repeated the words: “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35). His ministry was the same as the ministry of every minister of the New Covenant. He pointed Christ out to the people, he prepared the way for the Lord. As the veil began to be removed, John purposefully began to phase himself into the background: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30), he said. Ministers and Christian leaders would do well to look in the mirror from time to time and say out loud with the prophet: “I am not the Christ but am send ahead of him.” (John 3:27).

Indeed, preparing the way for Christ is what the New Covenant ministry is all about. We do not preach ourselves, we preach Christ.

Ministers of the New Covenant 3: The Method of the Ministry

The first implication for Christian workers, as ministers of the New Covenant, has to do with the practical way in which they minister to other people. Our methodology is changed once we understand the nature and the source of the glorious ministry entrusted to us, and it can never be the same again.

3.1 We Set Forth the Truth Plainly

In verse 2 Paul goes on to describe exactly how the methods of our ministry are affected. He says that instead of losing heart, “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”

The conclusion drawn by Paul is a very logical one. Our business is to reflect the glory of the Lord, and this glory is unsurpassed in its greatness. Even the most glorious appearance of God in the history of mankind, when God descended on Mount Sinai in fire (Exodus 19:18) to give Moses the Ten Commandments, is considered as “no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (3:10) of the New Covenant.

The message can hardly be clearer. No human being can ever imitate what happened on Sinai, let alone add to the glory of the New Covenant. If this is the case, then it is a futile exercise to try and do so. There is no requirement for us to try and increase the glory or make it more appealing. We do not have to use deceptive strategies to entice people into the Kingdom of God. We do not have to distort the word of God to try and make it more comprehensible. “On the contrary”, Paul says, we set “forth the truth plainly”. Is that not what a mirror does? It is a mere reflector of reality, and nothing more.

Likewise, we are called to merely testify to the surpassing glory. We point to it, but we do not interfere with it. The glory is great enough to make its own impression.

3.2 We Commend Ourselves to Every Man’s Conscience

Paul says something else which is noteworthy: “We commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”

A man’s conscience is that part used of God to speak to him. When someone has lost the ability to listen to his conscience, then he has lost the ability to listen to the Spirit of God. The world, however, does not speak to the conscience of a person. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the love of the world is to be identified with the lusts of the eyes, the lusts of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16).

The world appeals to that which a person can see and feel, and to that which boosts his or her ego. These three components of man constitute what we call the sinful nature. The first sin committed in Eden, which is a prototype of all sins that were to follow, teaches us the same lesson. Eve “saw” that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also “desirable” for gaining wisdom. Behind the lusts of her eyes and her flesh, as we all know, was the boastful pride of life: She wanted to be like God, as the serpent said she could be.

This is how the enemy operates still to this day, and it is how he gets to the will of a person. God never uses such shameful tactics, and neither does he allow his servants to do so. Like God, we are called to address the conscience of those we speak to. A sincere conscience will detect the voice of God, whereas a hardened conscience cannot do so. We are not called to compensate for the spiritual deafness of those we speak to.

Oftentimes it is a great temptation for a Christian worker to use other tactics in convincing a person whose conscience seems unable to respond to the plain truth of the gospel. Such tactics Paul calls deception, a secret and shameful distortion of the Word of God. Literally, this is what Satan did in the garden of Eden to convince his potential converts: He distorted the word of God (“Did God really say…?”), he deceived (“You shall surely not die…”), and all of this was done in a secret and shameful manner.

The temptation to preach the gospel according to the manipulative communication tactics of the devil and the world is a great one, and prohibited by God.

3.3 A Warning to the Modern Church

This point is much more important than we may realise. We live in an age that is highly pragmatic and results orientated. The technological, management and motivational revolutions of the past few decades have changed the world in an unprecedented way. It has created a philosophy of achievement, a success mentality that has seeped into every area of life, the church’s included. According to it, there is an answer for every problem, a way past any stumbling block. Everything can be planned, plotted, programmed and achieved. We are masters of our destiny and nothing can stop us from getting there.

In spite of the alleged accomplishments that this thinking has led to in the worlds of business and economics, and even in the private lives of individuals, it has nothing to do with the power or the methods of the Holy Spirit. The success of the gospel does not depend on man’s will or effort, but on God’s grace. God’s grace is strongest when man is weakest, a point that is clearly made in the next few verses. The “success at all costs” mentality detracts from the great doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation, and elevates man to the level of God.

If we return to that initial fateful sin once more, we shall see that the first motivational speaker in the history of humanity was a serpent. He introduced the concept of possibility thinking into a world governed by the providence and love of a most powerful God, and it shattered that world forever. The great error of Adam and Eve was to think that they were to take responsibility for that which was, in fact, God’s responsibility. Satan might have called it the maximisation of their potential, but God called it rebellion. The serpent has not changed his tactics in all the millennia since then, and we, it seems, are still as gullible as we were back then. The foolish assumption, that we can act as though we are God, lies at the root of all sin.

3.4 Uzzah’s Fatal Mistake

I mentioned earlier that the New Covenant ministry can be likened to the ministry of Uzzah and Ahio (1 Chronicles 13) who guided the ark on a cart. We are like them in the sense that we are carriers of the glory for the sake of God.

The story of Uzzah and Ahio teaches us something else, though. As one point in their journey the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark. We are told that the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and that he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. Uzzah died because he tried to compensate for what seemed to be a threat to God’s glory. In his he has become an eternal symbol of the flesh of man trying to interfere when the reputation of God seems to be under threat.

God does not allow this. He can protect his own glory, and he does not need our assistance. People ask: “How can God kill a man for doing that which was only natural and instinctive?” To this we have to answer that the price of one life is a small price to pay for the eternal testimony of God’s transcendence and glory that need not the arm of man to support it.

Much of the modern church has become like Uzzah, feeling that without their assistance the glory of God is under threat. We interfere with the majesty of God. We want to stabilise an ark that seems wobbly to us. We do this in a multitude of ways, and we do not realise that we are working against ourselves and against the purposes of God.

It is for this reason that Paul has the courage to speak the plain truth of God’s Word, and to direct himself to the conscience of each one he speaks to. He is not deceived into thinking that he can accomplish more than the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. He does not distort or go beyond the word of God, and neither does he allow any minister of the new covenant to do so.

3.5 We Do Not Preach Ourselves

In verse 5 Paul points to another way in which our methodology has been affected by the nature and source of the New Covenant ministry: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

In the light of that which has already been discussed above, it becomes obvious why Paul says this. If it is true that our ministry is one of reflecting the Lord’s glory and spreading his fragrance and aroma, then we shall be foolish to preach ourselves. It is not about us, it is about him. We do not possess the glory, we merely carry it. We dare not preach in such a way that the focus falls on us. It should always be on Christ.

It is told that the donkey who carried Jesus into Jerusalem went home that night and boasted to his friends and family about what had happened. He had never noticed who sat on his back and was thoroughly convinced that the uproar was about him. The story might make us smile, but the fact is that many of us are like that donkey. When we reflect the glory of the Lord and we see the effect that it has on people, we are tempted to think that there is something special about us.

(Next Post: The Effects of the Ministry)

Ministers of the New Covenant 2: The Source of the Ministry

After having explained the nature of the New Covenant ministry, Paul continues by pointing to the source of the ministry. It is as though he anticipates the obvious question: “If this ministry is so glorious, where can I get hold of it? Where does it come from?”

His answer is clear: We have this ministry “through God’s mercy”. It is not something we have fabricated, or something that originated because of anything we have done. We have no part in its creation or in the fact that it has been entrusted to us. It is given to us solely by the mercy and grace of God.

This is a very important principle, and it is is emphasised throughout the first few chapters of 2 Corinthians. Note the following verses which all underline our total reliance on God as ministers of the New Covenant, and the fact that the New Covenant ministry in all its glory is solely “from God”:

Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 1:9

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. 1:21

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in truimphal procession in Christ and through us spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 2:14

Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.

He has made us competent as ministers of a New Covenant. 3:6

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 3:18

Therefore, since through God’s ministry we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 4:6

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 4:7

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 5:18

It can hardly be clearer. The acting party in each and every case is none other than God Himself. Understanding the source of the New Covenant ministry is essential to understanding the nature of it. It is a ministry of reflecting the glory of God, and it is ministry designed, sustained and given by Him and Him alone. In short, it is His ministry!

One may think that nothing remains to be said after these two very important points have been brought to our attention. Yet Paul is not finished. He uses the rest of chapter 4 to expound the implications of having received this glorious ministry in the way just described.

(Next Post: The Method of the Ministry)

Ministers of the New Covenant 1: The Nature of the Ministry

Years ago I spoke to a group of Christian workers on what it means to be a “minister of the New Covenant.” It turned out to be one of the most unforgettable mornings of my life. The message was transcribed on request, and I thought it would be a good idea to divide it into a series of blog posts.


In his final letter to Timothy, the young Christian worker at Ephesus, Paul writes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Paul “finished the race”, not only as a believer, but also as a Christian worker. It is clear that he expects his readers to do the same.

How did he do it? What was the secret behind his perseverance?

Paul’s Letter to the Church at Corinth

The answer is provided in another of Paul’s letters: His second letter to the Corinthians.

In the first verse of chapter 4 he says something remarkable: “We do not lose heart.“ We need to note that he is not talking about the Christian life, but about the Christian ministry. The whole context, starting from 2:12, deals with the issue of “ministers of the New Covenant”. Paul is therefore saying: “As ministers of the New Covenant, i.e. as Christian ministers, we do not lose heart, we do not give up.”

Is there a reason behind this statement? Can we learn something from him that we can apply practically as ministers of the New Covenant so that we, too, shall not lose heart? Does Paul give us some kind of underlying motive as to why he makes such a bold statement?

He does indeed.

If we read the sentence we shall see that it begins with Paul’s classic “therefore”. This tells us that the reason for his statement is to be found in the preceding passage. It is as though he is saying: “In the light of what I have just shared with you, it becomes clear why we do not lose heart.”

This observation is confirmed when we read the rest of the sentence: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry…” The preceding passage is about the nature of the New Covenant ministry, and Paul is concluding his teaching by making a practical application: It is as though he says: “Therefore, since we have this ministry, a ministry that I have just explained to you, we do not lose heart.”

Our answer, then, is to be found in the particular nature of the New Covenant ministry of which we have become ministers. If we understand the peculiar nature of the ministry, we shall also discover the secret of persevering in the ministry.

1. The Nature of the Ministry

What is the nature of this ministry? The preceding passage makes it very clear: It is a ministry that reflects the glory of Christ. Note especially verse 18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Paul has an interesting way of explaining this ministry of reflecting the glory of Christ. He uses as his point of departure the great minister of the Old Covenant: Moses. In a sense we have the same ministry as Moses, Paul shows us, albeit with one very important difference: The ministry of the New Covenant is much more glorious.

The analogy can hardly be clearer. We, like Moses, have been somewhere. We have seen something, and we are affected. The glory of that which we have seen has rubbed off on us, and we are now returning to the camp as ministers of the covenant in all its glory.

We are, therefore, carriers of the glory. Like Uzza and Ahio (1 Chronicles 13) who moved the Ark of the Covenant in a cart, in all its power and glory, every Christian worker carries the New Covenant in all its power and glory into the assembly of the people. The focus is not on us, but on the glory of the treasure we are carrying. Our ministry can best be described as a ministry of reflection. We are not the treasure, the glory of God is. We are not the focus, the glory of God is.

This fact is confirmed by another verse earlier on in the same passage (2:14). Here the New Covenant ministry is described as a “triumphal procession in Christ” led by God, who through us “spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him”.

The picture that comes to mind is that of the priest carrying a censer and spreading the fragrance of the incense. Once again, the minister is depicted as a mere carrier of something extraordinary, not as one extraordinary in and of himself.

There is, however, an important difference between Moses and us. When Moses returned from the mountain the radiance of the glory had to be veiled. It was too much to look at. But when the New Covenant is ministered, no veil is necessary.

We find the reason in 3:14: “Only in Christ is it taken away.” Verse 16 reads: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”

Jesus Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, which is why the glory is unveiled in the New Covenant. As a minister of the Old Covenant, Moses did not have this privilege. The glory, therefore, had to be veiled.

(Next Post: The Source of the Ministry)

Why Wait Until Death?

“Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth…” Psalm 39:4-5

I regularly visit a variety of great Christian blogs and usually receive much from them. Yet the blog that has had the greatest practical impact on my life is not a Christian one. Ironically, I only spent about a minute or two reading it and never visited it again.

The blog is Bronnie Ware’s, an Australian nurse who spent a number of years working in palliative care. Whilst caring for her patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, Bronnie began noting that the regrets they had were remarkably similar.

She started a blog, recorded her observations and struck a nerve. It attracted three million visitors in its first year and birthed the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Here they are:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It was the second one that got to me. In Bronnie’s own words: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. “ Talk about a life-changing revelation.

Bronnie does not address spirituality, but her blog reveals a remarkable truth: Dying people are extremely clear thinkers.

David understood this, and so he prayed the prayer above, leaving us with a magnificent insight: We need not wait for death to see through the facade of our lives. We can do so right now.

One Bread, Many Pieces

The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 1 Corinthians 10:16 – 17

Over the past two decades the subject of Christian unity has become a big issue in our country. With the dawn of the new South Africa many churches and denominations were forced, for the first time, to review their beliefs and confessions in this regard, leading to fierce debates in the media and elsewhere.

According to the apostle Paul, the basis of Christian unity has nothing to do with cultural similarities, an allegiance to the same creed or the desire for similar worship styles or liturgies.

Unity is not uniformity, in other words.

The basis of our unity is to be found in one place only, namely our participation in Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that Paul rebuked the Corinthians, earlier on in the very same letter, for their schisms and sectarian tendencies by asking one simple question: “Is Christ divided?” (1:13)

In chapter 11 Paul expands on this theme by referring to the fact that Christ broke the one bread and distributed the pieces amongst his followers, saying “this is my body”. He took our brokenness and disunity on him and in its place provided us with his unity and wholeness.

The implication of this divine transaction is quite clear: We each possess a portion of Christ, and unless we unite as believers and express our spiritual unity visibly, his image will remain invisible. In our unity he will be made manifest.

As John Michael Talbot reminds us in one of his songs: “Christ has no body here but yours.”