Up until February this year, had I used the verb ‘unmasked’ you would probably have imagined that I was talking about having discovered something bad about a person. Nowadays it is more likely to refer someone who is not obeying government instructions to wear a face mask on transport, in shops etc. Whoever would have thought of that 6 months ago?!
Like a lot of things recently, this got me thinking about what the Bible says about masks. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t say anything. What I mean is; I know of no English translation that uses the word ‘mask’, BUT it does use the word ‘veil’ which is almost a synonym. So what can we discover about that?
As a general rule, the New Testament helps us understand the Old Testament, especially where OT passages are a bit obscure; but also, where NT passages refer to ancient Jewish customs and culture, the OT can help us understand their original historical context. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, ‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.
Now this may be a general rule, but in this case, I encountered a bit of a problem. In the Bible, there are 2 main uses of the word ‘veil’. One refers to the veil that divided the holy place and the most holy place in the Tabernacle or temple and so might better be translated as curtain or screen. The other refers to a face covering that was often used in Middle Eastern countries, especially by women, as is still true today, and in one specific example, it is used with reference to Moses. However, when looking at the two passages about Moses I didn’t immediately find the principle of understanding particularly helpful. Both OT and NT seemed a bit obscure and I had difficulty relating them. What do I mean? Well, let’s look at them.
The OT passage is found in Exodus 34 vs 29-35. The back story is that Moses had led the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea and they had arrived at Mount Sinai where they stayed for some considerable time. That was because God had some special lessons to teach them before they were to head north to the land which he had promised would be theirs. Accordingly, Moses used to climb the mountain and meet with God to learn what he had to tell the people. It’s at this point that we read that Moses put on a veil (or mask) over his face. What had happened was this: when Moses had spent time with the Lord, his face shone with the glory of having been in God’s presence and when the people saw this were afraid. So, it seems that the reason why Moses put on the mask was because the glory in his face gradually faded until he went back to meet with God again, and he did not want the people to see this glory fading away – to see that it was not permanent. In other words, Moses put a mask on essentially for the sake of the people.
Does that ring a bell today? Wearing a mask in this strange Covid crisis may give us some personal protection, but the medics are generally agreed that the greater benefit is in protecting others from any infected droplets we might otherwise spread as we breathe or cough them out.
In the NT, in 2 Corinthians 3 vs 7-18 Paul explains this incident to the new Christians in the church in Corinth – and that is where I struggled. Why? Because this time it seems that it is the people, not Moses, who are described as wearing a veil or mask. I had to meditate on this long and hard. Perhaps, because I now have the experience of wearing a mask regularly, I think I may have grasped what Paul was saying? Wearing a mask is not pleasant; it is a kind of barrier, a separation from the people I want to be close to. Wearing a mask hurts my ears and makes my glasses steam up and it’s sometimes difficult to see clearly when I am wearing it.
Paul continued with his explanation. In the time of Moses, apart from Moses himself, the people only had a limited knowledge of God. It was as if there was a mask or veil that stopped them seeing the full picture of God, and Paul, using figurative language, described this as a mask covering their hearts rather than their faces. Finally, Paul got to the crux of the matter – the ‘unmasking’. He made it clear that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world makes all the difference. When we turn and look to Jesus, it’s as if the mask has been removed. At last we see clearly what God is really like. We understand all that God through his Spirit has done for us. And – we can keep on looking to him without any danger of the glory fading. It’s here to stay. And better still, as we see God’s glory, it begins to rub off on us and gradually it gets brighter and brighter as we let him change our lives to be more like him.
Just one final thought brought me back to my original discovery of two apparently different uses of the word ‘veil’ in the Bible. Perhaps, after all, they are not so different. All through the OT and up to the time of Jesus, the way back to God, as revealed to the Jewish people, was blocked by the veil / curtain of the temple, and only the High Priest was allowed to enter – rather as Moses only had been able to meet with God on Mount Sinai. BUT, when Jesus died, this curtain was torn apart and the way back to God was opened up once for all, for everyone and for ever.
I’m sure that you, like me, will all be heartily glad when we can be ‘unmasked’, throw away those pesky face coverings and see one another clearly again. But – and here’s the really good news – we don’t have to wait until that time to see God in Jesus and draw close to him.