Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

This is a beautiful description of the way we should be continually emerging in the development of our spirituality and Christian character, “from one degree of glory to another,” as we more and more reflect the very image of Christ. If we have truly encountered Christ, this should happen naturally, authentically, from the inside out.

But that hasn’t been the experience for many Christians. We are shaped by the circumstances of our lives, the people around us, the traditions and values that dominate in our environment. We try to follow the rules and regulations of the Christian community, and we’re always looking for the approval of its leaders.

I’ve been a pastor for 53 years, 44 of them in this church. I wish I could testify that I have observed the natural blossoming of Christ’s image in the lives of the people I care for. Or in my own life, for that matter. We have stayed pretty much the same people over time, and after all these years as believers in Jesus, we are still capable of acting very petty and selfish. What does this mean? Was Paul dreaming when he talked about our spiritual development “from one degree of glory to another”?

Actually, Paul wrote these words in a letter to a church congregation full of people whose lives clearly did not reflect the image of Christ. From reading his two epistles to the Corinthians, we learn that some of the church’s members were living by the moral standards of the indulgent seaport city where they lived, while others followed spiritual fads or used charismatic gifts to one-up each other. The church was divided into factions that were very harsh and unloving toward each other. In short, they were not displaying evidence that they were being spiritually transformed into the image of Christ. Yet, Paul said confidently that “all of us are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

I take this as Paul’s statement of faith that God is doing in each one of us the miraculous process of transformation he intends for us, in spite of external appearances. This means that, as long as I keep exposing myself spiritually to Jesus through prayer, Bible study and worship, inside of the George Van Alstine who continually falls short of his potential, sometimes dramatically, there will be a renewed me constantly re-emerging into a fresh reflection of the image of Christ. I think Paul is telling each one of us that. We need to believe it of ourselves and try to live up to the reality of what God is doing in us. And we need to believe it of each other, looking beyond the shallowness and inconsistency of the surface person, and seeing the new person being shaped inside. Then as a church congregation, we will be better able to present Christ to the community around us in a way that attracts people to him.

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By the way, thinking these thoughts has helped me in a surprising way. I have been troubled, as you probable have as, by the fact that we observe so many of our older people drift off into dementia, to the point where they aren’t even recognizable as the persons we once knew. How can a wise, respected spiritual leader turn into a bad-tempered child? Paul seems to be saying to me, “Don’t worry, God is still at work within, changing that person from one degree of glory to another. The best is yet to come.”

— Pastor George Van Alstine