“Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men” (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).
In the closing verses of 2 Corinthians chapter two, Paul the Apostle asked the following question in regard to the work of ministering God’s Word: “…who is adequate for such a task as this? Only those who, like ourselves, are men of integrity, sent by God, speaking with Christ’s power, with God’s eye upon us. We are not like those hucksters—and there are many of them—whose idea in getting out the Gospel is to make a good living out of it” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17 TLB).
Of course, some of Paul’s critics within the Corinthian church were likely to view this kind of remark as a patronizing statement. Perhaps this is why he moved to neutralize the criticisms of those who might be inclined to say, “Paul is commending himself again” by making use of a then-common practice to illustrate his point- a letter of recommendation.
While letters of recommendation are sometimes offered in support of those seeking employment or others are applying to an institute of higher education today, they were especially important in days of the first century. You see, a letter of recommendation served as a important means of verification in an age when it was difficult to validate one’s credentials,
As traveling ministers journeyed from place to place in the New Testament era, they typically carried such letters as furnished by the local congregations they had visited along the way. These letters served to introduce an unfamiliar minister to the local Christian community and confirm the legitimacy of his work, This custom appears within the New Testament in relation to legitimate spiritual leaders (see Acts 18:27) and was affirmed by Paul himself (Romans 16:1).
So it appears that Paul made use of this practice in an effort to counter those who might view his message as a means of self-commendation. As the man whom God used to found the church at Corinth, Paul hardly required any such introduction to the members of their congregation. On the contrary, the Corinthian believers had been impacted by Paul and the integrity of his ministry to such a degree that they essentially served as his letter of recommendation.
As one theologian observes, “Paul’s point was that he did not need secondhand testimony when the Corinthians had firsthand proof of his sincere and godly character.” (1)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (2 Co 3:1). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“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” (2 Corinthians 3:1-2 ESV).
Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, credit cards began to be widely employed as a means of payment for various goods and services. However, these cards also served an important secondary purpose: they helped to establish the person who presented a credit card as someone who was creditable as well.
For instance, whenever a traveler seeks overnight lodging today. he or she will inevitably be asked to produce a credit card in advance. This not only helps to ensure payment but also serves to establish a level of validation and trust between the two parties. In a sense, the letters of recommendation that Paul the Apostle referenced here in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 functioned in a similar manner, for they also made the bearer more credible than if he or she simply claimed to be trustworthy.
However these hard forms of validation are not nearly as important as the ways in which we accredit ourselves. You see, there’s an old adage that tells us that a person can be known by the company that he or she keeps. This is not only true of our friendships and relationships but is also true of our individual interests and the various forms of social media we employ. In a sense, these things become “letters of recommendation” that are known and read by others- they “recommend” our interests, viewpoints, character, and personalities to those we encounter.
In fact, we can expand this concept to include many other areas of life. For example..
- The books, magazines, and websites we read serve to reveal our interests and personalities. What do those choices say about us?
- Our entertainment choices reflect much about us as individuals.
- Our recreational and leisure activities are often characteristic of the things we feel are important.
The impact of these choices are much like the “writing” that we inscribe upon the pages of our daily lives. They are known and read by those who know us (and those who don’t) and they serve to inform their opinions and judgments of us. Therefore in light of these things, we should seek to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV).
“Are we beginning to praise ourselves again? Are we like others, who need to bring you letters of recommendation, or who ask you to write such letters on their behalf? Surely not! The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you” (2 Corinthians 3:1-2 NLT).
To close out this portion of our look at 2 Corinthians chapter three, we will turn our attention to three different commentators who offer three different perspectives in regard to the passage from 2 Corinthians 3:1-2 quoted above.
The first author reminds us that our social, cultural, and academic influences become a part of the “book” that characterizes the account of our individual lives…
“Like it or not, right or wrong, people generally manifest what they have been taught or what they have learned. Teaching and learning is a character-building process. People become ‘books’ to be read by all those with whom they associate. The apostles were ‘read’ as having ‘been with Jesus’ (Act_4:13). That is how people become ‘letters of recommendation.'” (1)
Our second commentator draws our attention to the importance of prayerfully addressing the need to represent Christ well before those who do not know Him…
“Every Christian should be a clearly written and legible tractlet, circulating for the glory of God. Men will not read the evidences for Christianity as contained in learned treatises, but they are keen to read us. God alone can suffice us to sustain this searching scrutiny.” (2)
Our third and final source draws a comparison between an officially sanctioned certificate of ministry (which may or may not be reflective of God’s calling) and God’s ordination of an individual to a position of ministry (which may or may not be recognized in the form of a human certification)…
“The best analogy in today’s world might be a certificate of ordination. Many people think that a certificate of ordination means that you have the credentials of ministry. While there is an important purpose in a public ordination to ministry, a piece of paper in itself never is a proper credential. The true credentials of the ministry are changed lives, living epistles. We might almost say, keep your paper to yourself and show us the changed lives from your ministry.
…it is significant that Paul does not say, ‘miracles are our epistle of commendation.’ Paul apparently did not believe his primary ‘letter of recommendation’ was found in miraculous signs but found in miraculously changed lives.” (3)
(1) Paul T. Butler. The Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In Second Corinthians (College Press) [p. 67] Copyright © 1988 College Press Publishing Company https://archive.org/stream/BibleStudyTextbookSeriesSecondCorinthians/132Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
(2) Meyer, Frederick Brotherton. “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:4”. “F. B. Meyer’s ‘Through the Bible’ Commentary”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbm/2-corinthians-2.html. 1914.
(3) David Guzik. 2 Corinthians 3 – The Glory of the New Covenant © Copyright – Enduring Word https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/1-corinthians-16/
“clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
Although it may not seem obvious from the context, 2 Corinthians 3:3 reflects the fulfillment of an important Old Testament prophecy. Consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah as recorded in Jeremiah 31:31-35…
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Instead of a message from God delivered under the auspices of a prophet who had been called to chisel God’s Word into stone or inscribe it with pen and ink, those who follow Christ can benefit from the internal inscription of His Word upon their hearts and minds. Through the indwelling Spirit of God, we can thus become active, living communiqués from God who personally interact with others as we go about our daily lives.
One source draws upon this analogy to identify the positive qualities should characterize those who serve as epistles of Christ…
“What makes a good letter? First, a good letter must be legible, easy to read. Living epistles of Christ should be easily read, not confusing to the ‘reader.’ Second, a good letter should contain clear, definite statements. Readers should not be baffled by the statements that the letter makes.
Third, a good letter should reveal the personality of the one who writes it. Christian “letters” should also reveal the personality of Christ, who has made them and sent them to communicate His mind.” (1)
(1) Dr. Thomas L. Constable. The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable (Dr. Constable’s Bible Study Notes). [3:3] Copyright 2012 by Dr. Thomas L. Constable. All Rights Reserved. http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/2%20Corinthians/2Corinthians.htm
“clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God” (2 Corinthians 3:3-4 NLT).
Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:2, Paul the Apostle made the following statement to the Corinthian church: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” Here now in the following verse, he effectively adds, “You are our epistle, but more to the point, you are epistles of Christ.”
In other words, Paul did not “author” the Corinthians so to speak but he did serve as the instrument through which God inscribed His message upon them. So the members of the Corinthian church served to represent two parties: the Apostle Paul and the God who had effectively worked in their lives as a result of his message.
Of course, it might be said that the church at Corinth served as a very poor letter of recommendation in light of the divisions, infighting, and demonstrated irreverence towards the things of God that existed within their fellowship. However, the real question is this: what were the Corinthians like before God began to rewrite their individual histories through the work of Paul the Apostle?
Well, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 provides us with the answer…
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you…”
So any issues that existed within the church at Corinth should be viewed within the context of the immorality, alcoholism, thievery, and various forms of inappropriate behavior that characterized the prior lives of those who had come to Christ there, In light of this, Paul viewed them as good representative examples of the work that God had done in facilitating their spiritual growth despite the fact that they were still a “work in progress” to some degree.
Thus, Paul could point to the Christian community in Corinth as evidence of God’s ability to bring about genuine, positive change in the lives of those who follow Him. This change was not effected externally through pen and ink (which is easily erased or overwritten) nor through tablets of stone (which are easily broken). Instead, it was inscribed within the innermost beings of those who had accepted Christ at Corinth, just as is true today.
“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).
Every individual fighter in the professional boxing world is classified according to his or her weight. These individual weight classes range from the smallest, lightest fighters (the various “flyweight” categories) all the way up to the largest “heavyweight” fighters. In general, fighters compete against others within their respective weight classes for a boxer from a lighter weight class would not be expected to have much of a “fighting chance” against a heavier opponent.
Nevertheless, a fighter who initially appears to be overmatched when stepping up in class will sometimes perform in a manner that seems to be well beyond the skills that he or she would normally appear to possess. Thus, a boxer who performs above his or her expected ability is said to be “punching above his weight.” Over time, this metaphor has grown to include anyone who successfully achieves a result that seems greater than his or her talent, skill, ability, or resources would appear to suggest.
This concept would not have been lost upon Paul the Apostle, a person who was known for using a few boxing and athletic metaphors of his own. Despite his academic credentials (which were considerable), Paul clearly recognized that he was not sufficient for the work that God called him to do. Instead, he admitted that “By ourselves we are not qualified in any way to claim that we can do anything. Rather, God makes us qualified” (GW).
In a sense, Paul recognized that he was punching above his weight, just as is true of anyone who endeavors to undertake a work of God. While it is right and proper to acknowledge and utilize our God-given skills, talents, and abilities in His service, its also important to remember that no one is adequate for such a work in his or her own strength. As Jesus reminded His disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Therefore, we would be ill-advised to decline a potential ministry opportunity solely on the basis that we seem to be unqualified. If we were fully sufficient within ourselves to perform the work that God has called us to do then our sufficiency would not be from God (see Acts 4:13). As the old adage tells us, “God does not call those who are qualified; instead, He qualifies those whom He calls.”
“By ourselves we are not qualified in any way to claim that we can do anything. Rather, God makes us qualified” (2 Corinthians 3:5 GW).
For decades, the popular music charts have been liberally sprinkled with artists who have earned the title of “one hit wonder.” This phrase refers to those singers and musicians who scored a hit record and then faded into obscurity without ever charting another successful recording. While many of these artists possessed the talent necessary to create a memorable song, it seems that they lacked the creative ability to sustain the success generated by their only hit.
In like manner, a person who fails to recognize that our competence and sufficiency comes from God is someone who is drifting dangerously close to becoming the spiritual equivalent of a one hit wonder as well. While our God-given skills and talents can (and should) be harnessed to honor God, its also important to recognize that our natural abilities are limited. Thus, they are insufficient to fulfill the work that God has called us to do.
Unfortunately, it appears that this is the type of mindset that is held by many today. For instance, people are often taught that it is necessary to “believe in yourself” in order to successfully overcome the challenges of daily life. But while it may be said that the concept of self-reliance is certainly a good idea in terms of employment, it is much more of an anti-Biblical philosophy in many respects when we stop to consider it.
You see, when people are taught to “believe in themselves” they are effectively being told to rely on the skills or abilities they possess. But those who believe in themselves cease to believe in Jesus– and without Him, they can do nothing as we’re told in the New Testament gospel of John. In contrast, a far better approach can be found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippian church where we read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Therefore, we should regard ourselves as stewards or managers of the abilities we possess along with the knowledge that our success comes through dependence upon the One who has graciously provided us with such abilities. In the words of one commentary…
“No one can claim to be adequate without God’s help. No one is competent to carry out the responsibilities of God’s calling in his or her own strength. Without the Holy Spirit’s enabling, our natural talent can carry us only so far.” (1)
(1) Life Application Study Bible NASB 2 Corinthians 3 Study Notes [3:4-5]
“who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
In 2 Corinthians 3:6, the Apostle Paul introduces a concept he will work to develop throughout the rest of this chapter. That concept involves a contrast between the Old and New Covenants. Before we take the time to examine this contrast in greater detail, let’s first turn our attention to some important aspects of the Old Covenant as found in the opening books of the Bible.
The first five books of the Bible are referred to as the Pentateuch, the Law, or the Torah. The word Pentateuch means “five volumes” and comprises the Biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. For the purposes of our discussion here in 2 Corinthians chapter three, we should recognize that there are three aspects to the Old Testament law contained within these books: civil, ceremonial, and moral.
The civil law defined lawful and unlawful activities and various types of contractual arrangements for the people of Old Testament Israel. The ceremonial law prescribed the manner in which an individual could approach God under the Old Covenant sacrificial system. The moral law explained the difference between right and wrong. With regard to the application of these laws today, the New Testament books of Colossians and Galatians tell us that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law were fulfilled in Christ….
“So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality” (Colossians 2:16-17 NLV).
“Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25 see also Romans 10:4).
While these New Testament Scriptures tell us that we are no longer under the same Old Testament civil and ceremonial requirements as found within the books of the Law, we still maintain a moral obligation to honor God in regard to our personal behavior. Since the Law provides us with the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), the moral principles that we find within it are just as valid today as they were when they were originally written.
With these things in mind, we’ll take a closer look at both the Old and New Covenants over the next few studies.
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV).
2 Corinthians 3:6 speaks of a new covenant, one that is “…not of written laws, but of the Spirit” (NLT). While the idea of a covenantal agreement may seem unfamiliar, it is not unlike certain other kinds of common contractual agreements in some respects. For instance, a covenant is similar to a modern-day contract in the sense that it serves to identify the responsibilities of those who enter it. And just like many other types of contractual agreements today, a covenant usually contains a list of penalties to be assessed against those who fail to fulfill its terms.
However, a covenant differs from other types of agreements in one important respect: the terms of a covenant are non-negotiable. In other words, the language contained within a covenant cannot be modified or rewritten to suit the desires of one party. Instead, a covenant must be accepted or rejected in its entirety without amendment.
The idea of a covenantal agreement was sure to be familiar to anyone of Jewish descent within the church at Corinth in light of the various covenants mentioned throughout the Old Testament. In addition to the well-known covenants that God established with Noah (Genesis 6:18), Abraham (Genesis 17:1-9), and David (Psalm 89:3-4), we can find other examples of such arrangements between God and an individual person (Numbers 25:10-13), two individuals with one another (1 Samuel 23:16-18), and an individual person with God (2 Kings 11:17).
However, the most famous Old Testament covenant was undoubtedly the one made by God with Israel through Moses: “And (Moses) read to the people the Book he had written– the Book of the Covenant– containing God’s directions and laws. And the people said again, ‘We solemnly promise to obey every one of these rules'” (Exodus 24:7-8). This agreement enabled the people of Old Testament Israel to find acceptance with God through a system of animal sacrifices.
You see, the resulting penalty for any violation of God’s Law is death (see Genesis 2:16-17 and Ezekiel 18:4). But as part of this Old Testament covenant, God graciously agreed to accept the death of a sacrificial animal on behalf of those who had done wrong. Thus, these sacrifices served to atone (or “make up for”) for the sins of those who brought them.
While this arrangement was sufficient for this purpose, we’ll see why a better covenant was needed to replace it next.
“He has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit produces life” (2 Corinthians 3:6 HCSB).
A look at the Old Testament Scriptures reveals an unfortunate realty in regard to the Old Covenant sacrificial system: God’s people repeatedly failed to fulfill it’s terms. In addition, the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that “…under the old system, gifts and sacrifices were offered, but these failed to cleanse the hearts of the people who brought them” (Hebrews 9:9). In other words, these sacrifices failed to change those internal attitudes that made it necessary for human beings to bring such offerings in the first place.
This meant that something better was needed- a “New Covenant” had to be established between between God and humanity. As mentioned earlier, God foretold the need for this agreement through the prophet Jeremiah…
“‘The day will come,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new contract with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the one I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a contract they broke, forcing me to reject them,’ says the Lord.
‘But this is the new contract I will make with them: I will inscribe my laws upon their hearts, so that they shall want to honor me; then they shall truly be my people and I will be their God. At that time it will no longer be necessary to admonish one another to know the Lord. For everyone, both great and small, shall really know me then,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will forgive and forget their sins'” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
In light of this, we might question why God chose to establish the the Old Covenant in the first place. To answer this question, we can say that one of God’s purposes in establishing the Old Covenant was that it served to direct us toward the new agreement He foretold through Jeremiah (see Galatians 3:24-26 and Hebrews 9:9-10). The key difference is that the New Covenant would not be based on what we must do in relation to God but on what God does for us.
This new agreement was ultimately fulfilled through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross (1 Peter 3:18 and Hebrews 10:1-18). Therefore, it will never fail because it does not depend upon fallible human beings for its fulfillment.
Thus, as we are told in Hebrews 7:25, “He is able to save completely all who come to God through him. Since he will live forever, he will always be there to remind God that he has paid for their sins with his blood.”
“He has qualified us [making us sufficient] as ministers of a new covenant [of salvation through Christ], not of the letter [of a written code] but of the Spirit; for the letter [of the Law] kills [by revealing sin and demanding obedience], but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6 AMP).
One of the heresies (or false teachings) confronted by the early church involved the doctrines held by a group known today as the Judaizers. The Judaizers were early Jewish converts to Christianity who taught that non-Jewish people were obligated to observe the Old Testament Law in order to receive salvation through Christ. The New Testament book of Acts records one such instance of this teaching…
“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:31).
So might summarize this argument in the following manner: “Jesus saves us but only after we have accepted the Old Testament Law. Therefore, everyone must first accept the requirements of the Old Covenant before they can become Christians.” However, this teaching stood in direct opposition to the message we find here in 2 Corinthians 3:6 where we’re told that the “…old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life” (NLT).
Instead, the Biblical book of Romans provides us with the proper explanation of the Law’s true relationship to the New Covenant…
“But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.
Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, ‘You must not covet.’ But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power.
At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died.
So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:6-12 NLT).
“He has enabled us to be ministers of His new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6 NLT).
The New Testament book of Romans reveals one way in which the Old Covenant ends in death: “Moses writes of righteousness-by-the-Law when he says that ‘the man who does those things shall live by them’—which is theoretically right but impossible in practice” (Romans 10:5 Phillips).
To illustrate this point, we can look to the account of a man who once approached Jesus with the following question: “…’Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?'” (Mark 10:17).
In reply, Jesus said, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother'” (Mark 10:19). The idea was that if this man followed these Commandments, he would secure the eternal life he sought.
In response, the man said, “…’Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth'” (Mark 10:20). That prompted the following reply from Jesus: “…One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” (Mark 10:21).
Since this man thought he had been keeping the Commandments, Jesus directed him to a specific area of his life where he could verify that claim: “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me.” Unfortunately, the man ultimately chose to reject Jesus’ counsel in order to maintain his possessions (Mark 10:22). Thus, he revealed that he was guilty of breaking the first Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).
This brief account serves to demonstrate how the written law eventually leads to death. While it is possible to find eternal life by living up to the standards of the Law in theory, it is impossible for imperfect human beings to adhere to the requirements of a perfect Creator consistently. Some perhaps, may come closer than others but everyone ultimately falls short.
Thus, the Law serves to condemn us to death for as we’re told in the New Testament epistle of James, “…the person who keeps every law of God but makes one little slip is just as guilty as the person who has broken every law there is” (James 2:10 TLB).
“…our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6 ESV).
In considering the Old Testament Law, it may seem unfair for God to impose a standard of behavior that ultimately serves to kill anyone who actually attempts to live by it. But what if we stopped to consider the message that God sought to communicate through the limitations of the Old Covenant?
Consider the following contrast drawn by one theologian…
“In saying that life is ‘not of the letter,’ Paul does not imply that there was no spiritual life whatever under the old covenant. He means that the written law, which was characteristic of the old covenant, did not and could not by itself produce life in the believing community.
The Holy Spirit, whose powerful, life-giving ministry is characteristic of the new covenant, does bring and alone can bring new life. Though He was active in the lives of God’s people under the old covenant, new covenant believers experience His ministry in far greater measure (Ps. 51:10–12; Joel 2:28, 29; Luke 11:13; Rom. 5:1–5).” (1)
So while the Law identifies righteous behavior, the Spirit provides us with the ability to live righteously by internally inscribing God’s word within us and providing us with the desire and ability to follow God’s moral standards. Philippians 2:13 summarizes this idea when it tells us, “…it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
The New Testament book of Romans also brings clarity to this idea when it tells us, “It is impossible to do what God’s standards demand because of the weakness our human nature has. But God sent his Son to have a human nature as sinners have and to pay for sin. That way God condemned sin in our corrupt nature. Therefore, we, who do not live by our corrupt nature but by our spiritual nature, are able to meet God’s standards in Moses’ Teachings” (Romans 8:3-4 GW).
Another commentator contrasts the relationship between the letter of the Law and the Spirit in the following manner…
“Paul used ‘Spirit’ in this passage in a double sense. On the one hand, he contrasted the ‘letter’ (exact wording) of the Old Covenant with the ‘spirit’ (true intention) of the New Covenant. On the other hand, he contrasted the non-enabling, external words of the Old Covenant with the enabling, internal Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (cf. Rom. 2:28-29; 7:6).” (2)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2054). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
(2) Constable, Thomas. DD. Notes on 2 Corinthians 2017 Edition [3:6] Copyright © 2017 Thomas L. Constable. http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/2%20Corinthians/2Corinthians.htm
“But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8).
Many of us are familiar with objects that glow in the dark. For instance, a manufacturer may embed a toy, a wristwatch, or other object with a phosphorus material that continues to emit visible light long after it has been removed from an external illumination source. These items (and those like them) can serve to illustrate the idea behind the passage quoted above.
You see, Paul the Apostle will reach into his God-inspired storehouse of analogies to reference an actual historical event within this passage, one that did not involve a glowing object but a glowing person. That event recorded for us in Exodus 34:29-30 and it will serve as the focus of attention throughout the rest of this chapter…
“Moses came down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments. His face was shining brightly because the Lord had been speaking to him. But Moses did not know at first that his face was shining. When Aaron and the others looked at Moses, they saw that his face was shining, and they were afraid to go near him” (CEV).
So these passages tell us that the Old Covenant was so glorious that it caused Moses’ face to shine brightly as he stood in God’s presence to receive it- so much so that it actually generated a sense of fear in those who met with him upon his return. But just as the light emitted from a glow in the dark object will ultimately fade over time, we’ll later find that the radiance seen in Moses’ face would eventually go on to fade as well.
We can associate this event with Paul’s discussion of the Old Covenant here in 2 Corinthians chapter three by considering the observations of the following commentator…
“Since the law showed man his sinfulness and gave him no power to break out of it, it ministered death. Note that the law ‘fades away’ (2 Cor. 3:11). When Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the law, his face shone so that the people were afraid to approach him (Exodus 34:29-30). But just as his radiance faded so also the Mosaic Law was temporary.” (1)
(1) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell Ryrie Study Notes [3:7] © 1986, 1995 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp.
“For if there was glory in what worked to declare people guilty, how much more must the glory abound in what works to declare people innocent! In fact, by comparison with this greater glory, what was made glorious before has no glory now. For if there was glory in what faded away, how much more glory must there be in what lasts” (2 Corinthians 3:9-11 CJB).
The term “ministry” is a one that normally carries a positive connotation. You see, the core idea behind the word ministry involves the concept of one who serves on behalf of another. (1) This is (or should be) true regardless of whether that ministry takes place within a church or governmental institution (such as the office of a Prime Minister or other individual who oversees a particular branch of government).
However, 2 Corinthians 3:9 speaks of a very different type of ministry when it identifies the Old Testament Law as a “ministry of condemnation” (NKJV). This graphic word-picture tells us that the Old and New Covenants carry out two very different types of service: one ultimately serves to produce death while the other serves to produce life. One source explains these differing characteristics by observing, “The law made known sin, and the wrath and curse of God; it showed us a God above us, and a God against us; but the gospel makes known grace, and Emmanuel, God with us.” (2)
In contrast to this ministry of condemnation is the “…ministry of righteousness (which) exceeds much more in glory” (NKJV). This difference should be clear to anyone who has ever enjoyed the beauty of a star-filled evening sky. For example, the beauty of the moon, stars, and other celestial bodies present us with a constant reminder of the glory of the Creator for as we’re told in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.”
Yet even the unquestioned beauty and glory of the night-time sky is eclipsed by the brilliant radiance of the sun as the morning hours approach. So just as the glory of a starry night is eclipsed by the dawn of a new day, the glory of the Old Covenant has since been eclipsed by a New Covenant that is far more glorious in comparison. In the words of one commentator, “As the glory of the moon and stars fades out before the glory of the sun, so its glory disappears in a comparison with the exceeding glory of the gospel.” (3)
(1) G1248 diakonia https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g1248
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary [2 Corinthians 3:1] http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/2_corinthians/3.htm
(3) Barton Warren Johnson The People’s New Testament (1891) [Verses 7-11] https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pnt/2-corinthians-3.html
“Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech— unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away” (2 Corinthians 3:12-13).
We’ve seen how the Apostle Paul has used the literary device of comparison in referring to Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai as he stood in the presence of God to receive the Ten Commandments. As a result of Moses’ encounter with God, we’re told that “…his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord” (Exodus 34:29 NIV). Perhaps not surprisingly, the following verses go on to tell us that the other members of Old Testament Israel were subsequently reluctant to approach him.
That led Moses to take the following action…
“When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord” (Exodus 34:33-35).
Since this account does not give us Moses’ rationale for taking these steps, we might assume that he did so to avoid provoking additional fear in those who came near him. However, Paul the Apostle gives us the reason behind these actions here in 2 Corinthians 3:13 when he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “…The glory was disappearing, and Moses did not want them to see it end” (ERV). So even at this early stage, the glory of the Mosaic covenant was subject to decline.
Thus, Moses veiled his face to hide the fact that the glory associated with the Old Covenant was fading away even then. This leads us to a rather sad and disheartening conclusion: Moses did not seek to hide this reflection of God’s glory but instead sought to hide the reality of its departure. Although this radiant glory was renewed when Moses entered God’s presence, it was a process that had to be repeated, much like the sacrificial offerings that accompanied the Mosaic covenant.
Paul will go on draw some important conclusions in contrasting the temporal nature of the Old Covenant with the permanent nature of the New Covenant next.
“But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
The Old Testament book of Exodus tells us that Moses’ face took on a glowing appearance as a result of his time in God’s presence. But following his return to the people of Israel, the glow from his face eventually receded. That led Moses to hide his face behind a veil to cover the “…glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away” (2 Corinthians 3:7).
Although Moses had long since passed away by the time the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, a similar veil covered the hearts of many who read God’s Word as well. The Apostle Paul described two forms of this veil with regard to salvation in Christ in his previous letter to the Corinthian church,…
“It seems foolish to the Jews because they want a sign from heaven as proof that what is preached is true; and it is foolish to the Gentiles because they believe only what agrees with their philosophy and seems wise to them” (1 Corinthians 1:22 TLB, see also 1 Corinthians 2:14).
In light of this, 2 Corinthians 3:16 identifies an important prerequisite for understanding the Scriptures: “…that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away” (ESV). So just as the removal of a veil will serve to improve our vision, we can obtain genuine spiritual clarity and understanding if we “…turn to the Lord” (ASV). Therefore, we would be well advised to prayerfully seek the Lord’s wisdom and discernment in reading and applying His Word.
We should also acknowledge the necessity of faith in understanding the Word of God. Even if that measure of faith begins with little more than a commitment to investigate the Biblical evidence and follow that evidence wherever it leads (as in the case of apologists such as Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace), God is exceedingly gracious towards those who seek a genuine understanding of His Word. As Jesus Himself once said…
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
“Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
The penultimate verse of 2 Corinthians chapter three provides us with an opportunity to consider the person and nature of the Holy Spirit. We can begin by discussing the concept of the word “Trinity” when used in a Biblical sense. This term represents an easy way to describe the triune nature of the God we encounter within the pages of the Scriptures.
When we speak about this tri-unity of God, we mean that God is three distinct Persons in one Being. This fundamental truth is developed in various places throughout the Bible where we find that God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that the Father is God (Ephesians 5:20 and Jude 1:1), the Son is God (Hebrews 1:8 and Titus 2:13), and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4 and 2 Corinthians 3:17 above). These passages have led us to the understanding that the God of the Scriptures is a unity subsisting in three Persons.
While the word “trinity” is not a Biblical term, it does provide us with a convenient means to describe this Biblical concept. Admittedly, this can be a difficult truth to grasp for nothing is truly comparable to God. However, the most accurate illustration of the Trinity is probably found in the example of a triangle.
For instance, a triangle has three corners that are inseparable from the others. While each corner of a triangle is separate and distinct from the others, we have one triangle in essence- and if we were to remove one or more of these corners, we would no longer have a triangle.
So in this illustration, we have three ‘things” (three corners) and one “what” (a triangle). To carry this illustration over to our discussion of the Trinity, we can say that there are three Persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and one God.
Another way to communicate this idea is to say that God is one “What” and three “Whos.” The three whos (or persons) each share the same what (essence).
So the Biblical God is one in substance and three in persons. Like the corners of a triangle, each Person of the triune Godhead is different, yet each shares a common nature. Of course, a triangle can never serve as a perfect example of this idea for a triangle is finite while God is not. However, it is probably the closest analogy we can use to accurately illustrate the triune nature of God.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17, NET).
The Holy Spirit is identified as the “parakletos” in the original language of the New Testament, a word that captures the image of a counselor, ally, helper, advocate, strengthener, advisor, and supporter. Unlike those who regard the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force, these characteristics are associated with a personal being. In fact, the Scriptures reveal that the Holy Spirit possesses a great number of personal characteristics. For instance, the Holy Spirit…
- Possesses love (Romans 15:30).
- Can be inflicted with grief (Ephesians 4:30).
- Possesses knowledge (1 Corinthians 2:10-11).
- Issues guidance and direction (Acts 13:2-4).
- Can be told a lie (Acts 5:3-4).
- Makes intercession for others (Romans 8:26).
- Takes action (John 16:13).
- Dwells with and within us (John 14:17).
So in saying “…he Lord is the Spirit,” 2 Corinthians 3:17 provides us with a strong affirmation of the Holy Spirit’s deity. One commentator makes a valuable observation in this regard: “It is also important to note here that Paul is not confusing the two Persons. Jesus said earlier, ‘I and my Father are one’ (Jn 10:30). He bears the same relationship to the Holy Spirit. Here is the ineffable mystery of the Trinity, one in essence yet three distinct personalities.” (1)
Finally, we’re told that “…where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom” (GNB). This freedom is expressed in several different ways including…
- Freedom from adhering to the demands of a standard that we cannot keep; “But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law'” (Galatians 3:10 NLT).
- Freedom to approach God in Christ: “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12 NIV).
- Freedom from condemnation: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death” (Romans 8:1-2 NLT).
Nevertheless, we should remember that this spiritual liberty carries an obligation to conduct ourselves in a manner that honors the One who has given us that freedom. As we’re reminded in 1 Peter 2:16, “You are free, but still you are God’s servants, and you must not use your freedom as an excuse for doing wrong” (CEV)
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2343). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Today, we can find high quality mirrors in areas as diverse as a public restroom all the way to the most exclusive specialty shops. However, the mirrors used in antiquity were often little more than highly polished pieces of metal that reflected poorly upon those who sought to check their appearance. But one thing that is equally true of ancient mirrors and the mirrors of today is this: neither will offer a benefit to someone who is hidden behind a veil.
If we apply this reality to spiritual concept given to us here in the closing verse of 2 Corinthians chapter three, we can say that we now see something of the Lord’s image but not yet with perfect clarity. Nevertheless, our vision is steadily improving as we seek God through the pages of His Word, for the veil that covered our understanding of the Scriptures has been removed in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
This passage also identifies the progressive and transformative nature of this process when it tells us, “…we are being changed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (GNB). The word used for “changed” or “transformed” in the original language of this verse is metamorphosis, a word that is still in use today as a way to describe a complete change in form, structure, or appearance.
For instance, this word is often associated with the process that takes place when a caterpillar spins a cocoon and emerges as a butterfly. In a similar manner, this passage carries the idea of a transformation and not just a change in appearance.
This is important to remember, especially during those periods when there seems to be little or no progress in our personal spiritual growth. You see, this passage tells us that such growth is progressive in nature. In other words, it is a process that takes place over time. Just as a caterpillar undergoes a progressive transformation on the way to becoming a butterfly, we are also being transformed into Christ’s likeness over time or “…from one degree of glory to another” (RSV).
Therefore, in the words of one commentator, “If we want to become like Christ, we must spend quality time focusing on Him in the Word of God. This reflection then becomes the raw material that the Spirit of God uses to form Christ in us.” (1)
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1498). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.