2 Corinthians 3
3:1-3 The Corinthians: Paul’s Commendation
1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. 3You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
When preachers or prophets came to a new town, they would bring letters of commendation to the church, so the church would know it was alright to let them speak to the body. However, you can work the system with letters of commendation, getting them only from your friends. There is also some thought that Paul might have been criticized for talking to much about his past exploits.
Paul told them he did not need letters, for they Corinthians were his commendation. They are the result of his ministry, so the validity of this preaching speaks for itself in the lives of those to whom he has ministered. In 1 Corinthians 9:2, he called them the “seal of my apostleship in the Lord”.
Paul also foreshadows his discussion of the new covenant, when he says the words were not written on tablets of stone, but on human hearts. The old covenant was written on stone tablets, given by God to Moses. But the new covenant is not a matter of keeping laws, even those written in stone. Instead, it is about faith in Christ who as a matter of grace changes our hearts.
Paul is probably alluding to a couple of Old Testament passages in which God promised to do this. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promised a new covenant and declared that he would write his law on the hearts of his people. Also, in Ezekiel 36:26-27 he promised the same thing. Since the Corinthians have experienced this change of heart through the preaching of Paul, they are living testimonies to the validity of his ministry and message.
3:4-6 Paul’s Competence, Part 2
Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. 5Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6He 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.
Paul finally gets to the real point of his competence. He said it did not come from his own ability. He said he did not claim anything for himself in verse 5. Rather, God has made him competent as a minister. Paul always attributed his ministry to grace. In Ephesians 3:7, he said he became a servant of the gospel by the gift of God’s grace given to him through the working of God’s power.
Paul then gives us a transition. He says he is, in fact, a minister of the new covenant. The new covenant is the next topic he will write about. He contrasts it with the old covenant, as one of Spirit rather than of letter, and of life rather than death. Paul is going to continue with a comparison of the old and new covenants and the superiority of the new covenant.
3:7-11 The Glory of the New Covenant
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, 8will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
Verse 7 is speaking of the old covenant given at Sinai through Moses. It defined the relationship between God and his people. He would be their God, and they would be his people. Look at Exodus 19:3-8. Then, in Exodus 20:1 through 23:19, God set forth his commandments, they things Israel were to obey as God’s covenant people. At least the 10 Commandments, as we know them, were engraved on stone tablets.
Then, go to Exodus 24:6, as you will See Moses offer sacrifices and sprinkle blood on the altar and on the people, saying in verse 8, “this is the blood of the covenant”.
The new covenant defines the new relationship between God and his people. How did the new covenant come about? It came through the death of Christ and his resurrection. In Matthew 26:28, Jesus said “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:12-14, 28 and 10:10.
The old covenant came with glory. Having the benefit of the new covenant, we tend to downplay the old covenant, and indeed the new covenant is much better. But, the old covenant was still special. God actually came and spoke with Moses and gave him all the commandments. They were unique to the Israelites as those God chose from all of the people of the world, not because of their merit, but because of his grace extended to them.
After Moses had been in the presence of the glory of God, his face would shine. Exodus 34:30 says the Israelites were afraid to come near him. Then the glory would begin to fade. Moses began to wear a veil to hide his face. That is what verse 7 in today’s text refers to.
Paul says that, although the old covenant came with glory, it was a glory that faded. The new covenant, however, will be even more glorious. It is a surpassing glory and a glory that lasts. The glory of the new covenant and the salvation it brings are both eternal. The old covenant could not bring salvation. No one could be saved through works. In fact, the law condemns us. It set forth God’s standards, but did not give people the power to obey. The new ministry brings righteousness to us through the work of Christ.
Remember the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15? The question was whether the Gentile believers would be required to obey the law of Moses. The Jews were proud of the law. It made them God’s special people and it was hard to give that up, even if they could not live up to it. But, Peter said in verse 10 “why do you try to test god by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”
The new covenant also brings the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Whereas the glory of the old covenant faded over time, the Spirit is with us at all times. Whereas the old covenant delivered no power to obey, the Spirit enables us to love God’s standards and keep them. He writes God’s laws on our hearts.
3:12-18 The Clarity of the Gospel
12Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. 14But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect[a] the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Paul begins this passage by basing his argument on the fact that we have “such a hope”. What does he mean? He is referring to the last passage that spoke of how much more glorious the new covenant is than the old. He said it was a covenant that brings righteousness and a covenant that lasts. When we receive Christ, we get the benefit of his righteousness. Romans 3:22 says “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” This righteousness lasts forever, as does our salvation. Our pastor preached last week about the permanence of our salvation and gave us many verses that spoke of it. 1 Peter 1:3 says “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-kept in heave for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”
So, we have this great hope, hope of eternal life in Christ. Paul said, because we have this great hope we are very bold. One version says “we use plainness of speech”. Paul was very bold, wasn’t he? He preached both to Jews and Greeks. He clearly and forcefully proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the son of God, the only way of salvation. He did not compromise his message, he did not hold back, even in the face of opposition.
God has given us a clear message of salvation, of the way to him. We must repent of our sin and believe in Jesus. Ministers must preach it plainly. Lay people must present it plainly. Verse 13 says Moses wore a veil to conceal the radiance of his face, but we are not to conceal the glory of God in Christ.
In this passage, Paul uses the veil of Moses as a symbol in two different ways. First, the veil symbolizes the obscurity of the old covenant. As Moses’ face was veiled, so the message of the old covenant was veiled or obscured with symbols, types and foreshadowings. In Ephesians 3:5, Paul said the mystery of Christ was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 13:11 “…the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you….”
Second, the veil symbolizes the spiritual blindness of the Jews that kept them from understanding the meaning of the institutions of the old covenant. Remember how often Jesus referred to the Jews, and especially the Pharisees, as blind. When, as recorded in Matthew 13, the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables, he said the Jews did not see, hear or understand. In them was fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 6, that they would be hearing but never understanding, seeing but never perceiving, because their hearts had become calloused. We have a great privilege to live in the era of greater revelation.
Verse 14 says their minds were made dull. They did not understand what Moses taught. Verse 15 says they still do not understand the law unless they turn to Christ. In the gospels, you constantly see Jesus confronting the Jews over the real meaning of the law. They settled for external ritual without grasping the real meaning and intention. For example, in Matthew 12, the Pharisees confronted Jesus over the Sabbath, when his disciples ate heads of grain in the field. The Pharisees concentrated on their man made rules concerning things you cannot do on the Sabbath. Jesus told them the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Only in Christ is the veil taken away. Since the Jews rejected Christ, the veil is not removed. Only when they turn to Christ is the veil removed.
You see that veil coming off slowly even for the disciples. In Luke 24:25, Jesus said to the men on the road to Emmaus “how foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” Paul often went to the synagogue and preached Christ from the Old Testament and was run out of town for it.
Verse 17 says the Lord is the Spirit. I think this is a sort of Trinitarian statement. The Holy Spirit is presented as the source of life and truth, but in this passage, Christ is portrayed that way. That can be so because they are one, not one person, but one substance, just as Jesus said he and the Father were one. We have the Holy Spirit because of the work of Christ. They are united in purpose.
Where the Spirit is there is freedom. When we have been saved by faith in Christ, and indwelt with the Holy Spirit, we have freedom from the bondage of the law, from condemnation, from the dominion of sin and from corruption.
The last statement of this chapter is a glorious affirmation of our life in Christ. We who have Christ and the Holy Spirit have had the veil removed. We are not spiritually blind, we can see clearly.
In verse 18, the word “reflect” in the NIV may not be correct. The footnote in the NIV and NASB says “contemplate”. The ESV says “beholding the glory”. The context seems to indicate, not that we reflect God’s glory, but that, since the veil has been removed, we behold God’s glory without a veil. We see Christ’s glory through his Word and his Spirit, but only in heaven will we behold his glory directly. 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells us we still see as in a mirror, but then face to face. Mirrors in that time were not clear as they are today, and the image was less perfect.
Verse 18 also says we are also being transformed into his likeness. We will become more and more like him. 1 John 3:2 says we will be like him because we will see him as he is.
Take advantage of the glory of the new covenant. Know Christ fully and make him known.