Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 Corinthians 3:1
Apparently it was customary in New Testament times for letters of commendation to be given, especially to those traveling. Letters of commendation were often given when Christians moved from one city to another, as well as to Christian workers (cf. Acts 15:23, 18:27; Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 16:3; 16:10; Phil. 2:25-30; 3 Jn. 1:12). Christian travelers could seldom use inns, since they were scarce, very poorly kept and were havens of immorality. It was thus necessary for these travelers to lodge with other Christians. Paul here is definitely not speaking against the custom of recommendations in general.1
It seems that in this situation Jewish representatives, likely from Israel, were presenting letters of commendation. These letters may have been from important figures in Jerusalem, but probably not from the Twelve or from the chief apostles. They were possibly from the wing of the church that was heavily influenced by the Pharisees.2 We also know from many instances in Acts that the Jews greatly resisted the message of Paul and constantly followed him as they tried to undo his work. Thus, some of the evil workers here could have also been unconverted Jews.
Scholars have often referred to these evil workers as Judaizers. We should be aware that they were not Judaizers like those spoken of in the book of Galatians. There seems to be no strong emphasis here on circumcision and keeping the law as in Galatians. It may well be that these were supposedly converted Jews who were opposed to the ministry of Paul. We see such as these in Acts 15:6-21 and in Acts 21:20-26.
It does not seem that the apostles ever used letters of commendation themselves. Their miraculous ministries were commendation enough. This was certainly the case with Paul as he will later point out in the letter. Perhaps some letters of recommendation were needed in the early church. On one occasion the pagan satirist, Lucian, remarked that a charlatan could make his fortune from the simple-minded Christians.3 It appears that from their doctrines and loving manner of life they were easily imposed upon.
Some denominations today, such as the Baptists, still use letters of commendation for transferring membership. There is nothing wrong with this, however, it can never assure that the member bearing such a letter is a true Christian. The same is the case with such things as certificates of licensing or ordination. These cannot truly attest that a person is competent to minister before the Lord. As Poole says, “Nothing so commends a minister as the proficiency of his people.” 4
“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone” (3:2). The Corinthians, living in their profligate city, had become Paul’s letter of recommendation. Their letter of commendation was written on the hearts of the apostle and his helpers. It was also available to be read by everyone. Letters written on paper can fade with time. Even words written on stone can crumble away. However, letters written in lives continue on. The imagery of writing on hearts comes from Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26-27 and from Jeremiah 31:33.
Although most translations have the expression “written on our hearts” as in the NIV, the RSV has “written on your hearts.” Although this has weaker manuscript evidence it has strong contextual evidence. F. F. Bruce feels like the RSV reading should be preferred.5 After all, the epistle was actually written on the hearts of the Corinthian believers. Paul makes this clear in the next verse.
“You 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” (3:3). Barnes has Paul saying, “He has converted you by our ministry, and that is the best evidence which we can have that we have been sent by him, and that our labor is accepted by him…it was not written as letters of introduction are, with ink – by traces drawn on a lifeless substance, and in lines that easily fade, or that may become easily illegible, or that can be read only by a few, or that may be soon destroyed…” 6 Chrysostom remarked, “For just as Moses hewed stones and tables, so Paul shaped their souls.” 7
THE LETTER KILLS BUT THE SPIRIT GIVES LIFE
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 2 Corinthians 3:4-5
It is difficult for us to imagine the great confidence Paul had regarding the gospel of salvation that he preached. He knew, without a doubt, that it could make the most evil person righteous and the foulest person clean. Yet, he knew that within himself he was not sufficient, but that only God’s grace was sufficient (12:9). All his confidence and sufficiency was in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
The early twentieth-century Wesleyan-holiness evangelist, William Godbey, says: “Unless the Holy Spirit sanctify and illuminate the intellect we are incompetent to even think God-like thoughts. No wonder the Savior forbade his own apostles to go out preaching till they were filled with the Holy Ghost.” 8
“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” (3:6). Paul says in Romans 7:6, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Godbey comments again and laments: “Sad to say, the multitude of preachers in Christendom this day are ministers of the Word without the Spirit…This dead-letter ministry has girdled the globe with the form without the power.” 9
Perhaps a word should be said here concerning the matter of legalism. Many Christians tend to become legalistic. They tend to major on the “Thou shall not” and even on the “thou shall” portions of Scripture. Thus, they get themselves into legalistic bondage. We must remember that we cannot keep the law anymore that Israel could keep it. We must keep in mind that it is God who works in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
Now let us look at the problem with the word “covenant.” Paul here speaks of ministers of the new covenant. God is a covenant making and covenant keeping God. In the Scriptures we see that there were several covenants. There was one with Noah (Gen. 9:17), one with Abraham (Gen. 15:18), one with Israel (Exo. 6:4). Of course, that covenant was renewed on several occasions. Now God has made a new covenant with Israel and with all those who have become a part of Israel by faith in Jesus (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 9:15).
It would be good for us to stop and look at the word covenant (diathēkē) itself. This word can be problematic and perhaps Barclay has the best explanation of it. In the Greek Old Testament it was a very common word. He points out that in its non-theological setting the word simply meant an agreement between two people. However, more commonly it is used of the relationship between God and man, or the relationship between God and Israel. Its special usage is that relationship between God and man through the life and death of Jesus (Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24).
In the Greek language the normal word for covenant was not diathēkē but suntheke. This latter word is used for marriage covenant or agreements between persons. In the normal Greek, the word diathēkē means a will and not a covenant. So, why does the New Testament insist on using diathēkē for covenant? There is an answer to this riddle. Suntheke is a word that describes an agreement which is made on equal terms, an agreement that either party can alter. God by his free grace has given us a covenant (diathēkē) that is not on equal terms and one that man cannot alter. We can only accept or refuse his free and wonderful offer. Obviously, we can never meet God on equal terms.10 Thus we see that our new covenant is much like a last will or a sort of covenant-will.
We note something else about this new covenant. In the Greek language there are two words for “new.” There is kainos (which means new in quality) and neos, (which means new in time).11 The word for “new” in our new covenant is kainos. So, the new covenant is new in quality, but it is also obviously new in time. It is a totally different kind of covenant with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As John 1:17 has it: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
The ministers of this new covenant are ministers of the Spirit and not just ministers of the letter. This new type of ministry brings new spiritual life to people (Rom. 6:4; 11; 1 Cor. 15:45). All those who were under the law of the first covenant were liable for death. The letter of the law kills, because human beings cannot keep the law flawlessly. The law granted not power or means to keep it.12 The main purpose of the law was to make people aware of sin (Rom. 3:19-20; 6:23; 7:6). Someone has said that the law thus was diagnostic not therapeutic. Long ago Ambrose (fourth century) said, “The letter circumcised a small part of the body, but the understanding spirit keeps the circumcision of the entire soul and body so that chastity might be preserved, frugality loved and the unnecessary parts
cut off…” 13
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, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 2 Corinthians 3:7-8
Clearly, the old covenant was instituted with a certain amount of glory. There was smoke, earthquake, thunder, lightning, a trumpet blast and the voice of God (Exo. 19:16 – 20:1). Even the face of Moses reflected the glory of God. Each time he went into the tent of meeting that glory was recharged (Exo. 34.33 ff.). The people were not able to look at him because of that glory, so Moses was obligated to cover his face with a veil.
Interestingly, in the Hebrew of Exodus 34:35, the verb qaran, from the same root as qeren, is used. Qeren has the meaning of “horn.” Thus, in the Latin Vulgate the word became cornuta, which literally means “horned.” Because of this, Moses was often pictured as having horns, as in the case of Michaelangelo’s statue.14 Obviously, Moses did not have horns, but he did have the glory of God shining from his face.
Paul is quick to point out that this glory was transitory or passing. It was a fading glory. Utley says here, “…Some think Moses veiled his face to keep the Israelites from seeing the fading glory (cf. 2 Cor. 3:7, 13). Others, however, think that Moses veiled his face because the Israelites could not stand the glory of God because of their sins.” 15 Perhaps both are the case. We see clearly in these verses, as well as in verse 11, that the glory of Moses’ face was fading.
So, it is obvious here that Paul is coming against the teaching of the false apostles who were intent on exalting Moses. Keener says, “If his opponents were appealing to Moses for their authority (cf. 11:22), Paul effectively short-circuits their claims here.” 16 Not only was Moses’ glory fading but the whole administration of the law had become an administration of weakness and death. Calvin says, “…so long as it was merely engraven on tables of stone… it killeth; for as the apostle says elsewhere, (Gal. 3:10,)…All that remain under the law are subject to the curse.” 17
We need always to remember that there was nothing wrong with the law. In fact, the law was spiritual and perfect (Rom. 7:14; Psa. 19:7). The problem was the weakness of humankind. People were not able to keep the law, so it became a ministry of condemnation. 18 Someone has noted that the law warns sinful beings to, “stay away!” while the gospel invites sinners to “come near.” Thus, the ministration of the Spirit was more glorious than the ministration of the law. As Keener says, “Thus no one could deny that the Spirit of God in one’s heart was better than a law scroll before one’s eyes.” 19
“If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! (3:9). Here, Paul uses the common qal vahomer argument, or an argument from the least to the greatest. The law could point out sin but it could not cure or forgive sin. Wiersbe says, “The law produces condemnation and is the mirror that reveals how dirty our faces really are. But we cannot wash our faces in the mirror…” 20 Barnes adds: “It is by the incarnation of the Son of God – a far more glorious manifestation of deity than was made on Mount Sinai…when the sun was darkened. and the rocks were rent – far more grand and awful scenes than occurred when the law was given. It is by the resurrection and ascension of the Redeemer – scenes far more sublime than all the external glories of Sinai when the law was given.” 21
The letter of the law condemns and kills (2 Cor. 3:6; Rom. 7:9-11), but the Spirit gives life and righteousness (Rom. 8:1-4; cf. 3:6 above). Paul greatly emphasizes the word “righteousness” (dikaiosunē). This is such an important word for Paul that he uses it over one hundred times in its various forms.22 In the Abbott-Smith Greek lexicon, the word is defined as, “conformity to the Divine will, in purpose, thought and action.” 23 We must always remember that our righteousness is imputed or reckoned to us because of the sacrifice of Jesus and not because of our works (Rom. 4:22, 24).
“For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (3:10). At night, we are amazed at the glory of the moon and stars. However, when the sun comes up in the morning, all this night glory quickly fades away with the surpassing glory of the sun. So it is with Jesus who is called the “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2). His surpassing glory eclipses everything else. Such is the glory of his new covenant, which far surpasses the old one.
“And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (3:11). That which is transitory or passing away is reflected in the Greek word katargoumenon. This word is contrasted with menon, or that which lasts. As Clarke says of it, “… that which continues, which is not for a particular time, place, and people, as the law was; but for all times, all places, and all people.” 24 Moses himself testified of this greater one to come saying, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deut. 18:15; cf.
VEILED AND UNVEILED
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 2 Corinthians 3:12
Quite simply, “Paul could act with greater confidence than the spiritual giant Moses….” 25 Because of the living hope in his heart the apostle had gained great boldness. The word for “boldness” used here is parresia in the Greek (cf. Acts 4:29). Bruce tells us that this word originally meant freedom of speech, but in time it took on the meanings of boldness, frankness as well as “freedom of access.” 26 In other words, there was nothing veiled about Paul’s message and approach.
Stedman, in his humorous manner, tells us of some of the problems that may result when we carry on a veiled ministry:
I have often told of the two young men who were students down at Duke University in North Carolina who were invited to a masquerade party. They decided to go dressed in the costumes of the mascots of Duke University, the “Blue Devils,” so they rented blue devil costumes. Dressed in these, they started out for the party, and, without realizing it, they got mixed up and went by mistake into a church congregation at Prayer Meeting. When these people looked up from their prayers to see two blue devils walking down the aisle there was a great exodus, out the doors and out the windows, all except for one rather stout lady who got wedged in the front pew when she tried to turn around. She began to scream in terror, and these two young men, forgetting they were causing this problem, rushed forward to try to help her. When she saw them advancing on her she raised her hand, she rolled her eyes, and said, “Stop! Don’t you come any further! I want you to know that I’ve been a member of this church for 25 years, but I’ve been on your side all the time!” 27
“We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away” (3:13). Once more, Paul emphasizes that the glory of Moses and the Old Covenant was a fading glory. Augustine (354-430), reminds us of how the veil of the temple was torn in two when Jesus was crucified, and how it signified what the apostle is here saying about the veil of the Old Testament. With the rending of the veil, all things are now made plain to us in Christ.28
“But 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. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts” (3:14-15). By rejecting the gospel, their minds have been made dull or have become hardened. The Greek word used here is pōroō, and it means to have hard or thick skin. It speaks of skin that is callused (cf. Mk. 6:52; 8:17).29
Today there is much veiled in Judaism. In their worship, Jewish men cover themselves (often including their heads) with their tallits (cf. 1 Cor. 11:4). However, Keener points out that in Paul’s day they did not cover their heads unless they were in shame or mourning.30 Today, just as Moses veiled himself, Judaism remains veiled to the true knowledge and understanding of Christ. In fact, Christ is often despised and cursed by the Jewish people. As we have said, as early as Paul’s day the Jewish people tried with all their might to silence him. It was because of the Jews that Paul finally was sent to prison in Rome. Indeed, this very epistle was being written because of the destructive work of the Jews at Corinth.
It is only through the Holy Spirit and his revelation that the light can come on. Unfortunately, Jewish people do not believe that the Holy Spirit is active today.31 Thus, the gospel remains hidden along with the great mysteries of the gospel. One of those great mysteries is the fact that Jewish rejection of the gospel would result in multiplied millions of Gentile people finding and enjoying the salvation of God. It would in the end result in Gentiles making Jewish people so jealous that, in time, they too would discover the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus (Rom. 11:11).
When the full number of Gentiles has been saved, then all Israel likewise will be saved (Rom. 11:25-26). We may be coming to such a time. In Ezekiel 36:24-28, we learn that the Jewish people will be gathered home in defilement but once they are in the land, God will cleanse them, give them a new heart and a new spirit. He will remove their hearts of stone. In our day, much of Israel has once more been re-gathered to the land and we can look forward to this great transformation happening very soon.
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (3:16). It is not just the Jews, but it is all people everywhere who have their eyes and minds veiled. We see in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
All people are blinded but the Jewish people are especially blinded. The instant cure for this is repentance or turning to the Lord. Lowery says of the word “turns” (epistrrepse) – “…the idea expressed by this word is of a person going a particular way and doing a dramatic reversal of direction…a change in life that is the result of a change in heart (v. 15) or mind (v. 14). This is then a synonym for repentance…” 32
When a person turns to the Lord in repentance and faith, the veil is instantly taken away. This is a principle that has been extracted from the passage in Exodus 34:34.33 Chrysostom says, “Likewise when we turn to the Lord, we shall see the glory of the law and the face of the Lawgiver uncovered.” 34
ENTERING INTO FREEDOM AND GLORY
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
2 Corinthians 3:17
Once again, this verse illustrates the unity of the godhead and how the Lord and the Spirit are of one and the same essence, while their persons remain distinct.35
It has become obvious in the recent Charismatic Movement that millions of believers have gained a new freedom in Christ. Denominational walls have fallen down as Christians from various orientations are found peacefully worshipping together. This same movement has, in many instances, broken down the walls even between Catholics and Protestants. On several occasions these have had the glorious freedom and privilege of worshipping together.
We have many instructions in Scripture regarding the Holy Spirit. We are first to be filled with the Spirit, “…speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit…” (Eph. 5:18-19). Then we are to be led by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit every day (Gal. 5:16-18). This will keep us from all the desires of the flesh. The Spirit will give us wisdom and boldness that we may declare the word of the Lord, just as did the disciples at Pentecost. Actually the word for freedom or liberty used here is eleutheria. It refers to the power of speaking freely and openly.36
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (3:18). Now through Christ and his Spirit our faces have become unveiled. At last we are able to “contemplate the Lord’s glory.” The idea expressed here in the Greek word katoptrizomenoi is that of seeing a reflection as in a mirror.37 This is made clearer in several translations like the NAS, NKJ, and NJB. The idea behind this looking or contemplating is that of a steady gaze.38
As we gaze intently and keep on gazing steadily at the image of the Lord we are slowly transformed into his image. The Greek word for transformed is metamorphoumetha. Our transformation is passive, it is from within and it is a steadily-increasing process. While the glory of Moses was ever fading, the glory of the obedient Christian is ever-increasing. We go on from glory to glory until we at last will see him as he is. In 1 John 3:2, the Beloved Disciple says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”