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Reflections on 2 Corinthians

Saint Paul

Chapter 3

(2 Corinthians 3 KJV) "Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? {2} Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: {3} Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.

Paul mixes his metaphors, but he seems to be looking ahead to the remainder of his argument. First, it is the idea of a letter of recommendation written, not with ink, but with the Spirit of God. If he stopped here, we would be hard pressed to figure why the tables of stone are relevant. But so far, he is talking about the Corinthians themselves serving as Paul's letter of commendation.

 {4} And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: {5} Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; {6} Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

He has, without being good enough to point it out, shifted his point of reference from letters of commendation to the letter of the law. He is himself a minister of the New Covenant, not the old. Now he will speak of the differences in two administrations.

{7} 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, (NIV)

Now, as Paul was not himself the New Covenant, but a minister of it, so Moses was not himself the Old Covenant. Paul chooses an odd construct in calling the Old Covenant a "ministry that brought death." But of course it did. The law was never an instrument of salvation. It was the definer of right and wrong, and in the Old Covenant, it was combined with a ministry of enforcement. Honoring one's father and mother could hardly bring death. Dishonoring them could in certain circumstances. It is only in the breach that either law or covenant becomes a "ministry of condemnation."

{8} How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? {9} For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. {10} For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. {11} For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

This isn't hard to figure. The Old Covenant was a good thing. It made it possible for Israel to continue as a civil society. But the law alone was not enough, not if it remained external to the people. There is no set of laws that can be written to govern a people who do not wish to be governed by them. We learned that in the years of prohibition, but seem to have forgotten it in the modern world.

{12} Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We 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. (NIV)

Note: Whatever Paul is driving at here, he isn't saying that the Ten Commandments would be abolished. It was the radiance in Moses face that was fading. And indeed, the glory of Moses himself would pass with the onset of the New Covenant.

{14} But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ. {15} But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. {16} Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.

I don't know why some persist in misunderstanding this passage. "When Moses is read," which happened Sabbath by Sabbath in synagogues everywhere, the Jews do not see what lies within, behind and underneath the law. But, said Paul, when one turns his heart to the Lord, the veil, not the law, is taken away. Thus one can see the real spirit of the law behind the letter.

{17} Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (NIV)

The law cannot ensure freedom if it does not reach men's hearts. As long as the law is external, it inexorably destroys liberty. Men break the law, and since there is no remedy except punishment, we send them to jail and pass more laws to plug loopholes in existing law. Law alone cannot hold back a moral landslide. Only the Spirit of the Lord can guarantee liberty.


Painting: St. Paul by Rembrandt van Rijn







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