Christian Transformation: An Epistle of Christ on Our Hearts
2 Corinthians 3
2 Corinthians 3
2 Corinthians 3. God’s purpose is that Christ, who has been rejected and cast out of this world, will still be seen in His saints. To accomplish this, the Spirit of God is present on earth to form the saints into an “epistle of Christ”. This chapter takes up the process by which the Spirit of God accomplishes this work, and the contrast between the ministry of the Spirit and the Law. The features of Christ cannot be produced in the believer through the imposition of the Law. Attempting that is like trying to contain the “new wine” of Christianity in the “old bottles” of Jewish formalism (Matt. 9:17). This is exactly what the false apostles in Corinth were trying to introduce.
An Epistle of Commendation & An Epistle of Christ (3:1-6)
¶ Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or do we need, as some, commendatory letters to you, or commendatory from you? v.1 The Accusation. Some of the false ministers in Corinth were claiming that Paul was commending himself, or boasting of himself to the Corinthians to gain credibility. He asks two rhetorical questions, the answer to which are both “No”. He did not write to commend himself, and he did not need a letter of commendation to or from the Corinthians. Why not? The Corinthians knew exactly who and what Paul was. The proof of this is in vv.2-3. As a side note, this verse shows that “letters of commendation” were very common among believers in the early Church (Acts 18:27; 2 Corinthians 3:1). The purpose of these letters was to express the unity of the Body of Christ, and the resulting communion between local assemblies gathered to the Lord’s Name. Scripturally, an unknown person (“as some”) traveling to another assembly should carry a letter of commendation signed by two or three brothers (Matt. 18:16 for the principle) from their home assembly. However, if a person has previously visited and is well known, they do not need such a letter; just as Paul did not need one in this case. Read more…
2 “Ye” are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read of all men, v.2 Paul’s Epistle: the Corinthians. In a metaphoric sense, the Corinthians were Paul’s letter, because they were his converts. If anyone needed proof of Paul’s authenticity or of his fellowship among the brethren, they only needed look at the Corinthians. The conversion of these pagans was a testimony known far and wide by “all men”. He calls them “our letter”; signifying that the outward conduct of the saints collectively in Corinth was a commendation of Paul; i.e. they reflected – or ought to have reflected – the mind and heart of the Apostle. But he also says that the letter was written in the “hearts” of Paul and his companions. This means that Paul held these ones very dear to his heart, and could refer to them at a moment’s notice if someone wanted proof of his ministry. If someone is written in your heart, you can never get them out of your mind or affections. That is how the Corinthians were to Paul, witnessed by his restlessness in 2 Cor. 2:13. Next, in v.3 the same principles are applied to the saints as an epistle of Christ.
3 being manifested to be Christ’s epistle ministered by us, written, not with ink, but the Spirit of the living God; not on stone tables, but on fleshy tables of the heart. v.3 The Result of True Ministry: An Epistle of Christ. Not only were the Corinthians a commendation for Paul, but they were also “an epistle of Christ”. That is, the saints collectively reflected the character of Christ to this world. Paul could say “manifestly declared” because there had been a response in Corinth to his first letter. The “epistle” in the Corinthians was obscured before that, but no longer. The world learns what it knows of Christ from the people who profess His name. We are not only the epistle of Christ when going on well; we are the epistle of Christ at all times, for good or bad.
The World’s Bible by Annie Flint
We are the only Bible the careless world will read;
We are the sinner’s gospel, we are the scoffer’s creed;
We are the Lord’s last message, given in deed and word;
What if the type is crooked? What if the print is blurred?
Furthermore, this epistle of Christ was “ministered by us”, that is, it was the fruit of the apostle’s labors. Paul’s ministry has this effect on us; it helps us to represent Christ better to this world. How is the epistle written? “not with ink, but the Spirit of the living God”. The Spirit of God is the one who is writing on our hearts. What is the Spirit writing? Christ. The Spirit’s primary work on the earth today is to glorify Christ (John 16:14). The Spirit writes these epistles by seeking to occupy us more with Christ, that we might be more transformed into His image (v.18). The Spirit of the living God is contrasted with inanimate ink, and the fleshly tables of the heart are contrasted with stone tables. This sets up the remainder of the chapter, where Paul contrasts the law and grace. The law was written on tables of stone, which by nature is cold, rigid and inflexible. The law therefore had that character; e.g. it would require death for one who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day (Num. 15:32). But for all the law’s strictness, it could not improve man in the flesh. All it could do was condemn him (Rom. 8:3), like the way a mirror can show us how dirty our face is. By contrast, the Spirit of God has real power to change us! How does the Spirit of God change or transform us? He does it by writing Christ on our hearts; i.e. by occupying us with His glories and perfection, making Christ more precious to us, which then causes us to live and act like Christ. It is a process of moral transformation that will continue all our lives, until the rapture when we see the Lord face to face. Then the transformation will be complete, not just morally but physically as well (1 John 3:2; Phil. 3:21). Remember this: Christianity does not consist of rules and religious forms. Those things belong to Judaism (Heb. 13:13). Christianity is about a Person, and God’s work to reveal that Person in us (Gal. 1:15-16).
4 And such confidence have we through the Christ towards God: 5 not that we are competent of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but our competency is of God; vv.4-5 The Minister’s Confidence. Paul was confident that his ministry would, through the power of the Spirit of God, result in greater conformance to the image of Christ. The Christian minister today should have the same confidence, that his or her ministry is Christ exalting, and therefore can be used by the Spirit to further the moral transformation of believers. But our competency is not a matter of personal skill or natural strength. Our competency in ministry is “of God”.
6 who has also made us competent, as ministers of the new covenant; not of letter, but of spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit [‘spirit’] quickens. v.6 Our Competency. God has made all His servants to be competent new covenant ministers. Our ministry is so much higher than the ministry of the law (the Old Covenant) that we are actually competent – more than able – ministers of the spiritual content of the New Covenant! I say “spiritual content” of the New Covenant because the definite article “the” is not in the original text. The thought is not so much that Christians are involved with the New Covenant as a recognized thing, but that the character of our ministry is that of the New Covenant. This is confirmed in the following clause; “not of letter, but of spirit”. That is, we are not under the New Covenant as a binding contract (“not of letter”), but we partake of the spiritual blessings of it (“but of spirit”). Paul is careful to make this distinction lest anyone think the Church has replaced Israel, who is the proper heir of the New Covenant. This opens up the subject of the Old and New Covenants. The two great Covenants have to do with Israel, not the Church, as we clearly see from Rom. 9:4; “… Israelites; to whom pertaineth … the covenants”. Covenant theologians argue that the New Covenant is with the Church; but if we look at Jeremiah 31:31 we find that the New Covenant will be made with “the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah”. The covenants are with Israel and for the earth. The Church is heavenly, and called out of the earth. If we compare the two covenants we will see striking differences:
|Old Covenant||New Covenant|
|Made with:||Israel at Sinai in the wilderness||Israel and Judah in the Millennium|
|Character:||Blessings or cursings conditional upon Israel’s obedience||Unconditional blessings|
|A system of:||Demand (works)||Supply (grace)|
The great difference between the two covenants is that the Old was on the basis of works, and the New is on the basis of grace. The language of the Old is “if thou shalt … then I will…”, but the language of the New is just “I will…”. The death of Christ was needed to “take away the first and establish the second” (Heb. 10:9), because the guilt of breaking the Old must be cleared before the New could be established. If the New Covenant is made with Israel, why does the cup in the Lord’s Supper represent “the blood of the New Covenant” (1 Cor. 11:25, etc.)? If you look at the blessings of the New Covenant you will see that we have those same blessings in Christianity, although we also have many blessings that go far beyond the New Covenant (Eph. 1; blessings “in Christ”). Therefore, it can be said that Christians share the blessings of the New Covenant, without being formally under the covenant. Paul clearly says that Christians are “competent, as ministers of the new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6) although we are not under it as a binding contract; “not of letter, but of spirit”. The spirit of the New Covenant is grace, and that is what characterizes our relationship to God in Christianity. The same blood that has secured the New Covenant blessings for future Israel has secured our blessings in Christianity today.
The last part of the verse is transitory. The word for “spirit” is the Greek word ‘pneuma’, and it is not possible to tell from the word itself whether the spirit of a thing is meant, or the Spirit of God; i.e. whether a capital or lower-case should be used. To determine the proper rendering, we need to look at the context. The translation of W. Kelly commends itself to me on this score; he has as a lower-case “spirit”. I believe Paul is now giving a general principle, having already distinguished the letter of the New Covenant from the spirit of it. The general principle is this: applying the letter of anything God has given will bring in death, but the spirit of what God has given will bring in life. This is an important principle. Paul takes up the Old Covenant in the following parenthesis as an example of this. The Old Covenant had a letter and a spirit. The letter of the Law is the commandments and ordinances which regulate a person externally. The spirit of the Old Testament was Christ Himself (v.17). “We know that the law is spiritual” (Rom 7:14). The effect of “the letter” was seen glaringly in Old Testament times, because the Spirit of God was not yet sent, and did not have liberty to bring out “the spirit” of the Old Testament. Instead, what was seen and applied was the letter of the Law (e.g. John 5:39-40). “The letter” kills man because it brings in God’s minimum standard of holiness, but it does not give man either the desire or the power to meet that standard. In fact, when a person is presented with the Law, the flesh rises up into action, making the situation worse than before (Rom. 7:9-11). By contrast, when the thoughts of God (the spirit) are brought to bear upon the soul in the power of the Spirit of God, quickening occurs. Then, the Spirit of God indwells the believers to be the sustaining power of that life. The role of the Spirit of God cannot be overestimated.
Practically speaking, those who preach and teach in Christianity need to be careful to present Christ and Christianity in a proper way. The constant tendency is to bring in the law. Some teach that we are made righteous by Christ’s law-keeping, that His works are imputed to us. Instead, God says that the righteousness of God is manifested “without law” (Rom. 3:21); i.e. not on the principle of law. The truth is that God has set forth the Person of His Son as a propitiation. God is not occupied with a list of rules, or even with Christ’s obeying those rules, but with a Person. Our acceptance is in that Person. Others would make Christ into a law of sorts, by treating Him as a model of human behavior. Others make the directives of the New Testament into a law; e.g. insisting that an exhortation like “Greet one another with a holy kiss” means we should literally kiss every believer, even in cultures where kissing is inappropriate. In each case, Christianity is presented as a system given for the restraint of evil in the first man. In each case, “the letter” brings the soul into bondage and hinders the liberty of the Spirit.
A marked contrast is seen in the giving of the Law and the giving of the Spirit. The day the Law was brought down from Sinai, three-thousand were killed (Ex. 32:28). The day the Spirit was sent down, three-thousand were saved (Acts 2:41)! The Law is an external standard which can only condemn us, but the Spirit does an internal work in the heart to transform us from the inside out. In this way, the ministry of the Spirit is of the same character as the New Covenant; i.e. a change on the inside that gets worked out. However, the ministry of the Spirit goes far beyond what Israel will have in the New Covenant, because they will have the Law written on their hearts, but we have Christ Himself written on our hearts! Read more…
Parenthesis: The Ministry of the Spirit vs. the Ministry of Death (3:7-16)
The Parenthesis. The subject of the parenthesis is the surpassing greatness of Christianity (a system of grace), as compared to the law (a system of works). Rather than something we must do for God, Christianity is really what God is doing: (1) in us, (2) for us, and (3) through us. In 2 Corinthians, this ministry of the Spirit is called by various names:
- It is called the “ministry of the Spirit” when it is God’s work in us (2 Cor. 3:8). The Spirit of God is working in us to transform us into the image of Christ. It is contrasted with the “ministry of death”, because the law worked death.
- It is called the “ministry of righteousness” when it is God’s work for us (2 Cor. 3:9). Rather than require righteousness from us, God has placed us “in Christ” in His sight. We are fully accepted by virtue of that righteous standing. It is contrasted with the “ministry of condemnation”, because the law could only condemn.
- It is called the “ministry of reconciliation” when it is God’s work through us (2 Cor. 5:18). Having been saved by grace alone, we are now ambassadors for Christ, and God is seeking to reconcile sinners through us.
Throughout this parenthesis, the apostle compares law and grace through a number of lenses. The great point in all of it is that the features of Christ are formed in the saints by the Spirit of God occupying us with Christ, not by trying to produce godliness through legal means. Bringing in the law may result in an outward conformance to a standard for a time, but it cannot continue because the heart has not changed. Legality will not produce Christ-likeness, but the Spirit can. This is precisely the thought in Gal. 5:19-23.
7 (But if the ministry of death, in letters, graven in stones, began with glory, so that the children of Israel could not fix their eyes on the face of Moses, on account of the glory of his face, a glory which is annulled; 8 how shall not rather the ministry of the Spirit subsist in glory? vv.7-8 The Surpassing Glory of Grace. There are a number of contrasts between law and grace in these verses, which are expanded in vv.9-11. I will comment on each contrast when we get to those verses. However, first there are a few things to understand. When Paul refers to the giving of the law, he refers to the second giving of the law. You will recall that Moses came down off the mountain with the first set of stone tables in Exodus 32, and before he reached the camp he could hear the sounds of immorality among Israel, and his moral instincts caused him to throw down the tables, which were broken to pieces. Moses then began to intercede for the children of Israel, and at last the Lord agreed to delay the judgment, and send His Angel to lead them into Canaan, although the Lord Himself would not be present with them (Ex. 33:3). Moses also moved the Tabernacle without the camp of Israel, knowing that Jehovah could not be forced into association with a sinful people. Then Moses went out to the Tabernacle, the cloud descended, and Jehovah spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend”. In an intimate conversation, Moses pleaded with the Lord to go with Israel, and at last Jehovah agreed! Then Moses personally asked to see the Lord’s glory. The Lord told Moses that no one could see His glory and live, but He would allow Moses to see Him from behind (Ex. 33:23). The next day, Moses went up on the mountain with two fresh tables of stone, and Jehovah showed him His glory, though in a limited way, and proclaimed “Jehovah God merciful and gracious…” (Ex. 34:6). When Moses came down from the mountain with the tables this second time, “Moses knew not that the skin of his face shone through his talking with him” (Ex. 34:29). Moses had seen the glory of the Lord, and it had a visible effect on his countenance. The difference between the first and second giving if the law is that the first was pure law, the second was law mixed with grace. It was still law, because anything mixed with law is law. It seems fitting because the Judaizers in Corinth were presenting a mixture of law and grace. By all rights, Israel should have been consumed, yet God’s presence continued with them thereafter on the provisional basis of continual sacrifice. This limited revelation of “glory” to Moses is how the “ministry of death” began. The glory of God, even in a limited revelation, is still beyond human ability to take in; “so that the children of Israel could not fix their eyes on the face of Moses, on account of the glory of his face”. How long did Moses’ face shine? We don’t know, but it did fade quickly, because that glory was “a glory which is annulled”. Knowing all this, how much greater is the ministry of the Spirit of God, which exists perpetually in unmingled grace?
9 For if the ministry of condemnation be glory, much rather the ministry of righteousness abounds in glory. 10 For also that which was glorified is not glorified in this respect, on account of the surpassing glory. 11 For if that annulled was introduced with glory, much rather that which abides subsists in glory. vv.9-11 Three Ways Grace Excels. Paul expands out three reasons why the glory of grace far exceeds the glory of the law:
- Grace justifies while the law can only condemn (v.9). The law, even though it condemned man, was glorious in that it revealed something of the excellencies of God; i.e. His minimum standard of holiness. But grace unfolds God’s plan to justify sinners through the Person and Work of Christ, and therefore reveals God in both His characters of light and love.
- Grace fully reveals the glory of God, while the law is only a partial revelation (v.10). The full knowledge of the glory of God is seen reflected in the face of Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God, in writing Christ on our hearts, brings that full revelation to us. In this respect, the glory of the Old Covenant has been completely eclipsed, much the way the light of the stars is eclipsed by the light of the rising sun!
- Grace will continue forever, while the law has been annulled (v.11). The law could not endure, because it depended in part on the first man (Gal. 3:20). But with grace, we see God retreating from the entire ground of human responsibility into His own sovereignty, and thus we have the basis for something that “subsists in glory”!
12 Having therefore such hope, we use much boldness: 13 and not according as Moses put a veil on his own face, so that the children of Israel should not fix their eyes on the end of that annulled. vv.12-13 Christian Boldness. If Paul was ministering on the ground of the law, he might well have had reason to be hesitant, unstable, and afraid. But “having therefore such hope” in a personal, gracious God and a finished work of the cross, we can speak and act in the things of God with “much boldness”. Christian boldness is also a contrast to the law. We have free access into the presence of God by faith (Eph. 2:18; Heb. 10:22), but Israel was separated from the presence of God by a thick veil (Heb. 9:8). Paul demonstrates this by the very fact that Moses had to put a veil over his face, because the brightness of the reflected glory was too much for the children of Israel to see. Whose glory was it that they were really seeing, though veiled and reflected? It was the glory of “the end [or, object] of that [which is] annulled”. What or Who is the object of the Old Covenant? Christ Himself is the “end” of the Old Testament scriptures (Rom. 10:4). But the children of Israel could not see the glories of Christ under the ministry of the law.
14 But their thoughts have been darkened, for unto this day the same veil remains in reading the old covenant, unremoved, which in Christ is annulled. 15 But unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil lies upon their heart. 16 But when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away.) vv.14-16 Faith in Christ Removes the Veil. Israel’s rejection of the Lord has caused their thoughts to be darkened, sealing them in a condition of judicial blindness (Rom. 11:7-10) when reading the Old Testament. But in Christianity, “the veil is done away in Christ”, just as Moses took off his veil when he entered into the tabernacle to commune with God (Ex. 34:35). Who could think of reading Psa. 22 or Isa. 53 without seeing Christ? Metaphorically speaking, “the same veil” as was on Moses’ face “remains in reading the old covenant”. Sadly, this blindness for seeing Christ in the Old Testament is still in effect, unless grace has come in. But Israel will not remain in this state forever: one day Israel “shall turn to the Lord”, and when that happens, the veil will be taken away, and they will be able to see Christ written all over the pages of the Old Testament! In many ways, Saul of Tarsus is a sample man (1 Tim. 1:16), his life not only a pattern for Christian living, but also a picture of the nation of Israel. You will recall his behavior prior to conversion, that he was an insolent and overbearing man, until he was struck down on the road to Damascus. After three days of blindness, “there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, etc.” (Act. 9:18). So it will be when Israel turns in faith to the Lord; the veil will be taken away.
Transformation: The Effect of Christ Written on Our Hearts (3:17-18)
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit [‘spirit’], but where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. v.17 Recalling that vv.7-16 is a parenthesis, it is evident that the “spirit” mentioned in this verse is the spirit mentioned in the last clause of v.6; i.e. the spirit of the Old Covenant.1 The Old Covenant not only had a “letter” (legal component), but it also had a “spirit” (spiritual component). As demonstrated in the parenthesis, the object of the Old Testament, though hidden from the eyes of blind Israel, is Christ Himself; e.g. seen in the offerings, the tabernacles, the prophecies, etc. Hence, “the Lord is that spirit”. What a principle! All through the inspired Word of God we see Christ, not in the letter of it, but in the spirit of it, intentionally put there by the Spirit of God who moved holy men of God to pen the scriptures. The second occurrence of “the Spirit” in v.17 should be capitalized, because it refers to the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of God because a presence and power is implied; a Person whose presence and power results in liberty. The liberty here is Christian liberty; the liberty of being set free from sin (Rom. 6:18), of being set free from the law (Rom. 6:14), of being sons of God (Gal. 4:6-7), of having free access into the presence of God (Eph. 2:18). And where is the Spirit of the Lord? The Spirit is on earth indwelling the Church of God collectively (Eph. 2:22) and indwelling the believer individually (1 Cor. 6:19). For Christians, there is liberty for the indwelling Spirit to act in our lives; “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). We find in v.18 just what the Spirit does when given liberty.
Why is the first “spirit” in v.17 not capitalized? Contextually, the lower-case “spirit” fits perfectly with the last clause of v.6. Doctrinally, if “the spirit” in the first clause referred to the Holy Spirit, then it would be a denial of the Trinity, because the three Persons in the Godhead are distinct. It is true that the Spirit of God is the Lord. In fact, all three Persons are called “Lord” [‘kurios’]. But it would be wrong to reverse it and say “the Lord is the Spirit”, as if to identify the Son as the same Person as the Holy Spirit.
18 But “we” all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit. v.18 What work is the Spirit of God doing? It goes back to v.3, where we find that the Spirit is fashioning us into an epistle of Christ. How is the epistle written? The Spirit directs our attention to “the glory of the Lord”, and when occupied with Christ in glory we “are transformed according to the same image”. It is self-evident that man needs an object to worship, and also that man gradually becomes like his object. For example, if I worship popular entertainment stars, I will soon begin to imitate and act like them. By occupying us with the glories and perfections of the Lord, the Spirit of the Lord makes Christ more precious to us, which results in gradual transformation into His image. “Image” in scripture has the thought of representation. God is seeking to fashion us into the representatives of Christ on this earth. It is a gradual process of moral transformation; “transformed… from glory to glory” or changed from one degree of glory to another, which will continue all our lives, until the rapture when we see the Lord face to face. Then the transformation will be complete, not just morally but physically as well (1 John 3:2; Phil. 3:21). Transformation is passive, and the person may not be conscious of it. Moses’ face shown, but “he wist not”. It was similar with the disciples; “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John… they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). It was obvious to others, if not to themselves. The boldness that we have is astonishing. Moses had to put “a veil” over his face, but we see the Lord with “unveiled face”. Only Moses could see the glory under the old covenant, but “we all” have access in Christianity.
Typical Teaching in 2 Corinthians 3-4. The contrast between the law and grace that begins in ch.3 carried on into ch.4. The contrast is brought out in a remarkable way by comparing the two great ministries, and those who gave them; i.e. Moses and Christ. Some of the comparisons are:
The Ministry of Death
Given by Moses
The Ministry of the Spirit
Given by Christ
|Moses compared to Christ (2 Cor. 3:10, 13, 18; 4:6)|
|The reflection||Moses face was a partial reflection of God’s glory||The face of Jesus Christ reveals all the glory of God|
|The effect||The people had to avert their gaze||We gaze continually at the Lord’s face|
|The veil||Moses put a veil over his face||We look on the glory of the Lord with unveiled face|
|Moses compared to the believer (Ex. 33:23; 34:35; 2 Cor. 3:7, 18; 4:2-4)|
|The glory||Moses saw the Lord from behind only||We look on the Lord’s face directly|
|The access||Only Moses saw the glory of the Lord||We “all” see the glory of the Lord|
|The effect||Only the face of Moses shown||We are transformed into the image of Christ|
|The veil||When Moses went out to the people he put on the veil. He could only remove the veil when none of the people were near.||We manifest the truth everywhere we go, commending ourselves to every conscience, and our gospel is veiled only in those that are lost because the god of this world has blinded their thoughts.|
- “For it is an utter mistake to give ‘the spirit’ in the first clause a capital letter, which would imply the Holy Ghost to be meant; and where would be the sense, where so much as the orthodoxy, of identifying the Lord with the Holy Ghost? To me the meaning, without doubt, is that the Lord Jesus constitutes the spirit of the forms and figures and other communications of the old covenant. These, if taken in the letter, killed; if in the spirit, quickened.” – Kelly, William. Notes on the Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Bible Truth Publishers, 1975.