The preference of the gospel to the law given by Moses. (1-11) The preaching of the apostle was suitable to the excellency and evidence of the gospel, through the power of the Holy Ghost. (12-18)
Verses 1-11 Even the appearance of self-praise and courting human applause, is painful to the humble and spiritual mind. Nothing is more delightful to faithful ministers, or more to their praise, than the success of their ministry, as shown in the spirits and lives of those among whom they labour. The law of Christ was written in their hearts, and the love of Christ shed abroad there. Nor was it written in tables of stone, as the law of God given to Moses, but on the fleshy (not fleshly, as fleshliness denotes sensuality) tables of the heart, Eze. 36:26 . Their hearts were humbled and softened to receive this impression, by the new-creating power of the Holy Spirit. He ascribes all the glory to God. And remember, as our whole dependence is upon the Lord, so the whole glory belongs to him alone. The letter killeth: the letter of the law is the ministration of death; and if we rest only in the letter of the gospel, we shall not be the better for so doing: but the Holy Spirit gives life spiritual, and life eternal. The Old Testament dispensation was the ministration of death, but the New Testament of life. 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. Therein the righteousness of God by faith is revealed; and this shows us that the just shall live by his faith; this makes known the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ, for obtaining the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The gospel so much exceeds the law in glory, that it eclipses the glory of the legal dispensation. But even the New Testament will be a killing letter, if shown as a mere system or form, and without dependence on God the Holy Spirit, to give it a quickening power.
Verses 12-18 It is the duty of the ministers of the gospel to use great plainness, or clearness, of speech. The Old Testament believers had only cloudy and passing glimpses of that glorious Saviour, and unbelievers looked no further than to the outward institution. But the great precepts of the gospel, believe, love, obey, are truths stated as clearly as possible. And the whole doctrine of Christ crucified, is made as plain as human language can make it. Those who lived under the law, had a veil upon their hearts. This veil is taken away by the doctrines of the Bible about Christ. When any person is converted to God, then the veil of ignorance is taken away. The condition of those who enjoy and believe the gospel is happy, for the heart is set at liberty to run the ways of God's commandments. They have light, and with open face they behold the glory of the Lord. Christians should prize and improve these privileges. We should not rest contented without knowing the transforming power of the gospel, by the working of the Spirit, bringing us to seek to be like the temper and tendency of the glorious gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and into union with Him. We behold Christ, as in the glass of his word; and as the reflection from a mirror causes the face to shine, the faces of Christians shine also.
2 Corinthians 3:1-18 . THE SOLE COMMENDATION HE NEEDS TO PROVE GOD'S SANCTION OF HIS MINISTRY HE HAS IN HIS CORINTHIAN CONVERTS: HIS MINISTRY EXCELS THE MOSAIC, AS THE GOSPEL OF LIFE AND LIBERTY EXCELS THE LAW OF CONDEMNATION.
1. Are we beginning again to recommend ourselves ( 2 Corinthians 5:12 ) (as some of them might say he had done in his first Epistle; or, a reproof to "some" who had begun doing so)!
commendation--recommendation. (Compare 2 Corinthians 10:18 ). The "some" refers to particular persons of the "many" ( 2 Corinthians 2:17 ) teachers who opposed him, and who came to Corinth with letters of recommendation from other churches; and when leaving that city obtained similar letters from the Corinthians to other churches. The thirteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) ordained that "clergymen coming to a city where they were unknown, should not be allowed to officiate without letters commendatory from their own bishop." The history ( Acts 18:27 ) confirms the existence of the custom here alluded to in the Epistle: "When Apollos was disposed to pass into Achaia [Corinth], the brethren [of Ephesus] wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him." This was about two years before the Epistle,and is probably one of the instances to which Paul refers, as many at Corinth boasted of their being followers of Apollos ( 1 Corinthians 1:12 ).
2. our epistle--of recommendation.
in our hearts--not letters borne merely in the hands. Your conversion through my instrumentality, and your faith which is "known of all men" by widespread report ( 1 Corinthians 1:4-7 ), and which is written by memory and affection on my inmost heart and is borne about wherever I go, is my letter of recommendation ( 1 Corinthians 9:2 ).
known and read--words akin in root, sound, and sense (so 2 Corinthians 1:13 ). "Ye are known to be my converts by general knowledge: then ye are known more particularly by your reflecting my doctrine in your Christian life." The handwriting is first "known," then the Epistle is "read" [GROTIUS] ( 2 Corinthians 4:2 , 1 Corinthians 14:25 ). There is not so powerful a sermon in the world, as a consistent Christian life. The eye of the world takes in more than the ear. Christians' lives are the only religious books the world reads. IGNATIUS [Epistle to the Ephesians, 10] writes, "Give unbelievers the chance of believing through you. Consider yourselves employed by God; your lives the form of language in which He addresses them. Be mild when they are angry, humble when they are haughty; to their blasphemy oppose prayer without ceasing; to their inconsistency, a steadfast adherence to your faith."
3. declared--The letter is written so legibly that it can be "read by all men" ( 2 Corinthians 3:2 ). Translate, "Being manifestly shown to be an Epistle of Christ"; a letter coming manifestly from Christ, and "ministered by us," that is, carried about and presented by us as its (ministering) bearers to those (the world) for whom it is intended: Christ is the Writer and the Recommender, ye are the letter recommending us.
written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God--Paul was the ministering pen or other instrument of writing, as well as the ministering bearer and presenter of the letter. "Not with ink" stands in contrast to the letters of commendation which "some" at Corinth ( 2 Corinthians 3:1 ) used. "Ink" is also used here to include all outward materials for writing, such as the Sinaitic tables of stone were. These, however, were not written with ink, but "graven" by "the finger of God" ( Exodus 31:18 , 32:16 ). Christ's Epistle (His believing members converted by Paul) is better still: it is written not merely with the finger, but with the "Spirit of the living God"; it is not the "ministration of death" as the law, but of the "living Spirit" that "giveth life" ( 2 Corinthians 3:6-8 ).
not in--not on tables (tablets) of stone, as the ten commandments were written ( 2 Corinthians 3:7 ).
in fleshy tables of the heart--ALL the best manuscripts read, "On [your] hearts [which are] tables of flesh." Once your hearts were spiritually what the tables of the law were physically, tables of stone, but God has "taken away the stony heart out of your flesh, given you a heart of flesh" (fleshy, not fleshly, that is, carnal; hence it is written, "out of your flesh" that is, your carnal nature), Ezekiel 11:19 , 36:26 . Compare 2 Corinthians 3:2 , "As ye are our Epistle written in our hearts," so Christ has in the first instance made you "His Epistle written with the Spirit in (on) your hearts." I bear on my heart, as a testimony to all men, that which Christ has by His Spirit written in your heart [ALFORD]. (Compare Proverbs 3:3 , 7:3 , Jeremiah 31:31-34 ). This passage is quoted by PALEY [Horæ Paulinæ] as illustrating one peculiarity of Paul's style, namely, his going off at a word into a parenthetic reflection: here it is on the word "Epistle." So "savor," 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 .
4. And--Greek, "But." "Such confidence, however (namely, of our 'sufficiency,' 2 Corinthians 3:5 2 Corinthians 3:6 , 2 Corinthians 2:16 --to which he reverts after the parenthesis--as ministers of the New Testament, 'not hinting,' 2 Corinthians 4:1 ), we have through Christ (not through ourselves, compare 2 Corinthians 3:18 ) toward God" (that is, in our relation to God and His work, the ministry committed by Him to us, for which we must render an account to Him). Confidence toward God is solid and real, as looking to Him for the strength needed now, and also for the reward of grace to be given hereafter. Compare Acts 24:15 , "hope toward God." Human confidence is unreal in that it looks to man for its help and its reward.
5. The Greek is, "Not that we are (even yet after so long experience as ministers) sufficient to think anything OF ourselves as (coming) FROM ourselves; but our sufficiency is (derived) FROM God." "From" more definitely refers to the source out of which a thing comes; "of" is more general.
to think--Greek, to "reason out" or "devise"; to attain to sound preaching by our reasonings [THEODORET]. The "we" refers here to ministers ( 2 Peter 1:21 ).
anything--even the least. We cannot expect too little from man, or too much from God.
6. able--rather, as the Greek is the same, corresponding to 2 Corinthians 3:5 , translate, "sufficient as ministers" ( Ephesians 3:7 , Colossians 1:23 ).
the new testament--"the new covenant" as contrasted with the Old Testament or covenant ( 1 Corinthians 11:25 , Galatians 4:24 ). He reverts here again to the contrast between the law on "tables of stone," and that "written by the Spirit on fleshly tables of the heart" ( 2 Corinthians 3:3 ).
not of the letter--joined with "ministers"; ministers not of the mere literal precept, in which the old law, as then understood, consisted; "but of the Spirit," that is, the spiritual holiness which lay under the old law, and which the new covenant brings to light ( Matthew 5:17-48 ) with new motives added, and a new power of obedience imparted, namely, the Holy Spirit ( Romans 7:6 ). Even in writing the letter of the New Testament, Paul and the other sacred writers were ministers not of the letter, but of the spirit. No piety of spirit could exempt a man from the yoke of the letter of each legal ordinance under the Old Testament; for God had appointed this as the way in which He chose a devout Jew to express his state of mind towards God. Christianity, on the other hand, makes the spirit of our outward observances everything, and the letter a secondary consideration ( John 4:24 ). Still the moral law of the ten commandments, being written by the finger of God, is as obligatory now as ever; but put more on the Gospel spirit of "love," than on the letter of a servile obedience, and in a deeper and fuller spirituality ( Matthew 5:17-48 Romans 13:9 ). No literal precepts could fully comprehend the wide range of holiness which LOVE, the work of the Holy Spirit, under the Gospel, suggests to the believer's heart instinctively from the word understood in its deep spirituality.
letter killeth--by bringing home the knowledge of guilt and its punishment, death; 2 Corinthians 3:7 , "ministration of death" ( Romans 7:9 ).
spirit giveth life--The spirit of the Gospel when brought home to the heart by the Holy Spirit, gives new spiritual life to a man ( Romans 6:4 Romans 6:11 ). This "spirit of life" is for us in Christ Jesus ( Romans 8:2 Romans 8:10 ), who dwells in the believer as a "quickening" or "life-giving Spirit" ( 1 Corinthians 15:45 ). Note, the spiritualism of rationalists is very different. It would admit no "stereotyped revelation," except so much as man's own inner instrument of revelation, the conscience and reason, can approve of: thus making the conscience judge of the written word, whereas the apostles make the written word the judge of the conscience ( Acts 17:11 , 1 Peter 4:1 ). True spirituality rests on the whole written word, applied to the soul by the Holy Spirit as the only infallible interpreter of its far-reaching spirituality. The letter is nothing without the spirit, in a subject essentially spiritual. The spirit is nothing without the letter, in a record substantially historical.
7. the ministration of death--the legal dispensation, summed up in the Decalogue, which denounces death against man for transgression.
written and engraven in stones--There is no "and" in the Greek. The literal translation is, "The ministration of death in letters," of which "engraven on stones" is an explanation. The preponderance of oldest manuscripts is for the English Version reading. But one (perhaps the oldest existing manuscript) has "in the letter," which refers to the preceding words ( 2 Corinthians 3:6 ), "the letter killeth," and this seems the probable reading. Even if we read as English Version, "The ministration of death (written) in letters," alludes to the literal precepts of the law as only bringing us the knowledge of sin and "death," in contrast to "the Spirit" in the Gospel bringing us "life" ( 2 Corinthians 3:6 ). The opposition between "the letters" and "the Spirit" ( 2 Corinthians 3:8 ) confirms this. This explains why the phrase in Greek should be "in letters," instead of the ordinary one which English Version has substituted, "written and."
was glorious--literally, "was made (invested) in glory," glory was the atmosphere with which it was encompassed.
could not steadfastly behold--literally, "fix their eyes on." Exodus 34:30 , "The skin of his face shone; and they were AFRAID to come nigh him." "Could not," therefore means here, "for FEAR." The "glory of Moses' countenance" on Sinai passed away when the occasion was over: a type of the transitory character of the dispensation which he represented ( 2 Corinthians 3:11 ), as contrasted with the permanency of the Christian dispensation ( 2 Corinthians 3:11 ).
8. be rather glorious--literally, "be rather (that is, still more, invested) in glory." "Shall be," that is, shall be found to be in part now, but fully when the glory of Christ and His saints shall be revealed.
9. ministration of condemnation--the law regarded in the "letter" which "killeth" ( 2 Corinthians 3:6 , Romans 7:9-11 ). The oldest existing manuscript seems to read as English Version. But most of the almost contemporary manuscripts, versions, and Fathers, read, "If to the ministration of condemnation there be glory."
the ministration of righteousness--the Gospel, which especially reveals the righteousness of God ( Romans 1:17 ), and imputes righteousness to men through faith in Christ ( Romans 3:21-28 , Romans 4:3 Romans 4:22-25 ), and imparts righteousness by the Spirit ( Romans 8:1-4 ).
10. For even the ministration of condemnation, the law, 2 Corinthians 3:7 (which has been glorified at Sinai in Moses' person), has now (English Version translates less fitly, "was made . . . had") lost its glory in this respect by reason of the surpassing glory (of the Gospel): as the light of the stars and moon fades in the presence of the sun.
11. was glorious--literally, "was with glory"; or "marked by glory."
that which remaineth--abideth ( Revelation 14:6 ). Not "the ministry," but the Spirit, and His accompaniments, life and righteousness.
is glorious--literally, "is in glory." The Greek "with" or "by" is appropriately applied to that of which the glory was transient. "In" to that of which the glory is permanent. The contrast of the Old and New Testaments proves that Paul's chief opponents at Corinth were Judaizers.
12. such hope--of the future glory, which shall result from the ministration of the Gospel ( 2 Corinthians 3:8 2 Corinthians 3:9 ).
plainness of speech--openness; without reserve ( 2 Corinthians 2:17 , 4:2 ).
13. We use no disguise, "as Moses put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel might not look steadfastly upon the end of that which was to be done away" [ELLICOTT and others]. The view of Exodus 34:30-35 , according to the Septuagint is adopted by Paul, that Moses in going in to speak to God removed the veil till he came out and had spoken to the people; and then when he had done speaking, he put on the veil that they might not look on the end, or the fading, of that transitory glory. The veil was the symbol of concealment, put on directly after Moses' speaking; so that God's revelations by him were interrupted by intervals of concealment [ALFORD]. But ALFORD'S view does not accord with 2 Corinthians 3:7 ; the Israelites "could not look steadfastly on the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance." Plainly Moses' veil was put on because of their not having been able to "look steadfastly at him." Paul here ( 2 Corinthians 3:13 ) passes from the literal fact to the truth symbolized by it, the blindness of Jews and Judaizers to the ultimate end of the law: stating that Moses put on the veil that they might not look steadfastly at (Christ, Romans 10:4 ) the end of that (law) which (like Moses' glory) is done away. Not that Moses had this purpose; but often God attributes to His prophets the purpose which He has Himself. Because the Jews would not see, God judicially gave them up so as not to see. The glory of Moses' face is antitypically Christ s glory shining behind the veil of legal ordinances. The veil which has been taken off to the believer is left on to the unbelieving Jew, so that he should not see ( Isaiah 6:10 , Acts 28:26 Acts 28:27 ). He stops short at the letter of the law, not seeing the end of it. The evangelical glory of the law, like the shining of Moses' face, cannot be borne by a carnal people, and therefore remains veiled to them until the Spirit comes to take away the veil ( 2 Corinthians 3:14-17 ) [CAMERON].
14-18. Parenthetical: Of Christians in general. He resumes the subject of the ministry, 2 Corinthians 4:1 .
minds--Greek, "mental perceptions"; "understandings."
blinded--rather, "hardened." The opposite to "looking steadfastly at the end" of the law ( 2 Corinthians 3:13 ). The veil on Moses' face is further typical of the veil that is on their hearts.
untaken away . . . which veil--rather, "the same veil . . . remaineth untaken away [literally, not unveiled], so that they do not see THAT it (not the veil as English Version, but 'THE OLD TESTAMENT,' or covenant of legal ordinances) is done away ( 2 Corinthians 3:7 2 Corinthians 3:11 2 Corinthians 3:13 ) in Christ" or, as BENGEL, "Because it is done away in Christ," that is, it is not done away save in Christ: the veil therefore remains untaken away from them, because they will not come to Christ, who does away, with the law as a mere letter. If they once saw that the law is done away in Him, the veil would be no longer on their hearts in reading it publicly in their synagogues (so "reading" means, Acts 15:21 ). I prefer the former.
15. the veil is--rather, "a veil lieth upon their heart" (their understanding, affected by the corrupt will, John 8:43 , 1 Corinthians 2:14 ). The Tallith was worn in the synagogue by every worshipper, and to this veil hanging over the breast there may be an indirect allusion here making it symbolize the spiritual veil on their heart.
16. Moses took off the veil on entering into the presence of the Lord. So as to the Israelites whom Moses represents, "whensoever their heart (it) turns (not as English Version, 'shall turn') to the Lord, the veil is (by the very fact; not as English Version, 'shall be') taken away." Exodus 34:34 is the allusion; not Exodus 34:30 Exodus 34:31 , as ALFORD thinks. Whenever the Israelites turn to the Lord, who is the Spirit of the law, the veil is taken off their hearts in the presence of the Lord: as the literal veil was taken off by Moses in going before God: no longer resting on the dead letter, the veil, they by the Spirit commune with God and with the inner spirit of the Mosaic covenant (which answers to the glory of Moses' face unveiled in God's presence).
17. the Lord--Christ ( 2 Corinthians 3:14 2 Corinthians 3:16 , 2 Corinthians 4:5 ).
is that Spirit--is THE Spirit, namely, that Spirit spoken of in 2 Corinthians 3:6 , and here resumed after the parenthesis ( 2 Corinthians 3:7-16 ): Christ is the Spirit and "end" of the Old Testament, ho giveth life to it, whereas "the letter killeth" ( 1 Corinthians 15:45 , Revelation 19:10 , end).
where the Spirit of the Lord is--in a man's "heart" ( 2 Corinthians 3:15 , Romans 8:9 Romans 8:10 ).
there is liberty--( John 8:36 ). "There," and there only. Such cease to be slaves to the letter, which they were while the veil was on their heart. They are free to serve God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus ( Philippians 3:3 ): they have no longer the spirit of bondage, but of free sonship ( Romans 8:15 , Galatians 4:7 ). "Liberty" is opposed to the letter (of the legal ordinances), and to the veil, the badge of slavery: also to the fear which the Israelites felt in beholding Moses' glory unveiled ( Exodus 34:30 , 1 John 4:18 ).
18. But we all--Christians, as contrasted with the Jews who have a veil on their hearts, answering to Moses' veil on his face. He does not resume reference to ministers till 2 Corinthians 4:1 .
with open face--Translate, "with unveiled face" (the veil being removed at conversion): contrasted with "hid" ( 2 Corinthians 4:3 ).
as in a glass--in a mirror, namely, the Gospel which reflects the glory of God and Christ ( 2 Corinthians 4:4 , 1 Corinthians 13:12 , James 1:23 James 1:25 ).
are changed into the same image--namely, the image of Christ's glory, spiritually now ( Romans 8:29 , 1 John 3:3 ); an earnest of the bodily change hereafter ( Philippians 3:21 ). However many they be, believers all reflect the same image of Christ more or less: a proof of the truth of Christianity.
from glory to glory--from one degree of glory to another. As Moses' face caught a reflection of God's glory from being in His presence, so believers are changed into His image by beholding Him.
even as, &c.--Just such a transformation "as" was to be expected from "the Lord the Spirit" (not as English Version, "the Spirit of the Lord") [ALFORD] ( 2 Corinthians 3:17 ): "who receives of the things of Christ, and shows them to us" ( John 16:14 , Romans 8:10 Romans 8:11 ). (Compare as to hereafter, Psalms 17:15 , Revelation 22:4 ).