Ministers of the New Covenant (3:1-6)
1 Some false apostles (2 Corinthians 2:17) went from church to church carrying letters of recommendation, in order to commend themselves in the eyes of the church members. These letters of recommendation were the “proof” of their authority as apostles, and so they showed these letters wherever they went.
Is Paul writing such a letter in order to commend himself? No. Does he need such a letter of recommendation? No.
2 What is the proof of Paul’s apostleship? The Corinthian church itself is the proof of his apostleship. You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, writes Paul. Paul had brought the Gospel to Corinth; and through his preaching many people’s lives had been changed. By the power of the Gospel, men and women had been turned from darkness to light. This was Paul’s letter of recommendation. And it was a letter that was known and read by everybody; that is, everybody in Corinth was able to see the change that had taken place in the lives of the Christians there.
3 Paul’s “letter of recommendation” was written not by man but by the Spirit of the living God. It was written not on paper with ink, or on tablets of stone; it was written on men’s hearts. Ink fades; stones crumble to dust. But what is written on human hearts by the Holy Spirit remains forever.
The Old Testament law which God gave to the Jews was written on tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12; 31:18). But from Christ’s time, a new law, or new covenant (verse 6), has been written by the Holy Spirit on tablets of human hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; Hebrews 8:7-10 and comment).
Each one of us is like a letter from Christ. Can other people read our “letter”? What are they reading there?
4-5 Paul’s confidence is not in any letter of recommendation; his confidence is through Christ before God. Paul’s competence comes not from himself or any other man; it comes from God (see 1 Corinthians 15:10; 2 Corinthians 4:7).
6 In this verse Paul compares the old covenant (or law) with the new COVENANT, written by the Holy Spirit.
Both the old and new covenants are agreements or promises that God has offered to man. These covenants have been made by God.
Under the old covenant, God said to the Jews: “If you obey my law, I will make you my own special people and I will bless you.” That was the old covenant.
But the purpose of the old covenant was not fulfilled. For a covenant to be fulfilled, both sides who take part in the covenant must keep their word. But the Jews didn’t keep their word. They repeatedly broke God’s law. They had to continually offer sacrifices to cleanse themselves from their sin.
But under the new covenant, through the sacrifice of Christ’s own body we are cleansed from sin once for all (see Hebrews 9:15; 10:3-4,10-18 and comments). Through faith in Christ we are declared righteous (Romans 3:22-24). From now on, the old law (the Old Testament, or Jewish, law) cannot condemn us (see Romans 8:1 and comment).
Before Christ came, men were condemned by the law because they couldn’t obey the law completely. The letter—that is, the written Old Testament law—kills men, because the law condemns them to death (see Romans 8:2 and comment). But now through the Holy Spirit men receive life, that is, eternal life (Romans 6:23). And together with eternal life, men receive the power of the Holy Spirit which enables them to obey God’s law. God’s law has not changed. Only the place where it is written has changed. That is, instead of being written on tablets of stone, it is now written by the Spirit on men’s hearts. For this reason Paul says here that he and the other apostles are ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter (the old law or covenant) but of the Spirit (the “writer” of the new covenant).
Does this mean that Christians no longer have to obey the Old Testament law? No, it doesn’t mean that. We must continue to obey the “moral” law, that is, the law of love. (Christians are not required to obey the ceremonial law—the laws regarding sacrifices and purification—because Christ, through the sacrifice of His own body, has canceled those laws.) When we follow the two great commandments to love God and to love our neighbor, then we will also be fulfilling the moral law of the Old Testament (see Matthew 5:17-19; Mark 12:2831; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14 and comments).
The Glory of the New Covenant (3:7-18)
7-8 The ministry that brought death—that is, the Old Testament (Jewish) law—doesn’t itself cause death. Only sin causes death (see Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:56). But the law gives men the death sentence for sin (Romans 7:9-11).
Let no one despise the old covenant, the Old Testament law. Let us remember that it is God’s law. In verse 7, Paul reminds us that it came with glory (Exodus 34:2930).
9 The ministry of the old covenant (or law) condemned men (Romans 3:20). The ministry of the new covenant of Jesus Christ brings righteousness (see Romans 3:21-22; 5:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:30 and comments). Thus the new covenant is much more glorious than the old.
10 The old covenant is glorious like the moon. But when the light of the sun (Jesus Christ) comes in the morning, the glory of the moon fades away.
11 Now the old covenant has passed away (Hebrews 8:13). In its place has come the new covenant, which will never pass away. Our salvation is eternal.
12-13 Therefore, because Paul has such a hope—namely, the hope of eternal salvation—he is very bold. He preaches the Gospel of Christ openly and with great boldness. He does not put a veil over his face, like Moses did (Exodus 34:33-35).
14-16 It was the custom every week in the Jewish synagogues to read the old covenant—that is, the Old Testament law10—and the custom still continues among the Jews. Paul says that when MOSES (that is, the first five books of the Old Testament11) is read to the Jews, a veil covers their hearts (verse 15). That veil was the “veil” of unbelief; the Jews did not really believe Moses. That is why the Jews didn’t believe in Christ either (see John 5:46-47). Because of their unbelief, their minds were made dull (verse 14); their hearts were darkened (see Romans 1:21; 11:8). Only through faith in Christ can the “veil” that covers men’s hearts be removed. In Christ, the glory of God has been fully revealed without a veil (see Mark 9:2-7; John 17:5). When we follow Christ, we walk in the light and in the glory of God (see John 8:12 and comment).
17 The Lord is the Spirit. In this verse the word Lord can refer to both God and Christ. It is the same thing, because God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all one God. The Holy Spirit is both God’s Spirit and Christ’s Spirit.12 And where the Spirit is, there is freedom. Therefore, when Christ’s Spirit is in us, then we are truly free (John 8:36).
We are free from the old Jewish law (see Romans 7:6; 8:2). We are free from bondage to fear (Romans 8:15). We are free from bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).
18 According to the Old Testament, only Moses was allowed to look upon the glory of God (Exodus 34:33-35). But we who believe in Christ can look upon God’s glory with unveiled faces—that is, without putting a veil over our faces. That glory has been revealed in Christ (see John 1:14; 17:24; 2 Corinthians 4:6).
Not only that, we, too, reflect the Lord’s glory,13 just as the moon reflects the sun’s glory. The glory of the moon is, in fact, the glory of the sun; the moon’s light comes from the sun. In the same way, believers in Christ reflect not their own glory but Christ’s glory.
But in another way, we are not like the moon. Our glory is brighter, because it comes from within us, from Christ’s Spirit dwelling within us. Furthermore, our glory is ever increasing. By the help of the Holy Spirit, we are attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). And when Christ comes to earth again and we see Him face to face, then we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2). This is God’s highest and final goal for all of us—that we be transformed into [Christ’s] likeness (see Romans 8:29 and comment).