2 Corinthians 3

Paul had just spoken of the way in which he preached the Word, but this did not mean that he wished to commend himself to the Corinthians, or that he needed others to commend him. The fact was that they themselves were his "letter of commendation," being so evidently, in spite of their sad faults, the fruit of a genuine work of God through him. He speaks of them as an epistle in two ways. First as written in his own heart. In so saying, we believe he wished them to realize how deeply they were engraved, as it were, on his affections. They little realized the intensity of his love in Christ for them. But then they were an epistle of Christ in a more objective sense, and of this verse 3 speaks.

They were "the epistle of Christ" in a double sense, inasmuch as that which is written is, in one word, Christ, and also it is Christ Himself who is the great and effective Writer. True, He writes by the hand of His servant, and so we find the words, "ministered by us." Paul was only the minister, still he was the minister, and this sufficiently commended him.

Next we have a double contrast. The thoughts of the Apostle went back to the former ministry of the law through Moses. Then the Divine commandments were engraved on tables of stone, and apparently made the more visible by some kind of ink. Now it is not ink but the Spirit of the living God: not tables of stone but the tables of the heart. That was dead; this was living. The Gospel had indeed been to the Corinthians a savour of life unto life.

In this verse the work of God in the hearts of the Corinthians is viewed as being equally the fruit of the operation of Christ and of the Spirit of the living God. Christ and the Spirit are very closely linked together thus all through this remarkable passage, as we shall see.

This work of Christ and of the Spirit had been carried out through Paul. He had been the minister. Every servant of God who preaches the Gospel is in that position. Yet Paul had that place in a very special sense. He had no more sufficiency for it than we have, yet he had very specially been made "able" or a "competent" minister of the New Covenant which had found its basis and foundation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The New Covenant, of which Jeremiah prophesied is of course to be formally established in the future with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, but the basis of it has already been laid, and the Gospel preached today is of a new covenant order. The blessings promised in the New Covenant are found in it, as well as blessings that go beyond anything that the New Covenant contemplates.

Again in verse 6 the living character of the Gospel ministry is emphasized, whereas the law brought in death. We get the expression "the letter" twice in verse 6, and the same word (in a slightly different form) occurs in verse 7, where it is translated, "written." The New Translation renders it, "the ministry of death, in letters, graven in stones," which shows that in this passage the term, "letter," refers to the law. The law kills. Its ministry is unto death. The Spirit quickens.

What we have just pointed out is worth notice, for some have sought to deduce from this Scripture that the letter of Scripture kills! Under cover of this idea they feel free to disregard the letter of Scripture in favour of what they are pleased to declare is its spirit. What Scripture says is waved aside in order to introduce what it is supposed to mean. And if other passages be quoted which definitely contradict the alleged meaning, that matters not, for those other passages can be waved aside as also being but the letter which kills. Such people kill the letter because, they say, the letter kills. But it is all a mistake. There is no such idea in this verse.

We have been pointing out the digressions of this epistle. We now have to note that there is a big parenthesis in the midst of this lengthy digression, covering from verse 7 to verse 16 inclusive. Within this parenthesis the very striking contrast between the ministry of the Law and the New Covenant is developed, and the point is particularly made that the glory connected with the latter far outshines the glory connected with the former.

First, the law was but a ministry of death: the Gospel is a ministry of the life-giving Spirit. Yet there was a glory connected with the law: a glory so great that the children of Israel could not behold it, nor could they look at the reflection of it as seen in the face of Moses. That glory was to be done away, for presently it faded from the face of Moses, and the time came when the signs of the divine presence left Sinai's crest. So our verse states that the law system "began with glory," (N. Tr.) not merely that it "was glorious." It began, but it did not continue. Now comes the question, "How shall not rather the ministry of the Spirit subsist in glory?" (N. Tr.). The glory of the law began, but soon it was quenched in the ministry of death to all who came under it. When the ministry of the quickening Spirit comes in, it abides in glory.

Again the law was a ministry of condemnation, whereas the Gospel is a ministry of righteousness. That demanded righteousness from man, and, because he had none of it, utterly condemned him. This brings righteousness, and ministers it to man by means of faith. Without a question a ministry which confers righteousness, and thus enables sinful man to stand in the presence of God, greatly exceeds in glory a ministry which merely demands righteousness where it is non-existent, and as a result condemns.

There is a further contrast in verse 11. The law system and its glory is "done away" or "annulled" in Christ; whereas the glory introduced by Him abides. There has been introduced by the Lord Jesus that which remains to eternity; and the glory of that is so surpassing that it completely eclipses any glory that once existed in connection with the law, as verse 10 points out.

This then was the wonderful character of that ministry with which the Apostle was entrusted; and the character of it influenced the manner of its presentation. That which the Gospel ministry presents is not yet brought into full display, but it will be in due season. Hence he speaks here of having a hope, and such a hope. Having it, he was able to confront men with "great plainness of speech" or "boldness," and also with great openness and absence of reserve. There had to be reserve in connection with the law, for men could not stand in the presence of its glory.

Moses had to put a veil on his face when he had come down from the mount, to hide the glory from the children of Israel. That which has been annulled had an "end" which they did not see. "End" signifies not the finish or termination of the law, but the purpose of God in the law; which was Christ, as Romans 10: 4 tells us. The law provided man with a very thorny road for his feet, but it led to Christ; just as every other road laid down by God leads to Christ. The glory that shone in the face of Moses was really a faint reflection of Christ. But Israel could not see it. Had they seen it they would have condemned themselves and waited with eager expectancy for the advent of Christ, the Deliverer.

Alas, their minds were blinded. They used the law as though it were a kind of feather stuck in their cap, to give them a pre-eminent place among the nations; and it is as though the veil that once was upon the face of Moses had been transferred to their minds and hearts. There is of course an election of grace today from amongst Israel, nevertheless it is still true of them as a nation that they read the Old Testament with the veil on their hearts.

Still a moment is coming when the veil shall be removed. Verse 16 of our chapter is an allusion to Exodus 34: 33-35. Though Moses veiled his face when he dealt with the people, when he turned to the Lord and had to do with Him he removed the veil from his face. This is a kind of allegory as to what will happen with Israel. When at last they shall turn to the Lord in sincerity and repentance the veil will be lifted from their minds, and the glory of the Christ, whom once they crucified, will burst upon them.

Verse 16 completes the parenthesis which began at verse 7. With verse 17 we pick up the thread from verse 6, where it was stated that the Spirit quickens. Here we find the Lord and the Spirit identified in a very remarkable way, the Spirit being the Spirit of the Lord, as also He is the Spirit of God. We are so accustomed to distinguishing between the Persons of the Godhead that we may easily fall into the error of separating between them. This we must not do. There is the related truth of the unity of the Godhead, and we must never lose sight of their essential oneness.

The Lord is the life-giving Spirit of the New Covenant, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. Life and liberty go together, just as law and bondage are associated. The divine life is not to be hampered or entangled within legal restraints. There is no need that it should be. Legal restraints are necessary and suitable enough when the flesh or the world are in question. They are not effective, for the flesh and the world break through them and transgress. In another way the law is effective, for it curses and brings death in upon the transgressor. All is changed when once the Spirit has given life. Then liberty can be safely accorded, for the Spirit of the Lord holds sway.

Verse 18 brings in a third wonderful thing. In addition to life and liberty there is transformation. As we have it in the Authorized Version the words, "with open face," are a little vague, and would probably be read as applying to us. It is true of course that we have no veil upon us as Israel has; but the point seems to be that the glory of the Lord, upon which we gaze, has no veil upon it. There is no veil upon the face of our Lord as there was upon the face of Moses. Moreover the glory that shines in Him is not repellent as was the glory in the face of Moses, it is attractive: and not only attractive but transforming also. The more Christ in His glory is before our spiritual vision the more we gain His likeness.

This transformation is a gradual process, and not reached all at once. We are changed "from glory to glory," that is, from one degree of glory to another. It is a Divine work, "even as by the Spirit of the Lord." Here again the wording is remarkable. "Even as by [the] Lord [the] Spirit." (N. Tr.). The definite article "the" is omitted both times in the Greek. Our little plumb-line may utterly fail when let down into the depths of this statement; but at least we can see that both the Lord and the Spirit work together in this transformation process; the Lord as an Object before faith's vision, the Spirit as a power within us.

Oh, that we might be kept steady with the eye on Christ; kept as true to Him as the needle is true to the pole!