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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

The preceding verses could have drawn offense from the Corinthians because Paul told them things about himself that they already knew and should have remembered. He mentioned these things as though they were new. He explained that his intention was not to introduce himself to them again in a self-commending fashion. Letters written with pen and ink for this purpose were superfluous since they had already received a much better letter of commendation. He had lived his life among them as an open book.

Representatives of the Jewish authorities in Judea carried letters of commendation (recommendation) to the synagogues of the Dispersion (cf. Acts 9:2; Acts 22:5). The early Christians evidently continued this practice (Acts 18:27; Romans 16:1). Paul contrasted himself with the legalistic teachers of Judaism and early Christianity who believed that observance of the Mosaic Law was essential for justification and sanctification (cf. Acts 15:5).

Verses 1-3

Testimonial letters 3:1-3

Verses 1-10

B. Exposition of Paul’s view of the ministry 3:1-6:10

The apostle proceeded to explain his view of Christian ministry further so his readers would appreciate and adopt his viewpoint and not lose heart.

Verses 1-11

1. The superiority of Christian ministry to Mosaic ministry 3:1-11

Paul contrasted the ministry of Christians with the ministry of Moses. He did so to enable his readers to understand and appreciate the glory of their ministry and its superiority over that of the Mosaic economy.

"The countermissionaries in Corinth are, in some significant way, exponents of the Mosaic ministry. They are, to use the term imprecisely, ’Judaizers.’" [Note: Ibid., pp. 160-61.]

Verse 2

The Corinthians, too, were such letters that God had written. God’s method of commending the gospel to others is through the supernatural change that he writes on the lives of believers by His Holy Spirit. In this instance the transformation of the Corinthians’ lives was the strongest proof of the genuineness of Paul’s apostleship. For Paul to offer other letters written on paper would have been insulting and unnecessary. What God had said about Paul by blessing his ministry with fruit in Corinth spoke more eloquently than any letter he could have carried with him.

"Proof of Paul’s genuineness was to be found not in written characters but in human characters." [Note: Harris, p. 334.]

"Professing Christians are the Bible that men read and know." [Note: A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 4:220.]

Verse 3

Paul’s ministry and the ministry of all Christians consists of being the instruments through whom Christ writes the message of regeneration on the lives of those who believe the gospel. He does this by the Holy Spirit.

"The Corinthian church is a letter of which Christ is the author; Paul is either the messenger by whom it was ’delivered’ (Gk. diahonetheisa, ’ministered’ or ’administered’) or perhaps the amanuensis who took it down; it was ’written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.’ This contrast between ’ink’ and ’Spirit’ reminds Paul of the contrast between the old covenant and the new, but in view of the material on which the Decalogue, the old covenant code, was engraved, he thinks not of parchment or papyrus (which would have been suitable for ’ink’) but of ’tablets of stone’ as contrasted with ’tablets of human hearts’ (lit. ’tablets, hearts of flesh’) on which the terms of the new covenant are inscribed." [Note: Bruce, pp. 189-90. Cf. Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26.]

Verse 4

Jesus Christ had given Paul confidence that the changes that the gospel had produced in the Corinthians validated his apostolic credentials. That confidence was not merely the product of Paul’s imagination.

Verses 4-11

The old and new covenants 3:4-11

Verse 5

Paul did not want his readers to confuse this confidence with the confidence that comes from feeling adequate or self-sufficient. Our service is really God working through us rather than we serving Him. God is the one who makes us adequate servants. Paul was contrasting God-confidence with self-confidence.

Verse 6

Paul proceeded to identify seven contrasts between the New Covenant (agreement, Gr. diatheke) under which Christians serve God and the Old Covenant under which believing Israelites served God. He did so to heighten understanding of and appreciation for the ministry of Christians. The Old Covenant in view is the Mosaic Covenant, and the New Covenant is the covenant that Jesus Christ ratified by His death (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 9:21; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 13:20). [Note: See Rodney J. Decker, "The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:607 (July-September 1995):290-305; 608 (October-December 1995):431-56.]

The New Testament uses diatheke exclusively for "covenant." It always refers to an arrangement that one person makes, as in a last will and testament, which another party may accept or reject but cannot alter. The Greek word that describes a mutual agreement reached between two parties is syntheke.

The Old Covenant was very specific concerning human responsibilities. It was essentially an objective, external standard that God revealed for His people Israel without any special enabling grace. However the New Covenant rests on promises that include the indwelling and empowering presence of God’s Holy Spirit who enables the believer to obey (John 14:17; John 16:13; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 1:8; Romans 8:4). It is also more general in its demands.

The outcomes or results of each covenant differ too. The Old Covenant slew people in the sense that it showed how impossible it was to measure up to God’s requirements. Moreover it announced a death sentence on all who fell short (cf. Romans 7:9-11; Galatians 3:10). The New Covenant, on the other hand, leads to fullness of life because God’s Spirit helps the believer do God’s will (cf. Romans 7:6; Romans 8:3).

Paul used "Spirit" in this passage in a double sense. On the one hand, he contrasted the letter (exact wording) of the Old Covenant with the spirit (true intention) of the New Covenant. On the other hand, he contrasted the non-enabling, external words of the Old Covenant with the enabling, internal Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (cf. Romans 2:28-29; Romans 7:6). [Note: See Paul R. Thorsell, "The Spirit in the Present Age: Preliminary Fulfillment of the Predicted New Covenant According to Paul," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:3 (September 1998):397-413.] The second of these senses is more primary.

"’The letter’ is a Paulinism for the law, as ’spirit’ in these passages is his word for the relationships and powers of new life in Christ Jesus. Here in ch. 3 is presented a series of contrasts between law and spirit, between the old covenant and the new. The contrast is not between two methods of interpretation, literal and spiritual, but between two methods of divine dealing: one, through the law; the other, through the Holy Spirit." [Note: The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1254.]

Verses 7-8

Another contrast between the two covenants concerns the medium God used to carry them to His people. He employed stone tablets for the Old Covenant but His Holy Spirit for the New Covenant. These vehicles represent the nature of each covenant: hard and unbending compared to personal and friendly.

Another contrast is the relative glory of the ministries that marked the economies that the covenants created. "Glory" is a key word in this section of the epistle. It occurs 19 times in chapters 1-8, and 15 of these references appear in chapters 3 and 4. "Glory" appears as a noun and a verb 10 times in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11. Both covenants involved ministry to God that resulted in glory for God. However the glory of the New Covenant far surpasses the glory of the Old Covenant. Here Paul began to think about the glory that appeared on Moses’ face when he descended from Mt. Sinai after he had communed with God for 40 days and nights (Exodus 34:29-35). The glory (i.e., the manifest evidence of God’s presence) was so strong when Moses reentered the camp that the Israelites could not look at him for very long. The evidence of God’s presence was very strong during the economy when a covenant leading to death governed God’s people. How much stronger, Paul argued, will be the manifestation of God’s glory in an age when His life-giving Spirit inhabits His people?

Verses 9-10

The New Covenant is also more glorious than the Old in that it manifests the character and purposes of God more fully and finally. Similarly the dawning of the sun transcends and supercedes the illumination of the moon. Greater glory attends the proclamation of the gospel than was true when God gave the Mosaic Law.

The purpose of the New Covenant is to produce righteousness. The purpose of the Old Covenant was to show that humans stand condemned because we cannot please God by obeying Him completely. Both covenants had both purposes, but their primary characteristics are what Paul contrasted here. This is Paul’s sixth contrast.

Verse 10

The New Covenant glorifies God so much more than the Old Covenant did that Paul could say the Old Covenant had no glory by comparison.

Verse 11

Paul’s seventh and last contrast is between the temporary character of the Old Covenant and the permanent character of the New. The New will remain (cf. Hebrews 13:20). The Old has passed away (cf. Romans 10:4; Galatians 5:1; Hebrews 7:12). Paul compared the fading glory on Moses’ face with the fading glory of the Old Covenant. [Note: See Duane A. Garrett, "Veiled Hearts: The Translation and Interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53:4 (December 2010):729-72.]

The New Covenant went into effect and replaced the Old Covenant when Jesus Christ died. Some of its benefits began to bless all people immediately (2 Corinthians 3:6-11; cf. Hebrews 10:1-18). However other of its benefits, specifically those on Israel, will not take effect until God resumes dealing with Israel as a nation (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This will happen when Jesus Christ returns to the earth and restores Israel as her Messiah.

Summary of Contrasts between the Old and New Covenants
1.economy(old)new2 Corinthians 3:6
2.typeletterspirit2 Corinthians 3:6
3.results manwarddeathlife2 Corinthians 3:6
4.vehiclestoneSpirit2 Corinthians 3:7
5.results Godwardsome glorygreater glory2 Corinthians 3:7-8; 2 Corinthians 3:10
6.purposecondemnationrighteousness2 Corinthians 3:9
7.durationtemporarypermanent2 Corinthians 3:11

"The thrust of these covenantal contrasts is that the New Covenant provides divine enablement and has replaced the Old Covenant. In this way Paul firmly established the superiority of his apostolic ministry over that of his Judaizing opponents." [Note: Randall C. Gleason, "Paul’s Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11," Bibliotheca Sacra 154:613 (January-March 1997):78.]

Paul was not saying the Old Covenant involved laws but the New Covenant does not. Both covenants include both laws and grace, though there were more laws in the Old Covenant and there is more grace in the New. His purpose was to contrast the spirit, emphasis, and primary characteristics of each covenant.

"In 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 Paul makes the comparison between what is ministered through Moses and what is ministered through Christ. That which Moses ministered is called a ministration of death and it is specifically said to have been written and engraved in stones. The only part of the Mosaic Law which was written in stones was the Ten Commandments-that category which some designate as the moral part of the law. Thus, this passage says that the Ten Commandments are a ministration of death; and furthermore, the same passage declares in no uncertain terms that they are done away (2 Corinthians 3:11). Language could not be clearer, and yet there are fewer truths of which it is harder to convince people." [Note: Charles C. Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra 124:495 (July-September 1967):243-44. See also Hal Harless, "The Cessation of the Mosaic Covenant," Bibliotheca Sacra 160:639 (July-September 2003):349-66.]

The best explanation for the Christian’s relationship to the Ten Commandments that I have found is as follows. God has terminated the whole Mosaic code, of which the Ten Commandments were a part, as a code. We are now under a new code (covenant), the "law of Christ" (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2), which contains nine of the Ten Commandments. [Note: See also Bruce A. Ware, "The New Covenant and the People(s) of God," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, pp. 68-97.]

2. The great boldness of the new ministers 3:12-4:6

The superiority of Christian ministry should produce great openness and encouragement within Christ’s ministers. Paul developed these qualities in this section to enable his readers to understand his behavior and to respond in like manner in their own ministries.

Verse 12

The hope to which Paul referred was the confidence that he and the other apostles and Christians served God under a covenant that God would not supersede. [Note: Plummer, p. 95; Hughes, p. 107; et al.] Another view is that Paul resumed his thought from 2 Corinthians 3:4 and that this hope is the same as the confidence that he spoke of there. [Note: E.g., Hodge, p. 64.] The "boldness" (Gr. parrhesia) to which Paul referred is plainness of speech that has within it our concept of fearlessness (2 Corinthians 7:4; cf. Romans 1:16). This word originally meant fearless candor in speech but came to mean confidence or openness in action as well as in word. [Note: Harris, p. 339. See also W. C. van Unnik, "The Christian’s Freedom of Speech in the New Testament," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester 44:2 (1962):466-88; and idem, "’With Unveiled Face,’ and Exegesis of 2 Corinthians iii 12-18," Novum Testamentum 6:2-3 (1963):153-69.] We can be confident and certain in our mission as well as in our message, though here Paul was speaking specifically of his speech.

Verses 12-18

The openness of Christian ministry 3:12-18

"If the keyword in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 is ’glory,’ the keyword for 2 Corinthians 3:12-18, of which 2 Corinthians 3:12-15 form the first part, is ’veil’; ’veil’-related words occur six times in these verses." [Note: Barnett, p. 188.]

Verse 13

One meaning of parrhesia ("boldness") is barefacedness. Paul could be barefaced in his confidence because of the permanent character of the covenant under which he ministered. Moses, in contrast, could not. He ministered with a literal veil over his face much of the time (Exodus 34:29-35). He removed the veil when he spoke with the people (Exodus 34:33) and when he spoke with God in the tabernacle. He wore it at other times evidently to teach the Israelites’ their unworthiness to behold God’s glory. Paul used this difference in ministry to illustrate the superior nature of the New Covenant.

Moses also put a veil over his face so the departure of the fading glory that he had received would not discourage the Israelites. The Old Testament does not say that was his reason. It implies that Moses covered his face so the Israelites would not see the glory that was there. Perhaps Paul meant that the consequence of Moses’ putting the veil over his face was that the Israelites could not see the fading of his facial glory. [Note: J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 4 vols., vol. 3: Syntax, by Nigel Turner, p. 144.] Paul’s implication then was that Christians can behold God’s glory more fully in the New Covenant, and it will not fade away.

Verses 14-15

Paul said inability to perceive God’s revealed glory persists to the present day among the Jews (cf. Romans 11:7).

"The Israelites’ inability to see the glory shining from Moses’ face, fading though that glory was, is treated as a parable of their descendants’ present inability to realize the transitory character of the Mosaic order and to recognize the unfading glory of the gospel dispensation." [Note: Bruce, p. 192.]

"This is always the result of refusing and suppressing the revelation of divine truth. A veil of intellectual darkness hides the glory which has been deliberately rejected." [Note: Hughes, p. 111.]

The "Old Covenant" (2 Corinthians 3:14) probably refers to the Mosaic Law, and "Moses" (2 Corinthians 3:15) probably refers to the whole legal system that Moses gave. This use of "Moses" is a common figure of speech called metonymy in which the name of one thing is used for that of another associated with or suggested by it, as in "the White House has decided" instead of "the President has decided."

Verse 16

Only when the light of the glory of God shines on a person from Jesus Christ (i.e., he or she perceives the gospel) can that individual fully understand that revelation. Before God removes that veil that person cannot perceive it clearly. This applies to all people, but in the context Paul was speaking of Jews particularly. Whenever a person comprehends that Jesus Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Law (Romans 10:4), that one then understands that the dispensation of grace has superseded the dispensation of the law (John 1:17). [Note: Harris, p. 338.] "Turns to the Lord," means conversion to Jesus Christ.

Verse 17

This verse explains the former one. The Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 3:8) is the member of the Trinity who causes a person to understand and believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Paul here described the Spirit’s function and equated Him with Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:14). Believing in Jesus liberates one from sin, death, and the Mosaic Law but not from obligation to respond obediently to God’s new revelation in Christ, of course. Even though the Spirit is Lord, His presence liberates the believer rather than enslaving him or her (cf. Romans 8:15).

Verse 18

In conclusion, Paul referred to Christian experience generally. All Christians, not just the Israelites’ leader, Moses, experience transformation daily as we contemplate the glory of God revealed in His Word and especially in the living Word, Jesus Christ. The perception of that revelation is still indirect. Paul’s point was that the image of God that we see in the Word accurately reflects God, though we do not yet see God Himself. What we see in the mirror of God’s Word is the Lord, not ourselves. We experience gradual transformation. As we observe Christ’s glory we advance in Christ-likeness and reflect His glory, not in our faces but in our characters (cf. 2 Peter 3:18). This glory will not fade but will increase over time providing we continue to contemplate the Lord. The Spirit who is the Lord is responsible for this gradual transformation. [Note: See Robert A Pyne, "Antinomianism and Dispensationalism," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:610 (April-June 1996):141-54.] Another view is that Christ as divine wisdom is the mirror in view. [Note: Keener, p. 170.]

"Moses reflected the glory of God, but you and I may radiate the glory of God." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:640.]

". . . Paul may also have in mind the Semitic idiom in which ’to uncover the face (head)’ means ’to behave boldly (frankly).’ If so, then ’with unveiled face’ has practically the same meaning as ’with boldness’ (Gk parrhesia) and may help to explain Paul’s use of the latter expression in 2 Corinthians 3:12." [Note: Bruce, p. 193.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/2-corinthians-3.html. 2012.
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