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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

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Verses 1-18

2 Corinthians 3:3

Dr. Deissmann speaks of 'the beautiful figure in 2 Corinthians 3:3 , according to which St. Paul has a letter to write for Christ This characteristic expression includes a parallel to the technical term "letter of Augustus," i.e., Imperial letter, which is found in an inscription of the Imperial period at Ancyra.'

Light from the Ancient East, p. 379.

References. III. 3. J. G. Greenhough, The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, p. 194 Expositor (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 14.

Our Sufficiency

2 Corinthians 3:5

The Apostle Paul occupied so peculiar a position that it cannot be doubted that he stood in need of peculiar assistance and guidance. His life was laborious, his duties were responsible, his difficulties were many, his influence was vast. He evidently felt that he was dependent upon the grace and sufficiency of God, and that whilst of himself he could do nothing, he could do all things through Christ Who strengthened him. Every true Christian, however slender his abilities, however obscure his position, feels in need of the grace which was sufficient for the Apostle of the Gentiles.

I. Insufficiency of Human Strength for Spiritual Service. In the case of the Apostle, whose words are before us, this insufficiency was very conspicuous. It was his office to preach to civilised and barbarian, to Jews in the synagogue, to Gentiles in the marketplace, to Christians in upper rooms; to travel and to brave dangers by land and sea; to endure imprisonment, stripes, and violence; to defend himself and the Gospel before magistrates and before multitudes; to expound the truth, to combat error, to oppose false teachers, to detect false brethren; to write epistles both to fellow-labourers and to congregations; to direct and control the actions of Christian communities. Well might he exclaim, Who is sufficient for these things? This insufficiency is as real, if not as obvious, in the case of Christians in ordinary stations of life, and of Christian labourers called to ordinary service. To maintain a Christian character and to display a Christian spirit, to present a witness of power to the truth, to commend the Gospel by argument, by persuasion, by conduct all this cannot be done by the use of resources merely human.

II. Sufficiency of Divine Strength and Grace. This sufficiency is imparted by the clear manifestation of Divine truth on God's part, and by its clear apprehension on ours. Not by entrusting a secret, but by revealing great truths and principles, does the Lord qualify His servants for their work. Here was the instrument for Paul's work, the weapon for his warfare. And here all Christ's servants must seek their sufficiency. Pastors and evangelists, teachers and parents, should bear this in mind that their competency for their several ministries depends first upon their grasping Christian truth, and embodying it in their spiritual life, and using it as their means of spiritual service. This sufficiency again is enjoyed by the sympathetic reception on our part of the Holy Spirit's grace. Strength, wisdom, forethought, gentleness, and patience are all needed in the service of the Redeemer. These are the fruits of the Spirit's presence and operation. Christian labourers need a heart open heavenwards to receive all sacred influences by prayer, by fellowship with God, by true receptiveness of attitude. A Divine, unseen, but mighty agency is provided for all true servants of Christ. And, assured of this, they may well lose sight of their personal weakness and ignorance and utter inadequacy, and be content and glad to be participators in the sufficiency which is of God.

References. III. 5. F. W. Farrar, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 233. J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays After Trinity, pt. i. p. 457. A. Goodrich, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 248. Expositor (6th Series), vol. x. p. 373. III. 5, 6. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxvi. No. 2160.

Spirit and Letter

2 Corinthians 3:6

'The letter killeth' in all things. In merchandise, in the statute book, in the family, in reading, in literature, the letter killeth; no man can live on cast iron: but the spirit giveth life the poetry, the meaning, the purpose, the inmost intent and content; there you have immortality. Let us see how far this can be simplified, and especially how far it can be applied; because if we could get into the music of this text we should all be living Christians, ecstatic saints, glorious forerunners of the coming Lord.

I. We may have the right letters, but the wrong word. There is absolutely nothing in the letters except under certain conditions, and these conditions we are prone to overlook or to undervalue. Everything depends upon the letters being brought into the right relation. Every letter must not only be in the right place, but it must be uttered singly and collectively in the right tone. If people understood this the whole world, in the event of its being practically applied to conduct, would be full of light, full of music; we should realise a new brotherhood, we should be almost in heaven. We may deliver the right words in a wrong tone. The soul gives the tone. We may deliver the right words, in the right order, but in the wrong tone; and may preach the Evangelical Gospel without the Evangelical spirit: and a morning without dew is like a morning without a blessing.

II. Secondly. We may be correct in our letters and utterly wrong in our words. Can a man be both right and wrong at the same time? Certainly; that is what we are doing all the day. We must psychologically understand this if we would recover ourselves from the disease of heart-folly. Observe what the proposition is: We may have the right letters, and yet have the wrong word. The letter is nothing; the letter is confusing; the letter needs companionship, atmosphere, historical relationship, and, above all, a penetrating and uplifting, a redeeming and sanctifying spirit. Let us grope our way into the meaning of this strange paradox, that we may have the right letters and yet the wrong word; the right letters, and yet the wrong sermon; the right letters, and a doctrine degraded from a revelation to a profanity.

III. We know what this means in relation to work, to the common work of the common day. A workman may not do the work in the spirit, and therefore it is poorly or badly done. If a man shall take no pleasure in his work he cannot do it, except in a perfunctory and utterly unsatisfactory manner. Men who do the work only in the letter are liars and thieves and anything but patriots. When the right estimate of labour goes down, the country goes down. When men go to their work at the rate of three miles an hour and leave it at the rate of seven, they are not patriots, and they ought not to win any battles; the God of order is against them, the spirit of the spring condemns their action and dismisses them from all holy and responsible relations. And this holds good in the pulpit and out of it. Unless a man really love his work and long for it, he cannot do it. We cannot live on painted fire. No man can continue the holy ministry of the cross for a lifetime and have as much joy in it at the end as at the beginning, except in the spirit of the cross that he preaches; then he will be eternally young an amaranth that no snow can chill into death. This holds good, therefore, in all sections, departments, and relations of life.

If we could receive these instructions we should have fewer Bible readers, but better; we should know that the letter killeth, but that grace and truth give life and hope and music to the soul. We must get rid of the literalists, the men who only read the iron letter, and do not read the Bible in the Bible's own atmosphere. What do we want? I will tell you: the Holy Ghost; he only can read the book which he only wrote; we must become acquainted with the Author before we can read His writings with deep spiritual, lasting advantage. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. II. p. 185.

References. III. 6. C. Kingsley, The Good News of God, p. 124. J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays After Trinity, pt. i. p. 477. Llewelyn Davies, The Purpose of God, p. 16. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 358; ibid. vol. xi. p. 63; ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 497. III. 7-9. J. Baines, Twenty Sermons, p. 255. III. 8. J. Clifford, The Christian Certainties, p. 243.

From Glory to Glory

2 Corinthians 3:2

It is of more than passing interest to note that the law of development, or, in modern scientific terminology, the law of evolution, was clearly grasped by the Apostle Paul, and applied by him with true philosophic breadth to that great department of thought to which he has so richly contributed, viz., the sphere of spiritual truth, of the problems that deal with God's ethical relation to the world. The evolution of theology is no modern discovery. Let us then consider, How Paul related himself to the old theology, and, What he declared to be final and eternal in the new.

I. How Paul related himself to the old theology. (1) It is to be noted that Paul manifests a deep and sympathetic appreciation of the glory of the old. Renan says that before a man can give a true estimate and history of any faith, he must have once believed it, but now ceased to believe it The former part of this statement is certainly true, but the latter part is either untrue or inaccurately expressed. There can be no true estimate without a continued belief, for the true value of any faith lies in its living relation to the life. It is impossible for us to estimate any religion or any creed except in as far as we discover in it elements such as have powerfully influenced our own lives, and in developed forms are still influencing them. No faith can be nobler save that which is deep rooted in the old, and has received birth from it. (2) Paul grasped clearly the permanent element in the old theology. He clearly distinguishes between the 'passing elements' and the permanent substratum.

II. But while Paul recognised the law of development in theology, he finds that, with the appearing of Christ, this law receives new and definite limits. The permanent factor is now manifested in such a form that it dwarfs the transient forms; so that, in an important sense, Paul finds himself already at the final stage of theological development. Paul presents this final and permanent factor in two forms, an abstract and a concrete. (1) The abstract form is the conception of Liberty, the Freedom of the Spirit. There is no liberty in uncertainty and in detachment from the past. It is the eternal truth which we find in the past that makes us free. (2) That this was Paul's conception is made clear by the concrete form in which he presented this permanent element The concrete and eternal heart of theology is Jesus Christ.

John Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, vol. II. p. 68.

Saved By Hope

2 Corinthians 3:12

St. Paul says, 'we are saved by hope'. He puts in one sense a higher value on this than either on faith or love. He never says we are saved by faith, or we are saved by love.

I. Now, what does Hope say? It says, 'I know that there are certain rewards laid up in the kingdom of heaven for those that have fought the good tight and persevered to the end. I know that of my own self I cannot conquer in that fight, I cannot win in that race, I am nothing and can do nothing. But I also know that all the promises which I read in the Bible, promises of help, comfort, strength, are made to me, weak and sinful and miserable though I am; they are made to me if I will but lay hold on them; they are made to me as much as if there was not one other person besides me in the world. Therefore, in that confidence I will fight, because I know that if I do I shall conquer; I will run in the race, because I know that if I do I shall win the prize. I will fight and I will run cheerfully; what matter all little troubles, or inconveniences, or sorrows, if I have but such a hope to look forward to hereafter?'

II. But then, no one can really have such a hope who lets himself as a habit constantly be discontented, be dismayed, be put out, as we say, by the things of this world. How would it sound if we said, 'I know that whatever affliction I suffer here is but light, is but for a moment. I know that the crown laid up for me on high is imperishable and eternal; and yet, all the troubles of the world I will lay to heart; all its sorrows I will complain about; all its difficulties I will make the most of.' Whatever feeling this may be it is not hope. The feeling which comes nearest that which we ought to have is that we have in an inn, when we are on our way to a dear home. It may be full of inconveniences, but we match them directly with some of the delights of our own house. The people may be uncivil and surly: well, we shall be loved enough at home The rooms may be inconvenient; that will matter little when we get home. We should reason thus in earthly matters, but when it comes to matters beyond this world, we reason so no longer. Then we think about the inconveniences of the way, the difficulties of the journey, the unkindness of our companions. And if ever we think of our future home, it is only as a kind of make-up for whatever difficulties we may find here.

If we believe that in our Father's house there are many mansions, that our Lord is gone to prepare a place for us; that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens; if, I say, faith teaches us these things, why cannot our hope lay hold on them and take them to ourselves, so as to despise and cast aside all earthly fear, yea, the very dread of death itself, and the terror of the judgment. For He that loved His own, loveth them unto the end, and 'Hope maketh not ashamed'.

J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. II. p. 229.

References. III. 12. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 211. III. 16. T. F. Crosse, Sermons, p. 52. J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays After Trinity, pt. i. p. 442.

The Liberty Which Christ Gives

2 Corinthians 3:17

I. The soul of man pants for liberty as a hungry child cries for food. It is, indeed, the hunger of the soul. Every age and condition asks for it. The child's conception of manhood is a vision of freedom. He dreams of a time when he will be able to go his own way, and do his own pleasure, with no check or restraint imposed by parents and schoolmasters. Every youth clamours for freedom, to be his own guide and his own master, to follow his own bent, to employ himself and enjoy himself according to the dictates of his own will, with none to interfere. He asks for liberty to play, or work to do or leave undone, to walk in any path which seems desirable, to think his own thoughts and pursue his own ends, with no chains of authority to hold him back. We all feel the chains more or less. We are under law. And nobody loves law; he only submits to it. Necessity drives, compulsion spurs. We go as we are ordered, but we go kicking. We have to do a thousand things which self-love resents, which pride and dignity recoil from. Not what we like, but what we must, is for all of us, more or less, the inevitable lot. And the human heart is always groaning under its limitations and bondage, and crying for more room, crying for liberty! And here comes the Gospel answer to the cry: 'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty'.

II. Now I do not suppose that any man will leap up to embrace that answer at once. We have to think twice, and many times, before we can understand that the Christian life is a life of liberty. If you look at it from the outside it does not seem to afford or promise any great amount of freedom. You are rather inclined to think that it forges a great many additional chains instead of breaking those which bind us already, and that it imposes new restrictions without sweeping away the old ones. Yes, it would never occur to you to come into the Christian life to gain your liberty. For its first appearance points all the other way. Yet it leads to higher freedom, and the only perfect freedom which man can have on earth. 'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.'

III. Look for a moment at the Lord Himself. You get in Him, and from Him, the first and most complete interpretation of these words. You get a vision of noble, beautiful, untrammelled liberty. He came not to do His own will, but the will of His Father. He was under authority, under orders. That was one side of His life. But the other side was one of perfect freedom, for His own will and the Father's will made one music.

IV. There is freedom in thought and freedom in conduct where the mind, or Spirit, of the Lord is. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there comes, not bondage of mind, but glad, glorious liberty, freedom of thought and freedom of conduct. For in proportion as we have the mind of Christ we do all right and noble things, and we shun all base and degrading things, of our own free and deliberate choice

J. G. Greenhough, The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, p. 38.

True Freedom

2 Corinthians 3:17

Christianity is a religion of liberty.

I. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom from sin.

II. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty in the service of God.

III. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom from men. Where the Spirit is not, there is slavery like that of some nations where despotism has so long been the rule that men know not what freedom is. 'If the Son make you free ye shall be free indeed.'

A. Maclaren.

References. III. 17. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, p. 406. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. i. No. 9. S. H. Fleming, Fifteen Minute Sermons for the People, pp. 30, 35. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons, p. 61. E. Bayley, Sermons on the Work and Person of the Holy Spirit, p. 119. III. 17, 18. Expositor (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 277; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ii. pp. 174, 253; ibid. vol. iv. p. 425; ibid. (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 111; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 350.

Transformation Into the Lord's Image

2 Corinthians 3:18 ; 1 Corinthians 13:12

Observe the principle which St. Paul enunciates. The mirror is before you: look into it, look steadfastly, believingly, and lovingly; and a miracle will be wrought. The glory of the Lord reflected there will be photographed upon you, and you will be transformed into the same image.

I. And this is no mere fancy. It is a spiritual law which, like every spiritual law, is just a natural law at its farthest reach. It is ever thus with the doctrines of Christianity. You find, when you consider those high mysteries and penetrate into the heart of them, that they are not mysteries at all, but familiar principles of daily experience operating beyond the domain of experience. And this, it seems to me, is not the least of the evidences of Christianity. It is rooted in the soil of earth; it is in line with the natural order, following its laws and carrying them to loftier issues. Look at the principle which St. Paul here lays down, and do you not recognise it as a law of common experience? You know, for example, how one personality impresses itself upon another, if there be mutual trust and affection and admiration. Think of a revered teacher and his students how they catch his spirit, assimilate his thought, and reproduce his teaching. He creates 'a school,' and you recognise its adherents by their likeness to the master. It is told of the later disciples of Pythagoras that they were accustomed to publish their books under his name, thereby confessing, with generous self-effacement, that they owed all to him. His teaching was the source of their wisdom. They simply reflected his glory. And you know how love transfigures, putting its imprint not simply on the soul but on the very flesh. Have you never noticed the miracle which is wrought upon a husband and wife who 'have lived and loved together through many changing years' how they come to resemble each other, not merely in their habits and ways of thinking, but in their very look, as though a gentle hand had kept smoothing their faces day by day and transforming them into the same image? There is no kinship between them; it is Love that has wrought the miracle; and it almost startles you. It is all so much alike the tone of the voice, the light in the eyes, the play of expression.

II. Our transformation into the Lord's image, St. Paul is careful to explain, is a gradual process. We are 'transformed from glory to glory' first a little glory, then more, and at last the perfect likeness of our blessed Saviour. This is the final consummation, and we shall never attain it here; we shall never attain it until we get home and see His face. It is not His face that we see here, but only His reflection. The mirror is before us, and He is standing, as it were, behind us, and we see His image in the glass. But the mirror is often dim and uncertain, and the reflection obscure and broken, and we have to guess what He is like. 'Now we look in a mirror puzzlingly.' But one day we shall turn round and see Him 'face to face'; and then the transformation will be complete. 'We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him even as He is.'

III. Such is St. Paul's doctrine of Sanctification, and it is fraught with splendid encouragement. See how he emphasises a truth which we are apt to forget, thereby missing the way and disquieting our hearts the truth that our transformation into the Lord's image is not our own work but the operation of the Holy Spirit. 'We are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit.' There is a crucifix known as the Volto Santo in the Cathedral of Lucca, and the story of it is a parable. It is said that Nicodemus was charged by an angel to fashion an image of the Lord; and he went to the forest and, hewing down a cedar, addressed himself to the task. It baffled his skill, and, wearied with his ineffectual labour, he fell asleep. And, when he awoke, behold, the work was done. The crucifix was before him, carved by angel hands. And thus we are 'transformed into the Lord's image from glory to glory'. It is not our own work; it is the Holy Spirit's, and we do not further it by striving and fretting. Is it by its own effort that the earth is clothed with verdure? Ah, no! it is by the sweet influence of the sunshine and the rain and the dew from heaven, and the earth has only to spread its breast and receive the benediction.

David Smith, Man's Need of God, p. 199.

2 Corinthians 3:18

Change, the strongest son of life,

Has the spirit here to wife.


References. III. 18. Basil Wilberforce, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 136. A. E. Belch, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 359. E. W. Moore, The Record, vol. xxvii. p. 770. C. D. Bell, The Saintly Calling, p. 143. J. C. Nattrass, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 219. E. Bayley, Sermons on the Work and Person of the Holy Spirit, p. 261. J. B. Lightfoot, Cambridge Sermons, p. 96. J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 243. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. pp. 49, 285; ibid. vol. iii. p. 93; ibid. vol. ix. pp. 91, 209; ibid. vol. x. pp. 210, 271; ibid. (5th Series), vol. iv. p. 119; ibid. vol. vi. p. 254; ibid. (6th Series), vol. x. pp. 194, 371. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, p. 307.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/2-corinthians-3.html. 1910.
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