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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

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A.M. 4064. A.D. 60.

Here the apostle, (l,) Appeals to the good effects of his ministry on the Corinthians as his credentials, written by the finger of God, 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 .

(2,) Proves the great superiority of the gospel to the Mosaic law, in several particulars, 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 .

(3,) Shows that his preaching was suited to the excellence and evidence of it, and had an enlightening and transforming efficacy, through the power of the Holy Spirit, 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 .

Verses 1-2

2 Corinthians 3:1-2. Do we begin again While we thus speak and avow our integrity; to commend Or recommend; ourselves As some insinuate we do? Is it needful to do so? have we nothing but our own word to recommend us? St. Paul chiefly here intends himself, though not excluding Timothy, Titus, and Silvanus: or need we, as some others Namely, the factious and false teachers, referred to 2 Corinthians 11:22-23; epistles of commendation Recommendatory letters; to you From other churches; or recommendatory letters from you To others? As if he had said, Do I indeed want such recommendation? Nay, ye are our epistle Our recommendatory letter, more convincing than any bare words could be, as being a testimonial from God himself. He means that the change which had been produced in their hearts and lives, in their dispositions, words, and actions, by his ministry, and that of his fellow-labourers, a change which could not have been effected except by the power of God, was a demonstration that God had sent them, and was present with them, giving efficacy to the word of his grace, a letter written in our hearts Deeply engraven there, so that we never can forget it; known and read of all men Who knew what immoral persons you once were, and observe what you are now. By speaking as the apostle does in this and the preceding verse, he intimates that his apostleship did not depend on the testimony of men, and that he could go to no church where he was not known to be an apostle of Christ, and to have been instrumental in converting many to the faith, and making them new creatures in Christ.

Verses 3-4

2 Corinthians 3:3-4. Forasmuch as ye Some of whom were once so immoral, but who are now so pious and virtuous; are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ Which he has formed and published to the world; ministered by us Whom he has used herein as his instruments; therefore ye are our letter also; written, not with ink As epistles generally are; but with the Spirit of the living God Influencing your hearts, and producing that variety of graces and virtues, which render many of you so conspicuous for holiness and usefulness; not in tables of stone Like the ten commandments, which did so great an honour, and gave such authority to Moses; but in fleshly tables of the heart To which no hand but that by which the heart was made could find access, in such a manner as to inscribe these characters there. The sense of this verse, as Mr. Locke justly observes, is plainly this; “That he needed no letters of commendation to them, but that their conversion, and the gospel written, not with ink, but with the Spirit of God in the tables of their hearts, by his ministry, was as clear an evidence and testimony to them of his mission from Christ, as the law written on tables of stone was an evidence of Moses’s mission; so that he, St. Paul, needed no other recommendation.” Such trust have we through Christ to God-ward That is, we trust in God that this is so. This the apostle adds, and also what follows, to obviate all imputation of vanity or vain-glory, on account of what he had advanced in the two preceding verses.

Verses 5-6

2 Corinthians 3:5-6. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves For this great work of converting sinners, and creating them anew; or so much as to think any thing as of ourselves To form even right views of the gospel and divine things, much less to communicate such views to others, and less still to render them effectual to men’s salvation. But our sufficiency is of God To whom we do and must ascribe whatever qualifications we have for our office, and whatever success we have in it; who also hath made us His apostles and others whom he hath sent into the work; able ministers Greek, ος ικανωσεν ημας διακονους , literally, who hath made us fit, or sufficient; ministers of the new testament Or covenant, rather, as διαθηκη is generally rendered. See the Introduction to the New Testament, p. 3. That Isaiah , 1 st, Of the covenant of grace, made with man after the fall; a covenant which makes provision for pardoning his guilt, renewing his depraved nature, and strengthening his weakness; purposes for which the former covenant, that of justice, established before the fall, made no provision; man, while in innocence, not needing it: 2d, And more especially, the new covenant here means the last and best dispensation of the covenant of grace, that made through the Messiah come in the flesh, in opposition to the two former dispensations of the covenant of grace, the Patriarchal and Mosaic. Not of the letter Not of the law, fitly called the letter, from God’s writing the best part of it on the two tables; but of the spirit Of the gospel dispensation, written on the tables of our hearts by the Spirit. Or rather, the apostle means that the true ministers of Christ are not merely ministers of the letter even of the gospel covenant; they not only bear testimony to, and enforce the literal knowledge of it, or that which is in mere theory, but the spiritual or experimental knowledge of it: that is, they not only endeavour to communicate to their hearers just, clear, and full views of the gospel in all its parts, but to bring them to have a lively and operative faith in its doctrines, producing in them a change of nature; to possess its graces, enjoy its privileges, and practise its duties. For the letter killeth The law, the Mosaic dispensation, seals in death those who still cleave to it; but the spirit The gospel, instrumental in conveying the Spirit of God to those who receive it with a true and lively faith; giveth life Both spiritual and eternal. Yea, if we adhere to the literal sense even of the moral law, if we regard only the precept and the sanction, as they stand in themselves, not as they lead us to Christ, they are doubtless a killing ordinance, and bind us down under the sentence of death. Nor is this all that the apostle means: but if we rest in the literal and merely notional knowledge of the new covenant itself, it not only will not justify and save us, but will condemn us to a greater death than that to which we were exposed by the sin of Adam: our condemnation will be aggravated, and our future misery increased through our misuse, or abuse rather, of so gracious a dispensation, a remedy provided in great mercy and love for the healing of our spiritual disorders and the saving of our souls. In other words, if we content ourselves with having right views of the gospel, of its truths and duties, privileges and blessings, and do not receive them in true repentance, living faith, sincere love, and new obedience; if we be satisfied with understanding the nature of the graces of God’s Spirit, and of justification, regeneration, and sanctification, and remain without the real possession and enjoyment of these blessings, the light we have, and our correct ideas of these things, will only render us the more inexcusable before God, and expose us to greater wrath than could have come upon us, if we had not been favoured with that knowledge and these advantages. On the other hand, the spiritual and experimental knowledge of the new covenant in all its branches, the knowledge communicated by the Holy Spirit, giveth life. It quickens the soul, before dead to God and divine things, dead in a state of guilt, depravity, and weakness; it justifies the ungodly, sanctifies the unholy, unites to God those who had been alienated from his life, stamps them with his image, communicates to them his nature, and renders them spiritually minded, which is life and peace. And while it imparts the life of grace, it gives a title to, a meetness for, and a foretaste of, the life of glory. To spread this spiritual, experimental, and practical knowledge of the new covenant, therefore, is the chief concern, and endeavour of every true minister of Christ; and for this work every such a one is qualified by being savingly made acquainted with its nature, excellence, and glory, in consequence of which he can and will not only speak justly and clearly concerning it, but with zeal, fervency, and deep concern, that his message may be properly received and obeyed by all who hear him. Understanding the doctrines, possessing the graces, practising the duties, and enjoying the privileges of this new dispensation himself, he speaks with sincerity and pathos; speaks what he knows, and testifies what he has seen, or experienced; and his words, proceeding from the heart, and uttered with feeling, seldom fail to reach the heart: while in the mean time, his spirit and conduct, his holy tempers, words, and actions, strongly recommend his doctrine, and powerfully enforce all his exhortations, the Lord Jesus, according to his promise, being with him in all his ministrations, and giving efficacy to the word of his grace.

Verses 7-8

2 Corinthians 3:7-8. But The apostle having signified that he and the other true servants of Christ were intrusted with the ministry of the new covenant, in opposition to the old, proceeds now to show the great superiority of their dispensation to that which had preceded it. This he does in three important particulars. If the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones That is, the Mosaic dispensation, the most important part of which was engraven on two tables of stone, and which proved a ministration of death to those who preferred it to the gospel, and which still subjects such to death, pronouncing an awful curse upon all that in any respect violate it; was glorious Was attended with a signal and undeniable glory, a glory even reflected on the face of its minister, in such a degree that the Israelites could not bear steadfastly to behold the splendour of his countenance; how shall not the ministration of the Spirit The Christian dispensation, under which the Holy Spirit, in his gifts and graces, is much more largely communicated than it was under the law; be rather glorious Since the operations and graces of the Spirit of God in the heart of a rational being are so much more important than any dead characters which could be engraven on insensible stones. To be a little more particular: The law, even the best part of it, that engraven on stones, is here properly termed the ministration of death Because, 1st, It condemned wilful transgressors in certain cases, (as sabbath-breakers, adulteresses, and those disobedient to parents,) to temporal death; so that they died without mercy under two or three witnesses attesting their guilt, Hebrews 10:28. nding all dead, or doomed to die, temporally, it had no resurrection to announce or promise. 3d, Spiritual, as well as temporal death, having entered into the world by the first great transgression, and all being involved therein, namely, destitute of the favour of God, (which is life, Psalms 30:5,) of union with him, and a spiritual mind, (Romans 8:6,) it could not quicken them, or make them alive to God. Its sacrifices could not procure men God’s forfeited favour, much less assure them of it. Its precepts, through men’s inability to keep them, could not introduce them to union with him, and its carnal ordinances and worldly promises could not render them spiritually minded. Thus the letter, that external, emblematical, and shadowy dispensation, killed such as adhered to it, and rejected the gospel; but the Spirit giveth life. As the Spirit of God is the grand promise of the new covenant, (see Isaiah 44:3; Isaiah 59:21; Joel 2:28; John 7:37-38,) so by this the gospel doctrines, precepts, and promises, are made spirit and life to us; repentance unto life and living faith are begotten in us, the favour of God is manifested, and union with God imparted, productive of a spiritual mind, which is life and peace.

Verse 9

2 Corinthians 3:9. If, &c. The apostle now proceeds to the second particular; the ministration of condemnation be glorious Attended with such great glory. The law, whether moral or ceremonial, however glorious, was, to sinful and guilty, weak and depraved man, in his fallen state, no more than a ministration of condemnation. Even the moral part of it, though holy, just, and good, yet, being spiritual and extensive in its demands, condemned all for having violated it in time past, for falling short of its demands at present, and as being unable to fulfil it in future. Here we see how much they are mistaken who suppose that the moral law, of which the apostle chiefly speaks, (it alone being engraven on stones,) requires no more than a sincere obedience, such as is proportioned to our infirm state. For if this were sufficient to justify us, then the law would cease to be a ministration of condemnation. It would become (flatly contrary to the apostle’s doctrine) the ministration of righteousness. This, however, even a ministration of righteousness, is the gospel or new covenant: for, 1st, It reveals the essential righteousness of God, (Romans 1:16,) illustrating his perfections, and showing how holy and just he is, Romans 3:21-26. 2d, It exhibits the meritorious righteousness of Christ, or his obedience unto death, the procuring cause of our justification. See on Romans 10:4. 3d, It lays a foundation for, and is the seed of, the instrumental righteousness of faith, described Romans 4:0. and Philippians 3:9. 4th, It imputes righteousness to us in our justification, Romans 4:3; implants it in us in our regeneration and sanctification, Titus 3:5; Ephesians 4:23-24; and provides for our practising it in love and obedience, shedding abroad the love of God in our hearts, the great source of all piety and virtue, and creating us anew to all good works, Ephesians 2:10. Thus grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life, Romans 5:21. On this account also the gospel far exceeds the law in glory: for,

Verses 10-11

2 Corinthians 3:10-11. Even that which was made glorious The law, especially at its first dispensation; had no glory in this respect, &c. That is, none in comparison of the gospel, which has such a transcendent glory in it. The greater light swallows up the less. For if that which is done away The law, and the whole Mosaic dispensation, which, being only typical and shadowy, of course ceased when the antitype and substance came. Hence its priesthood is changed, Hebrews 7:11-12; its covenant, Hebrews 8:6; its sanctuary and whole service, Hebrews 9:1-9; with all its privileges and blessings, they being generally of a worldly and carnal nature; much more that which remaineth The gospel, which is to continue without any alteration to the end of time; is glorious Its high- priest is consecrated for ever, and has an unchangeable priesthood, Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:24; Hebrews 7:28. Its law, or covenant, remains the same through all ages: its sanctuary, the visible church, is built on a rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it: its spiritual worship and service are of perpetual obligation; and its privileges and blessings, being all of a spiritual and heavenly nature, though possessed in their first-fruits in time, shall be reaped in their full harvest in eternity. Such are the three particulars in which the glory of the new covenant far exceeds that of the old.

Verses 12-16

2 Corinthians 3:12-16. Seeing then Upon these grounds spoken of from 2 Corinthians 3:5-11; that we have such hope Such confidence of the excellence of our ministry, or such an assurance that the gospel excels the law in its nature and tendency, in its glory and duration; we use great plainness of speech In discoursing concerning it. Or, as πολλη παρρησια may be rendered, we use great liberty of address. And not as Moses We do not act as he did; who put a veil over his face Which is to be understood with regard to his writings also; so that Israel could not look steadfastly to the end of that dispensation; which is now abolished The end of this was Christ. The whole Mosaic dispensation tended to, and terminated in, him. But the Israelites had only a dim wavering sight of him, of whom Moses spake in an obscure, covert manner. Macknight explains this more at large thus: “Here the apostle intimates that Moses put a veil on his face while he delivered the law, to show the darkness of the types and figures of the law, of which he was the minister. And as he veiled his face, that the children of Israel might not see the vanishing of the glory from his face, it signified that the abrogation of the law, typified by the vanishing of the glory, would be hidden from them. So the apostle hath interpreted these emblems, 2 Corinthians 3:14. Further, to show that the gospel is a clear dispensation, and that it is never to be abolished, and that the ministers of the covenant of the Spirit were able at all times to speak plainly concerning it, they did not, while ministering that covenant, veil their faces like Moses.” But their minds were blinded Besides the obscurity of that dispensation, there was evidently blindness on their minds. They rested in the outward letter, and did not understand or apprehend the spiritual sense of the law. For until this day Notwithstanding the many extraordinary miracles that have been wrought, and the wonderful events which have taken place; remaineth the same veil on their understanding untaken away Μη ανακαλυπτομενον , literally, not folded back, namely, so as to admit a little glimmering light; in or during, the reading of the old testament Which contains such distinct prophecies of Christ, and such lively descriptions of him, that one would think it to be impossible that he should not be immediately acknowledged and adored by all that profess to believe its authority. That is, in other words, “The thing typified by the veil on Moses’s face, hath taken place from that time to this day. For when the Israelites read Moses’s account of the old covenant of the law, a veil lieth on that covenant; its types, and figures, and prophecies, are as dark to them as ever; it not being discovered to them that they are fulfilled in Christ, and consequently that the old covenant itself is abolished by him. Further, as the apostle observes in 2 Corinthians 3:15, a veil lieth also on the hearts of the Jews when they read Moses. Besides the natural obscurity of the old covenant, there is a second veil formed by their own prejudices and lusts, which blind them to such a degree, that they cannot discern the intimations which God in the law itself hath given of his intention to abrogate it by Christ.” Which veil Of obscurity upon the old testament, and of prejudice and blindness on their own minds; is done away in Christ By the knowledge of him, and the illumination of his Spirit, with respect to all that truly believe in him. Nevertheless, when it Their heart; shall turn to the Lord To Christ by living faith; the veil shall be taken away Or rather, is taken away, and that from around their heart, as περιαιρειται , signifies; or is taken away entirely, and the genuine sense of the sacred oracles breaks in upon their minds with irresistible light, and they see with the utmost clearness how all the types and prophecies of the law are fully accomplished in him. And this, we may observe, not only will happen at the general conversion of the Jews, but actually does happen as often as any one of that nation is converted. In the expression, when it shall turn to the Lord, &c., there is a manifest allusion to Moses’s taking the veil off from his face, when he turned from the people to go into the tabernacle before the Lord, where by he received a new irradiation from the glory of the Lord. See Exodus 34:34.

Verses 17-18

2 Corinthians 3:17-18. Now the Lord Christ is that Spirit Of the law of which I spake before, to whom the letter of it was intended to lead; and it is the office of the Spirit of God, as the great agent in his kingdom, to direct the minds of men to it. And where the Spirit of the Lord is Enlightening and renewing men’s minds; there is liberty Not the veil, the emblem of slavery. There is liberty from servile fear, liberty from the guilt and power of sin, liberty to behold with open face the glory of the Lord. Accordingly it is added, we all That believe in him with a faith of his operation; beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, &c. By the glory of the Lord here, we are to understand his divine attributes, his wisdom, power, and goodness; his truth, justice, mercy; his holiness and grace, and especially his love; these, and his other moral perfections, are his greatest glory. But these cannot be beheld by man immediately and directly, while he is in the body: they can only be seen as in a glass, or through a glass darkly; (1 Corinthians 13:12;) namely, 1st, In that of the works of creation, as the apostle states, Romans 1:20, where see the note.

Invisible in himself, he is “dimly seen In these his lowest works, which all declare His goodness beyond thought, and power divine.”

2d, In the dispensations of his providence, in which glass not only his natural, but also his moral attributes are manifested; his long-suffering in bearing with sinful individuals, families, cities, nations; his justice in punishing when they persist in their iniquities; his mercy in pardoning them when they break off their sins by repentance. 3d, In the work of redemption; a work in which divine goodness in designing, wisdom in contriving, and power in executing, are conspicuously declared; in which justice and mercy meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other: a wonderful plan! in which God demonstrates that he is just, while he is the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus. See on Romans 3:25-26. 4th, In the glass in which all these are united, and set in a clear point of view, namely, the Word of God, or the gospel of Christ, in which the divine character is clearly and fully delineated; as it is also still more manifestly, and in a more striking light, in his incarnate Son, the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person; the Word made flesh; God manifest in the flesh. But by whom is the divine glory beheld in these glasses? Only by those from whose faces the veil of ignorance, prejudice, and unbelief is removed; so that with open, ανεκεκαλυμμενω , with unveiled face, and with the eyes of their understanding opened, they behold, view attentively, and contemplate this glory of the Lord.

Now, observe the effect produced on those who behold this glory; they are changed into the same image. While we steadfastly and with open face behold the divine likeness exhibited in these glasses, we discern its amiableness and excellence, and the necessity of a conformity thereto, in order to our happiness here and hereafter. And hence arises sincere and earnest desire after that conformity, and an endeavour to imitate such perfections as are imitable by us. Add to this, the very beholding and meditating on the divine glories, has a transforming efficacy. For instance, by contemplating his wisdom, as manifested in his works and word, we are enlightened and made wise: by viewing his power, and by faith arming ourselves with it, we become strong; able to withstand our enemies, as also to do and suffer his will. The contemplation of his truth, justice, mercy, and holiness, inspires us with the same amiable and happy qualities, and knowing and believing the love that he hath to us, and all his people, we learn to love him who hath first loved us; and loving him that beget, we are disposed and enabled also to love all that are begotten of him; and even all mankind, if not with a love of approbation and complacency, yet with a love of benevolence and beneficence, knowing that he is the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and that the whole race of Adam are his offspring. Thus we become godlike, and put on the new man, which is renewed in and by this spiritual knowledge, after the image of him that created him, Colossians 3:10. From glory to glory That Isaiah , 1 st, As the light and glory of the moon and planets are by reflection from the sun; so from the unbounded, absolutely perfect, and underived glory of the Creator, when beheld and contemplated, results this limited, increasing, and derived glory in the creature: increasing, observe; for, 2d, this expression, from glory to glory, (which is a Hebraism, denoting a continued succession and increase of glory,) signifies from one degree of this glorious conformity to God to another: this on earth. But it implies also, 3d, from grace, (which is glory in the bud,) to glory in heaven, which is the ripe fruit. It is of importance to notice likewise the grand agent in this work, namely, the Spirit of the Lord. 1st, He hath prepared these glasses, particularly the two last mentioned, the Holy Scriptures, indited by his inspiration, and the human nature of Christ, formed by his agency in the womb of the virgin. And he causes the glory of the Lord to be reflected from them. 2d, He rends the veil from our minds, and opens the eyes of our understanding, that we may be enabled to behold the divine glory in these glasses. 3d, He causes the sight to be transforming, communicating his own renewing and sanctifying influences, and thereby imparting his likeness and nature.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". Benson's Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/2-corinthians-3.html. 1857.
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