(From the upcoming commentary on Corinthian ~ 2 Corinthians 3:1–18)
- Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?
- Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:
- Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.
- And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:
- Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;
- Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
- But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
- How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?
- For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
- For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.
- For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.
- Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:
- And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:
- But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.
- But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.
- Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.
- Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
- But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
Paul in this chapter has one concern. He has been having problems with the Corinthian church. He is going to visit them again, and he knows that they are already raising objections. The last time he was there, he called attention to many sins in the members, and demanded that they deal with the sins, and that the congregation repent. As a result, there were a number in the church who were very unhappy about Paul returning.
It was the custom in the early church to send letters to churches about a visiting teacher. Churches thus separated by great distances were made aware of the visitor’s standing in the church. There were many persons with heretical ideas trying to pass themselves off as leaders in the faith. But Paul was too well known to require any such letters. However, as v. 1 makes clear, there were some who demanded such letters of commendation. This was clearly insulting. First, Paul was an apostle widely known in the churches. He needed no introduction. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) required such letters, but not of the great men of the church, only of relatively unknown teachers and leaders. Second, this demand by some of the Corinthians was clearly insulting and intended to put Paul on the defensive. Jesus Christ had called Paul to be an apostle. Were these critical Corinthians a higher authority?
The Corinthians said in their letter to Paul that he had originally come to them and was returning without letters of recommendation. Even in New Testament times there were a great many false apostles and false teachers who were going here and there trying to exploit the churches. So very early in the church’s history, the decision was made that if you went to a strange city or church, even if you are just planning on joining a church, or going as a teacher, you would take a letter of recommendation; then the church would know you are recommended by another church of Christ.
These letters were required of people who were not well known. They would not normally be required of an apostle, and certainly not required of someone who was not only an apostle, but one of the greatest teachers in the early church, Saint Paul. In v. 1, Paul says, “You asked for letters of commendation and I did not bring any.” Why should Paul have to bring them? Very few people were better known in the early church than Paul. Much of the New Testament is written by him. In all of the Bible, he is one of the major figures and writers. In asking for a letter of commendation, the Corinthians were being insulting. That was the only purpose in so doing.
It is, as I have already pointed out, very important to bear in mind that this was a good custom. It was simply being misused in being required of Paul. We still have letters of transfer from one church to another, not always necessarily used, but commonly used across the church. But letters can mislead, especially in our time. There are too many churchmen and too many sessions or boards that don’t like to say anything negative about anyone. So if someone transfers to another church in another city, they won’t say, “This man has been a member of our church, but he has also been a troublemaker. He has this fault and that, which you had better bear in mind.” They don’t say this.
We had a supporter visit us who had been driven almost to bankruptcy because he had hired as the treasurer in his little corporation a prominent church member. And he was robbed of virtually all his capital. Had not he had a father who could bail him out to a degree, so that he was able to survive, he never would have made it.
He subsequently found out that this man had robbed a number of people in that church, and in a church in another city where he had previously been. He tracked it down to three or four cities where the man had pulled this same scam, and gotten away with it because churchmen said, “Well, he is a brother in the Lord, you can’t take him to court for that.” In fact, this young man found himself in trouble with the church, because he wanted to take this man to court.
Fraudulent leaders were not uncommon in the church because success attracts pretenders, and the church was a rapidly growing power. An example of a fraudulent leader was Peregrinus, a cynic philosopher from the time of the Antonines. A very compelling and forceful figure, he immediately became very prominent in church circles. He had no lack of letters of commendation when he went from city to city. He gained a strong following for a time among some churchmen. But he was a scoundrel. He was finally imprisoned for some of his doings by the Romans, the ungodly Romans. In time, his radical antinomianism revealed his unbelief and the church condemned him. But he continued to have some followers. This kind of thing has taken place over the centuries.
In addition to requiring Paul to bring letters of commendation with him, the Corinthians were offering to write letters of commendation for Paul to take with him. This is a way of saying, “We are putting you under our authority.” So, Paul says: “We have our sufficiency of God, and it is God who will commend us, and God who has commended us to those who are of the faith. He has made me and my associates able ministers of the New Testament” (see vv. 5–6).
Paul, in v. 2, says that he does have letters of commendation, human letters, the Corinthians themselves. What they have learned in the faith because of Paul has permanently changed them. Their lives can be read by all men. Paul says, in effect, “I am a letter writer. You are my letter, written in our hearts, known and read of all men.” The Corinthians’ character has been reshaped by Paul in many cases, so that they are Paul’s letter of commendation. Paul says, “If you are truly converted, you are a letter of Christ, ministered by us, not written with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart, i.e., your lives.” They are now letters of Christ, written—not with ink—“but with the Spirit of the living God” in the tables of their hearts (v. 3). This, however, is not Paul’s doing, but the Lord’s, for “our sufficiency is of God” (v. 5), and it is God who will commend Paul, and God who has commended Paul to those who are of the faith. Paul’s confidence is that God has worked in their hearts to some degree, and he gives God the glory (v. 4).
Paul, having dealt with the matter of letters of credentials, concentrates on the glory of the law. He is not an antinomian. God has given Paul the calling and the power to be an able minister of the new testament, “not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (v. 6). This much misunderstood sentence is used by antinomians to repudiate theletter of the law, i.e., its literal meaning, in favor of a “spiritual” one. This is plainly false. Antinomians say this means that the law is not any good, it is the Holy Spirit that is important. Paul is referring in the letter to the law, and the spirit to the Holy Spirit in Christ. But what Paul is saying is this: the law finds us in our sin and condemns us, which is good. Then the Spirit gives life. Both are the working of the Lord. In fact, Paul goes on to say that the ministration of death, that is, the law, written and graven in stones, was glorious. He is definitely saying that the law is of God, and it was glorious. Moses, because he was the giver of the law, was so full of the Spirit that he had to wear a veil over his face, because the Israelites could not look at him. As sinners, they felt in his countenance the glory of the Lord, and were fearful and afraid. Because their minds were blinded, they did not see that the glory of the law was the glory of God and the glory of the Spirit. Sadly, Paul says, “They are blinded to this day. They do not see the glory of the Lord in the law.” The implication being, if they truly have the Spirit, they will know the glory of God both in the law and the Spirit. But the veil is on the hearts of Israel to this day. But when Israel turns to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away (vv. 13–16).
So there was a great glory in the law, and it is still there. But now it is surpassed and superseded by the fullness of glory in the Holy Spirit. Paul is not separating law and Spirit, he is binding them together. As Philip Hughes observed, “There is no question of a new law or no law. Neither God changes, nor His law. The Holy Spirit gave the law, and He in no way invalidates it.”1 The error or sin is in separating the word from the Spirit who gave it, as though law is on a lower plane than the Spirit. This is a very serious error. The law is covenantal law given by the Spirit to lead us into covenant faithfulness. If we read the law as no different than the Code of Hammurabi, we shall see it as a promise of death unto sin. If we read it as the Spirit gave it, it is a covenant law, of a covenant of life under God. It is thus the way of life, rather than that of death.
How much the law, the supposed ministration of death, was the ministration of the Spirit appeared in the glory which shone in and through Moses. To keep the law “is the way of life and of love.”2 Clearly, there is a glory in the ministry of condemnation; therefore, how much more is the glory of the ministry of righteousness, of keeping the law in the Spirit?
Paul in v. 9 speaks of the law as providing both a ministry of condemnation and a ministry of righteousness because it provides both the laws of judgment and the laws of atonement. Both are parts of one and the same law. “Condemnation is the consequence of breaking the law; righteousness is precisely the keeping of the law.”3 Christ keeps the law for us, and in Christ we become lawkeepers. Both aspects of the law are glorious (v. 11). Because of our magnificent hope, Paul speaks plainly and forthrightly (v. 12).
In this respect, Paul, unlike Moses, speaks plainly. Moses used a veil because the people could not look plainly at the end of the law (v. 13). The end or conclusion of the law was the atonement; this Israel could not see because of its sin. They wanted a purely legal system, not a religious conclusion by atonement. This blindness remains to this day, Paul adds, although the veil was done away in Christ (vv. 13–14). The veil is still on their hearts when they hear Moses read (v. 15). When they turn to Christ, the veil will be taken away (v. 16).
Paul then identifies the Holy Spirit, the lawgiver, with Jesus Christ, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (v. 17). Paul identifies God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost as equally God. He is Trinitarian faithfully and fully. Moreover, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Paul here speaks of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost as one being. Then he goes on to say that there is freedom in that one being, in the law and in the Spirit. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (v. 18). So that, if we go from the glory of the law to the glory of the Spirit, we are continually changed by the Holy Spirit into greater and greater conformity to the law, which is the expression of God’s being and nature. We in Christ are changed constantly by the Lord into that image required of us as members of the new humanity in Christ, the last Adam.
We have thus a strong statement of the unity of the faith, of the Old and New Testaments, of the Trinity, of God’s purpose in creation, and more. “Clearly Moses is the ‘type’ or ‘model’ of Paul’s role.”4 Attempts to divide wrongly the Bible are false. Because Paul is so totally the follower of Jesus Christ, he is also the great follower of Moses. The one requires the other. This the Sermon on the Mount makes clear.
Paul’s enemies have always tried to separate him from Moses and Jesus, a dishonest effort. Paul is totally their follower in the most faithful sense. The Bible is the best document of commendation for Paul.
1. Philip Edgecombe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans,  1980).
2. Ibid., 102.
3. Ibid., 104.
4. Frances Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), 82.