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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
2 Corinthians 3

 

 

Verses 1-18

Chapter 3

EACH MAN A LETTER OF CHRIST (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

3:1-3 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely you do not think that we need--as some people need--letters of commendation neither to you or from you? You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all men. It is plain to see that you are a letter written by Christ, produced under our ministry, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets which are living, beating, human hearts.

Behind this passage lies the thought of a custom which was common in the ancient world, that of sending letters of commendation with a person. If someone was going to a strange community, a friend of his who knew someone in that community would give him a letter of commendation to introduce him and to testify to his character.

Here is such a letter, found among the papyri, written by a certain Aurelius Archelaus, who was a beneficiarius, that is a soldier privileged to have special exemption from all menial duties, to his commanding officer, a military tribune called Julius Domitius. It is to introduce and commend a certain Theon. "To Julius Domitius, military tribune of the legion, from Aurelius Archelaus, his beneficiarius, greeting. I have already before this recommended to you Theon, my friend, and now also, I ask you, sir, to have him before your eyes as you would myself. For he is a man such as to deserve to be loved by you, for he left his own people, his goods and his business and followed me, and through all things he has kept me safe. I therefore pray you that he may have the right to come and see you. He can tell you everything about our business...I have loved the man...I wish you, sir, great happiness and long life with your family and good health. Have this letter before your eyes and let it make you think that I am speaking to you. Farewell."

That was the kind of commendatory letter, or reference, of which Paul was thinking. There is one such in the New Testament. Romans 16:1-27 is a letter of commendation written to introduce Phoebe, a member of the Church at Cenchrea, to the Church at Rome.

In the ancient world, as nowadays, sometimes written testimonials did not mean very much. A man once asked Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher, for such a letter. Diogenes answered, "That you are a man he will know at a glance; but whether you are a good or a bad man he will discover if he has the skill to distinguish between good and bad, and if he is without that skill he will not discover the facts even though I write to him thousands of times." Yet in the Christian Church such letters were necessary, for even Lucian, the pagan satirist, noted that any charlatan could make a fortune out of the simple-minded Christians, because they were so easily imposed upon.

The previous sentences of Paul's letter seemed to read as if he was giving himself a testimonial. He declares that he has no need of such commendation. Then he takes a side-glance at those who have been causing trouble in Corinth. "There may be some," he says, "who brought you letters of commendation or who got them from you." In all probability these were emissaries of the Jews who had come to undo Paul's work and who had brought introductory letters from the Sanhedrin to accredit them. Once Paul had had such letters himself, when he set out to Damascus to obliterate the Church. (Acts 9:2). He says that his only testimonial is the Corinthians themselves. The change in their character and life is the only commendation that he needs.

He goes on to make a great claim. Every one of them is a letter of Christ. Long ago Plato had said that the good teacher does not write his message in ink that will fade; he writes it upon men. That is what Jesus had done. He had written his message on the Corinthians, through his servant, Paul, not with fading ink but with the Spirit, not on tablets of stone as the law was first written, but on the hearts of men.

There is a great truth here, which is at once an inspiration and an awful warning--every man is an open letter for Jesus Christ. Every Christian, whether he likes it or not, is an advertisement for Christianity. The honour of Christ is in the hands of his followers. We judge a shopkeeper by the kind of goods he sells; we judge a craftsman by the kind of articles he produces; we judge a Church by the kind of men it creates; and therefore men judge Christ by his followers. Dick Sheppard, after years of talking in the open air to people who were outside the Church, declared that he had discovered that "the greatest handicap the Church has is the unsatisfactory lives of professing Christians." When we go out into the world, we have the awe-inspiring responsibility of being open letters, advertisements, for Christ and his Church.

THE SURPASSING GLORY (2 Corinthians 3:4-11)

3:4-11 We can believe this with such confidence because we believe it through Christ and in the sight of God. It is not that in our own resources we are adequate to reckon up the effect of anything that we have done, as it were personally, but our adequacy comes from God, who has made us adequate to be ministers of the new relationship which has come into existence between him and men. This new relationship does not depend on a written document, but on the Spirit. The written document is a deadly thing; the Spirit is a life-giving power. If the ministry which could only produce death, the ministry which depends on written documents, the ministry which was engraved on stone, came into being with such glory that the children of Israel could not bear to look for any time at the face of Moses, because of the glory which shone upon his face--and it was a glory that was doomed to fade surely even more will the ministry of the Spirit be clad in glory. For if the ministry which could not produce anything else but condemnation was a glory, the ministry which produces the right relationship between God and man excels still more in glory. For, indeed, that which was clad with glory no longer enjoys glory because of this--because of the glory that surpasses it. If that which was doomed to pass away emerged in glory, much more that which is destined to remain exists in glory.

This passage really falls into two parts. At the beginning of it Paul is feeling that perhaps his claim that the Corinthians are a living epistle of Christ, produced under his ministry, may sound a little like self-praise. So he hastens to insist that whatever he has done is not his own work but the work of God. It is God who has made him adequate for the task which was his. It may be that he is thinking of a fanciful meaning that the Jews sometimes gave to one of the great titles of God. God was called El (Hebrew #410) Shaddai (Hebrew #7706), which is The Almighty, but sometimes the Jews explained El Shaddai to mean The Sufficient One. It is he who is all-sufficient who has made Paul sufficient for his task.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe produced Uncle Tom's Cabin, 300,000 copies were sold in America in one year. It was translated into a score of languages. Lord Palmerston, who had not read a novel for thirty years, praised it "not only for the story, but for the statesmanship." Lord Cockburn, a Privy Counsellor, declared that it had done more for humanity than any other book of fiction. Tolstoi ranked it among the great achievements of the human mind. It certainly did more than any other single thing to advance the freedom of the slaves. Harriet Beecher Stowe refused to take any credit for what she had written. She said, "l, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin? No, indeed, I could not control the story; it wrote itself. The Lord wrote it, and I was but the humblest instrument in his hand. It all came to me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words. To him alone be the praise!"

Her adequacy was of God. It was so with Paul. He never said, "See what I have done!" He always said, "To God be the glory!" He never conceived of himself as adequate for any task; he thought of God as making him adequate. And that is precisely why, conscious as he was of his own weakness, he feared to set his hand to no task. He never had to do it alone; he did it with God.

The second part of the passage deals with the contrast between the old and the new covenant. A covenant means an arrangement made between two people through which they enter into a certain relationship. It is not, in the biblical usage, an ordinary agreement, because the contracting parties enter into an ordinary agreement on equal terms. But in the biblical sense of covenant, it is God who is the prime mover and approaches man to offer him a relationship upon conditions which man could neither initiate nor alter but only accept or reject.

The word Paul uses for new when he speaks of the new covenant is the same as Jesus used and it is very significant. In Greek there are two words for new. First, there is neos (Greek #3501), which means new in point of time and that alone. A young person is neos (Greek #3501) because he is a newcomer into the world. Second, there is kainos (Greek #2537), which means not only new in point of time, but also new in quality. If something is kainos (Greek #2537) it has brought a fresh clement into the situation. It is the word kainos (Greek #2537) that both Jesus and Paul use of the new covenant, and the significance is that the new covenant is not only new in point of time; it is quite different in kind from the old covenant. It produces between man and God a relationship of a totally different kind.

Wherein does this difference lie?

(i) The old covenant was based on a written document. We can see the story of its initiation in Exodus 24:1-8. Moses took the book of the covenant and read it to the people and they agreed to it. On the other hand the new covenant is based on the power of the life-giving Spirit. A written document is always something that is external; whereas the work of the Spirit changes a man's very heart. A man may obey the written code while all the time he wishes to disobey it; but when the Spirit comes into his heart and controls it, not only does he not break the code, he does not even wish to break it, because he is a changed man. A written code can change the law; only the Spirit can change human nature.

(ii) The old covenant was a deadly thing, because it produced a legal relationship between God and man. In effect it said, "If you wish to maintain your relationship with God, you must keep these laws." It thereby set up a situation in which God was essentially judge and man was essentially a criminal, forever in default before the bar of God's judgment.

The old covenant was deadly because it killed certain things. (a) It killed hope. There was never any hope that any man could keep it, human nature being what it is. It therefore could issue in nothing but frustration. (b) It killed life. Under it a man could earn nothing but condemnation; and condemnation meant death. (c) It killed strength. It was perfectly able to tell a man what to do, but it could not help him to do it.

The new covenant was quite different. (a) It was a relationship of love. It came into being because God so loved the world. (b) It was a relationship between a father and his sons. Man was no longer the criminal in default, he was the son of God, even if a disobedient son. (c) It changed a man's life, not by imposing a new code of laws on him, but by changing his heart. (d) It therefore not only told a man what to do but gave him the strength to do it. With its commandments it brought power.

Paul goes on to contrast the two covenants. The old covenant was born in glory. When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, which are the code of the old covenant, his face shone with such a splendour that no one could took at it (Exodus 34:30). Obviously that was a transient splendour. It did not and it could not last. The new covenant, the new relationship which Jesus Christ makes possible between man and God, has a greater splendour which will never fade because it produces pardon and not condemnation, life and not death.

Here is the warning. The Jews preferred the old covenant, the law; they rejected the new covenant, the new relationship in Christ. Now the old covenant was not a bad thing; but it was only a second-best, a stage upon the way. As a great commentator has put it, "When the sun has risen the lamps cease to be of use." And as has been so truly said, "The second-best is the worst enemy of the best." Men have always tended to cling to the old even when something far better is offered. For long people, on so-called religious grounds, refused to use chloroform. When Wordsworth and the romantic poets emerged, criticism said, "This will never do." When Wagner began to write his music, people would not have it. Churches all over the world cling to the old and refuse the new. Because a thing was always done, it is right, and because a thing was never done, it is wrong. We must be careful not to worship the stages instead of the goal, not to cling to the second-best while the best is waiting, not, as the Jews did, to insist that the old ways are right and refuse the new glories which God is opening to us.

THE VEIL WHICH HIDES THE TRUTH (2 Corinthians 3:12-18)

3:12-18 It is because we possess such a hope that we speak with such freedom. We do not draw a veil over things, as Moses did over his face so that the children of Israel should not gaze at the end of the glory which was doomed to fade away. But their minds were dulled. To this very day the same veil remains, still not drawn aside, when they read the record of the old relationship between God and man, because only in Christ is that veil abolished. Yes, to this day, whenever the books that Moses wrote are read, the veil rests upon their heart. But, whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And we all, with no veil upon our faces, see as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and we go on changing this image from glory to glory, even as it comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

All the pictures in this passage emerge directly from the passage which goes before. Paul begins from the thought that when Moses came down from the mount the glory upon his face was so bright that no one could gaze steadily upon it.

(i) He thinks back to Exodus 34:33. The King James Version has it that Moses put a veil upon his face until he had finished speaking; but the correct translation of the Hebrew, is that Moses, as in the R.S.V., did this when he had finished speaking. Paul takes this to mean that Moses veiled his face so that the people should not have to see the slow fading of the glory that once was there. His first thought is that the glory of the old covenant, the old relationship between God and men, was essentially a fading one. It was destined to be overpassed, not as the wrong is overpassed by the right, but as the incomplete is overpassed by the complete. The revelation that came by Moses was true and great, but it was only partial; the revelation that came in Jesus Christ is full and final. As Augustine so wisely put it long ago, "We do wrong to the Old Testament if we deny that it comes from the same just and good God as the New. On the other hand we do wrong to the New Testament, if we put the Old on a level with it." The one is a step to glory; the other is the summit of glory.

(ii) The idea of the veil now takes hold of Paul's mind and he uses it in different ways. He says that, when the Jews listen to the reading of the Old Testament, as they do every Sabbath day in the synagogue, a veil upon their eyes keeps them from seeing the real meaning of it. It ought to point them to Jesus Christ, but the veil keeps them from seeing that. We, too, may fail to see the real meaning of scripture because our eyes are veiled.

(a) They may be veiled by prejudice. We, too, often go to scripture to find support for our own views rather than to find the truth of God.

(b) They may be veiled by wishful-thinking. Too often we find what we want to find, and neglect what we do not want to see. To take an example, we may delight in all the references to the love and the mercy of God, but pass over all the references to his wrath and judgment.

(c) They may be veiled by fragmentary thinking. We should always regard the Bible as a whole. It is easy to take individual texts and criticize them. It is easy to prove that parts of the Old Testament are sub-Christian. It is easy to find support for private theories by choosing certain texts and passages and putting others aside. But it is the whole message that we must seek; and that is just another way of saying that we must read all scripture in the light of Jesus Christ.

(iii) Not only is there a veil which keeps the Jews from seeing the real meaning of scripture; there is also a veil which comes between them and God.

(a) Sometimes it is the veil of disobedience. Very often it is moral and not intellectual blindness which keeps us from seeing God. If we persist in disobeying him we become less and less capable of seeing him. The vision of God is to the pure in heart.

(b) Sometimes it is the veil of the unteachable spirit. As the Scots saying has it, "There's none so blind as those who winna see." The best teacher on earth cannot teach the man who knows it all already and does not wish to learn. God gave us free will, and, if we insist upon our own way, we cannot learn his.

(iv) Paul goes on to say that we see the glory of the Lord with no veil upon our faces, and because of that we, too, are changed from glory into glory. Possibly what Paul means is that, if we gaze at Christ, we in the end reflect him. His image appears in our lives. It is a law of life that we become like the people we gaze at. People hero-worship someone and begin to reflect his ways. If we contemplate Jesus Christ, in the end we come to reflect him.

Paul sets for many a theological problem when he says, "The Lord is the Spirit." He seems to identify the Risen Lord and the Holy Spirit. We must remember that he was not writing theology; he was setting down experience. And it is the experience of the Christian life that the work of the Spirit and the work of the Risen Lord are one and the same. The strength and guidance we receive come alike from the Spirit and from the Risen Lord.

Where the Spirit is, says Paul, there is liberty. He means that so long as man's obedience to God is conditioned by obedience to a code of laws he is in the position of an unwilling slave. But when it comes from the operation of the Spirit in his heart, the very centre of his being has no other desire than to serve God, for then it is not law but love which binds him. Many things which we would resent doing under compulsion for some stranger are a privilege to do for someone we love. Love clothes the humblest and the most menial tasks with glory. "In God's service we find our perfect freedom."

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/2-corinthians-3.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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