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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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An excellent outline of this chapter is by Farrar:(F1)

Paul spoke of letters of commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3); his sufficiency as of God (2 Corinthians 3:4-6); the new covenant is more glorious than the one given to Moses (2 Corinthians 3:7-11); Paul’s ministry needs no veil on the face (2 Corinthians 3:12-13); the veil still darkens Israel (2 Corinthians 3:14-15); the veil is done away in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).

Verse 1

Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? or need we as some, epistles of commendation to you or from you?

As Lipscomb said, "Against the usage of such letters in general, Paul here says nothing."(F2) Rather, Paul is either replying to some allegation of the false teacher who might have inferred that nobody recommended Paul, or he is consciously hedging against a similar charge that he anticipated. "It is not necessary to deduce from this verse, as many do, that the charge of self-praise had already been leveled against Paul."(F3) The type of deduction usually made from this verse is that "They had sneered at him for always commending himself."(F4) Those who would use this passage as a prohibition of such recommendations as church letters are misapplying it. "We are not dealing simply with letters attesting that the bearers are church members in good standing."(F5) There are the following examples from the New Testament of what might be entitled church letters:

1. The Book of Philemon, a letter on behalf of Onesimus.

2. Acts 18:27, a letter on behalf of Apollos.

3. Acts 15:23 f, a letter on behalf of Paul, Silas and others.

4. 2 Cor., a letter on behalf of Titus.

5. 1 Corinthians 16:10, a letter on behalf of Timothy.

6. Romans 16:1 f, a letter on behalf of Phoebe.

When Paul had entered upon his mission of persecution to Damascus, he requested letters from the high priest (Acts 9:2); and from the above examples from the New Testament, it appears that the Jewish custom of granting credentials to legitimate members of the faith was brought over into the Christian religion. It was quite necessary to do this, because "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."(F6)

Nevertheless, Paul was in a different category and needed no letters from any person or church to commend him. He had wrought mighty miracles among the Corinthians and elsewhere; and the very existence of their congregation proved the genuineness of his apostleship. Not so with regard to some of those false teachers at Corinth, who, having no genuine worth of any kind, had nevertheless supplied themselves with "letters."

As some … Paul’s reference to false teachers at Corinth, is in irony, "which is pointed by the effective, almost sarcastic, use of anonymous `some.’"(F7) Clines pointed out that the words are de rigeur, "a favorite term of his for his opponents,"(F8) as in 2 Corinthians 10:2, Galatians 1:7, and 1 Timothy 1:3. Some of such characters had actually "penetrated the Corinthian church on the strength of these bills of clearance for the profitable marketing of their merchandise in spiritual things."(F9)

Verse 2

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.

Ye are our epistle … The Corinthian church, in a figurative sense, was Paul’s letter of recommendation.

Written in our hearts … The RSV has "written in your hearts" which is probably the better rendition. Clines called the RSV "preferable" in this place,(F10) despite the fact of its manuscript support being weaker. In context, the Corinthians are the letter; and since all people can read it, it would have to be written in their heart rather than Paul’s for this to be possible. Had it been written in Paul’s heart only, who could have read it? The heart of the formerly reprobate Corinthians, now converted, however, was where the writing had taken place. Such changes as had taken place in them (due to a change in heart) upon their conversion were indeed visible to the whole world of that period. "The metaphor is that the Corinthian church was itself the epistle of Christ";(F11) and Paul’s laying claim to the epistle as his is a reference to his having established their congregation through the preaching of the gospel. In verse 5, Paul made it clear that in the higher sense he considered God to be the true author of the epistle, that is, of the conversions at Corinth.

Verse 3

Being made manifest that ye are an 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 tables that are hearts of flesh.

An epistle of Christ, ministered by us … is a clarification of "Ye are our epistle" in the preceding verse. Paul’s position was the same in this as that of the apostles who passed out the bread when Jesus fed the five thousand, the apostles being not the chef on that occasion but the waiters. So here, Paul wrote the epistle in the sense of preaching the gospel; but the true author was Christ who gave the gospel. Plumptre’s explanation is that "Paul had been the amanuensis of that letter; but Christ had been the real writer."(F12)

Written not with ink … This merely forces the conclusion that Paul was using "epistle" in a figurative sense. He was not speaking of any ordinary letter written with ink upon a parchment.

Spirit … tables … hearts … God had written the Decalogue with his finger upon tables of stone; but in the new covenant, of which Paul now began to speak, not God’s finger, but God’s Spirit did the writing. Note the plural of "hearts," a plain reference to the many Christians at Corinth, and supporting the interpretation that Paul’s letter was written upon their hearts, not upon his own. There can be no doubt of Jeremiah’s great prophecy of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31 ff) being in the background of Paul’s thoughts in this passage.

Verse 4

And such confidence have we through Christ to Godward.

"The changed lives at Corinth confirm Paul’s confidence of his divine appointment."(F13) Thus, not merely all people, but Paul himself also could read the proof of his apostolic commission in the great harvest of souls won for the Lord in Corinth. How natural, therefore, it was for him to point out to others what was so starkly clear to himself.

Verse 5

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account any thing as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God.

See under 2 Corinthians 3:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:3. Although claiming the Corinthians as his epistle, he wished to make it clear that the true author is God, and that to him all of the glory belongs, hence the repetition of this thought here. Back in 2 Corinthians 2:16, Paul’s implied answer to the question, "Who is sufficient for these things?" was to the effect that he and the other apostles were sufficient because they preached the true word of God and did not adulterate it. In that sense, of course, they were sufficient; but here Paul registered the great truth that only God is truly sufficient.

Verse 6

Who also made us as sufficient ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Having acknowledged God as the all-sufficient, Paul at once reemphasizes his own apostolic sufficiency for the preaching of God’s new covenant.


Not of the letter, but of the spirit … Both in this and in the final clause of this verse, the RSV has perpetrated a gross error in capitalizing "Spirit" in order to make it mean "Holy Spirit" in both clauses, an error slavishly followed in Good News for Modern Man, Phillips New Testament, The New English Bible (1961), and others. While it is true, of course, that the blessings of the new covenant may be enjoyed only by those who have received the blessed Holy Spirit, there is no reference to that here. As Hughes said, "It is unlikely that a direct reference to the Spirit is intended."(F14) "The contrast in 2 Corinthians 3:6 is not between the outward and inward sense of scripture, but between the outward and inward power of the Jewish and Christian dispensations."(F15) As Tasker put it, "Paul is distinguishing the new covenant from the old by using the contrasted categories of spirit and letter, life and death."(F16) Farrar gave the meaning as "Not of the law, but of the gospel."(F17) Paul’s usage of this same expression in Romans 2:28 f speaks of a true Jew as one who is a Jew in heart, IN THE SPIRIT, NOT IN THE LETTER. There is no need to multiply evidence that Paul used the same expression here exactly as he used it there.

It is equally evident, as Hughes noted, that "This verse is not concerned with any supposed distinction between two different senses of scripture, the literal and the spiritual."(F18) It is precisely in such a supposed distinction that much error flourishes, and has flourished for centuries. William Tyndale mentioned it in his day:

Some preach Christ, and prove whatsoever point of faith thou wilt, as well out of a fable of Ovid or any other poet, as out of St. John’s gospel or Paul’s epistles. Yea, they are come to such blindness, that they not only say that the literal sense profiteth not, but also that it is hurtful and noisome, and killeth the soul.(F19)

Hughes added that such erroneous ideas were always supported by people quoting this very passage.(F20)

Any persons denying a Christian duty or rejecting an ordinance of God, such as baptism, on the premise that "spiritual" baptism is meant, etc., etc., are finding in Paul’s remark here something that was never in it.

Verses 7-8

But if the ministration of death, written and engraven on stones, came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look stedfastly upon the face of Moses for the glory of his face: which glory was passing away: how shall not rather the ministration of the spirit be with glory?


The old covenant, deficient on account of man’s sins, was nevertheless attended at its inception by glorious manifestations of God’s power and majesty, including the radiance of Moses’ face mentioned here (see Exodus 34:29-35). Paul’s argument is simply this, that if even the old covenant, called here the ministration of death, was attended by such glory, how much more glorious is the gospel of Christ, or the new covenant. Of deep interest is Paul’s view of history, especially that of Israel, which he interpreted as containing many allegories of great spiritual realities which came to light in the new covenant. Another example is that of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians.

Ministration of death … The old covenant was thus titled because 3,000 souls perished the day the law was given; it was called the law of "sin and death" (Romans 8:2). However, Paul here laid stress on the diminishing radiance of Moses’ face, interpreting the veil as being used to prevent Israel’s SEEING THE GLORY FADE AWAY. Thus the veil symbolized the blindness of Israel, not only in the old covenant, but also in the rejection of Christ the head of the new covenant; and the disappearing glory of Moses’ face symbolized the abrogation of the old covenant. Commenting on that allegorical prophecy of the Mosaic covenant’s being abrogated, Farrar noted that the term "abrogated" or its equivalent occurs 22 times in Paul’s epistles.(F21)

Which glory was passing away … Paul seized upon the fact of the vanishing radiance of Moses’ countenance as an allegorical promise that the entire Old Testament covenant would, in time, be discontinued, or taken out of the way.

The complaint of Foy E. Wallace, Jr., regarding the RSV’s rendition of this paragraph is fully justified. He said:

They have omitted "done away" (2 Corinthians 3:7), "abolished" (2 Corinthians 3:13), and "is done away in Christ" (2 Corinthians 3:14) … This chapter clearly affirms the abolition of the MINISTRATION OF DEATH (the Old Covenant). They have clobbered the entire chapter of 2 Corinthians 3.(F22)

Verse 9

For if the ministration of condemnation hath glory, much rather doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.

The whole relationship between the two covenants was dealt with by Paul in Hebrews (See my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 176-179); and, despite the fact that the total abrogation of the old covenant is stated here, it is incidental to the truth being stressed, that is, that the new covenant is more glorious.

Verses 10-11

For verily that which hath been made glorious hath not been made glorious in this respect, by reason of the glory that surpasseth. For if that which passeth away was with glory, much more that which remaineth is in glory.

That which hath been made glorious … refers to the old covenant.

Not been made glorious in this respect … that is, not as glorious as the new covenant.

By reason of the glory that surpasseth … means "because of the glory of the new covenant."

That which passeth away … is needlessly softened in this version. As the English Revised Version (1885) margin gives it, the better rendition is "is being done away."

Paul’s stress in these verses of the fading glory and ultimate abrogation of the law of Moses was directly related to the problems at Corinth. Macknight was almost certainly correct in his view that:

These observations (of Paul) concerning the glory or excellence of the gospel above the law, were made by the apostle to convince the Corinthians how ill-founded was the boasting of the false teacher, who assumed to himself great honor on account of his knowledge of the law of Moses, and who erroneously enjoined obedience to the law, as necessary to salvation.(F23)

Verses 12-13

Having therefore such a hope, we use boldness of speech, and are not as Moses who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away.

Paul’s argument in these verses might be paraphrased rather bluntly as, "Well, anyway, we do not have to put a veil over our face like Moses did. Our gospel is clear and plain." Dummelow’s paraphrase is: "Since our hopes for the future of the gospel are so great, we speak frankly and boldly. We do not seek to conceal anything as Moses concealed his face with a veil."(F24)

Was passing away … is better rendered "was being done away" (English Revised Version margin), because in this marginal rendition there is implied the conscious purpose of God in "doing away" with the old covenant. That old covenant was not something passed away with time; Almighty God consciously abrogated it, on the basis that Israel had broken it (Hebrews 8:9).

Clines observed that "Concealment was not necessarily Moses’ motive for the veil; Paul is probably thinking that it was God’s providence that the Israelites never saw that the glory was fading."(F25)

Verses 14-15

But their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant, the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart.

Paul got a lot out of every metaphor he used. As Cline suggested: "Paul rang all the changes on veil here."(F26) In these verses, it stands for the hardening of Israel; but the most significant thing is the fact of the veil’s being done away in Christ! An immense body of truth is related to CHRIST AND THE VEIL, as the word is used in scripture. The rending of the veil of the temple during our Lord’s crucifixion, for example, compels the linking of many of the most significant truths in the Bible under the subject of Christ and the Veil. See my Commentary on Matthew, pp. 486-489. Without Christ, the Old Testament is an impenetrable mystery. Paul pointed out here that the Jews who did not believe in Jesus were blinded to many of the most significant things in the Old Testament. "Few passages in the New Testament emphasize more strongly that the Old Testament Scriptures are fully intelligible only when Christ is seen to be their fulfillment."(F27)

Verse 16

But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

It shall turn to the Lord … The marginal reading is, "any man shall turn"; this being true of course, but the "it" would seem to be a reference to Israel.

Verse 17

Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

Paul does not here fuse the persons of the Lord and the Holy Spirit; for it is Christ who sends the Spirit.

There is liberty … When a Christian is converted, receiving the Holy Spirit as an earnest of redemption, there is bestowed at the same time freedom: (1) from the law (Galatians 4:18); (2) from fear (Romans 8:13); (3) from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2); (4) from sin (Romans 6:18); and (5) from corruption (Romans 8:21).

Filson’s understanding of what Paul meant here is:

Christ and the Spirit are one in nature and share in the guidance of the church … Here, in saying that the Lord is the Spirit, he means especially that as Spirit the Lord can be with his people everywhere.(F28)

As Kelcy said, "Christ and the Spirit are separate personalities; but, because of the closeness of their work, there is a practical identity; and to turn to either is to turn to the other"(F29)

The thou shalt and thou shalt not of the Old Testament disappear in the presence of the Spirit of adoption (Galatians 4:7) through which we become imitators of God as beloved children (Ephesians 5:1), walking in love.(F30)

The above comment from Russell is typical of many false deductions based upon Paul’s teaching in this chapter. Jesus our Lord gave many negative commandments which may not be ignored by any Christian who hopes to be received in heaven. See Matthew 5:19. There are seven negative commandments in the first twenty verses of Matthew 6. It is simply not true that "in Christ" we are freed from any "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not" commands. Liberty in Christ does not grant license.

Verse 18

But we all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit.

On the identification of Lord and Spirit, see under preceding verse.

Unveiled face … All Christians, not just one man, as in the case of Moses, behold the glory of the Lord; and no veil is required. This has a transforming effect on all who do it. It is in the looking of the Christian upon the Lord, as invariably entailed in the worship of him, that a miracle of transformation is wrought in his life. Here Paul revealed the secret of how to "be … transformed" (Romans 12:2).

Beholding as in a mirror … The word "beholding" in classical Greek means "looking at one’s self in a mirror"; "But that requires steady looking when mirrors are metal, and so the word came to mean simply, TO GAZE STEADILY."(F31)

From the Lord the Spirit … McGarvey gave the import of this to be, "Now Jesus is that Spirit, or new covenant of which I have been speaking (2 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 3:8); and where that new covenant is, there is liberty, especially the liberty of seeing (without a veil)."(F32) In this view, spirit would not be capitalized. Tasker also favored this understanding of it. He said, "(What the Christian beholds) is the manifestation of Christ’s glory which is made in his word and by his Spirit, whose office it is to glorify Christ by revealing him to us."(F33)

We all … The notion has persisted in history that only certain special persons could be transformed in Christ; but as John Calvin (as quoted by Hughes) said, "It is evident that Paul is speaking of an experience that is common to all believers."(F34) Under the old covenant, only the face of Moses shone; only the high priest went into the Holy of Holies; only the priests might serve at the altar, etc., etc. But in the glorious new covenant, "All who are Christ’s, whether great or small, whether known or unknown, have this blessed privilege of beholding and being transformed."(F35)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/2-corinthians-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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