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Saturday, December 9th, 2023
the First Week of Advent
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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-3

Christians Are Letters from Christ (3:1-3)

Paul’s next thought is about his own credentials as a minister of Christ. For after all, this was forced upon him by the constant nagging of enemies and ill-wishers who kept saying that Paul was a faker, that he had no credentials. Well, of course, in the usual meaning of the word, Paul did not have credentials. He carried no diploma from any theological seminary. No one of the original

Twelve was vouching for him. He had no letters of recommenda­tion, when he came to Corinth, from any other church. But Paul has a happier thought. For the Corinthians, most of whom had been converted by Paul’s preaching, no credentials were needed but just—themselves. The church might have its troubles; but evidently there were enough real Christians there so that Paul could point to them and say, "These people are evidence enough to convince anyone that I am a real minister and not a faker." A true minister writes his own record in the lives of those he has won for God. A mother’s recommendation is her children, a teacher’s is her pupils, a minister’s is his people. And yet Paul realizes that if a true Christian is a letter, the handwriting of it is no man’s but is God’s. So he speaks of the letter as being "from Christ" and written "with the Spirit of the living God."

Verses 4-18

Old Covenant and New (3:4-18)

This thought leads Paul to reflect on something else written by God, the Ten Commandments. Perhaps Paul did not think of God as literally writing or carving the Ten Commandments on slabs of rock, any more than he thought of the Holy Spirit as literally inscribing words on a person’s heart. But as a figure of speech it is a powerful one. Being a Jew, Paul had given a great deal of thought to the relation and the difference between the religion of the Jews and the religion of Christ. Readers of Ro­mans will recall the long chapters he devotes to this thought. You might almost say this problem was never far from his mind.

The modern reader is inclined to skip all this as unimportant, something dragged in. So he skips all the chapters in the New Testament that reflect on the relation between Judaism and Chris­tianity. This, however, is to miss something of value. It is no doubt true that only a Jewish reader can feel the full force of Paul’s remarks in such chapters as Romans 4, 9, 10, 11, and 2 Corinthians 3. But even a non-Jewish reader can translate this, so to speak, into more universal terms. Remembering that Juda­ism was beyond question the highest form of religion the world had then seen, we can say at least this: that if Christianity is seen to be superior after comparison with Judaism, it will cer­tainly not be the loser in comparison with any other religion.

Consider the contrasts as Paul brings them out here. First (3:4-6), both the old religion and the new are covenant religions; that is, the basic idea in both is a two-way relation between God and man. In theologians’ language, covenant religion is one of revelation and response; God speaks and man replies. Neither religion is one of "climbing the altar stairs"; each one teaches that God first comes to man, not man to God. But the Old Cove­nant, Paul suggests, is in a written code, while the New Covenant is in the Spirit. The written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. Christian life cannot be reduced to a code or expressed by rigid law.

In 3:7-8 Paul speaks of the "dispensation of death" and con­trasts it with the dispensation of the Spirit. Paul is not speak­ing as a dissatisfied Jew, but as one who in the old days was fiercely loyal to the Law. Yet we have his testimony (as for in­stance in Romans 7) that the Law had simply not brought him life. The least you could say was that so far as he was concerned, the difference between his old faith and his new faith was like the difference between death and life.

In 3:9-10 the contrast is between condemnation and righteous­ness. To get the background of what Paul is saying here in very short fashion, one could read the first five chapters of Romans. The main point right here is that a religion of law, even (and especially) God’s Law, succeeds only in giving a sense of frustra­tion and guilt. The religion of Christ brings the righteousness which is "through faith," as Paul would put it. Again, the Old Covenant is temporary, the new one permanent; and so, while both are "religions of splendor" (as indeed all are to some de­gree), the New Covenant alone has a splendor which will not fade away.

Paul goes further still in his contrasts (3:12-16). The Old Covenant and the New had, in Paul’s time, exactly the same Scriptures. None of the New Testament had yet been placed by the Church on a par with the Old Testament, and most of the New Testament had not in fact been written. Whether you at­tended a synagogue or a Christian meeting you would hear exactly the same Scriptures being read. But in the synagogue "whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds." We do not know all that Paul meant by this, but we can guess with good reason that he was thinking how much of the Old Testament points to Christ but that only the Christian can see this. That is to say, for exam­ple, that when a Christian reads Isaiah 53 he can read it as a portrait of Christ, while outside of the Christian faith that chap­ter remains a rather dark puzzle.

Two more contrasts are suggested rather than worked out in full (3:17-18). The New Covenant, unlike the Old, is one of freedom. In Paul’s own thought, he had been a slave to the Law; now he has been set free by Christ (see Galatians 5:1). Again, the believer under the Old Covenant had his eye fixed, so to speak, on certain written laws. The believer under the New Covenant fixes his eye on a Person. Note the phrases, "through Christ" (vs. 14), "turns to the Lord" (vs. 16), "where the Spirit of the Lord is" (vs. 17), "beholding the glory of the Lord" (vs. 18). There is all the difference in the world between the struggle to fulfill precisely a set of laws, and being so captured by the Spirit of Christ as to be transformed "into his likeness" (vs. 18).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/2-corinthians-3.html.
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