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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 3

McGarvey's Commentaries on Selected BooksMcGarvey'S Commentaries

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Verse 1

[The closing verse of chapter two are capable of being construed as an outburst of self-laudation, and as the apostle well knew that his enemies at Corinth accused him of this very vice, and hence would make the most of words susceptible of misconstruction, he anticipates their move by discussing not only his words, but the whole subject of this (apparent) self-glorying.] Are we beginning again [for places where he might be construed as having done so before, see 1 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Corinthians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Corinthians 4:14-16; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 9:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:15; 1 Corinthians 9:19; 1 Corinthians 9:26-27; 1 Corinthians 14:18; 1 Corinthians 16:10] to commend ourselves? or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you? [These questions are cuttingly ironical. Evidently his opponents at Corinth had come thither with letters of commendation, either from brethren of repute, or from churches, and had drawn disparaging contrasts between their own formal, official, letter-proved standing in the church, and what they were pleased to describe as Paul’s self-asserted, self-manufactured, boast-sustained standing. The apostle therefore turns the edge of their own weapon against them, and shows how ridiculous their claims to reverence and respect were in comparison with his own. Such powerless creatures needed letters of commendation--it was all they had to commend them! Without letters they would be utter nobodies. But the letter which was the top of their honor did not rise to the level of the bottom of the apostle’s honor. For himself how ridiculous such letters would be! Could he bring a letter to them? it would be like a father seeking introduction and commendation to his own children. Could he ask a letter from them? why, all the knowledge, grace, etc., which made them capable of commending had come from him, their founder, so that their commendation would, after all, be only another form of self-commendation. Could they think that he overpraised himself to them, hoping thus to cozen them into giving him exaggerated, undeserved commendation to others ? Very early the churches learned to grant letters of commendation. See Romans 16:1; Acts 18:27; Acts 15:25; Colossians 4:10; Titus 3:13; but such commendation was always fallible, and liable therefore to abuse-- Galatians 1:7; Galatians 2:12]

Verse 2

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

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. [Do we need an epistle to any one? Surely not while you exist as a church which we have founded, for ye are our epistle copied by the hand of love in our hearts, so that everywhere we go your conversion vouches for us, that we are true messengers of God. For as men learn of you, either by acquaintance with you as the original epistle, or from what our own heart’s copy holds recorded about you, it becomes manifest to them that ye are an epistle of which Christ is the author and dictator; of which I am the amanuensis, or earthly penman; of which the fleshly tables of the heart--the very sources of life itself--are that which receives and holds the message; and the Holy Spirit, the means employed to convey, impress, and make abiding the message. All men, seeing your transformed lives, read you as such an epistle; and as ye are my fruit in the Lord, so they need no other commendation of me (Matthew 7:16). The presentation of life under the figure of a writing was familiar to Old Testament readers (Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33; Proverbs 3:3; Proverbs 7:3). Some have thought that Paul uses the contrast between stone and heart as a reference to Ezekiel 36:26; but his use of the word "tables," and the context, forbids such a reference. Paul has the tables of the law in mind, and introduces the idea here that he may lead up to the comparison which begins at 2 Corinthians 3:6]

Verse 4

And such confidence have we through Christ to God-ward:

Verse 5

not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God;

Verse 6

who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit [i. e., not a minister of the old, legal dispensation, but of the new, spiritual dispensation]: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. [And I have such bold assurance through Christ that God will thus consider you to be my epistle. Not that I am sufficient of myself to account myself as having truly done any part of that which makes you an epistle, save as I have received the power from God. The truth which, written in your hearts, has thus transformed you, is wholly of God; so that our ability or sufficiency to write such an epistle as ye are, is all from God, who made us thus sufficient by calling us to be ministers of that new covenant which performs such wonders of regeneration, instead of calling us to be (as my Judaizing opponents ever seek to coerce me to be) a minister of the old covenant. This old covenant was given in letters graven on stone, and hence was a law of letters governing us wholly from without. But the new covenant, though also committed to writing, and hence in a sense external to us, is a code of principles governing us from within, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This law of letters without could only bring upon us condemnation and death (Romans 7:7-11; 1 Corinthians 15:56); but this law of the spirit within us (2 Corinthians 3:2) gives us life (Romans 2:27-29; Romans 6:4; Romans 6:11; Romans 8:2; Romans 8:10-11; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Galatians 5:18). 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 those two great dispensations, Jewish and Christian. That perversion of the passage which gave it the former meaning, has been used to countenance those baneful allegorical interpretations of Scripture which have been the pest of the church from the days of Origen to the present time. Having shown that the minister of the new covenant had a power not enjoyed by that of the old, Paul proceeds to show that he likewise has a glory (and Paul’s enemies were criticizing him for glorying) not enjoyed by any minister of the old dispensation; no, not even by Moses himself.]

Verse 7

But if the ministration of death, written [literally, "in letters"], and engraven on stones, came [was introduced] with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look stedfastly upon the face of Moses for the glory of his face [Exodus 34:29-35]; which glory was passing away:

Verse 8

how shall not rather the ministration of the spirit be with glory?

Verse 9

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

Verse 10

For verily that which hath been made glorious hath not been made glorious in this respect, by reason of the glory that surpasseth.

Verse 11

For if that which passeth away was with glory, much more that which remaineth is in glory. [If the old covenant which brought death glorified its introducing minister, so that the face of Moses shone as he brought it from God to the people, and glowed so resplendently that the children of Israel could not look steadily at him (though we should note in passing that this glory was of a temporary, evanescent nature); is it not more to be expected that the initiatory ministers of that new covenant which brings life shall be glorified? For if there was glory in ministering under that covenant which brought condemnation, much more is there glory in ministering under that which brings justification through righteousness. For even though the old covenant was made glorious it had no glory in respect to or comparison with the new covenant by reason of the excelling glory of the latter. For if that which was outshone is glorious, much more is that glorious which outshines it and continues to obscure it. Paul’s language suggests the rising sun. Before he comes the stars seem glorious, yet they have no glory in comparison with him. If they are glorious, much more is the king of day glorious, who, by his superior brightness, reminds all their glittering orbs to darkness.]

Verse 12

Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech,

Verse 13

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:

Verse 14

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.

Verse 15

But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart.

Verse 16

But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. [The word "end" in 2 Corinthians 3:13 is the bone of contention in this passage. It has two meanings: (1) The termination or stopping-point. (2) The purpose, design or ultimate result. Macknight, Alford and others give it the first meaning, and construe Paul as saying that Moses covered his face that the children of Israel might not see the termination of the glory, as it faded from his face. But this construction limits the typical concealment to the mere fact that the Mosaic dispensation was to pass away, and is not large enough for Paul’s thought, as is shown by the context. Cameron, Barnes, etc., give it the second meaning, which we have embodied in the following paraphrase: "In dealing with the glory of our ministration we do not veil our meaning in types and shadows, as Moses showed that he did with his ministration, when he typically concealed the glory of his face by putting a veil upon it. He concealed the meaning of his ministration that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on Christ, the end or fulfillment of that dispensation or law which was typically passing away in the fading glory of Moses’ face (now, Christ is thus the end of Moses’ law-- Romans 10:4); but the true hindrance was not the typical veil worn by Moses, but the real veil on the minds of the people, who were dull of understanding and sinfully hardened, so that from the very beginning they understood not his dispensation, nor do they yet, for even now when the law is read the great truth is not revealed to them that it is all done away, having ended in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil is upon their heart, and they do not see that Moses preaches Christ. But whensoever the Jewish nation shall turn to the Lord, then the veil is taken away, and they see that the end or purpose of the law is to lead to Christ."-- Galatians 3:24]

Verse 17

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

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. [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. Those living under Moses, as I have said, are veiled so that they can not see Christ in their dispensation, but all we who live under the new covenant see the glory of Christ with unveiled faces as he is mirrored in that new covenant--our dispensation; and our faces, like that of Moses, are transformed at the sight, reflecting the glory of what we see even as the glory shines upon us from the Lord, who is indeed the very covenant itself. However, none of the ministers of Christ, not even the apostles (2 Corinthians 5:16), continually beheld Christ glorified as an objective reality, for it is only in our future state that we shall thus look upon him, and that look will fully effect the transformation into his likeness which our knowledge of him in the gospel has been slowly working out within us during our earthly life-- John 17:24; 1 John 3:2; Colossians 3:3-4; Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:12-14; Colossians 1:27]

Bibliographical Information
McGarvey, J. W. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3". "J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on Acts". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/oca/2-corinthians-3.html. Transylvania Printing and Publishing Co. Lexington, KY. 1872.
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