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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Corinthians 3

 

 

Verses 1-3

Chapter 8

LIVING EPISTLES.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (R.V)

"ARE we beginning again to commend ourselves?" Paul does not mean by these words to admit that he had been commending himself before: he means that he has been accused already of doing so, and that there are those at Corinth who, when they hear such passages of this letter as that which has just preceded, will be ready to repeat the accusation. In the First Epistle he had found it necessary to vindicate his apostolic authority, and especially his interest in the Corinthian Church as its spiritual father, [1 Corinthians 9:1-27; 1 Corinthians 4:6-21] and obviously his enemies at Corinth had tried to turn these personal passages against him. They did so on the principle Qui s’excuse s’accuse. "He is commending himself," they said, "and self-commendation is an argument which discredits, instead of supporting, a cause." The Apostle had heard of these malicious speeches, and in this Epistle makes repeated reference to them. {see 2 Corinthians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 10:18; 2 Corinthians 13:6} He entirely agreed with his opponents that self-praise was no honor. "Not he who commendeth himself is approved, but he whom the Lord commendeth." But he denied point-blank that he was commending himself. In distinguishing as he had done in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 between himself and his colleagues, who spoke the Word "as of sincerity, as of God, in the sight of God," and "the many" who corrupted it, nothing was further from his mind than to plead his cause, as a suspected person, with the Corinthians. Only malignity could suppose any such thing, and the indignant question with which the chapter opens tacitly accuses his adversaries of this hateful vice. It is pitiful to see a great and generous spirit like Paul compelled thus to stand upon guard, and watch against the possible misconstruction of every lightest word. What needless pain it inflicts upon him, what needless humiliation! How it checks all effusion of feeling, and robs what should be brotherly intercourse of everything that can make it free and glad! Further on in the Epistle there will be abundant opportunity of speaking on this subject at greater length; but it is proper to remark here that a minister’s character is the whole capital he has for carrying on his business, and that nothing can be more cruel and wicked than to cast suspicion on it without cause. In most other callings a man may go on, no matter what his character, provided his balance at the bank is on the right side; but an evangelist or a pastor who has lost his character has lost everything. It is humiliating to be subject to suspicion, painful to be silent under it, degrading to speak. At a later stage Paul was compelled to go further than he goes here; but let the indignant emotion of this abrupt question remind us that candor is to be met with candor, and that the suspicious temper which would fain malign the good eats like a canker the very heart of those who cherish it.

From the serious tone the Apostle passes suddenly to the ironical. "Or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you?" The "some" of this verse are probably the same as "the many" of 2 Corinthians 2:17. Persons had come to Corinth in the character of Christian teachers, bringing with them recommendatory letters which secured their standing when they arrived. An example of what is meant can be seen in Acts 18:27. There we are told that when Apollos, who had been working in Ephesus, was minded to pass over into Achaia, the Ephesian brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him-that is, they gave him an epistle of commendation, which secured him recognition and welcome in Corinth. A similar case is found in Romans 16:1, where the Apostle uses the very word which we have here: "I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the Church that is at Cenchreae: that ye receive her in the Lord, worthily of the saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever matter she may have need of you: for she herself also hath been a succorer of many, and of mine own self." This was Phoebe’s introduction, or epistle of commendation, to the Church of Rome. The Corinthians were evidently in the habit both of receiving such letters from other Churches, and of granting them on their own account; and Paul asks them ironically if they think he ought to bring one, or when he leaves them to apply for one. Is that the relation which ought to obtain between him and them? The "some," to whom he refers, had no doubt come from Jerusalem: it is they who are referred to in 2 Corinthians 11:22 ff. But it does not follow that their recommendatory letters had been signed by Peter, James, and John; and just as little that those letters justified them in their hostility to Paul. No doubt there were many-many myriads, the Book of Acts says-at Jerusalem, whose conception of the Gospel was very different from his and who were glad to counteract him whenever they could; but there were many also, including the three who seemed to be pillars, who had a thoroughly good understanding with him, and who had no responsibility for the "some" and their doings. The epistles which the "some" brought were plainly such as the Corinthians themselves could grant, and it is a complete misinterpretation to suppose that they were a commission granted by the Twelve for the persecution of Paul.

The giving of recommendatory letters is a subject of considerable practical interest. When they are merely formal, as in our certificates of Church membership, they come to mean very little. It is an unhappy state of affairs perhaps, but no one would take a certificate of Church membership by itself as a satisfactory recommendation. And when we go past the merely formal, difficult questions arise. Many people have an estimate of their own character and competence, in which it is impossible for others to share, and yet they apply without misgiving to their friends, and especially to their minister or their employer, to grant them "epistles of commendation." We are bound to be generous in these things, but we are bound also to be honest. The rule which ought to guide us, especially in all that belongs to the Church and its work, is the interest of the cause, and not of the worker. To flatter is to do a wrong, not only to the person flattered, but to the cause in which you are trying to employ him. There is no more ludicrous reading in the world than a bundle of certificates, or testimonials, as they are called. As a rule, they certify nothing but the total absence of judgment and conscience in the people who have granted them. If you do not know whether a person is qualified for any given situation or not, you do not need to say anything about it. If you know he is not, and he asks you to say that he is, no personal consideration must keep you from kindly but firmly declining. I am not preaching suspicion, or reserve, or anything ungenerous, but justice and truth. It is wicked to betray a great interest by bespeaking it for incompetent hands; it is cruel to put any one into a place for which he is unfit. Where you are confident that the man and the work will be well matched, be as generous as you please; but never forget that the work is to be considered in the first place, and the man only in the second.

Paul has been serious, and ironical, in the first verse; in 2 Corinthians 3:2 he becomes serious again, and remains so. "You," he says, answering his ironical question, "you are our epistle." Epistle, of course, is to be taken in the sense of the preceding verse. "You are the commendatory letter which I show, when I am asked for my credentials." But to whom does he show it? In the first instance, to the captious Corinthians themselves. The tone of 2 Corinthians 9:1-15. in the First Epistle is struck here again: "Wherever I may need recommendations, it is certainly not at Corinth." "If I be not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you: the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord." Had they been a Christian community when he first visited them, they might have asked who he was; but they owed their Christianity to him; he was their father in Christ; to put him to the question in this superior, suspicious style was unnatural, unfilial ingratitude. They themselves were the living evidence of the very thing which they threw doubt upon-the apostleship of Paul.

This bold utterance may well excite misgivings in those who preach constantly, yet see no result of their work. It is common to disparage success, the success of visible acknowledged conversions, of bad men openly renouncing badness, bearing witness against themselves, and embracing a new life. It is common to glorify the ministry which works on, patient and uncomplaining, in one monotonous round, ever sowing, but never reaping, ever casting the net, but never drawing in the fish, ever marking time, but never advancing. Paul frankly and repeatedly appeals to his success in evangelistic work as the final and sufficient proof that God had called him, and had given him authority as an apostle; and search as we will, we shall not find any test so good and unequivocal at this success. Paul had seen the Lord; he was qualified to be a witness of the Resurrection; but these, at the very most, were his own affair, till the witness he bore had proved its power in the hearts and consciences of others. How to provide, to train, and to test the men who are to be the ministers of the Christian Church is a matter of the very utmost consequence, to which sufficient attention has not yet been given. Congregations which choose their own pastor are often compelled to take a man quite untried, and to judge him more or less on superficial grounds. They can easily find out whether he is a competent scholar; they can see for themselves what are his gifts of speech, his virtues or defects of manner; they can get such an impression as sensible people always get, by seeing and hearing a man, of the general earnestness or lack of earnestness in his character. But often they feel that more is wanted. It is not exactly more in the way of character; the members of a Church have no right to expect that their minister will be a truer Christian than they themselves are. A special inquisition into his conversion, or his religious experience, is mere hypocrisy; if the Church is not sufficiently in earnest to guard herself against insincere members, she must take the risk of insincere ministers. What is wanted is what the Apostle indicates here-that intimation of God’s concurrence which is given through success in evangelistic work. No other intimation of God’s concurrence is infallible-no call by a congregation, no ordination by a presbytery or by a bishop. Theological education is easily provided, and easily tested; but it will not be so easy to introduce the reforms which are needed in this direction. Great masses of Christian people, however, are becoming alive to the necessity for them; and when the pressure is more strongly felt, the way for action will be discovered. Only those who can appeal to what they have done in the Gospel can be known to have the qualifications of Gospel ministers; and in due time the fact will be frankly recognized.

The conversion and new life of the Corinthians were Paul’s certificate as an apostle. They were a certificate known, he says, and read by all men. Often there is a certain awkwardness in the presenting of credentials. It embarrasses a man when he has to put his hand into his breast pocket, and take out his character, and submit it for inspection. Paul was saved this embarrassment. There was a fine unsought publicity about his testimonials. Everybody knew what the Corinthians had been, everybody knew what they were; and the man to whom the change was due needed no other recommendation to a Christian society. Whoever looked at them saw plainly that they were an epistle of Christ; the mind of Christ could be read upon them, and it had been written by the intervention of Paul’s hand. This is an interesting though a well-worn conception of the Christian character. Every life has a meaning, we say, every face is a record; but the text goes further. The life of the Christian is an epistle; it has not only a meaning, but an address; it is a message from Christ to the world. Is Christ’s message to men legible on our lives? When those who are without look at us, do they see the hand of Christ quite unmistakably? Does it ever occur to anybody that there is something in our life which is not of the world, but which is a message to the world from Christ? Did you ever, startled by the unusual brightness of a true Christian’s life, ask as it were involuntarily, "Whose image and superscription is this?" and feel as you asked it that these features, these characters, could only have been traced by one hand, and that they proclaimed to all the grace and power of Jesus Christ? Christ wishes so to write upon us that men may see what He does for man. He wishes to engrave His image on our nature, that all spectators may feel that it has a message for them, and may crave the same favor. A congregation which is not in its very existence and in all its works and ways a legible epistle, an unmistakable message from Christ to man, does not answer to this New Testament ideal.

Paul claims no part here but that of Christ’s instrument. The Lord, so to speak, dictated the letter, and he wrote it. The contents of it were prescribed by Christ, and through the Apostle’s ministry became visible and legible in the Corinthians. More important is it to notice with what the writing was done: "not with ink," says St. Paul, "but with the Spirit of the living God." At first sight this contrast seems formal and fantastic; nobody, we think, could ever dream of making either of these things do the work of the other, so that it seems perfectly gratuitous in Paul to say, "not with ink, but with the Spirit." Yet ink is sometimes made to bear a great deal of responsibility. The characters of the τινες ("some") in 2 Corinthians 3:1. were only written in ink; they had nothing, Paul implies, to recommend them but these documents in black and white. That was hardly sufficient to guarantee their authority, or their competence as ministers in the Christian dispensation. But do not Churches yet accept their ministers with the same inadequate testimonials? A distinguished career at the University, or in the Divinity Schools, proves that a man can write with ink, under favorable circumstances; it does not prove more than that; it does not prove that he will be spiritually effective, and everything else is irrelevant. I do not say this to disparage the professional training of ministers; on the contrary, the standard of training ought to be higher than it is in all the Churches: I only wish to insist that nothing which can be represented in ink, no learning, no literary gifts, no critical acquaintance with the Scriptures even, can write upon human nature the Epistle of Christ. To do that needs "the Spirit of the living God." We feel, the moment we come upon those words, that the Apostle is anticipating; he has in view already the contrast he is going to develop between the old dispensation and the new, and the irresistible inward power by which the new is characterized. Others might boast of qualifications to preach which could be certified in due documentary form, but he carried in him wherever he went a power which was its own witness, and which overruled and dispensed with every other. Let all of us who teach or preach concentrate our interest here. It is in "the Spirit of the living God," not in any requirements of our own, still less in any recommendations of others, that our serviceableness as ministers of Christ lies. We cannot write His epistle without it. We cannot see, let us be as diligent and indefatigable in our work as we please, the image of Christ gradually come out in those to whom we minister. Parents, teachers, preachers, this is the one thing needful for us all. "Tarry," said Jesus to the first evangelists, "tarry in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high" it is of no use to begin without that.

This idea of the "epistle" has taken such a hold of the Apostle’s mind, and he finds it so suggestive whichever way he turns it, that he really tries to say too much about it in one sentence. The crowding of his ideas is confusing. One learned critic enumerates three points in which the figure becomes inconsistent with itself, and another can only defend the Apostle by saying that this figurative letter might well have qualities which would be self-contradictory in a real one. This kind of criticism smells a little of ink, and the only real difficulty in the sentence has never misled any one who read it with sympathy. It is this-that St. Paul speaks of the letter as written in two different places. "Ye are an epistle," he says at the beginning, "written in our hearts"; but at the end he says, "written not on tables of stone, but on tables that are hearts of flesh"-meaning evidently on the hearts of the Corinthians. Of course this last is the sense which coheres with the figure. Paul’s ministry wrote the Epistle of Christ upon the Corinthians, or, if we prefer it, wrought such a change in their hearts that they became an epistle of Christ, an epistle to which he appealed in proof of his apostolic calling. In expressing himself as he does about this, he is again anticipating the coming contrast of Law and Gospel. Nobody would think of writing a letter on tables of stone, and he only says "not on stone tables" because he has in his mind the difference between the Mosaic and the Christian dispensation. It is quite out of place to refer to Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26, and to drag in the contrast between hard and tender hearts. What Paul means is that the Epistle of Christ is not written on dead matter, but on human nature, and that too at its finest and deepest. When we remember the sense of depth and inwardness which attaches to the heart in Scripture, it is not forcing the words to find in them the suggestion that the Gospel works no merely outward change. It is not written on the surface, but in the soul. The Spirit of the living God finds access for itself to the secret places of the human spirit; the most hidden recesses of our nature are open to it, and the very heart is made new. To be able to write there for Christ, to point not to anything dead, but to living men and women, not to anything superficial, but to a change that has reached the very core of man’s being, and works its way out from thence, is the testimonial which guarantees the evangelist; it is the divine attestation that he is in the true apostolical succession.

What, then, does Paul mean by the other clause "ye are our epistle, written on our hearts?" I do not think we can get much more than an emotional certainty about this expression. When a man has been an intensely interested spectator, still more an intensely interested actor, in any great affair, he might say afterwards that the whole thing and all its circumstances were engraved upon his heart. I imagine that is what St. Paul means here. The conversion of the Corinthians made them an epistle of Christ: in making them believers through St. Paul’s ministry, Christ wrote on their hearts what was really an epistle to the world; and the whole transaction, in which Paul’s feelings had been deeply engaged, stood written on his heart for ever. Interpretations that go beyond this do not seem to me to be justified by the words. Thus Heinrici and Meyer say, "We have in our own consciousness the certainty of being recommended to you by yourselves and to others by you"; and they elucidate this by saying, "The Apostle’s own good consciousness was, as it were, the tablet on which this living epistle of the Corinthians stood, and that had to be left unassailed even by the most malevolent." A sense so pragmatical and pedantic, even if one can grasp it at all, is surely out of place, and many readers will fail to discover it in the text. What the words do convey is the warm love of the Apostle, who had exercised his ministry among the Corinthians with all the passion of his nature, and who still bore on his ardent heart the fresh impression of his work and its results.

Amid all these details let us take care not to lose the one great lesson of the passage. Christian people owe a testimony to Christ. His name has been pronounced over them, and all who look at them ought to see His nature. We should discern in the heart and in the behavior of Christians the handwriting, let us say the characters, not of avarice, of suspicion, of envy, of lust, of falsehood, of pride, but of Christ. It is to us He has committed Himself; we are the certification to men of what He does for man; His character is in our care. The true epistles of Christ to the world are not those which are expounded in pulpits; they are not even the gospels in which Christ Himself lives and moves before us; they are living men and women, on the tables of whose hearts the Spirit of the living God, ministered by a true evangelist, has engraved the likeness of Christ Himself. It is not the written Word on which Christianity ultimately depends; it is not the sacraments, nor so-called necessary institutions: it is this inward, spiritual, Divine writing which is the guarantee of all else.


Verses 4-11

Chapter 9

THE TWO COVENANTS.

2 Corinthians 3:4-11 (R.V)

THE confidence referred to in the opening of this passage is that which underlies the triumphant Sentences at the end of the second chapter. The tone of those sentences was open to misinterpretation, and Paul guards himself against this on two sides. To begin with, his motive in so expressing himself was quite pure: he had no thought of commending himself to the Corinthians. And, again, the ground of his confidence was not in himself. The courage which he had to speak as he did he had through Jesus Christ, and that, too, in relation to God. It was virtually confidence in God, and therefore inspired by God.

It is this last aspect of his confidence which is expanded in the fifth verse: "not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God." This vehement disclaimer of any self-sufficiency has naturally been taken in the widest sense, and theologians from Augustine downward have found in it one of the most decisive proofs of the inability of man for any spiritual good accompanying salvation. No one, we may be sure, would have ascribed salvation, and all spiritual good accompanying it, entirely to God with more hearty sincerity than the Apostle; but it does seem better here to give his words a narrower and more relevant interpretation. The "sufficiency to account anything," of which he speaks, must have a definite meaning for the context; and this meaning is suggested by the words of 2 Corinthians 2:14-17. Paul would never have dared, he tells us-indeed, he would never have been able-on his own motion, and out of his own resources, either to form conclusions, or to express them, on the subjects there in view. It is not for any man at random to say what the true Gospel is, what are its issues, what the responsibilities of its hearers or preachers, what is the spirit requisite in the evangelist, or what are the methods legitimate for him. The Gospel is God’s concern, and only those who have been capacitated by Him are entitled to speak as Paul has spoken. If this is a narrower sense than that which is expounded so vigorously by Calvin, it is more pertinent, and some will find it quite as pungent. Of all things that are done hastily and inconsiderately, by people calling themselves Christian, the criticism of evangelists is one of the most conspicuous. At his own prompting, out of his own wise head, any man almost will both make up his mind and speak his mind about any preacher with no sense of responsibility whatever. Paul certainly did form opinions about preachers, opinions which were anything but flattering; but he did it through Jesus Christ and in relation to God; he did it because, as he writes, God had made him sufficient, i.e., had given him capacity to be, and the capacity of, a true evangelist, so that he knew both what the Gospel was, and how it ought to be proclaimed. It would silence much incompetent, because self-sufficient, criticism, if no one "thought anything" who had not this qualification.

The qualification having been mentioned, the Apostle proceeds, as usual, to enlarge upon it. "Our sufficiency is of God; who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of letter, but of spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." At the first glance, we see no reason why his thought should take this direction, and it can only be because those whom he is opposing, and with whom he has contrasted himself in 2 Corinthians 2:17, are in some sense representatives of the old covenant, ministers of the letter in spite of their claim to be evangelists, and appealing not to a competency which came from God, but to one which rested on "the flesh." They based their title to preach on certain advantages of birth, or on having known Jesus when He lived in the world, or perhaps on certification by others who had known Him; at all events, not on that spiritual competence which Paul’s ministry at Corinth had shown him to possess. That this was really the case will be seen more fully at a later stage (especially in 2 Corinthians 10:1-18. ff.).

With the words "ministers of a new covenant" we enter upon one of the great passages in St. Paul’s writings, and are allowed to see one of the inspiring and governing ideas in his mind. "Covenant," even to people familiar with the Bible, is beginning to be a remote and technical term; it needs to be translated or explained. If no more than another word is to be used, perhaps "dispensation" or "constitution" would suggest something. God’s covenant with Israel was the whole constitution under which God was the God of Israel, and Israel the people of God. The new covenant of which Paul speaks necessarily implies an old one; and the old one is this covenant with Israel. It was a national covenant, and for that, among other reasons, it was represented and embodied in legal forms. There was a legal constitution under which the nation lived, and according to which all God’s dealings with it, and all its dealings with God, were regulated. Without entering more deeply, in the meantime, into the nature of this constitution, or the religious experiences which were possible to those who lived under it, it is sufficient to notice that the best spirits in the nation became conscious of its inadequacy, and eventually of its failure. Jeremiah, who lived through the long agony of his country’s dissolution, and saw the final collapse of the ancient order, felt this failure most deeply, and was consoled by the vision of a brighter future. That future rested for him on a more intimate relation of God to His people, on a constitution, as we may fairly paraphrase his words, less legal and more spiritual. "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more." This wonderful passage, so profound, so spiritual, so evangelical, is the utmost reach of prophecy; it is a sort of stepping-stone between the Old Testament and the New. Jeremiah has cried to God out of the depths, and God has heard his cry, and raised him to a spiritual height from which his eye ranges over the land of promise, and rests with yearning on all its grandest features. We do not know whether many of his contemporaries or successors were able to climb the mount which offered this glorious prospect; but we know that the promise remained a promise - a rainbow light across the dark cloud of national disaster-till Christ claimed its fulfillment as His work. It was His to make good all that the prophets had spoken; and when in the last hours of His life He said to His disciples, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is shed for many, for the remission of sins," it was exactly as if He had laid His Hand on that passage of Jeremiah, and said. "This day is this scripture fulfilled before your eyes." By the death of Jesus a new spiritual order was established; it rested on the forgiveness of sin, it made God accessible to all, it made obedience an instinct and a joy; all the intercourse of God and man was carried on upon a new footing, under a new constitution; to use the words of the prophet and the apostle, God made a new covenant with His people.

Among the Christians of the first age, no one so thoroughly appreciated the newness of Christianity, or was so immensely impressed by it, as St. Paul. The difference between the earlier dispensation and the later, between the religion of Moses’ disciples and the religion of believers in Jesus Christ, was one that could hardly be exaggerated; he himself had been a zealot of the old, he was now a zealot of the new; and the gulf between his former and his present self was one that no geometry could measure. He had lived after the straitest sect of the old religion, a Pharisee; touching the righteousness which is in the law he could call himself blameless; he had tasted the whole bitterness of the legalism, the formality, the bondage, in which the old covenant entangled those who were devoted to it in his days. It is with this in his memory that he here sets the old and the new in unrelieved opposition to each other. His feeling is like that of a man who has just been liberated from prison, and whose whole mind is possessed and filled up with the single sensation that it is one thing to be chained, and another thing to be free. In the passage before us, this is all the Apostle has in view. He speaks as if the old covenant and the new had nothing in common, as if the new, to borrow Baur’s expression, had merely a negative relation to "the old," as if it could only be contrasted with it, and not compared to it, or illustrated by it. And with this restricted view he characterizes the old dispensation as one of letter, and the new as one of spirit. Speaking out of his own experience, which was not solitary, but typical, he could truly speak thus. The essence of the old, to a Pharisee born and bred, was its documentary, statutory character: the law, written in letters, on stone tablets or parchment sheets, simply confronted men with its uninspiring imperative; it had never yet given any one a good conscience or enabled him to attain to the righteousness of God. The essence of the new, on the other hand, was spirit; the Christian was one in whom, through Christ, the Holy Spirit of God dwelt, putting the righteousness of God within his reach, enabling him to perfect holiness in God’s fear. The contrast is made absolute, pro tem. There is no "spirit" in the old at all; there is no "letter" in the new. This last assertion was more natural then than now; for at the time when Paul wrote this Epistle, there was no "New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" consigned in documents and collected for the use of the Church. The Gospel existed in the world, not at all in books, but only in men; all the epistles were living epistles; there was literally no letter, but only spirit.

This, doubtless, is the explanation of the blank antithesis of the old covenant and the new in the passage before us. But it is obvious, when we think of it, that this antithesis does not exhaust the relations of the two. It is not the whole truth about the earlier dispensation to say that, while the new is spiritual, it is not. The religion of the Old Testament was not mere legalism; if it had been, the Old Testament would be for us an unprofitable and almost an unintelligible book. That religion had its spiritual side, as all but utterly corrupt religions always have; God administered His grace to ‘His people through it, and in psalms and prophecies we have records of their experiences, which are not legal, but spiritual, and priceless even to Christian men. Nor would Paul, under other circumstances, have refused to admit this; on the contrary, it is a prominent element in his teaching. He knows that the old bears in its bosom the promise of the new, a sum of promises that has been confirmed and made good in Jesus Christ. [2 Corinthians 1:20] He knows that the righteousness of God, which is proclaimed in the Gospel, is witnessed to by the law and, the prophets. [Romans 3:21] He knows that the law, even, is "spiritual." [Romans 7:14] He knows that the righteousness of faith was a secret revealed to David. {Romans 4:6 f.} He would probably have agreed with Stephen that the oracles received and delivered by Moses in the wilderness were "living" oracles; and his profound mind would have thrilled to hear that great word of Jesus, "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." Had be lived to a time like ours, when the Gospel also has been embodied in a book, instead of using "letter" and "spirit" as mutually exclusive, he would have admitted, as we do, that both ideas apply, in some sense, to both dispensations, and that it is possible to take the old and the new alike either in the letter or in the spirit. Nevertheless, he would have been entitled to say that, if they were to be characterized in their differences, they must be characterized as he has done it: the mark of the old, as opposed to the new, is literalism, or legalism; the mark of the new, as opposed to the old, is spirituality, or freedom. They differ as law differs from life, as compulsion from inspiration. Taken thus, no one can have any difficulty in agreeing with him.

But the Apostle does not rest in generalities: he goes on to a more particular comparison of the old and the new dispensations, and especially to a demonstration that the new is the more glorious. He starts with a statement of their working, as dependent on their nature just described. One is letter; the other, spirit. Well, the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. A sentence so pregnant as this, and so capable of various applications, must have been very perplexing to the Corinthians, had they not been fairly acquainted beforehand with the Apostle’s "form of doctrine". [Romans 6:17] It condenses in itself a whole cycle of his characteristic thoughts. All that he says in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians about the working of the law, in its relation to the flesh, is represented in "the letter killeth." The power of the law to create the consciousness of sin and to intensify it; to stimulate transgression, and so make sin exceeding sinful, and shut men up in despair; to pass sentence upon the guilty, the hopeless sentence of death, -all this is involved in the words. The fullness of meaning is as ample in "the spirit giveth life." The Spirit of Christ, given to those who receive Christ in the Gospel, is an infinite power and an infinite promise. It includes the reversal of all that the letter has wrought. The sentence of death is reversed; the impotence to good is counteracted and’ overcome; the soul looks out to, and anticipates, not the blackness of darkness for ever, but the everlasting glory of Christ. When the Apostle has written these two little sentences-when he has supplied "letter" and "spirit" with the predicates "kill" and "make alive," in the sense which they bear in the Christian revelation-he has gone as far as the mind of man can go in stating an effective contrast. But he works it out with reference to some special points in which the superiority of the new to the old is to be observed.

(1) In the first place, the ministry of the old was a ministry of death. Even as such it had a glory, or splendor, of its own. The face of Moses, its great minister, shone after he had been in the presence of God; and though that brightness was passing away even as men caught sight of it ( τὴν καταργουμένην is partic. impf.), it was so resplendent as to dazzle the beholders. But the ministry of the new is a ministry of spirit: and who would not argue a fortiori that it should appear in glory greater still? Both the μαλλον ("rather"), and the future ( εσται) in 2 Corinthians 3:8, are logical. Paul speaks, to use Bengel’s expression, looking forward, as it were, from the Old Testament into the New. He does not say in what the glory of the New consists. He does not say that it is veiled at present, and will be manifested when Christ comes to transfigure His own. Even the use of "hope" in 2 Corinthians 3:12 does not prove this. He leaves it quite indefinite; and arguing from the nature of the two ministries, which has just been explained, simply concludes that in glory the new must far transcend the old.

(2) In vv. 9 and 10 [2 Corinthians 3:9-10] he puts a new point upon this. "Death" and "life" are here replaced by "condemnation" and "righteousness." It is through condemnation that man becomes the prey of death; and the grace which reigns in him to eternal life reigns through righteousness. [Romans 5:21] The contrast of these two words is very significant for Paul’s conception of the Gospel: it shows how essential to his idea of righteousness, how fundamental in it, is the thought of acquittal or acceptance with God. Men are bad men, sinful men, under God’s condemnation; and he cannot conceive a Gospel at all which does not announce, at the very outset, the removal of that condemnation, and a declaration in the sinner’s favor. Perhaps there are other ways of conceiving men, and other aspects in which God can come to them as their Savior; but the Pauline Gospel has proved itself, and will always prove itself anew, the Gospel for the sinful, who know the misery of condemnation and despair. Mere pardon, as it has been called, may be a meager conception, but it is that without which no other Christian conception can exist for a moment. That which lies at the bottom of the new covenant, and supports all its magnificent promises and hopes, is this: "I will forgive their iniquities, and 1 will remember their sins no more." If we could imagine this taken away, what were left? Of course the righteousness which the Gospel proclaims more than pardon; it is not exhausted when we say it is the opposite of condemnation; but unless we feel that the very nerve of it lies in the removal of condemnation, we shall never understand the New Testament tone in speaking of it. It is this which explains the joyous rebound of the Apostle’s spirit whenever he encounters the subject; he remembers the black cloud, and now there is clear shining; he was under sentence then, but now he is justified by faith, and has peace with God. He cannot exaggerate the contrast, nor the greater glory of the new state. Granting that the ministry of condemnation had its glory-that the revelation of law "had an austere majesty of its own"-does not the ministry of righteousness, the Gospel which annulled the condemnation and restored man to peace with God, overflow with glory? When he thinks of it, he is tempted to withdraw the concession he has made. We may call the old dispensation and its ministry glorious if we like; they are glorious when they stand alone; but when comparison is made with the new, they are not glorious at all. The stars are bright till the moon rises: the moon herself reigns in heaven till her splendor pales before the sun; but when the sun shines in his strength, there is no other glory in the sky. All the glories of the old covenant have vanished for Paul in the light which shines from the Cross and from the Throne of Christ.

(3) A final superiority belongs to the new dispensation and its ministry as compared with the old-the superiority of permanence to transiency. "If that which passeth away was with glory, much more that which remaineth is in glory." The verbs here are supplied by the translators, but one may question whether the contrast of past and present was so definite in the Apostle’s mind. I think not, and the reference to Moses’ face does not prove that it was. All through these comparisons St. Paul expresses himself with the utmost generality; logical and ideal, not temporal, relations, dominate his thoughts. The law was given in glory ( ἐγενήθη ἐν δόξῃ, 2 Corinthians 3:7) -there is no dispute about that; but what the eleventh verse makes prominent is that while glory is the attendant or accompaniment of the transient, it is the element of the permanent. The law is indeed of God; it has a function in the economy of God; it is at the very lowest a negative preparation for the Gospel; it shuts men up to the acceptance of God’s mercy. In this respect the glory on Moses’ face represents the real greatness which belongs to the law as a power used by God in the working out of His loving purpose. But at the best the law only shuts men up to Christ, and then its work is done. The true greatness of God is revealed, and with it His true glory, once for all, in the Gospel. There is nothing beyond the righteousness of God, manifested in Christ Jesus, for the acceptance of faith. That is God’s last word to the world: it has absorbed in it even the glory of the law; and it is bright forever with a glory above all other. It is God’s chief end to reveal this glory in the Gospel, and to make men partakers of it; it has been so always, is so still, and ever shall be; and in the consciousness that he has seen and been saved by the eternal love of God, and is now a minister of it, the Apostle claims this finality of the new covenant as its crowning glory. The law, like the lower gifts of the Christian life, passes away; but the new covenant abides, for it is the revelation of love-that love which is the being and the glory of God Himself.

These qualities of the Christian dispensation, which constitute its newness, are too readily lost sight of. It is hard to appreciate and to live up to them, and hence they are always lapsing out of view, and requiring to be rediscovered. In the first age of Christianity there were many myriads of Jews, the Book of Acts tells us, who had very little sense of the newness of the Gospel; they were exceedingly zealous for the law, even for the letter of all its ritual prescriptions: Paul and his spiritual conception of Christianity were their bugbear. In the first half of the second century the religion even of the Gentile Churches had already become more legal than evangelical; there was wanting any sufficient apprehension of the spirituality, the freedom, and the newness of Christianity as opposed to Judaism; and though the reaction of Marcion, who denied that there was any connection whatever between the Old Testament and the New, went to a false and perverse extreme, it was the natural, and in its motives the legitimate, protest of spirit and life against letter and law. The Reformation in the sixteenth century was essentially a movement of similar character: it was the rediscovery of the Pauline Gospel, or of the Gospel in those characteristics of it which made Paul’s heart leap for joy-its justifying righteousness, its spirituality, its liberty. In a Protestant scholasticism this glorious Gospel has again been lost oftener than once; it is lost when "a learned ministry" deals with the New Testament writings as the scribes dealt with the Old; it is lost also-for extremes meet-when an unlearned piety swears by verbal, even by literal, inspiration, and takes up to mere documents an attitude which in principle is fatal to Christianity. It is in the life of the Church-especially in that life which communicates itself, and makes the Christian community what the Jewish never was, essentially a missionary community-that the safeguard of all these high characteristics lies. A Church devoted to learning, or to the maintenance of a social or political position, or even merely to the cultivation of a type of character among its own members, may easily cease to be spiritual, and lapse into legal religion: a Church actively engaged in propagating itself never can. It is not with the "letter" one can hopefully address unbelieving men: it is only with the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the heart; and where the Spirit is, there is liberty. None are so "sound" on the essentials of the faith as men with the truly missionary spirit; but at the same time none are so completely emancipated, and that by the self-same Spirit, from all that is not itself spiritual.


Verses 12-18

Chapter 10

THE TRANSFIGURING SPIRIT

2 Corinthians 3:12-18 (R.V)

THE "hope" which here explains the Apostle’s freedom of speech is to all intents and purposes the same as the "confidence" in 2 Corinthians 3:4. It is much easier to suppose that the word is thus used with a certain latitude, as it might be in English, than to force upon it a reference to the glory to be revealed when Christ comes again, and to give the same future reference to "glory" all through this passage. The new covenant is present, and present in its glory; and though it has a future, with which the Apostle’s hope is bound up, it is not in view of its future only, it is because of what it is even now, that he is so grandly confident, and uses such boldness of speech. It is quite fair to infer from 2 Corinthians 4:3 -"if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those that are perishing"-that Paul’s opponents at Corinth had charged him with behavior of another kind. They had accused him of making a mystery of his Gospel-preaching it in such a fashion that no one could really see it, or understand what he meant. If there is any charge which the true preacher will feel keenly, and resent vehemently, it is this. It is his first duty to deliver his message with a plainness that defies misunderstanding. He is sent to all men on an errand of life or death; and to leave any man wondering, after the message has been delivered, what it is about, is the worst sort of treachery. It belies the Gospel, and God who is its author. It may be due to pride, or to a misguided intention to commend the Gospel to the wisdom or the prejudices of men; but it is never anything else than a fatal mistake.

Paul not only resents the charge; he feels it so acutely that he finds an ingenious way of retorting it. "We," he says, "the ministers of the new covenant, we who preach life, righteousness, and everlasting glory, have nothing to hide; we wish every one to know everything about the dispensation which we serve. It is the representatives of the old who are really open to the charge of using concealment; the first and the greatest of them all, Moses himself, put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel should not look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away. The glory on his face was a fading glory, because it was the glory of a temporary dispensation; but he did not wish the Israelites to see clearly that it was destined to disappear; so he veiled his face, and left them to think the law a permanent divine institution."

Perhaps the best thing to do with this singular interpretation is not to take it too seriously. Even sober expositors like Chrysostom and Calvin have thought it necessary to argue gravely that the Apostle is not accusing the law, or saying anything insulting of Moses; while Schmiedel, on the other hand, insists that a grave moral charge is made against Moses, and that Paul most unjustly uses the Old Testament, in its own despite, to prove its own transitoriness. I believe it would be far truer to say that the character of Moses never crossed Paul’s mind in the whole passage, for better or worse; he only remembered, as he smarted under the accusation of veiling his Gospel of the new covenant, a certain transaction under the old covenant in which a veil did figure-a transaction which a Rabbinical interpretation, whimsical indeed to us, but provoking if not convincing to his adversaries, enabled him to turn against them. As for proving the transitoriness of the Old Testament by a forced and illegitimate argument, that transitoriness was abundantly established to Paul, as it is to us, on real grounds; nothing whatever depends on what is here said of Moses and the veil. It is not necessary, if we take this view, to go into the historical interpretation of the passage in Exodus 34:29-35. The comparison of the Apostle with the Old Testament writer has been made more difficult for the English reader by the serious error in the Authorized Version of Exodus 34:33. Instead of "till Moses had done speaking with them," we ought to read, as in the Revised Version, "when Moses had done speaking." This exactly reverses the meaning. Moses spoke to the people with face bare and radiant; the glory was to be visible at least in his official intercourse with them, or whenever he spoke for God. At other times he wore the veil, putting it off, however, when he went into the tabernacle-that is, whenever he spoke with God. In all divine relations, then, we should naturally infer, there was to be the open and shining face; in other words, so far as he acted as mediator of the old covenant, Moses really acted in the spirit of Paul. It would therefore have been unjust in the Apostle to charge him with hiding anything, if the charge had really meant more than this-that Paul saw in his use of the veil a symbol of the fact that the children of Israel did not see that the old covenant was-transitory, and that its glory was to be lost in that of the new. No one can deny that this was the fact, and no one therefore need be exercised if Paul pictured it in the manner of his own time and race, and not in the manner of ours. To suppose that he means to charge Moses with a deliberate act of dishonesty is to suppose what no sensible person will ever credit; and we may return, without more ado, to the painful situation which he contemplates.

Their minds were hardened. This is stated historically, and seems to refer in the first instance to those who watched Moses put on the veil, and became insensible, as he did so, to the nature of the old covenant. But it is applicable to the Jewish race at all periods of their history; they never discovered the secret which Moses hid from their forefathers beneath the veil. The only result that followed the labors even of great prophets like Isaiah had been tile deepening of the darkness: having eyes the people saw not, having ears they heard not; their heart was fat and heavy, so that they did not apprehend the ways of God nor turn to Him. All around him the Apostle saw the melancholy evidence that there had been no change for the better. Until this day the same veil remains, when the Old Testament is read, not taken away; for it is only undone in Christ, and of Christ they will know nothing. He repeats the sad statement, varying it slightly to indicate that the responsibility for a condition so blind and dreary rests not with the old covenant itself, but with those who live under it. "Until this day, I say, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lies upon their heart."

This witness, we must acknowledge, is almost as true in the nineteenth century as in the first. The Jews still exist as a race and a sect, acknowledging the Old Testament as a revelation from God, basing their religion upon it, keeping their ancient law so far as circumstances enable them to keep it, not convinced that as a religious constitution it has been superseded by a new one. Many of them, indeed, have abandoned it without becoming Christians. But in so doing they have become secularists; they have not appreciated the old covenant to the full, and then outgrown it; they have been led for various reasons to deny that there ever was anything divine in it, and have renounced together its discipline and its hopes. Only where the knowledge of the Christ has been received is the veil which lies upon their hearts taken away; they can then appreciate both all the virtues of the ancient dispensation and all its defects; they can glorify God for what it was and for what it shut them up to; they can see that in all its parts it had a reference to something lying beyond itself-to a "new thing" that God would do for His people; and in welcoming the new covenant, and its Mediator Jesus Christ, they can feel that they are not making void, but establishing, the law.

This is their hope, and to this the Apostle looks in 2 Corinthians 3:16 : "But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away." The Greek expression of this passage is so closely modelled on that of Exodus 34:34, that Westcott and Hort print it as a quotation. Moses evidently is still in the Apostle’s mind. The veiling of his face symbolized the nation’s blindness; the nation’s hope is to be seen in that action in which Moses was unveiled. He uncovered his face when he turned from the people to speak to God. "Even so," says the Apostle, "when they turn to the Lord, the veil of which we have been speaking is taken away, and they see clearly." One can hardly avoid feeling in this a reminiscence of the Apostle’s own conversion. He is thinking not only of the unveiling of Moses, but of the scales which fell from his own eyes when he was baptized in the name of Jesus, and was filled with the Holy Ghost, and saw the old covenant and its glory lost and fulfilled in the new. He knew how stupendous was the change involved here; it meant a revolution in the whole constitution of the Jews’ spiritual world as vast as that which was wrought in the natural world when the sun supplanted the earth as the center of our system. But the gain was corresponding. The soul was delivered from an impasse. Under the old covenant, as bitter experience had shown him, the religious life had come to a dead-lock; the conscience was confronted with a torturing, and in its very nature insoluble, problem: man, burdened and enslaved by sin, was required to attain to a righteousness which should please God. The contradictions of this position were solved, its mystery was abolished, when the soul turned to the Lord, and appropriated by faith the righteousness and life of God in him. The old covenant found its place, an intelligible and worthy though subordinate place, in the grand program of redemption; the strife between the soul and God, between the soul and the conditions of existence, ceased; life opened out again; there was a large room to move in, an inspiring power within; in one word, there was spiritual life and liberty, and Christ was the author of it all.

This is the force of the seventeenth verse: "Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." The Lord, of course, is Christ, and the Spirit is that of which Paul has already spoken in the sixth verse. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life under the new covenant. He who turns to Christ receives this Spirit; it is through it that Christ dwells in His people; what are called "fruits of the Spirit" are traits of Christ’s own character which the Spirit produces in the saints; practically, therefore, the two may be identified, and hence the expression "the Lord is the Spirit," though startling at first sight, is not improper, and ought not to mislead. It is a mistake to connect it with such passages as Romans 1:4, and to draw inferences from it as to Paul’s conception of the person of Christ. He does not say "the Lord is spirit," but "the Lord is the Spirit"; what is in view is not the person of Christ so much as His power. To identify the Lord and the Spirit without qualification, in the face of the benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14, is out of the question. The truth of the passage is the same as that of Romans 8:9 ff.: "If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of His. And if Christ is in you"; etc. Here, so far as the practical experience of Christians goes, no distinction is made between the Spirit of Christ and Christ Himself; Christ dwells in Christians through His Spirit. The very same truth, as is well known, pervades the chapters in the Fourth Gospel in which Christ consoles His disciples for his departure from this world; He will not leave them orphans-He will come to them, and remain with them in the other Comforter. To turn to Christ, the Apostle wishes to assert with the utmost emphasis, is not to do a thing which has no virtue and no consequences; it is to turn to one who has received of the Father the gift of the Holy Ghost, and who immediately sets up the new spiritual life, which is nothing less than His own life, by that Spirit, in the believing soul. And summing up in one word the grand characteristic and distinction of the new covenant, as realized by this indwelling of Christ through His Spirit, he concludes: "And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."

In the interpretation of the last word, we must have respect to the context; liberty has its meaning in contrast with that state to which the old covenant had reduced those who adhered to it. It means freedom from the law; freedom, fundamentally, from its condemnation, thanks to the gift of righteousness in Christ; freedom, also, from its letter, as something simply without us and over against us. No written word, as such, can ever be pleaded against the voice of the Spirit within. Even the words we call in an eminent sense "inspired," words of the Spirit, are subject to this law: they do not put a limit to the liberty of the spiritual man. He can overrule the letter of them when the literal interpretation or application would contravene the spirit which is common both to them and him. This principle is capable of being abused, no doubt, and by bad men and fanatics has been abused; but its worst abuses can hardly have done more harm than the pedantic word-worship which has often lost the soul even of the New Testament, and read the words of the Lord and His Apostles with a veil upon its face through which nothing could be seen. There is such a thing as an unspiritual scrupulosity in dealing with the New Testament, now that we have it in documentary form, just as there used to be in dealing with the Old; and we ought to remind ourselves continually that the documentary form is an accident, not an essential, of the new covenant. That covenant existed, and men lived under it and enjoyed its blessings, before it had any written documents at all; and we shall not appreciate its characteristics, and especially this one of its spiritual freedom, unless we put ourselves occasionally, in imagination, in their place. It is far easier to make Paul mean too little than too much; and the liberty of the Spirit in which he exults here covers, we may be sure, not only liberty from condemnation, and liberty from the unspiritual yoke of the ritual law, but liberty from all that is in its nature statutory, liberty to organize the new life, and to legislate for it, from within.

The bearing of this passage on the religious blindness of the Jews ought not to hide from us its permanent application. The religious insensibility of his countrymen will cease, Paul says; their religious perplexities will be solved, when they turn to Christ. This is the beginning of all intelligence, of all freedom, of all hope, in things spiritual. Much of the religious doubt and confusion of our own times is due to the preoccupation of men’s minds with religion at points from which Christ is invisible. But it is He who is the key to all human experiences as well as to the Old Testament; it is He who answers the questions of the world as well as the questions of the Jews; it is He who takes our feet out of the net, opens the gate of righteousness before us, and gives us spiritual freedom. It is like finding a pearl of great price when the soul discovers this, and to point it out to others is to do them a priceless service. Disregard everything else in the meantime, if you are bewildered, baffled, in bonds which you cannot break; turn to Jesus Christ, as Moses turned to God, with face uncovered; put down prejudice, preconceptions, pride, the disposition to make demands; only look steadfastly till you see what He is, and all that perplexes you will pass away, or appear in a new light, and serve a new and spiritual purpose.

Something like this larger application of his words passed, we may suppose, before the Apostle’s mind when he wrote the eighteenth verse. In the grandeur of the truth which rises upon him he forgets his controversy and becomes a poet. We breathe the ampler ether, the diviner air, as we read: "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit." I have kept here for κατοπτριζομενοι the rendering of the Authorized Version, which in the Revised has been relegated to the margin, and replaced by "reflecting as a mirror." There do not seem to be sufficient grounds for the change, and the old translation is defended in Grimm’s Lexicon, in Winer’s Grammar, and by Meyer, Heinrici, and Beet. The active voice of the verb κατοπτριζω means "to exhibit in a mirror"; and the middle, "to mirror oneself"-i.e., "to look at oneself in a mirror." This, at least, is the sense of most of the examples of the middle which are found in Greek writers; but as it is quite inapplicable here, the question of interpretation becomes rather difficult. It is, however, in accordance with analogy to say that if the active means "to show in a mirror," the middle means "to get shown to one in a mirror," or, as the Authorized Version puts it, "to behold in a mirror." I cannot make out that any analogy favors the new rendering, "reflecting as a mirror"; and the authority of Chrysostom, which would otherwise be considerable on this side, is lessened by the fact that he seems never to have raised the question, and in point of fact combines both renderings. His illustration of the polished silver lying in the sunshine, and sending back the rays which strike it, is in favor of the change; but when he writes, "We not only look upon the glory of God, but also catch thence a kind of radiance," he may fairly be claimed for the other side. There are two reasons also which seem to me to have great weight in favor of the old rendering: first, the expression with unveiled face, which, as Meyer remarks, is naturally of a piece with "beholding"; and, second, an unequivocal example of the middle voice of κατοπτριζομαι in the sense of "seeing," while no unequivocal example can be produced for "reflecting." This example is found in Philo 1:107 ("Leg. Alleg.," 3:33), where Moses prays to God: "Show not Thyself to me through heaven or earth, or water or air, or anything at all that comes into being; nor let me see Thy form mirrored in any other thing than in Thee, even in God." ( ΄ηδὲ κατοπτρισαίμην έν ἄλλῳ τινί τήν σήν ἰδέαν ἢ έν σοὶ τῷ θεῷ) This seems to me decisive, and there is the less reason to reject it on other than linguistic grounds, when we consider that the idea of "reflecting," if it is given up in κατοπτριζομενοι is conserved in μεταμορφουμεθα. The transformation has the reflection of Christ’s glory for its effect, not for its cause; but the reflection, eventually, is there.

Assuming, then, that "beholding as in a glass" is the right interpretation of this hard word, let us go on to what the Apostle says. "We all" probably means "all Christians," and not only "all Christian teachers." If there is a comparison implied, it is between the two dispensations, and the experiences open to those who lived under them, not between the mediator of the old and the heralds of the new. Under the old covenant one only saw the glory; now the beatific vision is open to all. We all behold it "with unveiled face." There is nothing on Christ’s part that leads to disguise, and nothing on ours that comes between us and Him. The darkness is past, the true light already shines, and Christian souls cannot look on it too fixedly, or drink it in to excess. But what is meant by "the glory of the Lord" on which we gaze with face unveiled?

It will not be questioned, by those who are at home in St. Paul’s thoughts, that "the Lord" means the exalted Savior, and that the glory must be something which belongs to Him. Indeed, if we remember that in the First Epistle, 1 Corinthians 2:8, He is characteristically described by the Apostle as "the Lord of glory," we shall not feel it too much to say that the glory is everything which belongs to Him. There is not any aspect of the exalted Christ, there is not any representation of Him in the Gospel, there is not any function which He exercises, that does not come under this head. "In His temple everything saith Glory!" There is a glory even in the mode of His existence: St. Paul’s conception of Him is dominated always by that appearance on the way to Damascus, when he saw the Christ through a light above the brightness of the sun. It is His glory that He shares the Father’s throne, that He is head of the Church, possessor and bestower of all the fullness of divine grace, the coming Judge of the world, conqueror of every hostile power, intercessor for His own, and, in short, bearer of all the majesty which belongs to His kingly office, The essential thing in all this-essential to the understanding of the Apostle, and to the existence of the apostolic "Gospel of the glory of Christ" [2 Corinthians 4:4] -is that the glory in question is the glory of a Living Person. When Paul thinks of it, he does not look back, he looks up; he does not remember, he beholds in a glass; the glory of the Lord has no meaning for him apart from the present exaltation of the Risen Christ. "The Lord reigneth; He is appareled with majesty"-that is the anthem of His praise.

I have insisted on this, because, in a certain reaction from what was perhaps an exaggerated Paulinism, there is a tendency to misapply even the most characteristic and vital passages in St. Paul’s Gospel, and preeminently to misapply passages like this. Nothing could be more misleading than to substitute here for the glory of the exalted Christ as mirrored in the apostolic Gospel that moral beauty which was seen in Jesus of Nazareth. Of course I do not mean to deny that the moral loveliness of Jesus is glorious; nor do I question that in the contemplation of it in the pages of our Gospels-subject to one grand condition-a transforming power is exercised through it; but I do deny that any such thing was in the mind of St. Paul. The subject of the Apostle’s Gospel was not Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, but Christ the Lord of glory; men, as he understood the matter, were saved, not by dwelling on the wonderful words and deeds of One who had lived some time ago, and reviving these in their imagination, but by receiving the almighty, emancipating, quickening Spirit of One who lived and reigned for evermore. The transformation here spoken of is not the work of a powerful imagination, which can make the figure in the pages of the Gospels live again, and suffuse the soul with feeling as it gazes upon it; preach this as gospel who will, it was never preached by an apostle of Jesus Christ. It is the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is given, not to the memory or imagination which can vivify the past, but to the faith which sees Christ upon His throne. And it is subject to the condition of faith in the living Christ that contemplation of Jesus in the Gospels changes us into the same image. There can be no doubt that at the present time many are falling back upon this contemplation in a despairing rather than a believing mood; what they seek and find in it is rather a poetic consolation than religious inspiration; their faith in the living Christ is gone, or is so uncertain as to be practically of no saving power, and they have recourse to the memory of what Jesus was as at least something to cling to. "We thought that it had been He which should have delivered Israel." But surely it is as clear as day that in religion-in the matter of redemption-we must deal, not with the dead, but with the living. Paul may have known less or more of the contents of our first three Gospels; he may have valued them more or less adequately; but just because he had been saved by Christ, and was preaching Christ as a Savior, the center of his thoughts and affections was not Galilee, but "the heavenlies." There the Lord of glory reigned; and from that world He sent the Spirit which changed His people into His image. And so it must always be, if Christianity is to be a living religion. Leave out this, and not only is the Pauline Gospel lost, but everything is lost which could be called Gospel in the New Testament.

The Lord of glory, Paul teaches here, is the pattern and prophecy of a glory to be revealed in us; and as we contemplate Him in the mirror of the Gospel, we are gradually transformed into the same image, even as by the Lord the Spirit. The transformation, these last words again teach, is not accomplished by beholding, but while we behold; it does not depend on the vividness with which we can imagine the past, but on the present power of Christ working in us. The result is such as befits the operation of such a power. We are changed into the image of Him from whom it proceeds. We are made like Himself. It may seem far more natural to say that the believer is made like Jesus of Nazareth, than that he is made like the Lord of glory; but that does not entitle us to shift the center of gravity in the Apostle’s teaching, and it only tempts us to ignore one of the most prominent and enviable characteristics of the New Testament religious life. Christ is on His throne, and His people are exalted and victorious in Him. When we forget Christ’s exaltation in our study of His earthly life-when we are so pre-occupied, it may even be so fascinated, with what He was, that. we forget what He is-when, in other words, a pious historical imagination takes the place of a living religious faith - that victorious consciousness is lost, and in a most essential point the image of the Lord is not reproduced in the believer. This is why the Pauline point of view-if indeed it is to be called Pauline, and not simply Christian-is essential. Christianity is a religion, not merely a history, though it should be the history told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke; and the chance of having the history itself appreciated for religion is that He who is its subject shall be contemplated, not in the dim distance of the past, but in the glory of His heavenly reign, and that He shall be recognized, not merely as one who lived a perfect life in His own generation, but as the Giver of life eternal by His Spirit to all who turn to Him. The Church will always be justified, while recognizing that Christianity is a historical religion, in giving prominence, not to its historicity, but to what makes it a religion at all-namely, the present exaltation of Christ. This involves everything, and determines, as St. Paul tells us here, the very form and spirit of her own life.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-corinthians-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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