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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
2 Corinthians 3

 

 

Verse 1

II. THE APOSTOLIC OFFICE, 2 Corinthians 3:1 to 2 Corinthians 6:10.

1. It is above commendation, above Mosaicism, 2 Corinthians 3:1 to 2 Corinthians 4:6.

1. Again—The last verse contains a powerful self-assertion, and St. Paul is immediately reminded that among the imputations reported by Titus as made against him was his self-eulogy; especially, perhaps, in 1 Corinthians 9:15; 1 Corinthians 9:21.

Some—His Judaic opponents.

Epistles of commendation—Recommendatory letters. Such letters all affiliated associations are obliged to use to authenticate messengers, or members, from one locality to another. Such, for instance, are our “certificates of membership” at the present day. Commendatory letters were in use among the Jews also; and in the early Church, the bishops furnished certifications for clergy circulating in other dioceses. By such letters was Apollos commended from Ephesus to Corinth. Acts 18:27. So Timothy is commended to the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 16:10-11, and Titus and his comrades in this epistle, 2 Corinthians 8:18-19.

To you—The clear implication is, that his detractors came with such letters from somewhere. And the fountain head is indicated by the entire narration of Acts 15:1-33, as being at Jerusalem. See our notes on that passage. A set of ultra-Judaists came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, proclaiming that the retention of circumcision by Christians was necessary to salvation. St. Paul says, (Galatians 2:12,) that a similar set came to Antioch from James, the resident apostle at Jerusalem. And Renan, in his “St. Paul,” talks of “a counter-mission organized by James” against St. Paul, and assures us that James furnished the Judaists with credentials. All such fancies touching the conduct and position of that illustrious man are dispersed by Luke’s narration of his course towards the ultra-Judaic party at the Council of Jerusalem. Acts 15:1-33. The Judaic emissaries were a small extreme section, whom James refused to countenance. Doubtless the emissaries that now had come from Jerusalem were of the same type. In about a year from the time of writing this epistle, Paul and James met in council at Jerusalem, as described in Acts 21:18-20, where see notes; and James rejoiced in the labours and successes of our great apostle. Indeed, Luke’s narrative of the invasion of Antioch by the Judaists may be read as a fair type of their visitation at Corinth. The epistles of commendation they brought bore, doubtless, the signature, not of James, but of the ultra clique in Jerusalem.


Verse 2

2. Ye are our epistle—Powerful emphasis to be placed on ye and our. Bring epistles to you? Yourselves are our epistle! A lofty turn that places him at once on the platform of their founder-apostle. And by the immediate additional term, written in our hearts, he evades the charge of arrogance with a touch of deep affection. By our epistle, he does not mean our letter to or for others, but an epistle in our behalf, certifying us to the world. But though written in his heart, the epistle is not a hidden inscription, but known and read of all men. The wide world knows Corinth, and knows it as a Pauline Christian Church.


Verse 3

3. The italic phrase interpolated by our translators, forasmuch as ye are, seems unnecessary.

Manifestly declared—Rather, being manifested, referring to ye in the previous verse. They were known and read by the world as being conspicuously Christ’s commendatory letter of St. Paul, their founder, to the world. This is a beautiful enlargement of the figure of an epistle, in previous verse.

Epistle of Christ—As Christ is real author of the Church, so he is real furnisher of the epistle; and thus does Christ authenticate his apostolic mission by the most powerful of credentials. Let those pseudo-Christians meet that.

Ministered by us—The Church was made by Christ under the human ministry of the apostle. He flings in this phrase to remind them that Christ’s epistle inures to the honour of his ministry. This living epistle of Christ is written not, as the credentials of the emissaries from Jerusalem were, with ink. The figure, as pushed by the lively fancy of our apostle, becomes very delicately subtile. The names of members may be written on the Church register with ink; but Christ writes, with the Spirit; the Christian being himself the inscription; and he writes this live inscription on the Christian’s own heart. And St. Paul supplements the figure by adding that this living inscription is written, not, like the decalogue, in tables of stone, as the Judaizers may be figured as an inscription to be written; but, like true sons of a gospel of the heart, in fleshly tables of the heart.


Verse 4

4. Such trust—Rather, such confidence; namely, the bold assurance that they are his epistle. 2 Corinthians 3:4-5, are flung in as a softener of all apparent arrogance in his bold assurance.


Verse 5

5. Sufficient—Same word as in 2 Corinthians 2:16.

To think—To think out, or excogitate the truths of the gospel. Paul here entirely ignores the imputation that the gospel as by him preached is by him invented. No, it originates with God, from whom comes all his sufficiency even to preach it.


Verse 6

6. Able—Same word as sufficient, 2 Corinthians 3:5.

The new testament—Rather, of a new covenant. To the popular reader the phrase the new testament suggests the idea of a book. But the meaning is, that whereas under Moses there was what is now an old covenant or compact between God and the Jewish people, so now, in the place of that, is substituted a new covenant or compact, by which God, in consideration of Christ’s mediation, engages to pardon and save all who place obedient faith in Christ. Note on Luke 22:20. Thus has God made us, the apostles and preachers in the Christian Church, efficient ministers of a new covenant.

Not of the letter— Prescribing a complex ritual, as recorded in the Pentateuch, to be obeyed with a mechanical precision.

But of the Spirit—Which Spirit, accepted by our faith, breathes into our hearts, and creates in us a spirit of love, emancipated from rituals, and running into the path of a free and joyous obedience. This letter, however once effective to salvation, now pertinaciously adhered to, as by these Judaists, killeth. That circumcision prescribed by this letter, which they claim as necessary for our future Christianity, cramps its true free life, and killeth it. And claimed as necessary to the salvation of the soul, it crowds out Christ, and killeth the soul. It is emancipation from their letter into the freedom of the spirit that alone giveth life.

This superiority of the new over the old covenant, St. Paul now (2 Corinthians 3:7-18) illustrates with rich Old Testament imagery, and with much power, against the factious advocates of the old.


Verse 7

7. Ministration of death—The law, so far as it designates the old testament, or the old testament system, revealed not only wrath, but mercy; yet it waited for the new testament to reveal clearly the true source of that mercy in the mediation of Christ. But law here signifies the decalogue, as is shown by the words engraven in stones. The decalogue revealed not mercy; and to all sinners its ministration was an administration of death. Yet though engraven on stones, and of death, it had its glory.

Was glorious—Literally, was in glory.

So that—Proves the glory by the fact to be stated.

Face of Moses—When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, from communion with God, his face shone so resplendently with the divine glory that the people could not gaze upon it. Exodus 34:29-35. Moses, therefore, vailed his face to the people and unvailed it before God. Using this beautiful image as a type of the glory of the dispensation of the law, Paul draws a comparison to show how much more truly glorious is the (apostolic) ministration of the gospel. And it is to be specially noted that it is from one of the most brilliant points of the Mosaic history that the genius of Paul infers the evanescence of the Mosaic dispensation.

The glory of the law dispensation was not only of death, but, as symbolized by the radiance upon Moses’s face, was transient—was visible to the eye, was varied, and has left a vail on Israel’s heart. The gospel ministration is of the spirit, of justification, permanent, open, freedom, unfolding in evolutions of glory. To the Gentile Corinthians, anxious for freedom from the Jewish ritual, as well as to the Jews who sympathized with the progressive spirit of Paul, this comparison must have been very welcome. To the Judaists it must have appeared very powerful and very unacceptable.

To be done away—As figured by its evanescence upon Moses’s face.


Verse 9

9. Righteousness—The same word as is in Romans translated justification; meaning the pardon of sin and the being construed, through Christ, as righteous.


Verse 10

10. The very fact that the old ministration was destined to be surpassed, was a respect or point in which it was not glorious.

Even that—Old ministration.

In this respect—Or point; namely, by reason of a more excelling glory to come to the new. Its glory is shaded in anticipation of its future eclipse.


Verse 11

11. Remaineth—And never will be done away, or give place to another ministration. The permanent is much more glorious than is the transient. St. Paul here seems to predict the historic permanence of the Christian dispensation as a fixture for centuries. The Mosaic dispensation, though it had lasted more than a thousand years, was transitory in comparison with the Christian ages. This view stands in apparent contradiction of any assumption that the second advent of Christ was at hand.


Verse 12

12. Such hope—Of a ministration of excelling and permanent glory.

Plainness of speech—The glory of the cause justifies bold and unambiguous statement in its advocates. They need shrink at no opposition, nor fear the bluster of the Judaists.


Verse 13

13. Vail—The emblem of concealment, and the sign of the mystery of the old in contrast with the transparency and freedom of speech under the new. The new testament was truly concealed in the old one: Christ was vailed under types and shadows; but now he is revealed in person, and declared with great plainness of speech.

Could not… look to the end—By the end many able commentators understand Christ, who is “the end of the law for righteousness.” And this the mystic vail, symbolized by that on Moses’s face, so shades Christ that the Jews could not behold him. And— see next verse—that vail still remains, concealing Christ from the Jews, who recognise not that the old is abolished, and that its end is Christ. But the true view, as Alford, and Stanley, and other late commentators have shown, will appear by a connexion of our translation of Exodus 34:33, in accordance with the Septuagint and Vulgate, by a substitution of when for “till.” It will then appear that Moses spoke to the people with his radiant face unvailed, but vailed his face when he ceased speaking, so as to conceal the evanescence and cessation of the radiance. “The vailed prophet of Khorasan,” in Moore’s Lalla Rookh, always kept his face, which was really a hideous visage, concealed from the people under pretence that it was too glorious for mortal sight. Moses showed his face while radiant with the glory, and vailed it as the glory ceased. It was, then, the cessation of the radiance which St. Paul here calls the end of the abolished; and which he figures as an image of the cessation of the glory of the abolished old covenant.


Verse 14

14. But their minds were blinded—Rather, their perceptive faculties were calloused. As if the retina of their mind’s eye was glazed, so as to blind their spiritual perceptions. What they could not see was, that the glory of the old covenant was as certainly transient as the glory on its founder’s face, being preparatory for a higher glory in a second founder, Christ. St. Paul does not, however, mean that it was a blindness in them not to see that the fading on Moses’s face was a showing of the transitory nature of the old covenant. He does not mean to affirm that the evanescence of the facial glory was a divinely intended type of fading Mosaicism. He uses it simply as a vivid illustration furnished by himself. The mind of the Jew in Moses’s day was blinded so as not to see that the Mosaic dispensation, in its whole structure and nature, was a preparation and a type to merge into its future antitype.

Remaineth the same vail— The same nonperception of the fading of the old covenant imaged by the same vail that concealed the evanescence of the facial radiance, remaineth. The same vail has passed from Moses’s face to overspread the Jewish heart in the reading of the old testament at this day.

Done away—The spiritual ignorance being removed in Christ.


Verse 15

15. When Moses, instead of being now personally seen, is read in his record, the vail is upon their heart; so that they can neither feel nor see that the glory has evanesced from the face of the old covenant.


Verse 16

16. Nevertheless—St. Paul relieves the dark view with a ray of light. As the vail was once upon Moses, so it is now on the Jewish heart; but as when Moses went in to the Lord the vail “was taken off,” (Exodus 34:34,) so when the Jewish heart shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.


Verse 17

17. That Spirit—Rather, the Spirit. The Lord is the spirit, in opposition to the letter, 2 Corinthians 3:6; he giveth life by unvailing the letter and inspiring it with vivifying power.

Liberty—Emancipation from the killing dominion of the letter into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.


Verse 18

18. Thus emancipated by the spirit of evangelic liberty from the vail upon the heart, (which was also a vail upon the eyes,) we, the free and freshly un-Judaized Christians, with open—Or, more accurately, unvailed faces, behold the glory of the Lord. Happier than Israel, to whom even Moses was vailed, we behold the glory of Jesus himself without a vail. Yet not, indeed, as yet, his living person; but his glorious image in the gospel, as in a mirror. The ancient mirror was not glass, but polished metal.

Are changed—Are metamorphosed, transformed, transfigured. It takes a degree of likeness of nature for one being to see and realize another. Man can understand man as brute cannot understand man or man brute. We possess some assimilation to Jesus, even in order to discern him truly in the gospel; and the more we gaze in sympathy upon him the more we cognise him and become like him, which again increases our perceptive power, and thus there is a constant interaction and progress.

Into the same image— As Moses, looking upon the glory of Jehovah, had his face irradiated with the same glory.

From glory—By sanctification on earth.

To glory—By glorification, conformity with the glorified image of Christ, in heaven. This is better than to read: From the causative glory of the image in the mirror to the caused glory we acquire from it.

By the Spirit of the Lord—Which 2 Corinthians 3:6 vivifies with both sanctifying and glorifying life; life spiritual and life eternal. This entire imagery, in which St. Paul expresses the power of evangelic liberty (as opposed to the letter slavery of the Judaists) of glorifying the believer into the glorious image of Jesus, is eminently beautiful. But no reader who would appreciate its full richness must stop here, (though induced so to do by the unfortunate chapter division,) but trace its continuity through to 2 Corinthians 4:6.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/2-corinthians-3.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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