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David Guzik :: Study Guide for 2 Corinthians 3

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The Glory of the New Covenant

A. Paul's letter of recommendation.

1. (2Co 3:1-2) Does Paul need a letter of recommendation?  He has one; the Corinthian Christians themselves.

Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.

a. Epistles of commendation: Such letters were common and necessary in the early church.  A false prophet or apostle could travel from city to city and easily say, "Paul sent me, so you should support me."  To make this more difficult, letters of recommendation were often sent with Christians as they traveled.

i. Paul himself sent letters of commendation on many occasions (Romans 16:1-2; 1 Corinthians 16:3, 10-11; 2 Corinthians 8:16-24).

b. You are our epistle: Paul has a letter of recommendation, but it isn't written on paper.  Paul says the letter is written in our hearts, and it is known and read by all men.

i. There was nothing wrong with a letter of commendation written on paper.  But how much better to have a living letter of recommendation!  The Corinthians, as well as other churches Paul had ministered at, were Paul's "living letter" to prove his ministry.

ii. Today, the best analogy might be a certificate of ordination.  Many people think that a certificate of ordination means that you have the credentials of ministry.  While there is an important purpose in a public ordination to ministry, a piece of paper in itself never is a proper credential.  The true credentials of the ministry are changed lives, living epistles.  Keep your paper to yourself; show us the changed lives from your ministry!

iii. "Nothing so commends a minister as the proficiency of his people." (Poole) "The fruitfulness of the people is the preacher's testimonial." (Trapp)

iv. Many think the main reason God granted miraculous signs and wonders among the apostles in the book of Acts was so they would serve as a "letter of commendation" to their apostolic ministry. If this was the case, it makes sense that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit would cease when the apostles passed from the scene, because there would no longer be an apostolic ministry to authenticate.  However, it is significant that Paul does not say "miracles are our epistle of commendation."  Paul apparently did not believe his primary "letter of recommendation" was miraculous signs, but in miraculously changed lives.

2. (2Co 3:3) The writing of Paul's letter of recommendation.

Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

a. An epistle of Christ: Paul's letter of recommendation has an author, Jesus Christ.  The Corinthian Christians were indeed Paul's letter of recommendation, yet he realized that he did not write that letter, Jesus did. Paul is not trying to say "I made you the Christians you are."  But he is saying, "God used me to make you the Christians you are."

b. Ministered by us: Paul's letter of recommendation has a pen, Paul himself.

c. Written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God: Paul's letter of recommendation uses an "ink" - the Holy Spirit.

d. On tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart: Paul's letter of recommendation has a "paper" - the hearts of the Corinthian Christians.

i. The Old Testament prophets spoke of the idea of the law in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) and of God granting hearts of flesh to replace hearts of stone (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).

3. (2Co 3:4-6) Sufficient ministers of a new covenant.

And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

a. We have such trust through Christ toward God: Paul knows that what he has just written might sound proud in the ears of the Corinthian Christians. After all, it is no small thing to say "You are my letter of recommendation" and "I am a pen in God's hand."  Paul knows these are big ideas, but his place for thinking them is in Jesus, not in himself.

b. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves: Paul doesn't consider himself sufficient for the great task of changing lives for Jesus.  Only Jesus is sufficient for such a big job.

i. Many people refuse to be used by God because they think of themselves as "not ready."  But in a sense, we are never ready or worthy.  If we were, the sufficiency would be in ourselves, not from God.

ii. "Brethren, if Paul is not sufficient of himself, what are you and I?  Where are you … Do you indulge the dream of self-sufficiency?  Be ashamed of your folly in the presence of a great man who knew what he said, and who spoke under the direction of the Spirit of God, and wrote deliberately, 'Not that we are sufficient of ourselves.'" (Spurgeon)

iii. "Our sufficiency is of God; let us practically enjoy this truth.  We are poor, leaking vessels, and the only way for us to keep full is to put our pitcher under the perpetual flow of boundless grace.  Then, despite its leakage, the cup will always be full to the brim." (Spurgeon)

c. Ministers of the new covenant: The idea of a new covenant was prophesied in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31) and put into practice by Jesus (Luke 22:19-20).

i. The Greek word for covenant (diatheke) had the ordinary meaning of "last will and testament."  Paul's use of the word reinforces the sovereignty of God, because it is not a negotiated settlement, but a divine decree.

ii. The word covenant describes "An 'arrangement' made by one party with plenary power, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot alter … A covenant offered by God to man was no 'compact' between two parties coming together on equal terms." (Moulton and Milligan)

iii. This new covenant presents the terms by which we can have a relationship with God, centered around Jesus and His work for us.

d. Not of the letter but of the Spirit: When Paul contrasts the letter and the Spirit, he isn't favoring "experience" over "the word," nor is he favoring allegorical interpretation over a literal understanding of the Bible. Paul is showing the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant.

i. The letter is the law in its outward sense, written on tablets of stone.  The letter of the law came by the Old Covenant.  It was good in itself, but it gave us no power to serve God or to change our hearts.  It simply told us what to do.  Paul can say the letter kills because the law, exposing our guilt, "kills" us before God.  It thoroughly and completely establishes our guilt.

ii. Paul expresses this point well in Romans 7:5-6: For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

iii. The Spirit is given to us as the law written on our hearts.  He is in us to guide us and be our "law."  It isn't that the Holy Spirit replaces the written law, but completes and fulfills the work of the written law in our hearts.  The Spirit gives life, and with this spiritual life we can live the law of God.

iv. So, we can't throw away or neglect our Bibles (which some might say is the letter), because now we have the Spirit.  Instead, the Spirit makes us alive to the letter, fulfilling and completing the work of the the letter in us.  We also shouldn't think this is permission to just live our Christian life on experiences or mystical interpretations of the Bible.  Experiences and seeing allegories in the Bible are fine, but each must be proved true and supported by studying the literal meaning of the Bible.  The Spirit and the letter are not enemies, but friends.  One doesn't work to the exclusion of the other, but one is incomplete without the other.

B. A contrast between the old and new covenants.

1. (2Co 3:7-11) The surpassing glory of the new covenant.

But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.

a. The ministry of death: Was it wrong to call the old covenant the ministry of death?  No, because that is what the law does to us: it slays us as guilty sinners before God, so we can be resurrected by the new covenant.  Not that the problem was with the law, but with us: the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. (Romans 7:5)

i. Trapp on the ministry of death: "David was the voice of the law awarding death to sin, 'He shall surely die.'  Nathan was the voice of the gospel awarding life to repentance for sin, 'Thou shalt not die.'"

b. Was glorious: There was a glory associated with the giving of the law and the old covenant.  At that time, Mount Sinai was surrounded with smoke, there were earthquakes, thunder, lightning, a trumpet blast from heaven, and the voice of God Himself (Exodus 19:16-20:1).  Most of all, the glory of the old covenant was shown in the face of Moses and the glory of his countenance.

i. "And although the gospel came not into the world as the law, with thunder, lightning, and earthquakes; yet that was ushered in by angels, foretelling the birth and office of John the Baptist, and of Christ; by the great sign of the virgin's conceiving and bringing forth a Son; by a voice from heaven, proclaiming Christ the Father's only begotten Son, in whom he was well pleased." (Poole)

c. Exodus 34:29-35 describes the face of Moses and how he would veil it after speaking to the people.  As glorious as the radiant face of Moses was, it was a fading glory: which glory was passing away. The glory of the old covenant shining through the face of Moses was a fading glory, but the glory of the new covenant endures without fading.

d. How will not the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious: If the old covenant, which brought death had this kind of glory, we should expect greater glory in the new covenant, which brings the ministry of the Spirit and life.

i. The old covenant was a ministry of condemnation, but the new covenant is the ministry of righteousness.  The old covenant is passing away, but the new covenant remains.  No wonder the new covenant is much more glorious!

ii. The old covenant had glory.  But it is far outshone by the glory of the new covenant, just as the sun will always outshine the brightest moon. Compared to the new covenant, the old covenant had no glory, because of the glory that excels in the new covenant.

2. (2Co 3:12-16) The open and bold character of the new covenant.

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech; unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

a. Therefore, since we have such hope: Since our hope is in a more glorious covenant, we can have a more glorious hope.  Because of this hope, Paul can use great boldness of speech.  The old covenant was restrictive and separated a man from God; the new covenant brings us to God, and enables us to come boldly to Him.

b. Unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face: Moses himself did not have real boldness under the old covenant.  A veil is not a "bold" thing to wear; it is a barrier and a place of hiding.  Moses lacked boldness (compared to Paul) because the covenant that he ministered under was fading away, and fading in glory.

c. So the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away: From reading the account in Exodus 34:29-35, one might first get the impression that Moses wore a veil after his meetings with God so the people wouldn't be afraid to come near him; that it was to protect them from seeing the shining face of Moses.  But here Paul explains the real purpose of the veil: not so the shining face of Moses would be hidden, but so that the diminishing glory of his face would not be observed, because the glory was fading.  The passing glory of the old covenant contrasts with the enduring glory of the new covenant.

d. Could not look: Since the veil hid the face of Moses, the children of Israel couldn't see any of the glory from his face.  Therefore, the contrast isn't only between passing glory and enduring glory, but also between concealed glory and revealed glory.

e. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted: Paul says that the Jews of his day were unable to see that the glory of Moses' ministry had faded in comparison to the ministry of Jesus.  If the veil were unlifted, they would see that the glory of Moses' ministry had faded and they should now look to Jesus.  But since the "same" veil that hid Moses' face now lies on their heart, they still think there is something superior or more glorious in the ministry of Moses.

f. Nevertheless, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away: Yes, it can be said of the Jews that a veil lies on their heart. But the veil can be taken away in Jesus.

i. Many Christians with a heart to preach their Jewish friends have wondered why it is rarely so simple as just showing them that Jesus is the Messiah.  This is because a veil lies on their heart.  Unless God does a work in them, so they turn to the Lord and have the veil taken away, they will never see the fading glory of Moses' covenant and the surpassing glory of Jesus and the new covenant.

ii. Of course, it could be said that the Jews are not the only ones for whom a veil lies on their heart.  Gentiles also have "veils" that separate them from seeing Jesus and His work for us clearly.  But Jesus is more than able to take those veils away!  This points to the essential need of prayer in evangelism.  It has been rightly said that it is more important to talk to God about men than it is to talk to men about God.  But we can do both!

3. (2Co 3:17) The liberty of the new covenant.

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

a. The Lord is the Spirit: From the context of Exodus 34:34, we see that when Paul says that the Lord is the Spirit, he is saying that the Holy Spirit is God, just as Jesus and the Father are.

b. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Paul's thinking follows like this: When Moses went into God's presence, he had the liberty to take off the veil.  The presence of the Lord gave him this liberty.  We have the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord.  We live in the Spirit's presence because He is given to us under the new covenant.  So, just as Moses had the liberty to relate to God without the veil in the presence of the Lord, so we have liberty because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

i. We should also consider what Paul is not saying.  He is not giving license to any Pentecostal or Charismatic excess because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.  We have great liberty in our relationship with God through what Jesus has done and through what the Holy Spirit is doing.  But we never have the liberty to disobey what the Spirit has said in the word of God.  That is a demonic liberty, not a Spirit-led liberty!

c. Paul really has in mind the liberty of access.  He is building on his words from 2 Corinthians 3:12: we use great boldness of speech.  Boldness is a word that belongs with liberty.  Because of the great work of the Holy Spirit in us through the new covenant, we have a bold, liberated relationship with God.

i. "A liberty from the yoke of the law, from sin, death, hell; but the liberty which seemeth here to be chiefly intended, is a liberty from that blindness and hardness which is upon men's hearts, until they have received the Holy Spirit." (Poole)

4. (2Co 3:18) The transforming glory of the new covenant.

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

a. We all with unveiled face: Paul here gives an invitation to every Christian.  He will speak of an intimacy of relationship and a transforming power that is not the property of just a few priviledged Christians.  It can belong to everyone, everyone who has an unveiled face.

i. How do we get an unveiled faceWhen one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Corinthians 3:16).  If we will turn to the Lord, He will take away the veil and we can be one of the we all.

b. Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord: We can see the glory of the Lord, but we cannot see His glory perfectly.  A mirror in the ancient world did not give nearly as good a reflection as our mirrors do today.  Ancient mirrors were made of polished metal, and gave a clouded, fuzzy, somewhat distorted image.  Paul is saying "We can see the glory of the Lord, but we can't see it perfectly yet."

i. There may be another thought here also: "Now as mirrors, among the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, were made of highly polished metal, it would often happen, especially in strong light, that the face would be greatly illuminated by this strongly reflected light; and to this circumstance the apostle seems here to allude." (Clarke)

c. Are being transformed: As we behold the glory of God, we will be transformed.  God will change our lives, and change us from the inside-out.  Though the old covenant had its glory, it could never transform lives through the law.  God uses the new covenant to make us transformed people, not just "nice" people.

i. Everyone wants to know, "How can I change?"  Or, everyone wants to know, "How can they change?"  The best and most enduring change comes into our lives when we are transformed by time spent with the Lord.  There are other ways to change (guilt, willpower, coercion), but none of them are as deep and long lasting as the transformation that comes by the Spirit of God as we spend time in the presence of the Lord.

ii. Yet, it requires something. It requires beholding.  The word means more than a casual look, it means a careful study.  We all have something to behold, something to study.  We can be transformed by the glory of the Lord, but only if we will carefully study it.

d. Into the same image: As we look into "God's mirror," we will be changed into the same image of the Lord.  When we spend time beholding the glory of the God of love, grace, peace, and righteousness, we will see a transforming growth in love, grace, peace, and righteousness.

i. Of course, this is how you can know someone is really spending time with the Lord: they are being transformed into the same image.  But much depends on what we "see" when we look into "God's mirror."  In this analogy, "God's mirror" is not a mirror that shows us what we are as much as it shows us what we will become, and what we will become is based on our picture of who God is.  If we have a false picture of God, we will see that false picture in God's "mirror" and will be transformed into that image - much to our harm, both for now and eternity.

ii. Not everyone sees the truth when they look into the mirror.  30 year old David gets up every morning, and his morning routine only gets as far as the bedroom mirror, where he sees a horribly distorted face - a crooked, swollen nose covered with scars and a bulging  teye.  The pain from his deformities caused him to quit college and move in with his parents ten years ago.  Since then, he has rarely left his room, afraid to let anyone see him.  He has had cosmetic surgery four times, but with no progress.  That's because the problems with David's appearance are only in his mind.  Experts call it body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD.  It causes people to imagine themselves as deformed, ugly people.  Psychiatrists call it a hidden epidemic. One psychiatrist says "Patients are virtually coming out of the woodwork.  I'm meeting with one new patient each week."  Most BDD suffers are convinced the problem is with their face.  Those afflicted live with such an overwhelming sense of shame that they can barely function.  One young teacher in Boston tried to continue her job but would run out in the middle of class, afraid that her imagined hideous appearance was showing through her thick makeup.  A Denver businessman called his mother from the office 15 times a day for reassurance that he did not look grotesque and spent hours in the bathroom stall with a pocket mirror trying to figure out a way to improve his appearance.  Some try to cope with harmful rituals, and cut themselves to "bleed" the damaged area. BDD sufferers are usually convinced that the problem is with their body, not their mind.  They don't want to see anybody but plastic surgeons and dermatologists for their problem.

iii. But when we behold the the picture of God as He is in truth, we will be transformed into His image.  This is God's great design in our salvation, for whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). Calvin speaks to this great design of God: "that the image of God, which has been defaced by sin, may be repaired within us … the progress of this restoration is continuous through the whole of life, because it is little by little that God causes His glory to shine forth in us."

e. Are being transformed: This work of transformation is a process.  We are being transformed.  It isn't complete yet, and no one should expect it to be complete in themselves or in others.  No one comes away from one incredible time with the Lord perfectly transformed.

f. From glory to glory: The work of transformation is a continual progression.  It works from glory to glory. It doesn't have to work from backsliding to glory to backsliding to glory. God's work in our lives can be a continual progression, from glory to glory.

g. By the Spirit of the Lord: With these last words, Paul is emphasizing two things.  First, this access to God and His transforming presence is ours by the new covenant, because it is through the new covenant we are given the Spirit of the Lord.  Secondly, this work of transformation really is God's work in us.  It happens by the Spirit of the Lord, not by the will or effort of man.  We don't achieve or earn spiritual transformation by beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord. We simply put ourselves in a place where we can be transformed by the Spirit of the Lord.

© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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