Death—Life (2 Cor. 3:4-6 )
Paul was quick to give the glory to God and not to himself. His confidence (“trust”) was in God, and his sufficiency came from God. Paul was a brilliant and well-educated man; yet he did not depend on his own adequacy. He depended on the Lord.
The legalists, of course, told people that any person could obey the Law and become spiritual. A legalistic ministry has a way of inflating the egos of people. When you emphasize the grace of God, you must tell people that they are lost sinners who cannot save themselves. Paul’s testimony was, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10 ). No one is sufficient of himself to minister to the hearts of people. That sufficiency can only come from God.
As you read this chapter, note the different names that Paul used for the Old Covenant and the New Covenant as he contrasted them. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 , “the letter” refers to the Old Covenant Law, while “the spirit” refers to the New Covenant message of grace. Paul was not contrasting two approaches to the Bible, a “literal interpretation” and a “spiritual interpretation.” He was reminding his readers that the Old Covenant Law could not give life; it was a ministry of death (see Gal. 3:21 ). The Gospel gives life to those who believe because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Paul was not suggesting that the Law was a mistake or that its ministry was unimportant. Far from it! Paul knew that the lost sinner must be slain by the Law and left helplessly condemned before he can be saved by God’s grace. John the Baptist came with a message of judgment, preparing the way for Jesus and His message of saving grace.
A legalistic ministry brings death. Preachers who major on rules and regulations keep their congregations under a dark cloud of guilt, and this kills their joy, power, and effective witness for Christ. Christians who are constantly measuring each other, comparing “results,” and competing with each other, soon discover that they are depending on the flesh and not the power of the Spirit. There never was a standard that could transform a person’s life, and that includes the Ten Commandments. Only the grace of God, ministered by the Spirit of God, can transform lost sinners into living epistles that glorify Jesus Christ.
Paul’s doctrine of the New Covenant was not something that he invented for the occasion. As a profound student of the Scriptures, Paul certainly had read Jeremiah 31:27-34 , as well as Ezekiel 11:14-21 . In the New Testament, Hebrews 8-10 is the key passage to study. The Old Covenant Law, with its emphasis on external obedience, was preparation for the New Covenant message of grace and the emphasis on internal transformation of the heart.
Fading Glory—Increasing Glory (2 Cor. 3:7-11)
This paragraph is the heart of the chapter, and it should be studied in connection with Exodus 34:29-35 . Paul did not deny the glory of the Old Covenant Law, because in the giving of the Law and the maintaining of the tabernacle and temple services, there certainly was glory. What he affirmed, however, was that the glory of the New Covenant of grace was far superior, and he gave several reasons to support his affirmation.
The New Covenant glory means spiritual life, not death (vv. 7-8).
When Moses descended from the mountain, after conversing with God, his face shone with the glory of God. This was a part of the glory of the giving of the Law, and it certainly impressed the people. Paul then argued from the lesser to the greater: if there was glory in the giving of a Law which brought death, how much more glory is there in a ministry that brings life!
Legalists like the Judaizers like to magnify the glory of the Law and minimize its weaknesses. In his letter to the Galatian churches, Paul pointed out the deficiencies of the Law: the Law cannot justify the lost sinner (Gal. 2:16), give a sinner righteousness (Gal. 2:21 ), give the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2 ), give an inheritance (Gal. 3:18 ), give life (Gal. 3:21 ), or give freedom (Gal. 4:8-10 ). The glory of the Law is really the glory of a ministry of death.
The New Covenant glory means righteousness, not condemnation (vv. 9-10 ).
The Law was not given for the purpose of salvation, for there is no salvation through obedience to the Law. The Law produces condemnation, and is the mirror that reveals how dirty our faces really are. But we cannot wash our faces in the mirror.
The ministry of the New Covenant produces righteousness and changes lives to the glory of God. Man’s greatest need is righteousness, and God’s greatest gift is righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. “For if righteousness [comes] by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:21). The person who tries to live under the Law will find himself feeling more and more guilty, and this can produce a feeling of hopelessness and rejection. It is when we trust Christ, and live by faith in God’s grace, that we experience acceptance and joy.
Second Corinthians 3:10 states that the Law really “lost its glory” when compared to the surpassing glory of the ministry of God’s grace. There simply is no comparison. Sad to say, there are some people who cannot “feel spiritual” unless they carry a weight of guilt. The Law produces guilt and condemnation, for it is like a bond of indebtedness (Col. 2:14 ), a guardian who disciplines us (Gal. 4:1-5 ), and a yoke too heavy to bear (Gal. 5:1; Acts 15:10.
The New Covenant glory is permanent, not temporary (v. 11 ).
The tense of the verb here is very important: “that which is passing away.” Paul wrote at a period in history when the ages were overlapping. The New Covenant of grace had come in, but the temple services were still being carried on and the nation of Israel was still living under Law. In a.d. 70, the city of Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed by the Romans, and that would mark the end of the Jewish religious system.
The Judaizers wanted the Corinthian believers to go back under the Law, to “mix” the two Covenants. “Why go back to that which is temporary and fading away?” Paul asked. “Live in the glory of the New Covenant, which is getting greater and greater.” The glory of the Law is but the glory of past history, while the glory of the New Covenant is the glory of present experience. As believers, we can be “changed … from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18 ), something that the Law can never accomplish.
The glory of the Law was fading in Paul’s day, and today that glory is found only in the records in the Bible. The nation of Israel has no temple or priesthood. If they did build a temple, there would be no Shekinah glory dwelling in the holy of holies. The Law of Moses is a religion with a most glorious past, but it has no glory today. The light is gone; all that remain are shadows (Col. 2:16-17).
Paul has pointed out that the ministry of grace is internal (2 Cor. 3:1-3), it brings life (2 Cor. 3:4-6), and it involves increasing glory (2 Cor. 3:7-11). He presented one final contrast to prove the superiority of the New Covenant ministry of grace.
Concealment—Openness (2 Cor. 3:12-18)
The Bible is basically a “picture book,” because it uses symbols, similes, metaphors, and other literary devices to get its message across. In this paragraph, Paul used the experience of Moses and his veil to illustrate the glorious freedom and openness of the Christian life under grace. Paul saw in Moses’ experience a deeper spiritual meaning than you and I would have seen as we read Exodus 34:29-35 .
The historical event (vv. 12-13).
When you are a part of a ministry of increasing glory, you can be bold in what you say; and Paul did not hide his boldness. Unlike Moses, Paul had nothing to conceal.
When Moses came down from communing with God, his face shone, reflecting the glory of God. When he spoke to the people, they could see the glory on his face, and they were impressed by it. But Moses knew that the glory would fade away; so, when he finished teaching the people, he put on a veil. This prevented them from seeing the glory disappear; for, after all, who wants to follow a leader who is losing his glory?
The word translated end in 2 Corinthians 3:13 has two meanings: “purpose” and “finish.” The veil prevented the people from seeing the “finish” of the glory as it faded away. But the veil also prevented them from understanding the “purpose” behind the fading glory. The Law had just been instituted, and the people were not ready to be told that this glorious system was only temporary. The truth that the covenant of Law was a preparation for something greater was not yet made known to them.
The national application (vv. 14-17).
Paul had a special love for Israel and a burden to see his people saved (Rom. 9:1-3). Why were the Jewish people rejecting their Christ? As the missionary to the Gentiles, Paul was seeing many Gentiles trust the Lord, but the Jews—his own people—were rejecting the truth and persecuting Paul and the church.
The reason? There was a “spiritual veil” over their minds and hearts. Their “spiritual eyes” were blinded, so that when they read the Old Testament Scriptures, they did not see the truth about their own Messiah. Even though the Scriptures were read systematically in the synagogues, the Jewish people did not grasp the spiritual message God had given to them. They were blinded by their own religion.
Is there any hope for the lost Children of Israel? Yes, there is! “Nevertheless, when it [the heart] shall turn to the Lord [by trusting Jesus Christ], the veil shall be taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16).
In each of the three churches I have pastored, it has been my joy to baptize Jewish people who have trusted Jesus Christ. It is amazing how their minds open to the Scriptures after they have been born again. One man told me, “It’s like scales falling from your eyes. You wonder why everybody doesn’t see what you see!” The veil is removed by the Spirit of God and they receive spiritual vision.
But no sinner—Jew or Gentile—can turn to Christ apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit of God. “Now the Lord is that Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17 ). This statement is a bold declaration of the deity of the Holy Spirit: He is God. The Judaizers who had invaded the church at Corinth were depending on the Law to change men’s lives, but only the Spirit of God can bring about spiritual transformation. The Law can bring only bondage, but the Spirit introduces us into a life of liberty. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15 ).
As a nation, Israel today is spiritually blind; but this does not mean that individual Jews cannot be saved. The church today needs to recover its lost burden for Israel. We are their debtors, because all the spiritual blessings we have came through Israel. “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22 ). The only way we can “pay off” this debt is by sharing the Gospel with them and praying that they might be saved (Rom. 10:1 ).
The personal application (v. 18 ).
“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” This verse is the climax of the chapter, and it presents a truth so exciting that I marvel so many believers have missed it—or ignored it. You and I can share the image of Jesus Christ and go “from glory to glory” through the ministry of the Spirit of God!
Under the Old Covenant, only Moses ascended the mountain and had fellowship with God; but under the New Covenant, all believers have the privilege of communion with Him. Through Jesus Christ, we may enter into the very holy of holies (Heb. 10:19-20)—and we don’t have to climb a mountain!
The “mirror” is a symbol of the Word of God (James 1:22-25 ). As we look into God’s Word and see God’s Son, the Spirit transforms us into the very image of God. It is important, however, that we hide nothing from God. We must be open and honest with Him and not “wear a veil.”
The word translated changed is the same word translated transfigured in the accounts of our Lord’s transfiguration (Matt. 17; Mark 9). It describes a change on the outside that comes from the inside. Our English word metamorphosis is a transliteration of this Greek word. Metamorphosis describes the process that changes an insect from a larva into a pupa and then into a mature insect. The changes come from within.
Moses reflected the glory of God, but you and I may radiate the glory of God. When we meditate on God’s Word and in it see God’s Son, then the Spirit transforms us! We become more like the Lord Jesus Christ as we grow “from glory to glory.” This wonderful process cannot be achieved by keeping the Law. The glory of the Law faded away, but the glory of God’s grace continues to increase in our lives.
Keep in mind that Paul was contrasting, not only the Old Covenant with the New, but also the Old Covenant ministry with the ministry of grace. The goal of Old Covenant ministry is obedience to an external standard, but this obedience cannot change human character. The goal of New Covenant ministry is likeness to Jesus Christ. Law can bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24 ), but only grace can make us like Christ. Legalistic preachers and teachers may get their listeners to conform to some standard, but they can never transform them to be like the Son of God.
The means for Old Covenant ministry is the Law, but the means for New Covenant ministry is the Spirit of God using the Word of God. (By “the Law” I do not mean the Old Testament, but rather the whole legal system given by Moses. Certainly, the Spirit can use both the Old and New Testaments to reveal Jesus Christ to us.) Since the Holy Spirit wrote the Word, He can teach it to us. Even more, because the Spirit lives in us, He can enable us to obey the Word from our hearts. This is not legal obedience, born of fear, but filial obedience born of love.
Finally, the result of Old Covenant ministry is bondage; but the result of New Covenant ministry is freedom in the Spirit. Legalism keeps a person immature and immature people must live by rules and regulations (see Gal. 4:1-7). God wants His children to obey, not because of an external code (the Law), but because of internal character. Christians do not live under the Law, but this does not mean that we are lawless! The Spirit of God writes the Word of God on our hearts, and we obey our Father because of the new life He has given us within.
The lure of legalism is still with us. False cults prey on professed Christians and church members, as did the Judaizers in Paul’s day. We must learn to recognize false cults and reject their teachings. But there are also Gospel-preaching churches that have legalistic tendencies and keep their members immature, guilty, and afraid. They spend a great deal of time dealing with the externals, and they neglect the cultivation of the inner life. They exalt standards and they denounce sin, but they fail to magnify the Lord Jesus Christ. Sad to say, in some New Testament churches we have an Old Testament ministry.
Paul has now explained two aspects of his own ministry: it is triumphant (2 Cor. 1-2) and it is glorious (2 Cor. 3 ). The two go together: “Therefore seeing we have this [kind of] ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not” (2 Cor. 4:1).
When your ministry involves the glory of God—you cannot quit!