A Living Letter
3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? We don’t need letters of recommendation to you or from you as some other people do, do we? 3:2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone, 3:3 revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts.
‘Behind this passage lies the thought of a custom which was common in the ancient world, that of sending letters of commendation with a person. If someone was going to a strange community, a friend of his who knew someone in that community would give him a letter of commendation to introduce him and to testify to his character.
Here is such a letter, found among the papyri, written by a certain Aurelius Archelaus, who was a beneficiarius, that is a soldier privileged to have special exemption from all menial duties, to his commanding officer, a military tribune called Julius Domitius. It is to introduce and commend a certain Theon.
That was the kind of commendatory letter, or reference, of which Paul was thinking. There is one such in the New Testament. Rom 16 is a letter of commendation written to introduce Phoebe, a member of the Church at Cenchrea, to the Church at Rome. ‘ (DSB)
The issue here is that of testimonial. Paul is saying that the faith and practice of the Corinthians is a much better testimonial to the soundness of his character and ministry than any written document could be.
C. Ryder Smith writes of NT usage: ‘It (the heart) does not altogether lose its physical reference, for it is made of “flesh,” (2 Cor 3:3) but it is the seat of the will, (e.g. Mk 3:5) of the intellect, (e.g. Mk 2:6,8) and of feeling. (e.g. Lk 24:32) This means that “heart” comes the nearest of the NT terms to mean “person”.’
3:4 Now we have such confidence in God through Christ. 3:5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as if it were coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 3:6 who made us adequate to be servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
To claim anything for ourselves – i.e. ‘to consider any part of this process as proceeding from ourselves.’ (Barrett)
Our competence comes from God – ‘That is, ability to bear the burden of responsibility imposed by the apostolic office, and to execute the mission itself, comes from God.’ (Barrett)
‘We apostles, we saints that have habitual grace, yet this lies like water at the bottom of a well, which will not ascend with all our pumping till God pour in his exciting grace, and then it comes.’ (Gurnall)
Cf. 1 Cor 15:10.
Ministers of a new covenant – ‘New’ is kainos, which, in contrast to neos, suggests a newness of quality and not just new in point of time.
‘The thought runs back to 2 Cor 2:14ff. No human being can bear the burden of proclaiming a Gospel that is at the same time “an odour issuing from death and leading to death, and an odour issuing from life and leading to life”. Only God himself can make men sufficient for such a task.’ (Barrett)
‘There had been various covenants in the Old Testament…(That Paul in 2 Corinthians but not in Romans refers to a new covenant is due to the fact that he is dealing with Judaizers)…and the New Testament in general (especially Heb 3) claims that the prediction of a new and better covenant was fulfilled in Jesus, and witnessed to by the wine of the Supper, Mt 24:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25.’ (Barrett)
Not of the letter but of the Spirit – this has often been taken to be opposing the literal meaning of the OT (the ‘letter’ which kills) and its real underlying meaning (‘the Spirit’). But the real meaning of this phrase is defined by the context. The preceding verses contrast the letters, written with pen and ink and which Paul’s rivals carried with them as their authorisation, with the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Corinthian believers. The following verses contrast the law of Moses, conceived and received merely as carved in letters on stone, v7, with the Holy Spirit, v8: these are the principal features of the old and new covenants respectively.
‘By the letter he means an external preaching which does not reach the heart, and by the Spirit life-giving teaching which is, through the grace of the Spirit, given effective operation in men’s souls.’ (Calvin)
The letter kills – the law of Moses kills when it is used as a set of regulations to be observed in order to achieve righteousness before God, Rom 3:20; 10:1-4. This leads to condemnation and death, for no-one can meet the law’s demands.
The Spirit gives life – the ministry of the Spirit is the ministry of a new covenant in which sins are forgiven and God’s holy law is established in people’s hearts, Jer 31:31ff.
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life – ‘The law of God externally engraved on tables of stone is here adversely compared with that same law internally inscribed in the heart of the believer. Sinners confronted by a condemning code could only be killed by it, but the spiritual application of a fulfilled law confers life. Paul neither deprecates the law nor contradicts its plain meaning; he is showing that the natural man’s inability to obey it must result in death (Rom 6:23; 7:6-12; Gal 3:10).’ (Wilson)
This is a favourite text among those who wish to drive a wedge between God’s word and God’s Spirit. They like to set in contrast head-knowledge versus heart-knowledge, reason versus intuition, doctrine versus experience. But the text has nothing to do with such contrasts.
Machen (What is Faith? p187ff) agrees that this is ‘perhaps the most frequently misused utterance in the whole Bible. These words ‘are constantly interpreted to mean that we are perfectly justified in taking the law of God with a grain of salt’, and that we should not become enslaved to the literal details of the law, but rather observe its general principles. But when Paul says that ‘the letter kills’ he is not referring to pedantic literalism, but rather to ‘the terrible majesty of God’s law’. The ‘letter’ (the written law) pronounces a sentence of death on the transgressor. Paul referred to this in Galatians as ‘the curse of the law’. But the Spirit (Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit, not to ‘the spirit of the law’) gives life. ‘God’s law brings death because of sin; but God’s Spirit, applying to the soul the redemption offered by Christ, brings life.’
‘Existence that is man-centred can only die, because it is cut off from the source of true life; existence that is centred upon God is given life by him.’ (Barrett)
The Greater Glory of the Spirit’s Ministry
3:7 But if the ministry that produced death—carved in letters on stone tablets—came with glory, so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory which was made ineffective), 3:8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be?
In 3:7-18 Paul contrasts the ministries of the old and new covenants. In doing so he refers to Ex 34:29-35. His purpose is to highlight the glorious character of the new covenant, and this explains why, despite so many difficulties, he feels competent to the task, he is able to be bold and forthright, he does not lose heart, 4:1. All this is, of course, in opposition to his opponents’ ‘back to Moses’ (Burnett) programme.
It seems that the Jewish missionaries were urging a return to the Mosaic law. Moses, according to these teachers was equal to, or even greater than, Christ. This approach exploited a deeply-held veneration for antiquity – that the old is better than the new. (‘If for modern people the problem with Christianity is its antiquity, the problem people had then was its novelty’ – Barnett). ‘Doubtless these teachers pointed to Moses as a venerable figure and to their temple as an ancient institution…It would have been easy enough for the newcomers to dismiss Paul as a self-appointed, self-recommended upstart peddling a heretical, novel version of Judaism.’ (Barnett) Paul’s answer, is that Christ is the fulfilment of, and not a departure from, the Mosaic dispensation. See 2 Cor 1:19f.
Engraved in letters on stone – This description indicates that Paul does not have in mind the entire Old Testament, or even the whole of the Mosaic revelation, but the Decalogue.
The ministry that brought death…came with glory – Paul is careful not to deprecate the Mosaic dispensation. The law in itself was true and good: coming as it did from God’s hand, it ‘came with glory’. Chrysostom points out that Paul does not say that the law ‘caused’ death, but only that it ‘brought death’: ‘that which caused death was sin; but the law brought in the punishment and showed the sin: it did not cause it.’
Paul is here is, no doubt, answering his opponents, who accused him of despising Moses and the law. But he will show that these false teachers were in error by exalting the law over the gospel. No, says Paul, the old covenant was glorious, but the new is more glorious.
Paul will explain that there is a fourfold contrast between the two ministries:-
- The old is external, written in letters on stone, v7; the new is internal, written on the heart
- The old brings death; (cf. Jer 31:32; Deut 5:33; 9:6) the new brings life, v7.
- The old brings condemnation; the new brings righteousness, v9
- The old fades away; the new continues to the end, v11
‘If splendor attended a ministry that was chiseled in stone, temporary, and resulted in condemnation, how much more must glory attend the ministry of the Spirit, which is inscribed on hearts, is abiding, and leads to acquittal.’ (NAC)
The old ministry is not deprecated; it was glorious, but the new ministry is of surpassing glory. The old was good; the new is best. When the sun comes out, there is no need for a lamp. ‘The hands of God’s clock have now moved from ‘AM’ to ‘PM’. Let the readers understand that the period of the old has passed, never to return.’ (Barnett)
‘What emerges for us from Paul’s teaching is that we must establish sound principles in interpreting the ministries or dispensations of God’s covenant. We cannot, like Paul’s opponents, think and act as if the new had not superceded the old. These persons were but the first of many within Christ history to have confused the covenants.’ (Barnett) Sacerdotalism, dispensationalism, liberation theology, and various forms of legalism and antinomianism all do this in a variety of ways.
The ministry that brought death – Although life was promised to those who kept the law, Le 18:5, no-one in fact does so, and the law therefore pronounces a verdict of death over all transgressors.
‘Whenever we write the date on a letter, we follow, consciously or unconsciously, the long-established custom of dividing history into two parts – BC and AD. Surprisingly, history’s mid-point is not an invention, or the discovery of a continent, or a war, but a person, Jesus Christ. All events are calculated in relationship to Christ, as coming before him or after him. This remarkable practice has its beginning in passages like the one under discussion, where Paul divides history around Christ. His coming ended one ministry and began another.’ (Burnett)
‘To identify the Sinai experience as a ministry of death (3:7) is an astounding assertion for any Jew to make. Jews proclaimed that just the opposite occurred; the law gave life. A later rabbi expressed it this way: “While Israel stood below engraving idols to provoke their Creator to anger…, God sat on high engraving tablets which would give them life.” As a Pharisee, Paul was no different from any other devout Jew who searched the Law and the prophets because he believed he had life in them. (see Jn 5:39) But after his encounter with the risen Lord (4:6), he came to realize that the Law bore witness to Christ. (see Jn 5:47) He also became convinced that the righteousness of God had been manifested in Jesus Christ apart from Law. (see Rom 3:22; 1Co 1:30; 2Co 5:21) It followed that if salvation comes only through Christ, then salvation could not come through the written law. If the law does not lead to life, then it must lead to death, which in turn gives the chance for life. (Rom 7:10; Gal 3:21; 1 Cor 15:56) Because of his faith in Christ, Paul came to view the law – holy, righteous, and good as it was (Rom 7:12) – as a ministry of death.’ (NAC)
Hughes quotes Augustine: ‘What, therefore, do those very vain and perverse persons who follow Pelagius mean by saying that the law is that grace of God which helps us to avoid sin? Do they not, by making such an allegation, unhappily and beyond all doubt contradict the great apostle? He, indeed, says that through the law sin received its strength and power against man; and that man, through the commandment, although it be holy and just and good, dies, death working in him through that which is good, from which death there could be no deliverance unless the Spirit quickened him, whom the letter had killed.’
The Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was – Although there is no reference in the OT narrative to the fading of the radiance from Moses’ face, at the very least it was removed from the Israelites’ view when he himself departed this life.
Will…be – This is a logical, rather than a chronological, future. The ministry of the Spirit is already operative, 1:21f. (Barrett)
The ministry of the Spirit is more glorious than that of the written law, because the Spirit actually causes people to obey God’s commandments.
‘Paul warns the Corinthians that to give heed to Judaizers who exalt the law at the expense of the gospel is to turn away from that salvation which is theirs by grace through faith alone.’ (Wilson)
‘The prophets had compared the new covenant favorably with the old (Jer 31:31-34) and spoken of the Spirit and the internalized law to come as the ideal. (Eze 36:26-27) Thus no one could deny that the Spirit of God in one’s heart was better than a law scroll before one’s eyes.’ (The IVP Bible background commentary).
‘If Christianity is superior to the Judaism of the Old Testament, which was the highest form of religion on earth, it will surely be superior to any other contemporary religion.’ (Life Application)
3:9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 3:10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 3:11 For if what was made ineffective came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory!
The ministry that brings righteousness – So called ‘because under its provisions those who are certainly guilty of transgressions are nevertheless accounted righteous by God.’ (Kruse) In this brief statement, a large part of the argument of the Epistle to the Romans is summarised. Despite all the problems at Corinth, Paul could pretty much take this for granted, since he had spent no less that 18 months teaching at Corinth.
‘Righteousness’ is used here as an antonym of ‘condemnation’, and must therefore mean ‘acquital’.
It is a much greater and more glorious thing to acquit a sinner than to condemn him. ‘It takes only the letter of the law on slabs of stone to condemn him, but it required the blood of God’s own Son and the Spirit’s quickening power to make him the heir of an everlasting righteousness.’ (Lenski)
The law is distinguished from grace ‘because the one is good in that it commands good things, the other in that it confers good things; the one makes a hearer, the other a doer, of righteousness.’ (Herveius, quoted by Hughes)
‘The office of the law is to show us the disease in such a way that it gives us no hope of a cure; whereas the office of the gospel is to bring a remedy to those who are past hope. For the law, since it leaves man to himself, necessarily condemns him to death; whereas the gospel, by bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life.’ (Calvin)
‘Christ is the believer’s righteousness, 1 Cor 1:30: first of all in justification, whereby Christ’s obedience is reckoned to the sinner on the ground that the penalty of the sinner’s disobedience has been borne by Christ, who suffered the Righteous for the unrighteous, 1 Pet 3:18; and then in sanctification, whereby the Holy Spirit causes the believer to grow more and more in obedience and likeness to Christ, Eph 4:13,15; Gal 4:19.’ (Hughes)
‘Looked at in itself, Mount Sinai is a scene of glory, but it is nothing in comparison with the clearer revelation of God’s mind in the Gospel. This disparagement, even though it be a relative disparagement, of Torah is an extraordinary observation to come from the pen of a Jew, and must be borne in mind in any final assessment of Paul’s attitude o the law.’ (Barrett)
Just as the brightness of a lamp fades away with the rising of the sun, so the glory of the Mosaic covenant fades away with the coming of Christ.
‘Even though my Lord Jesus Christ excels Moses in glory, as a lord excels his servant, it does not follow from this that the glory of Moses is to be scorned…Thus, although a person kindles a lamp in the night time, after the sun has once risen he has no further need of the paltry light of his lamp, on account of that effulgence of the sun which sends further its rays all the world over; and yet, for all that, the man does not throw his lamp contemptuously away, as if it were something absolutely antagonistic to the sun; but rather, when he has once found out its use, he will keep it with all the greater carefulness. Precisely in this way, then, the law of Moses served as a sort of guardian to the people, like a lamp until the true Sun, who is our Saviour, should arise.’ (Archelaus 3rd cent., quoted by Hughes)
What was fading away came with glory – ‘The old covenant was glorious. Not only did Moses’ face shine, but thunder, lightning, earthquakes, dense clouds, blazing fire, and a deafening trumpet blast accompanied its inauguration at Mount Sinai.’ (Ex 19:16-20) (Life Application)
The law a real, but limited and temporary, splendour. So much greater and more enduring is the glory of Christ. It was seen during the days of his flesh – especially at his Transfiguration. It was seen on the day of Pentecost. It continues to be seen in the changed lives of thousands. ‘God’s saving of human souls is greater than anything we consider great in this world-big houses, fat bank accounts, fame, or power and influence. God’s merciful work in people’s lives goes largely unnoticed by many. They take it for granted. But this is the work that brings the most glory to God-a glory that all the fire, smoke, and lightning of the old covenant could not surpass.’ (Life Application)
It is not that the law itself was fading away, but the ministry, or dispensation, of the law.
The glory of that which lasts – The old dispensation and its ministry were temporary, the new is permanent. There is nothing to intervene, no new revelation, no new economy, between the gospel and its ministry, and the final consummation. Whoever are to be converted, whatever nations are to be brought in, it must be by the preaching of the gospel, “which remaineth,” or is to continue, according to Christ’s promise, until the end of the world.’ (Hodge)
3:12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness, 3:13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the result of the glory that was made ineffective.
Since we have such a hope – we hope (confidently expect) the glory of the gospel to endure (v11).
‘”Hope” does not refer, as it generally does in our culture, to some wistful daydream or airy optimism that may have little foundation in reality. Paul is not saying, “I hope this is true.” “Hope” denotes for him a supreme confidence grounded in divine realities (see 3:4).’ (NAC)
‘As Paul explained in his letter to the Romans, Christian hope is a confident expectation that God will do what he promises to do. Just as Abraham fully expected that God would make him a father of many nations, (Rom 4:18-21) Christians, too, can confidently expect that God will give them eternal salvation. (Rom 5:5) This type of confidence in the faithfulness of God inspired Paul to publicly proclaim the Good News of salvation.’ (Life Application)
We are very bold – parresia = freedom of speech, confidence, outspokenness. This is in contrast to the flattering speech of many false teachers. It is the speech of a true friend, 1Th 2:2; Phm 8; Php 1:20. Paul will later insist that he did not take them in by guile (2 Cor 12:16), did not intend to bring them grief (2 Cor 2:2, 4; 7:8f), and wants them to make peace (2 Cor 13:11). See Pr 27:6.
Boldness of speech ‘characterized the early Christians (cf. Acts 2:29 4:13,29,31) and Paul (cf. Eph 6:19 Php 1:20) in their testimony against Jews and Gentiles. The believers were not ashamed of the Gospel, because they knew it had an inner power and vitality that could not be found elsewhere.’ (cf. Rom 1:16-17) (Wycliffe Bible Commentary)
‘Moralists and other speakers commonly used his word for “boldness” (NASB, NRSV) here to explain that they spoke forthrightly; they thus contended that they were not flatterers like the demagogues who sought popular support but did not care about the masses.’ (NT Background Cmty)
‘Boldness is not to be confused with cockiness or insensitivity. Rather, it is an ability to confidently communicate what you know to be true even when present circumstances would point in another direction. How would those who know you best evaluate you in terms of boldness in your ministry? If you lack the boldness you feel God has entitled you to, what would account for living below your means? Lack of knowledge of what God has promised? Lack of trust in what he claims? Lack of preparation in communicating it?’ (Life Application)
‘Paul’s boldness in his ministry lay in the eternal nature of the new covenant. Paul could act with greater confidence than the spiritual giant Moses, for Paul had been given an eternal message to proclaim to all nations. God’s plan for salvation was no longer hidden. It was not only a time to celebrate God’s great mercy, it was also a time for boldness. It was a time to declare God’s glory to all the nations, making disciples of whoever turned to God for the gift of salvation.’ (Life Application)
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face – Moses’ ministry was marked by a measure of concealment, but the Christian ministry is characterised by openness. ‘Moses did not act towards the children of Israel with the same complete frankness that Paul employed towards to Corinthians (for Paul’s insistence on this cf. e.g. 2 Cor 1:18f; 6:11ff).’ (Barrett)
To keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away – This is not stated in Ex 34:32ff, but is an inference drawn by Paul.
NRSV translates: ‘to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.’ The word telos can mean ‘end’ either in the sense of ‘terminus’ or ‘goal’. If the latter is meant here, then the glory of Moses’ face was the glory of the pre-existent Christ, the goal of the old dispensation. But most commentators prefer the first sense.
‘We understand Paul to mean that Moses placed a veil over his face so that the people might not gaze right to the end of the glory which was passing away, that is, that they might not behold it without interruption of concealment.’ (Hughes)
‘Paul saw in the fading brightness a symbol of the transitory character of the old covenant, and inferred that Moses, lacking boldness because he was the minister of a fading covenant, veiled his face so that the Israelites might not see its end.’ (Kruse)
3:14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 3:15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds, 3:16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
Their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read – That is to say, when the law of Moses is read in the synagogue. Paul’s regular practice when visiting a new city was to go the local synagogue and preach to the Jews. He had done this at Corinth, but the Jews there rejected his message, Acts 18:1-7. The Jews should have welcomed Christ as their promised Messiah, to whom the Scriptures pointed. Romans 9-11 deals extensively with the Jewish rejection of Christ. This passage in 2 Cor 3 gives a short summary of why this rejection took place. ‘This passage pictures the reading of the Law and the Prophets in the synagogue. As Paul’s travelogue in Acts reveals, he had been in these services many times. These verses express what was going through Paul’s mind at the time. He was astonished that the Jews could not understand the one to whom the Scriptures were pointing: Jesus Christ. A real veil covered their minds and their hearts-the very center of their intellectual, social, and spiritual selves-so that they could not understand the truth. But in Christ the veil is miraculously lifted. Just as Christ had opened Paul’s spiritual eyes to the truth about Jesus, the Holy Spirit would also open believers’ eyes to how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures.’ (Life Application)
‘We are warned of the terrible possibility of intellectual hardening when face to face with the glorious revelation of divine truth; and the responsibility is proportionately greater of those who are confronted, not with the partial and transient glory of the law, but with the surpassing and permanent glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ (Hughes)
Only in Christ is it taken away – ‘When people become believers in Christ, they experience at the same time the removal of the veil of ignorance and unbelief which previously prevented them from understanding the true meaning of the Old Testament, i.e. its witness to Jesus Christ and the end of the old covenant which his coming brought about.’ (Kruse)
‘The Old Testament scriptures are intelligible only when understood as predicting and prefiguring Christ.’ (Hodge) See Lk 24:44-45; Jn 5:46-47.
There is no contradiction between the two covenants. One is preparatory, Gal 3:24; Rom 10:4; Mt 5:17; the other is fulfilment.
Paul is speaking from experience. As a ‘Hebrews of the Hebrews’, Php 3:5 the veil had covered his mind and heart until Jesus Christ removed it.
Barrett points out that the reading of the Torah was a part of every synagogue service, and adds: ‘the Torah contained the truth, but it could not penetrate through the veil to the hearer’s hearts.’
Whenever anyone turns to the Lord – ‘”The Lord” (Yahweh, LXX Kyrios) before whom Moses went in, Ex 34:34, is one and the same Lord (= Christ) to whom the people are invited to turn even now.’ (Hughes, who quotes Article VII of the Church of England, which says, ‘the Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man’).
Anyone – Some would argue that this specifically refers to the hitherto blinded Jews. The Puritans therefore often quoted this verse as support for latterday turning of many Jews to their Messiah (see Murray, The Puritan Hope, p60). So also J.C. Ryle, in Coming events and Present duties.
The veil is taken away – by the Lord. ‘It is God himself who opens men’s minds to the Gospel; conversion rests ultimately upon the mercy of God (cf Rom 9:16).’ (Barrett)
‘When Moses turned to God, he removed the veil. (see Ex 34:34) In the same way, when a person turns to Christ-God’s only Son-the veil is taken away by Christ himself. The veil represents the sin that clouds the person’s understanding about God’s great plan of salvation. The idea of turning implies repentance-a conscious rejection of one’s old ways and a turning to God and his ways. The image of turning to God in the Old Testament always implies turning away from false gods.’ (2 Chron 34:2; Ps 53:3; Jer 17:5) (Life Application)
For evangelism to be successful, it is necessary not only for the message to be truly proclaimed, but also for people to be enabled to ‘see’ its truth. There is a veil over their eyes, which only the Spirit of God can remove. That is why prayer is so important. We can achieve nothing unless God awakens a sense of need and illuminates the mind to understand.
‘The Old Testament Scriptures are intelligible only when understood as predicting and prefiguring Christ…The knowledge of Christ, as a matter of fact and as a matter of course, removes the veil from the Old Testament…The main idea of the whole context is, that the recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord, or Jehovah, is the key to the Old Testament. It opens all its mysteries, or, to use the figure of the apostle, it removes the veil that hid from the Jews the true meaning of their own Scriptures, As soon as they turn to the Lord, i.e., as soon as they recognise Jesus Christ as their Jehovah, then everything becomes bright and clear.’ (Hodge)
3:17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom. 3:18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
The Lord is the Spirit – Or, ‘”The Lord” means “the Spirit”‘ (Bruce). This expression does not confuse the identities of Christ and the Spirit, but it does emphasise the unity of their work. ‘The Spirit is the Lord at work’ (F.D. Bruner).
Or, this verse can be seen as paralleling 1 Cor 15:45:-
1 Cor 15:45 – ‘The last Adam (Christ) became a life-giving spirit’.
2 Cor 3:6,17 – ‘but the spirit gives life…the Lord (Christ) is the spirit.’
‘The Lord’ who removes the veil is ‘the Spirit’, ‘who accompanies the apostolic preaching and gives it its power so that it is no longer a merely human word but the word of God (1 Thess 2:13; cf. 1 Cor 2:4), and thus inscribes the truth of the Gospel of the new covenant in the hearts of believers, 3:3.’ (Barrett)
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom – This freedom is not, of course, license to do as one pleases. Negatively, ‘it is freedom from law, from sin, and from death’ (Barrett). Positively, it is freedom to exercise the ministry of the new covenant with confidence and boldness.
‘The Jews were in bondage to the letter which kills, but Christians have entered into the liberty of Christ…It is important that the man who has been made free in Christ should not return into any kind of unevangelical bondage. Hence the reminder to the Romans that the spirit they had received was the spirit of adoption, not of bondage again to fear, Rom 8:15′ (Hughes). See also Gal 5:1.
What kind of freedom does this refer to? Under the old covenant of the law there is bondage, but under the new covenant, where the Spirit of the Lord is the operative power, there is freedom. ‘There is no more remembrance of sins, Rom 4:6-8, and no condemnation of the sinner, Rom 8:1. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, Rom 8:15-16, and walking by the Spirit the righteous demands of the law are fulfilled in us, Rom 8:34-35. Such liberty engenders boldness, and so in 2 Cor 3:12-13 Paul can say he is ‘very bold’ (in his dealings with the Corinthians), unlike Moses, who lacked that boldness (towards the Israelites).’ (Kluse)
According to Wright, Paul has in mind ‘freedom of speech, boldness, openness, and honesty in proclaiming and defending the gospel’. (cp. 2 Cor 2:17; 4:1-2)
We could say that this is freedom from sin and condemnation, Rom 8:1-4 Gal 3:21-24, from death, the penalty of sin, Rom 5:17-18, from the evil powers of this age, Gal 1:4, from ignorance of God’s plan of salvation, 2 Cor 3:14. It is freedom to proclaim and defend the gospel boldly.
‘He means that so long as man’s obedience to God is conditioned by obedience to a code of laws he is in the position of an unwilling slave. But when it comes from the operation of the Spirit in his heart, the very centre of his being has no other desire than to serve God, for then it is not law but love which binds him. Many things which we would resent doing under compulsion for some stranger are a privilege to do for someone we love. Love clothes the humblest and the most menial tasks with glory. “In God’s service we find our perfect freedom.”‘ (DSB)
Concerning liberty before God, and free speaking to him, ‘many do much question their state, because of the want of this now and then, since the Scripture has said, ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’; (2Co 3:17) but they do unjustly confine that liberty spoken of there unto this free speaking before God. I grant, where the Spirit of the Lord savingly discovers God’s will in the Scriptures to a man, there is liberty from any obligation to the ceremonial law, and from the condemning power of the moral law, and from much of that gross darkness and ignorance which is naturally on men’s hearts as a veil hiding Christ in the gospel from them. I grant also, that sometimes even this liberty, which is a free communing with God, and ‘ordering of our cause before him, and filling of our mouths with arguments’, (Job 23:4) is granted to the godly, but not as liberty taken in the former senses. Although the Lord has obliged himself to ‘pour out the spirit of prayer upon all the house of David’, (Zec 12:10) in some measure, yet this communication of the Spirit, which we call liberty or free speaking unto God, dependeth much on the Lord’s absolute pleasure, when, and in what measure to allow it. This liberty, which we call freedom or free speaking with God in prayer, is sometimes much withdrawn as to any great confidence in the time of prayer, at least until it draw towards the close of it. It standeth much in a vivacity of the understanding to take up the case which a man is to speak before God, so that he can order his cause; and next there be words, or verbal expressions, elegant, suitable, and very emphatical, or powerful and pithy. There is also joined a fervency of spirit in prayer, of which the Scripture speaks; the soul is warm and bended, and very intent. There is also ordinarily in this liberty a special melting of the heart often joined with a great measure of the ‘spirit of grace and supplication.’ (Zec 12:10) So the soul is poured out before God as for a firstborn. Such is the liberty which many saints get before God, whilst, in much brokenness of heart and fervency of spirit, they are admitted to speak their mind fully to God, as a living God, noticing (at least) their prayer. Sometimes this liberty is joined with confidence: and then it is not only a free, but also a bold speaking before God. It is that ‘boldness with confidence’ (Eph 3:12) -‘In whom we have boldness and access with confidence, by the faith of him.’ This is more rarely imparted unto men than the former, yet it is ordinary: it has in it, besides what we mentioned before, some influence of the Spirit upon faith, making it put forth some vigorous acting in prayer. There is a sweet mournful frame of spirit, by which a man poureth out his heart in God’s bosom, and with some confidence of his favor and goodwill, pleadeth his cause before him as a living God; and this is all the sensible presence that many saints do attain unto. There is no ground of doubt concerning a man’s state in the point of liberty before God, in this last sense, because there is nothing essential to the making up of a gracious state here: some have it, some want it; some have it at sometimes, and not at others; so that it is much up and down; yet I may say gracious men may do much, by a very ordinary influence, in contributing towards the attaining and retaining, or keeping of such a frame of spirit.’ (Guthrie)
We…all – not just ‘we apostles’, still less, ‘we priests’, but ‘all we Christians’, in contrast to the unbelieving Jews. ‘In the old dispensation only one man, Moses, gazed with unveiled face on the divine glory. Now, in the gospel age, however, this is the blessed privilege of all who are Christ’s.’ The divine glory at mount Sinai was mediated through Moses, but we behold it directly. We have had the veil removed and, in beholding Christ’s glory are being transformed into his likeness.
Reflect – the Gk here usually means ‘behold’ (so ESV, REV, NRSV), although it can mean ‘reflect’ (so Good News Translation, NASB; AV has ‘beholding as in a glass’, NJJK ‘beholding as in a mirror’, NLT ‘see and reflect’). The former is perhaps the most likely here: ‘beholding as in a mirror’. Paul is basing his teaching here on Ex 34:33-35, in which Moses was beholding, rather than reflecting, the glory of the Lord; the idea of beholding is also present in 2 Cor 4:6. This beholding takes place as the ‘veils’ are removed from our minds and we see in the gospel ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’, 2 Cor 4:6. But we do not ‘behold’ God directly in this life: ‘They see not God but Christ the image of God.’ (Barrett)
‘Though in comparison with the unconverted those who are turned to the Lord see clearly, or with an unveiled face, still it is only as in a mirror. 1 Cor 13:12. It is not the immediate, beatific vision of the glory of the Lord, which is only enjoyed in heaven, but it is that manifestation of his glory which is made in his word and by his Spirit, whose office it is to glorify Christ by revealing him to us. Jn 16:14.’ (Hodge)
We all reflect (behold) the Lord’s glory – we behold Christ, who is the ‘image of God’, 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15, and ‘the radiance of God’s glory’, Heb 1:3. To see him is to see the Father, Jn 14:9, and to behold his glory is to behold the glory of God’s one-and-only Son, Jn 1:14.
We…are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory – ‘Seeing Jesus the image of God they are, not deified but, transformed into the same image, the glory they share with him ever increasing.’ (Barrett)
How can this be described? How can we know if it is taking place in ourselves?
In beholding his glory we are transformed into his image. That image is not only the image of God, but the true image of man, once defaced but now in the process of being renewed. See Col 3:10, where Paul states that we have ‘put on the new man (self), which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’.
The word translated ‘transformed’ (metamorphoo) occurs in three other places in the NT – Mt 17:2 and Mk 9:2, where it is used of Christ’s transfiguration, and Rom 12:1, where it is used of the moral transformation of the believer.
The language of transformation is also used by Paul in 1 Cor 15:51f, but in connection with the resurrection of the body. There is no real conflict here: the present passage speaks of a moral transformation, whereas the other deals with a physical transformation. What both have in common is they both take place ‘in Christ’: we are united with Christ both in present moral conduct and in in future bodily resurrection. The idea of resurrection as suggestive of moral transformation is also found in Rom 6:1–11; 2 Cor 4:10–12; 5:15; 13:4; Gal 5:24–25; 6:14–15; Col 2:12 and Eph 2:5–6. (See DPL, art. ‘Resurrection’).
This transformation is ‘into the Lord’s image’. It is ‘the moral transformation which is taking place in their lives so that they approximate more and more to the likeness of God expressed perfectly in the life of Jesus Christ.’ (Kruse)
This glory is ‘ever-increasing’, in contrast to the fading glory of Moses.
‘In justification, through faith in Jesus Christ the sinner is accepted in Christ, cf. 2 Cor 5:17 who himself is the pure and perfect Image of God, and that divine image is freely imputed to the believer. In sanctification, through the operation of the Holy Spirit who enables the believer constantly to behold the glory of the Lord, that image is increasingly imparted to the Christian. In glorification, justification and sanctification become complete in one, for that image is then finally impressed upon the redeemed in unobscured fulness, to the glory of God through all eternity.’ (Hughes)
See Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19; Php 3:21; 1 Jn 3:2.