Week of February 4, 2018
The Point: God works through us to make a difference.
Ministers of the New Covenant: 2 Corinthians 3:4-12.
 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,  who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end,  will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.  Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it.  For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.  Since we have such a hope, we are very bold. [ESV]
“Confidence and competence [4-5]. The challenge from Corinth had apparently forced Paul to engage in some soul-searching. Was it after all just his opinion against that of the newcomers? What right had he to claim to be a minister of the long-awaited new covenant? Was he perhaps too confident in his theological judgment? Did his achievements merely flow from his own innate zeal and ability? Yet he cannot deny what had happened to these people. He has confidence that these things have actually taken place, although it has nothing to do with his own personal competence (sufficient ).He has not measured himself against his opponents and declared himself to be superior. His confidence, significantly, is directed towards God . Paul, it seems, has laid himself and all he has done before God and he has been able, in his conscience, to declare his ministry to belong to the new covenant, to be true and acceptable to God. He makes it clear, however, that he does not minister before God or draw near to God in his own right or in his own name. It is only through Christ that he has this confidence before God. The three occurrences of sufficient or sufficiency [5-6] refer back to his question: Who is sufficient for these things [2:16]? It appears that here too he is engaging in debate with his opponents. Their claim, apparently, was to powerful self-sufficiency. They regarded Paul as weak and lacking the resources of a true minister. In agreeing with them Paul indicates that what he is engaged in is not his own project but God’s. Yet, by his words, though a mere man, Paul ‘saves’ or ‘destroys’ others. Through his ministry the Spirit of God fundamentally changes other human lives. Can anyone have the power, the resources or the competence, to do these things? The answer must be no; only God Himself can be the source of such things. Of and from himself Paul has no competence, no sufficiency. His competence, like his commission, is from God. The ministry of Paul and all who have subsequently become ministers of the new covenant is not offered for the approval of man but for the endorsement of God. It was before God that Paul had his confidence. Nor does the strength which all ministers of the word of God need come from within themselves. Ministers of the gospel will say with Paul, our sufficiency is from God.
The New Covenant . (a) The new covenant: the Spirit. There are two features of Paul’s response to the new ministers in Corinth – subjective and objective. It is important that they are reminded of his personal character, that he is a person of integrity, called by God and made competent by God for the ministry of the word of God. The confirmation of his apostleship, however, lies not in himself, his powers or resources, but in the effects of his ministry in people, effects which have their origin in Christ. Objectively, Paul states that his opponents are altering the fundamentals of the faith; they are adulterating the word of God. He now turns and explains that word more fully, as it applies to the Corinthians in their present situation. Above all it is vital that they understand that the promises of the old covenant are fulfilled by Christ [1:20] and the coming of the Spirit. Within a few verses he mentions two prominent Old Testament promises which have been realized within the experience of the Corinthians. His references in verse 3 to the Spirit, tablets of stone and human hearts call to mind Ezekiel’s words: I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you [Ezek. 36:26-27]. Then, in verse 6, he refers to a new covenant, which Jeremiah prophesied: The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant … not like the covenant that I made with their fathers [Jer. 31:31-32]. From his vantage point Paul sees both promises focused on Christ and the Spirit of God. He combines the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah into one statement and refers to a new covenant … of the Spirit. Paul’s remarkable claim is that God has made him competent to be a minister of the new covenant, a claim which is open to investigation and verification. There is no doubt that such promises were made. The question is: Were these Corinthian experiences of Christ and the Spirit identifiable with the ancient promises? Therefore we ask: Had these people experienced the forgiveness of sins as promised by Jeremiah? Was the law of God now written within their hearts as Jeremiah and Ezekiel said it would be? The answer to these questions is in the affirmative. Such is the transformation of their lives that Paul is able to refer to them as a new creation [5:17], a people in whose hearts the light of God has shone [4:6]. Let the Corinthians understand that the long-awaited new covenant has come and that, through the ministry of Paul, they have entered it.
(b) The old covenant: death. He contrasts this new covenant with the old covenant, a covenant of the letter, which, he says, kills. He does not say that the law kills. (The word ‘law’, in fact, does not appear within 2 Corinthians.) Elsewhere he wrote that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good [Rom. 7:12]. Moreover, Jeremiah prophesied that in the new covenant the law will be written upon the hearts of the people. The new covenant, therefore, does not abolish the law; it establishes it in the only place it will be effective – in the heart. Under the old covenant the people did not have the spiritual resources to keep the law, or any provision for forgiveness when they broke it. The law became a finger of accusation pointed against them. Until the law had been internalized through the Spirit it remained the ‘letter’, an instrument which ‘kills’. These Hebrew newcomers, apparently, sought to impose the old covenant upon these Gentile Corinthian Christians. While they proclaimed Jesus and the Spirit, it was another Jesus and a different spirit [11:4], though what exactly they did teach, Paul does not say. What is clear is that, in seeking to impose the old covenant upon the Corinthians, they did not accept the radical nature, the newness, of the new covenant, or the power of the Spirit of God. Paul, however, recognized that what they advocated would mean a retreat from life back into death, as he proceeds to explain.
(c) The covenant is with a people. It is important for us to understand that the covenant God makes is not so much with individuals in a private religious sense, as with a people. If the ‘long digression’ begins with a reference to a new covenant [3:6] it concludes with God’s appeal to my people [6:16]. Through the ministry of the word of God these Corinthians have become members of a new covenant of God’s people. Moreover, Paul does not speak of the new covenant as if quite different from the old. It is a new covenant, that is, a new phase of the one great covenant of God with His people which is the subject of the Bible’s story. Thus the Corinthian Christians, who were mostly Gentiles, were to regard the ancient Hebrews as their forefathers [1 Cor. 10:1], and the Gentile Galatian believers were to think of themselves as the sons of Abraham [Gal. 3:7]. Ministry of the gospel to the Gentiles has brought them into God’s covenant people.
The glory of Moses and the glory of Christ [3:7-12]. In opposing the ministry of his opponents’ ‘back-to-Moses’ program, Paul is soon involved in wide-ranging contrasts between old and new covenants. If the old mediated condemnation and death, the new mediates righteousness and life. The old covenant was temporary and is now abolished; the new is permanent and will continue without end. Above all the new covenant mediates the Spirit of God to our lives, transforming them into the likeness of Christ.
Temporary and permanent [3:7-11]. All historical events are calculated in relationship to Christ, as coming before 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. The former ministry is characterized as belonging to Moses, the latter to Christ. Although both Moses and Christ are described as glorious [7,18], their glory is unequal. Now that Christ has come, Moses has no glory at all. Why does Paul, in contrasting the ministries of Moses and Christ, introduce the idea of glory (which he uses sixteen times between 3:7 and 4:17)? The answer probably lies in the new situation in Corinth in which the Jewish missionaries are attempting to win the church over to the law of Moses. They may have claimed that Moses was equal, or even superior, to Christ, and that Christ was merely part of the covenant of Moses. Paul, in response, uses the glory motif, teaching from Exodus 34:29-35 that Moses needed to veil his face to prevent the people from seeing its brightness. According to the apostle this was because the glory of Moses’ face was fading and he did not wish the Israelites to see it fade . In other words, Moses’ ministry of the law was an end beyond itself and that end was Christ. Elsewhere Paul wrote, For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes [Rom. 10:4]. By contrast with Moses, Christ’s glory, as seen by Paul near Damascus, is permanent, infinitely greater and heavenly. But why should the Corinthians have been attracted to the newcomers’ message about Moses and the law? If for modern people the problem with Christianity is its antiquity, the problem people had then was its novelty. People of those times venerated the past, believing that old ideas and customs went back to the gods. Doubtless these ministers pointed to Moses as a venerable figure and to their temple as an ancient institution. Moreover, the Jews were God’s historic people who had, by that time, settled in many parts of the world and represented approximately a tenth of the population of the Roman Empire. The existence of numerous ‘Godfearers’ or Gentile onlookers in the synagogues is evidence of the attractiveness of Judaism to many pagans. 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. Paul, in common with other New Testament writers, taught that Christ was the fulfilment of the covenant God made with the Jews, not a heretical departure from it. The one and the same God who in the time of Moses’ ministry made the promises has seen to their fulfilment in Christ, whom the apostles now proclaimed [1:19]. Paul’s reply to those who said that Christianity was a heretical sect of Judaism was to insist that there is one God, one covenant of promise and fulfilment and one covenant people who believe the word of God spoken as promise or fulfilment. For us now the Old and New Testaments bear witness respectively to promise and fulfilment, and together represent the Scriptures of God for the people of God. The problem, apparently, was that these Christian Jews, in common with unbelieving Jews, insisted that the dispensation of Moses was still current. The newcomers (who were in some sense Christian, though to what extent we do not know) seem to have located Jesus within the Mosaic covenant and to have denied that He was the fulfilment of its promises or the goal to which it pointed. Paul’s response is that, since God has made a new covenant , Christians should not be looking back over their shoulders to the old. In this passage he employs two related modes of argument to persuade the Corinthians not to return to the old, but to remain in the new covenant. First he compares the old covenant adversely with the new. The former ministry was marked by death  and condemnation , whereas the latter is marked by the Spirit  and righteousness . Paul’s negative assessment of the earlier dispensation is in line with opinions of distinguished members of that covenant. My covenant that they broke, is Jeremiah’s verdict on the Hebrews’ behavior after God rescued them from Egypt [Jer. 31:32]. Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy, said, you are a stubborn people. To this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to here [Deut. 9:6; 29:4]. Since they neither observed the laws God gave them, nor had any assurance of His forgiveness when they broke them, the commandments became, not the source of life as originally intended [Deut. 5:33], but a harsh letter  which condemned them and destroyed their fellowship with God. The new covenant, however, has exactly opposite effects. If the ministry of the letter kills, the ministry of the Spirit gives life . If the old covenant issues in condemnation, the new issues in righteousness , which, since it is the opposite of condemnation, must mean ‘acquittal’. This meaning is confirmed in a later passage where Paul associates the righteousness of God with God not counting their trespasses against them [2 Cor. 5:18-21]. According to that passage God does not count the sins of those who are ‘in’ the sinless one, who, in His death, was ‘made … to be sin’ for them. In other words, under the new covenant, God forgives those who believe in and belong to His Son, who died for them. Moreover, God gives these people the Spirit, that is, His own personal presence to indwell and give life to them. These twin blessings of righteousness and the Spirit are referred to elsewhere in the writings of Paul. In one passage he states that we are justified by faith, whereas in another we receive the Spirit … by hearing with faith [Rom. 5:1; Gal. 3:2]. Both righteousness and the Spirit are received when we exercise faith in Christ. Clearly it is because of righteousness, or acquittal, that God gives us life, a living relationship with Himself, through the Spirit. Paul’s second argument against returning to the old covenant is that it is now superseded. If the former ministry came with glory, then the latter will be even more glorious [8,9,11]. However, it is not merely that one ministry is superior; it is, rather, that the lesser, temporary glory of the old did not continue, but concluded, once the greater, permanent glory of the new dispensation arrived. The glory on Moses’ face was fading [7,11,13], or, more accurately, had been abolished. In placing his radiance on Moses’ face, God set limits to its duration. By contrast, the glory of the new ministry is unlimited and permanent . Now that the new has come, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it . In other words, the glory of the old has been deglorified by the infinitely greater glory of the new. In itself the old covenant now has no glory. It is glorious now only in so far as its promises point to the glorious one who was to come. It is not that Paul disowns the former ministry. Had there been no promise, there could have been no fulfilment. Let the readers understand that the period of the old has passed, never to return. There can be no putting back of God’s clock. 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 superseded the old. These persons were but the first of many within Christian history to have confused the covenants.
Paul’s hope and boldness . What is the hope  of which Paul speaks? The previous few verses as well as those that follow leave no doubt that it is the hope of glory which is in mind. The ministry of the new covenant is glorious [8-9]: it imparts glory to those who receive it. What is this glory? God is and always will be invisible to man; what He showed us at various critical points in the Bible story was His glory. When finally we come into His presence we will participate in His glory; we too will be glorified. The glory of God vividly summarizes, in a phrase, all the end-time blessings God will bestow upon His people. This is the hope of God’s people. And it is this hope that gives Paul such boldness in proclaiming the gospel.” [Barnett, pp. 63-71].
Questions for Discussion:
- Paul is faced with the need to defend his ministry in Corinth against opponents who criticize both Paul and his teaching. How does Paul defend himself? Where does Paul find his competence for his ministry? Where does his sufficiency lie? These are key truths for anyone who seeks to serve God in whatever capacity. Where do you find your sufficiency to serve God?
- Paul contrasts the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. List the various contrasts he makes between the two covenants. What is the essential difference between the two covenants? Refer to Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. What does it mean to be a minister of a new covenant?
- Why does Paul, in contrasting the ministries of Moses and Christ, introduce the idea of glory (which he uses sixteen times between 3:7 and 4:17)? Contrast the glory of Moses with that of Christ. What does it mean to you personally to live under the glory of Christ instead of the glory of Moses?
The Message of 2 Corinthians, Paul Barnett, Inter Varsity.
2 Corinthians, David Garland, NAC, B & H Publishers.
2 Corinthians, George Guthrie, ECNT, Baker.