August 7: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

This is the first of three notes on 2 Corinthians 3:1-18, which I am dividing into three portions:

2 Corinthians 3:1-6 [verse 6]

Throughout chapters 1-7, Paul is dealing primarily with his role as an apostle and, in particular, with his relationship to the believers in Corinth. At various points there are suggestions of opposition to Paul, including the situation referenced in 2:1-11, regarding which he had sent an earlier “painful letter” (vv. 5, 9). Specific (but unidentified) opponents are addressed far more directly (and harshly) in chapters 10-13. The context of chs. 10-13 suggests that at least some of these opponents are Jewish Christians (11:21ff), as in Galatians (cf. also Phil 3:2ff and Col 2:11ff, 16-18), and this may inform the rhetorical approach in 2 Cor 3 as well.

The theme in verse 1-6 involves “letters of commendation”; the word sustatiko/$ is derived from suni/sthmi/sunista/w (“stand [together] with”), in the sense of placing things together (and presenting them) in front of someone. As a technical term, it came to be applied to letters a person carried, introducing him/her to another group or in a place where he/she was not known. In the ancient world, which lacked modern-day high-speed communication, such practice was necessary to establish a person’s identity and credentials; it also could serve as a source of authority and legitimacy. Naturally enough, the more impressive or prestigious the letter of recommendation, the more influence it provided; even today, the right letter of recommendation still carries tremendous weight for prospective employers, and so forth. It is possible that Paul’s opponents included visiting “apostles” who possessed such letters and credentials. In vv. 1-6, he argues that neither he nor his colleagues require written letters recommending them to the believers of Corinth, since they are already well known—that is to say, this written authentication is already there in the hearts of the believers, having been written by the very Spirit of God (v. 4). He is referring primarily to the work of preaching the Gospel, which the Corinthian believers accepted; as a result they themselves become “the epistle of Christ”, under the service/ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries.

It is interesting the way that this image leads Paul so readily to the dualistic juxtaposition contrasting the old and new covenants, in terms of “the written (word/letter) [to\ gra/mma]” and “the Spirit [to\ pneu=ma]”. See how this contrast in made, twice, in vv. 1-3 and 4-6:

    • Commendatory letters for apostles—believers under their ministry
      • written in the heart
        • contrast with being written in tablets of stone (v. 3)
    • Confidence for apostles before God—ministers of a new covenant
      • of the Spirit
        • contrast with the written word (v. 6)

When examining verses 7-11, it will be necessary to consider just why Paul makes this connection here between his apostolic ministry and the old covenant established with Israel. For the time being, we should focus upon the formulation in verse 6, where, after identifying himself (and his colleagues) as “servants/ministers of a new covenant“, Paul adds:

“…not of (the) written (word), but of (the) Spirit; for the written (word) kills off, but the Spirit makes alive”

To someone unfamiliar with Galatians and Romans, this would be a striking declaration, especially his statement that the “written (word) kills”—that is, the Law, specifically in its written form, brings death. Paul explains and expounds this idea in Romans 5-7 (note, in particular, Rom 7:7ff); even so, it must have been rather shocking to believers at the time—as it still is for many today. For the particular identification of the Law with the written word (gra/mma), see Rom 2:27, 29; 7:6, and note also Col 2:14. In Rom 2:27-29 and 7:6 there is the same contrast between the Spirit and the written word.

How are we to understand this stark distinction between the written word and the Spirit? On the surface, it would seem to raise question as to the authority and role of Scripture itself. But one must be cautious about proceeding in this direction; Paul is referring primarily to the written record of the Law (in the Pentateuch), which is also, secondarily, expounded and declared in the Prophets (and Psalms)—this accords squarely with Jewish and early Christian tradition. It is noteworthy how rarely Paul cites the Old Testament Scriptures for the purpose of instruction; his usage is limited mainly to (prophetic) support of the Gospel—and his particular exposition and application of the Gospel. To this must be added his remarkable teaching regarding the fundamental purpose of the Law—which is to bring knowledge and awareness of sin (Rom 3:20), that is to say, it makes fully manifest the reality that human beings are enslaved under the power of sin (Gal 3:19ff, also Rom 7:7ff). Without a recognition of God’s saving work in Christ, even those scrupulously observing the commands of the Law (and studying Scripture) remain fully in bondage under sin. In this sense, the Law leads to death, not life (Rom 7:9-11ff). This Paul will explain again in more detail, continuing with verses 7-11, which I will discuss in the next daily note.

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