2 Corinthians 3:1-18, continued
Having established the contrast between the written word (gra/mma) and the Spirit (pneu=ma) in verse 6 (cf. the previous note), along with the motif of the Law (Torah) being written by the finger of God (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10), in the remainder of chapters 3 (vv. 7-18) Paul embarks on an exposition of the difference between the old and new covenants (diaqh=kai). He draws upon the Moses narratives and traditions in the book of Exodus; in particular, Paul takes a midrashic interpretive approach to Exodus 34:29-35, which describes Moses’ return from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets of the Covenant.
This contrast between the old and new covenants is centered on the idea of “glory” (do/ca). In Greek, the word do/ca has the basic meaning of “what one thinks” about something, how it is considered or regarded, often in the (positive) sense of “reputation, renown, honor, esteem, dignity”, etc. It can also carry the more objective meaning “appearance”, including various visual phenomena, especially involving light, brightness, and so forth. It can be applied to God in both primary senses—(1) as the esteem and honor which is (to be) accorded to him, and (2) the brightness and visual phenomena which is manifested by his presence. Do/ca is frequently used to render dobK* (lit. “weight”, i.e. worth, value) in Hebrew, a word which has a similar semantic range, especially when associated with YHWH.
In 2 Cor 3:7-11, Paul makes use of a series of qal wa-homer arguments—a traditional (Jewish) principle of interpretation, which argues from the lesser to the greater: if something is true in this (lesser) case, then how much more is it to be so regarded in the (greater) case. According to this mode of argument (a fortiori), Paul is working from the basic assumption that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant which God established with Israel at Sinai. The first two arguments (in vv. 7-9) involve the diakoni/a (“service, ministry”), that is, the administration of the covenant—in the case of the old covenant this began with Moses (and Aaron) and continued through the established priesthood and ritual apparatus (Temple, sacrificial offerings, purity regulations, etc), as well as through teaching and tradition. Note the contrast:
- Vv. 7-8: service/ministry of death [h( diakoni/a tou= qana/tou]
- service/ministry of the Spirit [h( diakoni/a tou= pneu/mato$]
- Vers. 9: service/ministry of judgment against [h( diakoni/a th=$ katakri/sew$]
- service/ministry of justice/righteousness [h( diakoni/a th=$ dikaiosu/nh$]
- Vv. 7-8: service/ministry of death [h( diakoni/a tou= qana/tou]
The characterization of the old covenant as “the ministry of death” is striking; for the uniquely Pauline view on the relationship between the Law, sin and death, read carefully Romans 5-7 (cf. the articles on 5:12-21 and 7:7-25 in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”), and note also in Gal 3:10-14, 19-22; 1 Cor 15:56. In vv. 7-8 here, the qal wa-homer argument is:
“If the ministry of death came to be in (such) esteem [do/ca]… how will the ministry of the Spirit not (even) more be in esteem?”
The old covenant came to have glory/esteem (perf. of the verb doca/zw), but now it has come to have no glory/esteem (again, with the perfect of doca/zw). It is hard to imagine a more antinomian statement by Paul—the old covenant, with its written Law, now has no glory. However, he makes clear that this is true only in one respect: because the glory of the new covenant goes so far beyond it (the verb u(perba/llw means to throw or cast something over/beyond, i.e. past a particular distance or measure). This is an important principle for understanding Paul’s apparently negative statements regarding the Law—its binding force has come to an end because of Christ. To neglect or ignore this overwhelming Christocentric emphasis leaves the commentator with no hope of properly understanding Paul’s thought.
If there was any doubt that, in his mind, the old covenant has come to an end, he makes this clear in verse 11, using the verb katarge/w—literally to “make (something) cease working”, i.e. render inactive, ineffective, often in the technical (legal) sense of “nullify, invalidate, make void”, etc. This word appears already at the end of verse 7 (and will be used again in vv. 13-14); for its use by Paul elsewhere (with regard to the Law), see Rom 3:31; 4:14; 7:2, 6; Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11; and also Eph 2:15. The second verb is me/nw, “remain (in place), abide”. The contrast is clear enough: the old covenant ceases to be in effect, the new covenant remains and lasts; one is temporary, the other permanent.
The new covenant (kainh\ diaqh/kh) is governed by the Spirit (vv. 6-8), and not by the Torah; indeed, the Spirit takes the place of the Torah, a principle which many Christians have been, and still are, unable (or unwilling) to accept, in spite of the clear teaching on the subject by Paul (and elsewhere in the New Testament). We will examine the point further in the next daily note (on his references to the Spirit in Galatians). However, the emphasis in 2 Cor 3:1-18 is on Paul and his fellow missionaries as ministers of this new covenant. In this light, in verses 12-18, he continues his contrast of old vs. new covenant, utilizing the motif of the covering (ka/lumma) that Moses kept over his face (cf. Exod 34:29-35) when he met with the people after speaking to God.
In the initial period of the old covenant, the people were wholly dependent on Moses as the prophet or spokesperson (ayb!n`) who communicated the word and will of God to them. Apostles and missionaries such as Paul served a similar role in the new covenant, but with a major difference: the communication of the Gospel of Christ took place without any covering, the ‘veil’ having been removed. The implication of this is that the people (i.e. believers) now are able to experience the presence and glory of God directly, without any intermediary. This is due to the fact that, with the communication (and acceptance) of the Gospel, believers receive the very Spirit of God. Paul’s wording in verse 16 is striking (and rather controversial) in this regard:
“But whenever (one) would turn about toward the Lord, the covering is taken (up from) around (him).”
This removal of the covering (symbolized by the veil of Moses) has two aspects in its meaning:
- people are able to experience the full revelation of God, and
- it signifies that the old covenant (of Moses and the Torah) has come to an end (cf. Rom 10:4)
The latter aspect means that believers in Christ are freed from the old covenant and its Torah, and this freedom (e)leuqeri/a) is due to our contact with the Spirit of God:
“And the Lord is the Spirit, and that which (is) of the Spirit of (the) Lord, (is) freedom [e)leuqeri/a].” (v. 17)
Insofar as we turn to God’s Spirit, we have complete freedom—meaning, in this context, primarily, freedom from the Law (Torah). Use of the title “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) in such passages can be somewhat ambiguous, as a result of the dual-use by early Christians, where the title can refer to God the Father (YHWH) or to Jesus Christ, interchangeably. Here the expression “Spirit of the Lord” presumably means the Spirit of God, though Paul does, on occasion, also use the expression “Spirit of Christ“. Among first-century Christians the dual point of reference regarding the Spirit—whether of God the Father or Jesus (the Son)—reflected a complex theological understanding which was still in the process of development. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes. There can be no doubt, however, that the idea of turning to the Spirit of the Lord entails acceptance of the Gospel, and of conforming our lives to the presence of Christ dwelling in us.
This latter point is emphasized especially in the famous concluding words to this section (v. 18). Given the overall focus of the passage, one might expect Paul to end with another reference to the role of apostles—persons called to represent Christ and preach the Gospel—and yet, following the association of the Spirit and freedom in verse 17, he moves in an entirely different direction: “but we all…” The glory of the old covenant was associated with a special person—Moses—who was set apart to represent God for the people; only he spoke directly with God, and the glory shone only from his face. How different is the new covenant, where every believer in Christ beholds the glory of the Lord, and is transformed, in a permanent manner, far greater than the transfiguration that Moses experienced. The true apostle and missionary does not emphasize his (or her) own abilities and accomplishments—ultimately the new covenant is administered and shared by all believers together.
In prior notes, we discussed the idea of the “democratization” of the Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration, in which God’s Spirit (and the prophetic spirit) would come upon all people, the nation as a whole, rather than upon specific chosen/gifted individuals. This was reflected most notably, for early Christians, by the citation of Joel 2:28-29 in Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2:17-18). The reference to Moses, here in our passage, brings to mind the tradition in Numbers 11:16-30 (discussed in an earlier note), in which seventy elders were allowed to share in the prophetic spirit—the Spirit of YHWH—that had been upon Moses exclusively. For believers in Christ, the inclusivity extends even further—to all of God’s people, essentially fulfilling the very wish, expressed by Moses himself:
“…who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+ [i.e. prophets], (and) that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!” (Num 11:29)