January 24: 2 Corinthians 3:4-6a

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 2-3; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:4-6a

“And such (is the) assurance we hold through the Anointed toward God.” (v. 4)

The conjunction de/ relates verse 4 to vv. 1-3 (see the discussion in the previous note). Thus, when he speaks of “such assurance” (pepoi/qhsi$ toiau/th$), Paul is referring to the commendatory ‘letters’ he and his fellow missionaries possess, written upon their hearts by the Spirit of God. Indeed, it is a letter sent out (e)pistolh/) that belongs to Jesus Christ himself. Paul carries this ‘letter’ wherever he goes, as an apostolic missionary, a servant of Christ.

The noun pepoi/qhsi$, derived from the perfect form of the verb pei/qw (“persuade”), occurs only in Paul’s letters in the New Testament, including three more times in 2 Corinthians—1:15; 8:22; 10:2; also Phil 3:4 and Eph 3:12. The verb can carry the more general sense of “trust, rely (upon),” and the noun essentially denotes “assurance, confidence”. The polemic (and apologetic) use of the noun in 10:2 is significant, since it relates to Paul’s status as an apostle, in which he defends himself against claims that he has been “walking according to the flesh”. Instead, Paul has confidence that he has conducted himself in a manner worthy of a true apostle. A similar association with the “flesh” (sa/rc) in Philippians 3:4 would seem to confirm that Paul’s apostolic rivals at Corinth (or those who were influencing the Corinthian believers) were Jewish Christians (cf. 11:22). The polemic in chapters 10-13 is in many ways similar to that of Galatians, and this may help to explain why Paul suddenly embarks on the discourse in 3:6b-18.

As a true apostle, Paul’s assurance/confidence is “toward God” (pro\$ to\n qeo/n); he holds this assurance, not through his own merit, but “through the Anointed” (dia\ xristou=). It was Christ who commissioned and “sent forth” (root meaning of the verb a)poste/llw) Paul as an apostle, equipping him to communicate the Gospel by the presence and power of the Spirit. Believers who responded to the Gospel came to possess the same Spirit, uniting them with Paul; indeed, Paul’s status as a founding apostolic missionary gives a special aspect to that spiritual bond. This is the point he makes in vv. 2-3, and underlies the entire argument of chapters 1-7.

“Not that from ourselves are we fit to count anything as (coming) out of ourselves, but (rather) our fitness (to serve comes) out of God…” (v. 5)

Paul makes clear a point elucidated above—namely, that the assurance he holds as a true apostle (before God) come through Christ, which means that ultimately God Himself is the source. The key term here in verse 5 is the adjective i(kano/$, from the verb i(kne/omai, which essentially means “come to a (particular) place (or point).” It can be used in the general sense of “reaching the proper point,” e.g., in one’s ability, or when something should be done, etc.

The adjective i(kano/$ is common in the Gospels and Acts, but rare in the rest of the New Testament—occurring just six times, but all in the Pauline letters, five of which are in 1 and 2 Corinthians (1 Cor 11:30; 15:9; 2 Cor 2:6, 16). The earlier occurrence in 2:16 is most relevant, since it relates specifically to the question of who is “fit” (or “competent,” “worthy”) to be an apostle, communicating the Gospel message that leads to life (for those who accept it) and death (for those who do not). Here, Paul essentially answers his earlier question: the true apostle is not fit/worthy of the position through his/her own abilities, etc, but through the power of God’s Spirit.

The related noun i(kano/th$ (“fitness, worthiness, ability”) occurs nowhere else in either the New Testament or LXX. It represents an abstraction of the fundamental idea conveyed by the adjective, the noun being more appropriate to indicate something that is given to the believer from God.

Paul’s statement continues in verse 6:

“…who indeed (has) made us fit (to be) servants of a new diaqh/kh, not of (the) letter, but of (the) Spirit”

The verb translated “made fit” is i(kano/w, related of course to the adjective i(kano/$ and noun i(kano/th$ in v. 4. How was Paul “made fit” by God? It can only be through the Spirit given to him, from which he was specially gifted to proclaim the Gospel and function as an apostolic missionary. Only a Spirit-gifted minister could serve to administer a “new covenant,” based on the Spirit.

Here, then, Paul is beginning to develop the dualism introduced in verse 3, contrasting the “letter” with the Spirit. As I noted, this is fundamental to the spiritualism of Paul. For this reason, it is necessary to discuss verse 6 in a bit more detail, which we will do in the next daily note.

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