January 27: 2 Corinthians 3:9-11

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 7-8; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:9-11

As discussed in the previous note, 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$]

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 (cf. the previous note), 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?”

Similarly, in verse 9:

“If (there was) esteem in the ministry of judgment against (us), how (much) more is the ministry of justice/righteousness over (and above this) in esteem?”

I have translated do/ca here as “esteem” (i.e. honor, dignity, grandeur, etc); more commonly it is rendered “glory”. Given the use of the traditional motif of the appearance of Moses’ face, it may be that an emphasis on the visual aspect of do/ca (i.e., “splendor”) would be at least as appropriate.

The noun kata/krisi$ (“judgment against”) is related to the realm of the old covenant which embodies, according to Paul, death. The Law (Torah) brings judgment, and confirms to human beings that they are in bondage to sin (and death). This noun (kata/krisi$) occurs only twice in the New Testament, nor is it used at all in the LXX; apart from this verse, Paul uses it later at 7:3. If this “judgment against” us is a product of the old covenant, the contrasting noun dikaiosu/nh (“right[eous]ness, justice”) is related to the new covenant of the Spirit. The noun dikaiosu/nh is, of course, especially prominent in Paul’s writings, with more than half of the NT occurrences found in the undisputed Pauline letters. This righteousness is “of God” (Rom 1:17; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21, etc), but Paul specifically connects it with the person of Jesus Christ, to whom believers are united through the Spirit. Especially noteworthy is the similar contrast between the Law and the ‘new covenant’ in Christ, expressed by Paul in Rom 10:3-4. In 2 Cor 5:21, the flip side of this relationship is emphasized, by which Paul declares that believers themselves come to be the “righteousness of God” in Christ.

As indicated above, the “glory” of the old covenant was marked by the shining of Moses’ face (in Exod 34:29-35), as Paul describes in v. 7, mentioning both: (a) the stone tablets on which the commands of the Law had been written, and (b) that the Israelites were not able to gaze directly at the glory in Moses’ face. This last detail is implied as the reason that the veil (ka/lumma) was introduced. The superiority of the new covenant is marked by use of the comparative/superlative adverb ma=llon (“more, greater”) and the verb perisseu/w (“to have [in excess] over [and above]”). This is specified even more precisely in verse 10:

“For (indeed) the (thing) having come to be esteemed (now) has been made of no esteem, in this part [i.e. in this respect]—because of the overcasting glory/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 (cf. Rom 10:4). He says much the same thing, in a more personalized context, in Philippians 3:7-11: all that was of value in his prior religious life (under the Law and the old covenant) he now regards as mere rubbish in comparison with 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:

“For if the (thing) being made inactive/ineffective (was) through glory, how (much) more (is) the (thing) remaining in glory?”

As in verse 7 (cf. again the discussion in the previous note),  the key verb here is 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. It 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. There is also an interesting distinction in the use of prepositions:

    • the old covenant was (or came) through glory [dia\ do/ch$]
    • the new covenant is (and remains) in glory [e)n do/ch|]

The precise meaning of dia/ is uncertain; it could be instrumental (“by means of glory, accompanied by glory”), or could indicate purpose (“because of glory”). Both are possible, but the context of verse 10 suggests the latter—if so, then the idea might be that the glory of the old covenant is ultimately fulfilled in the glory of the new. This will be discussed further when we turn to examine verses 12-18, beginning in the next note.

It is important to keep in mind the primary and contextual basis of this contrast between the old and new covenants—it is based upon the reality that the new covenant is manifest through the presence and power of the Spirit. Paul established this contrast in verse 3 (and again in verse 6), and it is reflective of a spiritualistic dualism that runs through his thought, and is certainly expressed, as such, in this passage. In what remains of the discourse, in verses 12-18, Paul expresses this spiritual principle through the interpretation (and application) of the Scriptural tradition in Exodus 34:29-35. It is to this interpretation that we turn in our next note.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *