Spiritualism and the New Testament: Paul: 2 Corinthians 3

The first Pauline passage we examined was 1 Corinthians 2:10-15, within the wider context of 1:18-2:16 (extending into 3:1-3)—cf. the article and the supplemental series of exegetical notes. Paul emphasizes the role of the Spirit instructing believers in the wisdom of God; indeed, this wisdom is fundamentally spiritual in character. A key statement is the climactic declaration in verse 16: “but we hold (the) mind of (the) Anointed”. To this may be added the statement in v. 15: “the (one) with the Spirit judges all ([th]ese) things, and (yet) he is judged under no one” — “these things” referring to “the (thing)s of the Spirit” (ta\ tou= pneu/mato$).

Given the spiritualistic tenor and emphasis to Paul’s discussion, one might readily ask what is the place of the human teacher, as well as the role of external sources of religious (and moral) authority. The reason why Paul writes to the Corinthians as he does, is because, on the whole, they are not yet spiritually mature (“complete”), often thinking and behaving like one who does not possess the Spirit (3:1-3). But how would he write to them if they were mature? Would there be any need for him to write to them at all? Presumably, there would be more opportunity for exploring and expounding the “deep things of God” (2:10), but what would his role be, in this regard, if the people to whom he was writing were themselves being fully guided and instructed by the Spirit?

It is an interesting question to ponder. In general, it is fair to say that Paul’s spiritualism, to judge by the evidence from 1 Corinthians, was tempered by two main considerations:

    1. the manifestation of the Spirit within the confines of the Community, through specific ‘spiritual gifts‘ given to specific individuals.
    2. the unique role (and authority) of the apostle—that is, the missionary, sent and commissioned by Christ himself, who (first) proclaimed the Gospel in a region and helped to found the first congregations.

According to the first principle, expounded and applied in some detail by Paul in chapters 12-14, an individual believer would not rely wholly on the inner guidance and instruction of the Spirit; rather, one must also experience the Spirit as manifest within the Community, through the distinct spiritual gifts given to the various members.

The second principle—the role and place of the founding apostle—is given special attention by Paul in 2 Corinthians. One passage, in particular, relates the apostolic ministry to the wider experience of the Spirit’s presence and work among believers. As such, a careful examination of it should allow us to gain a better sense of Paul’s spiritualism, especially in relation to other (external) aspects of Christian ministry.

2 Corinthians 3

The passage under examination is the “new covenant” section in 2 Corinthians—3:1-18, the central portion of the wider section of 2:14-4:6. It is rather typical of Paul’s unique (and inspired) manner of expression, that the powerful theological component to his line of argument in this passage is not even central to the main point he is making. Indeed, here in 2:14-4:6 the focus is on Paul’s role and position as an apostle, in relation to the Corinthian congregations (i.e., the second of the two themes outlined above). The theological and expository excursus in 3:1-18 is simply a natural byproduct of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and the nature of the Christian ministry. I will be exploring the passage, from a critical and rhetorical standpoint, in the Saturday Series studies during the remainder of January and February.

I will also be devoting detailed notes (a series of daily notes) to an exposition of the passage. But let us begin here with a focus on Paul’s references to the Spirit, and how they relate to the “new covenant” theme of the section. Let us begin with his statement in verse 3 (picking up from v. 2, in italics):

you are our e)pistolh/…being made to shine forth [fanerou/menoi] that you are (the) e)pistolh/ of (the) Anointed, being served under [i.e. by] us, (and) having been written not with black (ink), but with (the) Spirit of (the) living God, not on (the) flat surfaces of stones, but on (the) flat surfaces of hearts (of) flesh.”

Paul here makes a stark contrast between ordinary (physical/material) written letters and spiritual ones (for more, see the note on verses 2-3). This sort of dualistic language (and imagery) is typical of Paul’s spiritualism. But it is interesting to consider the way that this is introduced here.

The theme in verse 1-6 involves “letters of commendation”, the word sustatiko/$ being 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. The noun e)pistolh/ (epistol¢¡, i.e. ‘epistle’), which I left untranslated above, is derived from e)piste/llw (“set [forth] upon” a person, i.e. send to someone), related to a)poste/llw (i.e., send from someone). Here the e)pistolh/ refers ostensibly to a letter of introduction/recommendation. The point is that Paul and his fellow-missionaries, who preached the Gospel to the Corinthians, do not require any customary letter of introduction—the effect of the Gospel in their hearts is proof enough of his place as an apostle with them! It is a letter of Christ himself, whom Paul serves as a minister, written with the Spirit of the living God.

The expression “living God” (in Greek, qeo$ zw=n) derives from Old Testament usage (e.g. Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26, 36, etc). The inclusion of the modifying verbal adjective is primarily emphatic (cf. Matt 16:16; 26:63, etc), however it also refers to the life-giving power of God’s Spirit (cf. Gal 5:25; 6:8; Rom 8:1-11), and thus is central to the spiritualistic emphasis in Paul’s thought—the living Spirit being contrasted with the dead material thing. There is also implicit the traditional sense of the Spirit as the active manifestation of God among His people. In particular, we should draw attention to the metaphor of the “finger of God”, and the idea that the tablets of the Law (Torah) were written with the finger of God (Exod 24:12; 31:18; 34:1; Deut 9:10f). One is immediately reminded of the saying of Jesus in Luke 11:20 (discussed previously):

“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the finger of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”

The Matthean version (12:28) reads “Spirit of God”, instead of “finger of God”, evidence that the two expressions were essentially seen as synonymous. Almost certainly, Paul has this same correspondence in mind—i.e., the Spirit of God writes on the hearts of believers just as the finger of God wrote on the stone tablets. This establishes the thematic contrast of “letter vs. Spirit”, old/new covenant, that runs through the remainder of chapter 3.

It is interesting the way that the initial metaphor in v. 3 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)

Paul specifically refers to himself (and others) as “servants of (the) new diaqh/kh” (v. 6). The noun diaqh/kh literally signifies the “setting through” of things (into an arranged order); in English idiom we would say “putting things in order”, i.e., in terms of a legal will/testament or other contractual agreement. In the LXX and New Testament, it typically is used in place of the Hebrew tyr!B=, which means a binding agreement; both Hebrew and Greek terms tend to be translated as “covenant”. The word diaqh/kh is relative rare in the Pauline letters, occurring 8 times, in Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans (+ once in Ephesians). Paul’s use of it is entirely traditional; apart from references to the Old Testament and Israelite history (Rom 9:4; 11:27; Gal 3:15, 17; 4:24), we have his citation of the Lord’s Supper tradition (1 Cor 11:25; cf. Luke 22:20 and Mk 14:24 v.l.).

As in the Lord’s Supper tradition, Paul here uses the expression kainh\ diaqh/kh (i.e. “new covenant”), terminology which goes back to Prophetic tradition (in the 6th/5th centuries B.C.) regarding the restoration of Israel in the New Age (Jer 31:31-34; cf. also 32:40; Ezek 11:19; 18:31; 34:25ff; 36:26; 37:26). Jesus, in his own way, was alluding to this in the Last Supper tradition, but it received much more precise exposition among early Christians in the period c. 30-60 A.D. The specific motif of the “pouring out” of the Spirit upon God’s people was part of the traditional restoration-theme. In previous notes, on the “Spirit of God in the Old Testament”, I discussed at length the role of the Spirit in the key restoration-prophecies of the exilic and post-exilic periods (in Joel, Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah).

In the remainder of chapters 3 (vv. 7-18) Paul embarks on an exposition of the difference between the old and new covenants. 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). 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 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 (perfect 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. Indeed, 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. 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. This reflects, in my view, a clear spiritualistic tendency in Paul’s thought. 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). 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” (see the discussion at the beginning of the previous article). 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 (and rather spiritualistic) 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.

This may be related to what I have referred to as the “democratization” of the Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration—the idea that 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)

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