January 25: 2 Corinthians 3:6

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 4-6a; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:6

 Verse 6a was considered briefly in the previous note, as part of the discussion on vv. 4-5; indeed, v. 6a represents the second part of a statement that begins with verse 5, and should be presented as a single sentence:

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

Paul describes the (true) apostle as a servant (dia/kono$) of a “new covenant” (kainh/ diaqh/kh). The noun diaqh/kh literally means something “set/put through,” the action being expressed in English idiom as “putting (things) in order”, and can refer to a (last) will or testament, but also to any number of other kinds of agreements or arrangements made between parties. The word is used to translate Hebrew tyr!B=, which denotes a binding agreement, and is typically translated in English as “covenant”.

The idea of a “new covenant” between God and His people is part of a line of Prophetic tradition, from the exilic and post-exilic periods, expressed most clearly in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The concept developed in Jewish tradition, so that, by the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Qumran Community could use it as a self-designation, referring to themselves as the faithful ones of the end-time (cf. CD 6:19; 18:21; 19:33f; 20:12). Early Christians more or less adopted the concept in the same way, though with the distinctive and special connection to the person of Jesus. The Gospel tradition of Jesus’ words at the ‘Last Supper’ (Mark 14:24 par) certainly were highly influential on early Christian thought; Paul cites this tradition in 1 Cor 11:25, but never uses the actual expression “new covenant” elsewhere in his letters, apart from the passage here. Indeed, the expression only rarely occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (Hebrews 8:8; 9:15; cf. 12:24).

Paul is beginning to develop the dualistic contrast established in verse 3 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), now 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

The portion in bold represents verse 6b, a striking (and somewhat unexpected) addition to the statement made in vv. 5-6a. It is unexpected because nothing up to this point in the letter prepares us for it, but also because the main point Paul is making would come through just fine if he had followed v. 6a with 4:1ff. At first glance, not only v. 6b, but the entire discourse in vv. 7-18, seems unnecessary to his line of argument. In the next note, we will consider what may have prompted Paul to branch off onto this discourse.

To someone unfamiliar with Galatians and Romans, verse 6 would be a most surprising 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.I have discussed the subject in recent studies on the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura in the “Reformation Fridays” feature on this site.

To this must be added Paul’s 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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