February 3: 2 Corinthians 3:17

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verse 16; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:17

“Now, the Lord is the Spirit; and the (place) at which the Spirit of the Lord (is), (there is) freedom.”

The expository declaration by Paul in verse 17 builds upon the statement in v. 16 (cf. the previous note), by which the detail of the Moses tradition in Exod 34:34 is applied to believers in Christ. When a person turns to God—which, for Paul, means accepting the Gospel and trusting in Christ—the “covering” is removed from one’s mind and heart. In vv. 14-15, the veil over Moses’ face was applied to the Israelite/Jewish people as a whole, and to their inability (and/or unwillingness) to recognize the new covenant that is now in effect (replacing the old covenant) in the person of Jesus Christ. Now, in verse 16, while this interpretive aspect is maintained (that is, believing Israelites and Jews have the covering removed), Paul also reverts back to the motif of Moses’ visionary encounter with YHWH. The believer in Christ, in a sense, fulfills the figure-type of Moses.

And what is the nature of this visionary encounter for believers? Paul offers an explanation here in verse 17, when he declares that “the Lord is the Spirit” (o( ku/rio$ to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin). One is reminded of the Johannine statement made by Jesus (to the Samaritan woman) in John 4:24: “God is Spirit” (pneu=ma o( qeo/$). In my view, both the Pauline and Johannine lines of tradition reflect a fundamental spiritualism, though with rather different points of emphasis. Here, for Paul, the emphasis, and his reason for identifying “the Lord” with the Spirit, is twofold: (1) it builds upon the dualistic contrast between the old and new covenants which runs through the discourse, and (2) it makes clear that the believer’s encounter with God takes place in/through the Spirit.

It is difficult to say whether this encounter is to be understood as qualitatively different from Moses’ encounters with YHWH in the Tent. Since the same “Lord” (ku/rio$) is involved, probably we should understand both encounters as spiritual in nature—that is, encounters with God’s Spirit. The difference lies elsewhere, in two primary respects: (a) the effect of the believer’s encounter is permanent and abiding, and (b) it applies to every believer, not merely to chosen minister(s) like Moses. Both of these points will be developed by Paul in verse 18.

The second part of the declaration in verse 17 introduces the theme of freedom (e)leuqeri/a). This is somewhat unexpected, as it is a theme that Paul has not really dealt with in the discourse thus far. The context suggests that we should understand its introduction here in two ways:

First, the idea of freedom relates to the immediate context of Jewish believers having the Mosaic “covering” removed from their hearts and minds. When this occurs they are freed to recognize the truth and reality of the new covenant in Christ. Second, we should look to Paul’s use of the noun e)leuqeri/a (and the related verb e)leuqero/w) in Galatians and Romans. In Christ, and through the presence of the Spirit, believers are freed from bondage to the power of sin (and death), and, at the same time, freed from the binding authority of the Torah regulations of the old covenant. The emphasis on freedom from the Torah is, quite naturally, more prominent in Galatians (esp. 5:1ff, 14; also 2:4; 4:21-31), but is also part of the discussion in Romans (7:1-6; 8:2, etc). The broader soteriological aspect of freedom from sin and death is a fundamental component of the exposition in Romans (5:12-17ff; 6:6-10ff, 15-23; 8:21, etc). The complex relationship between the Law, sin, and death in Paul’s thought is expounded in chapter 7, in particular; note also the way that the two aspects of the bondage/freedom motif are joined together in 8:2ff.

Both in Romans and Galatians, this freedom for believers is specifically defined in terms of the abiding presence and power of the Spirit. The main passages are the climactic exposition in chapter 8 of Romans (beginning with the declaration in verse 2), and the ethical-religious instruction in chapter 5 of Galatians (especially vv. 16-25, which will be discussed in an upcoming article in this series). The centrality of the Spirit in this regard is also emphasized here in verse 17:

“and where [ou!] the Spirit of (the) Lord (is), (there is) freedom”

In other words, this freedom is realized when believers encounter and experience the Spirit of the Lord. This verse is seminal to an understanding of the spiritualism of Paul, and needs to be examined further (in the next daily note). Three specific points will be discussed:

    1. The theological and Christological significance of Paul’s repeated identification of the Spirit with “the Lord”
    2. The relation of the key word “freedom” (e)leuqeri/a) with the earlier term “outspokenness” (parrhsi/a) in verse 12, and
    3. A further consideration on the spiritual nature of the new covenant in Christ

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