2 Corinthians 3:7-11
Paul’s use of Exodus 34:29-35, continued
Last week, we examined the Old Testament tradition (Exod 34:29-35) that is utilized and interpreted by Paul in 2 Cor 3:7-18. In our study, we considered the place of this tradition in its historical and literary context. We may summarize that analysis by pointing out a number of key themes in the Exodus narrative that are relevant to Paul’s exposition:
- The establishment of God’s covenant with His people at mount Sinai
- The people’s violation of the covenant, resulting in the establishment of a second, ‘new’ version of the covenant
- The place of Moses as a mediator of this covenant
- The contrast between God’s revelation to the people (in the original covenant) and his manifestation to Moses alone (in the second covenant)
- The covenant is accompanied by a theophany in which people behold the glory of God; in the re-established covenant, only Moses beholds the glory
- The covenant (in both versions) is represented by the Torah (= the terms of the covenant) written on stone tablets
These themes are applied by Paul in several important ways. Most notably, he focuses on the re-established covenant, following the Golden Calf incident. In this ‘second’ version of the Sinai covenant, Moses plays a much greater role as mediator of the agreement between YHWH and the people. As noted above, it is Moses alone who beholds the glory of YHWH in the second Sinai theophany. And, following this initial revelation, Moses encounters God in the Tent of Meeting, which is located outside of the camp, and thus in a place that is cut off from the people. The people only see God’s glory as it is reflected, in a partial and temporary way, on the face of Moses.
In this regard, it is worth pointing out again the contrast Paul makes between the old and new covenants, in vv. 7-9ff—the old covenant mediated through Moses and the ‘Law of Moses’ (i.e., the Torah regulations), contrasted with the new covenant in Christ:
- Vv. 7-8: service/ministry of death [h¢ diakonía tou thanátou]
- service/ministry of the Spirit [h¢ diakonía tou pneúmatos]
- Vers. 9: service/ministry of judgment against [h¢ diakonía t¢s katakríseœs]
- service/ministry of justice/righteousness [h¢ diakonía t¢s dikaiosýn¢s]
- Vv. 7-8: service/ministry of death [h¢ diakonía tou thanátou]
In vv. 7-8, the comparative (qal wa-homer) argument is:
“If the ministry of death came to be in (such) esteem [dóxa]… 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 dóxa here as “esteem” (i.e. honor, dignity, grandeur, etc); more commonly it is rendered “glory” (see above).
As indicated above, the “glory” of the old covenant was marked by the shining of Moses’ face, as Paul describes in v. 7a, mentioning both: (a) the stone tablets on which the commands of the Law had been written, and (b) the nature of the reflected glory in Moses’ face. This last detail is implied as the reason that the veil or face covering (kálymma) was introduced. Both the stone tablets (the first pair of which was broken by Moses) and the face covering represent the limitations of the old covenant and its temporary nature.
In the Exodus narrative (34:29-35), it is indicated that Moses would don the covering after he had communicated God’s word to the people, when the glory of his theophanous encounter with YHWH was still reflected on his face. Paul draws upon a point that is implied in the narrative—namely, that when Moses put on the covering, the glory was fading, and would only be reflected again on his face after the next time he encountered YHWH (in the Tent of Meeting). The reflected glory (of the old covenant) was thus only temporary, a fact that was symbolized by the covering itself. By contrast, the new covenant of the Spirit is permanent, and without any limitations; thus no such ‘covering’ is needed.
The superiority of the new covenant is also marked by use of the comparative/superlative adverb mállon (“more, greater”) and the verb perisseúœ (“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 (perfect tense of the verb doxázœ), but now it has come to have no glory/esteem (again, with the perfect of doxázœ). By this, Paul further emphasizes the temporary nature of the old covenant. With the coming of Christ, the old covenant has come to an end (Rom 10:4) and is no longer in effect for believers in Christ. The old covenant, with its written Law, now has no glory.
It is hard to imagine a more antinomian statement by Paul. 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 hyperbállœ 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. 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?”
The first verb is katargéœ, literally to “make (something) cease working”, i.e. render inactive, ineffective, often in the technical (legal) sense of “nullify, invalidate, make void”, etc. This word appears already at the end of verse 7 (and 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 ménœ, “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 [diá dóx¢s]
- the new covenant is (and remains) in glory [en dóx¢]
The precise meaning of the preposition diá 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 in next week’s study. Once we have analyzed those verses—again, from a critical standpoint, and in light of the overall context of the passage—we will gain a much clearer sense of Paul’s thought and purpose in the climactic declaration of v. 18.
(For further study and a detailed exegesis on 2 Cor 3:7-11, see my recent notes [part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”].)