2 Corinthians 3:12-18
After the exposition and application of Exod 34:29-25 in verses 7-11 (cf. the previous study), using a series of qal wa-homer arguments to contrast the old covenant (and the Law) with the new, Paul returns to the primary theme of his role as an apostle:
“Therefore, holding such (a) hope, we use much outspokenness [parr¢sía]…” (v. 12)
The word parr¢sía indicates something “uttered with all (openness/boldness)”; it can refer specifically to speaking openly in public, or openly as “with boldness”, or some combination of the two. Paul contrasts the openness of ministers of the Gospel (such as he and his fellow missionaries), with Moses who put a covering (kálumma) over his face. The implication is that Moses put the veil over his face when he met with the people after speaking to God. However, this is not at all clear from the Exodus narrative (34:29-34); indeed, it seems to be Moses addressed the people without the veil, i.e. before putting it on (vv. 31-33). After he had communicated God’s word and will to the people, then he donned the covering, wearing it until the next time he encountered YHWH in the Tent of Meeting.
In 2 Cor 3:13, Paul essentially repeats what he said in verse 8, though here the language is more difficult, since he is effectively summarizing the entire line of argument from vv. 7-11 in a single verse:
“…and not according to (the way) that Moses set a covering upon his face, toward the sons of Israel (so that they) not stretch (to see) [i.e. gaze] into the end/completion of the (thing) being made inactive…”
For the verb katargéœ (“make [something] cease working”, i.e. made inactive, render ineffective), which Paul uses on other occasions in relation to the Law, see the previous study on vv. 7-11. The word télos (“completion, finish, end”) is also used in reference to the Law, especially in Romans 10:4 (“Christ is the end [télos] of the Law”); Paul typically means it in the sense of the termination of a period of time, or of the state of things at the end of such a period. Elsewhere, it is clear that the Law (Torah) of the old covenant is only binding and in force until the coming of Christ (see especially the illustrations in Galatians 3-4 and in Romans 7:1-6).
The idea here in 2 Cor 3:13 seems to be that the covering makes it so the Israelites cannot see that the old covenant has come to an end in Christ. It is in this light that Paul makes use of the veil motif from Exodus 34. His usage here would imply that Moses wore the covering so that the people would not see the reflected glory fade from his face. That glory was temporary; it shone on Moses’ face after his meeting with YHWH in the Tent, and then would fade, until the next encounter. This detail is not stated specifically in the narrative, but Paul seems to interpret the passage with it in mind.
Clearly, Paul gives to the Scriptural tradition a uniquely Christian interpretation, which is then applied in verses 14-16 to the people of Israel as a whole. Even as they continue in their religious devotion to the Law and the old covenant, a covering remains over their eyes (and their heart), and they cannot see that the old covenant finds it end (and fulfillment) in the person and work of Christ. There are exceptions, of course, as the number of Jewish believers (even in Paul’s time) attest, and as is expressed in verse 16: “but if they turn toward the Lord, the covering is taken (away from) around (their eyes)”. Paul uses traditional Old Testament language here (of “turning [back] to the Lord [i.e. YHWH]”), though, in context, of course, turning to the Lord (YHWH) involves turning to the Lord (Jesus Christ), cf. Acts 3:19, etc.
In verse 17, Paul adds a third aspect to the word kýrios (“Lord”):
“And the Lord is the Spirit; and (the place) in which the Spirit of (the) Lord (is), (that is) freedom”
Here we reach the climax of Paul’s argument, with two central points of emphasis: (1) the Spirit (pneúma), which is the Spirit of God (and Christ), and (2) freedom (eleuthería). With regard to the last point, in Galatians Paul speaks of “freedom” specifically in terms of freedom from the Law (Gal 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13), while in Romans the emphasis is primarily on freedom from the power of sin (Rom 6:7-23; 8:2, 21), though this too is related to freedom from the Law (Rom 7:1-6). In 2 Corinthians 3, sin is not part of the discussion, but the Law is—the contrast between the old covenant, with its written (tablets of the) Law, and the new covenant makes it likely that freedom from the Law is to be affirmed here as well.
And yet, it is also clear that something more is meant: a freedom that is centered on the presence and power of the Spirit. Paul can identify the Spirit with either God (the Father) or Jesus Christ; generally, the emphasis is on the latter—the Spirit represents Christ and communicates his presence (and power) to believers, both individually and collectively. Just as believers are “in Christ”, so we live and walk “in the Spirit”; and, as Christ is in us, so the Spirit is in us. The presence of the Spirit means freedom—the same freedom that we have in Christ (Gal 2:4).
It has been somewhat puzzling to commentators just why Paul chooses to compare himself (and other apostles) with Israel as he does in 2 Cor 3:1-18. One may further ask why he breaks off from the main line of argument (at v. 6a) to embark on the discourse in vv. 7-18? Neither the Spirit-vs-letter dualism nor the pointed contrast between the old and new covenant appears to have been necessary for his discussion regarding the nature of the apostolic ministry. Why, then, does he step so boldly in that direction, beginning at v. 6b-7?
One theory is that his opponents were Jewish Christian “Judaizers”, as in Galatians (see also Phil 3:2ff). This would perhaps be supported by the context of 2 Cor 10-13 (see esp. 11:22ff). If there were influential “apostles” working at Corinth who stressed the importance of continuing to observe the old covenant, then the application of Exod 34:29-35 in 2 Cor 3:7ff is especially appropriate. In Jewish tradition, the “glory” (dóxa) associated with Moses and the Sinai covenant does not fade, but continues (forever)—see, for example, 2/4 Esdras 9:37; Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:3. Paul declares quite the opposite, in the sense that, with the coming of the new covenant (and its overwhelmingly greater glory), the old covenant has ceased to be active or effective any longer; on the use of the verb katargéœ to express this, see above.
However, there may be another reason for the illustration contrasting the old and new covenants; it has to do with an emphasis on external criteria which Paul seems to associate with his opponents, especially in chapters 10-13. Note how he begins the long polemical discussion in 10:7 with a reference to looking at things “according to the face” (katà prósœpon), i.e. according to outward appearance. Throughout, Paul feels compelled to compare himself with certain “extra important” (hyperlían, “over-abundant”) apostles, though it clearly makes him uncomfortable to do so (10:12ff; 12:11, etc). He emphasizes various missionary labors (10:12–11:15, 27-29), physical hardships (11:23-33, also 6:4-10), special visionary experiences (12:1-7), miracles (“signs of an apostle”, 12:12), skill in speaking and writing (10:9-11; 11:6), but also his own natural ethnic-cultural and religious pedigree (11:22ff).
From all of this, we may infer that there were “apostles” at work among the Corinthians who could make claim to some of these sorts of things, and who may well have denigrated Paul’s own credentials and abilities. The reference in 3:1-6 to letters of introduction/commendation could indicate that these were itinerant or visiting missionaries (or dignitaries) who possessed (and/or relied upon) such letters to establish their external credentials as well. While Paul does engage in some rhetorical/polemical “competition” and comparison of credentials, it is important to note two key qualifying arguments he introduces in chapter 10 at the start:
- that Paul and his associates (as true apostles) do not live and act “according to the flesh” (katà sárka), vv. 2-3—this expression is sometimes used specifically in the sense of sin and immorality, but here, more properly, it refers to a worldly manner of acting and thinking, worldly standards, etc., and, as such, is parallel with “according to the face” (katà prósœpon) in v. 7.
- that his true “boasting” (as an apostle) resides in what God has given to him for the proclamation of the Gospel, vv. 8, 12ff; in this regard, note also the discussion in 12:7-10.
The connection between chapters 10-13 and 1-7, 8-9 remains much debated; however, this analysis may help to elucidate the force of Paul’s argument in 3:7-18. The old covenant was manifest in external form—written on tablets of stone, along with a visible aura of light which could be covered up by a veil—while the new covenant is internal and invisible (see also 4:16-18). The new covenant is written in the heart and its glory comes from within. For more on this aspect of the passage, you may wish to consult the recent series of exegetical notes on 2 Corinthians 3, as part of the study series “Spiritualism in the New Testament”. The notes are designed, in part, to elucidate the nature and extent of Paul’s spiritualism.
The Spirit operates from within, giving to believers freedom and the power to live according to God’s will; it is also the source of the apostles’ authority and boldness. That the new covenant does not depend on external criteria is confirmed by the famous conclusion in 3:18. 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 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.
The primary purpose of these studies was to examine the context of Paul’s famous declaration in verse 18. It is not possible here to expound the verse itself. I have done this recently, as part of the aforementioned set of exegetical notes. For a detailed exegesis of v. 18, please consult these notes.
Next week, we will round out this study of the context of verse 18 with an examination of what follows, in 4:1-6ff.