June 22: 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 (continued)

2 Corinthians 3:1-18, continued

Having established the contrast between the written word (gra/mma) and the Spirit (pneu=ma) in verse 6 (cf. the previous note), along with the motif of the Law (Torah) being written by the finger of God (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10), in the remainder of chapters 3 (vv. 7-18) Paul embarks on an exposition of the difference between the old and new covenants (diaqh=kai). 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). In Greek, the word do/ca has the basic meaning of “what one thinks” about something, how it is considered or regarded, often in the (positive) sense of “reputation, renown, honor, esteem, dignity”, etc. It can also carry the more objective meaning “appearance”, including various visual phenomena, especially involving light, brightness, and so forth. It can be applied to God in both primary senses—(1) as the esteem and honor which is (to be) accorded to him, and (2) the brightness and visual phenomena which is manifested by his presence. Do/ca is frequently used to render dobK* (lit. “weight”, i.e. worth, value) in Hebrew, a word which has a similar semantic range, especially when associated with YHWH.

In 2 Cor 3:7-11, 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 (perf. 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. 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, 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. 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 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, a principle which many Christians have been, and still are, unable (or unwilling) to accept, in spite of the clear teaching on the subject by Paul (and elsewhere in the New Testament). We will examine the point further in the next daily note (on his references to the Spirit in Galatians). 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). Use of the title “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) in such passages can be somewhat ambiguous, as a result of the dual-use by early Christians, where the title can refer to God the Father (YHWH) or to Jesus Christ, interchangeably. 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“. Among first-century Christians the dual point of reference regarding the Spirit—whether of God the Father or Jesus (the Son)—reflected a complex theological understanding which was still in the process of development. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes. 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 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.

In prior notes, we discussed the idea of the “democratization” of the Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration, in which 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)

June 21: 2 Corinthians 3:1-18

2 Corinthians 3:1-18

Today’s note continues our survey of Pauline references to the (Holy) Spirit, in terms of the focus in this series on the early Christian development of the Old Testament (and Jewish) traditions regarding the Spirit of God. One of the most notable passages 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. 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 have discussed this passage at some length in earlier notes and articles, and will not go over it verse-by-verse here. Instead, I will 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 surface of stones, but on (the) flat surface of hearts (of) flesh.”

The theme in verse 1-6 involves “letters of commendation”; the word sustatiko/$ is 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’) 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); Paul tends to use it, however rarely, when citing or alluding to Scripture (Rom 9:26; 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Cor 6:16). 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). 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. We saw how the idea was developed in the early chapters of the book of Acts (cf. the prior notes on 1:15-26, etc), along with the specific motif of the “pouring out” of the Spirit upon God’s people, as 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). Because of the importance of this same theme here in 2 Cor 3:1-18, it will be worth devoting more space to the study of it, which will be continued in the next daily note.

August 7: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

This is the first of three notes on 2 Corinthians 3:1-18, which I am dividing into three portions:

2 Corinthians 3:1-6 [verse 6]

Throughout chapters 1-7, Paul is dealing primarily with his role as an apostle and, in particular, with his relationship to the believers in Corinth. At various points there are suggestions of opposition to Paul, including the situation referenced in 2:1-11, regarding which he had sent an earlier “painful letter” (vv. 5, 9). Specific (but unidentified) opponents are addressed far more directly (and harshly) in chapters 10-13. The context of chs. 10-13 suggests that at least some of these opponents are Jewish Christians (11:21ff), as in Galatians (cf. also Phil 3:2ff and Col 2:11ff, 16-18), and this may inform the rhetorical approach in 2 Cor 3 as well.

The theme in verse 1-6 involves “letters of commendation”; the word sustatiko/$ is 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. In the ancient world, which lacked modern-day high-speed communication, such practice was necessary to establish a person’s identity and credentials; it also could serve as a source of authority and legitimacy. Naturally enough, the more impressive or prestigious the letter of recommendation, the more influence it provided; even today, the right letter of recommendation still carries tremendous weight for prospective employers, and so forth. It is possible that Paul’s opponents included visiting “apostles” who possessed such letters and credentials. In vv. 1-6, he argues that neither he nor his colleagues require written letters recommending them to the believers of Corinth, since they are already well known—that is to say, this written authentication is already there in the hearts of the believers, having been written by the very Spirit of God (v. 4). He is referring primarily to the work of preaching the Gospel, which the Corinthian believers accepted; as a result they themselves become “the epistle of Christ”, under the service/ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries.

It is interesting the way that this image 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)

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”

To someone unfamiliar with Galatians and Romans, this would be a striking 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. To this must be added his 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.