2. Corinthians 3 – We Are Letters of Christ

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

Read or listen the Second Epistle to the Corinthians - chapter 3 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

We Are Letters of Recommendation – 2 Cor 3:1-3

The opponents of St. Paul had presented letters of recommendations from other Christians. These letters of recommendation were typical in Early Christianity. With it a stranger was well received in a new place. Paul wrote this kind of letters as well, see for example Romans 16:1-2; 1 Cor 16:10-12; 2 Cor 8:22; Phil 2:19; Col 4:7-9. In fact, the entire Letter to Philemon is a letter of recommendation, where he speaks well Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Apollos came to Corinth with such a letter from Priscilla and Aquila. Therefore, Paul does not resent such letters but the fact that those were used against him. Why should Paul need a letter of recommendation when the whole church of Corinth the fruit of his labour.

Whom did Paul’s opponents receive these letters of recommendations from? They were Jews (2 Cor 11:22) so the only option is the church of Jerusalem, perhaps one of the Apostles. Some scholars have suggested James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the church of Jerusalem that time. But this is not well defended since they required a letter of recommendation even from Corinth (verse 1). If these opponents of Paul had such letters from an Apostle or the church of Jerusalem, they would not have needed any additional letters from Corinth.

Some scholars have wondered whether Paul would have organized an offering gift to the church of Jerusalem (2 Cor 9:1-15) if it had opposed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. But we must also accept the possibility that the letters were indeed from the church of Jerusalem, but they were misused against their original intention. The most likely group of recommenders seems to be the Judaizers of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:24), since they opposed Paul’s ministry in other places as well, for example in Galatia. In the end, it is impossible to find exact information about the writers of these letters.

Again, verse 1 might refer to Paul’s previous letter, “The Letter of Tears”. Paul knew that he would easily be misunderstood (refer to Romans 6:1-2 and 2 Peter 3:15-16). Therefore, Paul did not want to be seen as someone too proud of his position and authority (2 Cor 5:12; 10:12, 18).

Paul knew very well that his opponents easily blamed that he was not one of the original 12 Apostles. Therefore, he did not begin competing with letters of recommendation but reminded that God called him to be an Apostle directly when He appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:15; 2 Cor 10:18).

Paul’s best recommendation was the church of Corinth itself. He had started this church. Which one do we value more: High educational degrees written on paper or practical skills and experience? Spiritual work cannot be learnt by any other way than by doing it in practice.

Stone tablets (verse 3) refer directly to the Law of Moses. Paul discusses the difference between the Old and New Covenant more in verses 7-18. Already the prophets of the Old Testament had proclaimed that a time will come when God writes his will on human hearts and not just on tablets of stone (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26-27).

Not of The Letter but of The Spirit – 2 Cor 3:4-6

St. Paul emphasizes that it is not him who works but God through him (verse 4). Verse 5 is an answer to the question in 2 Cor 2.16: “Who is sufficient for these things?” Nobody is sufficient in themselves to preach the gospel, but God can authorize and equip a sinner for the task.

As humans we should never forget that we cannot produce faith in anyone. Producing faith and rebirth (John 3:3) are always a work of God.

The end of verse 6 is probably one of the most misunderstood verses of the Bible. It has been misunderstood mainly in two ways:

  1. Some explain that Paul speaks about two ways of interpreting the Law (=Old Testament). There is a literal and a more liberal interpretation where the literal is wrong, and the liberal is correct. Often these refer to Jesus as interpreting the Old Testament in a new way (Matt 7:28-29). But both Jesus (Matt 5:27-32) and Paul (Rom 3:19-20) support the literal interpretation while their Jewish surroundings took the more liberal interpretation.

  2. The other wrong interpretation of this verse is to claim that it is a difference of how the letter (the Bible) and the Spirit lead a Christian in a different way. But the New Testament never speaks about the Holy Spirit doing anything against or contrary to the Bible, the written revelation of God by letter. The Holy Spirit clarifies Christ who is the Christ of the Scriptures (John 14:26).

What is then the correct interpretation about the letter and the Spirit? St. Paul speaks about the law and the gospel. The law brings death because it makes sin visible so that it cannot be defended. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23; Ezek. 18:4). Only Jesus can give life. We have no other hope than the atoning death of Jesus on the cross (Rom 3:21-26).

This verse and its interpretation remind us that verses from the Bible should never be interpreted without the context it is written. This explanation above becomes evident as we continue to verses 7-18.

Do Not Turn Back to The Old Covenant – 2 Cor 3:7-11

The opponents of St. Paul thought that Christ is just one part of the law of the Old Covenant. Therefore, Christians should obey the entire Law of Moses. Their program was to go “back to Moses”. This was one of the central disputes in the Early Christianity. It is visible especially in the Book of Acts when the first Pagans convert to Christianity. Then, it had to be decided whether converts from Paganism should first become Jews before they can be Christians.

The Judaizers required the Pagan converts to follow the Law of Moses just as any Jew. One could say that for them becoming Christian was only one step of the way of following the real Judaism, which is how they saw the life of Jesus as well. For them Christianity was just an internal revival movement of Judaism.

The other group, who’s leader was St. Paul, viewed Judaism as being a part of the past. Christ is the end of the law (Rom 10:4) so therefore Pagan converts should not be required to follow the Law of Moses. Paul didn’t even require fulfilling the Law of Moses from Jewish-Christians, but he did not ban it from them as his opponents falsely accused him of (ref. Acts 21:28).

In the end of the fifth decade (apparently the year 48 A.D.) the council of the Apostles in Jerusalem decided the matter and concluded that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not require following the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1-29). The Judaizers were not happy of the decision but continued their own preaching without this freedom from the Law of Moses. Perhaps they thought that this council was just one step to the wrong direction, but soon they would take more steps to take Christianity back to Judaism.

Now Paul explains to the Corinthians why they should not turn back to the Old Covenant – the Law of Moses – but rather stay in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Here, Paul uses the imagery found in Ex. 34:29-35, where the face of Moses began to shine once he had been on the mountain and received the stone tablets of the law from God (verses 7-18).

The law was written on stone tablets (verse 7, see Ex. 31:18; 32:15-16). The Old Covenant had the ministry of death (verse 7) and condemnation (verse 9). For in the law there is no forgiveness without works. The law itself is good (Rom 7:12, 14; Gal 3:19-24) but because humans cannot obey it, it becomes a judgement and death to them (Gal 3:10-11).

The era of the law has ended. Christ began the era of the gospel. This is also supported by the image of Moses: The glory shining off his face faded in time. Similarly, the era if the law has now ended and Christ has begun a new era. The glory of Christ is permanent (verse 11) and it is much more radiant (verse 10) than the glory of the law. The bright sun makes the light of a candle to have a shadow!

The New Covenant rests on the works of God rather than the works of man and therefore it surpasses it (Gal 3:13-14). The history of God’s salvation has reached a new stage and we should not be stuck in the old one.

As we can see from the many references to the Letter to Galatians, the same problems had occurred in Galatia roughly at the same time.

The Glory of The New Covenant – 2 Cor 3:12-18

Christians and Jews have the same Old Testament. But only Christians confess and understand that Jesus is the Messiah and the fulfilment of the promises in the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27, 44-49). Why do the Jews not find Jesus from the Old Testament? St. Paul says that there is a veil covering their faces. That veil is not removed until they turn to Christ Jesus. This reformation of the Jew’s mind is not possible by any other than the Holy Spirit.

Paul predicted that in the last days God will remove that veil from the eyes of Israel and that Israel as a nation – that is most of the Jews – will be saved (Rom 11:23-27). Paul did not see it, but in the 20th century Israel received its own state. Whether we will see this prediction of the nation of Israel to be fulfilled in our time is yet to be revealed.

Verse 14 is the oldest text which speaks about the “Old Covenant scriptures”, that is the Old Testament. It is worth noticing that “the Old Covenant” and “the Old Testament” are Christian terms. To the Jews the Old Covenant is their current Covenant and even today they do not recognize a New Covenant in Jesus.

In verse 17 we can see a reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although there is no word in the Bible for “the Trinity”, the Trinity itself is clearly expressed, see for example Acts 20:28 and Rom 8:9-11.

“Freedom” in verse 17 does not mean a freedom that this world desires but a freedom from the law, sin, and death.

Even as Christians we do not fully understand God and his will. We do not see Him fully, but like seeing through a mirror (verse 18, 1 Cor 13:12). Notice that the mirrors of that time were only polished metal and gave much more a distorted picture than good modern-day mirrors.

“One degree of glory to another” in verse 18 can mean that only someone in connection to glory – that is Christ Jesus – can one receive the glory of God (ref. 1 Cor 2:10; Prov. 4:18). Others interpret this as growing as a Christian, that is to understand the glory of God ever more deeply. But the final understanding of God’s glory will be hidden from everybody until we reach the Kingdom of Glory.