Gaebelein's Annotated Bible
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?
4. The Ministry of the New Covenant in Contrast with the Old.
1. The Epistle of Christ. (2Corinthians 3:1-3) 2. The True Sufficiency. (2Corinthians 3:4-6) 3. The Old and New Ministry Contrasted. (2Corinthians 3:7-11) 4. The Glory in the Face of Moses and the Glory in the Face of Christ. (2Corinthians 3:12-18.)
2. The True Sufficiency. (2Corinthians 3:4-6)
3. The Old and New Ministry Contrasted. (2Corinthians 3:7-11)
4. The Glory in the Face of Moses and the Glory in the Face of Christ. (2Corinthians 3:12-18.)
It was customary in the church to give letters of commendation (Acts 18:27; Romans 16:1). Did the Apostle need, as some others, epistles of commendation to the Corinthians, or such letters from them? Probably his enemies, the Judaizing teachers, who upheld the law and its ordinances, demanded such letters. They may have said, he did not come from Jerusalem ; who then is Paul? Why has he not letters of commendation? His answer is, “Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not on tables of stone, but on fleshly tables of the heart.” It is a most beautiful and tender Statement.
The Corinthians were his letter of commendation, the proof of his blessed ministry, because under his preaching they had been saved and were walking well. After their obedience, he could rightly say so. it would have been impossible for him to make such a statement in the first epistle. Let all men read you as an epistle, and they will know what kind of a man I am. What confidence and love this expresses! It would also lead them to an earnest inquiry if they were really such a letter of commendation. When he speaks of “ye are the epistle of Christ” he describes the general character of the church and her responsibility. The church is the representative of Christ, or Christ’s letter of commendation to the world. What a solemn responsibility to recommend in life and walk Christ to the world! Just as God had written once the law on tables of stone exclusively for Israel, so now the Spirit of the living God writes Christ on the hearts of believers, that the world may read Christ in the Church composed of all believers. (“Exodus 34:1; John 13:35; John 17:21. The analogy is obvious. Jehovah was ‘the God of Israel ,’ Christ is ‘the Savior of the world.’ The tables were Jehovah’s witness to His people, the Church is Christ’s living Epistle to the world. Israel heard but turned away; the world saw and read but refused, and yet refuses Him who thus speaks from heaven.
Lastly, in the former case, the law was made void by the commandments of men; in the latter, the Church, the power of whose testimony consists in her separation from the world, has by mingling with it become the betrayer, rather than the witness of the name by which she is called.”) And this is true ministry, witnessing to Christ not alone in the proclamation of the Gospel, but in life and walk. “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the children of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). And such was Paul’s confidence through Christ to Godward. He trusted the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to accomplish this. In himself, he acknowledges, there is no sufficiency for anything, “all our sufficiency is of God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The latter statement is often wrongly interpreted. The word “letter” does not mean the entire written Word of God. Many have taken this view and declare that the Bible must not be taken literally, just as it says. (This is mostly said in connection with Prophecy, the Second Coming of Christ, etc. More than once the word “the letter killeth” has been used to explain away the literal meaning of things to come.) It is not the question at all between the literal words and meaning of the Scriptures and the spiritual meaning, but it is a contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant, between the law and the gospel. The word “letter” stands for the law, which in its ministration kills and cannot give life. What the purpose of the law is and what it can do and cannot do is learned from the following passages: Romans 3:20; Romans 5:20; Romans 7:5-11; Romans 8:3; Galatians 3:10; Galatians 3:19.
By the law no flesh can be justified; by the law the offence abounded; the law means death to man (Romans 7:10-11). It is weak and has no power to help man, and it curses man. In this sense the letter, the law, killeth. But the spirit giveth life. It means that the spirit of the Gospel is different from the law, for the Holy Spirit operates through the Gospel and quickens the sinner who is dead and under the curse. Here then we have the absolute incompatibility of law and gospel. The epistle to the Galatians makes this fact fully known. The contrast between law and gospel, the old and the new covenant, is introduced in this epistle because the teachers who magnified the law and preached the keeping of the law for righteousness, were also at work in Corinth (chapter 11:22). And the glory of the gospel and its ministry cannot be fully demonstrated except in its relation to the law. The contrast made is fivefold:
Ministration of death
Ministration of the Spirit (Life)
Ministration of condemnation
Ministration of righteousness.
The law ministers death. It was written and engraved and came with glory. This refers us to the second giving of the law. Glory was connected with that, for Moses’ face shone. Because grace and mercy were mingled with the second giving of the law (Exodus 34:1-7), glory was seen upon the face of Moses. They could not look upon that glory, and Moses, the Mediator, had to cover his face with a veil. It was a brightness which dazzled and repelled, but had no power to attract or to bring light, warmth and joy to the hearts of the people. But if glory was connected with the ministration which is death, how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?
The Gospel is all-glorious and abiding; it is the ministration of righteousness which abounds in glory. The glory on the face of Moses has given way to the glory in another face, even in the face of the Lord, Jesus Christ. The glory on Moses’ face was but the reflection of His glory who came and dwelt among men. It is now a remaining glory as well as a surpassing glory, “the glory that excelleth.” And the sinner can behold that glory. “Righteousness is now ministered unto us, not worked out by us; and thus, indeed, the glory of God is revealed as nothing else could reveal it. His inmost heart is told out in righteousness, but love is righteousness, and love, how marvelous, as shown in the gift of Christ for men! So that which was made glorious in the time past had, in itself, no glory compared with this surpassing glory” (Numerical Bible).
“Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness (literally: boldness and confidence) of speech.” With such blessed assurance and knowledge of the ministration of righteousness and the Spirit, the true minister can use great plainness of speech in the proclamation of the Gospel. “To make the marvelous truth of God’s gospel as clear as daylight to the human conscience is the first duty of those whom the Lord now sends forth as heralds of His grace. Whatever is recondite or enigmatic is not now of God. Babes receive that which, when digested, makes them men. It could not be thus with Moses, who was indeed the open minister of the law, but the veiled prophet of grace,. The action of Moses in covering his face is here described as something intentional, and in keeping with his office as the minister of that which he knew to be imperfect in character, and therefore not of permanent effect. The lawgiver was a witness also of a better thing than law. To deliver his present message to the people he lifted the veil, which was again replaced when the commandment was uttered. Before God he was unveiled, and looked with open vision on the mystery of Jehovah’s ways, but to Israel his covered face was an emblem of the incomplete and unsatisfying nature of the ministry committed to his charge.” (A. Pridham)
But Israel has been blinded. The people who boast in the ministration of the law did not believe, and as a result their minds were blinded (Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:14; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; Romans 11:8). They read the Old Testament, but the veil is unremoved; yet the day of grace is coming when the veil shall be taken away, and that will be when they turn to the Lord during the coming time of great tribulation, ending with the glorious coming of Him whom they once rejected (Hosea 5:15; Hosea 6:1-3).
And those who believe look upon the unveiled, the unhidden glories of the Lord, and are transformed into the same image from glory to glory. It is through faith. And all is through the blessed life-giving Spirit of Christ, who works in believers as the Epistle of Christ. “The power to enjoy Him is the power to reflect Him. The reflection is no effort, but the necessary effect of enjoyment.” May we enjoy Christ by being more and more occupied with Him through His Word and then make Him known by walking even as He walked. This is a part of true ministry so much needed.