The dispute in Corinth
2 Corinthians 3:1-18.
Paul and the Challenge
Paul just heard about it from an express courier. Judaisers, Jews who have become Christians, who call themselves “servants of Christ” (11:23) have come to disturb the Christians of Corinth.
“This Paul, how can you trust him: he has no official letter of recommendation from the Jerusalem authorities.
How can he say he is sent by God: he has neither much health nor much success and his speeches are not very eloquent. He is not brilliant like our great legislator, Moses: He at least he reflected the glory of God on his face.
Back to the Law of Moses?
And you, Corinthians, Greeks of pagan origin. You have turned to Christ, that is good but not enough… Look at your moral state, your conduct, there would be a lot to say. You would do well to comply with the Law given by Moses…”
Some Christians in Corinth then also question Paul’s authority and the validity of his ministry. The worm is in the fruit. How can the devastation be stopped?
Let us look at how the apostle will answer his opponents step by step in chapter 3 of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians
Are we starting to recommend ourselves again, or do we need to present you with letters of recommendation or ask you for them, as some do?
Our letter of recommendation is you
Do you really need letters of recommendation, don’t you know who I am, have you forgotten my service to God among you?
Our letter is you, a letter written in our heart, that everyone can know and read
Paul’s dispute in Corinth
My letter of recommendation is actually you, the Christians of Corinth. Your new life in Christ is a true letter of recommendation.
Your new life is the result of my ministry. It is an authenticated letter from Christ, validated by the action of the Spirit on your lives. Not a letter written with ink on stone tablets but a letter from Christ written on your hearts
You are a letter that Christ entrusted to our ministry and made us write, not with ink, but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets, but on flesh tablets: on your hearts.
Of course I have some concerns.
Yes, of course, I have a health problem, a thorn in my side (2 Corinthians 12:7) and a lot of distress.
Thus, we are overwhelmed by all kinds of distress and yet never crushed. We are helpless, but not desperate, persecuted, but not abandoned, crushed, but not destroyed (4:8-9)
Those who criticize me are successful, but isn’t it an easy success?
In any case, we are not like so many others who accommodate the Word of God to take advantage of it (2.17)
I’m not very brilliant in my speeches?
My objective is to preach to you Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified…without the persuasive speeches of wisdom... (1 Cor 2:2,4)
My confidence, my ability come from God
My assurance comes from God, not from me at all. He is the one who called me to be an apostle and he is the one who gave me the skills for my service. It was a demonstration of spirit, of power
This does not mean that we can consider ourselves able to do such a task; on the contrary, our capacity comes from God. (v. 5)
What about ours?
And where do our own skills and abilities come from? Apparently from our education, our personality, our intelligence? In fact, everything comes from God, he is the one who grants them to us.
The Law of Moses: not a means of salvation
“Being a Christian is not enough,” you were told. It is also necessary to obey the law of Moses.
Yes, the law of Moses is righteous. But it is not a means of salvation. No one, not even those who recommend that you follow it, is able to apply it in all its commandments. It has set a standard but has not offered any means to achieve it. It reveals sin. And sinful and weak men and women are unable to escape it.
Is it then the good that has become death to me? Not on your life! It is sin which, in order to manifest itself as such, has produced death in me through goodness, so that, through the commandment, sin may appear in all its power of sin.
The law kills but God makes life
Yes, the letter of the Law kills, with its written commandments it inflicts death (v.6) The old covenant, the ministry of Moses in the service of the Law leads to death ( v.7) and condemnation (v. 9).
But what the Law was unable to do, because man’s condition made it powerless, God did it. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son because of sin into a nature similar to that of the sinful man (Romans 8.3).
The new covenant in hearts
God made Paul the servant of the new covenant made by the blood of Christ (Luke 22:20). This new covenant announced by Jeremiah is written in the thoughts and engraved in the hearts.
But this is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel: After these days, says the Lord, I will put my Law in the deepest part of them, I will engrave it in their hearts; I will be their God, they will be my people. Jeremiah 31.33
The New Covenant, the ministry in the service of the Spirit, allows men to be declared righteous before God (v. 9). Paul can announce life. And the Corinthians received it.
The Spirit vivifies, the Spirit communicates life (V.6). The new covenant in the service of the Spirit is engraved on their hearts.
How to “kill” with the letter?
- Highlight your system of thought or belief and make it the norm of truth
- Highlight the ritual of your church, including how to practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- Preach your little creed instead of or in addition to the Gospel.
The Jews had a theory about the Messiah: he had to appear in such and such a form, do such and such a work, achieve such and such a destiny. He came, but it was not in accordance with their theory. They rejected him and were condemned.
Also be careful not to use the expression wrongly to accuse. A precise theological vocabulary that defines things well, the rigor and accuracy of expression are not the letter that kills.
Moses, the glory of the Law and the glory of the Gospel (v. 7-12)
The law given by Moses was glorious, majestic, it is true, but so glorious that the Israelites could not look it in the face. And this law condemns sinners to death. (v. 7) It requires obedience. Only the Spirit makes it possible to obey.
Then the ministry that leads men to be declared righteous before God is much more glorious than the one that condemns them (v. 8)
A passing glory, an eternal glory
The glory of the Law and that of Moses, the legislator, was fleeting (v.7, 11), that of the Spirit remains forever (v. 11)
Exodus 34:29-35. describes the splendor that shone from Moses’ face when he returned from his encounter with God. This radiation, however, has faded over time and eventually disappeared.
Paul affirms that Moses represents ancient Judaism. Its glory was once a reality in history.
The Old Testament was glorious and unparalleled in the centuries before Christ. Tribes organized as a nation, a doctrine of the one God (despite the tendency to pagan idolatry) holiness of human life, rights of persons and property, obligations of fraternity, duties towards the nation, the poor and foreigners, respect for the Sabbath and its worship, obedience to God…
The glory that remains: the Gospel
This temporary glory is deteriorating now. His time is up. It has given way to what remains, namely the Gospel.
We can even say that this glory of the past loses all its brilliance when compared to the present glory which is far superior to it. For if that which is fleeting has been touched by glory, how much greater will be the glory of that which abides eternally (v. 10:11)
This contrast between the old and the new covenant is to the advantage of the new covenant. It fills Paul with insurance (v. 12). God called him to serve him, to make the glory of God known to the world. The ministry of the Spirit opens hearts to God, the ministry of justice declares sinners righteous, service to God remains forever. His ministry is much more glorious than that of Moses.
The veil on the heart
Moses and his veil v. 13-16
Moses reflected the glory of God. Yes, but the Jews couldn’t stand it. So he would put a veil over his face. Paul explains it in verses 13 and adapts it to the situation of his time in verse 14.
We do not do like Moses who “covered his face with a veil” to prevent the Israelites from seeing the reality towards which what was temporary was tending. But their minds have become incapable of understanding: even today, when they read the Old Testament, this same veil remains; it is not taken away from them, for it is in union with Christ that it is lifted.
The possible interpretations are not mutually exclusive.
1. A brilliance that weakens
In the presence of God, Moses’ face was radiant. But this brilliance was getting weaker and weaker. He didn’t want the Israelites to see it disappear. So he would cover his face.
Why? To prevent the people from being disappointed. He knew that the Israelites were easily discouraged. Several times, they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt.
It would be easy to criticize them. But we can try to understand them. We do not like to change our habits even if some of them are on the verge of being bearable. Many want to continue in the religious traditions in which they were raised. They are sometimes so committed to their past that they are insensitive to the truth of the Gospel, to any novelty, even to a true, to a profitable one.
2. A temporary religion
The light that faded from Moses’ face indicated that the religion of the Law was temporary. But the Israelites in the day of Moses and in the time of Paul (up to nowadays v. 15) persisted in looking at it as if it were the definitive incarnation of God’s salvation. Thus, the light that fades on Moses’ face contrasts with the endless glory of God that shines from the face of Jesus Christ (4:6).
3. An act of grace and judgment
An act of grace and divine mercy, but also of judgment against a rebellious people.
Moses was veiled to prevent the people of Israel from being struck to death by the divine glory that radiated from his face. Their idolatry with the golden calf, the murmurs, the revolts, their hardening in sin would have destroyed them, if they had continued to look at Moses’ face in its brilliance
For me, I will not go among you, because you are a rebellious people and I may have to exterminate you during the journey. Exodus 33.3
The veil worn by Moses expresses God’s judgment. The reflected glory of God must be veiled so as not to destroy them because of their sin. It also expresses God’s mercy. The glory of God can be present among the people through Moses.
The veil, obstacle, hardening
In Paul’s time, the veil also represents the difficulty of understanding, the spiritual hardening. It prevents those who study the Law from understanding its profound significance, from grasping that the true glory of God is in Christ.
At Paul’s first preaching in the synagogue of Corinth, the local Jews contradicted him, insulted him and threw him out… (Acts 18:5-11)`
The veil removed
Then, the only way to remove the veil that obscures, is the Word, the written Word, preached from the Gospel, but also and especially the living Word, Christ. To remove the veil is to turn to Christ, to convert and to continue…
To reject Christ, the only one who can remove the veil, is to persist in hardening. Only those whose hearts are transformed by the Spirit will accept to be redeemed by Christ. To welcome the Lord to make the veil disappear and move from the old covenant to the new one.
“The veil… is only removed by Christ” (v. 14c), which is why this new covenant is sealed in Christ. Paul insists: Israel must turn to Christ and recognize him as Lord.
Moses unveiled himself in the presence of the glory of the Lord. For Paul, it is the experience of the Christian who converts, who turns to Christ.
Paul wishes and hopes for this for the Jews of his time.
If they turn to the Lord, if they convert, the veil that wraps their hearts and minds will be removed. Israel itself must act to remove the veil.
The same is true for non-Jews. In the New Covenant, anyone can enter the presence of the Lord through the Spirit who removes the heart of stone and writes God’s law on hearts of flesh. ́
About the veil, an illustration
After cataract surgery, there is a white veil in front of the eye, first opaque and then more and more transparent. The surgeon recommends drinking plenty of fluids to remove the blood remaining in the eye.
Drink plenty to wash, to purify…
Adding more and more of God’s Word to the Word illuminates this Word. It removes the obstacles that prevent it from being understood and put into practice.
Thus, the inspired word by the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament illuminates the Word of the Old Covenant
But a simply human word, legalism, Church traditions… add even more confusion. Beware of our spiritual food.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
We can understand the link between freedom of speech and the veil removed by the Spirit of the Lord.
We must bring together “boldness, boldness of speech”, resulting from trust and freedom, and Aramaic expressions translated as « to uncover the head” – as a sign of freedom or to uncover the face”, which means “have the freedom to speak”. The expression was well known to the rabbis, Paul’s former colleagues.
This is Paul’s answer to those who reproach him for lack of brilliance and presence. He has the boldness, the freedom of speech. He has the right to have access to God, with a good conscience, linked to freedom and authority.
This boldness is the remedy for fear, for discouragement.
We can approach “since we really have such hope, we speak with great freedom” (3.12) of “since we have this ministry… we are not discouraged” (4.1)
His “boldness”, his freedom of speech comes from his “sincerity” (2.17). It opposes any “deception”
We reject unworthy intrigues and processes. We do not deceive or falsify the Word of God (4.2).
His assurance is based on hope, on what is permanent, not transitory (3.11). For if that which is fleeting has been touched by glory, how much greater will be the glory of that which abides forever.
He is called to be a “servant” of a new covenant and therefore has valid authority
We speak with great confidence or freedom” corresponds to “I am not ashamed or I am proud of the Gospel (Romans 1:16).
Progressive transformation in the image of the glory of the Lord
And all of us who, with our faces uncovered, contemplate the glory of the Lord as if in a mirror, have been transformed into his image in a glory whose brilliance continues to grow. This is the work of the Lord, that is, of the Spirit. (v. 18)
Christ has removed the veil once and for all. This is why it is possible to contemplate and reflect Christ at the same time.
Like Moses, the Christian reflects the glory of the Lord to the extent that he contemplates it. Contemplation of Christ transforms the Christian, and then he becomes the reflection of the contemplated image. We must contemplate Christ to reflect his image.
Christ, a reflection of the image of God seen in a mirror.
And he who contemplates Christ also reflects the image of God. Thus, believers are gradually transformed in the divine image, that is, Christ.
As the main verb of the verse “transformed” (in Greek, metamorphose) indicates, it is an inner transformation that manifests itself in a “visible” way. Thus the face of Moses made the glory of God visible.
The divine image of Christ, the image of God, is made “visible” in the Christian way of life.
The glory of the Lord reflected in the believer’s life is gradually increasing. The transformation is not instantaneous, but gradual. By participating in the glory of Christ, the Christian is transformed into this same glory until final glorification.
Transformation from glory to glory through the Lord who is the Spirit.
In the new covenant inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit, Jesus Christ is proclaimed Lord of the universe, accessible to the Christian by the Spirit.
Paul does not mean that Christ and the Spirit are one person.
It is a functional identity between Christ and the Spirit.
“Believers are transformed from glory to glory (as when one is transformed) by the Lord, who works by the Spirit”
It is Jesus Christ who gave his Spirit to the Church, and through his Spirit he is present in his Church. Christ’s ministry in the Church is accomplished through the Spirit. The relationship that a Christian can have with the risen Lord passes through the intermediary of the Spirit.
A hymn says: “As I am, I come to you”. But no Christian should remain as he is. And above all, not to put obstacles in the way of the spiritual change that God wants to make in him. Some do not feel the need for such an inner change as long as they think they have the right label, the right Church, the right confession of faith. God’s desire is that every Christian should become like Christ. May he reach maturity, “in the state of an adult, at a stage where all the fullness that comes to us from Christ is manifested. “(Eph 4:13) with a daily transformation of his character into that of his Lord.
To do this, we must let the Holy Spirit do his work by inviting him to all the rooms, all the areas of our lives. Then he will reveal to us our areas of darkness, our weaknesses, our sins. And if we recognize them before others, instead of hiding them, and let the Spirit of God transform us, it will be a testimony. The Christian does not play the “perfect”. But he lets others see how the Lord is gradually transforming his life. This is to be “lights in the world”, “a perfume of Christ”, “a letter read by all men”.