Exposition of

II Corinthians Three


1 - Do we begin to again to commend ourselves to you? Or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? 

A breach has occurred between Paul and the Corinthians; much of the present epistle is written to heal the breach and defend Paul’s actions and apostleship.  The breach appears to have been prompted by his first epistle, in which he faulted them for the man that had his father’s wife and perhaps some of the other disorders present in the church.  “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears” (II Cor. 2:4).  Because of the epistle, and because he wanted his next visit to be an occasion of joy and happiness, not grievousness and discipline, Paul by-passed Corinth when he went into Macedonia, and did not visit them as he previously indicated he would.  “Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth...But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness.” II Cor. 1:23; 2:1; cf. II Cor. 1:15, 16 

The fact that he did not come to them as he said he would has injured the feelings of the Corinthians, and opened him to charges of behaving with duplicity and insincerity.  “When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightness? or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay?”(II Cor. 1:17).  The breach has been widened by Paul’s adversaries, who have exploited the incident to discredit his ministry and apostleship.  Paul’s authority and credentials as an apostle have been questioned (II Cor. 11:5); his behavior in not accepting support has been turned as an occasion against him, as if he had somehow slighted them (vv. 6-9); his bodily presence had been characterized as “weak” (II Cor. 10:9), and his speech styled “rude” (unpolished) and contemptible (II Cor. 10:9; 11:6).   The detractors are most probably Judaizers (“are they Hebrews? So am I.” II Cor. 11:22) who are preaching “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (II Cor. 11:4), “deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (II Cor. 11:13). Their reception by the Corinthians into the church is probably what prompted Paul’s comment about not being unequally yoked together with unbelievers (II Cor. 6:14-18).   

The comment here rhetorically asking whether he is commending himself or requires letters of commendation to them, reflects the breach that has occurred as if he were now somehow become a stranger to them. 

2, 3 – Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. 

Paul did not require letters of commendation to or from the Corinthians because his love for them, written upon his heart, and their obedience to the gospel, written upon their hearts, was its own letter of commendation, testifying to the verity of his ministry and apostleship.  “Tables of stone” is an allusion to the Decalogue.  The Corinthians’ obedience to the gospel ministered by Paul is compared with the giving of the Old Testament by Moses; the one was engraved upon stone, the other upon the Corinthians’ hearts.  The reason Paul introduces the Old Testament here, where we would not normally expect it, likely reflects the fact that Judaizers have gotten among the Corinthians.  Paul wants to demonstrate the surpassing glory of the New Testament to the Corinthians, both in its being written inwardly in man’s heart by the Spirit of God, rather than externally upon tables of stone, and by the ministration of the Holy Ghost and the power of God resting upon the apostles, which stood in further commendation of his apostleship. 

4, 5 – And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; 

The Judaizers boasted and were confident in the flesh; they are descendants of Abraham, circumcised the eighth day, and gloried in their accomplishments under the law.  Paul, too, boasted these things, and more.  The last half of chapter eleven and first half of chapter twelve are devoted to a recital of things Paul was provoked “foolishly” to boast about: how thrice he was beaten with rods, five times he received forty stripes save one, once he was stoned, thrice suffered shipwrecked, and so forth. Yet, for all that he could boast, Paul choose rather to glory in his infirmities, for God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (II Cor. 12:9).  At precisely that point where man cannot save himself, the blood of the Lamb makes him whole.  Paul, thus, disclaimed all sufficiency as a minister of Christ, giving glory to God alone; it was God who called him to the ministry, who equipped, who inspired, who enabled, and who sustained.  Paul was but an earthen vessel, an instrument in the hand of God to communicate the message of reconciliation to the fallen race of man.  Herein is the great distinction between the gospel preached by Paul and that preached by the circumcision party: the Jews rested in the flesh, Paul in the cross of Christ.  “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). 

6 – Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. 

Paul refrains from directly attacking the Judaizers, but is concerned instead to prove the weakness and unprofitableness of the law.  The letter of the law can only convict fallen and unregenerate man; the motions of sins in his members bring him into bondage to the law of sin in his flesh (Rom. 7:23), leading him to exclaim, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v. 24).  But, as the law of aero-dynamics overcomes the law of gravity, so the law of the Spirit of life in Christ overcomes the law of sin and death.  Where sin did abound, grace doth much more abound (Rom. 5:20).  The distinction between letter/flesh and grace/spirit is the lesson Paul labored that his students learn and so be reconciled to him and to Christ. 

7 – But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones,  

Herein lays a great Preterist stumbling block and gaff.  Paul’s characterization of the law as a “ministration of death” is thought by some to signify that the Mosaic law was the sole condemning force of mankind, and that by its removal man is made just before the tribunal of God.  One writer thus states “the defeat of sin is tied to the annulment of the old aeon of law.”  And   “when the “ministration of death written in tables of stone’ was finally destroyed, death was swallowed up in victory.”[1] Another Preterist has stated “You cannot see what the Mosaic Law had to do with deliverance from sin-deathNullification of the Mosaic Law represented what humanity needed most--deliverance from a system of Law that COULD NOT SAVE.”   

Did you catch that?  Nullification of the Mosaic law is what man needed most!  Man is delivered from sin and death by annulment of the Mosaic law, not the cross of Christ!  Serious stuff, indeed!  

No.  The law of Moses merely codified the moral law that was extant from the garden and still exists today; it showed man his sin that existed without written law.  Paul said “for until the law [of Moses] sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed where there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).  Paul is not saying that God did not impute sin to man from Adam until Moses, for he very plainly did; the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prove this.  No, Paul is saying that man did not impute sin to himself where there was no written law from God; men required an objective standard of morality; without written law, they supposed they could commit sodomy, fornication, cheat and enslave their fellow man with impunity as if these were morally indifferent and went unnoticed by God.  Hence, the law entered to show man his sin and the penalty annexed to it by God. 

Every commandment of God carries the penalty of death for its willful violation (sin), whether it be the commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or the commandment not to lust, kill, steal, hate, or commit fornication or adultery.  The Mosaic law added nothing to the moral law except the obligation to sacrifice a blood offering.  This ceremonial aspect of the law was, in reality, typologically prophetic, in that it foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ, but could not provide atonement itself.  “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).  When Preterists assert that the defeat of sin was tied to annulment of the law, supposing that the cross could not save unless the law was removed, they greatly mistake the case. The cross triumphed over the law (Col. 2:14, 15). The law was removed because of its weakness and unprofitableness, not because it trumped the cross or forestalled man’s salvation.  Since the Mosaic law did not create or empower sin and death, its removal could not terminate sin and death. Removal of the law was soteriologically irrelevant in terms of man’s justification.  Man is saved by the addition of grace, not the removal of law. 

was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: 

Paul alludes to the time when Moses descended from the mountain and his face shone with the glory and radiance of God, whose presence he had just left (Ex. 34:29-35).  He analogizes Moses’ veiling his face to the very nature of the law itself, which stood in types and shadows of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.  The children of Israel could not see distinctly the glory reflected in Moses face; they could not see the thing to which the law pointed or led, but had to avert their eyes as man must turn his eyes away from the sun.  The veil Moses donned muted the brightness of God’s radiant purpose in Christ, allowing only a veiled glory to shine through.  Christ was the end and object of the law; the law was a school master to bring men to Christ (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:24); it was not an end in itself.  The provisional nature of the law meant that its glory would be done away. 

8, 9 – How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?  For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. 

The establishment of the Old Testament was attended by great glory in the plagues visited upon Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the appearance of the Lord upon the mount, the pillar of fire and smoke, and the glory of the Lord that filled the temple at its inauguration.  Yet, for all the glory attending the giving of the law, the glory of the gospel is greater still.  The birth of the Savior, his cross and resurrection, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and the promised of eternal life in glory hereafter all make the New Testament excel in glory all that has been before, and that will ever be. 

10, 11 – For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.  For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. 

The moon and stars do not cease to shine during the day.  Rather, the brightness and glory of the sun so far excels them that their radiance is completely overwhelmed and submerged, causing them to disappear to the eye of man.  In the same way, the Old Testament vanished at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness; the glory of the Old Testament waxed pale and disappeared before the perfect day of the New Testament.  The translators use the pluperfect past tense (“has been done away”), but the Greek reads “is being annulled.”  It is, of course, correct today to say “has been done away,” but when Paul wrote the Old Testament had not yet disappeared. The writer of Hebrews thus says, “that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). 

12, 13 – Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: and not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished. 

“Plainness of speech” is set over against the veiled face and, therefore, speech of Moses, by which Paul signifies the types and shadows of the law.  The brightness radiating from Moses’ face was the glory of God’s salvation in Christ.  But this was hidden beneath the feasts and rituals of the temple, and not plainly declared.  The law stood as a grand object lesson, demonstrating man’s sin and the need for blood sacrifice to make atonement.  But as the blood of bulls and goats could not satisfy the law of sin and death, the rituals served merely to point and instruct.  However, the veiled nature of the law meant that some fastened their eyes upon the veil, rather than look beyond to the glory muted beneath.  

14 – But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament; which veil is done away in Christ. 

Paul said that his fellow Jews had “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2, 3).  The Jews supposed that the law was an end in itself. Their minds were blinded, because they were unwilling to see that righteousness did not come by meritorious works of the law, but the obedience of faith, and therefore by grace.  Had they been true disciples of Moses, rather than hypocritical and duplicitous play-actors, they would have recognized Christ when he came.  The blindness of their pride and love of outward forms and superficiality, rather than true religion written upon the heart, prevented them from seeing the very thing the types and shadows of the law pointed to. The veil upon Moses’ face covered their eyes and hearts, and they went on in stubborn disbelief.  “The veil is done away in Christ” means not only that the types and shadows are removed, but understanding is imparted and the disciple is able to see that it points to and is fulfilled in Jesus.  “And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.  Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Lk. 24:44, 45). 

15, 16 - But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.  Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away. 

The law was regularly and ceremoniously read in the synagogue and assemblies of the Jews.  However, the heart of the nation at large was impenetrable. “For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (Matt. 13:15).  But when “it” (the heart) turns to the Lord and seeks him in sincerity and truth, the veil of types and shadows in the Mosaic law is lifted, and the ceremonies are seen to point to Christ as the source and hope of man’s salvation.   

17 - Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.   

Someone once explained the trinity to me saying, “Jesus was a body (earthen vessel); the life in him was the Spirit; both were from God.”  This verse certainly tends to validate that explanation.  The man Christ Jesus was but an earthen vessel indwelt by the Spirit of God.  Where the Spirit is, man is free.  The law of the Spirit of life in Christ triumphs over the law of sin and death codified in the law of Moses. 

18 - But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. 

The glory of God’s salvation in the face of Christ is not veiled.  The message is simply and plainly communicated, not concealed beneath types and shadows as the law of Moses had been.  “Beholding as in a glass” takes us back to I Cor. 13, where Paul says, men saw the glory of God’s redemptive purpose in Christ “through a glass darkly.”  This period was likened to the infancy of our salvation, and was attended by the prophetic gifts.  However, in the manhood of our salvation, the prophetic gifts have ceased, and faith, hope, and love alone sustain the man of God.   Moreover, the veil of types and shadows has been taken away, and we see the glory of God’s salvation openly, “face to face” in Christ.  “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6). 

“Glory to glory” refers not to a change from the Old Testament to the New (the Corinthians were never under the law of Moses), but from the glory of adoptive sonship in Christ during our sojourn on earth here below, to the glory of eternal inheritance in heaven above.  “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Adoption precedes inheritance; we are made adoptive sons by the gospel; we receive the inheritance by resurrection.  Jesus is the firstborn from the dead,; we are conformed to his image in our resurrection from physical death and so are changed from the glory of saints below to the glory of heaven above. 

[1] Rather than seem to pick on this individual whom we bear no ill will, we will simply leave him unnamed.


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