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Understanding 2 Corinthians 3
Understanding 2 Corinthians 3:7-18
Because of Seventh-day Adventists' insistence on the immutability of God’s moral law, and our respect for the entire Bible, there is a pernicious and persistent misinformation that we do not live and share the New Testament faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. Praise the Lord that Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again. Praise the Lord for the New Testament gift of the Holy Spirit in order to spread this wonderful gospel that God so loved the world that humanity can be saved from the condemnation so inherent in the sinful condition after the fall.
Praise the Lord for the gracious deliverance offered every one who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ.
The text under consideration has been proffered time after time as condemnatory of those of us who would uphold the law of God in this evil age. But having warned you that there is total falsehood in the accusation (that we do not believe in the New Testament), let us continue on a somewhat common ground as we look at this interesting text.
According to the Life Application Bible:
“…the church at Corinth was weak. Surrounded by idolatry and immorality they struggled with their Christian faith and life-style. Through personal visits and letters, Paul tried to instruct them in the faith, resolve their conflicts, and solve some of their problems. First Corinthians was sent to deal with specific moral issues in the church and to answer questions about sex, marriage, and tender consciences. That letter confronted the issues directly and was well received by most. But there were false teachers who denied Paul’s authority and slandered him. Paul then wrote 2 Corinthians to defend his position and to denounce those who were twisting the truth.”
Chapter 3:1-6 Apostolic Credentials
3:1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some [others], epistles of commendation to you, or [letters] of commendation from you?
3:2 Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:
3:3 [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 fleshly tables of the heart.
3:4 And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:
3:5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency [is] of God;
3:6 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.
A discussion which began in chapter 2 is continued in vs. 1-6 whereby Paul affirms the spiritual foundation of his ministry. “Our competence comes from God.” The Life Application Bible states “Paul was not boasting; he gave God the credit for all his accomplishments…as Christ’s witnesses, we need the character and special strength that only God gives.”
Chapter 3: 7-18 The Glory of the Apostolic Commission
3:7 But if the ministration of death, written [and] engraven in stones, 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:
3:8 How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?
3:9 For if the ministration of condemnation [be] glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
3:10 For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.
3:11 For if that which is done away [was] glorious, much more that which remaineth [is] glorious.
3:12 Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:
3:13 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:
3:14 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.
3:15 But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.
3:16 Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.
3:17 Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord [is], there [is] liberty.
3:18 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.
Paul had been called to minister particularly to the Gentiles. It is believed that Judaizing Christian opposed his preaching in Corinth as they did at Galatia. The main thrust of Paul’s argument in this chapter is therefore the far superior sacrifice of Calvary when compared with the Hebrew rituals. In order to get the point we need to know the difference between the moral aw and the ceremonial law.
Here is a useful study from a wonderful site on that issue:
The Laws of Moses and the Law of God
Objective: At the end of this study, you will 1) understand the use of the term "law" in Galatians 3, and 2) be able to differentiate between the Laws of Moses and the Law of God.
Welcome to this in-depth online free course on the book of Galatians from the Bible Dialog Institute.
Should a distinction be drawn between “the Laws of Moses” and “the Law of God?”
In reality God was the author of many regulations and ordinances that were given to the people of Israel through Moses. These were given to help them to function as a nation and to point forward to their ultimate goal and destiny. There were: (1) Civil laws and regulations that dealt with the ownership of property, inheritance, etc. (2) Criminal laws that involved punishment for murder, theft, and other such crimes against individuals. (3) Regulations for sanitation, health and various diseases, and (4) Ceremonial laws that centred around the sanctuary in the wilderness and later the temple which were given for the purpose of pointing forward to the sacrifice that would be made by our Saviour for all mankind. The basic form of these ceremonial laws was given to Adam following his expulsion from Eden (Gen. 4: 4). These sacrifices were continued down through time as with Noah (Gen. 8: 20), Abraham (Gen. 12: 7, 8; Gen. 13: 18), and Jacob (Gen. 33: 20). Offerings of different kinds and for various occasions were added at Sinai. The rite of circumcision was instituted by God in connection with His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17: 10). At Sinai all of these laws and regulations were codified in a formal way. (5) Finally, there was the law that God Himself spoke at Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 1-17), sometimes called “the Moral Law.”
In his book, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, on page 42, Dr. Michael Horton defines legalism as “adding to God’s Word,” a practice that “is condemned equally with subtracting from them. (See Deut. 4: 2; Prov. 30: 6; Rev. 22: 18).” We must be sure that we do neither.
Jesus had no time for the multitude of rules, washings, and prohibitions that the Jews had added to the system of worship that had been prescribed for them through Moses. In Mark 2: 16, there is an example of how the Jewish leadership applied the “Law of Moses” in everyday life. “When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to the disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” The Net Bible. A footnote that explains the term “experts in the law,” is as follows: “The people referred to here were recognized experts in the law of Moses and in traditional laws and regulations.” p. 1793. These added rules had isolated them from their Gentile neighbours, as well as individuals within their own society, but the Apostle Paul says in Eph. 2: 14-16: “Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. Christ gave his own body to destroy the Law of Moses with all its rules and commands. He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other. He also made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body.” Contemporary English Version
Peter had been with Jesus. He had had the experience of being divinely sent to the home of Cornelius where he had witnessed the acceptance by God through the Holy Spirit of that entire household, even though they were Gentiles (Acts 10). He had testified to the other believers in Jerusalem of that experience and especially to those who insisted that the Gentiles must be circumcised, the same ones who said in accusation, “You stayed in the homes of Gentiles, and you even ate with them!” Acts 11: 3 CEV. They were continuing to hold to the traditions that had been condemned by the Lord.
Strangely enough, Peter, and even Barnabas, succumbed to the pressure to revert back to the old ways. That is why Paul had to confront them, as recorded in Galatians 2.
Again, in Acts 15, the record reveals that these ideas were still strong in the minds of some. “Some people came (to Antioch) from Judea and started teaching the Lord’s followers that they could not be saved, unless they were circumcised as Moses had taught. This caused trouble, and Paul and Barnabas argued with them about this teaching. So it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas and a few others to Jerusalem to discuss this problem with the apostles and the church leaders.” Acts 15: 1, 2 CEV.
Now we find that men with the same ideas had infected the church of the Galatians. Thirteen times the word circumcised or circumcision is used in Galatians. Clearly, the problem that Paul had with the Galatian believers involved the same issue that had been raised in Acts 10 and Acts 15. All of these ideas were a clear violation of the command not to add to God’s Word.
But, what about the various laws and regulations outlined in the first main paragraph of this paper? What has happened to them? The first three (the Civil and Criminal laws, as well as the health and sanitation laws) were national laws. When the nation of Israel ceased to exist these laws no longer applied. Of course, every nation has similar laws, but they have no religious significance.
The fourth law, the one that dealt with the sacrificial system and the rites that pertained to the temple services, pointed forward to the sacrifice that Jesus would make on the cross. He fulfilled this law perfectly and therefore the need for these rites and ceremonies ceased at His death. In addition, to forcefully bring attention to the fact that the temple services were at an end when Jesus died on the cross, the record says: "Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.” Matt. 27: 50, 51. God does not leave us in doubt about His overall plan of salvation. He instituted the sacrificial system outside the Garden of Eden, elaborated on it at Sinai, and in a tremendous display at the death of Jesus, the true sacrifice, He let it be known that the sacrificial system had met its fulfilment.
These first four sets of laws and regulations were written down by Moses as God inspired him to do it. In Deut. 31: 24-26 it says, “When Moses finished writing on a scroll the words of this law in their entirety, he commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the Lord’s covenant, ‘Take this scroll of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. It will be there as a witness against you.’” The Net Bible.
The fifth law is the Law of God, the Ten Commandments that He Himself spoke. This law was also written by God Himself. Deut. 10: 1, 2 and 5 records, “At that same time the Lord said to me, ‘Carve out for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones and ascend the mountain to me; also make for yourself a wooden ark. I will write on the tablets the same words that were on the first tablets you broke, and you must put them into the ark.’ . . . Then I turned, descended the mountain, and placed the tablets into the ark I had made—they are still there, just as the Lord commanded me.” The Net Bible. The marginal reference in the KJV indicates this ark was the same one mentioned in Ex. 25: 10, the ark of the covenant that was placed in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle. The opinion of this writer is that there is no place in scripture that suggests this law has been nullified. God is eternal. If He wished for His children to ignore His law, then He would have made an announcement accordingly, an announcement just as openly as when he spoke the commandments. At the death of Jesus on the cross or at the time of the resurrection of Jesus, God could have spoken and put on a display of power that would make the issue clear and without ambiguity. He did so in the case of the laws and regulations that pertained to the sacrificial system, as we have noted. I find no place where He has spoken in this way about the Ten Commandment Law. Instead, in the last discourse given to His disciples prior to his crucifixion, Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” John 14: 15.
In addition, in Isaiah 66: 22 and 23, the prophet speaks for the Lord when he writes: “I also promise that you will always have descendants and will never be forgotten, just as the new heavens and the new earth that I create will last forever. On the first day of each month and on each Sabbath, everyone will worship me. I, the Lord, have spoken.” The Contemporary English Version. The King James Version reads in part: “. . . from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord.” [Emphasis supplied.] Clearly, the Sabbath is to be kept as a special day of worship in the new earth, and all who are there will observe it. As stated earlier, God is eternal. He sanctified the seventh day as a Sabbath at the time of the creation of this earth, i.e., blessed it and made it a special day (Genesis 2: 2, 3). At Sinai He reiterated its sanctity and said that the Sabbath should be remembered (Exodus 20: 8-11); it is a part of God’s law, the one He Himself wrote. Again, I find no evidence that the Law of God or any part of it has been nullified. In that respect it is different from all other laws mentioned here.
However, having said all of the above, as far as the issues that are raised in the book of Galatians are concerned, the principle is the same regardless of what law is in question. Clearly, “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God.” Gal. 3: 11. That means any law.
God is a perfect God and he requires absolute perfection from all of His creation. When the creation week was complete “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Gen. 1: 31. Because of the blight of sin, this is no longer true. Now, “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Isa. 64: 6. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3: 23. In the light of these verses, how are we to be treated as being righteous? Can we do so by keeping the law? The answer is an absolute NO. Even if it were possible (which it is not), we are so imperfect that we would not know whether or not we were keeping the law perfectly! “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Jer. 17: 9. What is the answer? “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.” Gal. 3: 13.
The human race still has a problem with sin. There may be those who would like to deny the concept of sin because it is an ugly word. But sin is defined in the Bible. 1 John 3: 4 states: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law.” Another word for transgression is “disobedience.” We are still in rebellion against God. When asked to tell what was the most important commandment, “Jesus answered, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.’” Matt. 22: 37-39. CEV. Jesus very neatly summarized the Ten Commandments in this way; the first four relate to our love for God; the last six relate to our love for others.
But, let us reiterate, “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God.” Gal. 3: 11. Because of our inherent imperfections, no person can say they are able to keep God’s law perfectly.
Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Galatians, Modern-English Edition, p.163, “Christians are not made righteous by doing righteous things, but being made righteous by faith in Christ, they do righteous things.”
D. Ordell Calkins, DBA
Now back to our study of Corinthians.
A simpler way to look at the above scholarly article is to regard the laws as either ceremonial or moral. The moral law, the ten commandments, was an essential part of god’s divine plan and is unchangeable. The ceremonial law was instituted to answer a particular need, and pointed specifically to the sin pardoning Messiah.
A modern writer puts it this way
“Paul desires his brethren to see that the great glory of a sin-pardoning Saviour gave significance to the entire Jewish economy. He desired them to see also that when Christ came to the world, and died as man’s sacrifice, type met antitype.
After Christ died on the cross as a sin offering the ceremonial law could have no force. Yet it was connected with the moral law and was glorious. The whole bore the stamp of divinity, and expressed the holiness, justice, and righteousness of God. And if the ministration of the dispensation to be done away was glorious, how much more must the reality be glorious, when Christ was revealed, giving His life-giving, sanctifying Spirit to all who believe.”
The same writer states elsewhere “the dim glory of the Jewish age has been succeeded by the brighter clearer glory of the Christian age.”
Having shown that there is a theological continuity from the Mosaic system to Calvary I will now conclude by emphasizing that Paul’s statements on the covenants in 2 Corinthians and Galatians can be properly understood only in terms of his polemic against Judaizing opponents whom he saw as making the law, rather than Christ, central to salvation.
Let us all pray that as we are given grace to continue on our journey of faith we may love God and humanity and enrich the world with kind, thoughtful, and loving service.