Paul is writing to these Corinthians in this second letter, giving these Christians pictures of who they are what they have in Christ. In our last lesson we noticed Paul pictured himself and the apostles as being led in a triumphal procession as captives of Jesus Christ, spreading the aroma of Christ everywhere they go. Remember that Paul was restless about the condition of the Corinthians and their reception of him and Titus (2:12-13). As Paul waits to hear from Titus, Paul describes in this letter the hope and comfort God provides for him in such times as a tool for these Christians to use for hope and comfort. So Paul presents another picture of what we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Written By Christ (3:1-6)
Paul begins by asking if he and his companions have to prove themselves to these Corinthians. Do we have to commend ourselves to you, proving that our work is legitimately from God? According to the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, “People often wrote letters to their peers or others recommending persons of social status lower than their own, usually carried by the recommended person.” So Paul is asking if this is really the relationship we have with each other, that we would need such letters to give to you or that we would need such from you.
But then Paul wants these Corinthians to understand the relationship he has with them. In verse 2 he points out that these Corinthians are his letters of recommendation. They are written on his heart. These Corinthians are proof of the gospel ministry he proclaims, read by others as Paul and his companions go other places preaching. You are the letter. You are the proof! Everyone sees this because they see you are written on our hearts. In fact, noticing verse 3, “You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” This is an amazing picture. First, Paul says that the Corinthians are a living letter, dictated by Christ, but inscribed by Paul through the apostolic ministry of gospel proclamation. Christ has created you through our ministry that we proclaim.
Second, Paul makes two contrasts. Paul says that you are a letter from Christ. But you are not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. Further, you are not written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Ink then is not like ink today. When we think of ink, we think of permanence. But ink then was a mixture of carbon and gum to make the mark black, which was erasable. To our ears, we need to hear the contrast between writing in pencil versus being written by the Spirit of God. You are written by God, not in pencil, but with permanence.
Not only are Christians written by God with permanence, but they are written on tablets of human hearts and not tablets of stone. This is a direct reference to God’s prophecies about what would take place in the new covenant of Christ. Listen to what the prophets declared.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34 ESV)
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19–20 ESV)
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26–27 ESV)
Paul declares that you show the proof of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 11 and 36. This is Paul’s confidence in these Corinthians (3:4). Paul does not have confidence in himself but in the power of the gospel which is seen in these Corinthians in their changed lives. The sufficiency for the work comes from God, not from self. Transformed lives that show a love for the Lord and God’s law written on heart is the evidence that God has written you as his letter. Therefore, what Paul proclaims is not a ministry of death but a ministry of life (3:6). This is why this ministry is pictured as being written by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit represents the giving of life all throughout the scriptures. It is important to state strongly that the contrast Paul is making in verse 6 (as evidenced by verse 7) is that the Law of Moses brought death (cf. Romans 5), but the new covenant brings life, which is why it is called the work of the Spirit. Paul is not saying that we do not keep God’s law because we now have a covenant of life. Rather, the Law of Moses could not provide life. Its purpose was to expose sin, but the purpose of the new covenant is to save from our sins and give life.
The Glory of the New Covenant (3:7-11)
Now Paul wants us to understand how amazing it is that we are under this new covenant that belongs to Christ. The Law of Moses, the 10 commandments, are called the ministry of death for the reasons we just noted a moment ago. But even though it was the ministry of death, it still was glorious. In fact, it was so glorious that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face after he was in the presence of God. As glorious was this law was, it was going to be brought to an end by God (3:7). Therefore, the new covenant must be even more glorious because it gives life and is permanent (not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God) (3:8)! If the law which brought condemnation was glorious, the law of righteousness must far exceed that glory! It is called the ministry of righteousness because it reveals the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17) and can make us righteous before God (Romans 3:21-26). In fact, the glory of the new covenant is so glorious that it makes the Law of Moses, the 10 commandments, not look glorious at all (3:10-11). So the new covenant is glorious because it brings life and because it is permanent (3:11).
When I was at Florida College I had a suite-mate who was from Atlanta. I went to his house for Thanksgiving because going home to San Diego was too far to go. So he was telling me about going to Stone Mountain one day while we were there. I thought that sounded great. I love mountains. So let’s go to Stone Mountain. There are hundreds of people there and they are amazed at Stone Mountain. They thought it was beautiful and glorious. But when I saw it, I was disappointed and despised it. Why? Stone Mountain is 1686 feet high. Where I lived in San Diego, each day I could see the Laguna Mountains which stand at 6378 feet high. The mountains near my grandmother’s house rise to 10,000 feet. So Stone Mountain possessed no glory to me at all. It was not glorious in contrast to mountains I had already seen. This is the picture Paul paints regarding the covenants. The Law of Moses was glorious but loses all of its glory when we see the new covenant of Christ.
Veiled Hearts (3:12-18)
Now we would think that everyone would see this glorious new covenant in Christ and join themselves to it. But many do not. Why? Paul explains in verses 12-18. The hope of the new covenant, the life it gives, makes us very bold. However, Israel cannot see this. They read the Law of Moses and the veil remains so that they do not see the greater, permanent, and more glorious ministry of Christ. The Law of Moses revealed the glory of God to a certain extent. But Jesus is the revealing of the full glory of God. If they would turn to the Lord then the veil would be removed. Let me continue the illustration I was using to help explain what Paul is saying. If I were standing with my friend at Stone Mountain, who is gazing on its glory, and I said, “Come with me to California and I will show you a glorious mountain.” Yet he said, “No, I refuse. This mountain is glorious and I do not desire to see any other mountains.” You see he chose to only see the glory of his mountain and will not turn and look at another to see greater glory. If he would look at those western mountains then the veil would be removed and he would see that there is greater glory to behold.
I believe this is exactly the point Paul is making. Because they will not look at Christ, the veil remains and they cannot see the greater glory of the new covenant (3:14). They continue to stare at the Law of Moses, unable to see the glory of Christ (3:15). If they would just look at Jesus, then the veil would be removed and they would see his glory (3:16). And it is glorious to behold because in Jesus there is life and freedom (3:17). The Lord Jesus is the giver of life and we must look to him to see that glory!
Now listen to this amazing conclusion and then we will make one point for us today. Look at verse 18. When we look at the scriptures, which is the ministry of the Spirit which Paul proclaims, we are beholding the glory of the Lord. With the copy of God’s word that rests in your hands you are looking at God’s glory. Have you thought about the power of what you hold in your hands? What you are seeing in the scriptures is more glorious than what the Israelites saw when Moses came from speaking to God!
Not only this, there is an effect that happens when you behold the glory of God through this word which you hold in your hands. When you with open hearts and unveiled faces behold the glory of God, you are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. As you look at him with unveiled faces, then your life is constantly being changed. We are experiencing transformation and that transformation is progressive. We see and then reflect the glory of the Lord to others as we are transformed as we look at his glory. Looking at the glory of God causes us to be transformed.
If we are not being changed into the image of our Lord Jesus with an ever increasing likeness of him, then there is only one reason why: a veil remains on the heart. These words are just words and you are not seeing God in them. You are not staring and beholding the glory of the Lord. It is just words on a page. The message bounces off of the heart and there is no transformation. You are willing to stare at Stone Mountain and say that you need to see nothing more, rather than beholding the magnificence of so much greater glory. You are satisfied in this life and satisfied with a little bit of God and are not thirsty to see more and more of God. Friends, I want you to see our glorious Lord and the glorious covenant he has given to us. I want your breath to be taken away as you climb the highest mountains of God’s glory. Turn to the Lord and remove the veil. Dig into God’s word. Get a journaling Bible and record each day the beauty of the Lord revealed to your face. Live in the word each day. Enjoy the glory of the Lord and you will be changed. The transformation you desire to have in Christ will come if you will turn your eyes to Jesus and enjoy the glory that is revealed through him.