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Free and fearless.
The gospel of 2 Corinthians 3 emboldens us to not cower from our callings.
Paul’s second epistle to the church at Corinth is certainly among the more fascinating letters in the New Testament. I think that is so because it is not necessarily a polemical address to correct a church matter or settle an ecclesiastical squabble. Unlike 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians isn’t an apostolic cleansing of some such scandal in the ranks of the church. Rather this address is a pointed retort from Paul aimed at some of the rumors that had begun to swirl regarding his apostleship. There were those within the Corinthian church, it seems, who had come to question not only Paul’s standing as a leader of the early church but also the credibility and viability of his entire ministry. This questioning of his authority began to increase in volume, such that Paul composes this letter for the express purpose of re-explaining the gospel while also reaffirming his apostolic authority.
To be sure, Paul’s impetus in this endeavor is by no means hubristic. He’s not doing this out of pride or some supposed “spiritual ego trip.” Indeed, rather, he’s adamant in doing this because, as he sees it, the very sake of the gospel is on the line. The fact of his apostleship matters little in the light of the potential forfeiture of that blessed truth.
A matter quickly closed.
The first three verses of chapter three capture the heart of the exasperated apostle:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? 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. (2 Cor. 3:1–3)
After all that he had been through and invested into these Corinthian Christians, he is, yet again, being asked to present his résumé. The church at Corinth, it seems, has developed a curious case of amnesia, forgetting all that Paul and his team had labored to instill in their hearts and souls and minds. Such is what he calls them on the carpet for: “Aren’t we past this?” I can hear the apostle saying. “Do I really need to go through the charade of proving to you my authority through letters of recommendation? Do you really want me to go through all the showy red-tape of demonstrating my spiritual calling in Christ Jesus?” I get the sense that Paul is more than a little frustrated by this development. So he turns the tables on them, directly stating that they themselves are his credentials. “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men” (2 Cor. 3:2). “You want proof of my calling? Fine, look in the mirror.” The Corinthians themselves were his commendation. The immense change that has taken place in their lives is all the evidence he needs to present in the matter of proving both his calling and the gospel’s power. Case closed.
For the Corinthians, this was surely an encouraging albeit convicting word from the apostle Paul at the same time. They who were so recently disputing his integrity and reliability were now just informed that they had a spot reserved for them in his heart. That’s how beloved this church body was to the apostle. And, you’ll notice, he attributes all of that to the work of the “Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3). Paul was, to be sure, immediately involved, but it was God’s work all the way through. He was the One ultimately responsible for the Corinthians’ tremendous restoration. Paul was but a messenger, an ambassador. Thus their questioning of Paul’s authority was, in fact, a questioning God himself. “You’re Christ’s epistle, not mine,” he says, in effect. “You’re a byproduct of his glorious work, not mine.” “Christians,” comments G. Campbell Morgan, “are the true credentials of the power of the ministry” (236).
As Paul, perhaps, anticipates the stunned silence of the Corinthian believers in their reading of this letter, he proceeds to articulate what ministry is all about. The last three verses of the previous chapter give us a hint at what we might call “Paul’s ministry philosophy” (2 Cor. 2:15–17). But in verses 4–18 of 2 Corinthians 3, this is made even more transparent, as the apostle proceeds three distinct aspects that are true of all faithful ministers of christ’s gospel. And, to be sure, these were not merely features of Paul’s ministry only, nor were they only applicable to the church at Corinth. No, these aspects of ministry are just as true and necessary and applicable for churchgoers today.
A ministry of commendation.
In verses 4–6, Paul expands on the notion of what qualifies him for ministry, and he does so in a most profound way:
And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; 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. (2 Cor. 3:4–6)
Rather than lean on his faith or his church planting prowess or his preaching expertise, Paul puts all his weight on the confidence he has in Christ. He’s perfectly happy putting all his eggs in that basket, as it were. He says, matter-of-factly, that he doesn’t possess any “sufficiency” in and of himself. Instead, his sufficiency “is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5). His authority and credibility has nothing do with him. Indeed, as he says elsewhere, he considers himself the “least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9). He knows for a fact that all he is and all he has to offer is found in and through the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:4). It was he who made him fit to minister to the church, for the church, in the first place. Paul, I think, feels this in his bones. Hardly a letter of his goes by without the beloved apostle of God alluding to the great work of God accomplish in him and for him (1 Cor. 15:8–10; Phil. 3:4–7; 1 Tim. 1:12–16). All that Paul is and that Paul has to offer is found in and through Christ alone.
God in Christ made Paul and all his fellow gospel-laborers “able ministers of the new testament” (2 Cor. 3:6). The operative word, there, being “made,” which means “to render fit,” “to equip,” or “to qualify.” It was God’s Son and Spirit, therefore, who equipped Paul for the ministry for which he was now willingly being spent and wrung out. He was quite content to be “offered upon the sacrifice and service of” the faith of Christ’s saints (Phil. 2:17; 2 Cor. 2:15). The same one who was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter” against the church was now caring for it and seeking its good. Paul the persecutor was transformed into Paul the preacher. Which brings to mind the familiar adage, “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” I’m not sure where that saying originated, but I am quite sure that Scripture proves that it is true. Flip through the Bible’s pages and you’ll quickly find that the bulk of it is concerned with and/or written by those who on their own are entirely unfit and unqualified for God’s service.
Paul, of course, is a prime example. As is St. Peter, who went from making a “rock-like” confession (Matt. 16:16–18) to kicking pebbles and throwing stones as he denied ever knowing his Lord and Master in his hour of greatest need (Matt. 26:69–75). I also think of the patriarch Jacob, that conniver who’s turned into a living specimen of the work God was determined to do through his chosen people (Gen. 32:28). And, of course, who can forget Moses and his fumbling for excuse after excuse to not be used of Yahweh to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. Yet, for each explanation Moses hastened to give, the God of all things reassured him of the almighty power and presence that would go with him and before him (Exod. 3:10–12; 4:10–12). Such choices are, indeed, strange. Our logic would almost certainly point us elsewhere. But God delights in the unexpected. I am inclined to share an extended excerpt from one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons, in which he articulates God’s “strange choice”:
Man chooses those who would be most helpful to him: God chooses those to whom he can be the most helpful. We select those who may give us the best return; God frequently selects those who most need his aid . . . God chooses his friend according to the serviceableness which he himself may render to the chosen one. It is the very opposite way of choosing. We select those who are best because they are most deserving; he selects those who are worst because they are least deserving, that so his choice may be more clearly seen to be an act of grace and not of merit. I say it is clearly contrary to man’s way of choosing. Man selecteth the most beautiful, the most lovely; God, on the contrary, seeing the blackness and filthiness of everything which is called lovely, will not select that which is called so, but takes that which even men discover to be unlovely, — makes it comely with the comeliness which he putteth upon it. (305)
R. Kent Hughes similarly asserts:
God is not looking for gifted people or people who are self-sufficient. He is looking for inadequate people who will give their weakness to him and open themselves to the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the transforming grace of the new covenant as it is ministered by Christ Jesus himself. If God is calling you, do not hide behind your weakness . . . Follow God, and he will use your weakness as an occasion for his power. (74)
It is God’s unique prerogative to use the unlikeliest of people to be his representatives, ones through whom he delights to showcase his glory. (Another good example of this would be the anointing of David in 1 Sam. 16. Or even Gideon, in Judg. 6—7, on which I wrote about here.) After all, in so doing, it is God himself who receives the most glory, which hearkens back to the words Paul wrote previously to this same church (1 Cor. 1:26–31). And the same holds true for you and me as well. We don’t have any ability or sufficiency in and of ourselves. There’s nothing you and I possess on our that makes us commendable creatures. All of that we owe to Another. It is God alone who is our sufficiency, our confidence, our worthiness. Yet, notwithstanding our insignificance, we are chosen (1 Pet. 2:4–5). We are the nobodies who’ve been selected to tell everybody about the Somebody who saved us.
A ministry of proclamation.
After affirming who it was that equipped him for ministry, Paul, then, proceeds to express what he is equipped for: “who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament” (2 Cor. 3:6). The term “new testament,” of course, is elsewhere translated “new covenant,” a.k.a. the gospel. In the subsequent verses, he goes on to show why and how the gospel is better — namely, “by reason of the glory that excelleth” (2 Cor. 3:10). And what is that excelling glory? For that, Paul turns to one of the most formative moments in Israelite lore: the scene at Mount Sinai.
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: but their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away. (2 Cor. 3:13–16)
Here, Paul alludes the second time Moses descended the slopes of Sinai, found in Exodus 33—34, where Israel’s liaison with Yahweh arrives at camp with his face shining with the glory of God. This comes after Moses is given a sight of the express glory and goodness of Yahweh “pass before” him (Exod. 33:18—34:9). When he returns to the Israelites, his face glows, radiates with Yahweh’s glory, such that it was necessary for him to put a veil over his face (Exod. 34:29–35). The people of Israel couldn’t handle the glimpse of glory they saw in Moses’s face. The glory needed to be covered. And so it is that the beaming glory on Moses’s face was an illustration of the brightness of God’s holiness, a graphic picture of his standard of righteousness, which, of course, the Israelites have already proven they are incapable of fulfilling (Exod. 32:1–35). The veil, then, was a reminder of Israel’s failure. Likewise, though, it was a merciful safeguard against Yahweh’s righteous judgment.
Therefore, with all of that in mind, the apostle Paul makes a bold declaration when he says that the “veil is done away in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). Christ Jesus takes away the covering (2 Cor. 3:16). He renders null the old way of “covenant righteousness.” As Paul says elsewhere, Christ is “the end of the law for righteousness” (Rom. 10:4). The former means by which God’s people communed with him are no longer necessary. That’s over. In the gospel, we’re afforded a face-to-face look at God’s glory. Indeed, what the gospel announces is that the Face of Glory has come and visited us, personally, substitutionally (2 Cor. 4:6). The veil over Moses’s face is indicative of the types and shadows by which one saw the glory of the Father (Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17). Yahweh was seen and known and experienced through rites and symbols. The church, though, knows the Father by looking him in the Face by faith. And that Face is the bruised face of the crucified one.
And that’s what ministry is all about. It means we draw back the veil, uncovering the glorious purposes of God as revealed and known and accomplished in Christ Jesus (Jer. 31:31–34). “We are revealing the very glory of our Master,” writes G. Campbell Morgan, “and that is the result of the Christian ministry” (236). Wherever your ministry has you, and whoever your audience is, your primary mandate is to proclaim the glory of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not an amorphous or ephemeral glory. It’s a glorious Person. Glory with skin and bones and sinew. Glory with a face. Such is what elevates whatever ministry you are involved in. Notwithstanding where God has you right now, you’re there to proclaim his glory.
A ministry of expectation.
Paul gives particular attention, though, to this “new testament” ministry in verses 6–11, where he contrasts the life-giving ministry of the gospel with the “ministration of death” of the law. There, he sets side-by-side the law and the gospel to examine them as the church’s means for life and righteousness. Moses, of course, stands as representative of the law (the old covenant), with Christ standing as the penultimate representative of the gospel (the new covenant). As is evident from the testimony of Scripture, the gospel is better because it reveals Christ (John 1:16–17). He himself is “the glory that excelleth” (2 Cor. 3:10). But, furthermore, the gospel is also better because of the hope it engenders.
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. 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: 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. 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. (2 Cor. 3:6–11)
In the span of five verses, the apostle refers to “glory” some eleven times, making it abundantly clear what God is all about — namely, his own glory. The law and the gospel reveal the glory of God. It’s just the gospel does it better, offering a clearer, fuller display of the glory inherent to him. But, as if it weren’t already mind-blowing that this God would choose the likes of you and me to be the ministers of his glory, Paul proceeds to assert that “we have such hope” (2 Cor. 3:12). The gospel of God’s glory grants us the hope of glory in Christ Jesus. It announces that we, too, will be “changed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). The full picture of that pregnant hope is captured by that word “changed,” which means “transformed” or “transfigured.” It’s the same word that’s used at the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2). Which is to say that the hope of the gospel is the confident expectation that we are, right now, being “changed” and glorified into the image of Glory himself (Rom. 8:29). The glory which was manifest in Christ is the same glory into which this world of sin will one day be transfigured. This is what the Lord means when he says he’s going to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). And, likewise, this is what our ministries are all about.
My friends, don’t diminish your ministry. Don’t downplay the place where God has you. You’ve been given a ministry, a glorious opportunity to proclaim his glory. No matter where or to whom you are ministering, you’ve been equipped for a ministry of glory. Thus, like Paul, with “great plainness of speech,” we can minister right where we are (2 Cor. 3:12). We don’t have to cower from our calling. We can be bold and unreserved, free and fearless with our message of incandescent hope. God’s Spirit is with us, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). You and I are called by the Father to be intrepid ministers of his glory. May we, then, take up our arms and enter the fray.
R. Kent Hughes, 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul: An Exposition of I and II Corinthians (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1946).
Charles Spurgeon, Sermons: Eighth Series (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1865).