The Corinthian church was Paul’s chief proof of apostleship. The fact that Paul had established that church needed no proof, for this was not disputed, not even by his enemies. Paul needed no written proof of the church’s existence. So he began in 2 Cor. 3:1-3 by saying,
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3 being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of the human hearts.
Paul uses this to introduce to us the concept of the two covenants and the way in which these letters were written. In doing so, Paul refers back to the time of Moses when the law was written on tablets of stone—written externally on tables suited to the Old Covenant.
Bible Study vs. Holy Spirit Revelation
When we study Israel’s history, we discover the reason why the law was written on stone, rather than on the tablets of the heart. God first spoke the Ten Commandments at Mount Horeb, and all the people heard His voice audibly. But the people were too fearful and unprepared to hear God’s voice at that time, so they sent Moses up the Mount to receive the rest of the law (Exodus 20:19-21).
If the people had been able to hear the voice of God, the law would have been written on their hearts by the spoken word. But because of fear, the law was NOT written on their hearts. Hence, Moses went up the Mount by himself to receive the law upon tablets of stone, so that the people could read the revelation later at their own pace. Reading the law from the stone tablets gave them only a partial revelation of truth, for, as we will see shortly, they read it through the veil of the Old Covenant.
Reading the law is good, but it imparts only soulish knowledge of the truth. The soul may thus be convinced of truth, but it does not have true faith, which “comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). The written word is inspired by God, but that inspiration does little for a man who lacks ears to hear the voice of God. To such, the written word teaches him the law, but he ends up as a religious person, not a spiritual man. A religious man engages in zealous self-improvement, rather than divine revelation. He thinks fleshly self-improvement is spirituality.
A spiritual man, on the other hand, is one who has learned to hear God’s voice as he reads the written word. The tables of stone (or pages written with ink) merely convey words written in the past as a revelation to the present time.
The written words of Scripture allow all generations an opportunity to hear God’s voice as if they were present at the time of the original revelation. By hearing God’s voice through the written word, the law is written on their hearts, as if the words were transferred from one tablet to another, from an external Bible to an internal revelatory word.
Only when the external Bible is transferred in this way to the inner tablet of the heart can it be said that we are becoming the living word. Words on paper or stone are “dead” to us until the Holy Spirit raises them from the dead by a spiritual process called “hearing.”
New Covenant Perspective
The Corinthian church was a New Covenant church. Paul had spent time teaching the believers to hear God’s voice for themselves so that when they read the law, they could become the living word. The church was not a dead institution of Old Covenant believers. Of this Paul was confident, for he writes in 2 Cor. 3:4-6,
4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything is coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Paul speaks of “the letter” (of the law) to indicate its Old Covenant (external) form under Moses. There was nothing wrong with the words themselves, nor should we despise the written word in any way. The problem is man’s perception of the words when viewed through Old Covenant eyes. Without New Covenant revelation, the words themselves are dead and can only produce death in the readers. Hence, “the letter kills.”
Does that mean we ought not to read the written word, as some have said? Not at all. It is rather that we should learn to read with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit uses the written word to bring life to us, making inner changes as we become the living word.
Some treat “the letter of the law” as if it is means we are not to take the law literally (or seriously). In other words, when men disagree with the plain statement of the law, they often use Paul’s statement as an excuse to violate the law in favor of some supposed spiritual leading. But this is not what Paul meant. Paul was speaking of two different applications of the law, each based on a different covenant.
For example, the law commands us to offer sacrifice for sin. If we follow the letter of the law, then we might continue to offer sacrifice in that old manner. But having been enlightened by the Spirit and the New Covenant, we now understand that Jesus Christ is the true Sacrifice for sin, and that His sacrifice need not be repeated daily. The Spirit has shown us a better sacrifice that has rendered the old system obsolete.
We do not abolish sacrifice; we simply abolish the old forms of sacrifice that were always inadequate from the beginning and that were not meant to be a permanent form of worship.
Likewise, the law in Lev. 19:32 commanding us to rise at the presence of one with gray hair is not merely a command to respect one’s elders. We see it as a law of resurrection, which applies to the whole earth when the Ancient of Days sits on the throne (Dan. 7:9, 10) and when the dead stand up when summoned to the Great White Throne. To those under the Old Covenant, to rise up is a command; to those under the New Covenant, it is a promise of resurrection.
Hence, we do not use Paul’s words as an excuse to become lawless or to violate whatever law we happen to disagree with (or misunderstand). Instead, we have a greater understanding of the law in a new and living form that encompasses the revelation of Jesus Christ.
So how do we, as servants of the New Covenant, cease to follow the letter in favor of the Spirit? As Paul goes on to show, living by the New Covenant is a matter of removing a veil from our eyes, a veil that allows only a dim view of truth and a superficial understanding of the real intent of the law. Paul was not giving believers a pass to violate the law but was showing us how to obtain a full revelation of the law so that it could be written on our hearts.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:7-9,
7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it were, 8 how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.
The Old Covenant itself is a “ministry of death.” The Old Covenant, based on man’s vow to God, can only end in death, because no man has been able to fulfill his vow to be fully obedient. As a means of salvation, the Old Covenant can only fail, because “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23).
Paul equates “the ministry of the Spirit” with the New Covenant. God made a vow to men, taking an oath to save all mankind. Such an oath can only succeed in bringing life to all.
By extension, Paul links the ministry of death to the written law, since that was the form of the law that they had to receive when they refused to hear His voice. Theoretically, if the people had not been so fearful, and if they had been able to hear His voice at that time, they would not have needed the written law, for the law would have been written on the tablets of their hearts through the spoken word.
In other words, when God spoke the Ten Commandments, the people might have received the New Covenant at that time, were such a thing possible. It was already a foregone conclusion, however, that this would not happen. God had already ordained an era of bondage and fear through the Old Covenant. Hence, the New Covenant provision frightened the people.
Paul tells us that even “the ministry of death … came with glory.” Hence, it is not to be despised but respected for what it was. But instead of being enamored by the glory of the Old Covenant, we ought to press on into the greater glory of the New Covenant.
The two glories, in themselves, do not differ, for both represent the identical glory of God. What makes the difference is whether or not there is a veil hiding that glory. Just as the people were too full of fear to hear God’s voice at the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:19), so also a few months later, they were afraid of the glory that was seen in Moses’ face (Exodus 34:30). Fear has ever been the problem, showing up first in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:10).
The glory in Moses’ face was not the problem. How could the glory of God ever be the problem? The problem comes only when man is motivated by fear, which emanates from the iniquity in his heart.
Paul also points out that the glory in Moses’ face was “fading.” It did not last for the rest of Moses’ life. Hence, he did not have to wear a veil for the rest of his life. The glory in Moses’ face soon retreated to the inner chamber of Moses’ heart. Thus, his flesh itself served as a veil, hiding the inner glory of God that resided in Moses’ body.
Likewise, Jesus’ flesh was a veil that hid the glory within Him, as we read in Heb. 10:20.
So Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:10, 11,
10 For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.
In comparison to the glory of Christ under the New Covenant, the glory seen in Moses is “no glory” at all. Of what use is a glory that is only temporary? To receive a taste of glory only to watch it fade brings disappointment.
So we ought to view the glory of Moses’ ministry as nothing when compared to the glory and ministry of Christ. We are right to be dissatisfied with the fading glory of the Old Covenant, as we seek the greater glory of things to come.