The Jesus Covenant, Part 9: The Mysterious 2 Corinthians 3

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And 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.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3 (ESV)

After my brief detour into Ephesians 2 back in Part 7 of this series, and a deeper look at the Abrahamic covenant as it applies to the nations we saw in Part 8, I’m ready to continue pursuing my look at the New Testament scriptures that refer to the New Covenant.

But first, a brief review.

We see Jesus referring to “the covenant” (the word “new” is added in some later texts) in the Last Supper narratives:

  • Matthew 26:26-29
  • Mark 14:22-24
  • Luke 22:19-20

But there are a number of passages in the New Testament letters that specifically refer to the New Covenant. We’ve already examined the following:

Today, we’ll take a look at the above-quoted 2 Corinthians 3, keeping in mind that we still have to address:

  • Hebrews 8:6-7
  • Hebrews 9:15-22

Before continuing, I just want to point something out. Based on the last part of this series, it seems that the primary gateway for the Christian to enter into a covenant relationship with God is through the Abrahamic covenant and specifically, the portion that describes the blessings of the nations through Abraham’s offspring (singular), which we interpret as meaning the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. If the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36) is a confirmation, validation, and expansion upon the previous covenants God made with the Children of Israel, then for our purposes, the New Covenant confirms, validates, and expands upon the blessings we receive for the nations that come from God, through Abraham and our faith in Jesus.

OK, here we go with 2 Corinthians 3.

On the surface, this chapter in Paul’s letter tends to confirm the traditional interpretation of the church, that the Law or Torah “was being brought to an end,” supposedly to be replaced by the New Covenant of grace through Christ. I found the following commentary at BibleGateway.com:

What to do when old ways die hard? Paul’s overall approach is not to denigrate the Mosaic covenant but rather to demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant over the old. To do this he uses a Jewish form of argumentation called qal wahwmer, or what today we would label an a fortiori argument (from lesser to greater). His line of reasoning is that if the glory of the old covenant was transient yet came with such overpowering splendor that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of its minister as he descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law, how much greater must the new covenant be, whose splendor is permanent and whose glory does not fade. The implication is that though the Mosaic covenant can impart an initial glory and credibility to its ministers and adherents, because of its transitory character it has no lasting effect. Therefore for these visiting preachers to link themselves with a covenant that is fast becoming obsolete is to suggest that their competency is fading and their credentials are of no lasting importance. It is only the new covenant with its enduring splendor that can impart a permanent and lasting credibility to its ministers.

Paul’s evaluation of the Mosaic ministry is even more to the point. Far from being the key to the victorious Christian life, it is in reality a ministry that brings nothing but death (v. 7) and condemnation (v. 9) to those of God’s people who strive to live by it. To be a minister of the old covenant is therefore to be an instrument of death and destruction. The new covenant ministry, on the other hand, brings the Spirit (v. 8) and righteousness (v. 9). So to be a minister of this covenant is to be an instrument of life and salvation.

I know, the commentary seems pretty hard on the Mosaic covenant and its conditions, the Torah, but then, who is Paul’s audience. Is he addressing a group of Jewish disciples? It seems unlikely. This commentary might make more sense if he’s talking to a group of Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah who have been listening to other Jewish teachers emphasize that the Gentile must “obey Torah” and even convert to Judaism.

I have problems with the references to the Mosaic law “going away” but then again, should the Gentile disciples be listening to teachings that say they are to rely only on Torah obedience for the purposes of justification before God? Doesn’t the Abrahamic covenant emphasize faith?

The clue may be in another part of the commentary:

Paul’s emphasis in particular on the greater glory of the new covenant suggests that his opponents associated themselves in some fashion with Moses and the law–but not with its legalistic side, since there is no mention of circumcision or obedience to the law.

Paul’s Gentile audience may have been tempted to take on board the full yoke of Torah (and perhaps even to convert to Judaism) in order to achieve salvation. Is that why Paul refers to the Torah as “the ministry of death” in verse 7? Paul, in Galatians, was very harsh toward the Gentiles who were considering conversion to Judaism, even going so far as to say that if they did so, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would become meaningless to them. (see Galatians 5:2)

Still, the content of this letter is puzzling, particularly in light of what we read in the Christian commentary:

To speak of the Mosaic covenant as a ministry that dispenses death would have sounded blasphemous to Jewish ears. It was the uniform opinion of the rabbis that what Moses gave the people of Israel were “words of life,” not words of death (as in Exodus Rabbah 29.9).

The BibleGateway.com commentary is quite correct in asserting this, but then how can they follow-up with this statement?

In verses 10-11 Paul takes his argument one final step and advances the idea that the splendor of the old covenant is not only dwindling but also completely eclipsed by the surpassing glory of the new covenant. This is because the Mosaic ministry is temporary, while the new covenant ministry is permanent.

It doesn’t sound like he’s saying that the Law is for the Jews and faith and grace is for the Gentiles, but that indeed, the Law is fading away and has disappeared altogether and has been replaced by the “new covenant.” But how can this be if the New Covenant merely confirms and expands upon all of the previously established covenants including the Abrahamic and Mosaic?

Seeking an alternate interpretation, I found one at torahtimes.org (Note: I know nothing of this ministry and so cannot vouch for their accuracy or legitimacy. I merely report an alternate way of looking at these verses):

It is the nature of a drash דרש to combine texts that on the literal level have little to do with one another in order to make a point. Paul is not trying to tell us that the ten commandments are the ministry of death. The common element in his quotations is the ministry of death, or the ministry that makes rebels guilty. This is what unites the drash. When the text “engraved … in stones” comes together with the text about the veil on Moses face, we must not assume that Paul is saying the two tablets of the ten commandments that Moses had at the time. That’s not how one interprets a drash. You have to find the homiletical theme of the two quotations and not assume that the use of the two texts mean anything other than what they are used for. The ministry of death in the stones were the curses inscribed upon Mt. Ebal when Israel came into the land. It’s mention next to Moses face is not Paul’s intent to confuse the literal facts but to give a homily on the ministry of death” (torahtimes.org, DLC).

Because I don’t like posting content from a source I am unsure of, I tried to find out something about the commentary’s author Daniel Gregg. I discovered something about him on Derek Leman’s blog. You can read the content there and make whatever evaluation of Mr. Gregg’s legitimacy as a Biblical interpreter you see fit.

That said, Gregg’s interpretation does point out that we may be missing something by trying to understand Paul’s letter in terms of modern Christian thought. Paul’s entire world view was as a Jew and a teacher, and his commentaries on the older scriptures were most likely to be a halalach interpretation that operates outside of traditional Christian thinking. In that sense, we may not easily grasp the meaning behind how Paul (apparently) speaks against the Law or defines it as being ended or fading away, Gentile audience notwithstanding.

My last source, the Rosh Pina Project has a viewpoint that seems to dovetail with Gregg’s (please click the link and read the entire commentary for the full context):

If the Ten Commandments are the ministry of death and condemnation, there is no way we can find life in them. The Ten Commandments are the ministry of death and condemnation, and not because they themselves are unrighteous. They are the ministry of death and condemnation because they show us to be unrighteous, and they show how utterly incapable we are of obeying God’s commandments.

From my own point of view, my reach may have exceeded my grasp. I don’t know what to make out of 2 Corinthians 3. If I maintain my basic assumption that the New Covenant cannot undo or replace the older covenants God made with Israel, then the surface meaning of Paul’s words and the traditional Christian interpretation of this chapter cannot be correct. The closest interpretation that fits my paradigm is the aforementioned Rosh Pina Project, and in this case, they say the Torah is only inadequate because we are inadequate.

Our incapability to serve or honour God through the commands which he decreed should force us to our knees, to cry out for mercy, and to place our trust in the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Moshiach, without whom all our ‘righteous acts’ are like filthy rags before the Holy One.

I don’t know if I find that a completely satisfying explanation for everything Paul writes in this chapter, but I think it points in the right direction. Your opinions may provide more illumination in uncovering the mystery. Then we’ll proceed to Part 10 and Hebrews.

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6 thoughts on “The Jesus Covenant, Part 9: The Mysterious 2 Corinthians 3”

  1. “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves…” Paul says here just the opposite of the boastful Torah-keepers who feel themselves sufficient through Torah-observance. “For they, going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to righteousness which is of God.” There is a contrast here between those who go about keeping Torah in order to establish their own righteousness and those who have submitted themselves to the “righteousness which is of God.” The two cannot be the same, and thus, Messiah and the “letters …engraved in stone” MUST of necessity be two different things. Those Jews who find a problem with this are of the same company of Paul’s day who just couldn’t let go of their old covenant to embrace the NEW. But paul embraced “the CROSS” and gloried in it- NOT in the letter!

  2. Greetings, James.

    I’ve been considering how best to respond to you and so far, I decided to “approve” only the first of the three comments you made. I took the liberty of visiting your site and, combined with the overall comments you’ve made here, I see that you seem fairly determined to separate the Jewish Messiah from the Law of Moses completely.

    First of all, relax. I’m not suggesting that non-Jewish Christians such as you and I pursue a Jewish lifestyle and full observance of the mitzvot. However, I don’t find any evidence that the Jewish disciples ever gave up being Jewish or living a Jewish religious lifestyle after the ascension of Jesus. I’ve been spending some time in the first several chapters of Acts and it seems clear that they behaved like many of the other Jewish sects of their day, apart from believing that Jesus was (and is) the Messiah, praying the prayers and observing the Torah.

    I strongly suspect you are going to disagree with me and I don’t really want to expend the energy to respond to your scripture examples one by one, only because I’ve been down this road before and I know where it leads. If I take your examples and respond to them individually, then you’ll respond with a counter-argument and we’ll go back and forth for awhile. Eventually, the conversation (which can occasionally become “spirited,” so to speak) will wind down with me not convincing you that the covenants God made with Israel were additive rather than one replacing the other, and you not convincing me that Christianity and grace superceded the Jewish people and all of the promises God made to Israel.

    Also, I think you’ve misjudged the Jewish people as seeking to obey the Torah for its own sake and believing that behavior in and of itself is the be all and end all of a relationship with God. Especially the believing Jews I know understand that it was through faith that Abraham was counted as righteous by God, and not through anything he actually did. That’s probably why the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, requiring nothing of Abraham except acceptance of the sign of the covenant: circumcision. Obedience is what happens in response to faith and trust in God. It’s the reaction to God’s gift of grace, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. Grace has always been part of God’s gift to Israel, from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, down through Moses and the prophets. It wasn’t something God “invented” when Jesus was born.

    I don’t see the Law and grace as being mutually exclusive in the life of a Jew and I’m sorry if you disagree with that. There’s nothing about a Jew, especially one who accepts Jesus as the Messiah, living a Jewish life that should feel threatening to we Christians in the church. God gave the Law to Israel and even Jesus said it would not pass away until heaven and earth passed away. I’m OK with that.

    Oh, by the way, my wife and children are Jewish, so you might want to take that into consideration before you craft a response.

    Thanks and peace.

  3. Thank you for your civiI response. I did not write to argue but to set forth plainly what Paul wrote concerning the Law. I am not arguing that a Jew cannot keep tradition as long as he realizes it is not mandatory to his salvation. I do fear though that he might become so wrapped up in Judaism again that he may forget the all-sufficiency of Y’shua. I glory in Y’shua as my Living Torah, my Sabbath, my Circumcision, my Passover and the fulfilment of every Feast! Either He is EVERYTHING or we build a tabernacle for all three- one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus- but the Father pointed to His Son and said “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased, HEAR YE HIM”, and Moses and Elijah disappeared from view. The Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) point us all to MESSIAH! And why is it that Paul’s writings cannot be taken at face value without trying to obscure them by defending present day Judaism in every breath and with every stroke of the pen??? Jesus came to fulfill the Mosaic Covenant as Israel’s perfect representative and to FINISH the Jew’s obligation to Yahweh in that covenant so He could inaugurate the NEW. Of course the Law is still relevant to this world in its moral standards for as long as there are sinners on the earth, “for the Law was not made for a righteous man, but for the unrighteous…” In regard to those who are believers in Y’shua however, we are under G’d’s New Covenant of Grace where we no longer need the Ten Commandments since we now have the new nature and the LOVE that will not lead us to covet our neighbor’s wife or goods, or to worship graven images etc… Also, I never meant to imply that Grace was “invented when Jesus was born” for it was also in the Abrahamic Covenant prior to the giving of the Law at Sinai. Grace reigned over the People of Israel even up to Sinai for, before Sinai, the people murmured, yet G-d did not judge them for it. BUT! After they entered into Covenant with G-d and boasted “All that the Lord hath commanded we are able to do” it was THEN that G-d sent judgment among them each time they murmured! The Law was only “ADDED” (i.e. temporary) “until the Seed should come”, thus we are no longer “UNDER A SCHOOLMASTER.” If we are still under the schoolmaster/Mosaic Law, then the “Seed” (Messiah) has not yet come. Why is this so difficult for some to understand??? These are not the writings of some Gentile Christian but the words of one of the greatest Jewish Apostles that ever lived, so why is it when any Gentile believer quotes him they are considered as setting forth some kind of Gentile Christian dogma??? Either Paul was a Jew or he wasn’t. Even Paul had trouble with other Jews because of his writings! If it is necessary to obscure Paul’s teachings in order to keep holding on to the Old Covenant, then I pity any Jewish believer who sincerely desires Truth, for they will never hear it from those who want to mix Law with Grace- “No man puts New Wine into Old Bottles…” for BOTH will be lost! You cannot mix Grace with Law: “And if by grace, then is it not of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace:” (Rom. 11:6)

  4. Hello again James and good morning.

    I think you are I are going to disagree about what is “fulfilled” vs. what is “filled-full.” I agree that the Messiah is the living embodiment of the teachings of God for Israel (the Torah), but I don’t think he is the one-to-one replacement for. That is, I don’t think that the “living Torah” and the “written Torah” are mutually exclusive for the Jews.

    As I read your comment above (and it would be helpful if, in the future, you could break up large blocks of text into paragraphs so they’re easier to read), the one difference between our points of view has to do with whether or not Jesus replaced the law with grace, or if the Messiah demonstrated the correct way for “the lost sheep of Israel” to live out the teachings and lifestyle of God for the Jews as defined by the Torah. You apparently represent the former viewpoint, while I support the latter.

    As far as taking Paul at face value, New Testament scholars have been analyzing and writing interpretations of Paul’s letters for well over a thousand years. To this very day, there are continued efforts to understand what Paul was teaching his various audiences (the different churches to which he was writing) and how those letters can be applied to the faithful today. It probably isn’t quite as easy as reading the NIV translation of the Bible (or KJV or any other translation), listening to the traditional, modern doctrine we hear from the pulpit and in our Sunday school classes, and calling it good.

    I do not disrespect the church and its Pastors and teachers, but they tend to be behind the curve as far as Biblical research is concerned. On top of that, the church has taught a supersessionist (replacement theory or fulfillment theology) perspective on the Torah and the Jews for so long, that it’s difficult to approach the scriptures with an open mind and consider an alternative interpretation, even if that alternative interpretation makes more sense given the overall narrative of the Bible.

    We can’t just take bits and pieces of Paul’s letters and weave a theology out of them, believing they contain the entire ‘story’ God is trying to tell us. What we believe Paul is saying has to make sense in relation to the larger scope of the Bible, which has always taught that the Jewish people will forever be a people before God, and that God’s Law will always exist as long as heaven and earth continue to exist (and Jesus taught that himself).

    Nearly a year ago, I had a very long discussion with a group of folks about fulfillment theology, and after 141 comments, it still didn’t come up with a conclusion that was anymore satisfying than “we’re going to have to agree to disagree.” I suspect that’s what will happen here, too.

    I don’t mind continuing dialog here or having a discussion on any of my other blog posts, but please keep in mind that my understanding of what Paul is saying will not always line up with what many churches have been teaching.

    Peace.

  5. Thanks, but I was not raised in a Bible church, and I did not get saved through the outreach of a church. I was born again in 1969, and have had a love for Jesus and the Jewish people ever since. I try to think strictly from the revelation of the Scriptures and NOT from the interpretations of my leaders, since I feel they are mistaken of certain things in light of what I read in the Bible. I try to be objective and find it insincere when some hold to doctrines that are plainly contradicted by scripture.

    I reject replacement theology because it is contrary to scripture and in ref. to your statement, “New Testament scholars have been analyzing and writing interpretations of Paul’s letters for well over a thousand years.” I find to be a real cover-up to which there can be no argument. Either the Bible was written to be understood, (which I am a firm believer in), or it was intended to cause dispute. Your desire to keep TWO different covenants however- one for the Jew and one for the Gentile contradicts all that Messiah came to do, since His goal was to make ONE FOLD out of TWO- or, as some are putting it, to make in Himself “one new man” as Paul wrote.

    It is sad that Jews and Gentiles still have that “wall of separation” between them, to somehow make us feel needlessly different. There is a destiny for Israel as a nation, but in the CHURCH there is “neither Jew nor Greek”- where “Messiah is all”!

    Both JEW and GENTILE now are constituted ONE BODY and are Messiah’s “flesh” and “bones”.
    This is a totally NEW revelation than was revealed in the Tenach and must be accepted whether one wants to keep his exclusive identity or not- for, in God’s sight “there is no difference” – “for all have sinned” and are in need of the Messiah for their salvation.

    Keep your traditions as Jews all you want, but I find many Gentiles are becoming wrapped up in trying to be Jews now instead of trying to be saints, and are following the traditions of modern Judaism instead of the Apostolic traditions! To me, this is inexcusable.

    Even the early church had a problem with this and the epistle to the Hebrews reveals a tendency for some of the Jews at that time to want to go back into their Mosaic traditions- missing the substance in trying to hold on to the shadows! Please don’t judge me in regard to this. I am NOT attacking Jews who love their Jewishness (no one should be ashamed of what God made them), but wheb I read many of the articles on your web site, I can’t help but notice all those who post that are trying to hold on to doctrinal persuasions which seem to lean more toward the Judaizers of Paul’s day. I also notice that you seem to lean more in my direction of thinking in your rebuttals. I had no idea you thought differently. I was thinking, “Finally, here is a Jewish believer who holds foremost to the revelation of scripture rather than take the side of those who have a some theological fetish or position to defend”. If I have misjudged you in this, please forgive me.

    I find no problem with being as “under law” in order to reach those who are “under law”, but let’s let that be balanced with becoming as “without law” in order to reach those who are likewise.
    I think it has become just the opposite in some cases- concerning those who want to be exclusive of others- such as with the Jewish believers in Jesus. The Yad Lechem (sorry if misspelled) have become just like the Nazis in some ways, vehemently holding to traditions instead of understanding the Scriptures, and no wonder, Jesus foretold this would happen, yet we think it “strange” concerning this fiery trial. The Jewish believers in Messiah must not begin to take this same path in trying to maintain their exclusivity from Gentiles by allowing it to become a separating wall between them.

    I find it offensive that I have been categorized with that group who believe in “replacement theology” as I reject that doctrinal system. If both Jew and Gentile being immersed into ONE BODY is replacement theology, then I am guilty- and so is Paul! There is nothing obscure about Paul’s arguments on that.

    I also cannot accept your argument: “We can’t just take bits and pieces of Paul’s letters and weave a theology out of them, believing they contain the entire ‘story’” since this leaves it up to imagination to try to fill in the missing pieces, and that- to me, is a waste of brain cells.

    I really am thankful that you have taken the time for me, as I truly want nothing but the truth.
    I am now 62 years old and have been teaching and preaching our beautiful Messiah for 40-some years and seen many saved and both spiritually and physically healed, and all I want is truth- NOT only for my own mental well-being, but because I am fighting a doctrine within Gentile ranks of those in the Church who, though not Jews, are trying to hold to a “system of works” for their salvation.

    Thanks again for listening, and may God bless you and yours in Messiah.

  6. Keep your traditions as Jews all you want, but I find many Gentiles are becoming wrapped up in trying to be Jews now instead of trying to be saints, and are following the traditions of modern Judaism instead of the Apostolic traditions! To me, this is inexcusable.

    That wouldn’t be me, though I admit going through a phase in my life where I thought that was necessary. I still do not disdain Jews who are commanded to observe the mitzvot, as I believe this is God’s desire for them.

    Both JEW and GENTILE now are constituted ONE BODY and are Messiah’s “flesh” and “bones”.

    I read a very interesting conversation lately about Ephesians 2 that I shared here. Again, it departs from what you would consider an accepted interpretation, but I feel it has merit in that it doesn’t require the Jews to cease being Jews in order to be blended into some other identity.

    As far as the Bible being written to be understood, apparently it’s not all that easy. I recently read a statistic that said there are approximately 41,000 different Christian denominations worldwide. If the Christian Bible were all that easy to understand and could only be interpreted one way, then I wouldn’t expect to see such a wide variation in application among the body of Christ. In my case, I’m inclined to see God as a teacher and a life of faith as a journey of discovery.

    I find it offensive that I have been categorized with that group who believe in “replacement theology” as I reject that doctrinal system. If both Jew and Gentile being immersed into ONE BODY is replacement theology, then I am guilty- and so is Paul! There is nothing obscure about Paul’s arguments on that.

    I apologize if I offended you or misunderstood your position. Communicating by “text only” often leaves out some of the meaning of what we are trying to say.

    Thanks again for listening, and may God bless you and yours in Messiah.

    You are most welcome. Blessings.

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