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Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
The apostle shows, in opposition to his detractors, that the faith and salvation of the Corinthians were sufficient testimony of his Divine mission; that he needed no letters of recommendation, the Christian converts at Corinth being a manifest proof that he was an apostle of Christ, 2 Corinthians 3:1-3. He extols the Christian ministry, as being infinitely more excellent than that of Moses, 2 Corinthians 3:4-12. Compares the different modes of announcing the truth under the law and under the Gospel: in the former it was obscurely delivered; and the veil of darkness, typified by the veil which Moses wore, is still on the hearts of the Jews; but when they turn to Christ this veil shall be taken away, 2 Corinthians 3:13-16. On the contrary, the Gospel dispensation is spiritual; leads to the nearest views of heavenly things; and those who receive it are changed into the glorious likeness of God by the agency of his Spirit, 2 Corinthians 3:17, 2 Corinthians 3:18.
1Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?
Do we begin again to commend ourselves - By speaking thus of our sincerity, Divine mission, etc., is it with a design to conciliate your esteem, or ingratiate ourselves in your affections? By no means.
Or need we - epistles of commendation - Are we so destitute of ministerial abilities and Divine influence that we need, in order to be received in different Churches, to have letters of recommendation? Certainly not. God causes us to triumph through Christ in every place; and your conversion is such an evident seal to our ministry as leaves no doubt that God is with us.
Letters of commendation - Were frequent in the primitive Church; and were also in use in the apostolic Church, as we learn from this place. But these were, in all probability, not used by the apostles; their helpers, successors, and those who had not the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, needed such letters and they were necessary to prevent the Churches from being imposed on by false teachers. But when apostles came, they brought their own testimonials, the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit.
2Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:
Ye are our epistle - I bear the most ardent love to you. I have no need to be put in remembrance of you by any epistles or other means; ye are written in my heart - I have the most affectionate remembrance of you.
Known and read of all men - For wherever I go I mention you; speak of your various gifts and graces; and praise your knowledge in the Gospel.
3Forasmuch 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.
Manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ - Ye are in our hearts, and Christ has written you there; but yourselves are the epistle of Christ; the change produced in your hearts and lives, and the salvation which you have received, are as truly the work of Christ as a letter dictated and written by a man in his work.
Ministered by us - Ye are the writing, but Christ used me as the pen; Christ dictated, and I wrote; and the Divine characters are not made with ink, but by the Spirit of the living God; for the gifts and graces that constitute the mind that was in Christ are produced in you by the Holy Ghost.
Not in tables of stone - Where men engrave contracts, or record events; but in fleshly tables of the heart - the work of salvation taking place in all your affections, appetites, and desires; working that change within that is so signally manifested without. See the parts of this figurative speech:
1. Jesus Christ dictates.
2. The apostle writes.
3. The hearts of the Corinthians are the substance on which the writing is made. And,
4. The Holy Spirit produces that influence by which the traces are made, and the mark becomes evident.
Here is not only an allusion to making inscriptions on stones, where one dictates the matter, and another cuts the letters; (and probably there were certain cases where some colouring matter was used to make the inscription the more legible; and when the stone was engraved, it was set up in some public place, as monuments, inscriptions, and contracts were, that they might be seen, known, and read of all men); but the apostle may here refer to the ten commandments, written by the finger of God upon two tables of stone; which writing was an evidence of the Divine mission of Moses, as the conversion of the Corinthians was an evidence of the mission of St. Paul. But it may be as well to take the words in a general sense, as the expression is not unfrequent either in the Old Testament, or in the rabbinical writers. See Schoettgen.
4And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:
Such trust have we - We have the fullest conviction that God has thus accredited our ministry; and that ye are thus converted unto him, and are monuments of his mercy, and proofs of the truth of our ministry.
5Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves - We do not arrogate to ourselves any power to enlighten the mind or change the heart, we are only instruments in the hand of God. Nor was it possible for us apostles to think, to invent, such a scheme of salvation as is the Gospel; and if we even had been equal to the invention, how could we have fulfilled such promises as this scheme of salvation abounds with? God alone could fulfill these promises, and he fulfils only those which he makes himself. All these promises have been amen-ratified and fulfilled to you who have believed on Christ Jesus according to our preaching; therefore, ye are God's workmanship and it is only by God's sufficiency that we have been able to do any thing. This I believe to be the apostle's meaning in this place, and that he speaks here merely of the Gospel scheme, and the inability of human wisdom to invent it; and the words λογισασθαι τι, which we translate to think any thing, signify, properly, to find any thing out by reasoning; and as the Gospel scheme of salvation is the subject in hand, to that subject the words are to be referred and limited. The words, however, contain also a general truth; we can neither think, act, nor be, without God. From him we have received all our powers, whether of body or of mind, and without him we can do nothing. But we may abuse both our power of thinking and acting; for the power to think, and the power to act, are widely different from the act of thinking, and the act of doing. God gives us the power or capacity to think and act, but he neither thinks nor acts for us. It is on this ground that we may abuse our powers, and think evil, and act wickedly; and it is on this ground that we are accountable for our thoughts, words, and deeds.
6Who 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.
Who hath made us able ministers - This is a more formal answer to the question, Who is sufficient for these things? προς ταυτα τις ἱκανος; 1 Corinthians 2:16. God, says the apostle, has made us able ministers; ἱκανωσεν ἡμας διακονους, he has made us sufficient for these things; for the reader will observe that he uses the same word in both places. We apostles execute, under the Divine influence, what God himself has devised. We are ministers of the new covenant; of this new dispensation of truth, light, and life, by Christ Jesus; a system which not only proves itself to have come from God, but necessarily implies that God himself by his own Spirit is a continual agent in it, ever bringing its mighty purposes to pass. On the words καινη διαθηκη, new covenant, see the Preface to the gospel of St. Matthew.
Not of the letter, but of the Spirit - The apostle does not mean here, as some have imagined, that he states himself to be a minister of the New Testament, in opposition to the Old; and that it is the Old Testament that kills, and the New that gives life; but that the New Testament gives the proper meaning of the Old; for the old covenant had its letter and its spirit, its literal and its spiritual meaning. The law was founded on the very supposition of the Gospel; and all its sacrifices, types, and ceremonies refer to the Gospel. The Jews rested in the letter, which not only afforded no means of life, but killed, by condemning every transgressor to death. They did not look at the spirit; did not endeavor to find out the spiritual meaning; and therefore they rejected Christ, who was the end of the law for justification; and so for redemption from death to every one that believes. The new covenant set all these spiritual things at once before their eyes, and showed them the end, object, and design of the law; and thus the apostles who preached it were ministers of that Spirit which gives life.
Every institution has its letter as well as its spirit, as every word must refer to something of which it is the sign or significator. The Gospel has both its letter and its spirit; and multitudes of professing Christians, by resting in the Letter, receive not the life which it is calculated to impart. Water, in baptism, is the letter that points out the purification of the soul; they who rest in this letter are without this purification; and dying in that state they die eternally. Bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, are the letter; the atoning efficacy of the death of Jesus, and the grace communicated by this to the soul of a believer, are the spirit. Multitudes rest in this letter, simply receiving these symbols, without reference to the atonement, or to their guilt; and thus lose the benefit of the atonement and the salvation of their souls. The whole Christian life is comprehended by our Lord under the letter, Follow me. Does not any one see that a man, taking up this letter only, and following Christ through Judea, Galilee, Samaria, etc., to the city, temple, villages, seacoast, mountains, etc., fulfilled no part of the spirit; and might, with all this following, lose his soul? Whereas the Spirit, viz. receive my doctrine, believe my sayings, look by faith for the fulfillment of my promises, imitate my example, would necessarily lead him to life eternal. It may be safely asserted that the Jews, in no period of their history, ever rested more in the letter of their law than the vast majority of Christians are doing in the letter of the Gospel. Unto multitudes of Christians Christ may truly say: Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life.
7But 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:
The ministration of death - Here the apostle evidently intends the law. It was a ministration, διακονια or service of death. It was the province of the law to ascertain the duty of man; to assign his duties; to fix penalties for transgressions, etc.; and by it is the knowledge of sin. As man is prone to sin, and is continually committing it, this law was to him a continual ministration of death. Its letter killed; and it was only the Gospel to which it referred that could give life, because that Gospel held out the only available atonement.
Yet this ministration of death (the ten commandments, written on stones; a part of the Mosaic institutions being put for the whole) was glorious - was full of splendor; for the apostle refers to the thunderings, and lightnings, and luminous appearances, which took place in the giving of the law; so that the very body of Moses partook of the effulgence in such a manner that the children of Israel could not look upon his face; and he, to hide it, was obliged to use a veil. All this was intended to show the excellency of that law, as an institution coming immediately from God: and the apostle gives it all its heightenings, that he may compare it to the Gospel, and thereby prove that, glorious as it was, it had no glory that could be compared with that of the Gospel; and that even the glory it had was a glory that was to be done away - to be absorbed, as the light of the stars, planets, and moon, is absorbed in the splendor of the sun. See the notes on Romans 7 (note); and see those on Exodus 19 (note), Exodus 20 (note), and Exodus 34:29 (note), etc., where this subject is treated in all its details.
8How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?
The ministration of the Spirit - The Gospel dispensation, which gives the true spiritual sense of the law.
Be rather glorious? - Forasmuch as the thing signified is of infinitely more consequence than that by which it is signified. The Thing bread will preserve a man alive; the Word bread can give life to nothing.
9For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
The ministration of condemnation - The law, which ascertained sin, and condemned it to just punishment.
The ministration of righteousness - The Gospel, the grand business of which was to proclaim the doctrine δικαιοσυνης, of justification; and to show how God could be just and yet the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus.
Exceed in glory - For great, glorious, and awful as the law may be, in its opposition to sin, which is a reproach to man, and a dishonor to God; and in its punishment of sin; yet it must be vastly exceeded by that system which, evidencing an equal abhorrence of sin, finds out a method to forgive it; to take away its guilt from the conscience, and remove all its infection from the soul. That this could be done the law pointed out by its blood of bulls and of goats: but every considerate mind must see that it was impossible for these to take away sin; it is the Gospel that does what the law signified; and forasmuch as the performance of a promise is greater than the promise itself, and the substance of a man is greater than the shadow projected by that substance; so is the Gospel of Jesus Christ greater than the law, with all its promises, types, ceremonies, and shadows.
10For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.
For even that which was made glorious - The law, which was exhibited for a time in great glory and splendor, partly when it was given, and partly by the splendor of God in the tabernacle and first temple; but all this ceased and was done away; was intended to give place to the Gospel; and has actually given place to that system; so that now, in no part of the world is that law performed, even by the people who are attached to it and reject the Gospel.
The glory that excelleth - The Gospel dispensation, giving supereminent displays of the justice, holiness, goodness, mercy, and majesty of God.
11For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.
For if that which is done away, etc. - Here is another striking difference between the law and the Gospel. The former is termed το καταργουμενον, that which is counterworked and abolished; the latter το μενον, that which continues, which is not for a particular time, place, and people, as the law was; but for All times, all places, and all people. As a great, universal, and permanent Good vastly excels a good that is small, partial, and transitory; so does the Gospel dispensation, that of the law.
12Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:
Seeing - we have such hope - Such glorious prospects as those blessings which the Gospel sets before us, producing such confidence, as the fulfillment of so many promises has already done, that God will still continue to work for us and by us;
We use great plainness of speech - Πολλῃ παρῥησιᾳ χρωμεθα· We speak not only with all confidence, but with all imaginable plainness; keeping back nothing; disguising nothing; concealing nothing: and here we differ greatly from the Jewish doctors, and from the Gentile philosophers, who affect obscurity, and endeavor, by figures, metaphors, and allegories, to hide every thing from the vulgar. But we wish that all may hear; and we speak so that all may understand.
13And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:
And not as Moses - The splendor of Moses' countenance was so great that the Israelites could not bear to look upon his face, and therefore he was obliged to veil his face: this, it appears, he did typically, to represent the types and shadows by which the whole dispensation of which he was the minister was covered. So that the Israelites could not steadfastly look - could not then have the full view or discernment of that in which the Mosaic dispensation should issue and terminate.
14But 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 their minds were blinded - By resting in the letter, shutting their eyes against the light that was granted to them, they contracted a hardness or stupidity of heart. And the veil that was on the face of Moses, which prevented the glory of his face from shining out, may be considered as emblematical of the veil of darkness and ignorance that is on their hearts, and which hinders the glory of the Gospel from shining in.
Until this day remaineth the same veil - They are still ignorant of the spiritual meaning and intention of their own law, called here παλαια διαθηκη, the old covenant. See the word explained in the preface to St. Matthew.
In the reading of the Old Testament - Here is an evident allusion to the conduct of the Jews in their synagogues: when they read the law they cover their whole head with a veil, which they term the טלית tallith, veil, from טלל talal, to cover; and this voluntary usage of theirs, the apostle tells us, is an emblem of the darkness of their hearts while they are employed even in sacred duties.
Which veil is done away in Christ - It is only by acknowledging Christ that the darkness is removed, and the end and spiritual meaning of the law discerned.
15But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.
16Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.
When it shall turn to the Lord - When the Israelitish nation shall turn to the Lord Jesus, the veil shall be taken away; the true light shall shine; and they shall see all things clearly.
There is an evident allusion here to the case of Moses, mentioned Exodus 34:34. When he came from the Lord, and spoke to the Israelites, he put the veil over his face; but when he returned to speak with the Lord, then he took off the veil. So, when the Israelitish nation shall return to speak with and pray to the Lord Jesus, the veil of darkness and ignorance shall be taken away from their hearts; but never before that time. The words seem to imply:
1. That there will be a conversion of the Jews to Christianity; and,
2. That this conversion will be en masse; that a time will come when the whole nation of the Jews, in every place, shall turn to Christ; and then the Gentiles and Jews make one fold, under one Shepherd and Bishop of all souls.
17Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
Now the Lord is that Spirit - In 2 Corinthians 3:6, 2 Corinthians 3:8, the word το πνευμα, spirit, evidently signifies the Gospel; so called because it points out the spiritual nature and meaning of the law; because it produces spiritual effects; and because it is especially the dispensation of the Spirit of God. Here Jesus Christ is represented as that Spirit, because he is the end of the law for justification to every one that believes; and because the residue of the Spirit is with him, and he is the dispenser of all its gifts, graces, and influences.
And where the Spirit of the Lord is - Wherever this Gospel is received, there the Spirit of the Lord is given; and wherever that Spirit lives and works, there is liberty, not only from Jewish bondage, but from the slavery of sin - from its power, its guilt, and its pollution. See John 8:33-36 (note), and the notes there.
18But 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.
But we all, with open face - The Jews were not able to look on the face of Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, and therefore he was obliged to veil it; but all we Christians, with face uncovered, behold, as clearly as we can see our own natural face in a mirror, the glorious promises and privileges of the Gospel of Christ; and while we contemplate, we anticipate them by desire and hope, and apprehend them by faith, and are changed from the glory there represented to the enjoyment of the thing which is represented, even the glorious image - righteousness and true holiness - of the God of glory.
As by the Spirit of the Lord - By the energy of that Spirit of Christ which gives life and being to all the promises of the Gospel; and thus we are made partakers of the Divine nature and escape all the corruptions that are in the world. This appears to me to be the general sense of this verse: its peculiar terms may be more particularly explained.
The word κατοπτριζομενοι, catoptrizomenoi, acting on the doctrine of catoptries, which we translate beholding in a glass, comes from κατα, against, and οπτομαι, I look; and properly conveys the sense of looking into a mirror, or discerning by reflected light. Now as mirrors, among the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, were made of highly polished metal, (see the note on 1 Corinthians 13:12), it would often happen, especially in strong light, that the face would be greatly illuminated by this strongly reflected light; and to this circumstance the apostle seems here to allude. So, by earnestly contemplating the Gospel of Jesus, and believing on him who is its Author, the soul becomes illuminated with his Divine splendor, for this sacred mirror reflects back on the believing soul the image of Him whose perfections it exhibits; and thus we see the glorious form after which our minds are to be fashioned; and by believing and receiving the influence of his Spirit, μεταμορφουμεθα, our form is changed, την αυτην εικονα, into the same image, which we behold there; and this is the image of God, lost by our fall, and now recovered and restored by Jesus Christ: for the shining of the face of God upon us, i.e. approbation, through Christ, is the cause of our transformation into the Divine image.
Dr. Whitby, in his notes on this chapters produces six instances in which the apostle shows the Gospel to be superior to the law; I shall transcribe them without farther illustration: -
1. The glory appearing on mount Sinai made the people afraid of death, saying: Let not God speak to us any more, lest we die; Exodus 20:19; Deuteronomy 18:16; and thus they received the spirit of bondage to fear, Romans 8:15. Whilst we have given to us the spirit of power, and love, and of a sound mind, 2 Timothy 1:7; and the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father! and to this difference the Epistle to the Hebrews alludes, Hebrews 12:18-24.
2. Moses, with all his glory, was only the minister of the law, written on tables of stone; the apostles are ministers of the Gospel, written on the hearts of believers. Moses gave the Jews only the letter that killeth; the apostles gave the Gospel, which is accompanied with the spirit that gives life.
3. The glory which Moses received at the giving of the law did more and more diminish, because his law was to vanish away; but the glory which is received from Christ is an increasing glory; the doctrine and the Divine influence remaining for ever.
4. The law was veiled under types and shadows; but the Gospel has scarcely any ceremonies; baptism and the Lord's Supper being all that can be properly called such: and Believe, Love, Obey, the great precepts of the Gospel, are delivered with the utmost perspicuity. And indeed the whole doctrine of Christ crucified is made as plain as human language can make it.
5. The Jews only saw the shining of the face of Moses through a veil; but we behold the glory of the Gospel of Christ, in the person of Christ our Lawgiver, with open face.
6. They saw it through a veil, which prevented the reflection or shining of it upon them; and so this glory shone only on the face of Moses, but not at all upon the people. Whereas the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ, shines as in a mirror which reflects the image upon Christian believers, so that they are transformed into the same image, deriving the glorious gifts and graces of the Spirit, with the Gospel, from Christ the Lord and Distributor of them, 1 Corinthians 12:5; and so, the glory which he had from the Father he has given to his genuine followers, John 17:22. It is, therefore, rather with true Christians as it was with Moses himself, concerning whom God speaks thus: With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord (την δοξαν Κυριου, the glory of the Lord) shall he behold; Numbers 12:8. For as he saw the glory of God apparently, so we with open face behold the glory of the Lord: as he, by seeing of this glory, was changed into the same likeness, and his face shone, or was δεδοξασμενη, made glorious; so we, beholding the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ, 2 Corinthians 4:6, are changed into the same glory.
Thus we find that in every thing the Gospel has a decided superiority over the law and its institutions.