2 Corinthians 3


A Contrast Of The Law Leading To Life And The Law Leading To Death

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Corinthians 3:1-3

For what purpose was the law introduced? Was the Mosaic Law promulgated solely to produce a sense of guilt in the people? Certainly not! It served several very important purposes.

1. The giving of the law served to educate the Israelites morally.

Paul admits this when he says, ‘I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.’ Romans 7:7. Sin did not ‘come into existence’ when the Law was declared at Sinai.

It had existed since the days of Adam, but it was not defined and recognized as sin until God made His Covenant with Israel. The Covenant declared what was right and what was wrong.

Hence, he explains that it was when the Law was announced, that sin was exposed as sin and the Israelites were made aware that they were guilty of conduct that offended the holiness and righteousness of God.

2. The Law revealed at Sinai was provisional and preparatory. Galatians 3:24.

In his letter to the Galatian churches, Galatians 4:4, Paul reveals that the Covenant made at Sinai, and the Mosaic Law of which it was a part, was designed to last until ‘the right moment come’ when ‘God sent forth His son, to redeem those who were under Law.’

It is important to understand that his use of the term ‘Law’, in Galatians 4:4 does not relate to the Mosaic Law alone. If it did, non-Jews, who had no part in the Sinai Covenant, would be excluded from the blessings of the coming of Christ.

In the letter to the Romans, Romans 2, Paul reveals that, although the Gentiles were not subject to the Mosaic Law, they were, nevertheless, ‘under law’, but failed to obey the Law of their conscience, and consequently, were also guilty before God.

3. The Old Covenant was exceeded in both duration and glory by the new Covenant.

Paul draws attention to the fact that when Moses descended the mountain with the two tablets of stone, after spending forty days and nights there, he was unaware that his face shone with the reflected glory of God, Exodus 34:29, and the people could not bear to look at him so he placed a veil over his face, which, Exodus 34:34 tells us, he took off when he went up into the presence of God.

It is interesting to notice the number of times Moses ascended Sinai to speak with God. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that he made the ascent only once, but the following references. Exodus 19:3 / Exodus 19:20 / Exodus 24:1-2 / Exodus 14:12-13, reveal that there must have been at least four visits. Afterwards so because he had become aware that his face shone, whenever he spoke to the people he replaced the veil.

Paul uses the account of the shining face of Moses in a parabolic sense. He says that Moses covered his face because he was aware that the glory of the Covenant and all it contained, was ‘passing away’, 2 Corinthians 3:7 / 2 Corinthians 3:11, since it was never meant to be permanent but was always intended to be preparatory. Galatians 4:4. He describes it as passing away in 2 Corinthians 3:11.

The New Exceeds The Old In Glory

He also emphasises this contrast with the ‘Old’ when he uses the term ‘New Covenant’, which he calls ‘the ministry of the Spirit’, 2 Corinthians 3:8 and ‘the ministry of righteousness’ which he says is ‘much more glorious.’ It excels in glory.

Why does Paul describe the New Covenant as ‘the ministry of righteousness’? With this phrase, he points to the significant and radical contrast between the two Covenants.

In 2 Corinthians 3:6, he says, ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’. The letter, here, is the law ‘written and engraved on stones’, and then in 2 Corinthians 3:7, he describes the Old Covenant as ‘the ministry of death.’

Note, the so-called ‘charismatic’ and Pentecostal groups misuse and misapply the phrase, ‘the letter kills’, claiming that it refers to the written word, which they say they do not need because they ‘have’ the inner witness of the Spirit of God, that is, they claim to have the direct, personal leading of the Holy Spirit, which makes the Bible useful, but unnecessary.

But he tells us to what the phrase refers, and there can be no misunderstanding what he says. He explains that ‘the letter’ that ‘kills’ is that law which was written and ‘engraved on stones’, at the giving of which the face of Moses shone. To interpret his words in any other way requires either sheer ignorance or flagrant dishonesty!

The question is, why did the ‘letter’ kill? It ‘killed’, it ‘ministered death’, because whilst, as we have stated, it exposed, and condemned sin, it offered no means of cleansing from sin. The Law declared guilt, but could not pronounce forgiveness!

The most that the ceremonies and sacrifices of the old covenant could do was to ‘cover up’ the guilt of sin until the Lamb of God should come to take away sin completely.

The word ‘atonement’ is significant here. The Old Testament words for ‘atonement’ are ‘kippurim’, and ‘kophar’ and both mean ‘to cover’. We must always recognize the distinction between atonement, in the Old Testament Scriptures, and atonement, in the New Testament.

In fact, there is no word for the Hebrew idea of atonement in the Greek New Testament. Instead, in Romans 5:11, where some versions read, ‘through whom we have received the atonement’, the Greek text has the word ‘katallage’ which means ‘reconciliation.’

The sacrifices offered under the old Covenant merely offered a covering up, whilst foreshadowing the real forgiveness and reconciliation that would be made possible through the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

Was the Mosaic Law defective? Was it imperfect? We must be very careful not to suggest that the ‘old’ Sinaiatic covenant failed and needed to be replaced by a ‘new’ covenant. The fact that no one was saved, or could be saved, by the Mosaic Law does not mean that it was because the Law was defective or faulty.

The weakness was not in the Law, but in the people themselves, who failed to keep the Law. If they had kept the Law and had remained faithful to God’s Covenant of Sovereignty, they would not have sinned and the matter of forgiveness would not have been an issue!

The word ‘commend’, ‘sunistao’ is to recommend favourable attention. The exact word was used in Romans 16:1 where Paul said, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister.” Paul was recommending or commending Phoebe to the Romans.

In what way would Paul and other preachers be commending themselves to the Corinthians ‘again’? The word again suggests that some self-accolades had been attempted beforehand, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16. It seems apparent that Paul was answering a charge that had been levied against him previously.

Not only had some in Corinth charged Paul with ‘fickleness’, 2 Corinthians 1:17, but self-aggrandisement or self ‘commendation.’ This charge was taken seriously by Paul 2 Corinthians 5:12 / 2 Corinthians 10:12 / 2 Corinthians 10:18 / 2 Corinthians 12:11 / 2 Corinthians 13:6. Titus may have very well told Paul this when in Macedonia.

Letters of ‘commendation’ were common in the early church. Paul wrote such of Phoebe, Romans 16:1, as did Priscilla and Aquila for Apollos, Acts 18:27. Due to false teachers deceiving brethren with their doctrines, such letters were important, Acts 15.

The Persians invented the postal system. A letter of commendation even may be advised even today, especially since so many Christians jump from one congregation to another without any questions asked. The letter signifies the importance and privilege of membership within the local church, a member of the body of Christ.

Paul was no stranger to the Corinthians. He was considered their ‘father in the faith’, 1 Corinthians 4:14-15. Such an intimate relationship would not necessitate a letter from them or to them regarding Paul’s faithfulness.

Paul used the word ‘some’ in the second clause of this verse indicating the necessity for some unknown travelling brethren to have such a letter with them. Whether the visitor has a letter or no letter, all are to be tested, 2 Corinthians 2:9 / 1 John 3:10 / 1 John 4:1 / 1 John 4:6.

The Corinthians had many miraculous gifts given to them by the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 12-13. Corinth was a very large city in this day and one that many travelled to. As the world saw the Corinthians performing their gifts and hearing the truth spoke, they were reading a way of commendation for Paul and his companions.

Not only were they reading a commendation of Paul, but more importantly to Christ and His soul-saving work. Like a book, the world was to read the Corinthians that they, too, might be saved.

“Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 3:4-6

Paul had received the divine revelation of God’s word from the Lord himself, 1 Corinthians 15:1ff / Galatians 1:11-12. This being so, the apostles and preachers of truth were ‘competent’ to minister in divine revelation.

The word ‘competent’, ‘hikanos’ was discussed in 2 Corinthians 2:16b where it was defined as sufficient to prove a point, or adequate.

There in 2 Corinthians 2:16b, Paul had in mind the source of divine revelation, and here in 2 Corinthians 3:5, he has in mind the deliverer, not the source, of divine revelation. The one delivering truth could sufficiently do so, but such revelation would never have its source in man.

This divine revelation was entrusted to Paul as a steward, and he, in turn, ministered to others in this word, 1 Corinthians 4:1. Paul was not a preacher of the first covenant, Mosaic Law, but of a new covenant, the Law of Jesus Christ, Galatians 6:2.

Paul made clear to the Corinthians that he was unlike the false Judaizing teachers who preached the Mosaic Law with the Law of Christ, Acts 15. To preach the Mosaic Law is to preach death, Romans 7:9-11.

The Law of Moses identified sin and thereby condemned man with no hope of life, Romans 7:7 / Galatians 3:10. The Mosaic Law was written on tablets of stone rather than on man’s heart. They were simple ordinances that could in no way be perfectly kept. The violator was left with no hope of remission.

To preach the Law of Christ alone is to preach ‘life’, John 6:63. The life that comes from the Spirit is spiritual life now, John 1:4 and eternal life later, John 3:16. The Mosaic Law left man desiring the Messiah and forgiveness of sins, Galatians 3:19ff.

“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” 2 Corinthians 3:7-11

Inferentially we see another problem that had existed in Corinth. It is possible that Titus had brought to Paul’s attention the fact that false teachers were spreading Judaism in Corinth as they had in Judea and Galatia, Acts 15. Moses was the divine lawgiver who delivered divine revelation to the people.

Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the law directly from God in Exodus 34:29ff. When he came to the people, his face shined bright due to his being in the presence of God. This fact illustrates the glory of that law and its divine origin.

The glory of the Mosaic Law, the first covenant, however, was to ‘transitory’, Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Hebrews 8:13. Paul uses the word ‘glory’ 8 times in 2 Corinthians 3 but uses the word 14 times throughout 2 Corinthians.

The first covenant, Mosaic Law, had its glory due to being of a divine origin and serving a divine purpose, identifying sin, i.e., ‘brought condemnation’. The Law of Christ, the second covenant laid upon the hearts of man, exceeds the Mosaic Law in glory due to the fact that it gives provisions for the remission of sins, Acts 2:38.

The supremacy of the ‘ministry that brings righteousness’, the Law of Christ, over the Law of Moses is further seen in that it is designed to be eternal, 2 Samuel 7:12ff / Isaiah 51:6 / Daniel 2:44ff / Ephesians 3:11.

Knowing the supremacy of the Law of Christ gives the teacher of said Law confidence and hope while preaching

“Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

The ‘hope’ rests in the supremacy of the law of Christ over the Law of Moses. Both are of divine origin, however, only the Law of Christ offers the remission of sins and life. With knowledge of said things, the preacher may boldly and confidently preach that others may have ‘life.’

Who is ‘not like Moses’? Obviously, it is the sufficient divinely qualified preachers such as Paul, Timothy, and Titus. That which was ‘passing away’ was the Mosaic Law, the very Law that Moses had received on Mount Sinai.

Apparently, the children of Israel hid from the presence of Moses because he represented the very law that condemned them to death, Exodus 34 / John 1:17.

Shame prevented them from looking upon Moses. Paul is saying that this is not the method of the apostles, prophets, and preachers of his day. Their purpose was to make known the manifold wisdom of God, Ephesians 3:3ff.

Herein is the nature of the Gospel message that endures forever. To some, it hardens and to others, it is an aroma unto life, 2 Corinthians 2:15-16. The subject at hand is the false teachers in Corinth who were preaching Mosaic Law and the Law of Christ together.

The veil of ignorance remained upon their hard-hearted minds because they rejected the very doctrine that Jesus represented. John recorded, ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’, John 1:17.

Though the Mosaic Law’s design was to bring men to Christ, that end was veiled to the hard-hearted Judaizing teachers of Paul’s day, Galatians 3:24. So Paul said, “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts, 2 Corinthians 3:15.

The Jews are still not able to see the glory of God. Instead of pointing up their sin and driving them to seek forgiveness through Jesus, they placed a voluntary veil of ignorance upon their hearts against Christ. Simply put, they rejected the Lord of glory. They missed the point and purpose of the Mosaic Law altogether, Galatians 3:19.

The veil that kept the end or fulfilment of the Mosaic Law known would be removed by those who wanted the truth. When a man seeks and knocks, he will surely find, Matthew 7:7. Those who do not want the veil of Moses removed will voluntarily remain ignorant of Jesus and the New Covenant.

Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah in the parable of the sower saying, “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” Matthew 13:15

2 Corinthians 3:17 is the statement that helps us understand more fully the Godhead. The Father’s work was carried out by Jesus, John 5:30 / John 13:3, and Jesus’ work was carried out by the Holy Spirit, John 14:26 / Galatians 4:6, so that all three are one in purpose, John 17:21ff.

Paul asserted the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals truth and is thereby called ‘the Lord’ or ‘the Spirit of truth’, John 14:17 John 15:26 / John 16:13.

Liberty is the result of one accepting the revealed truth. Liberty exists over the bondage of sin and death for the faithful servant of God, John 8:32. Those who would knock and seek after Jesus would remove the veil of confusion.

Those who accept the truth of the gospel and live by divine revelation are ‘in’ Christ as Christ is ‘in’ the Father, John 14:20-21. Therefore, to see Jesus is to see the Father because the two were ‘in’ each other, John 14:7-9. Likewise, to see the Christian who is living by Christ’s divine standards, the Law of liberty is to see Christ and the Father.

We see Christ in our own lives as though we are looking in a mirror and seeing the Lord. Herein we see the high expectation of God for His people. God expects man to be Christ-like or as God in this life, Matthew 5:48 / 2 Peter 1:3-4 / 1 John 4:10.


The function of 2 Corinthians 3 is to reveal the superiority of the Law of Christ over the Law of Moses. One may ask why Paul inserted this chapter in his epistle to the Corinthians. The answer is obvious, false teachers had wandered over land and sea and spread like a disease throughout the church.

They began in Judea, Acts 15:24, moved north toward Antioch of Pisidia, Acts 15:1 / Acts 15:30, and continued west and northwest to Galatia and beyond, Acts 16:4.

Law of death and condemnation. Paul referred to the Mosaic Law as the ‘letter that kills’, 2 Corinthians 3:6, ‘ministry that brought death’, 2 Corinthians 3:7, and ‘ministry that brought condemnation,’ 2 Corinthians 3:9. The Mosaic Law ‘kills’ because it rewarded death for an unlawful living, Romans 6:23.

No man could live lawfully perfect and expect to have life through Mosaic Law-keeping, Galatians 3:10. Therefore, the Mosaic Law was a ‘ministry of death.’ The Law ‘condemned’ its adherence and gave them no hope.

There was, however, a ‘glory’ of the Mosaic Law, 2 Corinthians 3:9. 1. The glory of the Mosaic Law was that it had a divine origin, 2 Peter 1:21.

2. The ‘glory’ of the Mosaic Law was that it was designed by God to lead man to see their need for Jesus, Acts 3:22 / Galatians 3:24. The false teachers accepted the first glory; however, they fatally rejected the function of the Mosaic Law as revealed in Galatians 3:24, a tutor to bring men to Christ, the guardian looked after a child until they were old enough to be taught. To such men, the veil of confusion remained, 2 Corinthians 3:14.

The new covenant, the law of life, Spirit, righteousness, and liberty. The Mosaic Law was designed to point up man’s sins, Romans 7:7, and motivate the sinner to seek forgiveness through Jesus, Galatians 3:24.

Jesus offers life to those who would seek after Him and His Law, John 1:4 / Galatians 6:2. The law of ‘life’, 2 Corinthians 3:6 offers an eternal heavenly existence, John 3:36. The Law through Christ is Spirit’ rather than physically engraved words, 2 Corinthians 3:6.

Those who accept Christ’s words do so happily with no grumbling or complaining, 1 John 5:3. The law of Christ is ‘righteous’, 2 Corinthians 3:9, and filled with eternal ‘glory’, 2 Corinthians 3:11, because it has divine origins as did the Mosaic Law.

The Law of Christ is also referred to as the law of ‘freedom’, 2 Corinthians 3:17. The Law of Christ liberates man from the bondage of sin, John 8:32 / Galatians 5:1. This is the ‘new covenant’ prophesied by the prophets, Jeremiah 31:31ff, and now in effect through the blood of Jesus, 2 Corinthians 3:6.

The Superiority Of The Law Of Christ

1. The Law of Christ is superior to the Law of Moses in that it liberates man from his sins, John 8:32. The Mosaic Law had no provisions for the remission of sins, Hebrews 10:1ff.

2. The superiority of the Law of Christ is that is designed to be eternal and the Mosaic Law was only ‘transitory’, 2 Corinthians 3:11 / Colossians 2:14.

3. The superiority of the law of Christ is seen in the fact that it was designed to take away the ‘veil’ of ignorance, Isaiah 25:6ff and 2 Corinthians 3:16. Mankind is drawn to God’s light through the Gospel message, John 6:44-45.

The Gospel enlightens man that he may know and understand the will of the Lord, Ephesians 5:17.

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